Toronto Film Festival

Christopher Guest takes on Hollywood's Oscar obsession in the nutty "For Your Consideration." Plus: Mira Nair adapts Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake."

Published September 11, 2006 2:00PM (EDT)

Many of the critics and journalists who come to Toronto for the festival, particularly those who work for daily newspapers, get instructions from their editors to get the scoop on the big studio movies -- the pictures that the average reader (whoever the heck that is) is going to be curious about. But the movies critics actually talk about among themselves aren't always the ones their editors are pushing. There are exceptions: The pre-screening buzz on "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" -- which I covered in yesterday's dispatch -- was pretty high-pitched, and even many of the critics who come to the festival chiefly to focus on smaller indie or foreign pictures were eager to check it out. Now that many of us have seen it, I'm finding that most casual discussions about it tend to elicit sly, conspiratorial smiles. And sooner or later, somebody gets around to saying, "How 'bout that nude wrestling match?"

But so far, at least, "Borat" is the only big-studio picture that has generated much excitement at all. I've heard quite a bit of groaning over "A Good Year," a picture whose businesslike adherence to pop-romance formula I rather enjoyed. But the big movie that almost everyone is conspicuously silent about is Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men." I confess that I decided to forgo the Sunday afternoon screening, because I'll be able to see it in New York next week. When I've asked colleagues what they thought of it, I can't help noticing how their lips tighten into grim little lines. They speak about it as if it were an unlikable relative who has somehow embarrassed them -- although one colleague, when I told her I had skipped the screening to go back to my hotel and do some work, asked me outright, "Could you hear how loud it stank from way over there?"

Aside from "Borat," the picture that's generating the most buzz is U.K. filmmaker Gabriel Range's "D.O.A.P." "D.O.A.P." (which stands for Death of a President) apparently blends special effects and actual news footage to give us a picture of what the world -- and America -- would be like if George W. Bush were assassinated. The picture -- which premiered on Sunday night, but for which there is a single press screening on Tuesday -- is supposed to be chilling and thought-provoking. The problem is, it's showing in a theater with a capacity of only about 320 people -- and I suspect many more than that will want to see it.

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The other big comedy at the festival -- the one that doesn't feature a Kazakhstani horndog with a poor understanding of the proper use of toilet paper -- is Christopher Guest and company's "For Your Consideration," a sendup of Hollywood's Oscar obsession. The film-within-a-film here is a period picture called "Home for Purim." The director of "Home for Purim" is played by Guest, his hair teased into a gray Eraserhead frizz; its star is Catherine O'Hara, who has the role of the dying mom. O'Hara hears that some online wag has sneaked onto the set and written that her performance is "Oscar-worthy," a shred of information that sets off a chain of aggressive promotion, outright manipulation and backbiting.

The picture was written by Guest and Eugene Levy (who also appears in it, as an old-style agent who takes pleasure in barking bad news to his already-depressed clients), and while it's crisply made and highly entertaining, it doesn't have those extra layers of character depth that "Best in Show" and -- the ensemble's masterpiece -- "A Mighty Wind" did. Still, these actors have the kind of timing that's a marvel to watch, and they're so in sync with one another that their repartee is sometimes more like dance than comedy. As always, each of Guest's performers brings something terrific to the table: O'Hara pulls off some truly terrifying facial contortions; Jennifer Coolidge, as a diaper company heiress-turned-producer, serves up some exquisite non sequiturs; and Michael Higgins, as a publicist who seems to have left his communication skills at home in his other pants, has one of the nuttiest lines I've heard in any movie this year: "In every actor there lives a tiger, a pig and a nightingale." I have no idea what that means, but he says it with such conviction that he may as well be Stella Adler.

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Mira Nair's "The Namesake" -- an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel of the same name -- is a frustrating little picture. Even films that move slowly need some sort of internal energy current to give them momentum, and for long stretches, "The Namesake" toddles along rather aimlessly. Still, there's a great deal of sweetness about it, and much of that radiates from the actors. Kal Penn ("Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle") plays the son of Indian immigrant parents who yearns to make a break from what they represent. Penn gives an intense, thoughtful performance -- sometimes he seems to be working too hard, but he's always in touch with the essence of his character. And the actors who play his parents, Irfan Khan and Tabu, have a wonderful, exceedingly delicate chemistry, with each other and with Penn. Their faces alone are enough to make this story feel vital and believable.

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When a festival offers as many choices as Toronto does (this year's slate includes some 350 titles), every slot of time you have is precious: You always hope to avoid making a wrong choice. But sometimes a "wrong" choice turns out to be the right one: I'll take an interesting failure over a dull success any day.

Kenneth Branagh's "The Magic Flute" is a lavish, bizarre picture that occasionally frustrated me, and sometimes bored me. And I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Branagh has reimagined and retooled Mozart's opera, setting it during World War I and changing the language from German to English. (Stephen Fry adapted the libretto.) Many of Branagh's ideas are just plain nutty, and yet somehow, they work: When Papageno dreams of kissing his true love, he puckers up and drifts toward a set of puffy red pop-art lips that float in space as if they'd been lifted from a Dali painting. Branagh turns stacks of sandbags into a weird chorus line of singing, blinking narrators -- they look something like the Rock People from the old Flash Gordon serials.

There were about 120 people in the theater as the movie began, and only about 100 of us were left by the end. Some snuck out quietly; others fled as if the devil himself were on their tail. Branagh has so many wild ideas that I suppose I can see how people might feel assaulted by them, particularly if they were expecting a more conventional "Magic Flute." (Let's forget for a moment that weird Masonic imagery isn't the stuff of everyday life for most people.) But even though there were moments in "The Magic Flute" when I wondered if Branagh hadn't truly gone off his rocker, I found its audacity exhilarating. Has Branagh become the Mad King Ludwig of filmmaking, building ever-bigger, more elaborate palaces for his not-inconsiderable ego? Maybe. But that's fine by me, as long as he remembers to leave a key under the doormat.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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