In Review: The Toronto International Film Festival

Los abrazos rotos
Directed by Pedro Almodovar

For those familiar with the works of director Pedro Almodovar, Broken Embraces might seem like somewhat foreign fare: a complicated, multi-layered plot involving a myriad of characters, most of whom are struggling with emotional hangups.

The film, starring Penelope Cruz, is full of Hitchcock references and heavy sexual overtones.
Nonetheless, Almodovar is still in legendary top form, crafting a powerful emotional odyssey that is dynamic, realistic and clever while managing to stay one step ahead of the viewer.

Almodovar fans may be slightly disappointed by the lack of strange, inventive touches he often infuses into his works.

The film also trails off at the end, hitting its climax prematurely and seeming to not know quite where to stop afterwards.

Overall, Broken Embraces is still a prime example of poignant and masterfully crafted cinema easily worth a watch.

Fish Tank
Directed by Andrea Arnold
United Kingdom

A searing drama painting a particularly desolate picture of life in working class Britain, director Andrea Arnold’s film packs a flooring emotional punch but is so relentlessly depressing that its emotional resonance and realism become somewhat compromised.

Even the darkest of successful realist films generally manage to blend in the occasional kernel of humour or lightness, if only to give the audience a taste of balance.

Still, with a stunning performance by the always reliable Michael Fassbender and 18-year-old newcomer Katie Jarvis demonstrating an uncanny talent for commanding the screen, Fish Tank remains a powerful and visceral portrayal of a way of life, even if it is far from an uplifting one.  

Samson and Delilah
Directed by Warwick Thomas

If Fish Tank showed an almost uncomfortable amount of realism, director Warwick Thomas takes the concept to the next level with Samson and Delilah.

The story is minimalist at best, demonstrating the stifling, inhumane inactivity and lack of possibilities in an Australian Aboriginal commune as filtered through the lives of two youths.
Samson (Rowan McNamara) is a silent, charming drifter addicted to huffing gas fumes, and Delilah (Marissa Gibson) is an embittered young woman desperately trying to make her own way in the world.

While both breakout stars give astonishingly strong and eerily credible performances, what really makes Samson and Delilah stand out is its intangible ability to convey a sense of time and place – the sparsity of the desert setting, the repetitive, banal music and the long periods of silence all speak volumes of a lifetime of pain and nothingness.

Yet, in the end, the rug is pulled out from under the viewer, and a sudden surge of happiness and hope permeates the film, making it all worthwhile somehow in an entirely appropriate and not at all contrived fashion. And honestly, what more could a viewer want under the circumstances?

Directed by Peter Stebbings

Not quite a spoof and not quite a straightforward superhero film, Canadian director Peter Stebbings manages an impressive balance between humour and poignancy.

He insightfully challenges the myths of the superhero narrative through the story of Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson), an average and slightly imbalanced (to put it politely) construction worker who decides to become a superhero and fight crime.

Harrelson’s mix of goofiness and child-like earnestness proves the perfect lead, and the film has an outstanding cast, including Kat Denings from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Sandra Oh as Poppington’s psychologist.

While the jarring bursts of brutal violence may add a surprising element, the functional doses of gritty realism make Defendor a tremendously good time at the movies, and a worthy antithesis to the superhero genre. 

Leaves of Grass
Directed by Tim Blake Nelson
United States

Actor turned director/screenwriter Tim Blake Nelson tackles worrisomely familiar content in his new film, addressing issues of family roots, class struggles and the ethical ambiguities of marijuana. Yet somehow he manages a fresh conceptual framework to his tale.

Gleefully subverting expectations throughout and delivering a slew of colourful yet entirely believable characters, Nelson’s clever script somehow achieves greater authenticity through its askew delivery, trimmed of all Hollywood cliché and easy emotion.

Of course the cast are what really drive it home, with Nelson himself, Keri Russell and Richard Dreyfus all giving wonderful and often hilarious performances.

But the real highlight is not only one, but two Edward Nortons, perfectly playing two very different twin brothers and delivering enough charisma and crackling energy to singlehandedly make the film worthwhile. 

Directed by Neil Jordan
Ireland/United States

Seldom is it a film of true, unabashed beauty hits theatres these days, but Neil Jordan’s Ondine is nearly enough to make up for it.

On the surface a playful fantasy tale, Jordan’s film hits grand and resonant depths, addressing issues of cultural story construction, the contemporary intolerance of magic and the utter necessity of both.

With dazzlingly beautiful cinematography of sumptuous Irish countrysides and seas, a haunting musical score by Kjartan Sveinsson from Sigur Ros and monumental performances from Colin Farrell as a downtrodden fisherman and Alicja Bachleda-Curus as the mysterious woman who he finds caught in his fishing net, one is hard pressed to find flaws in Jordan’s film.

To say more would be to ruin the artistry, so suffice to say Ondine is a truly magical and captivating experience worth seeing by one and all. 

Up in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
United States

With Juno and Thank You for Smoking, director Jason Reitman demonstrated a peerless ability for skewering contemporary issues with a fast paced, acerbic sense of satire, and his latest film is no exception.

George Clooney, giving his best performance in years, is Ryan Bingham, a man who fires people for a living and spends his time flying from place to place, enjoying his lack of roots.

Ultimately, through interaction with the collection of pricelessly memorable and hysterical characters, he is forced to re-examine his perspective and contemplate buying into the society he so disdainfully exploits.

While Reitman’s film plunges into an undeniably sombre second act, never do the piercing cultural insight, stunning script and snappy wit falter, delivering not only one of the most moving character studies to hit Hollywood in ages, but also one of the most credible, and easily one of the funniest.

It is a must-see.