They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
The Toronto Film Festival Part 2
By J. Don Birnam
September 17, 2014

Period pieces are so boring. I could act this film in my sleep.

One of the best, and worst, things about attending a film festival is that you are more likely to attend screenings sight unseen. By the time a movie opens commercially, it is more likely that several trailers, reviews, tweets, and other online content will have at least clued you in on what a movie is about, if not outright spoiled key elements for you.

My movie-going experience is always enhanced when I know very little about a movie, something that becomes increasingly hard to do as awards season plows along and provides over-the-top coverage of every detail about movies one hasn’t even heard of.

But attending a film festival like TIFF can provide a welcome respite from that. One can simply attend a screening based on star or director wattage (normally a huge mistake, by the way) or word-of-mouth (probably more advisable, although the Toronto audience is notably easy in most of its choices).

I knew so little about the following four movies that I saw and that I will review briefly here, that I inevitably liked them more than I otherwise would have had I seen their trailers, gotten my hopes up, and then seen how flat they were.

Like the four movies from yesterday, these four are mostly okay to pass the time, but I expect little to no awards movement from them and, entertained as I was at TIFF, remain highly concerned over the state of cinema today. And the theme persists: each movie that I saw had a clear and unmistakable analog in something else that had already been done - normally something better.

The Forger

I began the day early, with a movie starring John Travolta and Christopher Plummer about a forger (Travolta) who is forced to help a mobster to steal and forge a famous Monet in order to pay his debt to the mobster. You see, the mobster got him out of prison early so that Travolta could spend time with his dying son. The setup, as you can tell, is more than perfect.

But sight unseen, it is not immediately clear if the movie is a serious, dark, Boston crime drama (it takes place in Boston), a lighthearted family movie about reconciliations and second chances, or something in between.

Equal parts The Departed and Ocean’s Eleven, The Forger is not necessarily the most original movie I have seen. But it had truly touching scenes between Travolta and the son, and the story - dripping with sugar as it is - does move even the most cynical at least into understanding the motivations behind The Forger’s character. Thus, rather than ending up a dull turd like American Heist, The Forger at least makes you care about the characters in a real way.

And although Travolta provides one of his best performances in a long time (equal parts tortured and abject), Christopher Plummer steals the show as the cantankerous and witty grandfather who is the moral anchor to all the somewhat flailing characters. Thus, when Plummer is on screen you know the movie is delving into the comedic and even absurd.

The best way to enjoy the movie, I believe, is to not take it too seriously. The police drama that takes place in the background is one dimensional and predictable (some twist is obviously coming and it’s going to be simplistically stupid), and at times the plot has trouble moving along so the filmmakers resort to illogical sequences (at one point the police, who had been following Travolta for the whole movie, decide to chase him. His escape results in a key decision by another character, but, what happened to the police? They mysteriously give up the chase).

I think you get my drift. Things like that make the movie average at best if taken too seriously, which is why it’s best not to and enjoy the fluffy and at times touching ride that it provides.

In any case, it’s not clear that most will have a chance to experience this movie, as it is currently without a distributor and without a North American release date.

Big Game Samuel L. Jackson plays a kidnapped President of the United States - who also happens to be a wimp and a coward (if this was a jab at our current President, it was a lame one) - in the Finnish movie Big Game. There is only one word to describe it: Ridiculous.

Yet again, you’ve seen this movie before and it was much better when it was called Air Force One. The US President’s plane is under attack, and he is then chased by terrorists through the Finnish mountains but is protected by a young 12-year old forager. Again, at first you think that this is a serious vehicle, but it quickly becomes apparent that it is not.

I will say this: kudos to the Finnish filmmakers for essentially making a movie about their country and culture (and using their citizens) and somehow turn it into a popcorn thriller starring a huge American movie star. And Felicity Huffman and Jim Broadbent also star in lukewarm roles, backstage during the management of the President’s crisis in scenes so choppy and contrived that they make Armaggedon seem like a Puccini Opera.

Yet despite its over-the-top cheesiness and predictable yet neck-cricking plot twists, the midnight madness audiences at Toronto liked the movie so much that it picked up a distributor, and it is now set for an early 2015 release in the United States. Not an awards contender by any means (other than perhaps Razzies), Big Game will nevertheless enjoy a core audience of those of us who enjoy disaster/action/big catastrophe type movies.

Men, Women and Children

The latest movie by acclaimed writer/director Jason Reitman is the only one of today’s slate with any real chance at making awards noise - and a very small one at that. Men, Women and Children, an interesting screenplay based on the novel by the same name, is, like many of the TIFF movies I have covered so far, an amalgam of themes and plots that ultimately make the movie film gooey, and thus I predict it will not go very far even in the screenplay races.

The movie holds itself out to be about how information technology and social media have changed our relationships, particularly sexual relationships. But the movie at times tries to be about so much more, exploring themes about the meaning of life and the irrelevance of man, suicide, infidelity, and teen angst.

Indeed, despite the repeated scenes al a House of Cards in which people’s social media communications are shown stylistically on screen, the movie really is not about social media and its impact on teenage or other relations. The movie is about sex, pure and simple, and social media happens to be a part of humanity’s endless search for sexual satisfaction in the 21st Century.

Adam Sandler and Jennifer Garner deliver strong performances that could have easily been taken not seriously at all, and in my opinion pick up the movie a bit from the Mean Girls-type teenage comedy it almost turned into. But in the end, the filmmaker’s quest for a broader meaning of life or for something new and intelligent to say about how social media is destroying us runs into a buzz saw of the filmmaker’s own creations: all of the adult characters in the movie (the parents) are horrifically selfish, misguided, and at times dangerous individuals. Thus, one walks out and is unable to shake the feeling that it is simply humans that are screwing each other over, particularly frustrated middle-aged parents to their children, and not anything inherent about Facebook or text messaging.

Perhaps, then, the ultimate message of Men, Women and Children is "be kind to one another." If that is the case, then the movie works just fine as a vehicle for that idea, and has some genuinely hilarious moments to go alongside some more wrenching ones. I recommend this movie enthusiastically for what it is, but there should be no doubt that it does not achieve the high goals it clearly sets out for itself.

Men, Women, and Children will see a limited release in the United States starting on October 1st, with an expansion nationwide later that month.

A Little Chaos

The movie whose world premiere closed out TIFF this year, actor-turned-director (a theme!) Alan Rickman’s first feature film, was perhaps one of my favorites of this second installment.

Of course, this isn't saying much, as a Kate Winslet costume drama is of course going to be catnip for me. The plot centers around a woman who is awarded the prestigious task of constructing some of Louis XIV’s gardens at Versailles, and the challenges she faces as she becomes the target of envy and intrigue by a lot of the members of Louis’s court. Rickman himself plays the Sun King, while a delightful Stanley Tucci portrays his brother, the Duke of Orleans.

The plot itself advances slowly and at time seems disjointed, but I fell for Winslet’s troubled, demure character, and the way she confronts her demons as she works tirelessly towards the task at hand. The one scene between Winslet and Rickman is also memorable and enjoyable, as two movie juggernauts easily banter with one another in an afternoon adventure that proves emotionally fulfilling to the characters - both suffering their own internal struggles.

Criticism that the movie essentially lacks a point would be fair, but I nevertheless found the story of the construction of the gardens different than what we have seen before and always enjoy Kate Winslet on screen, even when she is clearly playing a role that poses little to no challenge for her.

And, of course, the movie has delightful music, scenery, and costumes, and is much more pleasant to the eye than some of the cheap-effects thrills I had to sit through during TIFF.

A Little Chaos is not a movie for everyone - certainly not for anyone seeking fast-paced compelling action or drama. But for those who enjoy more sensible story telling (and Mr. Rickman’s debut behind the helm of a movie is to me much more memorable than Paul Bettany’s), A Little Chaos, a tad chaotic in the plot as it is, provides an entertaining and sincere effort. It will open later this year in Europe and is likely to be released in the United States in early 2015.