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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

September 10, 2011 at 10:56 AM

At TIFF: ‘The Descendants,’ ‘Albert Nobbs’

TORONTO — “Well, she always seems so nice on the talk shows,” says a lady on the sidewalk in front of me, to her companion, and I’d love to stick around and hear who she’s talking about (maybe somebody’s misbehaving in Toronto?), but I’ve got movies to see. So, the Major Movie that I was teasing you about the other day (don’t be mad, I had to promise not to blog about it for two days) is Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” a big deal because it’s his first movie since “Sideways” seven years ago — and because it’s quite possibly the movie that’ll win the Best Actor Oscar for George Clooney. I could be wrong here, just because this isn’t a particularly showy role: Clooney plays Matt King, a husband and father of two in Hawaii who’s coping with his wife’s coma (and the recent revelation that she was unfaithful to him), two troubled daughters, and pressure from his extended family to sell their ancestral land. He’s a regular guy with a lot of not-so-regular problems, and Clooney makes him funny and honest and believable and touching, particularly in Matt’s exasperated but loving relationship with teenage daughter Alex (wonderfully played by Shailene Woodley). Like “Sideways,” “About Schmidt,” and “Election,” “The Descendants” is ultimately about a man in midlife who takes stock and decides his life needs to change; and, like those movies, it never feels formulaic or predictable. Nice to see Payne back; nice to see Clooney reminding us, yet again, that even when he’s not doing the Cary Grant thing he’s one of our finest actors.
Speaking of Oscars, you can be certain that Glenn Close will be on the ballot for “Albert Nobbs,” a movie that’s been a very personal project for Close (she also produced and co-wrote) for many years, ever since she starred in an off-Broadway play based on the short story “Albert Nobbs” by George Moore. Albert, you see, is a woman; living her life in late 19th-century Dublin as a butler in a hotel where no one knows her secret. (She first put on the disguise to avoid the vulnerability and financial ruin of being a destitute single woman in a time of great poverty.) As Albert, Close looks small and pale and quiet, as if she’s erased herself; Albert’s face barely moves in the course of the day, as he’s learned that the perfect servant draws no attention to himself. At night, he counts up his tips for the day and dreams of a different life. It’s a small movie, but a sweet and sad one, filled with the delicate pleasures that fine performances bring. (Also splendid: Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Brendan Gleeson and Pauline Collins.)
I’m still trying to shake the creepiness of Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” with Antonio Banderas as a horrifyingly amoral surgeon who creates an ideal woman by replacing the skin on a captive human guinea pig. Very well done — and vintage Almodovar, with its jolts of red and its numerous cinema references — but left me wanting something warm. It was the second movie I saw yesterday that made me think of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (though Jimmy Stewart didn’t have a scalpel), along with “The Artist,” which is I think my favorite film so far.
And one of the festival’s great mysteries continues to be: Why do people keep tripping going up the steps in the cinemas at the Scotiabank multiplex? I first noticed this last year, and was mildly amused by it (don’t these people look where they’re going?) until I did it myself. Every screening, somebody takes a tumble going up those stairs, which can be disastrous for those carrying coffee. Is it some strange Canadian step-rise ratio that’s foiling those of us from south of the border? Or some sort of TIFF-induced dizziness? (This festival can do that to you.) This afternoon am preparing for several interviews (talking to Andrea Arnold, Glenn Close, Will Reiser — author of “50/50,” the fine and touching “cancer comedy” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt– and ALexander Payne), then am tonight going to my one and only TIFF party, at which Clooney just might make an appearance. We shall see. More later . . .

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