Daily reviews of some of the best and worst movies to screen at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Stars: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell, John Goodman
Michel Hazanavicus burst onto the international filmmaking scene with the OSS 117 films that recreated '60s spy movies with such an incredible attention to detail that they felt less like homage than actual lost films discovered in a forgotten vault. This time the director returns with The Artist, a silent film shot in black and white with a classic 1.33:1 aspect ratio and dialogue cards.
You’d think that would be the height of arty presentation, yet the movie is one of the most purely enjoyable of this year’s Toronto Film Festival. I’m not saying that the film has a chance of being a blockbuster hit with general audiences. You definitely have to be familiar with film history to understand what he’s doing, yet Hazanavicius’ film captures not only the aesthetic of silent movies, but the breezy sense of old timey entertainment as well. It’s not a parody though. This is a sincere recreation of a long abandoned style.
The story is self-conscious and postmodern enough to please even the snobbiest of film buffs. Jean Dujardin stars as a silent film star who slowly watches the talkies make his brand of moviemaking extinct and he further escalates the demise of his career by sinking his fortune into a silent epic that flops. At the same time a young starlet he discovered becomes a star of the sound era without ever losing her love and appreciation for the silent legend who kick started her career.
The film is as light as a feather and just as soft and comforting. Amusing supporting turns from the likes of James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, and John Goodman keep laughs coming from the sidelines, while the central story manages some impressive dramatic weight despite the distancing and potentially silly aesthetic. For movie geeks this is pure bliss. A reminder of the simple joys that make us return to the cinemas night after night and a bittersweet loveletter to a type of filmmaking that might not be poised for a comeback, but will never cease to entertain in a delightfully nostalgic way.
Into the Abyss
Director: Werner Herzog
Iconic and deeply eccentric director Werner Herzog returns with a new documentary that instantly ranks amongst his most disturbing achievements. Herzog traveled to Texas for a documentary about death row and discovered a story as troubling, raw, and surreal as anything in his fiction catalogue. His focus landed on a ten-year-old triple homicide seemingly perpetrated simply to steal cars for a joyride.
The teenage accused are now approaching 30, with Michael Perry days away from execution while Jason Burkett serves a life sentence thanks to an emotional testimony from his father who is currently in the midst of his own life imprisonment. Both claim innocence, but everyone does in that situation. The victims’ surviving families are interviewed as well as a former state executioner with a conscience and, creepily, a woman who met and married Jason while he was incarcerated.
Into the Abyss is a fascinating portrait of the ugly underbelly of American culture. Traveling from trailer parks to luxury homes, everyone interviewed is either fascinated or victimized by murder, state sanctioned or otherwise. Herzog ditches his usual voiceover and lets his subjects tell their story. Equally moving (Jason’s incarcerated father is touchingly apologetic and filled with regret) and unsettling (Jason’s wife seems to unknowingly fetishize his criminal background), it’s another of the director’s ongoing studies of the furthest extremes of human nature.
Rarely before has he delved this deeply into the darkness of human psyche (no, the hilarious evil excess of Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant doesn’t count), but he remains as fascinated and open-minded about his subjects as ever. It’s a movie that will sear itself into your memory even if it doesn’t exactly qualify as lighthearted Sunday afternoon entertainment.