Toronto Film Festival report
These days, when you gather a bunch of movie people in one place — like, say, the 34th Toronto International Film Festival — it’s not hard to spot the anxiety. You hear it in almost every conversation, the nervous chatter spinning around a challenge that looms larger with each year: How, in an era of all popcorn all the time, do you bring adventurous non-popcorn movies to a wide audience? The most distinctive feature of Toronto this year was that the anxiety was also streaming off the screen.
Take the best movie I saw there. Up in the Air is the new comedy directed by Jason Reitman (Juno), who is now working with the polish of a master. It stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a consultant whose entire job consists of jetting from one city to the next and doing the dirty work of downsizing employees. His ”interviews” with the folks he fires are sure to give audiences a collective chill; they’re chipper montages of anger, confusion, righteousness, and naked terror. The fascination of Ryan is that since the endless VIP lounges and high-end cookie-cutter hotels he visits are essentially the same place, he really is at home in each of them. Clooney, with his cracklingly smart and debonair yet so-slick-it’s-slightly-corrupt surface, knows here, as he did in Michael Clayton, how to play a scoundrel who may be losing his soul but, in the eyes of the audience, holds on to it anyway. This is movie-star acting of the sort no one else today can bring off. Clooney and Vera Farmiga, as Ryan’s sexy counterpart in corporate travel, are great together — they’re Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell for the PowerPoint age. Up in the Air is light and dark, bouncy and brainy, romantic and real. It’s an exquisite reminder of everything a Hollywood movie can still be.
In his schlocky paycheck movies, Nicolas Cage pumps up his energy in a stylized, blowhard way. He does the same thing in the anti-paycheck thriller Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog’s loopy, demon-rich, improbably entertaining remake of the 1992 Abel Ferrara cult classic. Only this time Cage does his strenuous, bug-eyed Method intensity thing because it’s actually called for. As a homicide cop who is usually high as a kite on cocaine, Cage walks with a crooked slouch — he’s the rogue detective as Igor — and he shows you the anger and exhilaration coursing through his system. Cage’s acting may take you back to the days when he went gonzo-operatic in films like Vampire’s Kiss, but what’s remarkable here is how controlled he is. You can always tell whether the character is modestly high, really high, or deliriously high, and Herzog opens up the material into a full-scale modern noir — a vision of addiction as a scarily arresting serpent world.
Even scarier, though it’s simply one guy talking, is Chris Smith’s Collapse, a doc set in a brick bunker in which Michael Ruppert, an investigative author who saw the economic crisis coming with uncanny detail back in 2006, delivers a monologue about where he thinks the United States is now headed. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s not a naive one, either. Ruppert is like Noam Chomsky as a gripping pundit of doom. You may want to dispute him, but more than that you’ll want to hear him, because what he says — right or wrong, prophecy or paranoia — takes up residence in your mind. Collapse would make a good double feature with The Road, the long-delayed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel. Visually, it’s one of the most spookily convincing, least ”movieish” visions of a post-apocalyptic future I’ve ever seen, and Viggo Mortensen, as a man wandering the wasteland with his young son, has a tremulous woundedness. Yet The Road remains an oddly remote experience. It’s like a zombie thriller with a murky veneer of art-film taste.
I enjoyed seeing Michael Cera play a teen virgin with a badass alter ego in Youth in Revolt — the extreme anti-wimp behavior looks good on Cera. And I liked The Art of the Steal, a tense and enlightening documentary in which the battle over the Barnes Foundation — the Philadelphia-area gallery that houses the greatest collection of Postimpressionist canvases in the world — becomes a meditation on the changing face of where, and how, we look at art. I was less high on Lebanon, an Israeli film that takes place inside a tank during the 1982 Lebanon invasion — it’s like Das Boot set in a dingy subway bathroom. The festival’s biggest disappointment? Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’s sequel to Happiness (1998). It lacks the earlier film’s What’s going to happen next? erotic-moral-pathological suspense, and though Solondz again presents a collection of people trapped in their fears and desires, this time it’s the filmmaker who’s trapping them.
Finally, after years of watching Colin Firth always be…Colin Firth, it was a revelation to see him in A Single Man. Set in L.A. in 1962, and directed by the fashion designer Tom Ford, the film is as lushly true to its period as Mad Men, and Firth, as a puckish homosexual English professor still grieving over the loss of his partner of 16 years, gives a tender and memorable performance. Like Brokeback Mountain, this is a pre-liberation romantic reverie that insists that love is love, period. A Single Man luxuriates in the jazzy West Coast melancholy of its hero, who has grown addicted to his broken heart. Here’s a prediction: The movie will break yours as well.