Agreeing to disagree at Toronto

Critics' takes run gamut, but 2 'small' pics stand out

Toronto — A critic's reaction to a film festival is akin to the old story about the five blind men who all touch an elephant and report wildly different descriptions of what the animal must look like based on the particular body part encountered.

Any description of the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival undoubtedly will depend on which part of the festival got sampled. Even looking at the reviews of some high-profile pictures, a reader can only conclude that the festival played a dirty trick on poor critics by screening entirely different films with exactly the same titles. Some critics loved "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." Others didn't bother suppressing yawns. Some hated the pretentiousness of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Others were enthralled. No one seemed to be discussing the same picture.

What passes for consensus fell on two films that cocktail chatter tends to label as "small," but perhaps that word needs re-examination. Are we talking budget? Certainly not ambition in the terms of the two surefire hits of Toronto '07: "The Visitor" and "Juno."

I asked a top exec at a studio classics division about his interest in Tom McCarthy's "Visitor." The look on his face said it all: Too tough to market. So upstart Overture Films picked up U.S. rights for a reported $1 million-plus, which probably is a smart sale because the film does need a committed and determined distributor to create audience awareness for this small gem — there's that adjective again — as was the case with McCarthy's last small gem, "The Station Agent."

Character actor Richard Jenkins plays a widowed professor who gets involved in the lives of two illegal immigrants, who were scammed into renting his Manhattan flat. It's a lovely, humane and surprising film — the kind that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place.

Repeat that last phrase for Jason Reitman's "Juno" from Fox Searchlight. To say this comedy focuses on an unintended pregnancy is like saying "Sideways" is about wine. Accurate but nearly irrelevant. The film is a highly stylized and original comedy about growing up and responsibility and the strength that comes in both friendship and family. There also is a terrific performance from Ellen Page that deserves an Oscar campaign.

That's right, Toronto is supposed to be all about Oscar. Or at least insofar as it is part of a crucial axis that includes Telluride and Venice, which will prepare the way for fall candidates for Oscar '08.

It didn't seem to work out that way this year, though. To be certain, Cate Blanchett seems set in two acting categories as best actress for "Elizabeth," whatever anyone thought of the movie, and for best supporting actress as Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There."

Other familiar names are apparently in the mix: the brothers Coen, Ang Lee, David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma. Writer-director Tony Gilroy seems to have won friends and influenced people with "Michael Clayton," which also is another feather in George Clooney's hat. Sean Penn has made his most accessible film as a director with "Into the Wild," and you know how Academy voters love to nominate him. Other than that, the crystal ball is fuzzy.

There seemingly were many more films arriving here without a distributor. Some say it was a deliberate effort on the part of organizers to be more of a "discovery" festival like Sundance. For what it's worth, many Toronto staffers made their first-ever trip to Park City in January to check out how things operate there.

Several Toronto films might not get released in time for Oscar contention. Alan Ball's "Nothing Is Private" was picked up by Warner Independent Pictures but probably won't be released until the middle of next year at the earliest. Uma Thurman received positive response for her role in Vadim Perelman's "In Bloom," but it is being self-distributed by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's Magnolia Pictures, which has yet to announce a release date.

While such films as Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah," Neil Jordan's "The Brave One" and Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding" divided viewers, you'd still have to consider Tommy Lee Jones ("Elah"), Jodie Foster ("Brave One") and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman ("Margot") as early Oscar contenders.

It was mostly thumbs down, though, for Oscar-winner Gavin Hood's political thriller "Rendition," Julie Taymor's musical "Across the Universe" and Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream." And there was an overall grumpy reaction from critics to the "Iraq films," meaning not just documentaries that focused on the war but also films made under its influence, which, one could argue, even includes "Elizabeth."

That didn't prevent multiple standing ovations for "Body of War," from veteran documentarian Ellen Spiro and a newcomer by the name of Phil Donahue. (Yes, that Phil Donahue.) But those standing Os, coming largely from Toronto residents, had much to do with appearances onstage by the subject of the film, Kansas City's Tomas Young, who returned from deployment in Iraq shot and paralyzed and is now a leading anti-war advocate, and rocker Eddie Vedder, who sang two songs he composed for the film.

The festival sleeper might be "Brick Lane," bought by Sony Pictures Classics a week before its Toronto debut. Like "Visitor," this London-based story tells of the plight of immigrants, an increasingly common movie theme, though in this case the focus is on identity and self-worth. Directed by Sarah Gavron, the film displays terrific acting from a mostly Indian cast and the intelligence to let audiences discover its themes without hitting them over the head through undue dramatic emphasis. This too is a film that reminded you why you love movies. Which is what film festivals are really about, after all.
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