Wednesday, September 17, 2008

O Canada! Adventures at the Toronto Film Festival

Posted 9.24.08

Here is a guest column by my colleague Milan Paurich, who recently returned from the 2008 Toronto Film Festival.

Toronto's reputation as a launching pad for award-winning films takes a serious beating in 2008.

By Milan Paurich

I've never walked out of a movie at the Toronto International Film Festival before, not even Golden Turkey Hall of Shame bow-wows like The Human Stain or Revolver. The sheer investment of time and energy that it takes to get into any TIFF screening (upwards of two hours for the really hot titles) discourages auditorium-hopping.

But when you see people fleeing in the middle of a brutally bad flick — and there were plenty this year, trust me — your mind begins to play tricks on you. Do they know something you don't?

As it turns out, nobody knows anything at TIFF. Everyone is capable of (repeatedly) making the same boneheaded decisions that you are. Some folks are just better at playing movie Russian roulette. I'm sure that it was possible to
have had a great time at the recently concluded 33rd edition of the Toronto Film Festival. That just wasn't my experience this annum.

Sure, there were plenty of good films to see, but even the best ones were overshadowed by the soul-crushing disappointments and flat-out stinkers, many of which, ironically, were the most difficult to get into.

The few "big" studio films to premiere at TIFF (Spike Lee's WWII epic The Miracle of Saint Anna; Oprah-endorsed The Secret Life of Bees; Pride and Glory with Colin Farrell and Edward Norton; Ed Harris' oater Appaloosa; supernatural romantic comedy Ghost Town; Greg Kinnear's Oscar wannabe Flash of Genius) sank without a trace, leaving the Great White North without the requisite bounce they were hoping for, and that many desperately need to make any sort of commercial inroads.

Toronto's reputation for being the official launching pad for the upcoming awards season took a serious beating in 2008. Conspicuous by their absence were such heavily touted Oscar contenders as Milk, The Road, The Soloist, Revolu
tionary Road and Doubt. The official line was that they weren't ready in time, but conspiracy theorists like me spent the entire festival debating the veracity of that claim. Anything to keep our minds off the (generally) underwhelming movies that did manage to show up.

With his shot-in-Pittsburgh romantic comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno, former Sundance whiz kid Kevin Smith officially became culturally irrelevant. Like John Waters, whose shock-at-all-costs approach became passé once gross-out comedy went mainstream with the Farrelly Brothers, Smith's potty-mouthed, pop-culture-referencing schtick seems positively antiquated in the Judd Apatow era. Maybe Smith should do a Broadway musical version of Clerks (à la Waters' Hairspray) for his next act.

Any hopes that Sony's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist might become this year's Juno died halfway through the TIFF press screening when it became apparent that director Peter Sollett (of Raising Victor Vargas fame) was more interested in sophomoric toilet humor than pathos or insight. The only thing Juno and Nick and Norah have in common is the same leading man-child, Michael Cera.

Sollett wasn't the only TIFF filmmaker experiencing a precipitous sophomore slump. Rain Johnson followed his brilliant 2005 high school noir Brick with The Bro
thers Bloom, a failed Wes Anderson homage that repeatedly hits the same note of arch whimsy. Even with its spectacularly gifted cast (including Mark Ruffalo and Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz), Johnson's grifter farce fails on nearly every conceivable level. And Neil Burger blew whatever indie cred he earned with 2006's The Illusionist by inflicting pedestrian Iraq homefront road movie The Lucky Ones on TIFF audiences.

It wasn't just relative newbies like Sollett, Johnson and Burger who came up short. Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme's (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) self-indulgent, multiculturalism-with-a-trowel Rachel Getting Married squanders terrific performances by Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt and long missing-in-action Debra Winger on piddling material. The result is as wearying as spending two hours in the company of a recovering addict which, come to think of it, Hathaway's sister-of-the-bride character is.

Despite a bravura performance by Jeff Goldblum in the leading role, Paul Schrader's Holocaust drama Adam Resurrected is so unfocused, meandering and overwrought that most of the audience at a morning press screening bailed before
the end credits. Currently without a U.S. distributor, its only hope of finding an audience is via the Jewish Film Festival circuit.

British stalwart Mike Leigh was represented by one of his least satisfying films to date. Happy-Go-Lucky is a character study about a young woman (Sally Hawkins' Cockney elementary schoolteacher Polly) who's more fingernails-on-a-blackboard grating than charming or endearing. After two hours with the relentlessly chipper Polly, I felt like wringing her scrawny neck.

Richard Eyre, who directed Iris and Notes on a Scandal erred
with the decently acted, if profoundly inconsequential The Other Man. Not even a reunion of Kinsey stars Laura Linney and Liam Neeson — playing a straying wife and her cuckolded husband — could make this movie a must-see.

Larry Charles created tsunami-like waves at TIFF with Borat in 2006, but his new documentary, Religulous, made in tandem with political satirist Bill Maher, was too scattershot and overextended at 103 minutes. Perhaps it would have worked better as a one-hour HBO comedy special.

Some of my fondest TIFF memories were supplied by films that arrived either sans buzz (the lushly appointed period romance The Duchess, starring an excellent Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes) or suffering from bad buzz. Maybe it was diminished expectations (they flopped at Venice and Cannes respectively), but The Burning Plain (the directing debut of Amores Perros and Babel screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger) and Synecdoche, New York (another directorial debut, this one by surrealist scenarist extraordinaire Charlie Kaufman) both seemed pretty okay to me.

I was particularly taken with Synecdoche, which features a dream cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a Hellzapoppin' comic phantasmagoria that felt like Kaufman's personal spin on Fellini's 8 1/2.

Most of my favorite Toronto films came from ringers — pet directors who never seem to let me down. Arnand Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours and Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum all told beautifully nuanced stories of families in crisis. Michael Winterbottom's superb Genova also dealt with a family trauma (Colin Firth takes his two young daughters with him to Italy for a teaching gig after the tragic death of wife Hope Davis), and Terrence Davies' Liverpool memento mori Of Time and the City proved that auteur filmmaking is alive and well, at least on the international circuit.

Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City continued the award-winning Chinese director's winning streak with an artful blend of documentary and fiction. Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, featuring an award-caliber performance by Michelle Williams, displayed the same humanist rigor as Belgium's Dardenne Brothers.

Guy Ritchie returned from the dead with RocknRolla, another boys-with-guns gangster flick, but his most larkishly entertaining and accomplished work to date. Richard Linklater's winsome life-in-the-theater fable Me and Orson Welles features an amazing simulacrum of the "Citizen Kane" genius by newcomer Christian McKay that has to be seen to be believed. Veteran Swedish director Jan Troell (1972 Best Picture Oscar nominee for The Emigrants) reclaimed his rightful place in the cinematic pantheon with the exquisite Everlasting Moments, an intimate family saga set in the early 20th century. And genre specialist Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Near Dark) may have finally made an Iraq movie that audiences will actually pay to see. The Hurt Locker, Bigelow's crackerjack suspense thriller about a military bomb disposal unit stationed in Baghdad, opens in theaters next spring.

I could tell you about Lovely, Still, a lugubrious gender-reversal spin on Away from Her, reimagined as a 90-minute Twilight Zone episode; the repulsive French splatter flick Martyrs; or The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, based on a "rare original screenplay" by Tennessee Williams that had an early morning press screening audience howling with unintentional laughter, but I'd rather end things on a more positive note.

The happiest distributor leaving Toronto was undoubtedly Fox Searchlight. After wowing them at Telluride, Danny Boyle's irresistible, ingeniously structured Dickens-Meets-Bollywood Slumdog Millionaire maintained its exalted buzz status by winning TIFF's Audience Choice Award. And Twentieth Century Fox's boutique label was also the lucky winner of the "Wrestler" sweepstakes. Darren (Requiem for a Dream) Aronofsky's superbly gritty melodrama about a down-and-out pro wrestler (Mickey Rourke in a revelatory performance destined to win him at least a Best Actor nomination) parlayed its Venice Golden Lion into a $4-million acquisition deal with the company. Not surprisingly, F-S has already announced an awards-wooing December 19th release date.

Hmmm; maybe TIFF hasn't lost its Oscar-prognosticator status after all.


Another thing that made this year's festival such an ordeal was the increasingly obnoxious behavior of TIFF attendees. Blackberrys and cell phones were a routine annoyance at press and industry screenings. Jostling for a place in line — TIFF is all about queuing up — was more stressful than ever. I witnessed at least two fistfights break out during interminable waits for "Priority Press" screenings. Even Grand Poobah Roger Ebert got involved in a highly publicized fracas that made the front page of the New York Daily News. Or maybe everyone was just grumpier than usual because the movies were so bad.

Unlike TIFF '07, there was no Juno, Into the Wild, No Country for Old Men or even Atonement to make your heart beat a little faster, and give your weary bones — and even wearier posterior--a much needed shot of adrenaline. There were, however, a slew of marginal titles, most of which departed the festival still seeking a U.S. distribution deal.

Three movies that left empty-handed were Easy Virtue, a dawdling, decorous period romp starring Colin Firth, Jessica Biel (surprisingly good) and Kristin Scott Thomas, directed by Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert); John Stockwell's clunky Middle of Nowhere that teamed real-life mother and daughter Susan Sarandon and Eva Amurri as, what else?, mother and daughter; and Uncertainty, a maddeningly opaque urban-romance-noir-whatzit by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End). And so it goes.

Some smaller films suffered from being viewed in a pressure cooker environment like TIFF. Neither Hunger (an impressionistic look at the final days of IRA political prisoner Bobby Sands that won the Camera d'Or for best first feature at Cannes) or Norwegian minimalist Bent Hamer's low-key quirkfest O'Horten registered the way they might have in the real, i.e., non-festival, world. Hopefully I'll get the chance to take a second look when they open theatrically in 2009.

The lack of additional late-night screenings for some of the more popular movies was both confounding and irritating. Last year I was able to see Lars and the Real Girl, No Country for Old Men and The Visitor at 10:30 p.m. Sometimes it felt like the festival staff didn't want critics to see any movies at all. For example, a seemingly arbitrary last-minute scheduling change meant that I was forced to miss Lymelife, a buzzed-about Ice Storm-like drama set in late-seventies Long Island starring Alec Baldwin and Rory and Kieran Culkin. Produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by the talented Derick Martini (Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish), Lymelife is certain to find a distributor. Too bad I wasn't allowed to take an early peek.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Cleveland Scene.

No comments: