2000 TIFF Festival Daily Update #2: "Contenders and Pretenders"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 8, 2000

One of the questions I am most frequently asked about attending film festivals is what kinds of movies do I try to see? Do I go for the obscure titles that are unlikely to receive North American distribution? Do I prefer seeing early screenings of some of the fall's biggest titles? Or do I place my ear to the ground and try to hear the distant buzz that defines the "must see" entries into the festival? In truth, the answer spans all three categories. As a film lover, I enjoy the opportunity to see some offbeat stuff that won't be playing at any theater near me. But, as a film critic, the chance to see some movies early (thus limiting my later workload and reducing the number of times I have to make a 140-mile round-trip journey to advance screenings) is too good to miss. Then there are always the "hot" titles that almost everyone (journalist or otherwise) tries to get into.

For this first update, I have a mixed bag of five movies to discuss, and, except that all of them came to Toronto with distributors and set North American release dates, they have absolutely nothing in common. Four of the five titles (the exception being Urbania) are set for farily widespread release. And, although Urbania is only likely to play in larger markets (perhaps only New York and Los Angeles), it will at least be available outside of the film festival circuit. Everything else will likely open at a nearby multiplex.

The biggest disappointment to date at the film festival (and it's still young...) has been Robert Altman's latest, Dr. T and the Women, which was as highly anticipated as any recent effort shepherded by the great filmmaker. Opinion amongst critics is sharply divided. There are those who cling stubbornly to the belief that Altman is incapable of making a bad movie. Most of those who have attended a screening of the film have emerged with words cautioning others to give the movie a wide berth.

It's tempting to say that the problems start with Richard Gere, but, while Gere's acting talent does nothing to enhance Dr. T, the flaws run much deeper than those that can be laid at his feet. Dr. T and the Women was written by Anne Rapp, who is collaborating with Altman for the second time. Like Cookie's Fortune, their previous endeavor, Dr. T and the Women is set in the South (Dallas) and incorporates a great deal of local flavor and color into the storyline. Unlike Cookie's Fortune, however, this movie suffers from a poor flow, sketchily developed (or undeveloped) characters, and a lack of humor. Cookie's Fortune was occasionally uproarious, but the best Dr. T can manage is the occasional odd chuckle.

The lead character is a gynecologist by the name of Sullivan "Sully" Travis (Gere), or Dr. T as his patients call him. By all accounts, he's one of the busiest men in Dallas, and, as one might expect from someone who's a "lucky kind" of doctor, he is surrounded by women, and not just at work, but at home as well. He has a wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett) and two grown daughters, Dee Dee (Kate Hudson) and Connie (Tara Reid), plus his sister-in-law, Peggy (Laura Dern), and her three young girls are living in his house. And the new golf pro at his golf club is also a woman – a former LPGA Top 25 money winner named Bree (Helen Hunt) who is about the only female in his life who doesn't put on airs.

Dr. T's life starts to crumble when Kate, afflicted with a rare psychological disorder called the Hestia Complex, must be committed to a mental hospital. She has regressed into a childlike state in which she believes Sully is her brother. With Kate no longer in the picture, he finds himself falling for Bree, who is all too willing to respond to his overtures. Meanwhile, Dee Dee is planning her wedding, even though she appears more attracted to Marilyn (Liv Tyler), the maid of honor, than to her intended bridegroom. Connie is jealous of the attention her sister is getting. Peggy is downing champagne like water. Sully's nurse, Caroline (Shelley Long), is coming on to him. And his patients are fighting in the waiting room. All in a day's work for Dr. T.

Dr. T and the Women contains some typical Altman trademarks – quirky characters; long, unbroken camera shots; intersecting storylines; and numerous loose ends. However, it has all the grace of a dead pigeon plummeting from the sky. The lack of focus isn't the biggest problem; instead, it's the inability to become involved in the story on any level. The characters are boring and things move at a glacial pace. Dr. T and the Women picks up considerably during its final half-hour, and the climax, which bears a resemblance to that of Magnolia, leads to a moment of brilliant irony. (It's interesting to note the incestuous relationship between Altman and Magnolia director Paul Thomas Anderson, who has acknowledged Nashville and Short Cuts as inspirations.) However, it's necessary to navigate through 90 minutes of becalmed waters to get there.

Altman will undoubtedly recover from Dr. T and the Women; he's too accomplished a filmmaker not to. In its own way, it's more of an interesting failure than a complete disaster. The movie contains some things to appreciate, not the least of which is the way Altman constructs each scene. But an audience has a right to expect a lot more from a motion picture than a study in technique, and Dr. T and the Women doesn't deliver.

Conversely, the best of the early movies has been Karyn Kusama's Girlfight, which won top honors in January at Sundance and has been awaiting its theatrical release by Screen Gems since then. The product of a first-time director, Girlfight is a well crafted and emotionally satisfying debut – a fine drama about self-discovery and empowerment. It's about taking charge of one's own life when it appears to be hurtling out-of-control towards disaster.

As the title implies, the picture tells the story of a would-be girl boxer. Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez in a coming-out performance that is equal parts fire and luminosity) is a frequent troublemaker at school, where she's just a few months away from graduation. However, her propensity for getting into fights has her one demerit away from expulsion. She has no boyfriend, and her few female friends are wary of her volatile nature. Her home life isn't much better. Her mother has been dead for years and there's a slow-burning, mutual antagonism between Diana and her father (Paul Calderon). The only one she seems to care for is her geeky brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago). One day, after dropping something off at the Brooklyn Athletic Club, Diana decides that she wants to take boxing lessons. She coaxes one of the coaches, Hector (Jaime Tirelli), to teach her for $10 a session. Soon, she is channeling her hostility and energy into the sport and is becoming less disruptive at school. At home, however, her relationship with her father edges closer to an explosion of physical violence.

In today's society, boxing is rarely seen as a positive thing - and it's not a surprise considering the way the professional level of the sport has become riddled with corruption. Thugs dominate the ring and crooks manage them. Boxing movies like Girlfight, which show that there can be a positive aspect to the sport - getting participants off the street and giving them a focal point for pent-up adolescent angst and anger - are rare. Rarer still are motion pictures like this that don't descend into sermonizing and over-the-top melodrama. One of Girlfight's most notable features is its finely modulated sense of drama. It tells a compelling story by making the characters and their situations real. And, unlike in most sports movies where the underdog must inevitably triumph at the end, the victor's identity in Girlfight is very much in doubt. In a way, that's because the outcome of the "big bout" isn't all that important. This picture is much more about Diana's succeeding in life than it is about her winning in the ring. And, although the movie at times echoes the likes of Rocky and Raging Bull, it possesses its own rhythm and approach.

Girlfight has a hard side, because it's about characters who have been dealt a bad hand by life, but it is ultimately emotionally satisfying because it explores the way they fight and struggle to right themselves. This picture surprised me with its strength of plot and character development. Such was the strength of Kusama's vision that she gained the support of independent producer Maggie Renzi and her longtime partner, John Sayles (who not only executive produced the film, but has a cameo appearance in it as a science teacher), and, when the movie reaches the wider audiences of multiplexes, it will undoubtedly find favor there as well.

Another movie that features -- or at least touches upon -- boxing is the UK import, Billy Elliot, which, despite being a charming story, doesn't quite live up to the lively and postive buzz surrounding it. Taking its cue from recent British imports like Brassed Off! and The Full Monty, Billy Elliot combines whimsy, comedy, and socially-conscious drama into a crowd-pleasing whole. Although neither revolutionary in its approach or subject matter nor seamless in its storytelling, Billy Elliot nevertheless manages to sketch the lives of characters we come to care about. Its appeal lies in the way it draws the audience into a bond with the protagonist and the manner in which it avoids painting the supporting players with one brush.

That world is Thatcher's United Kingdom, where the coal miners are on strike and the police are mobilized daily to put down potential riots. Scabs who cross picket lines are in bodily danger, and only the presence of numerous armed officers keeps the conflagration from exploding. Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is an 11-year old boy whose life has been turned upside down by the strike, since both his father, Jackie (Gary Lewis), and his brother, Tony (Jamie Draven), are among those currently not bringing home a paycheck. While they're out manning the picket lines, Billy is left home to care for his senile grandmother. His own mother is recently deceased and Billy, who visits her grave regularly, misses her more deeply than he is willing to admit.

Billy Elliot begins in much the same manner as many movies about amateur boxing providing a valuable outlet for youthful aggressions. But Billy is inept in the ring, and he soon finds his attention wandering to a ballet class that is being taught within the walls of the same gym. At first, Billy simply watches as the teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), puts her students through the moves, but it isn't long before he's paying fifty pence per lesson and learning that he may have the raw ability to succeed in an audition for the Royal Ballet School. Unfortunately, while dancing may be Billy's dream for himself, it's not his father's. When Jackie finds out what his son has been up to, he explodes with the expected testosterone-induced reaction: "Lads do football, boxing, or wrestling – not friggin' ballet!" He questions Billy's sexuality and demands that he immediately cease having anything to do with Mrs. Wilkinson and her classes.

Billy Elliot's secondary plot deals with the struggles of the coal miners to obtain fair wages and benefits. The sense of poverty and social injustice that this brings to the film increases Billy Elliot's dramatic heft. While lacking the powerful-yet-subtle approach of a master like Ken Loach, first-time director Stephen Daldry gets his points across without becoming overly preachy. It's clear what his stance on the issue is, but he avoids most of the obvious melodramatic traps. The acting is of consistently high quality, and is one of the reasons why the movie is as effective as it is. Billy Elliot wins over viewers because of its characters, not its plot, and these individuals are imbued with life by the actors inhabiting their skins.

Although Billy Elliot doesn't exactly fall apart at the end, the final twenty minutes, all of which transpire in London, represent the movie's weakest segment. With an audition that recalls Jennifer Beals' in Flashdance, Billy Elliot moves out of the tricky, murky waters of family dynamics and into the realm of formula plot development. Then there's a brief epilogue which, while not adding anything new to the story, provides a satisfactory sense of closure. Billy Elliot ends on a high note that will have many movie-goers smiling as they leave the theater.

Rod Lurie's The Contender, which is one of the festival's most anticipated Galas, applies a boxing term to the world of politics. While the term "contender" has a number of meanings, it is most commonly associated with the ring. Contenders dance across the canvas, often broken and bleeding, but never bowing out until they have been pummeled into senselessness. By calling this film, about the confirmation hearings of a Vice President Designate, The Contender, Lurie has highlighted the metaphor linking the brutality of the boxing ring with the equally uncompromising and bloody battles that take place in politics. Although the winners rarely escape unscathed, the losers often emerge with their lives and careers in tatters. And, if Lurie's view of American politics is cynical, it's certainly not more so than that of the average voter.

The story opens several weeks after the death of the Vice President. President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) has narrowed his selection of candidates to a short list. The party favorite is up-and-coming Democratic star, Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), the popular governor of Virginia. Evans, however, is pursuing his own agenda. Midway through his second term, he is in search of a means to secure his legacy, and he believes that putting a woman in the Vice President's position is unique enough to earn him a spot in the history books. So, bucking the advice of even his key advisors, he names Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) as his choice. However, his hopes for smooth sailing run afoul of Congressman Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman), the Republican chairman of the confirmation hearings. Runyon wants Hathaway, and will stop at nothing to derail Hanson's chances, including dredging up a 25-year old sex scandal. Hanson finds herself embroiled in a battle where she is hampered by her own high ethical standards while her opponents have no such handicaps.

For most of its running length, The Contender offers a fairly straightforward account of the moves and counter-moves made by Runyon and Evans as they maneuver against one another. For either of them, a defeat means absorbing a political blow, but for Hanson, the pawn in the middle, everything is at stake – her credibility, her reputation, and her future. As in Lurie's previous outing, Deterrence, where the struggle between Iraq and the United States played out as a mixture of chess and poker, The Contender turns Hanson's confirmation process into a high-stakes game of strategy, where there are no rules. Runyon, motivated as much by petty personal reasons as by party politics, is willing to get down and dirty, slinging mud at will and knowing that some of it will stick. Hanson, however, tries to take the high road – a path that becomes increasingly difficult to follow. She is not naοve, but she will not give up her principles, even when presented with a potential weapon. In the end, The Contender asks a key question: can someone with a moral code survive in the national political forum?

The Contender is not without hiccups. A subplot featuring a female FBI agent is clumsily grafted onto the main story. Although it serves a purpose – to soften the deus ex machina aspect of a key twist – Lurie never integrates it seamlessly into The Contender's fabric. As a result, it remains an appendage. Additionally, the way everything is wrapped up into a nice, neat package at the end seems a little too convenient. As in Deterrence, a surprise development allows the President to neatly sidestep making a difficult decision. Finally, while I'm not a big fan of using grandstanding speeches to offer a catharsis, at least in this case the speech fits the circumstances and is delivered in a suitably convincing manner. Taken as a whole, this movie represents a major step forward for the director, and, emerging into theaters as it does in the thick of a presidential election campaign, it may live up to its name at the box office.

Finally, there's Urbania, a competition entry at this year's Sundance Film Festival that opened enough eyes to earn it a small distribution deal. Jon Shear's grim, dark film is the latest motion picture to toy with audience expectations. It treads the thin and often ambiguous line between the real and imagined in a way that will keep all but the most easily distracted film-goers involved. Urbania may occasionally be a little clumsy in its attempts to mislead viewers, but that's not its primary aim. This is a tale of love, loss, and the unending (and often futile) search for intimacy in a cold world. It is not a happy story by any stretch of the imagination, but, in an age when communication by electronic means has replaced face-to-face contact, Urbania's focus is timely and meaningful.

The main storyline centers on Charlie (Dan Futterman), a gay man who has recently suffered through the traumatic end to a meaningful relationship. In the aftermath, Charlie is trying to find something to hang on to, so he spends much of his time in a sleazy dive, looking for the one particular individual with which he believes he has "a connection." Along the way, he experiences bizarre visions, some of which are flashbacks, some of which may be real, and some of which are the product of a grief-stricken and angry imagination. As the film unfolds, we gradually learn more about Charlie's history, but it isn't until the closing moments that everything snaps into focus.

While this material, which is competently handled by Shear, is interesting in its own right, the subplots are what elevate Urbania to a level that demands notice. The director cleverly entwines Charlie's plight with a series of urban legends - kidneys stolen from the body of a human host, a baby left on the hood of a car, a dog placed in a microwave oven, and a woman who has unprotected sex with a man to give him AIDS. Each of these becomes a thread in the background fabric of Shear's tapestry, and several are presented in such an offhand manner that it's as if the filmmaker is winking at his audience.

Dan Futterman, who is known primarily as a "light" actor (he's currently a regular in the TV series "Judging Amy"), gives a precise, credible performance as a man on the brink of an abyss. We're never quite sure whether or not Charlie is sane. He's our narrator, but he may not be reliable. Shear further muddies the water by presenting events in a non-chronological fashion. Although the plot moves from point A to point B, it by no means makes that trip in a straight line. Along the way, gallows humor and a growing sense of doom serve to heighten the level of tension and suspense.

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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