Most likely everyone in the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) audience at the September 8 premiere of Frances Ha, a sweet, funny, and romantic tale of female friendship from longtime filmmaker Noah Baumbach, thought of Woody Allen while watching the black-and-white comedy set in Brooklyn.
Maybe the references had to do with lead actress and co-writer Greta Gerwig, who looks to become something of a Diane Keaton–like muse to Baumbach after the two first worked together in the comedy Greenberg. Perhaps the comparisons came from the film’s vibrant Brooklyn backdrop and its story of girl pals and aspiring creatives Frances (Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Summer) trying to make it in a city quickly becoming too expensive for artists without trust funds.
Onstage at the Winter Garden Theatre, the lush performance hall built to resemble an indoor forest on the top floor of Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, Baumbach embraced the Allen parallels.
“I looked at Allen’s black-and-white movies — Manhattan, of course — and French New Wave movies,” he said, before singling out the work of Frances Ha cameraman Sam Levy. Baumbach also thanked the audience for its enthusiastic response to his little black-and-white movie, whose successful screening led IFC Films to acquire it a few days later.
TIFF 2012 wrapped up last Sunday with its reputation intact as the film industry’s favorite publicity launching pad for Hollywood fall releases competing for award nominations as well as smaller, art-house films looking to build awareness and added awards buzz. A festival trailer that ran before every screening helped promote this point over and over again, as audiences learned that TIFF helped discover past hits like The King’s Speech, American Beauty, and Slumdog Millionaire. Basically, if you bought a ticket to a TIFF screening, you might become part of the next big industry story.
For Baumbach and his producers, the emergence of the festival’s sales and industry office, boasting some 4,280 industry delegates spread across the second floor of the Park Hyatt, became even more important than a successful appearance on the red carpet. In addition to being a place to promote one’s movie, TIFF has evolved into a successful marketplace for selling one’s film, a trend that’s evident from this year’s 30 deals with US distributors for such movies as Imogene, The Brass Teapot, What Maisie Knew, and John Dies at the End.
Of course, Baumbach’s optimism for a deal came out of his successful premiere with positive feedback from audiences and the press, something that cannot be said for many other TIFF movies. As the festival grew to a close, with crowds thinning and industry veterans packing their bags, Baumbach could leave Toronto with a bounce in his step, but for every happy tale like Frances Ha, there were twice as many failures.
Veteran director Dan Algrant returned after a long hiatus with the music drama Greetings from Tim Buckley, about indie musician Jeff Buckley (Gossip Girl star Penn Badgley) coming to terms with being abandoned by his late musician father, Tim Buckley, while preparing to perform at his father’s 1991 tribute concert at St. Anne’s Church.
Algrant, directing his first feature since the 2002 Al Pacino drama People I Know, couldn’t have asked for a better rock tale than the journey of Jeff Buckley, who become a successful artist in his own right after battling the ghosts of his late father and then died young. Still, despite an earnest performance by Penn Badgley, who looks and performs believably as Jeff Buckley, Algrant fumbled away the dramatic opportunities via excessive flashbacks and a flimsy romance involving a pretty staffer working at the tribute concert (Imogen Poots).
Greetings from Tim Buckley was one of many TIFF titles you came to town aching to like simply for your love of the story and the music, as well as a fondess for Algrant’s long ago art-house comedy Naked in New York.
The same feelings of hopeful optimism surrounded director Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman, a gritty crime drama based on real-life mob hit-man Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) and his double life of devoted husband and father and ruthless killer.
Veteran Ray Liotta brought gangster movie cred to The Iceman via a supporting role as Kuklinski’s mob employer Roy DeMeo. Liotta, the star of the classic Goodfellas, also served as a reminder of the missing spark throughout Vromen’s mediocre mob tale. The Iceman failed to come to bloody life with the level of intensity, grit, and emotion one expects from standout gangster dramas.
Winona Ryder looked great and gave a believably heartfelt performance as the oblivious wife, and Michael Shannon continued to be a rising star with a compelling performance as Kuklinski, portraying a complex killer who explains away his criminal actions by his financial obligations to his family. Still, as the film’s body count rose with each new job by Kuklinski, you couldn’t help but make comparisons between The Iceman and Goodfellas, The Iceman and Mean Streets, maybe even The Iceman and Abel Ferrara’s King of New York.
In fact, leaving the TIFF screening and pushing past a gauntlet of publicists hungry for reaction to the movie, one thought came quickly to mind: Wouldn’t it have been fantastic ifFerrara had directed The Iceman?
Noah Baumbach asked audiences to embrace the comparisons between his Brooklyn comedy Frances Ha and Woody Allen’s classic romance Manhattan, and he left Toronto happy with the reaction. The crowds loved both movies.
By casting Ray Liotta as a mob boss, Ariel Vromen asked Toronto audiences to think of his gangster drama The Iceman as a natural descendant of Goodfellas. Unfortunately, they disagreed.
Sometimes, as in the case of The Iceman, you come to Toronto and do everything right: your stars look great on the red carpet, they’re generous to the crowds during post-screening Q&A sessions and articulate with the media during a press conference. But then, by your second screening, all the hard work and good intentions fade away because the movie just isn’t good enough. At a festival focused on celebrity sightings, party dispatches, red carpet photo calls, and massive press conferences, the lasting impact of a poorly received screening seems just, fair, and reassuring. In the celebrity maelstrom that is TIFF, it’s still the movies that matter most of all.
The 2012 Toronto International Film Festival ran September 6 through 16.
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