Toronto: 'Dorian Gray' with Ben Barnes a train wreck, 'Waking Sleeping Beauty' solid
Plus: 'A Prophet' features a star-making performance
A TIFF sponsor has made Jennifer Connelly cry, Oprah is already in town, very few flicks look to be acquired and it's become the George Clooney show (for a number of good reasons). Those are just some of the storylines dominating the first few days of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, but let's talk about the movie themselves shall we?
As always, Toronto is a mix of awards contenders (or pretenders) and new films looking for distribution. Here's a quick review of a few titles this writer has caught over the past day or so.
Oliver Parker's re-telling of the classic tale is pretty much a complete train wreck. It's not so bad it's good, it's so bad it's boring. Ben Barnes plays the title character whose portrait keeps him eternally youthful and beautiful as his soul gets darker and more evil. Well, at least we think that's why he's staying young. One of the movie's many faults is never adequately explaining what is keeping Gray so young. And the laughable orgy and sex scenes (like all immortals Gray appears to be bisexual), insinuating some moral neglect never connect or make sense. Colin Firth, who plays Gray's older mentor Lord Henry Wotton, seems like he's just waiting for the movie (or in his case the shoot) to end. At least Rebecca Hall ("Vicky Christina Barcelona") survives with her dignity intact as a love interest who arrives at the last minute to create some sort of dramatic tension. The film already opened this month in the U.K., but its clear why no one has stepped up in the U.S. Look for this one on DVD and on cable at your peril.
"Waking Sleeping Beauty"
A solid documentary chronicling the rebirth of Walt Disney Studios Animation between 1984-1994, "Waking" is the perfect example of a filmmakers involvement in his subject matter both being an asset and a liability. Don Hahn worked for Disney as a producer during this time period on such films as "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas." The archive footage he has from behind-the-scenes of productions such as "The Black Cauldron," "Oliver and Company" and "The Little Mermaid" is impressive. It clearly illustrates the competitiveness between company leaders Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, Roy Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg and their growing rift after peacemaker Wells' tragic death in a helicopter accident, but too much seems left out of the backstory. It's almost as though Hahn wants to explain the situation, but really doesn't want to insult the subjects who helped rebuild the company. What really works and is incredibly moving is how the doc chronicles music lyricist Howard Ashman's involvement in "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast." Ashman, who teamed with composer Alan Menken, died of AIDS related symptoms before "Beast" was ever finished, but was more than just a songwriter. Footage shows just how much of a creative force he was overall on both "Mermaid" and "Beast" and the film illustrates what a great talent the industry really lost. Still, for any serious animation fan it's a raising the curtain opportunity you should see.
From the mind of acclaimed French writer/director Jacques Audiard, "A Prophet (Un prophete)" tells the six-year story of a troubled, but somewhat innocent arab man who after being jailed at the age of 19 rises to become a criminal powerhouse among his release. This material has been done many times before, but Audiard brings a fresh perspective to it and the film's twists and turns provide genuine -- and more importantly -- realistic tension to the proceedings. He's also assisted by a star making turn by Tahar Rahim who could have quite the career ahead of him around the world, especially if he speaks any English. Rahim has that much charisma on screen. "A Prophet" won the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and should make numerous critic's ten best lists at the end of the year. France has not selected it's official entry to the Oscars yet, but "A Prophet" has a chance of being nominated for best foreign film if its their candidate.
Over the next couple of days look for thoughts on "Whip It," "Bad Leutinant: Port of Call New Orleans" and "Capitalism: A Love Story."
For constant updates on awards season and entertainment news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter at Twitter.com/HitFixGregory
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