Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Looper, Stories We Tell, Anna Karenina

Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell

Every film festival has its own flavor. If Cannes is known for glamour and prestige, Toronto's defining characteristic is sheer abundance. The lineup is organized more for comprehensiveness than thematic mix. With well over 200 features, it's impossible that anyone's cinematic intake here is identical.

Yet inevitably, patterns begin to emerge—or at least seem to. Last night the fest kicked off with Rian Johnson's Looper, a nifty sci-fi contraption that stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an assassin in dystopian Kansas. In this future, marked men are sent back in time from even further ahead (30 years) and then killed, so that a hit man is technically disposing of a body that doesn't exist. That's a clever enough premise on which to hang a film, but Johnson's thriller proves consistently inventive throughout its first half, putting Gordon-Levitt's gun-for-hire into contact with his three-decades-older self (Bruce Willis) and finding at least one novel way around a time-travel paradox. The movie doesn't sustain its idea-a-minute ratio, but it's gratifying to see science fiction that dares to be heady and bold. It opens in Chicago September 28.

Even with just 24 hours of screenings, Looper hasn't been the only film to concern alternative histories. Olivier Assayas is back with the semi-autobiographical Something in the Air, a nostalgic memoir of inchoate radicalism in the early '70s. Martin McDonagh's wildly undisciplined but intermittently hilarious Seven Psychopaths (which premieres tonight as a midnight screening) casts Colin Farrell as a struggling screenwriter (pointedly named Marty) whose life merges in structurally labyrinthine ways with his work.

But the best meta-narrative so far has been Sarah Polley's wonderful documentary Stories We Tell, a personal essay film that, based on a description, sounds like a case of TMI. While the movie is designed to be seen sans foreknowledge, Polley—the Canadian actress who directed Away from Her and Take This Waltz—has already opened up about the basic concept. In 2007, she learned her biological father was not the man who raised her; she was, in fact, the product of her late mother's affair. Actor Michael Polley, who thought he was her father, was in the dark as well. He provides the movie's heart: As his daughter films him dictating memories and confessions about his marriage, he proves uncommonly reflective about the vagaries of fortune that have defined his life. What's ingenious about Stories, which interweaves reenactments and talking-head testimony, is the way it gradually broadens its scope, showing the way the revelations ripple across families. The film is an object lesson in how to turn self-examination into art, even if the director's final musings on why she felt the need to make it prove redundant.

Much less necessary, and apropos adultery, was Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard. Like the director's Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, it dresses up a fundamentally literary work with a lot of ostentatious style. In a device used without much conceptual coherence, the movie has largely been filmed inside a modified theater—a strategy that never makes this Karenina feel stagy, but that does drape the exercise in an aura of alienating artifice. An abundance of close-ups gave me newfound appreciation for what fine work Keira Knightley's dentists have done—perhaps a fitting take-away for a movie that favors surface over substance.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)