Toronto Film Festival: High-profile releases and under-the-radar films are both satisfying viewing

At the Toronto Film Festival, Meryl Streep wowed in 'August: Osage County' and 'Gravity' was a technical tour de force, while lesser-known films like 'Tim's Vermeer' were also intriguing.

Mark Blinch/Reuters
Tom Berenger arrived with his wife, Laura Moretti, at a screening at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 5.

Meryl Streep was supposed to be among the many stars showcased on the red carpet at the 38th annual Toronto International Film Festival. Then she came down with something and had to cancel. But it’s OK. As one bystander quipped: “She has the flu and I hear she’s amazing in it.”

The 10-day festival unveiled 288 films, of which I saw about 20, from more than 60 countries. For at least the first long weekend, Hollywood hoopla reigns. It’s the movie equivalent of a fall fashion preview. (Much has been made of the fact that seven of the past 13 Best Picture Oscar winners opened in Toronto.) Glamorous stars, at least those not arriving by private jet, show up at the airport baggage claim kiosk just like ordinary mortals and try to look as inconspicuous as possible – which for most of them means wearing sunglasses and not smiling.

The hoopla is often in stark contrast to the content of the films. Take, for example, “12 Years a Slave,” the new reality-based film from director Steve McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame”) and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1841 who is kidnapped into slavery. Alternately searing and stilted, with extended sequences featuring whippings and welts, it’s a far cry from the goofball horrifics of “Django Unchained” or “Mandingo.” But because Brad Pitt, who also coproduced, has a small role in the film, the scene outside the Princess of Wales Theatre, where the film premièred, was pure fandemonium.

Speaking onstage to the audience, McQueen talked about the irony of a British director, rather than an American, dealing with the slavery issue in such a central way. “I wanted to see that history on film,” he said.

One of the opening night films was “Tim’s Vermeer,” a terrific documentary about how computer-graphics mogul and obsessive tinkerer Tim Jenison set about to prove, with, I think, high plausibility, that the great 17th-century Dutch artist rendered his paintings aided by a combination of lenses and mirrors. This theory has been around for a while – David Hockney, who appears in the film, is its most famous exponent – but Jenison takes it a step further by actually re-creating, dab by dab, over a grueling 213-day period, one of Vermeer’s masterpieces in his San Antonio studio. “It was torture,” he explained to the audience afterward. “Actually, I guess we don’t use that word anymore. It was enhanced interrogation.”

The film was coproduced by Penn Gillette and directed by Teller, who is mute onstage as one-half of the magic act “Penn and Teller,” but, at least in Toronto, otherwise quite gabby. He called his film “a 300-year-old detective story,” and so it is.

The kind of hoopla I prefer was the screening in an old-time movie palace of “Visitors,” a weirdo documentary from Godfrey Reggio, who gave us “Koyaanisqatsi” and its follow-ups. The film, “presented by” Steven Soderbergh, and scored by Philip Glass, both in attendance, is as slowed down as Reggio’s other films are furiously fast. Shot in impeccable black and white, without dialogue, it has something to do with metaphysical musings about the nature of watching a movie and features a big, unsmiling lowland gorilla borrowed from the Bronx Zoo. But what made the evening special was the live orchestral accompaniment in the pit by 66 members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Most people don’t realize that in the silent era, at least in the big cities, this sort of thing was not uncommon. Those days are long gone. Today you couldn’t even fit a string quintet into many of the shoebox multiplexes.

Asghar Farhadi, who directed the great “A Separation” a few years ago, was back with “The Past,” a lesser but still strong film about a painful divorce, set in Paris and costarring Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist”). I’ve never quite understood how it is that certain Iranian directors, such as Farhadi and Abbas Kiarostami, are free to work abroad, on material not altogether uncontroversial, while others, like Jafar Panahi, who also had a film in Toronto, “Closed Curtain,” are essentially under house arrest. (In 2011 Panahi smuggled into Cannes his “This is Not a Film” on a flash drive inside a cake.)

I always like meeting up with Fred Schepisi, the Australian director of masterpieces as disparate as “Roxanne” and “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith,” whenever he has a film in Toronto. His new one, “Words and Pictures,” starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, is a rather sweet and schematic comedy-drama about an inspiring, alcoholic prep school English teacher who bemoans the devaluation of the written word in the social media era, and the school’s new art instructor, who really does believe that a picture is worth a thousand words. I asked Schepisi, who as a teenager was educated in a monastery before dropping out, if he was ever fortunate enough to have a schoolteacher who changed his life. He did – a priest who used to play symphony orchestra recordings for his students and instructed them to listen for only the sounds of the clarinet. “It was a great way to cut through and concentrate. As a filmmaker, I think it gave me my eye and my ear for detail,” he said.

In “The Unknown Known,” Errol Morris tries to do to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld what he once did to Robert McNamara in “The Fog of War.” That is to say, he both humanizes Rumsfeld, by bringing out the regular guy in him, while also encouraging him to offer up, often unchallenged, a blizzard of contradictory statements. (Standout is the 9/11-Iraq connection, which Rumsfeld both denies here and, in press conferences at the time, coyly confirmed.) But Morris, in my view, doesn’t press Rumsfeld nearly hard enough on the choices he made in his career culminating in the Iraq war. Despite his rep as an uncoverer of hard truths, Morris is a bit too much the philosophe for smooth operators like Rumsfeld.

There are plenty of directors I wish would announce their retirement, but the great Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, who recently did, is not one of the them. “The Wind Rises,” which I hope for many reasons is not his last film, is one of his most perplexing – a reverie about a young aeronautical engineer, a dreamer who basks in the beauty of flight and whose inventions lead directly to the fighter planes that bomb Pearl Harbor. Miyazaki grasps the dark irony, but in a way, he’s as much of a fantasist as his boy engineer. Despite its subject, the film is for the most part bizarrely, even negligently apolitical.

A film that is truly in the clouds, actually way above them, is Alfonso Cuarón’s 3-D “Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as NASA astronauts marooned in outer space. The wisecracky banter between them sometimes brings the film all too thuddingly down to Earth, and I never quite got over the fact that we were watching two movie stars playacting in that vast void, but the film is a technical tour de force unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. An added bonus: Clooney manages to make even bulky spacesuits look cool.

Gravity” runs a brisk 93 minutes. By contrast, Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the passionate (and highly explicit) love story between two women that won this year’s Palme d’Or, runs 179. Despite all the high-toned talk about its artful attenuations, I thought it could have profitably lost 30 of those minutes. Still, the two actresses here, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, give soul-diving performances.

Ron Howard’s “Rush” will be catnip for Formula One racing car nuts who revere the death-defying 1970s rivalry between Austria’s Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth).

The vroom factor is a bit low, the script by Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) is surprisingly cloddish, but Lauda, the survivor of the duo, made a surprise appearance at the film’s gala and demonstrated yet again a film festival truism: The real deal always gets the biggest applause.

And what of Meryl Streep? Her performance as the drug-addicted, viperish matriarch in the adaptation of the prize-winning Tracy Letts play “August: Osage County” was anything but sickly. Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor and many other fine actors are also around, but Streep is so incisive that afterward I felt like writing her a memo: Now that you’ve warmed up for this sort of thing, please – please! – play Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

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