Four is the Word: Toronto Day 4, and my first 4 film day!

Things kicked into high gear for me on Monday with my first four film day. That coupled with a Chlotrudis group lunch with Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (and a quick visit from Wiebke von Carolsfeld) meant I couldn't grab a nap. Fortunately, Beth agreed to grab tickets for me early this morning so I got about 30 minutes additional sleep. Okay, it's not much, but I'll take what I can get.

The morning started off with a nice breakfast where Beth, Chris, Gil, Amanda, Bruce and I all managed to touch base before we dispersed for our films. A quick ride on the wonderfully convenient Toronto subway brought me to the Scotiabank Cinema and my first film of the day.

BRICK LANE (UK; 101 min.)

Director: Sarah Gavron

Cast: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson

Based on an internationally best-selling novel, BRICK LANE explores a plethora of theme including the nature of love, the Muslim community in Britain after 9/11, the empowerment of Indian women, and much more. Sarah Gavron, whose little seen in the U.S. made for UK television film THIS LITTLE LIFE earned a Chlotrudis spotlight a few years ago, follows up with this accomplished, multi-layered first feature which has already been picked up for U.S. distribution and is surrounded by the kind of buzz any filmmaker would yearn for.

As a child growing up in Bangladesh, Nazneen and her younger sister frolicked in the fields without a care in the world. When their mother commits suicide, Nazneed finds herself promised in marriage to an "educated man" living in Britain. Shipped to London, the good village girl endures a submissive life in the Brick Lane neighborhood, a far cry from the color and splendor of her childhood memories. Her husband, Chanu, is a good man, but old-fashioned, expecting Nazneen to keep the household running while he supports the family, which includes two daughters. When Chanu resigns from his job over one too many missed promotions, Nazneen, driven by her desire to return to Bangladesh and the sister she left behind, begins working as a seamstress out of her home despite her husband's misgivings. She is initially dismayed when Karim, the young man who delivers the clothing to her, catches her eye, but soon they embark on an ilicit affair, and Nazneen begins to explore the rapidly changing world beyond her apartment.

Abi Morgan and Laura Jones' adaptation of Monica Ali's novel is a fine work as they pare down the many threads of the narrative managing to include a great many while spending just enough time on each. The cast is strong, including Tannishtha Chatterjee as Nazneen, whose solitary scenes must convey so much emotion without dialogue, and Satish Kaushik as Chanu who brings such complexity and dimension to a character who could have been painted in very broad strokes. Yet this is Gavron's film as much as it is anyone's, and it's thrilling to see such an assured directorial hand in a first-time feature director. Magnificent editing, a cinematic eye, and deft musical choices contribute to a film that Gavron must surely be very proud of.

JUNO (US; 92 min.)

director: Jason Reitman

cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Olivia Thirlby, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney

It was with great excitement that our large group of six attended what is surely the festival film generating the most buzz. This is a special film for Chlotrudis as it features in a starring role, an actor who is one of our organization's great finds in the U.S.: Ellen Page. JUNO is Jason Reitman's follow-up to last year's well-received THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, but while I was not as impressed as many with that film, Reitman has found a secret weapon to make JUNO truly sparkle in new, young screenwriter Diablo Cody.

When sixteen-year-old Juno discovers that she is pregnant after a single night of sex with her sort-of boyfriend Paulie Bleeker, she knows that she is incapable of raising a child. After a fairly quick consideration of offers, she decides to go with an open adoption after a suggestion from her best friend Leah. Juno finds a good-looking, wealthy couple for the prospective parents in the classified ads of the Pennysaver (right next to the exotic pets section). Her parents are disappointed but supportive, but her relationship with Bleeker gets a little shaky. As the seasons pass and Juno grows more and more pregnant, she learns that there are some people who might disappoint her in life, but there are many who will not let her down.

There are so many things right with JUNO, including the cast (in addition to Page we have Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Allison Janney, and J.K. Simmons) and some deft directorial work, but JUNO succeeds or fails on its screenplay. Fortunately, somebody noticed Diablo Cody's blog and suggested to her that she write a screenplay. After a career that included working in an ad agency, as a stripper and as a phone sex operator, Cody tried her hand at screenwriting. With JUNO she has created the original and extremely funny voice of a teen-aged girl living in the modern world. She does a terrific job handling the many supporting roles as well, making each one pop in their respective scenes.

The other not-so secret weapon of JUNO is certainly the talented Ellen Page, who after putting in some stellar work in lesser-seen intense dramas (HARD CANDY; AMERICAN CRIME) decided she needed to try her hand at comedy. Fortunately for her she found JUNO, a comedy that's loaded with laughs and smarts.

JUST LIKE HOME (Denmark; 97 min.)

director: Lone Scherfig

cast: Lars Kaalund, Bodil Jørgensen, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, Peter Gantzler, Peter Hesse Overgaard

Lone Scherfig returns with a third film following the delightful ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS and the quirky WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF and offers up what she self-admittedly does best: finding humor in tragic situations. Sprinkling a few new faces, with a few familiar faces from ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS, Scherfig unites another talented ensemble cast to look at a community, and the way people can care about people they know, but don't really know.

When a small town where everyone knows everyone else is thrown into a tizzy after a man is allegedly seen running naked through the streets brandishing a rolled-up newspaper suspicion blooms which leads to depression. Fortunately a pair of townsfolk have just launched a hotline for the depressed called "The Silent Ear." As the calls become more frequent, a small group of folk rally together to man the phones in the hopes that the streaker will confess so that the townsfolk can be put at ease and things can go back to normal. Well, in a Scherfig movie, things don't usually work out the way they should... at least not for a good 90 minutes, and despite it's sluggish first third, JUST LIKE HOME comes together beautifully and continues the filmmaker's delightful string of films.

NORMAL (Canada; 100 min.)

director: Carl Bessai

cast: Carrie-Anne Moss, Kevin Zegers, Callum Keith Rennie, Tygh Runyan, Camille Sullivan

When a sixteen-year-old Nick is killed in a tragic accident in a wealthy Victoria community, several lives spin out of control. Carrie-Anne Moss embodies the grief of a mother who has lost a son, begging to talk about her lost boy yet pushing others, including her husband and second son, angrily away. Jordie is Nick's best friend who was driving the car they had stolen when the accident happened. After spending several years in prison, Jordie has just been released, but his pent-up anger guilt hold him in place, preventing him from forward movement. Callum Keith Rennie is failed writer Walt, the man who caused the accident while driving his car while drunk. There are several other storylines running throughout the film, but they don't really matter, and actually, would have probably served the movie better had they been edited out.

NORMAL is what I call a second-tier Canadian film. While I am a huge fan of Canadian film and will see as many as I can during the festival, there are distinct tiers. The top tier feature the directors Chlotrudis knows and loves including Egoyan, Maddin, McKellar, MacIvor, Rozema and on... The lower tier tend to be films that are just bad, and I have had the misfortune to see them at festivals. These include such films as LUCID and YELLOWKNIFE. The second tier have some promise, feature some good elements, but fail overall.

NORMAL features a strong cast, particularly Moss and Rennie who act as each other's foils. I have some quibbling with the editing, and although much was made in the Q&A of the director's hand-held camera work, I found it distracting and occasionally annoying. I also took some issue with some of the director's choices regarding the shooting. One sex scene was overlong and a little annoying the way it lingered on the actress's breasts (even returning to them for no apparent reason for a few seconds the way a man's eyes keep drifting down while in conversation.) The biggest flaw was in the screenplay, which unfortunately, is often the case with the second-tier film. There was too much jammed into it, there were odd leaps in character development (possibly a flaw in the editing) and it wasn't all that original.

Okay, I'm a day behind now, and it's unlikely I'll catch up today. We had a terrific time at two parties last night courtesy of Don & Tracy, but that got us in pretty darn late. I'll try to report on yesterday's films soon.