<p>One of the young magicians in 'Make Believe' demonstrates a self-built trick as he prepares for a major convention appearance.</p>

One of the young magicians in 'Make Believe' demonstrates a self-built trick as he prepares for a major convention appearance.

Credit: Firefly Films

Toronto: 'Make-Believe' offers charming documentary look at teen magicians

The producers of 'A Fistful Of Quarters' have another winner

I'm going to review three documentaries I saw at this year's Toronto International Film Festival today, and I'm going to start with the smallest of the three, a movie that didn't even play at the general screening venue, but at the NFB room across the street, which holds something like 75 people.

"Make Believe" tells the stories of several different young magicians who are all training for a Las Vegas convention where they'll come together and compete for the title of Teen World Champion.  This is a style of documentary that we seem to see represented often on the festival circuit, so the key becomes how well the individual stories are told.  In this case, J. Clay Tweel picked the right kids, and spent the right time with them.  He got them to open up, for good and for bad, and the people around them relaxed, and the result is bracing and honest.  These are fascinating kids, all of them looking for something that distinguishes them from their community, all of them reaching to magic as a way of defining identity.

On a recent evening when everyone was at home and working all day, Toshi was desperate for some attention, and he decided that today was the day he was going to become a magician.  His idea of a magic trick was to stand in front of you, hold up his empty hands, then yell, "CLOSE YOUR EYES!" at you.  Once you did, he would run out of the room, noisily dig through is toy shelves, and then run back in to stand in front of you to yell, "OPEN YOUR EYES!" at which point a toy would "magically" appear in his hand.  What made it even better was the way he would add a flourish to each of his "tricks" and the pride he took in having fooled us.  It was beautiful, and that's the appeal of "Make Believe," watching these kids find this thing that gives them such joy.

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<p>Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis co-star in the deadpan comedy/mystery series 'Bored To Death' on HBO</p>

Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis co-star in the deadpan comedy/mystery series 'Bored To Death' on HBO

Credit: HBO Home Video

Review: 'Bored To Death' and 'The Extra Man' both highlight Jonathan Ames

Quirky character comedy abounds in this writer's work, bigscreen and small

It's odd to get to know an author as a character before you get to know their work, and even then, only through adaptation. 

Jonathan Ames is someone I plan to read now that I've gotten a sense of what his voice and his personality is, and I hope I enjoy his prose as much as I've enjoyed these two very different projects, both of which are eccentric comedies energized by exceptional casts.  I saw the first season of "Bored To Death" when HBO sent me the box-set of DVDs for the first year.  I saw "The Extra Man" as a screener here at my house.  And then I saw the first three episodes of the second season of "Bored To Death" when they were sent to my house as screeners.  And I think I've liked each thing I've seen a little more, which is probably a good sign, but may full well be a coincidence, or just a case of me realizing I like someone's comic sensibility.

HBO deserves credit for giving a show like "Bored To Death" a shot.  I'm sure the cast was the selling point for the network, but they've made two years now of this great crazy shaggy dog neo-mystery series in which Jonathan Ames is the main character, played by Jason Schwartzman.  He's a writer, sort of like the real Jonathan Ames, but on the show, he's struggling after the publication of his first novel.  He works for George Christopher (Ted Danson), publisher of a big New York magazine, and he's best friends with Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis), a comics artist who is in a relationship with Leah (Heather Burns).  Jonathan's trying to get over his relationship with Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby), who left him because of his drinking and his smoking pot.  Jonathan is feeling aimless and powerless in his life when he places an ad on Craigslist offering his services as a detective.  When someone responds to his ad, it sets Jonathan off on a wild ride over the course of what has so far been 11 episodes that has been getting better and better, and for me, it's "The Gowanus Canal Has Gonorrhea," the third one of the new season, that pushes the show over the top and into a new and better place.

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<p>The documentary 'Waiting For 'Superman'' tackles the collapse of the American public education system from a fresh angle</p>

The documentary 'Waiting For 'Superman'' tackles the collapse of the American public education system from a fresh angle

Credit: Paramount

Toronto: Hard-hitting documentary 'Waiting For Superman' a must-see for parents

The Oscar-winning director of 'An Inconvenient Truth' outdoes himself

Public education's on my mind these days.

I never really considered what my feelings were about the subject until it became personal, which is pretty much the way it happens for most people.  Sure, I had some general feelings about it, based on my growing up and attending both public and private schools at different points in my life.  But the idea of activism over the subject of education never occurred to me.

Not until I started trying to figure out my son Toshiro's education.

And not until I saw Davis Guggenheim's new film "Waiting For 'Superman'".

I talked to another critic outside afterwards who seemed to think all of the information in Guggenheim's film was "Been there, done that," and if that's true, I salute him for his exceptional knowledge of the problems our students and their parents face these days.  Maybe there are other documentaries that deal with the same general subject, but for me, "Waiting For 'Superman'" was an eye-opener, and there's a stretch of it that is the most emotionally difficult real-life material I've seen in a film since "Dear Zachary."

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<p>Antonio Banderas and Naomi Watts play out one of the many signature romantic square dances in Woody Allen's new comedy 'You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger'</p>

Antonio Banderas and Naomi Watts play out one of the many signature romantic square dances in Woody Allen's new comedy 'You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger'

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Toronto: Antonio Banderas and Naomi Watts in Allen's charming, slight 'Tall Dark Stranger'

Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, and Frieda Pinto round out the eclectic cast

When you make a film a year, rain or shine, you'll end with some good movies just as a matter of general talent.  Woody Allen certainly knows how to make an engaging, easy sit at this point, and "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" is certainly painless.  To some extent, though, Allen's films are as familiar in their rhythms as the superhero origin story, and so it becomes about watching variations on a theme, watching how each different cast tackles the material.  You're either up for the familiar pleasures or you're not, and by now, I think most serious filmgoers know how they feel about Allen's work.

Let's say this was the very first time you're seeing a Woody Allen film, though.  I think sometimes we forget that's even possible.  But I know that the first Allen film I saw in a theater and not on home video was "Hannah and Her Sisters."  I would imagine this could well be someone's very first Woody Allen film.  It's the story of Helena (Gemma Jones), an older woman whose husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has just left her.  She's ruined, and her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) sends her to a psychic named Cristal (Pauline Colins), knowing it will comfort her.  Sally and her husband Roy (Josh Brolin) are in a holding pattern while they wait for him to finish his novel, something that terrifies him.  He spends his days watching a lovely young neighbor named Dia (Frieda Pinto) through her window, running from his work, while Sally spends her work days lusting quietly after Greg (Antonio Banderas), the owner of the gallery where she works.   Meanwhile, Sally's father Alfie is dealing with the ridiculous folly of his relationship with his mistress Charmaine (Lucy Punch).  It's typical Allen romantic roundelay, and there's a spirited energy to it this time around, but it doesn't add up to much.  If this were my very first Allen film, my reaction would be, "That's it?"

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<p>Edward Norton and Edward Norton star in the dark character comedy 'Leaves Of Grass,' written and directed by Tim&nbsp;Blake Nelson.</p>

Edward Norton and Edward Norton star in the dark character comedy 'Leaves Of Grass,' written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson.

Credit: First Look Pictures

Review: Edward Norton, Edward Norton, and 'Leaves Of Grass'

Dark comedy offers more than just a gimmick with Norton as twin brothers

One of the reasons I liked Edward Norton right off the bat as an actor with his first performance in "Primal Fear" is because he tackled one of the big showstopper scenery chewing archetypes, but his performance demonstrated a dedication to detail that was impressive.  I've done a lot of reading about multiple personality disorder over the years, and Norton got all the little things right.  Not in a showy way, but in a way that suggested a meticulous performer, a guy who was going to push himself.

Over the course of his career, that's what he's done consistently and well.  He is not someone who coasts on an easily defined character that he plays over and over.  He vanishes into roles.  He transforms himself.  And he always reaches for those little details that sell something.  Because he's that kind of actor, there are certain things I've always wanted to see him do, and as someone who is slightly obsessed with the idea of movies in which one actor plays twins, this was one of those challenges I always wanted to see him attempt.

Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, "Leaves Of Grass" casts Norton as Bill and Brady Kincaid.  One is an academic, quickly climbing the social ladder of the university world, and the other is a pot farmer.  To be fair, he's an amazing pot farmer, an artist of sorts, and he's scrupulously ethical about what he will and won't do.  That's proving to be a problem for him as Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss), the gangster who staked him in the first place, is pressuring him to use his greenhouse as a meth manufacturing location, something Brady's deeply opposed to.  Seeing no other way out of his problem, Brady lays out a long con that starts with him faking his own death so that Bill, struggling with his own career issues, is called home for the funeral.  Once he learns Brady is alive, Bill tries to flee, but he gets pulled back into his brother's orbit, and over the course of a long, deranged weekend, everything about his life changes.  He's got to deal with his estranged mother (Susan Sarandon) and he meets a woman who deflates almost every idea he has about himself, Janet (Keri Russell in another winning appearance), and of course, he's got to work out his feelings about his brother.

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<p>John Leguizamo is one of the stars of Brad Anderson's new horror film, 'Vanishing On 7th Street'</p>

John Leguizamo is one of the stars of Brad Anderson's new horror film, 'Vanishing On 7th Street'

Credit: Herrick Entertainment/Mandalay Vision

Toronto: Hayden Christensen and John Leguizamo star in disappointing 'Vanishing On 7th Street'

Weak script and over-reliance on CGI cripple a smart idea

I don't know that I'd call Brad Anderson a strong narrative guy so much as he's a guy who knows how to evoke a mood and how to pull an audience into a specific place.  He's not a "horror director," per se, but he's certainly made his share of horror films, and quite well in some cases.  I love "Session 9," and I think "The Machinist" is a great slow burn.  When I was on my way up to Toronto for the film festival, "Vanishing On 7th Street" was one of my most anticipated titles just because of Anderson's track record.

Let's just call this one a disappointment.  I wasn't a fan right after the screening, but upon reflection, I'm even less satisfied with it, and it doesn't help that a screening of "Devil" reminded me of how much life you can still wring out of even the simplest formula as long as you approach it in the right way.  Anderson's film is a conventional genre exercise, but the choices he and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski make cripple the exercise right off the bat, and the film never overcomes the built-in handicaps.  In short, the menace the film is built around is never menacing, and that's not because of the concept so much as the execution.  There's something creepy about the notion of evil that hides itself in any shadow in a world where light is slowly slipping away, and there are a few moments in the film that suggest just how a subtle, creepy version of that film might play.

This is not that version.

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<p>Amber Heard is one of the young stars of one of the most anticipated horror films of the festival, &quot;John Carpenter's The Ward'</p>

Amber Heard is one of the young stars of one of the most anticipated horror films of the festival, "John Carpenter's The Ward'

Credit: Echo Lake Productions/A Bigger Boat

Toronto: 'John Carpenter's The Ward' features familiar scares, strong young cast

Does the horror icon's return to the bigscreen deliver big scares?

I am biased about this film, but not for the reasons you'd think. (*)

I'm just biased as a fan of John Carpenter's work.  I have very strong opinions about what I like and what I don't like from his filmography, and this weekend, you'll hear those opinions in a special podcast I recorded here at the Toronto International Film Festival with Cinematical editor Scott Weinberg, who is also the film critic for FEARNet.  We spent an hour talking about every one of John Carpenter's 17 theatrical motion pictures, from "Dark Star" to "Ghosts Of Mars."  Because we recorded it in the wee small hours of Sunday night/Monday morning, we had not see his latest yet.  If we had, it might have made for a great conversation, and an optimistic ending to the retrospective, since "John Carpenter's The Ward" is a genial, entertaining ghost story, featuring a strong cast, a great environment, and some genuinely scary sequences.  Is it a new masterpiece from the master?  Nope.  It's not personal enough for that to even be a possibility  But it's character-driven, it's a slow-burn, and when the big reveal finally comes, it's not particularly fresh, but it's also not a cheat.  It makes sense in the context of everything else we've seen in he film.  I was relieved to be enjoying the film, but not surprised.  This may not be an "OMG! Forget about 'The Thing'!" moment, but neither is it an "OMG! Remember 'Village of The Damned'?!" moment, either.

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<p>This pretty much sums up how I&nbsp;feel post-Toronto, especially when I consider Fantastic Fest in less than a week.</p>

This pretty much sums up how I feel post-Toronto, especially when I consider Fantastic Fest in less than a week.

Credit: Marcia McWeeny

Catching My Breath

A quick bit of housekeeping between festivals

We're still basically only halfway through the month.  A little more than halfway, actually, since it's the 17th, but it feels like the halfway mark for me since I'm writing coverage of two different film festivals this month, and I've just finished the first of them.

That is to say, I'm back in Los Angeles.  I'm not really done with the Toronto Film Festival, and I won't be until I write those reviews next week.  I'm planning things right now so the last review I publish will be on Wednesday, and it will be for "Stone," one of the two Overture titles that are playing in both Toronto and Fantastic Fest.  It seems like the perfect way to pass the baton from one to the other, and I'll also be running a long-promised Michael Giacchino profile that day as well.

This weekend, though, I've got a few more Midnight Madness reviews for you, as well as a very special "Saturday Night At The Movies" about the Toronto influence on the show.  And then next week, we'll hit it hard on Monday and Tuesday.  You can expect to read about Woody Allen, Hillary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Jacques Tati, French animation, amateur underage magicians, Nicole Kidman, dead kids, sexual perversion, crazy people, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, the state of American education, Jonathan Ames, Kenny F'ing Powers, Jody Hill, Edward Norton, Gemma Arterton, ABBA, Michael Caine impressions, family squabbles, Sarah Silverman, Alicia Witt, Rainn Wilson... again... and the worst film I saw at the festival.

It's going to be an amazing week, and then we're into Fantastic Fest, and I've just started working on my schedule for that festival.  It's such an amazing slate of things I'm hoping to see while I'm there, but let's get through all of the above before we even get into it.

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<p>Several passengers face off against one they suspect of foul play in 'Devil,' the first film in the new 'Night Chronicles' series</p>

Several passengers face off against one they suspect of foul play in 'Devil,' the first film in the new 'Night Chronicles' series

Credit: Universal/Rogue

Review: The Dowdles' 'Devil' kicks off The Night Chronicles in high style

Horror-thriller is good 'Twilight Zone' style fun

The new film "Devil," which is part one of a new label called "The Night Chronicles," is exactly the sort of thing that fans though they'd be getting from M. Night Shyamalan when he first became a name brand and not "just" a filmmaker.

I'm not surprised.  The film was directed by the Dowdles, John Erick and Drew, and written by Brian Nelson.  The Dowdles are responsible for "Quarantine" and "The Poughkeepsie Tapes," and they're talented horror filmmakers who have proven they've got the chops to genuinely unsettle an audience.  With this movie, they've finally made something that has a shot at being seen by a wide audience that's not a remake and it's not so graphic it will scare people away.  And it was written by Brian Nelson, who was the screenwriter for "30 Days Of Night" and "Hard Candy," who seems like a natural fit for this sort of story.  The original idea was created by Shyamalan, who then handed it off to this creative team and who served as producer on the film.  Yes… these are "The Night Chronicles," but based on this first one, it appears there is room in this series for strong individual storytelling voices aside from Night's.

"Devil" is a tight, smart little suspense piece that tells the story of five strangers who end up trapped in an elevator in a skyscraper together, unaware that one of them is not what they appear to be.  It's a straight-up "Twilight Zone" style morality play, and it just plain works.  From the very start, with an opening title sequence that's built over an upside-down trip through an urban landscape, the film works at creating a feeling of disquietude. 

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<p>Nev Schulman gets closer to the truth in the hotly-debated new documentary 'Catfish,' opening today.</p>

Nev Schulman gets closer to the truth in the hotly-debated new documentary 'Catfish,' opening today.

Credit: Rogue Pictures

Review: 'Catfish' offers up big mysteries, unclear answers

Is it real? And does it matter?

The new film "Catfish," directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, was listed in the Sundance catalog at this year's festival as a documentary.  That's how it's being sold now, too, as a "real-life thriller," with much of the conversation after a screening being dedicated to figuring out what is real and what isn't.  That's not true of every documentary, so why is it this one that people are having issues with regarding credibility?

It goes to the very nature of the film, I think, and it's not a problem that audiences are suddenly struck skeptical by the film; it's the natural result of a story that grapples with issues of reality and fantasy in the online age.  I think it's a mistake to sell this movie as a film that hinges on a giant secret, because once you do that, audiences start trying to get ahead of the movie.  They work overtime to piece things together, which means they aren't giving themselves over to the movie as a whole.  And it also leads to reviewers playing coy in print instead of actually digging into the film and its merits.

The short version is this:  Nev Schulman is a photographer working in New York City, and he published a photo in the New York Times of a dancer.  He was contacted on Facebook by a family who loved his picture, and the youngest daughter decided to paint the picture.  That simple gesture, a reaction to Nev's work, led to a whole world of new relationships for Nev, and his brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost decided to shoot Nev's side of the relationship.

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