2002 TIFF Update #5: "Mediocre Mainstream"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 10, 2002

Every year, Hollywood premieres a number of its would-be "prestige" Oscar hopefuls at Toronto. In fact, the Oscar-winning American Beauty had its gala world premiere in Toronto a few years ago, and, over the past half-decade or so, more than a dozen Oscar contenders have played at this festival. Unfortunately, this year's crop of Hollywood-funded films has been a mediocre lot (and that's being charitable). If this is indicative of what's coming our way in multiplexes during the last three months of the year, my recommendation would be to stay home. Here's a look at some of the highest-profile offerings that have passed across my radar screen. The best of this dubious lot is White Oleander. The worst, by far, is Moonlight Mile. The other two fall in between. None is worth going out of your way for.

White Oleander is a flower - a hearty-but-poisonous flower whose beauty makes it appear deceptively fragile. This blossom, which appears several times throughout the film that takes its name, is a perfect metaphor for Ingrid Magnussen, the character played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Ingrid is strong, beautiful, and self-possessed, but she acts as a poison to everyone around her, especially her impressionable daughter, Astrid (Alison Lohman), who idolizes her mother. Yet Ingrid acts based on her own whims and desires, without considering how they might ultimately damage the daughter she claims to love.

After an enraged and jealous Ingrid kills her lover, Barry (Billy Connolly), she is consigned to a maximum-security prison for a 30-to-life sentence. Astrid, who is a teenager, must go into care. Her first foster mother is Starr (Robin Wright Penn), a Bible-thumping Christian who is afraid Astrid is out to steal her man. After a close encounter with a bullet, Astrid ends up in McKinney Hall, where she meets a cartoonist named Paul (Patrick Fugit), who is attracted to her. Astrid moves on to live with Claire (Renee Zellweger), an insecure B-movie actress who is convinced that her husband (Noah Wyle) is having an affair. Astrid and Claire bond, more likes sisters than a parent and a child. Through all of this, Ingrid lurks on the periphery, re-enforcing her indoctrination every time Astrid visits: "Loneliness is the human condition. Love humiliates you. Hatred cradles you."

White Oleander is conventional, but well-made. The story, which doesn't offer many surprises as it follows a straightforward girl's coming-of-age formula, contains enough high points and interesting characters to keep some viewers involved. Director Peter Kosminsky draws his audience into the mindset of the protagonist, letting us see the world through Astrid's confused eyes. Towards the end, the movies slips into an awkward over-sentimentality that results into a forced sense of closure, but that's the only time when the narrative loses its direction.

You don't have to be a woman to appreciate White Oleander, but it probably helps, since there's a lot more going on in this film that has to do with estrogen than with testosterone. Nevertheless, the central theme, that of a child trying to escape from the poisonous influence of a misguided parent, has universal appeal, and White Oleander's narrative is comfortably linear and uncomplicated. It's not edgy or groundbreaking, but it tells the story it sets out to tell. For what it is, Kosminsky's picture is polished and effective.

One of the things I like least about being a film critic is saying not-too-nice things about projects that represent a lifetime's passion for one of the involved parties. Sadly, such is the case with Julie Taymor's Frida, a motion picture that has been a longtime obsession for producer/star Salma Hayek. In bringing the bio-pic of artist Frida Kahlo to the screen, Hayek had to overcome numerous obstacles, including Madonna and Jennifer Lopez (both of whom wanted to play the role), limited funds that didn't allow her to hire a ghost re-writer (her boyfriend, Edward Norton, did it for free), and conflict with the men holding the purse strings at Miramax Films. The good news is that the movie was eventually made. The bad news is that maybe it shouldn't have been.

If that sounds cruel, well, it's not terrible. It's just disappointingly superficial - a movie that has all the elements necessary to be a fascinating, involving character study, but never does more than scratch the surface. This is biography-of-the-week material, a linear chronicle of the highlights of Kahlo's life beginning in 1922 and ending 30-plus years later. All of the fascinating characters to cross Frida's path are here - muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), who was the love and the heartbreak of her life; Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), the famous Russian revolutionary with whom she had a brief fling; and Nelson Rockefeller (Norton), who commissioned Rivera's most famous mural, then had it torn down.

Good acting does not always equate to good characterization. Frida is blessed with several strong performances. Salma Hayek, who gets top billing, is effective in the lead role, conveying the character's strength and toughness while allowing occasional moments of vulnerability. This is not an Oscar-worthy role, but it shows that Hayek is capable of doing much more than she has heretofore been recognized for. (For those who are interested, she shows quite a bit of flesh.) Alfred Molina is terrific as Diego; in fact, his presence is so commanding that he overshadows Frida and made me wonder if the real name of the film should be Diego. The supporting cast list is long and luminous: Ashley Judd, Edward Norton, Geoffrey Rush, Valeria Golino, and Antonio Banderas.

< This is the second feature film for director Julie Taymor, who is perhaps best known for her stage direction of Disney's "The Lion King". Although Hayek was the driving force behind getting the film made, Frida's visual dynamics are all Taymor's, from the bright hues that liven up the opening scene to the stylized image of the broken Frida lying on the trolley car's floor (with gold dust all around) to the King Kong recreations with Diego as the big, bad ape. There are times when the plot loses its zest, but Frida is at least always interesting to look at. But, given the subject material, the result should have been so much more.

As epic adventures go, The Four Feathers is just about adequate. Technically and visually, the battle scenes are spectacular. There is an adrenaline rush when the armies collide, separate, then crash together again. Some of the shots of the desert are breathtaking (although this is hardly the first motion picture that can make such a claim - the credit goes more to the natural beauty of the landscape than to the competence of the director and cinematographer). But the story fails to build and drive forward the way it should. The tone is uneven, with the narrative advancing in fits and starts, then occasionally coming to a nearly complete halt. The Four Feathers falls short of what one might reasonably expect from director Shekhar Kapur, whose previous feature, Elizabeth, put him on the map for English-speaking audiences.

For a member of the British army to receive a white feather, it is the ultimate mark of disdain - a symbol that cries out the man's cowardice. The year is 1884 and the British Empire is in full sway. An uprising in the Sudan forces Her Majesty's army to mobilize several regiments to send there to protect the Empire's interests. Among those scheduled to go are best friends Harry Faversham (teen heartthrob Heath Ledger) and Jack Durrance (another teen heartthrob, Wes Bentley), both lieutenants in the Royal Cumbrian Regiment. Harry is engaged to the beautiful Ethne (Kate Hudson), a woman also desired by Jack, but he keeps his distance, respecting his friend's relationship. However, when it is announced that the Royal Cumbrians will be going into battle, Harry is horrified. He resigns his commission and is branded a coward. Later, with the stench of failure sticking to him, he decides to go to Africa on his own, looking for redemption, possibly by aiding Jack and the regiment at some point. He nearly dies on the trek there, but a mysterious native of the Sudan, Abou (Djimon Hounsou), saves his life and appoints himself Harry's guardian.

At the outset, it appears that The Four Feathers may be taking a revisionist view of war. However, Kapur quickly dispels that notion, opting instead for a straightforward and almost old fashioned view of battle. The man who queries the ethics of the situation (the British fighting and dying in the Sudan) is branded a coward and shown to have committed a grievous sin by betraying his brothers. In order to wash clean his reputation and regain the love of his friends and family, he must seek redemption by standing side-by-side with his fellows in combat. On this level, war is not seen from a political and/or moral perspective. Rather, it is presented as a fraternity in the trenches. The view is simplistic, and it reduces The Four Feathers to little more than an action movie. Unfortunately, because the action comes irregularly and is punctuated by periods of character-building and exposition, the movie stumbles. To a certain extent, Kapur is going out on a limb with this film. Despite the success of Gladiator, epic adventures are not in vogue, and it's a dubious gamble that audiences will be intrigued enough by the great visuals, tepid love story, and uneven narrative to give this one a try.

Finally, there's Moonlight Mile, the product of writer/director Brad Silberling, who has based some of the movie on his own experiences with grief. In 1989, Silberling's then-girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer ("My Sister Sam") was murdered outside of her Hollywood home by a deranged fan. According to Silberling, he has drawn from aspects of the screenplay from what he and others close to Schaeffer went through. It's too bad more of the gut-wrenching pain of this kind of loss didn't make it to the screen.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Joe Nast, the fiance of Diana Floss, who was an innocent victim at a diner shooting. Joe, currently living with Diana's parents, Ben (Hoffman) and JoJo (Sarandon), finds himself trapped by the Floss' expectations - they see him as the only link to their dead daughter. No one is handling the tragedy in a "normal" manner - there are no tears, and the internalized grief is manifesting itself in different ways. Joe is becoming increasingly panicked as he finds himself trapped. Ben tries to keep busy and not to think about what happened. And JoJo faces a severe case of writer's block. In the end, an emotional dam has to break, and the catalyst for the eruption is a local postal worker, Birdie (Ellen Pompeo), who offers Joe a possible escape.

There are many things wrong with Moonlight Mile, but the most persistent is bad writing. This is an insultingly inept and artificial examination of grief and its impacts upon the relationships of the survivors. It uses facile keys to show recovery. (Hoffman's Ben compulsively answers the phone, regardless of when it rings. We know he's better when he can just let it ring.) Not one moment of Moonlight Mile feels genuine - it's all pre-packaged and "Disney-fied", and, as a consequence, stays away from the emotional core that the similarly-themed In the Bedroom so effectively tapped.

The characters in this film are supposed to be repressing their grief, but it isn't convincing. I never once believed I was in the presence of real grief (the kind that sears the soul and burns the heart), just a Hollywood-generated masquerade. Moonlight Mile is an insult to anyone who has tragically and unexpectedly lost a loved-one in an untimely manner. Given his background, I'm sure that's not what Silberling intended, but that's what he ended up with.

© 2002 James Berardinelli

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