Greetings from the Toronto Film Festival, where I’ve seen more interesting movies in the last 24 hours than I often see in the course of a month in Chicago. NEW PARAGRAPH.
Two of the most buzzed-about features so far are Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg’s follow-up to A History of Violence, and Juno, Jason Reitman’s follow-up to Thank You for Smoking. I saw the Cronenberg movie this morning at 8:45 AM, but I was wide awake by 8:46, when a Russian gangster relaxing in a barber chair had his neck laboriously carved open with a straight razor. The movie is almost as gory as its predecessor, but whereas A History of Violence was widely viewed as “implicating the audience” in the violence, Eastern Promises doesn’t supply even that level of handy, self-reflexive justification. It reminded me less of a Haneke-style meta-movie than the sort of conflicted-bad-guy dramas that established the Bogart and Cagney mythologies, with Viggo Mortensen stealing the movie as the mordantly funny driver for a ruthless crime boss in London (Armin Mueller-Stahl). He’s the guy who does the dirty work, pulling the aforementioned victim’s teeth and cutting off his fingers so the body can’t be identified, yet he seems within reach of redemption after he crosses paths with a motorcycle-riding midwife from a local hospital (Naomi Watts). NEW PARAGRAPH
Juno is another strong effort from Reitman, who’s inherited his comic sense from his famous father (Ivan Reitman, director of Ghostbusters) but whose choice of material shows a more biting sense of social satire. Written by Chicago native Diablo Cody, the movie centers on a 16-year-old high school student (Ellen Page) who discovers she’s pregnant by her oddball boyfriend (Michael Cera of Superbad) and arranges for an open adoption with a rich young couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). For a high schooler, Page’s character seems impossibly glib, even in this jaded era, which contibutes to the common problem of the movie’s biggest laughs actually undercutting its story. But Cody has given her heroine some genuinely painful and poignant moments too, and the relationship that develops between the pregnant girl and the adoptive father, who still has some growing up to do himself, is truly original. The biggest surprise is Garner: I’ve never thought much of her as an actress, but this is the sort of lucky role that brings out the best in a particular performer, and she’s moving as a porcelain beauty whose money and privilege can’t buy her the thing she most wants.