2000 TIFF Festival Daily Update #5: "Reel Views"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 11, 2000

Coffee - the life blood of a film festival. Actually, one could call it the life blood of everyday existence. Everyone talks about addictions to smoking, drugs, and alcohol, but I wonder how many people are addicted to caffeine? At film festivals, where sleep is a word that people talk about with the longing of a lost lover, coffee becomes the catalyst to prop open eyes during early morning and late night screenings. Yesterday, one critic proudly boasted that he was already on his tenth cup of coffee - and it wasn't even noon. No wonder the bathrooms at the screening locations are always full.

When considering possible coffee-buying locations, Toronto isn't lacking. Like many major cities, it seems that, no matter where you are, there's always a coffee shop or two around the next corner. The Cumberland has Coffee Works across the street. The Uptown has a Second Cup and a Starbucks within a block. The Varsity has a Timothy's downstairs. And the Elgin has a Starbucks within a two-minute walk. Wherever you go, there's always a cup of joe to be had. And when you stand in line to get into a movie, the man or woman in front of you is likely to be using two hands to juggle one Starbucks cup, one cell phone, and one palm pilot. Sometimes, you have to marvel at people's coordination.

During the festival, the best place to meet people is in line. The second best is in coffee shops. That's where the die-hards hang out, downing cappuccinos and lattes like they are water from a drinking fountain. They look wired. They are wired, but they won't fall asleep during their next screening - even if it is a three-hour French snoozer where two people sit and mumble to each other incomprehensibly for the bulk of the running time. Occasionally, you'll even meet an actor or a director in a coffee shop (the chances of this happening are in direct proportion to how close it is to the Four Seasons Hotel, where anyone who's anyone stays - or, to put it another way, where anyone who has an unlimited accommodations budget stays), although most of the time they send out for their java. But if you want to overhear conversations between publicists trying to one-up each other ("my actor's a bigger star than yours is"), just pull up a stool at Starbucks.

At the conclusion of this film festival, a lot of movie-goers are going to take their "25th Annual Toronto Film Festival" coffee mugs and head home to rent a copy of F.W. Murnau's silent classic, Nosferatu. That's because one of the best received entries on this year's lengthy roster of titles has been E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, which offers a fictionalized account of the filming of the 1921 seminal film. The gothic Elgin Theater provided the perfect setting in which to show this movie to 1500 eager viewers - a fact that the director noted during his opening remarks. For, as Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz have imagined things, the pointy-eared, bald star of Nosferatu, Max Schreck, didn't just play a vampire - he was one in real life.

John Malkovich gets top billing, being Murnau. However, the standout is an unrecognizable Willem Dafoe, whose eerie turn as the bloodthirsty Schreck should earn him an Oscar nomination (if there's any justice - which there isn't - and if anyone sees the film once Lions Gate gets it into theaters later this year). Dafoe is the spitting image of Schreck, from the unmistakable look (no one, not even Bela Lugosi, has created a more memorable vampire screen persona) to the mannerisms. The simple story follows the movie's production history, which ran into trouble early when Bram Stoker's widow refused Murnau the rights to "Dracula." and certain substitutions had to be made. The director also had to deal with a temperamental leading lady (played by Catherine McCormack). Then there was the casting of the mysterious Schreck as Count Orlock. Murnau introduces the reclusive performer to his co-workers as the ultimate method actor, and they all marvel at his dedication (staying in character all the time). Soon after, various cast and crew members inexplicably begin to fall ill. Murnau knows Schreck's nasty little secret - the two have made a pact - but his conscience is clear (although he warns Schreck to contain his appetite until the last scene has been committed to celluloid). He is willing to do almost anything in the name of making a great movie.

Which is exactly what Merhige has accomplished with Shadow of the Vampire. In addition to having a wonderful conceit as the basis of the plot and featuring two superlative lead performances, the film pays homage to its inspiration, carefully re-creating many of the most memorable scenes from the German vampire film. Movie buffs have always accorded Nosferatu a special place in film history, and Merhige's vision adds another quirk to the legend. The smart, witty script does justice to the central idea, making Shadow of the Vampire an appreciation of the art of both silent filmmaking and vampirism.

Based exclusively on the concept, one might easily assume that Shadow of the Vampire is a horror film, and, to a degree, it is. But Merhige's intention is not to scare the daylights out of his audience. The amount of comedy -- good, genuinely funny comedy - to be found in this movie surprised me. Great one-liners abound, many of which are delivered by Dafoe's Schreck in a delightfully deadpan manner. And some of his bemused expressions are priceless. Obviously, those who have seen Nosferatu are going to get a lot more out of this movie than those who are unfamiliar with it, but Shadow of the Vampire stands up well enough on its own that viewers who haven't even heard of Murnau's original will not feel set adrift in an unfamiliar cinematic landscape. The idea of a real-life vampire playing one in a movie should appeal to wider crowd than silent movie buffs and film historians. (While almost everyone seeing the movie in Toronto can truthfully claim to have seen Nosferatu at one time or another, the same will not be true of multiplex audiences who will pay to see this film when it is released later in the year. This is Lions Gate's marketing challenge.)

Shadow of the Vampire's cinematography is definitely a point of interest. Lou Bogue excels at his twofold job: using visuals to fashion a gothic atmosphere and re-creating a variety of scenes from Nosferatu. Most of Shadow of the Vampire is in color (albeit, at times, hues are desaturated), but many of the Nosferatu sequences are presented in black-and-white. This approach lends an added layer of verisimilitude. The film's strength lies not only in the essential cleverness of the premise, but in the effective way in which that premise has been realized. It would not surprise me if a new urban legend has been born.

Another movie to delight the cockles of film lovers is Kieron J. Walsh's When Brendan Met Trudy, a romantic comedy set in Ireland that is peppered with twists and saturated with references to old movies. Working from a script written by Roddy Doyle, Walsh has developed a likable, lighthearted romance between two complete opposites. It's an enjoyable film that doesn't try for anything especially deep. The "average" viewer will probably see this as a fairly standard romantic comedy, but movie buffs will recognize When Brendan Met Trudy's second layer, which pays homage to a number of classic pictures through oblique references, lifted quotes, and re-creations of entire scenes.

Brendan (Peter McDonald) is a quiet schoolteacher whose real passion is film. He's also what could be considered a movie snob, because his tastes run far afield of mainstream fare towards the work of Fellini and Godard. He's a shy guy who has not had much success with meeting women, and he recognizes the hole in his life, at one point commenting, "I kept myself busy, but something was missing..." As it turns out, that "something" is Trudy (Flora Montgomery), a bubbly blonde he encounters one night at a bar. Despite their oil-and-water personalities, they mix pretty well once things get shaken up. After a rocky start, their romance takes off, but Brendan's naturally suspicious nature begins to assert itself. Why is his girlfriend sneaking out in the middle of the night dressed all in black? Could it have something to do with a serial castrater who is roaming the streets attacking unsuspecting men? Or is he jumping to conclusions?

There are times when When Brendan Met Trudy's comedy feels more forced than it should. The material is funny, but there are occasions when Walsh, perhaps worried that his audience won't "get it", goes overboard highlighting a joke. Both actors do fine jobs, although Montgomery, playing the freespirit, is more easily noticed. McDonald, however, is equally as effective - his low-key performance as Brendan is right for the role. The two work well together, striking sparks when the need arises. As a romantic comedy, this movie has all the requisite elements to meet viewer expectations.

What elevates it to a point above the vast romantic comedy continuum, however, is its frequent and effective treatment of movies - something that will likely be lost upon the casual viewer. Walsh, who clearly has as much affection for the classics as his lead character does, borrows liberally from Sunset Boulevard, The African Queen, The Quiet Man, The Producers, The Searchers, Once Upon a Time In the West, and others. The final scene includes an amusing steal from Singin' In the Rain, and there's a funny bit involving subtitles that reminded me of something equally clever done in Stanley Tucci's The Impostors (another movie that paid homage to its cinematic forebears). There's also a blink-and-you'll-miss-it special appearance by a well-known actor, but I won't spoil the fun by revealing who it is. (He gets a tongue-in-cheek "Avec la participation exceptionelle" credit at the end, though.) Even the film's title conjures up images of a major mainstream hit of about a decade ago.

Both Shadow of the Vampire and When Brendan Met Trudy unquestionably offer a more rewarding experience to those with a deep love of and familiarity with movie history. However, recognizing that a significant proportion of their potential audience does not belong in that category, neither Merhige nor Walsh have done anything to alienate the average movie-goer who wants nothing more complicated than to be entertained for 90 minutes. That should give both movies at least a fighting chance to have some degree of success when they take a run at making a box office profit. (When Brendan Met Trudy does not yet have a North American distributor, but the smart money says it will eventually acquire one.)

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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