TIFF Day 1 – Cotillard shines, Stewart surprises, Documentary contender emerges

Toronto Film Festival: Walking into the Bell Lightbox building, the new home of the Toronto International Film Festival Group, a massive corporation of which the festival is just a part of, you could feel the festival excitement in the air. Moving into my screening I found my seat and slipped out to use the washroom. Coming back I found a pretty young lady beside me, equally excited about the festival. Turns out she was a screenwriter with a couple of really great things happening in her career now. It was nice to talk to someone so equally thrilled by film on the first day, and who was enjoying a career upswing!!

I saw three films today, two narrative features and one superb documentary. Tomorrow is hellish, with five films (if I can make it to them all) and Saturday looks the same, with a bit of respite on Sunday. The move of the festival from Toronto’s Yorkville to the area in and around King and John has been a challenge for some who were set in their ways. I have to admit I quite liked the films screening at the Varsity because you could move from one screening to another without having to leave the building. Interviews were a couple of blocks away at the Four Seasons, but now things are more spread out. The good thing is more of the city benefits from the entire festival; the good outweighs the…challenges.

Marion Cotillard in “Rust and Bone”

RUST AND BONE (***)…Superb performances dominate this French-Belgium co-production which explores the connection between two damaged people who encounter one another and develop a friendship that will alter both of their lives and teach them each how to trust people and love again. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a homeless man with a five-year old son, struggling to keep the boy fed, and warm and out of trouble. They land at his estranged sister’s home, who takes them in and then ends up looking after the little boy most of the time. Full of rage, Ali attempts to find work, and does, with a menial security job, but is offered the chance to earn more money street fighting. His dream of course is to become a professional fighter, and as he moves up the ladder, earning respect with each new fight the only thing standing in his way is himself. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is a trainer of killer whales at Marineland, who meets Ali at a bar one night where he is working as a bouncer and she is involved in a fight. He drives her home and seems to forget about her. Stephanie is involved in a terrible accident at Marineland that leaves her horribly injured, her body and life forever altered. Ali sees it on TV and is shocked when she calls him. He goes to her and she is a shell of the strong, vital woman she had been before the accident. Her hair stringy and greasy, her face sallow and lacking of color, she lives in a smelly apartment (the smell is her) and has forgotten how to be a member of the human race. She is utterly alone. Ali goes to her and insists she come outside with him, to the beach where he gently takes her into the water and begins the slow process of bringing her back to life.

Cotillard is magnificent as Stephanie, displaying a range that takes us beyond what she accomplished in La Vie En Rose (2007) for which she won the Academy Award. It is a haunting performance until the moment she finds happiness again, sitting in her chair, miming the whale commands to Katie Perry’s Fireworks. Mesmerizing throughout, Cotillard has never been so nakedly vulnerable, never explored the depths of despair she does in this superb performance. She seems likely for a nod for Best Actress.

I struggled with the last third of the film in that the focus shifted from her to him, and became a little too pat and predictable. Ali is not the most likable in movies and in many ways gets a lot of what is coming to him. But then he suffers an unspeakable tragedy that seems to wake him up to the fact he is capable of love, both giving and receiving.

Cotillard is astounding, dominating the film, never out of our mind. The visual effects that allow for her disability to be visual are remarkable, and I would love to understand how she acted that out. Visceral and raw, powerful and breathtaking.

Kristen Stewart delivers in “On the Road”

ON THE ROAD (***)…Imagine my surprise when the person I thought would be woefully miscast turns out to give the best performance in the film? Kristen Stewart captures pure raw carnality in On the Road, as Mary Lou, the Denver lass who are smitten by Dean, the rebellious hedonist in the long-awaited adaptation of the seminal beatnik novel. Stewart, often accused of showing no emotion in her work, or the same emotion for each scene, is superb here as the young woman who marries at sixteen, is wildly sensual, sexually experimental and impulsive, and despite her love for Dean is one of his many cast offs. The pain in her face as she recognizes that she can never really have him is heartbreaking to behold. There is more emotion from Stewart in one or two single scenes in On the Road than the entire Twilight series. Nicely directed by Walter Salles, who gave us the exceptional Central Station (1998) and the breathtaking The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), I think the makers of the film had the right idea bringing in a director from another country to make such an American film. The same thing happened years ago with Midnight Cowboy (1969) when Brit John Scheslinger was hired to helm the picture, and brought such freshness to the film it would win the Academy Award for Best Film. Salles does the same thing, capturing the flavor and mood of the book to perfection, the books’ language rich in the narration, and the business of being mobile, on the road brilliantly brought to life.

Jack Kerouac’s book defined a generation and has never been brought to the screen because it was, for years considered one of those rare books that could not be filmed. Well they did it, quite well in fact thanks to a screenplay by Jose Rivera that captures the language of the novel, the sense of jazz delivery throughout, and the times, when the world was in recovery mode and people were discovering new things about themselves.

Sal (Sam Riley) is struggling with depression over the death of his father. Into his life comes Dean (Garrett Hedlund), a James Dean-esque hedonist who does what he wants precisely when he wants too, says whatever comes to his head, and is a born conman, using everyone in his path for self gain. That Sal realizes this does not excuse Dean’s destructive ways, but he takes off with him anyway, looking for life experience to fuel his burning desire to write. Across the country they go, stealing gas when they can, food when they need it, working from time to time to build a cash stash, smoking copious amounts of weed, and enjoying sex at every waking moment. As much as Sal loves Dean, as a friend, he will soon find himself appalled by the man’s habit of using people and spitting them out when he is finished with them. Stricken with dysentery in Mexico, Sal is left behind by Dean and the pair do not see each other for many years after, and when they do, their lives are no longer connected, only by the past.

The performances in the film are outstanding, beginning with Stewart who is superb. Animated, angry, happy, sexual she is a revelation and never again will I write that the lady cannot act. She can and it is on full display here. Sam Riley is equally good as the raspy voiced Sal trying to find himself in the late forties as the world was recovering from World War and youth were finding their place in the new world. There are many cameos from strong actors such as Terence Howard as a sax player obviously modeled on Charlie Parker, Amy Adams as the strange wife of Viggo Mortensen’s drug addicted mentor to Sal, and Kirsten Dunst as the tragic woman who really does love Dean, falls hard, bears him children before realizing she cannot be with him. Steve Buscemi is terrific in a small part as a gay man who gives Dean and Sal a ride to Denver and takes advantage of Dean’s bi-sexuality, and then pays for it.

Where I struggled with the film was the performance of Garrett Hedlund who seemed all too aware of the character he was portraying, if that makes sense? He seemed to me to be playing the attitude of the character rather than the character. Knowing the impact of the novel, I cannot any of the actors not being overwhelmed by the job ahead of them when they began shooting the picture. While all the others fall nicely into place, it seemed to me that Hedlund struggled with how to play the part, does he go James Dean? Does he pull back? How to do it? And sadly he never quite finds the right note and his selfishness, rather than being exciting as it was on the page becomes tedious. At the end of the great book, we understand how Sal will forever remember Dean, but in the film, though the moment is there, I had a hard time believing he would not forget his selfish friend rather easily down the road.

Not a great film, but an excellent one.

“West of Memphis” ignites the Documentary Feature race

WEST OF MEMPHIS (****)…This riveting documentary explores what might be a terrible injustice in the American south, when in 1993 when three young boys were found murdered in West Memphis, Alabama. After what amounted to an incredibly short investigation, police arrested and charged with first degree murder, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelly Jr. Seemingly targeted because they listen to heavy metal music and had some interest in the court; their controversial trial saw them guilty and sentenced. Echols is sentenced to death and the other two for life. Though there was substantial evidence on both sides, there seemed to be a belief that these boys could not have possibly killed the children. There were alibis in place, though dubious, and certainly enough evidence to warrant another look at the evidence. For nearly twenty years there was a back and forth as these boys grew up in prison. They went in teenagers, hated by their community, terrified at what lie ahead for them behind bars, but slowly the tide turned and those once screaming for their blood began looking at the case rather differently. Through the years there were constant demands for a re-trial, to no avail. Finally in 2005 Academy award-winning director and screenwriter Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh coined Eddie Vedder, Howard Rollins, Johnny Depp and Patti Smith, some of the high-profile names fighting for the cause of the three men in jail. Jackson offered financial support, as did Vedder, and the rest, but perhaps the most outspoken of the group was Rollins who attacked the media, the legal system and just about anyone that anything to do with sending those boys to jail.

They eventually found a way out, though they were forced to plead guilty to a crime they insist they did not commit. In 2011, they stood before a judge and told him they were not guilty but plead guilty. The judge in his great wisdom talked about there being no winners in this case, no peace for the parents of the murdered boys, no way to get the years back the boys had lost that had seen them become men behind bars. And he released them.

The interviews are compelling because the DA believes with every fabric of his soul that the three killed those boys. He believes the evidence backs him up, the alibis were created, and they are murderers. Many in the community believe the same thing and were furious with the release of the men. Listening to the men interviewed about the case, the accusations and their freedom is often heartbreaking, but it is equally devastating to listen to the parents of the murdered children who live with the knowledge that their child’s killers are walking the streets free, or have never been caught. A powerful piece of work that launches itself into the race for Best Doc.