In "Argo," one of the leanest satisfactions of this year's massive Toronto International Film Festival, director and star Ben Affleck anchors a movie based on the true story about how Central Intelligence Agency operative Tony Mendez faked his way into Iran following the 1979 hostage crisis posing as a film producer scouting locations for a Canadian science-fiction film called "Argo." Under that cover story, Mendez engineered the rescue of six American hostages, themselves posing as part of the fake film crew.
False pretenses, genuine payoff. That's what happened, and "Argo," which reveals Affleck to be a steadily improving and savvy director of mainstream commercial entertainment, gets real results as well. The movie certainly went over well here in Toronto. It opens in Chicago Oct. 12.
Although many of the other high-profile titles screening at the 37th festival, concluding Sunday, whipped up great gobs of artifice in the pursuit of truth, or at least decent distribution, Affleck's unpretentious '70s-style technique, aping such models as Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon," provided a tonic for both nostalgists and those simply eager for a sharp fact-based thriller. "Argo" isn't pompous, or out to change the world. Rather, it's a reminder that part of any film's success lies in finding its ideal fighting weight.
I have no idea what weight class the Toronto International Film Festival itself has entered. It is all over the place, in every sense. Two years ago the festival relocated to its fabulous new home base, the Bell Lightbox building, and last year concentrated its activities there in earnest. Most of the press and industry screenings take place at the Lightbox and, two blocks away, at the Scotiabank multiplex.
Meantime the public gala presentations, attracting two-thirds of Hollywood (seriously; that's probably an accurate percentage) for dozens of starry premieres, take over nearby theaters such as the Princess of Wales Theatre, where Tom Hanks and Halle Berry were greeted like, well, like movie stars at the festival premiere of "Cloud Atlas."
Destined for passionate disagreement rather than diffident "yeah, it was OK" consensus, this nutty farrago, being touted as the most expensive independently financed film ever, comes from the team of Lana and Andy Wachowski of "The Matrix" and their co-director, Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run"). The film adapts David Mitchell's novel set in six time periods, past, present and future.
More on this one closer to its Oct. 26 commercial release. But as grandiose evocations of karmic payback go, "Cloud Atlas" is … something. Some. Thing. A noble experiment, like Prohibition. A mess. Some will call it masterpiece. Some, folly. Some won't call it, ever, no matter how many minutes they have on their calling plan.
Artifice and embroidery of another kind distinguishes director Joe Wright's conceptually aggressive take on "Anna Karenina," from a script by Tom Stoppard and starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law as Tolstoy's Russians with broken hearts. These relentlessly self-dramatizing characters here find their home inside and all around a theater; the characters dash about backstage and then, a second later, they're back in a more or less realistic setting, zinging in and out of realities like the cast members of "Cloud Atlas." All the world's a stage, as some hack or other once said. "Anna Karenina" only half-works; Wright forces the comedy more subtly managed by Stoppard (who is, after all, one of the wittiest men alive). But it's trying something.
Because it lies near the start of the long death march toward end-of-year awards season, the film fest in recent years has transformed into a cluster-scrum of studio junkets, where hundreds of journalists and near-journalists interview hundreds of actresses, directors and the occasional director. The junket vibe, inescapable as the ubiquitous Tim Hortons coffee shops here, has led to charges that the festival has gone Hollywood.
Good God, there's little doubt of that! Even so, plenty of serious and adventurous international work, originating earlier in the year at film festivals in Cannes and Venice, makes its North American bow in Toronto.
And so: Even with Zac Efron and Pierce Brosnan and Dennis Quaid in the restaurant, the annual Sony Pictures Classics dinner (at Creme Brasserie in Yorkville) provided an outpost for visiting auteurs. Sony Classics is handling distribution for some of the strongest off-Hollywood work in this year's festival, including the terrific Chilean fact-based drama "No" (about the ad men whose campaign helped bring down Pinochet) and Michael Haneke's "Amour," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year.
At one point Saturday night, French director Jacques Audiard (represented at Toronto by "Rust and Bone," the glossy follow-up to his excellent prison drama "A Prophet") spied Haneke across a dining room table and burst into a delighted yelp of admiration. Haneke, grinning, bent down, they embraced, Haneke beamed and moved on to the patio, and Audiard glowed like a lifelong fan meeting one of his idols.
Then, as dessert was served, Audiard and his "Rust and Bone" co-writer Thomas Bidegain resumed their agog discussion of Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," another Toronto title. They couldn't get over how beautiful it looked, they said, especially to see it projected in 70 millimeter. And wasn't it remarkable to hear the muffled clatter and see the momentary image bobble denoting a reel change in the projection booth, rather than the now-customary clinical air of seamless (when it is seamless, that is) of digital projection?
Some things change; in fact, most things do, in the medium defined by perpetual, lurching, painful technological churn. And yet, said Audiard: "Marvelous! Marvelous. To hear that sound of the reel change again."