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Toronto, Day 1: David Cronenberg, Drumming, 'The Judge' And Serendipity

David Gulpilil stars in the drama <em>Charlie's Country</em>, the best find on our first day at the Toronto International Film Festival.
David Gulpilil stars in the drama Charlie's Country, the best find on our first day at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Critics all have our idiosyncratic ways of handling the scheduling of a film festival like Toronto. There are planners, improvisers, pragmatists and poll-takers, all counting on some combination of research, serendipity, instinct, word of mouth and logistics to put them in the right rooms at the right times to see the right things.

In this, my third year here, I find I'm more laid-back about scheduling than I've ever been. The reason is simple: in many cases, you're not going to know what you're going to think is interesting — not just good, but interesting — until you see it. And if you didhave the ability to perfectly predict your own responses and exactly which entries would most please you, limiting yourself to those choices would be folly, because you'd be treating yourself as a predictable, unchanging reflector, bouncing back the same art you've always taken in precisely the same way you always have.

I went to see Charlie's Country, an Australian drama directed by Rolf de Heer (a man born in the Netherlands, your inner linguist will not be surprised to hear), for a few reasons. I knew that David Gulpilil, who plays Charlie himself, had won Best Actor in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, and the plot description — a man living in an aboriginal community who goes off to live in the bush — sounded intriguing.

But even more, I knew it would be over in plenty of time for me to get to the next thing I had scheduled. It sounds negligent, and perhaps even disrespectful, but that's often how lower-profile films get seen here, I think: You have a slot, you have a few things to choose from, and none of them have any instant advantage over the others, so you choose one and you leap. Those leaps are critical; they are the ones that put you in a seat you would not have arranged to be in, that you would not have schemedto be in.

As it turns out, Charlie's Countrywas my favorite of the four films I saw on my first day.

It opens with a long shot of the sign posted at the entry to Charlie's community in northern Australia, which announces that all liquor is banned. You learn instantly, in other words, that this is a tightly regulated place, and that its people are being watched. Indeed, Charlie — amiable, thin and getting old, in jeans and a sleeveless plaid shirt, with long, curly white hair and a beard to match — ambles past a police station where he trades grins and faux-hostile greetings with a policeman named Luke (Luke Ford). Trading is Charlie's way of life: He hands out money, he confiscates cigarettes, he helps the police here and helps out criminals there. He gets by, in part by positioning himself to be friendly with Luke in a way two men can never be friends when one enforces the law and one lives, with no real say in the matter, under it.

And then there comes a point where Charlie cannot get by, where he makes that trip into the bush, and his story begins to bend, to shape itself around his experiences with the police and the government, both in the larger sense in which he acutely feels the loss of land and in the smaller sense in which Luke makes it impossible for him to survive.

Despite its preoccupation with social justice issues going well beyond any single person, the real subjects, as seen through de Heer's lens, are David Gulpilil's face and body. The film is so exquisitely lit by de Heer and cinematographer Ian Jones that I found myself gazing at the look of not only the swells and valleys of Gulpilil's eyes and forehead, but the folds in his clothes as he rests on his back and the rhythmic rise and fall of his ribs and belly when, starving, he lies in a shelter gulping air into failing lungs. There's been some interesting discussion in the past year or two about lighting and filming when directors and cinematographers are working with black actors, particularly those with darker skin (Ann Hornaday wrote about it in the Washington Post, for one), and it's worth noting that the film's fixation on Gulpilil's face results in shots that are persistently breathtaking and beautifully varied — sometimes, when he lies in the near-dark, his eyes appear primarily as pinpoints of reflected firelight; sometimes, when he reclines in the heat of the day, every pore seems visible and alive. It's a gorgeous film, and Gulpilil (who co-wrote it with de Heer) is impeccable in it.

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in <em>Whiplash</em>.
Daniel McFadden / TIFF
Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash.

Next up was Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Winner of some major awards at Sundance, it stars Miles Teller (of The Spectacular Now) as Andrew, a freshman drummer at a New York conservatory where he's obsessed with becoming the next Buddy Rich. The film is very much a rumination on the idea of the Maker of Men — the stern, withering teacher/leader who hollers insults at boys and young men, but maybe, maybe, only does it because he wants you to be your best. It's what Louis Gossett Jr. did in An Officer and a Gentleman more than 30 years ago, and it's what half the coaches in sports movies do, particularly in the opening scenes.

The Maker of Men here is jazz teacher Terence Fletcher, played by the great J.K. Simmons. Fletcher treats the elite ensemble — the only thing he really cares about — to a series of abusive insults, not just for their musicianship but for being gay, fat, Jewish, Irish, whatever. (The film interestingly spares the audience the sight of Fletcher directing overt racist comments at the many black kids in the group. Fletcher only speaks to one female student, and predictably tells her she has her spot in the band because she's cute.) He sets them against each other, torments them, humiliates them.

As Andrew falls deeper and deeper into Fletcher's power-tripping, manipulative methods, the film deftly and stubbornly remains somewhat ambivalent about him. Is this a misguided, angry man who's deeply troubled but truly believes he's driving these students to greatness? Or is he a genuinely malevolent person who has landed in teaching because it offers him the opportunity to emotionally abuse people under the guise of "toughen up, kid" education?

In addition to its legitimately unpredictable and at times pleasantly confounding story, Whiplashis robust and tactile filmmaking, full of bleeding fingers and spattered sweat on shiny bronze cymbals. Teller is called upon again and again to present Andrew bumping against the absolute limits of his artistic andathletic capabilities, and he does it very well. Simmons, meanwhile, refuses to imbue Fletcher with secret winking warmth, and at those moments where the man does appear to have any vulnerabilities at all, there is an unreal sheen to them that continues to raise and raise again the question of whether this relationship is heading toward a reconciliation, a moment of understanding, a physical fight or a disillusioned walking away.

Julianne Moore plays an unhappy actress in <em>Maps to the Stars</em>.
Caitlin Cronenberg / TIFF
Julianne Moore plays an unhappy actress in Maps to the Stars.

From drums to David Cronenberg! I next saw Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, a Hollywood satire — sort of — that sets up what seem to be disparate, marginally connected elements and then slowly arranges them so that a larger picture emerges. There is a young woman with burn scars (Mia Wasikowska) who arranges for a limo and winds up with a town car driven by an aspiring writer/actor (Robert Pattinson), whom she pays to drive her to the abandoned former home of a child actor (Evan Bird). That child actor, meanwhile, is 13 and just out of rehab, back home with his business-savvy mother (Olivia Williams) and his therapist/guru father (John Cusack). One of his father's clients is an increasingly desperate actress (Julianne Moore) angling for a role she seems unlikely to get.

Eventually, all these people will be tied together, by mantras and by history, and their Hollywood existences will turn out to be darkly funny but, oh, yes, very dark. Cronenberg, working from Bruce Wagner's screenplay, brings such acidity to this piece, and such a singular and specific vision, that even though a lotof people would watch it and pronounce it simply weird — because it is — it's never boring. It's sharply knowledgeable about show business, barbed in its treatment of slick and callow dealmakers, and grounded with a grungy attention to the basics: fire, water, blood. It's not a film I would say I enjoyed watching or would watch again (I don't think Cronenberg is a curl-up-and-see-it-over-and-over guy, by design), but it's one I'm glad I saw nevertheless.

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall play a son and his distant father in <em>The Judge</em>.
Claire Folger / TIFF
Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall play a son and his distant father in The Judge.

The evening brought me to The Judge, which represents a leap into heavy (heavy) drama from David Dobkin, the director of Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up and Fred Claus. The cast is all you could ask for: Robert Duvall as an aging judge, Robert Downey Jr. as Hank, his estranged defense-lawyer son who returns during a crisis, Vincent D'Onofrio as the brother who stayed, and Vera Farmiga as the old girlfriend. While the initial motivation for big-city Hank's return to the small town where he was raised (where the kids carry fishin' poles and the Blueberry Festival is in high gear!) is the death of his mother, there is soon a more acute problem: the Judge stands accused of running over a local bad guy, just out of jail, with his vintage Cadillac. Particularly once a painfully villainous special prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton, in a rare nuance-less performance) gets his mitts on the case, it looks like the Judge may die in prison.

With a cast so flawless, you'd expect a good film, but this is not a good film. It traffics almost exclusively in cliché – the withholding father, the slick defense lawyer without a conscience who secretly has one, the adorable child who brings everyone together, the developmentally disabled brother who functions as the innocent whose mere presence shames the unworthy, and the old girlfriend who, despite looking like Vera Farmiga, has somewhat implausibly waited around for 20 years.

Despite a couple of arresting moments between Downey and Duvall, the arc of the story is both dull and obvious, and the central courtroom drama — in which Hank, of course, must defend his father — is never compelling in the least. There are moments when Downey's perfect fit with rat-a-tat lawyering seems about to catch fire, but they ultimately feel like watching a dog strain at a leash: You can tell it wants to run, but the limitations are too great.

What's more, The Judgeseems poorly crafted. The lighting is garish, with blown-out windows and out-of-place lens flares that almost seem like mistakes. The score is oppressively saccharine, as is the other music (The Judge, I'm-a let you finish, but Grey's Anatomyhad the best sentimental Bon Iver montages of all time), and there's a window at a diner that looks out on a giant waterfall that, whether it is really there or not, looks like a green screen background on the local news. (It's not the only shot that seems like ill-advised digital noodling: If you can't make the beautiful green fields of farm country look pretty and natural, you might be in the wrong green fields.)

This is Toronto in a nutshell: You can go to the movie with all the decorated, gifted, familiar faces in it and be let down. You can take a deep breath and hope for the best knowing almost nothing and be richly rewarded. So, as I said, I don't sweat my schedule that much.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.