Postcards from the Festivals: Seven Films at Toronto and Venice

What did you miss by skipping the September fests? This batch of movies, some worth catching

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Hundreds of directors, producers and stars, and a similar number of U.S. movie journalists, fly north to the Toronto International Film Festival because it signals the start of the Oscar season. Strip away the visits by Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart, and TIFF is a giant pre-screening session of those English-language films that have some hope of critical hosannahs at year’s end and a walk up the aisle the night of the Academy Awards.

But the “International” in the festival’s name isn’t limited to the California-Ontario axis. Most of the films at TIFF, and at the Venice Film Festival the week before, require subtitles, and some interest in countries beyond the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. In our final festival posting of 2012, we offer short notices — postcards — on works from Denmark, France, Japan and Korea, as exotic garnishing to movies with more familiar actors and directors. A few of the films considered below had their world premieres at Venice; all of them have played or are playing at TIFF. Enjoy the smorgasbord!

1. Passion

In such films as Sisters, Obsession, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double and Raising Cain — virtually half his oeuvre — Brian De Palma built a career scrawling bloodstained footnotes to Alfred Hitchcock texts. Passion, the 72-year-old director’s first film in five years, borrows from a different source: Alain Corneau’s 2010 French thriller Love Crime, which starred Kristin Scott Thomas as a take-charge executive and Ludivine Sagnier as her ambitious assistant. This time the roles are taken by Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, no longer contrasted by the gulf in their ages but by their hair colors — blond and black. Set in a chic Berlin advertising agency, the movie is about fashion almost as much as passion.

When Christine (McAdams) steals an idea from Isabella (Rapace) for a big campaign, the underling plots revenge by sleeping with her mentor’s boyfriend (Paul Anderson). Soon after, there’s a murder, and Isabella becomes the prime suspect. That’s just the beginning of a complex scheme that allows the director to deploy his trademark split screens and double identities but, oddly, without the erotic tension in the heterosexual and lesbiastic couplings. McAdams, usually a winning personality, seems embarrassed by her presence here; and Rapace, who invested a Mensa fury into her Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, looks frightened, as if assaulted by the camera’s glare. The one actress who responds to De Palma’s attention is Karoline Herfurth as Dani, another of Christine’s staff who becomes the movie’s de-facto sleuth. She captures all eyes until the very last shot of… we won’t say, except to hint that Hitchcock’s prime avatar never tires of his old Psycho tropes. —R.C.

(MORE: TIME’s complete coverage of the Toronto Film Festival)

2. Pieta

Ruthless and heartless, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a can-do enforcer for Korean loan sharks, torturing and crippling small-time craftsmen when they fall behind on payments and pocketing their insurance money. He lives alone, his only pleasures being masturbation and the carving of animals for his meals. Since Kang-do cannot sink lower, he must be granted a glimpse of redemption. This comes when he meets Mi-sun (Cho Min-soo), who says she is his l0ng-lost mother. Suspicious of her claims, he nonetheless is seduced into being a good son. Kang-do should know that he is not the only person in Seoul capable of vengeance in the extreme.

Kim Ki-duk’s 18th film was widely acclaimed at Venice, where it won the first-prize Golden Lion, apparently after Jury President Michael Mann backed off from giving that award to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (which instead took Best Actor citations for Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman). The view from here is that the Golden Lion went to the more deserving film. The spare poetry of the cinematography and Lee’s and Cho’s fearless performances complement Kim’s searing portrait of love and hate, in a capitalist society so unforgiving that it takes down mothers and sons alike. —M.C.

3. Seven Psychopaths

Two killers (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlberg) are debating whether their next victim should be shot in the eyeball when a third figure, dressed in a Mexican wrestling mask, walks up and blows them both away. This is the opening scene of playwright Martin McDonagh’s second feature (after the 2008 In Bruges) about underworld characters unfortunate enough to encounter murderers even more deranged than they. The one relative innocent in this Tarantinish crime comedy is Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter who has come up with the title for a movie — Seven Psychopaths — but no story. His pal Billy (Sam Rockwell) helpfully places a want-ad calling on people who consider themselves psychopaths. Billy also runs a scam with the older Hans (Christopher Walken) to steal the dogs of rich people and return them for reward money. Their mistake comes in filching the Shih Tzu of Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a mobster who loves only two things: his pet and killing the people who steal it.

Offering dark fun under the broiling California sun, the movie is essentially the fanciful autobiography of any writer stuck at the onset of the creative process. McDonagh’s solution was to let the macho side of his imagination run amok, and to enlist favorite colleagues (Farrell was the lead actor of In Bruges, while Rockwell and Walken appeared in the Broadway version of the playwright’s A Behanding in Spokane) to gallop along with him. Any actors with a free day or two — Tom Waits, Olga Kurylenko, Zeljko Ivanek, Abbie Cornish, Gabourey Sidibe, plus Pitt and Stuhlberg — were welcome to join this raffish caper. Small in stature but consistently entertaining, Seven Psychopaths is a vacation from consequence for the Tony- and Oscar-winning author, and an unsupervised play date for his cast of screw-loose stars. —R.C.

4. Love Is All You Need

Gold dust sprinkles the opening credits of a film that its director describes as “warm, funny and life-affirming.” After winning the foreign-language Oscar last year for the dour drama In a Better World, Danish writer-director Susanne Bier goes buoyant and bubbly in this story of love among the middle-agers. Ida (Trine Dyrholm), a woman recovering from cancer, has just discovered her husband on the living-room couch with a younger woman. With a fender-bender in an airport garage, she literally bumps into Philip (Pierce Brosnan), a stuffy businessman and imminent in-law; she and he are both flying to an Italian wedding that will unite her daughter and his son. Ida and Philip freeze and thaw; they love and love some more.

Evoking the rapprochement of an American businessman (Jack Lemmon) and a young Englishwoman (Juliet Mills) on the picturesque island of Ischia in Billy Wilder’s Avanti!, Bier presses the undeniable truth that a vacation in Italy can do wonders to turn repressions into exuberance, and rivals into lovers. Even those chilly souls who resist second-time-around romances may surrender to a feel-good movie that, through sheer sunniness, accomplishes its salutary goal. —M.C.

5. Outrage Beyond

On Japanese TV for three decades he has been the clown prince Beat Takeshi, but in the movies he writes, directs and stars in, Takeshi Kitano is usually the glowering Yakuza who wins sympathy by being the toughest guy among super-toughs. Outrage Beyond (original title: Autoreiji Biyondo) elaborates on the gang shenanigans of its prequel, the 2010 Outrage. Kitano’s Ôtomo, about halfway up the hierarchy of the crime syndicate he works for, shows his boss groveling respect, frequently apologizing for his lapses and excesses in the killing game, but no mercy to rival mobsters or the young firebrands instructed to guard him. The 184th Japanese imitation of the Godfather films, Outrage works, to the extent it does, as a comedy of manners, but with heavy artillery and buckets of blood. There’s also a cute exchange in the last scene. Ôtomo: “May I borrow your gun?” Cop: “Why, of course.” Ôtomo: Blam! Moral: Never hand a loaded weapon to a guy who’s done more to reduce the Tokyo population than Godzilla. —R.C.

(MORE: TIME’s complete coverage of the Venice Film Festival)

6. At Any Price

Farmers aren’t the stalwart Americans they used to be, suggests this new drama from Ramin Bahrani, director of the widely admired Goodbye Solo. Agriculture has been corporatized into agribusiness; one man will sneakily buy another man’s arable land; and the conglomerate that manufactures genetically modified seeds — called Liberty here, but transparently Monsanto — will punish any farmer using the same seeds in consecutive years. That makes life tough for Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), a farmer and Liberty supplier, who will do almost anything to keep his job and family intact. Henry’s son Dean (Zac Efron) is another challenge. First seen breaking a store window to steal a motor, Dean wants to abandon the Whipple business and become a professional race-car driver.

The film’s ambitions to update both Hud and Death of a Salesman go haywire in some wild melodrama, involving a death in a cornfield — what’s a hammer doing there? — and the dropping of the race-car plot halfway through. Excellent supporting performances by Clancy Brown and Dan Waller as Henry’s rivals get lost in Quaid’s fretful overplaying; his face is a balloon of anxiety that could pop at any moment. The story material is fertile, but the dramatic harvest is fallow. —M.C.

7. In the House 

Many of this year’s Festival films — Stories We TellAnna KareninaCloud AtlasPassionSeven Psychopaths — have concerned themselves with teasing and testing narrative boundaries, challenging viewers to determine what is real and what’s imagined. Among the most devious of these Scheherazade experiments is François Ozon’s adaptation of a Spanish play by Juan Mayorga. Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a Paris high-school teacher weary of his dull students, reads a composition by a boy in the back row, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), that piques his curiosity. Assigned to write about what he did over the weekend, Claude describes a visit to the home of a classmate and his beautiful mother (Emmanuelle Seigner). His mission, he writes, is to infiltrate the family and… “To be continued…”

Claude’s story, which he draws out in weekly essays, may be a case study or a teenager’s fiction of a more fascinating life. But Germain and his wife Jeanne (the ubiquitous Kristin Scott Thomas) follow each new section of the narrative as eagerly as if it were the latest chapter of a Dickens novel or a Louis Feuillade serial. Tantalized by this self-possessed boy, Germain compromises his academic integrity and, occasionally, shows up inside scenes Claude has described. Luchini, who has epitomized droll wit ever since his screen debut 42 years ago in Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, is at 61 perfect as a pedagogue, and failed novelist, enthralled by the world that is being experienced or invented by a gifted young writer. He allows Umhauer, 21 but passing easily for a precociously poised 16, to seize control of a grownup’s life and this seductive puzzle-box of a film. —R.C.
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