"Stranger than Fiction" is amusing but never quite soars; "Little Children" is a tense character study with fine performances; and "The Host" is a loony monster movie with unexpected depth. Here are short reviews of these films, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"Stranger than Fiction" has an ingenious concept. It’s the story of an average Joe (Will Ferrell) who realizes that he is living in the midst of a novel; a woman (Emma Thompson) is accurately narrating everything he does. Eventually, he learns from the voice that he is going to die, and he tries desperately to both find the author and take control of his own life story. It’s a setup that promises a Charlie Kauffman-esque meta meditation on the nature of art and life. However, despite some wry dialogue and an effectively restrained performance by Farrell, "Stranger than Fiction" never really transcends its central idea. It’s a bit disappointing that "Fiction" isn’t stranger.
The essence of "Little Children" boils down to two five-word sentences: "My love is a fever" and "please be a good boy." When key characters in the film read these words, they know exactly what they mean, because they’ve been thinking the same things. What first appears to be another attack on suburban yuppies evolves into something much deeper. From the moment they meet onscreen, Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson) share an undeniable chemistry; they see in each other an opportunity to transcend their mundane existences. But their bond begins as a platonic one; they hang out at the pool with their small children, content to enjoy each other’s company. One of the best things about "Little Children" is how real it all seems. Winslet and Wilson generate so much heat, and their characters are created with such attention to detail, that it’s easy to see how they drift toward each other. The other performances are just as fine; Jennifer Connelly is solid as Brad’s decent, albeit distant, wife; the child actors are uniformly excellent; and Jackie Earle Haley, as a man with a sexual predisposition toward children, pulls off a nearly impossible accomplishment: he makes his character an empathetic (if not sympathetic) creation, a man who knows he has little control over his sad, empty life. "Little Children" is an adult film in the best sense; it creates three-dimensional characters, sets them loose to do what they will, and trusts that we will understand.
What is "The Host?" It’s a monster movie, a political satire, a wacky comedy, and a poignant look at the ties that bind a dysfunctional family. What’s surprising is how much of this bizarro South Korean import works. If nothing else, "The Host" does a great job of shifting tones and defying expectations. When a schoolgirl is abducted by a mutant fish monster, her slacker dad, archery champion aunt, alcoholic uncle and kindly grandfather undertake a Sisyphusian mission to rescue her; meanwhile, incompetent and overly bureaucratic governmental and military officials warn the public about a supposed virus emanating from the monster without stopping the creature itself. The CG effects are solid, the laughs are goofy, and there’s a real sweetness in the family’s search for the little girl, the only person in the clan that everyone truly likes. If there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that, at two hours, "The Host" is a little flabby. With a few trims, this could be a fanboy classic.