Justin Chang, Peter Debruge on 'Master,' 'Cloud Atlas' and more

Variety senior film critics Peter Debruge and Justin Chang discuss the films they’ve seen at Toronto so far:

Peter Debruge: Halfway into the Toronto Film Festival, we’ve already been able to sink our teeth into enough red-meat movies to virtually erase the taste of this summer’s low-calorie popcorn fare. The challenge, from where we stand, is being able to form an immediate reaction to such juicy, richly textured offerings as “Cloud Atlas” and “The Master,” both of which have been replaying in my head since I saw them earlier this week. Even the disappointments, such as Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines,” have connected with a fair number of smart audiences here and are to be admired for their ambition.

Justin Chang: I’ve heard nothing but admiration for “The Master’s” ambition, seriousness and sheer cinematic grandeur, even from those who, like myself, aren’t afraid to admit that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s an indelible film and a profoundly mysterious one, and I say that without the slightest complaint. Yet Toronto, being an audience festival, also thrives on whip-smart, beautifully made, ambiguity-free crowd-pleasers like David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and J. A. Bayona’s “The Impossible.” One’s hilarious, one’s horrifying, yet somehow they both manage to find their way to a place of uplift.

PD: The same goes for “The Sessions,” retitled since it first bowled me over (then called “The Surrogate”) at Sundance. “The Impossible” plays just as powerfully, reminding what cinema at its most elemental is all about: vicarious experience, heightened emotion and an unwavering belief that love conquers all. You likened Bayona’s approach to Spielberg’s in your review, and the comparison is totally apt. Copping a few camera moves from “Jurassic Park,” the “Orphanage” director follows the Spielberg formula to the letter, creating a real-life roller-coaster, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for a central family of characters (inexplicably Aryanized for the screen), amplifying the experience with music and then culminating in a group hug.

JC: I share your reservations about “The Impossible” — the racial recasting, the sentimental uplift — while fully admitting that, for a good hour at least, Bayona completely got past my defenses. A commanding filmmaker can do that; so, too, can commanding performances, of which there has been no shortage here in Toronto. Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron make a terrific father-son duo in Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price.” Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence give good crazy in “Silver Linings Playbook.” And Philip Seymour Hoffman, so brilliant in “The Master,” is just as fine alongside Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir in Yaron Zilberman’s “A Late Quartet.”

PD: Elsewhere on the performance front, I’ve seen some great work from actors of every generation, ranging from “The Impossible’s” young Tom Holland to the septuagenarian cast of Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, “Quartet,” set in a retirement home for opera stars. “End of Watch” co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena do a remarkable job humanizing the LAPD in David Ayer’s found-footage on-the-job drama, and it’s a thrill to watch Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play older/younger versions of the same futuristic assassin in Rian Johnson’s impressive time-travel thriller “Looper.” Still, nothing compares to the challenge the “Cloud Atlas” cast faced playing characters of completely different races and genders in that epic project’s six interwoven stories.

JC: On a less ambitious note, I’d like to express my admiration for the Joss Whedon alums who came together for his black-and-white indie “Much Ado About Nothing,” which suggests to me that even Whedon gets tired of those summer popcorn movies you mentioned earlier. It’s not a film everyone will love or even like, but as a wholly unexpected, what-the-hell passion project tossed off by one of our foremost blockbuster engineers, it’s pretty inspiring. Here’s hoping we find similarly daring work in the remaining days to come.

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