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Short Takes: Toronto Film Fest 2009

An Education
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Sally Hawkins, Lynn Barber and Dominic Cooper
Lynn Barber
has been writing about sex for decades and has been very successful at it. So, as one of the most famous mainstream journalists in Britain on that particular subject, she  eventually wrote her memoirs, and part of it became this movie. Nick Hornby, who gave us About a Boy and  High Fidelity, has changed the names to protect the guilty and gone on to create an excellent script ably directed by Scherfig.

The fictionalized version of Barber is Jenny (Mulligan), a senior in British high school who is looking forward to going to Oxford to "read" (major in) English. Her parents (Molina and Seymour) want this, too, and all seems to be going along swimmingly until she meets a charming mystery, David (Sarsgaard), who knocks the socks off Jenny and her parents. He and his pals Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike) whisk her away to a fairyland of posh London nightlife, which leads her teachers to believe her new friends are up to no good. They are right. Jenny is heading for some sort of fall. But will she able to avoid it, or at least get back up?

Everyone in the film is enjoying themselves: Molina is great as the befuddled father, Sarsgaard, if you get past the accent, is as delightful a rogue as you're bound to meet. Mulligan plays the late adolescent to the peak of perfection. It’s all very romantic, even though you know there’s a crash coming as soon as we meet David in the film's first 10 minutes. But that doesn’t matter — this is an inspiring, cautionary tale.

The Art Of The Steal
Directed by Don Argott
Albert C. Barnes
was a chemist and pharmaceutical magnate who collected art as a hobby. For most collectors, the objects collected are toys to be played with, and Barnes was no exception. But Barnes did so with such gusto that he amassed one of the greatest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art ever put together.

Dr. Barnes didn’t like the bigwigs in Philadelphia society, and they didn’t like him either. He decided he didn’t want to play with them, so he built a giant playhouse in his back yard in suburban Merion, PA, creating a foundation to finance the place and those he invited to play with him. When he died in 1951, custody of his playthings -- the cream of the crop of early modernist art -- was given to his girlfriend and trusted aide Violette de Mazia. She kept it going for another 30 years, "betraying" Barnes by opening it to the public two days a week.

When Ms. De Mazia died in the early '80s, the world's opinion of late 19th- and early 20th-century art had changed radically. The value of the stuff had gone up by several orders of magnitude. And that brings us to the title of the film.

Nothing was actually stolen when a consortium of Philadelphia politicians and power brokers conspired to transplant the art collection from its home. On the face of it, it was an excellent idea. Lincoln University, which was given custody of the foundation, discovered that the building was falling apart, so Barnes' will, which stated that nothing be changed whatsoever, had to be broken. To the art's new caretakers, the question as to whether or not to honor a long-dead man's will and let the collection literally rot or whether to preserve it was a no-brainer. But that, ironically, seldom turns out to be true and on that thought pivots this fascinating and surprisingly interesting documentary.

Directed by Ana Kokkinos
Starring Frances O'Connor, Miranda Otto, Deborra-lee Furness, Victoria Haralabidou, Monica Maughan, Wayne Blair, William McInnes, Sophie Lowe, Anastasia Baboussouras, Harrison Gilbertson, Eamon Farren, Eva Lazzaro, Reef Ireland, Kellie Jones, Tasma Walton, Neil Pigot,  and Brett Climo.
"Who's Afraid of the Working Class" was a series of interrelated one-act plays written by Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Patricia Cornelius, Christos Tsiolkas and Irene Vela. They got decent reviews in London and Sydney, and Kokkinos, who had gotten some kudos on the festival circuit for her previous films, received enough government funding to turn it all into a single film which explores the relationships between mothers and their children.

The kids are not very nice. Daniel (Gilbertson) is accused by his mother (Furness) of stealing from her. Being innocent, he takes off in a huff and breaks into the home of Laurel (Maughan), an elderly woman, with the intent of doing what he was accused of. Meanwhile, Katrina (Lowe), and her best friend Trisha (Baboussouras) also cut schoo, the latter having stolen some stuff from her mother (Haralabidou), and elsewhere little Stacey (Lazzaro) is coping with her first period just after she finds her brother Orton (Ireland), who has run away from home, on orders from their mother (O'Connor), who is pregnant again and about to lose the two she already has because she’s a bit of an idiot. Then we see the same events from the parents' perspective. Neither is particularly fun or interesting.

Bright Star
Written and Directed by Jane Campion
Starring Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Edie Martin, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Claudie Blakley, Gerard Monaco and Antonia Campbell-Hughes
Dying of consumption (tuberculosis) was all the rage 200 years ago. Everyone who was anyone did it — not that they wanted to; dying of extreme old age was preferred. But during the Romantic Age, it was so… romantic. And no one more romantic than the poet John Keats, who died of TB at the ripe old age of 25. His poetry is still being read and studied today, but if his talent was world-class, nothing else was. He was broke most of the time, and if it weren't for his companion and benefactor Charles Brown, he would have died even earlier in abject poverty, and the world would have been poorer for it.

The love of Keats' (Whishaw) life was Fanny Brawne (Cornish) a middle-class seamstress who lived with her mother (Fox), brother Samuel (Brodie-Sangster) and baby sister Toots (Martin). They had a large, two-family house and rented it out to Brown (Schneider) who found the area pleasant enough to bring Keats with him. Thus love blossomed, as well as hate.

The film is more about the tempestuous relationship between Brown and Fanny as it is about Keats and her. This is a true love triangle, and as such, two of the sides go at it over the third. There is potential here, real potential, but director Campion doesn’t know how to use it. All we have are discussions of poetry, people walking around in period clothes, and that’s about it.

Broken Embraces
Written and Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Starring Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Jose Luis Gomez, Blanca Portillo, Lola Duenas, Ruben Ochandiano, Tamar Novas, Kira Miro, Chus Lampreave and Carmen Machi

When I was a teenager, my mother threatened to disown me if I didn’t go see Pedro Almodovar’s then-new film Women on the Edge of A Nervous Breakdown. Being a dutiful son, I went to the theater and was amazed. I’ve been a fan ever since and over the years have followed his hits and misses. This is one of the latter.

the famous blind screenwriter Harry Caine (Homar) is finishing a tryst when a ladyfriend and notices in the paper that the insanely rich and corrupt stockbroker Ernesto Martel (Gomez) has just died. Once upon a time, Caine was a great film director named Mateo Blanco and could see. Thus starts a series of flashbacks that soon overwhelm the picture, and tell the sad story of how Ernesto met and fell in love with Lena (Cruz), Martel’s mistress, and how it all ended in tragedy.

Clearly, Almodovar is more enamored of the past than the present story, because nothing much of interest happens between Harry and his "family", which consists of his agent Judit (Portillo) and her son Diego (Novas), who doubles as his secretary and personal assistant. There’s a reason; this is Cruz’s movie and no one else's.

As Lena, Cruz is luminous, and he romance between her and Harry can be riveting. But while the highs are indeed high, the lows are low, and much of the film falls flat. But you must always remember this: mediocre Almodovar is better than most directors' best.

The Boys Are Back
Directed by Scott Hicks
Starring Clive Owen, Emma Booth, Laura Fraser, George MacKay and Nicholas McAnulty
Simon Carr
is a widower with two grown sons. He is a journalist covering the rough and tumble world of New Zealand politics. Like many writers, he produced a personal memoir of his life of a single parent. Some thought it would make a good movie.

But Carr isn’t that old, and there's always the threat of a libel suit, so screenwriter Allan Cubitt changed the names and subject Carr covered, and with his butt now covered, he and director Hicks went forward to create a heartwarming family film in the “chick flicks for guys" genre.

Joe (Owen) and Katy Warr (Fraser) are a happy couple living in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, with their son Artie (McAnulty). Nearby lives Katy’s mother Barbara (Booth) and it seems picture-perfect until Katy comes down with cancer and dies. Now Joe has to remake his life from being an occasional visitor to his family to being a single parent. Not an easy task.

First he has to bond with Artie. Then he has to start living his life again. This is made easier with the help of the mother (Lung) of one of Artie’s friends. Katy was Joe’s second wife and he has another son, Harry (MacKay), living in England. So Harry has to come over to Oz and complete the trio, with more bonding and conflict between Dad, the two kids, mom-in-law and the neighbor lady.

Then it all falls apart and Joe has to make everything right, which is all very sweet and syrupy. But that's what you get with chick flicks, predictability even if as well-made as this one which is made for guys.

City of Life and Death
Directed by Lu Chuan
Starring Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Fan Wei, Jiang Yiyan, Qin Lan, Yuko Miyamoto, Ryu Kohata, John Paisley, Liu Bin, Zhao Yisui, Beverly Peckous and Sam Voutas
For six weeks at either end of the 1937-38 divide, the city of Nanking, then capital of China, was invaded by the Japanese and its people subjugated to a wide range of atrocities. The story has been told before, but only in documentaries. The fictional telling of this bit of nastiness is a revelation.

Most of the film is so generalized one cannot see any real character development. It is told mostly from the outside, with masses of people doing things in groups. There are battles and battles and battles with lots of carnage, but we cannot tell much as to who is who, as there is as much emphasis on the Japanese Army as there is for the Chinese soldiers and civilians.

There are some characters introduced in the very beginning of the film, and they return about three quarters the way through, the main good guy is, of all things, a Nazi. The film starts focusing on individual characters -- the Nazi’s secretary (Fan Wei), who tries collaboration in a failed attempt to save his family and the Japanese soldier (Nakaizumi) with a conscience who reluctantly takes part in the atrocities until he can’t take it anymore -- plus the usual mix of heroes and villains. This is a brutal film, but one of the best WWII flicks I’ve seen in quite a while.

The Damned United
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm MeaneyMichael Sheen in The Damned United
In 1969, Leeds United Manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) announced he was leaving Britain’s leading football (soccer) team to manage the English National team. The front office then asked the man who was considered Britain's best manager, Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), to replace him. In the passionate world of English football, Clough hated Leeds and everything it and Revie stood for. Having taken the enemy over, he decided to destroy it and remake it into something new — alienating many, many people in the process.

This film alternates between those disastrous 44 days and Clough's early years, when he and sidekick Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) took a local team at the bottom of the rankings and turned it into a champion. Had they just done this part of the story, The Damned United would have been simply a typical Hollywood sports flick. But this is not about that inspirational stuff: This is about hubris and revenge, and the damage they can do to friends and family.

Sheen and Spall have a marvelous time chewing the scenery, with the quietly remarkable Sheen again showing off his talent after his Tony Blair impression in The Deal and The Queen, and his David Frost in Frost / Nixon. His Clough is obnoxious and brilliant, fighting with everyone from the players to the club’s president (Jim Broadbent), which finally does him in with his first job. By the end of the film, it’s amazing that he was ever hired by anyone again. But he is, and that was just the beginning of his brilliant career.

Leslie, My Name Is Evil
Written and Directed by Reginald Harkema
Starring Kristen Hager, Gregory Smith, Ryan Robbins, Tiio Horn, Anjelica Scannura, Kristin Adams, Peter MacNeill, and Don McKellar
Leslie (Hager) and Perry (Smith) are both squeaky-clean American youths, children of ultra-religious right-wing American parents, and they deal with this in different ways. Perry goes to college and falls in love with the exceedingly Christian Dorothy (Adams), while Laura falls for the exact opposite, Charlie (Robbins).
Leslie becomes a cultie, taking part in murders and is arrested. Perry, who winds up on the jury, falls in love with Leslie. The whole thing is unbelievably stupid; the acting is wooden, with the possible exception of Robbins, who does a decent maniac.

The Most Dangerous Man In America
A documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the notorious Pentagon Papers — a secret government history and analysis of the Vietnam conflict from the end of World War II to the day the report was finished in 1967 — to The New York Times, which published it on the front page. Then all hell broke loose. It's one of the turning points of American political history, and the results are something we live with every day, mostly for the better. There is no prior restraint on the press and President Richard Nixon was forced to resign.

With with old videos, Nixon’s secret tapes, a few sloppy recreations and interviews with many who were there -- especially Ellsberg -- the story is told succinctly and in a surprisingly entertaining way.

Starting with his service in the Marines back in the 1950s, we follow Ellsberg’s career to the Defense Department and the Rand Corporation, where he first read the Pentagon Papers in 1969 Then we see his radicalization and great act of conscience, and everything that followed. There’s a slight fib at the end (the war ended before his trial was stopped), but the rest of it appears to be on the up and up. Well worth a look.

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