John’s TIFF Diary: Day Five

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An early rise allowed me to see one film everyone is talking about, or, more specifically, one of the performances everyone is talking about.  Suffice to say I came away underwhelmed, not because I did not think it was a considerable achievement, but because I think it has been surpassed and often.  There seems little doubt that the performance will earn the actress in question an Oscar nomination, but I worry that it might turn into one of those years where they award that damned thing for work done fifteen or twenty years ago. It’s not that it is a bad performance, most certainly not, but neither is it a great one.

**Warning: Spoilers Ahead**

Glenn Close may not be destined for Oscar quite yet...

Albert Nobbs (**) has been making the festival circuit building advance buzz for Glenn Close, who has worked for more than twenty years to get the film made.  The stage roots are not hard to see, even though director Rodrigo García opens the play up for the film version.  It’s a handsomely mounted film, as the director plunges us back in time to the bustling streets of Ireland long ago.  There are good performances in the film from Mia Wasikowska and Brendan Gleeson, but this film is all about Glenn Close.

Much will be said about Close in the title role.  As everybody knows already, she is a woman pretending to be a man in what is very much a man’s world in 19th Century Ireland.  Now, let me say first of all that I like the work of Glenn Close very much.  She was terrific in her early film performances, The World According to Garp (1982), The Big Chill (1983) and The Natural (1984) before they turned her inner hellcat loose in Fatal Attraction (1987) for which she should have won the Best Actress Oscar.  She could have taken the Oscar home the following year as well for her sinister work in Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and remains one of the most gifted American actresses not to have an Academy Award.  Could that sentiment get her that Oscar?  Of course it could, it has worked for others and could work for Close as well, but let’s not get carried away.

Mia Wasikowska stars in "Albert Nobbs"

Nobbs is a very private man working in a hotel as a butler for the wealthy.  She saves her money and does the job given, never making any trouble for anyone.  When a handsome painter arrives at the hotel, something in Albert stirs and for the first time in many years she considers letting her secret out…though she also knows of the terrible consequences in doing so.  Attempting aid from young Helen (Mia Wasikowska), Albert places her trust in the wrong person and finds out only too late.

When Dustin Hoffman transformed himself from Michael Dorsey the actor to Dorothy Michaels the daytime soap star, the resulting performance was astonishing.  In fact, I forgot I was watching a man.  I began to believe in Dorothy Michaels, so great was Hoffman’s accomplishment.  The same thing happened with Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) as the actress portrayed a young girl who had decided to become a man.  The actors in those roles sank so deep into them any trace of the actor was gone, the actor no longer existed, only the character.

I never felt that deep belief with Close as Nobbs, and in fact found myself always watching her technique (which is very strong), but does not allow one to simply believe the character and only the character.  For me she did not become Albert in the manner Hoffman became Dorothy, there is always something oddly acted about her work here.  Looking slightly like Stan Laurel, with a constantly bemused look on her face, she moves through the film looking far too feminine for anyone to plausibly believe her a man.  The performance is self-conscious and self-aware.  She is aware she is “acting.”

So while the raves are about to start coming, here’s a film critic who was trained as an actor saying do not believe the hype.  It’s not that great of a performance nor is it that great of a film, relying on a gimmick to carry it through and the gimmick is not strong enough to do so. Close is pretty good, but never anything other than good, but I guess sometimes a good performance from a long-overdue veteran can be enough to win an Oscar.  Just ask Al Pacino.

With "A Dangerous Method" and the **** "Shame", Michael Fassbender gives two incredible performances to consider this Oscar season...

On the other hand, I am officially sold on Robert Hamer’s endorsement of Michael Fassbender, having seen two incredible performances from this exciting actor at TIFF.  The first was as Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s chamber piece A Dangerous Method, one of the most daring films of the director’s career in which the violence he explores is emotional rather than physical.  Watching Fassbender joust with another great actor, Viggo Mortensen was, as Chris Cooper aptly stated when winning an Oscar and working with another great actor, “like great jazz.”  The two actors play off one another beautifully, gently using the energies the other is bringing to enhance their performances rather than compete with it.  However it is in the second film that Fassbender truly shines, Steve McQueen’s uncompromising Shame (****), which deserves Oscar attention but might be too risqué for the Academy.

Watching the film, I was reminded of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1973) in which another great actor makes a flight from grief through sex, though he can never escape what he is running away from.  Marlon Brando’s performance as Paul was the finest in an impressive career, a damaged man trying to come to terms with his own mortality and sense of grief and hopelessness.  Both portrayal of Jung and Brandon is an astonishing piece of acting that should land the actor in the Oscar circle as a nominee, Shame being the more deserving nomination.

McQueen’s film is an astounding, dark new film from the confident director who gave us Hunger (2008), which screened here at TIFF three years ago.  After seeing the film I was acutely aware of two things: that McQueen was now among the most exciting young directors emerging in world cinema and Fassbender was about to join the ranks of the world’s greatest actors, and by that I mean Brando, Duvall, Streep, Fonda and Nicholson.

Fassbender is Brandon, a good-looking and successful Manhattan businessman who is addicted to pornography, hookers, and anonymous sex.  He masturbates in the washroom at least once a day whether he has been with a woman or not, and does not see anything remotely wrong with his sexual habits so long as he is feeding them.  When his deeply troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in with him at a time of personal strife, this impedes with Brandon’s routine.  She of course has her own demons.  A struggling lounge singer, she is needy to a fault and terribly impulsive to do immediately what comes into her mind.  If Brendan is on a course for self-destruction, his sister has plotted the course out already.

Director Steve McQueen has been the talk of TIFF with his controversial film "Shame".

The director boldly paints a stunning portrait of a man in descent, of a man falling into the abyss, and McQueen is absolutely confident of each and every image he presents to his audience.  Rather than going for the obvious, the director takes his actors into something more subtly stark, plummeting Brendan into a nightmare of sex and carnal pleasures that becomes something urgent and frightening.

Why are brother and sister so deeply wounded?  What has scarred the two of them to seek out such obsessions?  Fassbender gives himself over to the character so completely we lose the actor entirely and are watching Brendan’s life unfold.  Nakedly truthful, he falls into the deep hole he has dug for himself with no sense of the consequences, so sight of any escape.  The performance reminded me of De Niro’s great work in Taxi Driver (1976), the character slipping further and further away from any sense of human connection.  There’s a quiet intensity to the work, as the character seems to be ticking like a bomb to some inevitable explosion, be it inward or outward it will be no less damaging.  Carey Mulligan has never done anything like this before onscreen, and with this galvanizing performance firmly establishes herself as one of the great actresses of her generation.

A dark and remarkable work of art that in many ways is reminiscent of Raging Bull (1980) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), each a masterpiece in their studies of descents into hell, Shame is their equal through and through.  Will the Academy have the courage to nominate Fassbender for his performance?  The director?  Last Tango in Paris (1973) earned a few nominations in its day, but not for Best Picture, and there was no chance of Brando winning one year after refusing the award for The Godfather (1972).  The fact he was nominated, the fact Bertolucci was nominated for Best Director gives me hope for Shame, devastating work of staggering power.

"W.E." represents Madonna's feature film debut as a director...

The day also packed a bit of a stunning surprise.  Not so much that the film was a miracle of art or anything, but more that somebody I had no faith in as a director made a pretty decent film.  We are not talking Academy Award material, but it was so much better than I thought it would, considering her previous work in the movies.  Obviously living and being married to Guy Ritchie for so long had its impact on pop star Madonna, who guides her film W.E. (**½) with a gentle, assured hand.  Not being a fan of her music and disliking her performances in almost everything she has done, I was not crazy about the fact somebody would let this woman direct another film.

However, being a major performer for so long, watching her directors at work, and having the degree of input she surely would have had on her videos, Madonna learned a great deal and applies it in her new film.  Though her work as an actress has never been impressive despite a ridiculous Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical, over Frances McDormand in Fargo (1996) no less, the lady has learned a great deal about cinema and surrounded herself with a strong group of artists that help her bring her vision to the screen.

W.E. explores a romance we saw last year, in the background in A King’s Speech (2010), this time front-and-center in Madonna’s sophomore effort.  When King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) abdicated the throne so he could marry a divorced American, England was facing war with Germany, and many felt his younger brother was not up to the task of leading the country. How wrong they were. That a man of Edward’s power and stature in society would even consider giving up his role as King for a woman never sat well with many of his subjects, while others celebrated what the young King did for love.  The issue seemed to be that many openly disliked Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) who was an energetic and exciting woman, fearless to speak her mind and not about to be in the background in any relationship.  She understands better than anyone what her man is giving up for her, and is prepared to be with him for the rest of his life in whatever role is left for him.  The story is told in a fractured narrative, as a young woman in 1998, Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) becomes fascinated with the story of Wallis and Edward and explores it as deep as she can; finding an extraordinary depth to their love yet also understanding it was never easy for either of them.  Riseborough inhabits the role of Wallis to utter perfection, giving a performance of beauty and honesty. Theirs is a true love, a real love and she knows this from almost the beginning, thus fiercely protecting her Edward from the vicious talk that circulates.

Andrea Riseborough, Madonna, and Abbie Cornish, "W.E."

Abbie Cornish has exceptional range that has been on display in a few films over the last few years, but is strong enough an actress to demand a showcase of her own.  She is not given that here but is given the chance to display strong dramatic range in a tricky role that could have become silly.

Madonna seems to have been influenced less by Guy Ritchie than by Tom Ford and Julian Schnabel, or reaching further back, John Ford.  She is very much a visual director, and fills the screen with lush images that captivate and sweep the viewer back to the story.  The performances are not as strong as we might hope, but they do not hamper the film or damage its credibility in any way.  A pleasant surprise; not a great work by any means, but not the mess I thought it would be.

The penultimate film of the day was a return to form from William Friedkin.  Killer Joe (***) is reminiscent of the early, edgy work of Friedkin, when he was willing to take risks with his storylines and challenge his audiences with interesting work from his actors.

Director William Friedkin (C), screenwriter Tracy Letts (L), and editor Darrin Navarro (R) impress with "Killer Joe"

Consider The French Connection (1971) and the work of the great Gene Hackman within the film.  There is much to dislike about Hackman’s character, but he manages to emerge the hero because of the honesty of the work.  With The Exorcist (1973), other directors might have taken a more subtle approach.  Friedkin, on the other hand, felt his audience should experience part of hell itself, and indeed he gave us exactly that with the film.  Though I might be in the minority I find Cruising (1980) fascinating, and one of Pacino’s most interesting performances.  As a cop sent undercover to find a killer targeting gay young men in the world of S&M, the actor slips under the skin of the character and exposed to a world he finds himself enjoying after initially being both afraid and repelled.

Killer Joe, his newest film, is a solid work based on the award-winning play by Tracey Letts.  To the directors’ credit, it does not feel like a play.  He opens the setting up and plunges us into the world these characters inhabit and live within.

Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a nasty piece of work: confused, flat broke and not terribly bright, which when dealing with bad guys is a bad combination.  Needing fast money, he approaches his father, a lazy drunk portrayed by Thomas Haden Church about killing his mother for the insurance money.  Burdened with drug issues and massive debt, Chris believes the money will give his father and him a fresh start and neither of them has much use for the woman they are considering killing.  Chris finds the man to do the job and they meet. Detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), himself needing money, moonlights as a hired killer and asks them for a deposit.  They cannot come up with the funds in advance, needing the insurance money to get the deed done so he makes a second demand of them.  As a retainer he asks for Dottie (Juno Temple), Chris virginal younger sister who it turns out to be a vicious and vengeful young woman.

Though initially unhappy about being used in such a way, Dottie agrees (hidden reasons) and the plan is put in motion. What nobody counts on is the strange relationship that blossoms between Dottie and Joe, filled with sweetness but also an aftertaste of danger in every glance and movement.

Emile Hirsch returns to form in "Killer Joe"

The performances are first-rate, beginning with Hirsch who for me proved himself as a genuinely amazing actor in Into the Wild (2007) for which he was criminally robbed of an Academy Award nomination.  In that film his eyes burned with intellect and purpose, and here his eyes displaying no real intelligence at all.  To think his plan would work is an act of pure stupidity, but he is not alone in his foolishness.

This is the sort of role McConaughey does better than just about anyone, a man who thinks he has all the answers when in fact he is nearly as stupid as the rest of them.  Smart enough to be a detective, not smart enough to use his perception of human beings to help himself in the film.  It’s a strong and entertaining performance.

I love Thomas Haden Church.  Always have.  His performance in Sideways (2004) remains one of the best comedic performances in a long, long time, and one that should have won the veteran actor an Oscar!  He was equally fine in the TV epic Broken Trail with Robert Duvall.  The veteran actor spoke highly of Church and working with him.  He settles into any role with his “surfer dude’s voice,” which can be changed to whatever he needs it to be and becomes the character.  Firebrand Gina Gershon has small yet vital role as Chris’ stepmom Sharla, whose actions will place her at the heart of the film.

Friedkin fills the film with atmosphere but smartly allows his characters to carry Killer Joe, and carry it they do.  His masterpiece The French Connection (1971) is virtually cinéma vérité, and we now know much of the film was shot without permits and on the fly to better capture the realism of the streets.  Killer Joe feels like that sort of film, real and honest…and what a nasty bunch of characters these are.  It’s great to see Friedkin back in form doing something worthy of his talents.  Been a while.

The last film of the day was a big studio thriller directed by Joel Schumacher, but frankly folks, I need to think more on Trespass if it was as bad as I believe it to be. More to come…