Toronto International Film Festival ’11 – Day One: Denial Isn’t Just a River in Egypt

Good scripts can be divided in two groups: The kind that work flawlessly from a mechanical perspective and the kind that blows your mind by exposing you to new ideas. TIFF ’11 starts with a bang with an example of each.

George Clooney’s fourth directorial effort, The Ides of March, is his finest so far. Not bad, considering he also helmed the superior Good Night and Good Luck. Clooney is known for carrying his political convictions in the sleeve, which is why The Ides of Match is so scary. It seems to come from someone terminally disillusioned with the system.

Hollywood golden boy Ryan Gosling is Stephen, a speech writer for a Democratic hopeful (Clooney himself) aiming to become the party’s nominee. In the final stretch of the primaries, the staffer becomes a key pawn in a war between two campaigns. Without revealing much, Stephen realizes he is expendable, but also that he has the weapons to claw his way back in. As long as he is willing to sell his soul, that is.

It’s no news to anybody that politics is a dirty business. But Clooney turns the struggles of power hungry hypocrites into a high-wire intrigue that resembles The Third Man. As the most likable of the group, Gosling delivers a quietly intense performance matched by the best supporting players in the business, Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (I wouldn’t mind to watch a movie focused just in their characters). Four disenchanted prairie dogs.

Sons of Norway

The Johnny Rotten produced Sons of Norway is a thought provoking film that starts like an anarchist sitcom, but soon becomes an unsettling drama about child rearing. Yes, the leader of the Sex Pistols wants to teach you how to raise your children. And he makes some good points.

It’s 1979. Nikolaj enjoys his early adolescence in a household that encourages free-thinking and atheism. Despite the reigning permissiveness, Nikolaj is fairly well adjusted. His rambunctiousness is harmless and he seems on his way to become a smart young man.

The sudden death of his mother finds Nikolaj deep into his punk phase. This is not the problem. The problem is that his father co-opts every rebellious act of his: If Nikolaj joins a band, his dad will become the drummer. If the kid throws a glass bottle to the school principal, the father will call it freedom of speech.

The lesson of Sons of Norway? It’s healthy to leave some room for your kid to rebel; otherwise, he’ll push the envelope too far and could be beyond repair. The film dismisses punk music as instigator. If anything, punk is just a symptom of unrest brewing. The recent massacre in Oslo and the London riots just adds poignancy to the message. No prairie dogs, man. We’re against the system. P.S. I’ll be interviewing Rotten this Saturday. Should be interesting.

Other festival notes:

Beauty: Hardcore South African drama about a middle-age man who has repressed his homosexuality for so long, his body begins rebelling against him. The protagonist goes from difficult to despicable, verging on psychopathic (questionable subtext, I know). While the depiction of casual homophobia in modern-day South Africa is disturbing -let alone the lengths gay men must go to live as such-, the lack of resolution turns the movie into an exercise in futility. Phenomenal performance by the lead, Deon Lotz. Three confused Prairie Dogs.

Restless: Director Gus Van Sant latest is singularly low key. Henry Hooper –son of Dennis- makes his feature film debut as Enoch, an eccentric teenager who enjoys attending funerals. In this context he meets Annabel (the reliable Mia Wasikowska), a terminal cancer patient. They fall in love, but death casts a shadow over every aspect of their relationship. It doesn’t help Enoch is still coping with his parents’ demise years ago. The movie walks the thin line between delicate and overly precious, but towards the end becomes a meditation on how death affects our identity. Gus Van Sant has a lasting connection with the young and their suffering. Just take a look at his filmography: My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Elephant. Restless is set to open wide in a couple of weeks. I’ll expand then. In the meantime, three and a half grieving prairie dogs.

Tomorrow: The latest of Aki Kaurismaki, Pedro Almodóvar and David Cronenberg.

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.