Toronto #3: Opening Weekend Report

I've been hugging myself practically all weekend. I've capped days and early evenings of good movies off by dj'ing and karaoke hosting late shows all weekend, right square in the middle of Toronto's entertainment district, which for 11 days comes alive with movie stars, screens almost 300 films, gets clogged with stargazers, while press and paparazzi types weave their way through it all like naked mole rats.

Movies and singing; they're the things that give me the greatest sense of communion with others.

The sweet & lowdown: "12 Years a Slave", "Gravity", "Prisoners" and "Dallas Buyers Club" are hot, "The Fifth Estate" is not, and Jason Bateman's directing debut "Bad Words" and "Once" director John Carney's "Can a Song Save Your Life?" got bought. The brutal new Steve McQueen drama starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brad Pitt opened to rave reviews. I'll be catching it later this week, along with Denis Villeneuve's English language debut "Prisoners", starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman. I've got the new space drama "Gravity" on the docket for Monday. All three look to carry a bounce into Oscar season.

In the biggest deal in a couple years at Toronto, the Weinsteins bought the new John Carney folk-rock drama starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley for $7 million. Carney's "Once" was a festival circuit smash hit 6 years ago, and his new "Can a Song Save Your Life?" opened to a very warm reception up here. I've got it penciled into my schedule in a couple days. Focus Features picked up the new Jason Bateman dark spelling-bee comedy "Bad Words", about a man who finds a loophole in a local competition and figures to win the prize from kids.

As for the movies I have seen, it's "Monster" meets "Milk" in the awe-inspiring "Dallas Buyers Club", starring a rail-thin Matthew McConaughey in the role of his career in the real-life account of Ron Woodroof, the degenerate, homophobic Texas redneck electrician--diagnosed in 1985 with full-blown AIDS--who takes on the pharmaceutical companies and the government in order to secure life-extending medication from outside the United States.

A kind of disquieting collective gasp could be felt all through the jam-packed Elgin Theater the first time we lay eyes on McConaughey's character, 40-some-odd pounds lighter than usual. You may have seen the pictures of his weight loss a few months ago when they first surfaced. Like Charlize Theron's transformation as Aileen Wuornos, McConaughey is uncanny here in the way he appears to be utilizing the whole of his being, from body to soul, as an instrument to channel and play a character so dynamic and inspired, I forgot I was watching McConaughey. It's the pinnacle of the hottest streak the actor's been on in his career, having appeared in "Killer Joe", "Bernie", "Magic Mike", and "Mud" in the last year alone.

Since the photos of his transformation were already setting us up for a unique performance, the revelation over the weekend turned out to be that devastating supporting performance by Jared Leto as Rayon, an HIV-positive transgender woman that Woodroof forms an unlikely business partnership with, since the straight-shootin' Ron's clientele is almost exclusively gay men. That sets Rayon up as Ron's bridge to the gay community, though the stigma of having contracted the deadly virus at that time already causes Ron to be cast aside by his friends and co-workers, who assume he must be gay.

French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee may seem to be the unlikeliest of choices to direct this deep south drama, but he stays true to his previous efforts in the way he allows for actors to create fully-realized characters we care deeply about. Known almost entirely to Canadian audiences with only very limited arthouse runs in America of "C.R.A.Z.Y.", "The Young Victoria" and "Cafe de Flore", "Dallas Buyers Club" should propel him to a great deal of recognition outside of Canada. If McConaughey and Leto don't take home Oscars for their roles, than we're looking at a most memorable year for acting on film, because these are two of the bravest and most original performances I've seen at the movies, and in one of the very best films of the year.

The Fifth Estate

"The Fifth Estate" opened to a lukewarm reception over the weekend. Bill Condon's (Kinsey, Dreamgirls) new drama, centering on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, was aiming for an "Argo" type of bounce that never materialized. That isn't to say it isn't a worthy film. Benedict Cumberbatch appears Oscar-bound with another uncanny performance of a real-life person, and I liked the film's balanced view that allows us to weigh issues of national security with those of freedom of information. Here is a story that has become so fragmented in recent years, lost in the 24-hour news cycle where gossip and allegations, plot points and international intrigue come flying at us so sensationally that we end up losing all sense of context.

I'd like to see this again upon its release before I come to a more complete verdict, and I would highly recommend Alex Gibney's compelling Assange documentary "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks", floating around the arthouse circuit and on VOD, which helps fill out references and relationships in the fiction film.

Like Father, Like Son

And then there's Hirokazu Kore-Eda, that intuitive, humanistic Japanese director who nourishes us with another soulful family-oriented drama in "Like Father, Like Son", one of the more buried treasures in TIFF's early going. Set in present-day Tokyo, it involves us in the heartbreaking revelation for a young, upper-middle class couple that their 6 yr-old son Keita is not their biological son. Their son from birth was switched with Keita. His name is Ryusei, and he is being raised by a shopkeeper and his wife and their other two kids across the city in a working poor neighborhood.

The hospital administrators advise the families to go through the process of meeting and eventually swapping the two boys, a decision that does not come lightly from either side, though Ryoto, who has been raising Keita with his wife Midori, harbors traditional patriarchal feelings for the notion of maintaining the family's bloodline. A successful architect who hardly has time for the boy, he must choose whether to raise the only child he's ever known, or to take the biological child who is a stranger to him.

Like all of Kore-Eda's films, his camera observes lives being lived in small moments that sneak up on us in touching ways that remind us how universal his stories are despite the fact we're reading subtitles. Like the films of Ozu, Kore-Eda offers a mostly inobtrusive camera that listens and shows, allowing us to bring ourselves to each of these characters and the way they relate to each other almost entirely in domestic environments. And like Truffaut, Kore-Eda has a gift for gleaning totally natural performances from children. The two young boys in acheter cialis en ligne this picture aren't ever just pawns in a game; they're as integral to how we experience both families from the inside out. It's a melancholy film, but it's filled with life and humor that comes out of moments of authentic recognition. Wonderful.

Stay tuned. My next Toronto report will dive into some of the best documentaries I've seen so far at the festival.