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Toronto, Day 6: Jennifer Aniston, Jon Stewart And Earnestness

Gael Garcia Bernal in Jon Stewart's <em>Rosewater</em>.
Gael Garcia Bernal in Jon Stewart's <em>Rosewater</em>.

Cake: Jennifer Aniston plays Claire, a woman we first meet as she's shocking her chronic pain support group with her barbed reactions to the recent suicide of a group member named Nina. Claire's face and body are crisscrossed with scars, and she moves uncomfortably at every moment — which is why she gobbles pain pills and has to constantly invent new methods for getting more. Her marriage has recently broken up, despite the fact that she and her husband (Chris Messina) clearly still care about each other. The sources of both her physical suffering and her evident misery are initially unclear. Her only friend in the world seems to be her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), whom she treats with a sort of clipped, resentful affection.

As the story progresses, Claire becomes fixated on Nina's decision to end her life, even having hallucinations and visions in which she and Nina talk (and in which Nina is played by Anna Kendrick). She meets Nina's husband (Sam Worthington) and son, and goes to the spot where she jumped off a highway overpass. This morbid fascination is tied, of course, to Claire's own chronic pain, which she feels in several dimensions.

The impressive acidity of the first section of the film ultimately gives way to a few brushes with sentimentality later, but Aniston's frank and brutal portrayal of Claire carries it past those moments, as does Barraza's transcendence of helpful-housekeeper cliches as it becomes clear that Silvana has her own life and family, as well as her own frustrations.

Rosewater: Jon Stewart's absence from The Daily Show in 2013 to direct Rosewater was probably the best promotion it could have had. It tells the story of journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), who was imprisoned in Iran in 2009 and accused of being a spy. (One thing used against him, though certainly not the only thing, was an appearance he did with Jason Jones for The Daily Show.)

There are a few flourishes in Rosewater that don't work: it's really time to stop trying to do exciting montages with hashtags floating across the screen, among other things. There are better ways to communicate that social media is involved in a story. That bit has the feel of a first-time director perhaps being a little too fancy, particularly since the best scenes in the film are the simplest ones: conversations between Bahari and his "specialist" interrogator, played by Kim Bodnia. These discussions are intermittently terrifying and absurd, as Bahari is accused of spying in part because he loves The Sopranos and Anton Chekhov.

It can be hard to know how to feel about a film with this many baked-in advantages: Stewart's high-profile involvement, the important true story behind it, the tie to the beloved Daily Show. This film could have felt important and moving even were it not solidly made, but it is solidly made. It could have used a bit of restraint in a few places, but it's a lovely piece of work with a fine performance from Gael Garcia Bernal. This Jon Stewart guy could be somebody.

Shelter: Actor Paul Bettany wrote and directed this very earnest drama starring Jennifer Connelly (a marvelous actress who's also Bettany's wife) and Anthony Mackie as a homeless couple. In its best moments, Shelter addresses itself to the terrible everyday traps they face: how you can be too sick for a shelter to take you but not sick enough for a hospital to take you, how a hard-won shelter placement can fall apart for lack of transportation, or how well-meaning efforts to avoid enabling addiction can backfire as lack of support.

Unfortunately, rather than sticking closely to these sharp observations, Shelter falls into grander, goopier dramatic elements, including a really unnecessary last twist that boxes in the story and doesn't really add a lot. Moreover, the characterizations of Tahir (Mackie) and Hannah (Connelly) are not as strong as they could be: he's a Nigerian immigrant who's overstayed his visa, and he's pretty unerringly wise and wonderful (though he has dark secrets); she's a heroin addict whose path to homelessness seems a little murky, and the motivation for revealing that she speaks French seems uncomfortably close to advocating compassion for homeless people on the basis that they were once wealthy and educated.

There's more than a little missed opportunity in the story as well: Hannah never considers, for instance, that when she goads him into breaking into a house, the consequences she will suffer as a white woman if they're caught are not the same ones he will suffer. The intentions in the film are undoubtedly good (it's dedicated at the end to "the couple that lived outside my building"), but its grander gestures rob it of much of its effectiveness.

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