Four movies Tuesday, five on Wednesday, and I'm hoping for a similar tally today: Of such bleeding-eyeball overkill is a film festival experience made. Mind you, I'm not complaining, except when the movies are very bad, which very occasionally they are. By the fourth or fifth day, one's life starts to resemble a giant epistemological movie theater with interchangeable seats and stale coffee; the only way to differentiate the visions coming at you in two-hour increments is by the taking of largely illegible notes in the dark.
Allow me, then, to make sense of what I've seen so far by listing them in ascending order of quality, from the ridiculous to the reasonably sublime.
"The Last of Robin Hood" -- It looks pretty good (i.e., alluringly sleazy) on paper: A fact-based story of the final days of movie star Errol Flynn (Kevin Kline), highlighting his romance with 15-year-old Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning) and her relationship with her crass, stage-struck mother (Susan Sarandon). Superstar indie producer Christine Vachon producing, written and directed by the team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who had a festival splash with "Quinceanera" back in 2006. Given all that talent, it's rather mysterious that the film turns out to be generic junk: A flatly written, blandly-directed drama barely worthy of the Lifetime Network. That terrible soap-opera lighting! That dreadful score! The actors, heavyweights all, are defeated by the cookie-cutter dialogue, and -- worst crime of all -- ""The Last of Robin Hood" never once makes a case for why this story needs to be re-told in the first place. Worth it only to be reminded that Flynn really did want to star in Stanley Kubrick's movie adaptation of "Lolita" -- but only if Aadland was cast in the title role. (No release set)
"How I Live Now" -- Weird, weird, weird. A feverishly visualized what-if drama in which Saoirse Ronan plays a disaffected American teenage girl whose bucolic British vacation with her step-cousins is interrupted by World War III. She spends most of the film's running time crisscrossing northern England, avoiding rape and genocidal killings while trying to reunite with the hunky, hawk-whispering boy (George MacKay) she loves. Ronan is very good, and the direction by Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") is dreamily intense and often inspired, but the movie is increasingly conceptually bonkers, as if the post-nuke apocalypse of "The Day After" or Michael Haneke's "Time of the Wolf" had been rewritten by Nicholas Sparks. Who knew that Armageddon would turn out to be the best thing for improving a girl's low self-esteem? (Nov. 8)
"The Fifth Estate" -- As mentioned in an earlier post, this is what you'd get if you stretched the Wikileaks scandal onto the narrative frame of "The Social Network." Watchable, and Benedict Cumberbatch ably conveys the jerk charisma of Julian Assange, but you can feel director Bill Condon cutting the corners of this story to fit a Hollywood box. Alex Gibney's documentary "We Steal Secrets: The Wikileaks Story" remains the better bet. (Oct. 18)
"Dom Hemingway" -- In which Jude Law gives up on all the sensitivity and goes for the gonzo as the title character, a hyper-violent ex-con with no brakes on his Id. It's as though the actor finally saw Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast" and said, "Yeah, gimme some of that." Law is undeniably entertaining even when Dom is going too far -- which is from frame one, with a hilarious jailhouse monologue about his naughty bits -- and the script by director Richard Shepard ("The Matador") is as quotable as it is unprintable. Midway through, the film pirouettes from a comic revenge thriller to a softhearted character piece as this mutton-chopped sociopath tries to reconnect with his daughter (Emilia Clarke) and grandson (Jordan Nash), and you can feel the energy slowly hiss out of the proceedings. A decent one, though, and good to see Richard E. Grant back onscreen as the hero's gaunt, dyspeptic friend. Also: Best slow-motion comic car crash in recent memory. (April 2014)
"The Armstrong Lie" -- See previous post. A very good documentary about the enigma that is Lance Armstrong, with a few missing pieces. (Where are the Livestrong folks, for one? I bet they'd have a few choice things to say.) (Nov. 8)
"Prisoners" -- I went into this grim murder mystery with my expectations set by the trailer, which makes it look like a heavy-handed message drama in which Hugh Jackman, as the father of a missing girl, kidnaps and tortures the guy (Paul Dano) he thinks did it. But Denis Villeneuve's film gets that plot point out of the way in the first 30 minutes, only to roll one for another two preposterous but engrossing hours. Villeneuve, who made the foreign-language barnburner "Incendies" in 2010, proves to be equally and expertly manipulative here, as he tells a brooding story that aims for the brass ring of "Silence of the Lambs" and "Zodiac". It doesn't get all the way there, but "Prisoners" more than holds its weight, with agonized performances by Jackman (in powder-keg mode) and Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective on the case. The rest of the cast includes Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, and Melissa Leo, all of them working in a funk of purposefulness. Fun? Hardly. Predictable? Here and there. But I was never bored in 146 minutes, and that's saying something. (Sept. 20)
"Kill Your Darlings" -- See previous post. More fact-based drama, with glamorous actors like Jack Huston and Daniel Radcliffe playing the writers of the Beat generation back when no one except their outraged college professors and exasperated lovers knew who they were. Very well-acted all around, with Radcliffe pushing Harry Potter further back in the closet and Ben Foster nailing the Martian drone of the young William S. Burroughs. (Oct. 16)
"August: Osage County" -- John Wells' adaptation of Tracy Letts' stage play has a big old cast of name-brand stars, but, admit it, we're here to see Meryl Streep tear the roof off the sucker as Violet Weston, a vengeful, cancer-ridden Oklahoma matriarch who would destroy her own family if it means she'd still be standing at the end. There is a place where acting shades into overacting of the most brilliant, truthful kind, and you'll find it in this movie's Thanksgiving dinner scene. It's easy enough to ignore Wells' sentimental trimmings: Every time the movie leaves the house it goes sentimental on us. You know what Violet would say about that. (Dec. 25)
"All Is By My Side" -- A rock-and-roll origin story: The year that Jimi Hendrix (eerily well-played by Outkast's Andre Benjamin) went from being a nobody to the Great God of the Guitar. We've seen this kind of story many times before, but not the way writer-director John Ridley tells it, with an impressionistic approach to story and camerawork, editing and sound, that at times feels as vertiginous as a Hendrix solo. The guitar work is terrific, although there's not enough of it, and the movie is as astute about the era's racial politics (and Jimi's avoidance of them) as it is clear-eyed about his less admirable traits. Ridley doesn't treat Hendrix as a bio-pic enigma to be explained but simply as an instinctual artist, for better and for worse. The only mystery that remains is where the music came from. (No distributor yet.)
"Fading Gigolo" -- The slightest film I've seen at Toronto so far is also the loveliest: A serious-minded comedy, written and directed by John Turturro, about an underemployed, middle-aged New York man (Turturro) who becomes an unlikely stud-for-hire for unhappy women. The cast is wide and varied, and everyone seems to be having a wonderful time, from Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara as two of Turturro's clients to Woody Allen, in his best acting role in years, as the hero's pimp. (He has gone into the business only because high rents forced him to close his used bookstore.) For all that, the heart of the movie is the relationship between Turturro's Fioravante -- a courtly, poetic man with touches of Zen and reserves of stamina -- and Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a lonely Orthodox Jewish widow from Williamsburg. This is the most confident of Turturro's directing jobs and one of his tenderest performances; at times the movie's a mess, but it goes to such special places that you don't mind. With Liev Schreiber as an Orthodox cop and a climax that somehow involves Woody on trial before a Hasidic court with Bob Balaban as his attorney. Only in New York -- and only in a New York movie. (Millennium Entertainment picked the film up for US distribution at the festival; no release date set yet.)
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ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
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