Film Reviews: Toronto International Film Festival 2009

The Damned United
Directed by Tom Hooper

One of the most dangerous things that a writer could do is a novel about real people who are still alive. In 2006, David Peace did just that with “The Damned Utd” the story of the 44-day reign of Leeds United Manager (Coach) Brian Clough. While Clough himself was safely dead, others who were there weren’t, and Peace and his publisher were successfully sued for libel by one of the players of that team.


So it was with that in mind that Peter Morgan turned the book into a screenplay, and director Tom Hooper turned that into a film. The people still living have been airbrushed out or, in case of Clough’s kids, too young to do anything besides being cute, so there covered.

In 1969, Leeds United Manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) announced he was leaving Britain’s leading football (soccer) team and managing the English National team.. The front office then asked the man who was considered the best Manager in all of Britain, Brian Clough(Michael Sheen), to replace him. Now Clough hated Leeds and everything it and Revie stood for, and having taken the enemy over, decided to destroy it, and make it over into something new, alienating everyone in the process.

The film goes back and forth between the disastrous 44 days and the early years, when Clough and sidekick Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), take a local team at the bottom of the Soccer rankings and turns it into a champion. Had they just done this part of the story, it would look like a typical Hollywood sports flick, but this is not about that inspirational kind of stuff. This is about hubris and revenge and all the damage it can do to friends and family.

Sheen and Spall have a marvelous time chewing the scenery with this one, and the latter really gets to show his acting chops after being known primarily for his Tony Blair impression in “The Deal” and “The Queen.” Sheen’s Clough is obnoxious and brilliant fighting with everyone from the players to the club’s president (Jim Broadbent), which finally does him in with his first job.

By the end of the film, it’s amazing that he was ever hired by anyone again. This is a fun film for sure.

An Education
Directed by Lone Scherfig

Image from AN EDUCATION

Lynn Barber has been writing about sex for decades and has been very successful at it. So, as one of the most famous mainstream journalists on that particular subject, at least in Britain, one would expect that she would eventually write her memoirs, and that possibly they would make at least part of it into a movie, and so they have. Nick Hornby, who gave us “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity”, has changed the names to protect the guilty and gone on to create an excellent script ably directed by Lone Scherfig.

The fictionalized version of Ms. Barber is Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a senior in the British version of High School who is looking forward to going to Oxford to “read” (translation: major) English. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) want this too, and all seems to be going along swimmingly until she meets a an charming man of mystery named David (Peter Sarsgaard), who knocks the socks off Jenny and her parents. He and his pals Danny(Dominic Cooper) and Helen(Rosamund Pike) whisk her away to a fairyland of posh London nightlife, which leads her teachers that her new friends are up to no good. They are right. Jenny is heading for some sort of fall. But will she able to avoid it, or at least get back up? That’s the question.

Everyone in the film is enjoying themselves: Molina is great as the befuddled father, Sarsgaard, if you get past the accent, is as delightful a rogue as your bound to meet. Mulligan plays the late adolescent to the peak of perfection. It’s all very romantic, even though you know there’s a crash coming as soon as we meet David in the first ten minutes of the film. But that doesn’t matter, this is to be an inspiring, cautionary tale, and as such it keeps its high entertainment value.

The Art Of The Steal
A documentary by Don Argott

This film is the story of a man and his toys. The man in question was Albert C. Barnes, a chemist and pharmaceutical magnate who liked to collect art as a hobby.

For most collectors, the objects collected are toys to be played with, and Barnes was no different. He didn’t like the bigwigs in Philadelphia society, and they didn’t like him very much either. So he decided he didn’t want to play with them, and built a giant playhouse in his back yard in Merion, PA, creating a foundation to finance the place and those he invited to play with him. He could do that. It was his toys after all, and he could burn them or slash them to bits if he wanted. Nobody was denying his right to do so. When he died in 1951, custody of his playthings, the cream of the crop of post-impressionist and early modernist art, was given to his girlfriend and trusted aide Violette de Mazia, who kept it going for another 30 years, “betraying” Barnes by opening it to the public two days a week.

When Ms. De Mazia died in the early 1980s, the world’s opinion of late 19th and early 20th century art had changed radically. The value of the stuff had gone up by a couple of orders of magnitude. Which brings us to the title of the film…

Nothing was actually stolen when a consortium of Philadelphia politicians and power brokers conspired to transplant the art collection from its suburban home. On the face of it, its an excellent idea. Lincoln University, which was given custody of the foundation discovered that the building was falling apart, so Barnes’ Will, who stated that nothing be changed AT ALL had to be broken. Now the question as to whether or not to honor a long-dead man’s will and let the collection literally ROT, or whether to preserve it by “betraying” it was a no brainer. That led to another can of worms entirely.

The people, who are portrayed as villainous “philistines” here, are in fact the good guys. They came up with a plan to move the collection to Philadelphia in such a way as to preserve Barnes’ quirky sensibilities and increasing the educational value of the collection. What’s wrong with that?

That’s the question to be discussed by those on the way out of the theater.

Blessed
Directed by Ana Kokkinos

There are three kinds of art films: the first is smut. The second is a boring take on life somewhere that is somehow supposed to be profound, and the third is incomprehensible experiment that isn’t supposed to be entertaining at all.

This is the second kind. Ug….

“Who’s Afraid of the Working Class” was a series of interrelated one-act plays written by Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Patricia Cornelius, Christos Tsiolkas, and Irene Vela. They got somewhat good reviews when it played in London and Sydney, and Kokkinos, who had gotten some kudos on the festival circuit for her previous films [none of which I’ve seen], got enough government funding to turn it all into a single film, which explores the relationships between mothers and their children.

The kids are not very nice. Daniel (Harrison Gilbertson) is accused by his mother,(Deborra-Lee Furness) of stealing from her. Being innocent, he takes off in a huff and breaks into the home of Laurel (Monica Maughan), an elderly woman, with the intent of doing what he was accused of. Meanwhile, Katrina (Sophie Lowe, and her best friend Trisha (Anastasia Baboussouras) also cut school classes., the latter having stolen some stuff from her mother((Victoria Haralabidou)) and somewhere else, little Stacey (Eva Lazzaro), is coping with her first period just after she finds her brother Orton (Reef Ireland), who has run away from home, on orders from their mother (Frances O’Connor), who is pregnant again and about to lose the two she already has because she’s a bit of an idiot.

Then we see the same events from the parent’s perspective. This isn’t exactly a BORING film, but it’s not particularly fun or even interesting to watch. It’s very highbrow despite it’s subject matter, and can get really tedious. But then again, that’s why it’s doing the festival circuit.

Leslie, My Name Is Evil
Written and Directed by Reginald Harkema

From what I’ve seen, it’s the duty of every Canadian to hold their neighbor to the south with a seething contempt. This is taught in the schools, and thus it is no surprise that Reginald Harkema feels this way and wants to explore it. Why, he asks are ALL Americans so goddamn evil?

What better way than to do a live-action cartoon about the Manson killings? Of course! The entire American people are complicit in the murder of Sharon Tate, and thus a fictionalized expose is just the ting.

Leslie (Kristen Hager) and Perry(Gregory Smith) are both squeaky clean American youths, who are children of ultra-religious right wing AMERICAN parents, and they deal with this in different ways. Perry goes to College and falls in love with the exceedingly squeaky clean ultra-Christian Dorothy(Kristin Adams), while Laura falls for the exact opposite, Charlie not-Manson(Ryan Robbins).

Leslie becomes a cultie, taking part in murders and is arrested. She and Charlie, of course, are the good guys. Perry, who winds up on the jury, is the bad guy, but he falls in love with Leslie…. the whole thing is unbelievably stupid; the acting is wooden, with the possible exception of Robbins, who does a decent maniac.

The whole thing is what might be termed “hate speech.” The entire American culture is poorly skewered, and for the most part is unwatchable. This is one of the worst movies of the year.

Broken Embraces
Written and Directed by Pedro Almodovar

When I was a teenager, my mother threatened to disown me if I didn’t go see Pedro Almodovar.’s then-new film “Women on the Edge of A Nervous Breakdown, “ and being a dutiful son, went to the theater and was amazed. I’ve since been a fan and over the years have followed his hits and misses. This is one of the latter.

Once upon a time, the famous bind screenwriter Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), could see, and was a great film director named Mateo Blanco. He is finishing a tryst, when his latest ladyfriend notices in the paper that the insanely rich and corrupt stockbroker Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) has just died. This starts a series of flashbacks that soon overwhelm the picture, and tell the sad story of how Ernesto met and fell in love with Lena (Penelope Cruz), who was Martel’s mistress at the time and how it all ended in tragedy.

Clearly, Almodovar is more enamoured of the past than the present story, because nothing much of interest happens between Harry and his “family”, which consists of his agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas), who doubles as his secretary and personal assistant. There’s a reason for that: This is Penelope Cruz’s movie and no one else’s.

As Lena, Cruz is particularly luminous, and he romance between her and Homar can be riveting, but while the highs are indeed high, the lows are low, and much of the film falls flat. But you must always remember this: mediocre Almodovar is better than most directors’ best.

The Boys are Back
Directed by Scott Hicks

Simon Carr is a widower with two grown sons. He earned his living as a journalist covering the rough and tumble world of New Zealand politics. Like many a writer, he produced a personal memoir of what the life of a single parent is like. Some thought it would make a good movie.

But Carr isn’t that old, and there is always the threat of a libel suit, so screenwriter

Allan Cubitt changed the names and the subject Carr covered, and with his butt now covered, he and director Scott Hicks could go forward to create a heartwarming family film in that new genre known as “chick flicks for guys.”

Joe (Clive Owen) and Katy Warr (Laura Fraser) are a happy couple living in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia with their son Artie(Nicholas McAnulty). Nearby lives Katy’s mother Barbera(Emma Booth) and all seems picture perfect, until Katy comes down with cancer and is soon dead. So, so Joe has to remake his life from the occasional visitor to his family, to being a single parent. Not an easy task.

First he has to bond with Artie, then he has to start living his life again, which is made easier with the help of the mother of one of Artie’s friends (Emma Lung ), but ultimately doesn’t work all that well…then we find out that Katy was Joe’s second wife and he has another son named Harry(George MacKay) living in England. So of course, Harry has to come over to Oz and complete the trio, with more bonding and conflict between Dad, the two kids, mom’n’law and the neighbor lady.

Then it all falls apart and Joe has to make everything right, which is all very sweet and syrupy. But that’s what you get with chick flicks, even those that are made for guys. The problem is, is that as a genre, CFMFGs just don’t work even if it’s really well made as this one is. This may be a date film, but I don’t know how this would advance any relationship.

The Most Dangerous Man In America
A documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the notorious “Pentagon Papers”, a top secret history and analysis of the Vietnam conflict from the end of World War II to the day the report was finished in 1967, to the New York Times, which published it on the front page. Then all Hell broke loose.

Its one of the big turning points in history, and the results are something we live with every day, mostly for the better. There is no prior restraint on the press and Nixon was forced to resign. So why did he do it? That’s what filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith try to do with this film. They succeed.

With with old videos, interviews with many who were there, especially Ellsburg, Nixon’s secret tapes and a few sloppy recreations, the story is told succinctly and in a surprisingly entertaining way.

Starting with his service in the Marines back in the 1950s, we follow Ellsberg’s career from the Marines to the Defense department to the RAND corporation, where he first read the Pentagon Papers in 1969, to his radicalization and his great act of conscience, and everything that followed, which is a heck of a lot.

There’s a slight fib at the end (the war ended before his trial was stopped), but the rest of it appears to be on the up and up. Well worth a look.

City of Life and Death
Directed by Lu Chuan

For six weeks at either end of the 1937-38 divide, the city of Nanking, the then capitol of China, was invaded by the Japanese and its people subjugated to a wide range of atrocities. The story has been told before, but only in documentaries. The fictional telling of this bit of nastiness is a revelation.

First the bad part: Most of the film is so generalized one cannot see any real character development. This is told mostly from the outside, with masses of people doing things in groups. There are battles and battles and battles with lots of carnage, but we cannot tell much as to who is who, as there is as much emphasis on the Japanese Army as there is for the Chinese soldiers and civilians.

The good part is that you can follow pretty much all of the action. There are some characters introduced in the very beginning of the film, which return about three quarters the way through, the main good guy is, of all things, a Nazi. The film then starts focusing on individual characters, the Nazi’s secretary (Fan Wei), who tries collaboration in a failed attempt to save his family, the Japanese soldier (Hideo Nakaizumi) with a conscience, who reluctantly takes part in the atrocities until he can’t take it anymore, plus the usual mix of heroes and villains. This is a brutal film, and one of the best WWII flicks I’ve seen in quite a while.

Bright Star
Written and Directed by Jane Campion

Image from BRIGHT STAR

Two hundred years ago, dying of consumption (Tuberculosis) was all the rage. Everyone who was anyone did it, not that they wanted to, dying of extreme old age was more popular, but during the romantic age, it was so…ROMANTIC, and there was no one more romantic than the poet John Keats, who died of TB at the ripe old age of 25. I’m serious. His poetry is still being read and studied today and is far more popular than 99.997% of the poets working today, but as his talent was world class, nothing else was. He was broke most of the time, and if it wasn’t for his companion and benefactor Charles Brown, he would have died even earlier in abject poverty, and the world would have been slightly poorer for it.

But this is not the stuff of movies, which is why this is only the first theatrical film according to the venerable IMDb, ever made on the fellow.

The love of Keats’ (Ben Whishaw) life was Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) a middle class seamstress who lived with her mother Mother,(Kerry Fox), brother Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and baby sister Toots (Edie Martin). They had a large two family house which they would rent out, and Brown( Paul Schneider) found the area pleasant enough to bring Keats with him. Thus love blossomed, as well has hate.

The film is more about the tempestuous relationship between Brown and Fanny is it was between Keats and her. This is a true love triangle, and as such, two of the sides go at it over the third. There is potential here, real potential, but Campion doesn’t know how to use it. All we have are discussions of poetry, people walking around in period clothes, and that’s about it.

The use of Keats’ writing is completely wasted. Here we have some of the allegedly greatest love poetry and letters EVER WRITTEN, and we don’t hear almost any of it. This is supposed to be a romance, and yes there is a little of that, and a few chaste kisses, and aside from Brown schupping the cook (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) offstage, nothing happens! Keats goes to Italy at the end and dies.

This is actually a boring movie, but what can you do? At least Lord Byron went around doing stuff…

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