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Day 5: TIFF 2010: A Mixed Bag of Short Takes

James Franco and Xavier Dolan come up winners, while Catherine Breillat, in an unlikely twist of fate, brings up the rear with Hilary Swank.

Time now for a few short takes before we wrap up our Toronto International Film Festival 2010 coverage with our patented "Best of the Fest" picks that will look in depth at the four clear stand outs of this year's somewhat marginal festival.

Conviction (dir. Tony Goldwyn, 2010)

Double Oscar winner Hilary Swank adopts a Boston cadence as a non-traditional law student, the real life Betty Anne Waters, who crusades to exonerate her brother (a fantastic Sam Rockwell) from a life sentence for a murder he allegedly did not commit. The odds are long for both the brother and sister to get what they want, and their impoverished class and general white-trashiness is something that frequently prevents their achieving great things.

Unlike Rabbit Hole, Conviction never hides behind a pretense of being tony or pedigreed, and in fact embraces its straightforwardness instead of hiding behind a patina of faux artiness. This is the kind of film that we as cinephiles take our families, friends and/or loved ones to see on a Saturday night, with a huge tub of buttered popcorn and large, sugary soda in hand, as a reparation for making them sit through so many arthouse trifles over the summer.

Though Goldwyn directs the film in a highly pedestrian way, he knows exactly how to wring the maximum crowd-pleasing factor out of the true story and comes away with a Dangerous Minds-style crowd-pleaser. While the flashy, Oscar-nominee-laden supporting cast is uniformly strong, it's a bit baffling (and irritating) to see talented women like Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo, Rebecca DeMornay, and Minnie Driver relegated to practically nothing roles, with Lewis and Leo relying too-heavily on the mannered physical tics, clownish accents and costume, wig, and make-up gimmicks.Still, it is really fun.

Swank fares better and is a likable, relatable protagonist, while Rockwell, who has been on the verge of breaking out for years now should, in a just world, nab his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He clearly relishes the camp in the role and runs with it, accent and all, as the suspected murderer from the wrong side of the tracks. In the central role of Betty Anne, though, Swank does a nice job of grounding the preposterousness as the tough mother of two, and this milieu, the "real world", is fast becoming one of Swank's signatures: the determined, working class heroine with just a touch of saintliness. The actress can be seen as something of a divisive figure, her Oscar win for Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby drew much ire and it seems as though each time she steps outside of this comfort zone – Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia where she plays a rich, sexy femme fatale party girl comes to mind – there is something that doesn't quite click. I would love to see her find an atypical role to shine in with a top flight director at the helm, as her current career trajectory reads more June Allyson than Katharine Hepburn; likable, popular, but curiously vague.

Conviction is actually really interesting when it looks at class. Legal services that are worth a damn are not affordable or available to poor people, and the justice system is skewed because of the sub-par assistance it offers, which of course results in jails being over-crowded with people who would have enjoyed a different fate in many cases had they been represented by someone more competent than a local public defender with an insane back log of cases. As far as courtroom mysteries go, this is basically like an entertaining, feature-length, all-star episode of Law and Order; entertaining, but definitely not anything even close to high art. When Swank's Waters gets her big day, it is an undeniable thrill to watch.

Rating: 4

Heartbeats (dir. Xavier Dolan, 2010)

There's something very down to earth and grounding, yet also compelling, about the way 21-year-old gay filmmaker Xavier Dolan begins his second film, Heartbeats. In these vignettes, played by a pansexual cross-section of hipster-y men and women, the discussants riff on everything from beauty, age, and sex to inspiration and torment. Because of the casual, stream of conscious feeling, these "interviews" never feel overly fussy. Quite the contrary, they are warm and genuinely funny.

It's no surprise that by setting this tone early on, before his characters (including one played by the director himself) are even introduced, the rest of Heartbeats is equally successful. Where older queer auteurs such as Dustin Lance Black or John Cameron Mitchell faltered in their work this year, Dolan enthusiastically picks up the slack by using color in surprising, thoughtful ways, and by balancing good-natured humor that is sly and teasing with eroticism and yearning. The film is possessed of a clearly cinematic tone that is mature beyond the young director's years, with an eloquent simplicity. His fellow gay directors should take notes.

Mixing issues of fluid sexual identities, passion, and the refusal to fit into predisposed roles is a heady, complex topic for a neophyte director, yet alone one that ostensibly cannot have much life experience when it comes to matters of the heart because of his youth. You would think his treatment would run the risk of feeling inauthentic or cynical, but Dolan, with a steady hand, commands this material with an instinctive grace, preternatural maturity, and the sensitivity of a poet. "Do you think of movie stars when you fuck," asks one character, post-coitus. While Dolan's answer, at least what he puts onscreen, is never crass, it's clear that he is in love with movie stars and the idea of toying with a classic cinematic language, and understands these aspects in a way most directors three times his age still have trouble with. Dolan also understands that beauty, when sloppy or arrogant, can be hot aesthetically, but also pretty gross.

In terms of his musical choices – Fever Ray being the evocative stand-out – Dolan also knows how to correctly match his images with the appropriate sounds. He makes choices that support the story rather than strangle it to death and throw it's lifeless corpse in a ditch as Black did with his overblown What's Wrong with Virginia?. In terms of construction, for such a simple story, each choice has impact and meaning. I especially loved the strobe-light party set-piece, for being able to convey so many points of view without feeling scattered. Dolan has a playful editor's eye when it comes to mixing classic and contemporary elements and textures throughout, but in this scene it works especially well with the electro-Oedipus house party where neon blue wigs and marble Roman busts are given equal space.

It's wonderful to see a filmmaker of Dolan's generation take such a firm grasp on the thematic and technical sides of the medium without being show-offy. In fact, his treatment is warm and engaging, and thus a terrific surprise. Dolan already knows that love can be distracting, consuming and humiliating (often all at once!), but it can also be romantic and sweet. He also knows that in the end, someone is probably going to end up crying. I appreciated the vulnerability and versatility that he brought to the table as both a director and a performer. It's rare that material so simple in story -- a love triangle between a beautiful boy, his treacherous fag hag and a shady newcomer -- is done right, but against all odds, it's here. Don't let Dolan's age fool you. He knows what's up -- he shows strength in the face of heartbreak. Our hearts continue to beat with or without the "love" our bodies desire.

Rating: 9

127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle, 2010)

I stood in vain in the "rush" line in the pouring rain for a public screening of the Weinstein film Blue Valentine (which only played one time for the press), but had to bow out after about a half hour because the weather was seriously nasty and TIFF expects its "rush" ticket holders (and visiting journalists) to stand outside uncovered, in some cases for longer than an hour, before letting them move to shelter. Then, you're never guaranteed an actual spot inside the theater.

Though I was desperate to see Blue Valentine, I found this policy to be preposterous and a bit inhumane, so I jumped into a taxi and scooted across town to take in Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, his follow-up to his Oscar-smash Slumdog Millionaire, a film that was equally loved and reviled amongst cineasts, and a film that I found entertaining, yet relatively conventional. I went in with very little expectation and came out pleasantly surprised.

Boyle's direction here, as in Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting and even 28 Days Later, is lively, crackling with electricity. He knows how to tell a simple story full of visual audacity that is riveting and emotionally-engrossing. A dynamic, colorful and energetic opening sequence introduces Aron Ralston (James Franco), an adventurer and guide who spends a lot of time in desolate nature. The opening sequence ends when Aron's hand becomes wedged in between a mountain and a falling boulder in a chasm after an unexpected shift sends him flying into the darkness.

Franco is an interesting man. I had a class with him once and while he was generally quiet and reflective, when he did actively participate, his analysis was highly original and erudite, so it piqued my interest as to why he was there in the classroom slogging it out when he had a burgeoning A-list career as an actor and the world was clearly his oyster. It was also very curious to me to see him stereotyped by other people at the school as being perhaps a carbon copy of his goofy, charming on-screen personae or erroneously labeled a spoiled dilettante. It turns he soaked up a great deal during his top-flight educational experiences, turning them into a deep well of maturity he could draw from for his acting, a maturity that also incorporates those more desirable, raffish facets of his on-screen persona. His work in Pineapple Express and Milk certainly played with variations on this character type and showed new dimensions of the actor, while working on queer-themed short films as a director exposed yet another sensitive, introspective side of Franco, who seems to be constantly absorbing the academic language of cinema and re-interpreting it as his own.

For these reasons, it's wonderful to see him in a proper leading man role that explores yet another shading to his enigmatic personality. As Ralston, Franco turns in what I feel comfortable calling his finest, most impressive acting performance yet. As Aron, he harnesses his own natural charm and squinty-eyed cuteness early-on, as well as his boyish exuberance, but by the end of the film, when he must make a gruesome decision about his hand, we are left with a haunted portrait of strong, atypical masculinity and in this essentially one-man show Franco delves into a bottomless reserve of dramatic strength with rousing success (which is surprisingly not undercut by the appearance of the real-life Ralston at the end). It should be no problem for him to reap his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for using his body like an acting tool and 127 Hours looks like it will be a breakaway, popular success at the box office, as well.

Rating: 7

The Sleeping Beauty (dir. Catherine Breillat, 2010)

Breillat is known for being a supreme provocateur (check out the audacious Fat Girl for further evidence), but after last year's modern riff on the classical tale of Bluebeard, the French director continues to explore the darkness of fairy tales with The Sleeping Beauty. A dark, baroque shot of a young woman with cobwebs covering her eyes in close-up is all you need as an opening scene to kick the action off, and in terms of images, Breillat's hand is steady.

Willowy nymphs cavorting about in a rocky, natural setting are on their way to bestow their gifts and favor on the newborn princess but not before an old, withered witch casts an evil spell on the child. The hag curses her to sleep forever and cackles with deliciously evil glee upon her exit, leaving the fairies to find an ingenious way to side-step the magic. They intervene with a bit of good old fashioned white magic and find a way to make sure the girl will merely fall asleep for 100 years, beginning at age six, and wake up at age 16. Quite a beauty rest.

The six-year-old tomboy princess believes a little girls' lives are boring, so surprisingly, she is fine with this knowledge, and is eager to fulfill her destiny, seeing it as an adventure. Breillat's gifts for crafting an imaginative, elaborate and rich-looking mis-en-scène are apparent in this sequence of The Sleeping Beauty. The details, especially in the stunning costume and make-up designs, are well-considered and executed with precision. Breillat has a powerful eye for mixing patterns and textures in a striking, architectural way. Luxurious silks and brocades and ropes of pearl beads set against jade, rustling forests and ebony-carved palace mouldings mesh quite beautifully together to create an sumptuous mood.

This is indeed a delicious, if emotionally-vacant, re-imagining of this traditional tale and a sharp skewering of the thought that "fairy tales" are only for children. Strong images -- such as an adolescent boy riding on a sleigh in the midnight sky with the deadly, fur- and jewel- clad Snow Queen while his own paltry sled trails in the dark, snowy sky – make the film work and are particularly stunning. Breillat finds a tonal balance that is both dark and light (literally and figuratively), romantic and scary. The balance of these qualities of "black" and "white" compliment her intention of deconstructing the fairy tale milieu. This ain't Walt Disney. Thank God. But it's also not the beguiling dark vision Breillat likely had in mind, either.

Rating: 6

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