Toronto: Take This Waltz, Damsels in Distress and more

High hopes weren't enough for many disappointing titles

Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in Take This Waltz

Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in Take This Waltz

I've resonated with Sarah Polley's steely, thoughtful onscreen presence at least since 1994's Exotica (and should even fess up to adoring her screechy pint-sized heroine in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). Polley's 2006 transition to directing was with an unusually confident debut, Away from Her; her new line of work was the most promising job news I'd heard all year. She's now back with her second film, Take This Waltz, and I still recognize the empathetic listener and shaper of fine performances. Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen both hit career highs as a Toronto married couple smothered by their own coziness. But somehow, the material doesn't seem ambitious enough for Polley. Indie-ish movies about domestic breakups rarely feel this sexy or relaxed, but she's special enough a filmmaker to want more. (Polley went through her own marital separation in recent years, so maybe this is a project of transition.)

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Toronto Film Festival

You go into film festivals hoping for genius from expected quantities; perhaps that's unfair. Isn't it enough that Francis Ford Coppola is still standing, much less delivering an enjoyably goony if disposable pulp-horror flick like Twixt? A throwback to the director's Corman days and Dementia 13, the movie stars Val Kilmer as a cut-rate Stephen King who, on a book tour, gets lured into a small town's dark past. The Godfather it's not, but this had more vigor and immediacy than either Youth Against Youth or Tetro. You even had to wear 3-D glasses on occasion. Whit Stillman also has a daunting filmography to contend with, and after a 13-year absence, the Metropolitan director seems to have lost his footing somewhat with Damsels in Distress, an often toxic and obnoxious fantasia about a brittle clique of arrogant women at a fictional college. To be sure, it definitely feels a part of Stillman's catalog, but somehow the snobbery has curdled. It's too close to Gossip Girl to feel adorable. (Caveat: I am decidedly not a part of the cult of spacey actor Greta Gerwig, so that may have been a factor.)

Still, I'll take these midcareer miffs (and count Bobcat Goldthwait's overly earnest Kardashian-culture critique God Bless America among them) for the rare instance of promise delivered. I'm hinting at a certain movie in particular, a knockout that I'm seeing again just to be sure it's the new classic I suspect. (Expect a separate post later today.) But also in this category falls the director Andrea Arnold, a gritty and raw visionary (Red Road, Fish Tank) who now elevates herself with a rough-hewn adaptation of Wuthering Heights. The well-known narrative takes a back seat to Malickian intimacy with the natural world; animals ache and the winds whip across the moors as Cathy and Heathcliff (here reconfigured as black) struggle to maintain the ghost of intimacy. It's a hard terrain for love, both Arnold's film and the festival in general.

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