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Toronto 2010: Mixed nuts

Posted by Wesley Morris  September 13, 2010 12:00 PM

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conspirator.jpg

If these aren't outright perilous times for American movies, they are a little worrying, especially if you're an Oscar voter. How on earth does anyone expect to get to 10 best-picture nominees without subtitles? This festival is, among many other things, about getting tomorrow's Academy Award nominees positioned today. Some of the loudest noise has been for "The King's Speech," which is English and features Geoffrey Rush curing the stutter of king-to-be Colin Firth. I missed the one press screening, but like many of these award-season bellwether movies, it will be upon us soon enough.

On the American front, the last couple of days have turned up few signs of life. One of the alleged bright spots was one lots of other critics and I missed. A last-last minute screening of Clint Eastwood's supernatural drama, "Hereafter," was arranged the other day then poorly attended. But two very different people who were there said they were amazed. Oh, well. If only I could report the same about Eastwood's fellow movie-star director, Robert Redford, who has a new film at the festival, "The Conspirator."

Set in the hours before and months after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the movie rather baldly tries to connect the state of divisiveness that gripped the country in 1865 to the divisiveness of 2010. Specifically, it's about the military tribunal of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright, no longer "Penn"), a Confederate supporter who ran the boarding house where Lincoln's assassins planned their attacks.

The film uses all of today's language about political moderation versus various sorts of extremism. Surratt's lawyer (James McAvoy) is a Union war hero who's skeptical about his client's innocence: How could she not have known what was going on under her own roof? 

The movie is angry and obvious. Redford has been righteous before, although never more effectively than in 1994's "Quiz Show," which made its political points while telling a very good story with intelligence, wit, and drama. The political climate must be sapping Redford of his dramatic strength. His moviemaking is flat-footed and hollow now. It lacks the thunder, lightning, and comedy that he's capable of.

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For sheer humorlessness, though, Redford may never top "Lions for Lambs," his Hollywood tract about our current wars. But this feels even more like a petition, full of good actors (Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Colm Meany, Danny Huston, Evan Rachel Wood) who, because of the film's tedious allegorical nature, have very little acting to do. Wright has aged into one of our best actresses, but great parts continue to elude her. She's good here but is forced to share her performance with the movie's Grand Themes. They're not terribly persuasive or rousing. All the hair, British Southern accents, and tobacco-colored tinting make so much of the movie feels like a reenactment of a commercial for Civil War encyclopedias.

"The Conspirator" at least has moments that stir the intellect. Mitch Glazer's "Passion Play" has moments that stir only your stomach. Its badness is difficult to overstate. This is a movie that says, "You know what? I have the money to hire Mickey Rourke to play a washed-up saxophonist and Bill Murray to be a New Mexico gangster. I have the cash to have them fight over Megan Fox, who I'll make an angel -- not one of those Victoria's Secret angels, but, like, the real thing, like at a carnival freak show. What I don't have the budget for is effects that make the wings seem real. I know they look like cartoons, but who cares? I paid Mickey to make love to Megan. I know she can't act and that her character doesn't know how to fly. But she doesn't have to: She just has to stand in that glass box with an arm draped over her breasts. That's sure to get me European distribution."

Errol Morris is responsible for one of the festival's best movies. "Tabloid" is Morris in a frivolous mood. The subject of his documentary is Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen and nude model who sits before the director's patented cameras, looks right at us, and proceeds to reveal why she might be one of the planet's most entertainingly weird people.

Joyce McKinney in Tabloid.jpg

In the mid 1970s, McKinney became a sensational staple in the British press after flying to London and kidnapping her boyfriend, a Utah Mormon on a mission. Perhaps you recall the Manacled Mormon case. This is a true feat of tone. Morris's applies a high glaze of amusement to his characteristic thriller instincts. Some of the movie's comedy stems from the way it contrasts McKinney's version of what happened with both how it was portrayed in the press and the way some of the participants remember it. The object of her obsession was, as she put it, in a cult. 

Most of the rest comes from McKinney herself (that's her, above, holding one of the movie's more alarming developments). She wears pageant blue and speaks with an unbridled Southern accent. Her breathlessly florid descriptions of the greatest, most eternal love sounds like the passions of a woman in the cult of Harlequin romance. I'm not qualified to diagnose her, but she seems like a grade-A narcissist. No other perception of reality exists but hers. The sex scandal, as it turns out, is but one of several events that kept her . What we don't learn from McKinney is how she truly feels about her odd and sad life. That's a matter for our perception. One person's nadir is another's apex. 

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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