Three Toronto films I have seen without being in Toronto
No, I didn't go this year, again. But I figured you inferred that. But I have seen at least three of the 300-plus pictures screening in the Great White North, and why should the traveling press have all the fun?
Karyn Kusama's Jennifer's Body, from a script by Oscar™-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, is a maladroit Heathers retread that's too inept to qualify as odious, although it sure does try its best. As you may already know, Megan Fox plays a cheerleader possessed by demons who feasts on the flesh of teenage boys. While Cody's script borrows huge swaths of Heather's storyline while half-heartedly grafting on a supernatural thread, this picture doesn't really bother to examine or critique high-school hierarchies and social cruelties. And while the victims in Heathers actually had sins to answer for, Jennifer's victims die merely because they're...guys. The jock who gets it isn't particularly cruel or nasty—a bit crude, but not enough to really register—and the emo guy is just, well, an emo guy. While I have little use for emo and its trappings myself, I don't believe that being into it ought to be punishable by death. I mean, it's a phase, you know? But as Jennifer herself might say, what the fuck ever. Cody's too busy with her cutesy internet references (a dozen or so easy lays at the press screening I attended broke out in self-conscious guffaws when one character mentioned—get this!—Wikipedia) and gratuitous Christian-bashing jokes (which would have been more than excusable, had they been funny) to bother constructing a cogent narrative or a coherent theme.
And yes, Megan Fox is terrible. A black hole of pout, gloss, and sway. I imagine the poor woman must think that Cody's dialogue for her character is a fair approximation of how she, Fox, really talks, because that's what she aspires to. Sad, I guess. But not really worth giving too much thought to. In an anti-Body post at his site, Jeffrey Wells says Fox has "all the natural soul-charisma of a porn star." I say that's insulting to quite a lot of porn stars. It's also worth noting that the film takes place in a world in which Hispanics and African-Americans exist solely to be mocked ("Grass-E-ass, Ramundo," drawls the most putatively sympathetic character in the film at one point) and physically brutalized, and that the film's handful of racist jokes don't even have perfunctory quote marks around them. Cuz grrrls don't have to be PC, I guess!
Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! is (and this has kind of been said before) the anti-Erin Brockovich, a very irony-rich tale of corporate malfeasance and whistle-blowing. It is sad that, times being what they are, I am compelled to note that when I say "irony-rich" I mean real irony, literary irony even, not mre nose-thumbing snark. This is a terrifically layered film. Never one to shrink from a formal challenge, here Soderbergh, working from what must be a very adroit script from Scott Z. Burns, lays out a doozy for himself. He's got to juggle three balls, as it were: the actual on-screen narrative of Archer Daniels Midland exec Mark Whitacre and his attempt to expose the company's price-fixing practicies; the rambling, discursive voice-over narration that constitutes not just Whitacre's ongoing apologia but also exposes—or does it in fact camouflage?—the workings of his eccentric mind; and the narrative that remains hidden until the last fifth of the film but which the audience ought to feel, as a steady tremor, throughout. Upping the ante further in terms of tone-bending, Soderbergh also lured Marvin Hamlisch out of movie-scoring retirement (at least that's how it seems; this is the first theatrical feature Hamlisch ha's done since '96's The Mirror Has Two Faces) and, it seems, instructed him to resurrect many of the tunes and most of the instrumentation from his work for Woody Allens' Bananas. I think the picture works. Granted, it's no The Girlfriend Experience (for what else could be, really?), but it's incredibly absorbing, deeply smart, and yes, very funny, albeit in a chortling rather than belly-laughing way. Matt Damon is impeccable as Whitacre, a very cockeyed optimist who may also be a sociopath. The rest of the cast is packed with both top-notch pros and wild cards (Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula, the ever-great Eddie Jemison, The Soup host Joel McHale, and so on) who all make an impression. (I have to take exception to my friend Anne Thompson's objection: "The Informant! is a smart, witty comedy that makes fun of dim-witted bipolar midwesterners." First off, "dim-witted bipolar midwesterners," are you trying to say that that's an actual demographic that could be potentially offended by this film? Also, there's only one such specimen in the movie, and the whole point of the movie is he's not as dim-witted as all that. Anyway...)
I imagine that you've been reading elsewhere about Lone Scherfing's An Education and wondering if it's really all that. I would have to say almost, but not quite. What's interesting about the picture is that the qualities that make it worthwhile—a scrupulous intelligence accompanied by what some might term discretion and others (that would be me) call over-cautious good taste—are also the qualities that undercut it somewhat. Adapted by novelist Nick Hornby from a short memoir by journalist Lynn Barber, the picture tells the story of a bright, cheerful, Oxford-aspiring teen girl in 1961 London who's pursued and eventually seduced by a mysterious charmer twice her age. Her life goes completely upside down as a result, of course. The writing is quite nicely crafted, with the dialogue always smart and only very rarely too on-the-nose. The cast is wonderful. Carey Mulligan as heroine Jenny is just a perfect incarnation of a unique character, a thoroughly disarming presence. Peter Sarsgaard, as David, a charmer who even manages to take in Jenny's stern father, eschews his usual bag of tricks. Instead of the fey unctuousness he frequently uses to make his characterizations look enigmatic, he here goes full out for British faux-gentility and bonhomie. It's a quiet triumph. Olivia Williams is also quiet, and devastating, as Jenny's concerned teacher. And on it goes. The picture's worth seeing for the performances alone. Where it went slightly south for me was in the section where we learn how David makes his living, and the subsequent treatment of Jenny's sexuality. Having exposed some nasty lies and distasteful facts, the film seems to carry on believing, to a certain extent, in the David-Jenny romance. The music continues to swell, the camera to swooningly crane. It seems evasive, if not downright dishonest. On the other hand, the refusal to fully confront some of the darker corners of its scenario is part of what makes the film go down so well. 'Tis a puzzlement.