Monday, September 12, 2011

Toronto International Film Festival 2011 - First weekend

This year at TIFF, we watched 8 movies including a good mix of North American vs foreign films, little movies vs bigger named celebrity features.  We started off with 3 movies on the first weekend:

First up was the Canadian movie Barrymore starring Christopher Plummer playing stage and film star John Barrymore (grandfather of Drew Barrymore), in alcoholic decline towards the end of his career.

The movie is a filming of the Toronto revival of Plummer's Tony award winning play of the same name, intermixed with additional scenes that flush out Barrymore's character and state of mind at that time in his life.

It imagines a fictitious attempt at a stage comeback for Barrymore in 1942, mere months before his death at 60.  Barrymore is onstage rehearsing for his once famous role of Richard III, aided by Frank who attempts to prompt him with line after line that he no longer remembers.  Barrymore sways between pomposity and patheticness in the these scenes, barking at Frank  "Don't tell me .... tell me!!!".  At one point, he races around the stage in despair shouting "What's the line? What's the line? .. What's the play???".

The movie uses flashback scenes to depict Barrymore's memories of his youth and family life, with Christopher Plummer playing all roles including his father Maurice, brother Lionel, sister Ethel and grandmother.  Some of his funniest lines come when he describes his 4 marriages and divorces.  "My first wife and I were happy for 20 years .. and then we met".  "I don't have to tell you that divorces cost more than marriages, but god damn it, they're worth it!"

Christopher Plummer gives a commanding performance, embodying all aspects of Barrymore's traits, ranging from charm and wit, sardonic humour, arrogance, hubris  confusion caused by alcohol-induced memory loss and dementia, leading to frustration, self pity and rage. 

Following the movie, Christopher Plummer took to the stage to be interviewed by director Atom Egoyan.  He described the differences in performing in the play vs the movie - gestures and actions had to be bigger on stage in order to project to the audience, where the film performance could be more subtle.  This led to the play being more humourous while the movie closeups allowed Plummer to show more depth and pathos.

Although too young to have ever met John Barrymore, Plummer told a touching story about one of his idols, John's daughter Diana.  Like most of the rest of the Barrymore clan who were blessed with talent but cursed with addictions, Diana was also a down and out alcoholic towards the end of her career.  Assured that she was on the wagon, Plummer tried to get her an audition in a play he was in.  The director initially said "Not another Barrymore!" but relented after Plummer begged.  He later found out that she had showed up to the interview drunk and died shortly afterwards. 

The audience was full of Canadian "celebrities" including Brian and Mila Mulrony, Gordon Pinsent and Garth Drabinsky who was the executive producer of the production.  I remember wondering how Garth Drabinsky could still be so public and prolific when he had been convicted of fraud.. shouldn't he be in jail?  We heard a couple days later that he lost his appeal and is now back in jail. 

Our next movie was a Norwegian thriller called Headhunters, where the protagonist Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief in order to keep his trophy wife in the lap of luxury.  He uses his interviews of job candidates to find potential marks to steal from.

All goes awry when Roger tries to make the ultimate score by stealing a priceless painting from a former military tracking specialist.  Suddenly the headhunter becomes "head-hunted" leading to some wild and wacky action sequences that are both thrilling and extremely funny.

The plot is intricate and exciting with plot twists that require careful attention in the beginning to appreciate the payoff.  There movie has its share of blood and violence but the situations are set up in such an innovative and usually hilarious manner that they make you wince and then laugh out loud.  Memorable scenes involving a box of milk, a dog and a forklift, and an outhouse will stick in your mind for a long time.

The director and two main protagonists showed up for the screening and gave an excellent Q&A afterwards.  The height difference between them, which was a major plot point, was accentuated by seeing them stand side by side in person.

A good Q&A gives you extra insight into the making of the movie.  In this one, an anecdote was told about a scene where Roger was mauled by a vicious Russian attack dog.  The dog was trained to lunge for a rubber ball attached to Roger's shoulder, making the seemingly dangerous scene safe.  On the very first take, Aksel Hennie screamed and thrashed around so violently that it permanently scared the poor dog, who refused to try it again.  So the director was left with only one take of this scene.  I think it was a good one, but I watched most of it with my hands over my eyes ... this did nothing to help my fear of dogs!

The third movie "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" was from the UK and starred Ewan McGregor as Alfred, a stodgy fisheries expert, Emily Blunt as Harriet, the glamorous liason to a wealthy sheik who wants to bring salmon fishing to his country and a hilarious scene stealing Kristen Scott Thomas as the press secretary for the Prime Minister.

This is a light romantic comedy that is also a geo-political satire.  Initially Alfred scoffs at the ludicrous idea of trying to keep 10,000 salmon alive in the Yemen desert in order to support sport fishing. However the press secretary latches onto this goodwill story of promoting Middle East-Western relationships, as a distraction from news stories of bombings and unrest.

The romantic storyline is bolstered by good chemistry between Ewan and Emily, and gives a new meaning to the term "fish out of water", as Alfred learns to loosen up and learns to appreciate both the project and the woman promoting it.  The gorgeous Amr Waked plays the sheik with a calm serenity.   Kristen Scott Thomas' strong-willed, foul mouthed press, haughty and sarcastic secretary pushes her agenda with a hilarious aplomb.

Since we watched the second showing and not the gala, there was no Q&A after the movie.  We were pleasantly surprised though that the director and stars did show up at the beginning for a quick thank you and wave to the audience.  For an early Sunday morning movie, this was quite the gesture and much appreciated.

So the festival was off to a good start for us with three diverse and entertaining movies and  great hopes for more to come.

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