TORONTO — Attending a film festival requires a working critic to see four to six movies a day for the better part of a week — kids, please don’t try this at home — and one of the more fascinating aspects of such an experience is the window it provides into what might be termed star strategies. Consciously or not, actors announce how they want to be perceived with each new release. Does a recent discovery want to be recognized as an acting heavyweight? Can a child star advance to grown-up roles? What options are open to leading men and ladies who have aged out of the industry’s obsession with youth? The Toronto International Film Festival, which wrapped up another 11-day program on Sunday, offered examples of all of these and more.
In some cases, the picture wasn’t a pretty one. “The Last of Robin Hood” looks good (i.e., alluringly sleazy) on paper: A fact-based drama of the final days of movie star Errol Flynn (Kevin Kline), highlighting his romance with 15-year-old Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning) and her relationship with her crass, stagestruck mother (Susan Sarandon). Given all the talent, it’s mysterious that the film turns out to be junk: a flatly written, blandly directed drama that’s barely worthy of co-producer Lifetime and that defeats both Kline (trying to play a touchstone of screen derring-do) and Fanning (do what she can, Aadland just isn’t interesting).
Like Fanning, Saoirse Ronan (”Atonement”) is a young actress of almost unearthly talents, and “How I Live Now” shows her, at 19, doing what she can to grow up onscreen. A strikingly filmed what-if drama about a disaffected American teenage girl whose vacation in the British countryside is interrupted by World War III, the movie has Ronan’s character avoiding rape and genocide while trying to reunite with the hawk-whispering boy (George MacKay) she loves. It’s as if the old TV movie “The Day After” had been rewritten by Nicholas Sparks: Nothing bolsters a young girl’s self-esteem like Armageddon.
Then there’s “Love Punch,” which Emma Thompson and Pierce Brosnan should probably leave off their resumes. An inane bit of slapstick about a divorced British couple who team up to steal a diamond from the evil young businessman who stole the husband’s company, it aims for the older audience that made a hit out of “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and misses by a mile. At least the cast seems to be having a good time, which may be enough when you’ve been in the movies long enough. But Thompson and Brosnan got a vacation in the South of France, and all we got was this lousy T-shirt.
Given the dire prospects for a 50-something actress, Annette Bening has a better idea: Shoot for the moon of melodrama. “The Face of Love” isn’t a great film and audiences may not be able to get on its old-school wavelength, but the crazier Arie Posin’s drama gets — and the crazier Bening’s character, a bourgeois LA widow who meets a double of her late husband (both played by Ed Harris), gets — the more weirdly compelling the film becomes. One can easily imagine Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck biting into this part in her prime, and when we get to the scene where the double tries on a seersucker suit like the dead husband used to wear, it feels like a remake of “Vertigo” as directed by Douglas Sirk, the master of the barbed women’s weepie.
More star permutations: Jude Law ruffling his thespic British feathers as the title character in “Dom Hemingway,” a hyper-violent ex-con with no brakes on his Id. It’s as though the actor finally saw Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast” and said, “Yeah, gimme some of that.” Law is undeniably entertaining even when Dom is going too far — which is from frame one, with a hilarious extended monologue about his nether regions — and the script by director Richard Shepard (“The Matador”) is as quotable as it is unprintable. Midway through, the film pirouettes from a comic revenge thriller to a softhearted character piece as Law’s mutton-chopped sociopath tries to reconnect with his daughter (Emilia Clarke) and grandson (Jordan Nash), and you can feel the energy slowly hiss out of the proceedings. A decent one, though, and good to see Richard E. Grant (“Withnail & I”) back onscreen as the hero’s dyspeptic, one-handed hit man friend.
The two best reinventions of persona I saw at this year’s Toronto — not to mention the two best movies, period — came out of left field. In John Ridley’s “All Is By My Side,” the hip-hop performer André Benjamin — better known as André 3000 of OutKast — plays the young Jimi Hendrix in a state of total intuitive immersion. The film’s a rock ’n’ roll origin story — its time span the year Jimi went from being a nobody to the Great God of the Guitar — but Ridley avoids biopic clichés for an impressionistic approach to story and camerawork, editing and sound, that at times feels as gloriously disorienting as a Hendrix solo. The guitar work (performed by Benjamin, by all accounts) is great, although there’s not nearly enough of it, and the movie is as astute about the era’s racial politics (and Jimi’s avoidance of them) as it is clear-eyed about his less admirable traits. Above all, Ridley doesn’t treat Hendrix as an enigma to be “solved” but simply as an instinctual artist, for better and for worse. The only remaining mystery is where the music came from.
And who would have thought of John Turturro as a romantic idol? “Fading Gigolo,” which the actor also wrote and directed, was perhaps the slightest film I saw at Toronto, but it was also among the loveliest: A serious-minded comedy about a middle-aged New Yorker (Turturro) who becomes an unlikely stud-for-hire. The cast is full of fecund surprises, including Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara as two of Turturro’s clients, Liev Schreiber as an Orthodox cop, and Woody Allen, in his best acting role in years, as the hero’s chattery little pimp.
For all that, the heart of “Fading Gigolo” is the relationship between Turturro’s Fioravante — a courtly, poetic man with touches of Zen and reserves of stamina — and Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a lonely Orthodox Jewish widow from Williamsburg. This is the most confident of Turturro’s directing jobs and one of his tenderest performances; at times the movie’s a mess, but it goes to such special places that you don’t mind. And it serves notice that, for some actors, reinvention never stops.