In September, the seasons change. After a summer sweating over the blockbuster box office, Hollywood is ready to roll out their serious awards contenders. The Toronto International Film Festival straddles both worlds, mixing low-budget genre flicks and daffy Midnight Madness chillers with Oscar hopefuls about girls on hikes, guys with mental problems, and guys with mental problems who are really good at chess. The former category has some odd charmers, the latter mostly plays it safe. But this year, some of the most interesting films at the fest were failures that you couldn't wait to talk about over poutine and a Molson. Here's what you're going to watch later this year—the good, the bad, and the goofy.
The Sound and Fury
Someone should have talked James Franco out of directing and starring in William Faulkner's impenetrable novel about the collapse of a wealthy Southern family. But I'm glad they didn't. The Sound and the Fury operates on two levels: first, as the violent, emotional drama Faulkner wanted to tell, and second as a study of Franco's ambition. It's already a challenging work, but instead of casting himself as posh villain Jason Compton (Scott Haze), a character Franco's played shades of before, he chose to play severely handicapped Benjy, a narrator of sorts, even though Benjy can't think straight or speak. Franco glazes over his eyes, yellows his teeth, sticks out his tongue, and screams and drools. He eclipses Tropic Thunder's Simple Jack—the inspiration behind the terribly perfect awards bait phrase “full-retard”—for a role that's unvain onscreen and extravagantly vain behind it. The film itself is too dependent on that whisper-dream combo of poetic dialogue and imagery to work, but Franco's performance howls for attention. It's the scream of an actor who wants our respect, but still hasn't figured out how to get it.
The festival's most surprising multi-hyphenate: Chris Rock, who wrote and directed the romantic comedy Top Five. If Woody Allen wrote about hip-hop—or really, about black people at all—it'd play like this sweet, but acerbic yarn about a New York Times journalist (Rosario Dawson) who spends a day profiling floundering stand-up-turned-movie-star Andre Allen (Rock), famous for a franchise that makes him wear a bear costume on the eve of his wedding to reality show diva Erica Long (a Kardashian-esque Gabrielle Union) and his attempt at a dramatic career with a snoozer about a Haitian slave rebellion. It's a peek into Rock's own paranoia about his place in the entertainment world, padded out with hilarious digressions. On what Tupac would be doing today if he hadn't died, Rock quips that while he hopes Tupac would be a senator, maybe he'd be in a Tyler Perry movie “kicking Jill Scott down a flight of stairs.”
The Look of Silence
Last year, Joshua Oppenheimer should have won the Best Documentary Oscar for The Act of Killing, a brazen and beautiful documentary where he invited the Indonesian squad leaders who killed a million accused Communists in 1965 to reenact their crimes. He didn't, but perhaps his sequel, The Look of Silence, has a chance. Initially, the film simply feels like outtakes from Act. Once again, the perpetrators of mass murder take him on a tour of death, here the riverbank where they decapitated every enemy in town. The disconnect between their theme park smiles and the ghastly disembowlings they're describing feels so cold that we're chilled to the bone. (Shrugs one of the murderers, “Some of them wanted to be killed.”) But now, Oppenheimer gives one victim a chance to speak: Adi, the soft-spoken brother of a so-called Communist who was castrated and stabbed to death. What's fascinating is that even today, none of his neighbors will listen. Instead, they shut down and insist the past is the past. Unless, they caution, Adi insists on ripping open old scars—and if he does, something bad might also happen to him. It's no empty threat. Half the locals who worked on The Look of Silence insist on being listed in the credits as “Anonymous.”
Director Dan Gilroy takes Jake Gyllenhaal, Hollywood's blue-eyed angel, and turns him into a rat. As crime scene photographer Lou Bloom, his eyes are sunken, his cheeks are hollow, and he's most happy after sundown when he drives around Los Angeles looking for gore he can sell. TV news producer Nina (Rene Russo) loves his bloody shots of car accidents, house fires, and murders. But Bloom himself is impossible to love. He's a sociopath who manipulates his allies, quotes business advice like gospel, and cheers up when the police scanners alert him to a stabbing. In another life, he'd have been great on Wall Street. Says Bloom, “I like to say if you're seeing me, you're having the worst day of your life.” That's true for the people inside the film, but for the audience watching Nightcrawler onscreen, we couldn't be enjoying ourselves more.
Bang Bang Baby
This gonzo comedy-musical by Jeffrey St. Jules is an inspired mix of American Idol and the classic horror flick The Crazies. High schooler Stepphy (Jane Levy, a dead ringer for Emma Stone) can't wait to ditch 1960's small town Canada for a singing competition in Manhattan. Alas, her father (Peter Stormare) is a drunk and the local engineer (David Reale) is a date rapist who thinks if he can knock her up on prom night, she'll have to stay his forever. And then a gas leak at the chemical plant poisons everyone. It sounds grim, but boy is it fun thanks to St. Jules' magical realism, which kicks into overdrive when Stepphy's pop star crush Bobby Shore (Justin Chatwin) blunders into town and toys with her heart. Even when Bang Bang Baby gets too tonally choppy, it's anchored by Levy's good cheer. And the suckerpunch ending reminds us why we love musicals: even when reality is harsh, they make us dream.
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