2001 TIFF Festival Update #6: "Lynched!"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 13, 2001

This is the first year when going to a festival has seemed more like work than a vacation. Oh, it's always something of an endurance test to see four screenings per day and write the updates, but, since Tuesday, things have changed. There's no excitement here. Everything is understandably muted. I find it increasingly difficult to summon the enthusiasm to write these pieces. The malaise has settled over the entire world, but, as my friend Roger Ebert put it in a recent column, tragedies like the one in New York City make us think of ourselves first. So I have a cold. And I'm soul-sick. And I'm anxious to get home (something not currently possible unless I want to take a 14-hour train ride, which does not interest me). Toronto is a nice place to visit, but it now seems like a gilded prison. New Jersey, as much maligned as it is, is still home, and that's where I would like to be. As I write this, I was originally supposed to be on a plane, but those plans have changed pending Air Canada's revival of the Toronto-to-Philadelphia route. I'm hopeful for Saturday, but, at least through Sunday, there are still movies to see. And I will continue writing.

A legitimate question is whether anyone really cares about the festival any more, even here. The readership of my columns is pretty high, but are people really reading them, or just skimming through? Audiences are subdued. Applause is limited. Numerous prints never arrived, forcing screening cancellations. Stars and directors are unable to attend. Critics keep seeing movies, but, other than sitting in their hotel rooms and watching TV coverage, what else are they going to do? So much of this year's festival seems like going through the motions. And it doesn't help that most of the good movies screened last weekend. Now, there doesn't seem to be much out there (although to be fair, this "not much" is still better than the fare offered at the non-festival multiplexes).

Enough moroseness for the moment. On with today's coverage...

There was a time when David Lynch made coherent, challenging motion pictures. Love it or hate it, there's no doubt thatBlue Velvet was one of the most talked-about motion pictures of the 1980s. Some consider it tobe a masterpiece, while others view it as exploitative trash. Nevertheless, it makes sense. The script requires that the viewer pays attention, but everything ties together in a sensible manner. Something similar could be said about Lynch's next outing, Wild at Heart. It's a little more out there, but still not totally outrageous. Next came "Twin Peaks", the television series that started out as one of the most compelling hour-long dramas ever to air on a network before devolving into silliness. Lost Highway followed on the heels of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and neither picture tells a linear or comprehensible story. The Straight Story seemed to put Lynch on a different course, but, with Mulholland Drive, the filmmaker is back to his old tricks.

Mulholland Drive started life as a pilot for a TV series. When ABC rejected it outright, Lynch elected to shoot a series of new, lurid scenes to provide an ending of sorts. Watching the final project, it's easy to determine where this "break" occurs. The first 90+ minutes of this movie are engrossing, and, for the most part, make sense. There's no content that would be deemed unsuitable for television. Then, just as things go off the deep end into the realm of the incoherent, the two lead female characters remove their clothing and spend most of the final 40 minutes topless. As a TV series, Mulholland Drive might have been compelling stuff; as a movie, in large part because of Lynch's excuse for an "ending", it's a mess.

The film is structured as a mystery set in Hollywood, although, in typical Lynchian fashion, this version of Tineseltown is decidedly dark and skewed. The plot weaves together several strands: a young, fresh-looking Canadian girl who has come to La-la land in search of stardom; an established actress who avoids being murdered by an act of dumb luck, and loses her memory as a result; and a director who is being forced by ominous powers to cast a particular woman in his movie. It's all intriguing stuff. The cast is made up largely of unknowns: Justin Theroux, Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring. Robert Forster and Dan Hedaya have what amount to cameos (despite prominent billing - one assumes that had this become a weekly series, they would have been more evident).

The film is drenched in atmosphere. That shouldn't be a surprise. Credit the cinematography of Peter Deming and the score of Angelo Badalamenti. Mulholland Drive is filled with its share of "Twin Peaks"-ish moments. But, after a promising start and an engaging midsection, there's the end to deal with. And it's not a pretty sight. To put it bluntly, Lynch cheats us. He throws everything into the mix with the lone goal of confusing us. Nothing makes any sense. It's not supposed to make any sense. There's no purpose or logic to anything. Lynch is playing a big practical joke on us. He takes characters we have come to care about and obscures their fates in gibberish. Some people will think this is all deep and will find hidden meanings in everything, but they're giving Lynch too much credit. The joke's on us. This is not good filmmaking; it's childish and reprehensible.

I suppose on some level I still want to recommend Mulholland Drive - it's a wonderfully stylish film, the score is incomparable, and the first two-thirds border on brilliant. But I hate what Lynch did with the ending with a white-hot passion. I was simmering with fury when I came out of the screening. And I wanted to throttle one critic who began waxing about the wonderfully existential manner in which things are "wrapped up". This one's for die-hard Lynch fans only.

Mulholland Drive is dark, but it's not the darkest movie to play at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival. That award must go to the Hughes Brothers' From Hell, a visually impressive motion picture that stuns the senses with its surreal depiction of late-19th century London and its orgy of uncensored violence (one assumes that cuts will have to be made for this production to earn an R-rating from the MPAA). The problem with this film, as is often the case with motion pictures that concentrate so heavily on atmosphere, is that it has neither a heart nor a soul. The movie engages solely on the basis of its storyline and tantalizing visuals, not because we feel anything for any of the characters.

There is no more famous serial killer than Jack the Ripper. Since his infamous 1888 killing spree in London's Whitechapel district, there have been more sophisticated psychopaths, and those who have slaughtered far more victims, but Jack the Ripper remains at the top of the totem pole. His exploits are the stuff of legends. With From Hell, Albert and Allen Hughes (Menace II Society) have not attempted to do much in the way of a factual exploration of the Ripper's spree. Instead, they have used a few facts as the foundation for an entirely fictional murder mystery/horror movie that has the opium-addicted Scotland Yard Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) tracking down the Ripper while falling in love with a potential victim, a street whore (Heather Graham). The movie is based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and the Hughes Brothers convert it to the cinema with a comic book-like flair.

Watching From Hell is certainly a grim experience, but it's not without its rewards for those who can stomach the level of graphic gore. The movie is a macabre and intense experience whose pace and tone remain consistent throughout. The acting, especially that by Depp, Ian Holm (as a doctor who assists in the Inspector's investigation), and Robbie Coltrane (as Abberline's right-hand man), is above average. The plot isn't the stuff of literary greatness, but the mystery is effectively developed and it's not immediately evident how things will turn out and who will be unmasked as the Ripper. Yet, even as the story compels us to stay with the movie, the Hughes' style distances us from the characters - even the "good" ones. We watch from a detached perspective, and I can't help thinking that robs From Hell of some of its potential power. Then again, do we really want to be at ground zero for a movie about Jack the Ripper?

From Hell is certainly a better movie than Depp's last atmospheric horror story, Sleepy Hollow. This movie has a lot more potential, including a storyline that goes somewhere. And, while we may never find ourselves truly liking Abberline, the Hughes Brothers' mastery of the screen is such that we can imagine ourselves winding our ways through the fog-enshrouded, cobbled streets of London with something lurking in the shadows just behind us...

While it's debatable whether Lynch's latest effort can be considered "film noir", there are certainly several movies in this year's festival that deserve the label. Both are heavily influenced by Hitchcock, both attempt to blend humor with suspense, both have solid casts, and both rely on serpentine plots with minimal character development. The movies I'm referring to are Novocaine, the directorial debut of David Atkins, and Heist, the latest from David Mamet.

I'll deal with Heist first, since it is unquestionably the better of the two. Since Hitchcock's death, many filmmakers have vied to succeed the Master of Suspense. With apologies to rip-off artist Brian De Palma, my vote goes to David Mamet, whose films House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner can stand alongside any of the best modern mystery/thrillers. No, they don't always make sense, but they are incredibly enjoyable - two characteristics that were true of many of Hitchcock's works.

Heist is wonderfully written excursion into criminal activity that throws us into the deep end and asks us to sink or swim. With dizzying speed, we are shuttled through a series of double-crosses and triple-crosses, and all is not revealed until the very end. One could argue that there's one twist too many, but it works, so who cares? Heist begins with a meticulously planned and flawlessly executed jewelry store robbery, proceeds to the plotting of an even bigger crime, and ends with an apparent falling out between thieves. It's fast-paced and wildly entertaining.

Dialogue has always been one of Mamet's trademarks - especially the staccato beat with which it is delivered. However, while Heist contains its share of brilliant one-liners (including one or two that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud to utter), the dialogue is delivered in a much more natural manner than in any previous Mamet-directed effort. There are no strange pauses and there is no odd rhythm. Admittedly, I missed ita little, but it's the right approach for this movie.

The cast is stellar. Gene Hackman plays Jim Moore, the veteran thief who is looking for one final score to finance his exit from the business. His team is comprised of Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay, Delroy Lindo, and Sam Rockwell as the cocky newcomer. Danny DeVito shows his vicious side as Jim's fence, who suddenly wants a bigger piece of the action. Admittedly, this is not a character-driven motion picture, so none of these performers have to take their alter-egos through anything more dramatic than a perfunctory arc, but they all do solid jobs inhabiting their characters' skins.

To say anything more about the specifics of Heist would be to ruin the fun of discovery. This is one of the best American thrillers to come out in the last year or two (although it's still not in the same league as Memento). It's consistently fun, occasionally funny, and will have viewers on the edges of their seats on more than one occasion. Once again, playwright-turned-filmmaker David Mamet has crafted a motion picture worth seeking out.

Novocaine isn't a bad film, but it's a rung or two down on the ladder of noir efforts. It is too obviously derivative of Hitchcock, and the small number of characters ensure that, by applying the "conservation of character" rule, almost all of the twists are predictable. And there's nothing more demoralizing than a predictable thriller. At least in this case, the energy level is high and some of the humor works. Nevertheless, I found myself distinctly underwhelmed, despite winning performances by Steve Martin and Helena Bonham Carter.

Martin plays Doctor Frank Sangster, a by-the-book dentist who has a successful practice and a well-ordered home life. He is engaged to his hygienist, Jean (Laura Dern), and everything seems to be going great until the day when his good-for-nothing brother, Harlan (Elias Koteas), shows up at his house and a mysterious-but-alluring new patient, Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham Carter), asks for a late-night root canal. Suddenly, Frank finds himself in over his head. His medical cabinet has been broken into, his girlfriend knows about his infidelity, and the police suspect him of murder. And, the harder Frank tries to clear his name, the deeper into trouble he sinks.

Novocaine uses Hitchcock's favorite plot device, the accused innocent man, to moderately good effect. The movie keeps us interested, although instances of genuine surprise or intense suspense are few. Writer/director Atkins tries to incorporate a fair amount of humor into the dialogue, and, while having an actor of Martin's comedic timing is helpful, not all of this material generates laughs. In fact, some of it seems forced. The voiceover, delivered by Martin, has a wonderfully retro feel - it's right out of the cheesiest B-grade black-and-white noir flicks from the genre's heyday. We get delicious lines like "That's the nature of attraction - you find yourself doing things and you don't understand why" or "Lying is like tooth decay."

Of course, this isn't the first time Martin has played a dentist, but Frank is a far cry from the sadistic human plant food from Little Shop of Horrors. Martin portrays this character pretty much straight, and, while he lacks the appeal of a Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, he's reasonably likable. Helena Bonham Carter is at her sultry, slutty best. Laura Dern, meanwhile, is intentionally over-the-top. The movie also features Scott Caan and an unbilled Kevin Bacon as Novocaine's most consistent source of effective comedy.

Lovers of film noir will certainly be attracted to Novocaine, but a truly good comedy/mystery/thriller needs a less predictable script and/or more consistently funny humor. This is an sporadically entertaining motion picture, but it's not an unqualified success and certainly not the "find" that some people (most of whom are publicists) are claiming it to be. For film noir at this year's festival, give me David Mamet and Heist. Novocaine can wait for home video.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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