2002 TIFF Update #9: "Last Servings"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 14, 2002

With all the pomp of Closing Night, the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival has come to a conclusion, allowing Piers Handling and his troops to get a good night's sleep. (The final film, Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale, screened after more than 50% of the press corps, myself included, had departed.) Before sharing a few parting thoughts about the festival in general, I have one more issue I'd like to take up and three films about which I will share a few comments.

Cell phones. They have been around for a long time, but never have they been more annoying or intrusive than this year. In the past, one would occasionally hear a phone go off during a screening, but it was more the exception than the rule. This year, I believe the sound of a phone ringing could be heard at least once during every showing I attended, including the press screenings. There really is no excuse for this. How hard can it be to remember to turn off a phone before a movie starts? (I carried my cell phone to every screening, and it was out of commission before the festival trailer appeared on the screen.) If someone is expecting an important call that simply can't be missed, the courteous solution is to put the phone into its silent, vibrate mode.

Identifying the problem is easier than solving it, however. Reminding people to turn off cell phones doesn't work - the self-centered offenders don't believe such warnings, no matter how sternly offered, apply to them. I can propose three possibilities. The first would be to "phone-proof" the theaters. This could be accomplished by technical or material means, with the result being that cell signals would be blocked and no calls could be made or received in a theater. While this is feasible, it's probably too expensive. The second method would be for everyone in the theater to yell "Shut that damn phone up!" whenever one rings. Acute embarrassment can be effective. Unfortunately, this is a case where the cure may be worse than the problem. (If a ringing phone jars one out of a movie-induced reverie, what will 300 people yelling do?) Finally, guns (with silencers, of course) could be issued to all patrons. Anyone whose cell phone rings will be shot by the person sitting next to him/her. The concern here is the mess, but I'm sure someone can figure out a way around that drawback. And, since most of those with ringing cell phones are repeat offenders, this ensures that they won't ever again bother anyone.

The concept of "personal velocity" is an intriguing one. Essentially, it implies that everyone lives his or her life at a particular pace, and only those who are going at roughly the same speed can hope to stay together. Personal velocity is not necessary constant (by definition, this would mean there are such things as personal acceleration and deceleration); events (both expected and unexpected) can result in changes. Such is the premise underlying Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity, a film that made its way from Sundance to Toronto on a road paved with good word-of-mouth.

My reasons for seeing this film had less to do with the buzz than with the director. I saw Miller's Angela at a film festival in 1996 and was extremely impressed. (I clearly remember the occasion. Miller was in the seat behind me, and, every time I would jot a note on my pad, she would shift in her seat, as if trying to figure out what I was writing.) In Angela, Miller showed a keen understanding of the child's psyche; here, she proves that she has equal insight into that of the adult.

Personal Velocity is divided into three sections. Each is a separate short story of equal length (30 minutes), and, aside from a minor thread, they are not connected. In the first segment, Kyra Sedgwick plays Delia, a woman who is the victim of spousal abuse at the hands of a volatile husband. She is caught in stasis (personal velocity = zero) until she fears that her husband's violence could impact her children. Then, in a flash, she and her kids are out of the house and on the road. The middle episode introduces us to Greta (Parker Posey), a happily married cookbook editor at a New York publishing firm. She feels safe and comfortable with her husband, because she recognizes that he will never leave her. But, when a series of unexpected developments pushes her career into overdrive, she comes to the tragic realization that she will leave him. In the final segment, Fairuza Balk is Paula, a young woman who has escaped a brush with death and is running away from her life. In the midst of a driving rainstorm, she picks up a lonely, drenched hitchhiker, and his presence enables her to make some decisions about her pregnancy and her failing relationship with her current lover.

The film's greatest strength is its key weakness. Although the format allows Miller to illustrate her thesis by comparing and contrasting the lives of three women, it also limits the screen time of the characters, preventing us from identifying with any of them as fully as we might have if they were accorded the length of a feature. Certainly, all of the stories are interesting enough to warrant greater exploration. On the other hand, Miller's concise strategy is preferable to the approach of padding out the running length.

One of the most frequently used cliches for independent films is that they look like they were made on a much higher budget than the one announced by the director. That's not the case here. Personal Velocity was made on the cheap using digital video, and it often looks like crap. The images are grainy, and the lack of clarity is a distraction. This problem, which will bother some viewers more than others, illustrates the primary drawback of filming in digital video, then transferring the final product to celluloid. (On the other hand, without DV, Miller probably wouldn't have been able to come up with the money to make Personal Velocity, so the film wouldn't have existed.)

The acting is uniformly excellent, with Kyra Sedgwick and Parker Posey in particular deserving to be singled out for praise. In my opinion, the middle segment is the strongest - not only because of Posey's acting, but because of the underlying poignancy of the subject matter. This is also the episode that most clearly highlights what Miller means by the concept of "personal velocity" and how it can have meaning in day-to-day situations.

The best way to describe Joel Schumacher's Phone Booth is preposterous but entertaining. Due in large part to tight editing, a brisk pace, and a high level of suspense, we are able to suspend our disbelief for about 80 minutes. Afterwards, even a moment's consideration will reveal an avalanche of plot holes, but is a tribute to the filmmakers that these are not recognized until after the end credits have rolled. Hitchcock referred to this sort of film as a "refrigerator movie" (you'd think of a plausibility problem while getting a post-movie snack from the refrigerator), and he would appreciate what Schumacher has wrought here.

Stuart Shepard (Colin Farrell) is a fast-talking publicist who thinks he's on top of the world. Wearing designed suits and a fake luxury watch, he struts down the sidewalks of Manhattan with his assistant in tow, talking on a cell phone and not taking "no" for an answer. A voiceover informs us: "It used to be a mark of insanity to see people talk to themselves. Now, it's a mark of status." Then comes Stuart's daily visit to the telephone booth at 53rd & 8th, from which he calls a pretty young actress named Kelly (Katie Holmes). Stuart finds her attractive and has entertained thoughts of pursuing an affair with her. Although he hasn't done anything yet, he uses the booth so his wife (Radha Mitchell) won't see Kelly's number on his phone bill. But Stuart's daily routine has not gone unnoticed, and, as soon as he hangs up with Kelly, the booth's phone rings. A voice on the other end informs Stuart that he is "guilty of inhumanity to your fellow man" and the "sin of spin - avoidance and deception". The voice states that he has a high-powered rifle trained on the phone booth from one of the many buildings with a view of the intersection, and if Stuart leaves the enclosure, he will be killed. To prove his point, the voice takes a victim. Suddenly, panic is everywhere and the police, led by a captain (Forest Whitaker), arrive and demand that Stuart hang up the phone and step out of the phone booth.

On one level, it's amazing that a movie about a man being trapped inside a phone booth could be successful, but Phone Booth works for many of the same reasons that Speed does - the script takes a seemingly dead-end premise and keeps throwing in new twists. One key to enjoying this movie is not to engage in "out of the box" thinking (or, arguably, any thinking at all) - it's better to uncover the problems and inconsistencies after the movie is over, not while it's unspooling. For those willing to accept this approach, Phone Booth will hold together surprisingly well while maintaining a high adrenaline level.

For Colin Farrell, this is a breakout performance. The movie has been sitting on the shelf for a while, because the producers wanted to wait to release it until Farrell was a more bankable name Following his appearance in Minority Report, the veil of obscurity surrounding him has lifted, allowing Phone Booth to reach theaters. Farrell carries the movie, showing how fear and uncertainty can humble the slickest and most cock-sure of men. Forrest Whitaker provides solid support as the policeman who refuses to allow a "suicide by cop" to occur on his watch, and begins to believe that Stuart may be a hostage, rather than a hostage-taker.

Obviously, with a phone booth, there is claustrophobia. In addition, for most of the film, the villain is faceless - a cold, menacing voice on the other end of a phone line, playing at being God. Like in John Dahl's Joy Ride, we are confronted with an implacable enemy. As time wears on, Stuart finds his range of options increasingly limited. He's a pawn in a one-sided game that may only end with his death. Phone Booth makes us care whether or not this happens.

The final movie I'm going to talk about is a live-action release from Walt Disney Studios. Uh-oh, you're thinking - "live action" and "Disney" in the same sentence usually means creative bankruptcy. Happily, there are exceptions to every rule, and Tuck Everlasting is one of them. Charming and thought-provoking, this is the kind of movie with the sweetness necessary to appeal to younger (although not too young) viewers and the philosophical richness to draw in veteran movie-goers.

"Do you want to live forever?"

That question has become a prominent "payoff" line for movies and television shows, but, underneath the flip tone in which it is often asked, hides a query that expresses humankind's greatest longing - immortality. The first reaction of most people when asked that question would be to answer "yes". After all, immortality (with invulnerability and eternal youth thrown in at no extra charge) is a heady possibility. Unquestionably a blessing... or is it? Think about the price. It's not immediately visible, but it's an ugly one. Never dying means never. The peace of the grave will forever be denied. Growing old with a loved one cannot happen. Life will go on and on and on, until, inevitably, one is almost guaranteed to wish and hope and pray for some way to end it all.

Back in the early years of the 19th century, the Tuck family, headed west for the frontier, came upon a small spring in the woods in upstate New York. Unbeknownst to them, it was the fountain of youth - the water for which Ponce de Leon had aggressively sought. Drinking froze all four Tucks at their current ages. The parents, Mae and Angus (Sissy Spacek and William Hurt), remained middle-aged but spry. Miles (Scott Bairstow) was trapped in the prime of his life. And Jesse (Jonathan Jackson) was fated to exist through eternity in a 17-year old body.

Nearly one-hundred years later, on the eve of the United States' entrance into the Great War, a teenage girl, Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel), stumbles upon the Tucks' house while running away from home. After living with the Tucks for a while, Winnie learns their secret as she and Jesse fall in love. Then she must face a choice - drink from the fountain and gain the promise of everlasting life and love with Jesse, or refuse and live for the normal span of human years. Circumstances present complications. Winnie's parents (Victor Garber and Amy Irving) are rich, and they are exerting their considerable influence to find her. And a mysterious Man in a Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley) knows the Tucks' secret, and is intent upon exploiting it.

The romantic aspect of Tuck Everlasting, which is clearly the element that will exert considerable appeal for pre-teen and teenage girls, is nicely developed, although it follows the familiar arc of the overprotected rich girl falling for the poor, freespirited boy (think Titanic). It's a nice, unforced love story - one that sets up the characters so that the choices made have added weight. For younger viewers, the immortality question probably won't mean much, but, for those who have lived long enough, it represents the film's true strength. We know from early in the proceedings that Winnie will have to choose - and it won't be an easy choice. She is presented with both sides of the issue - Jesse revels in the possibility of spending his unending life with a woman he loves while Angus cautions her that the Tucks don't really live anymore - they're like rocks near the side of the river watching the water stream by. Then there's Miles, whose tragic past has left him longing for the death he can never have.

The movie, directed by Jay Russell, is based on a novel by Natalie Babbitt. Viewed on its own terms, this is a gently engaging and thought-provoking motion picture. Tuck Everlasting is suitable for children (no profanity, no nudity, no sex, only a little violence), but the material is designed more for those with longer attention spans.

Thus ends the festival - 10 days of thankfully uninterrupted movie-going. What a difference 12 months makes. In general, this year's menu didn't strike me as being especially weak or strong. There were the usual great films and poor ones, the pinnacles and the nadirs. The most powerful film I saw: Lilya 4-Ever. The most enjoyable: 8 Women. The most unexpected source of entertainment: call it a three-way tie - Secretary, Shaolin Soccer, and Bubba Ho-Tep. The biggest disappointments: Ararat and Heaven, two films I had been eagerly anticipating that fell far short of expectations. One disturbing trend worth noting is that the poor quality of most of the big mainstream films making their debuts here may be indicative of a lackluster "Oscar season" in November and December. Time will tell.

All that remains now is to place this year's 400-page program guide on the shelf with those from years past and to return to the "real world". Christmas for movie-goers is over. Time to go back to work.

© 2002 James Berardinelli

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