2003 TIFF Update #10: "Last Rites"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Saturday, September 13, 2003

Before getting to my annual random closing thoughts on the festival, let me start this final column by providing a few paragraphs on some of the films I haven't talked about yet, including the Closing Night Gala, the biggest disappointment, the worst feature, and the most notorious title.

I have come to expect great things from Michael Winterbottom. I haven't loved everything he has done, but he has made some powerful movies and even his least inspired films have been watchable. So Code 46 broadsided me. Casa de los Babys was disappointing; this was shocking, provoking an almost physical negative reaction. I left the theater shellshocked, unable to comprehend that Winterbottom could make something so awful. No wonder he and his stars stayed away from the gala presentation. (This was the only Gala at the festival where no talent attended.)

Code 46 is like Solaris without the psychological depth and strong acting. The movie is flat, boring, pointless, and nonsensical. It features two of the most lifeless peformances of the year from Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, who seem to be feeding off one another's lethargy. Robbins is admittedly a better director than actor, but Morton has done some fantastic work in the past (Under the Skin, Minority Report). It's hard to figure out where she placed her ability when it came to making this movie.

This is low-budget science fiction. It takes place some time in the future, when couples can only procreate if their DNA is computer matched. Conceive an unapproved child and you are in violation of Code 46. The embryo will be aborted and select areas of your memory erased. Robbins plays a fraud investigator named William who has been sent to Shanghai to investigate the illegal manufacture and sale of travel "papelles" (the paperwork by which someone can travel from one "zone" to another). While there, he meets the perpetrator of the crime, Maria (Morton), and falls in love with her. Rather than turn her in, he has sex with her, leaves her in violation of Code 46, then heads home to his wife and child. Several days later, when he is unable to locate Maria, he goes back to Shanghai, where he ends up trapped after his papelles expire. Now he needs to procure documents off the black market, but Maria's memory of him has been erased.

Solaris has a slow, deliberate pace that creates the proper tone for a meditation on grief. Code 46 is just as lugubrious, but its only theme is that Orwell was right. Even a full cup of coffee is unlikely to keep the average viewer awake or interested. There are some interesting science fiction ideas - such as "viruses" that allow individuals to read the minds of others or learn new languages, a planet where the ozone layer has been shredded, and a single-world society where the accepted language includes bits of its parent tongues (English being the primary one). But there are some oddly contradictory elements, as well. (Along with the lack of special effects, I assume these are the result of budget constraints. Making a science fiction movie without much money can be a challenge. Unfortunately, it's not one that Winterbottom successfully surmounts.) For example, why are cars still the primary method of transportation, and why is no one driving something more futuristic than a 2003 model? Okay, so that's a nitpick, but it bothered me.

The idea that our increasing reliance upon technology is resulting in an erosion of our personal freedom is an idea that has been popular in science fiction since its early days. There's no reason why it couldn't work in this context, even if the story is derivative. But the screenplay (credited to Frank Cottrell Boyce) is lackluster, the characters don't possess even a semblance of multi-dimensionality, and the person-to-person interaction is cold. I didn't for one moment believe that there was anything between William and Maria, and I certainly didn't care whether their love story had a happy ending. And why is there a gratuitous crotch shot of Samantha Morton, when the film is otherwise devoid of nudity? A question for which there is no answer in a movie that should never have been made.

And I gave up what by all accounts was a good movie to see this turkey. But it wasn't the worst the festival had to offer...

That dishonor, perhaps expectedly, belongs to Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny, which, unlike Gigli, really is as bad as the advance word advertised. The movie is one long, self-indulgent bore topped off with a hard-core porn scene featuring Gallo and co-star Chloe Sevigny. (This sequence, rather than being erotic, is disturbing, not ony because of the grim tone and grungy setting, but because there's a vague sense of exploitation surrounding it.) The first hour of the movie features, for the most part, Gallo sitting in his car as he makes a cross-country trek. We see shots through the front windshield, shots of Gallo's face, and shots over his shoulder. The only thing that breaks the monotony is when Gallo stops for gas, talks to a senile old lady, picks up a prostitute (not for sex, though - he just wants to buy her lunch), or kisses a distraught stranger. Eventually, he arrives in L.A., where he meets his girlfriend and receives a blow job.

It's hard to imagine how anyone could appreciate this movie, with its inane, repetitious, and pause-filled dialogue; non-existent plot; and stillborn character definition. This is a vanity project for Gallo. He fills nearly every role imaginable: director, producer, star, screenwriter, editor, and cinematographer. It all goes to prove that sometimes it's best not to work in a vacuum. Losing 95 minutes of my time to watch this film seems like a waste. I'm sure I could have come up with something more interesting to do with that lost hour and a half than watch bugs splatter against Gallo's windshield.

If there's one positive thing to be said about reviewing The Brown Bunny, it's that I'm probably too low-profile for Gallo to take notice of these nasty words. As a result, hopefully I'll be spared the kind of curse he allegedly leveled at Roger Ebert. Just to be safe, though, I'll keep an eye on my prostate in the near future, while hoping desperately that Gallo keeps to his promise not to make another motion picture.

The closing film is something called Danny Deckchair, an Australian romantic comedy written and directed by first-timer Jeff Balsmeyer. It follows the age-old tradition at Toronto of closing with a weak film. (Last year's final hurrah, for example, was the Brian De Palma stinker, Femme Fatale.) Danny Deckchair seems to be an attempt by an Australian to mimic a bad American romantic comedy, and, unfortunately, he succeeds admirably. Along with a feel-good ending to make viewers leave the movie in sugar shock, the movie boasts plastic characters, inane situations, and canned comedy. It's not particularly funny or fun, and is sadly reminiscent of dozens of similar films I have seen in multiplexes during the past few years.

Danny Deckchair stars Welsh actor Rhys Ifans as Danny, a concrete mason living in Sydney, who, fed up with his day-to-day routine and the seeming indifference of his live-in girlfriend, Trudy (Justine Clarke), ties a bunch of helium-filled balloons to his favorite deck chair and ends up going on an unexpected trip. One thunderstorm later, he crash-lands in the backyard of a traffic cop named Glenda (Miranda Otto), who lives in the town of Clarence - not exactly a next-door neighbor to Sydney. Glenda makes up a story to explain Danny's presence to the locals, and, after cleaning himself up, he becomes the talk of Clarence. He's also the talk of the country as news stories about the man in the flying deck chair generate public interest. However, Danny decides that he doesn't want to go back to his old life - he'd rather live in the obscurity of Clarence and settle down with the woman he loves than accept his 15 minutes of fame and return to his problem-filled existence with Trudy.

The only element missing from Danny Deckchair is a laugh track. That's how generic the humor is. In a theater with about 200 patrons, there wasn't much laughter. The premise - a man travels long distance in a deck chair - requires absurd, over-the-top comedy to work. But this Monty Python idea is treated with the banality of any 30-minute ABC sit-com. And the romantic element can't save the movie, because Balsmeyer doesn't spend enough time developing it. Only about 25% of the running length is devoted to building the relationship between Danny and Glenda. That's enough time for a couple of conversations, a few longing-filled glances, and a romantic dance. Miranda Otto and Rhys Ifans are adequate as the star-crossed pair, but both have done much better work. Ifans in particular seems out of his element. His talent is best served when he's playing a scruffy supporting role rather than a clean-cut lead. (Remember Notting Hill?) By the time he has taken a razor to his whiskers and shears to his hair, he looks a lot like Owen Wilson.

Danny Deckchair is a safe, generic motion picture that, while not offensive in its lack of freshness, is more clumsy than endearing. This movie is targeting the popcorn crowd, not the kind of movie-goers who frequent art houses. And, without a big star, it's unlikely to find much of an audience. The presence of some chemistry between Ifans and Otto is hardly a reason to recommend a movie that suffers from a terminal reliance upon stock formula elements. Aside from the underused possibilities associated with a man who builds his own, homemade flying machine, Danny Deckchair treads an all-too-familiar road.

Now it's time to look back at the festival in general. Although it's difficult to compare one year's festival to another, if I use the 2001 (pre-9/11) and 2002 editions as "average" festivals, 2003 does not fare well. Of the 34 films I saw, only 17 would be recommended with any degree of enthusiasm. (Using my normal reviewing scale, that means three stars or higher.) This 50% "recommend rate" is far below a similar figure from any of my previous years in Toronto. The most disappointing films were usually the high-profile Hollywood entries (The Human Stain, In the Cut, Out of Time, The School of Rock). Of course, in a way it's unfair to blame the festival for its failures, since the programmers are limited by what's out there. This isn't the first 2003 film festival to fall short of expectations. Cannes was widely regarded by attendees as a major disappointment.

Since Toronto is regarded as a staging ground for many of the early and middle-Fall Oscar hopefuls, this could presage a lackluster October and early November. The crux of the problem appears to be Hollywood's increased reliance upon formulas and proven commodities, and the growing desire of "independent" studios to increase their box office by mimicing the big studios. At this year's film festival, it was sometimes difficult to figure out what was being distributed by Universal Pictures or Sony Pictures Classics (for example).

The best three films I saw this year were Lost in Translation, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Jeux d'enfants. Lost in Translation had by far the best buzz of any movie, rivaling that of Almost Famous three years ago. The movie has already opened in limited distribution, and will go wider next week. Hopefully, it won't suffer the same ignominous fate as the Cameron Crowe movie - a delightful film that never found its audience. If Lost in Transition catches on, it has a chance to spawn a large number of Oscar nominations, including recognition of fine performances by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

On the flip side, the worst movies were The Brown Bunny, My Life Without Me, and Code 46. The Brown Bunny does not have a North American distributor and isn't likely to get one, but it may play some local film festivals, and is to be avoided at all costs. The other two movies will get some kind of limited U.S. release, but neither is worth the time, effort, and money necessary to see them.

Fortunately, the success or failure of a film festival does not rest solely on the quality of the movies screened. And, although Toronto's schedule may have been weak this year, nothing else was lacking. The staff and volunteers, as always, were cheerful and helpful, line-mates were always willing to share picks and pans, casual acquaintences often became dinner companions for a burger, bowl of soup, or slice of pizza, and the weather couldn't have been more beautiful. With no apologies to Sundance and New York, Toronto remains the best North American film festival.

Now, sadly, it's time to get back to the multiplexes and catch up on everything I have missed. Christmas in September is over.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

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