2004 TIFF Update #1: "Laying to Rest the Summer of Discontent"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Thursday, September 9, 2004

Ask anyone - from the most pretigious film critic to your next-door neighbor's teenage son - and he or she will agree that the summer of 2004 has been one of the most forgettable in recent memory. For those of us in the Northeastern U.S.A., only the weather was more disappointing than the quality of movies playing at the local multiplex. As is usually the case, the approach of fall heralds a change in the distributors' mindsets as they begin to release fare that appeals more to adults than teenage boys.

For those who stay home, September isn't a whole lot better than August (although there are some intriguing titles during the month's latter half). That's why I typically take a week off from the usual hustle-and-bustle of my dual-careered life and immerse myself in the exuberant frenzy of the Toronto Film Festival. This year, like any other, I go in with expectations of what I'm going to see. Inevitably, some of my planned screenings will fall through or get re-arranged, and I'll only end up watching about 2/3 of the titles listed here. So here are some of the hoped-for highlights, many of which will receive write-ups before I head south, dodging hurricanes along the way.

The opening night festival is István Szabó's Being Julia, a Canadian co-production based on a W. Somerset Maugham novella ("Theater"). Starring Annette Bening as an actress who is about to become washed up, the movie's description raises echoes of Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve. Although I don't expect Being Julia to live up to either of those classics, I'll settle for something solid. Toronto's opening night films have a checkered history. For every The Sweet Hereafter and The Barbarian Invasions, there's a Ararat lurking out there. Only time and today's screening will determine into which category Being Julia deserves to be placed.

One of the most anticipated movies amongst the festival's "big titles" is David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees (The "Heart" is actually an icon of a heart, and I don't have the time or patience to figure out how to find the representation of it.) The film promises to be offbeat, quirky, and unstable - I have seen a preview twice and I still have no idea what it's about. The question is: Is it any good?

Christian Bale lost a lot of weight to play the lead in The Machinist. Since the movie is playing in the Midnight Madness program, I plan to drink enough coffee to stay awake through this half-science fiction/half-horror endeavor. The buzz is pretty strong, and I'm willing to give up a screening of Head in the Clouds to catch this one (even though I love John Duigan).

House of Flying Daggers is Zhang Yimou's martial arts follow-up to Hero. Odds are, this one will get U.S. distribution a lot quicker than the earlier film (two consecutive weeks at the top of the box office heap doesn't hurt), but I'll still take this opportunity to see it. You can bet this is one I won't miss.

There's a lot of talk about Liam Neeson in Bill Condon's Kinsey, but I probably won't get a chance to assess how accurate the praise is. The film conflicts with a couple of other screenings, so I'll likely have to wait until the movie pops up locally. I mention it here because it is high-profile, and if a second screening is added, I'll probably find a way to fit it into my schedule (even if it means truncating my usual 5 hours of sleep to 3 or 4).

For a fun change-of-pace, I'll probably stop by to see Dreamworks' new animated feature, Shark Tale. I'm looking forward to this because it will represent a refreshing change-of-pace from the usual festival fare. It's an opportunity to lighten up and unwind a little (and doesn't necessitate the level of concentration necessary for some of the other films). Then, as a follow-up, I'll wander over to The Woodsman, a story about pedophilia starring Kevin Bacon. Now there's a double-header.

Ray is the 2 1/2 hour bio-pic of Ray Charles, starring Jamie Fox in what has been described as a "career" performance. The length is daunting, but the buzz is strong, so I'll most likely see this one. A film of equal length that I'm more excited about is Downfall, about Hitler's last days. This one looks like it could be spectacular, plus it ties into my interest about World War II.

Christmas in September? Chazz Palminteri makes his directorial debut with Noel, which is said to be about how three lonely souls find comfort at Christmastime. A more appropriate title for the time of the year when students return to school is Bad Education. I know nothing about this film going in except that it's from Pedro Almodovar. And that's enough to convince me to push everything else aside and attend.

Todd Solondz returns with Palindromes, a curious feature that supposedly features a large number of actresses playing a single character. The key to the film is likely to be whether this works or comes across as a gimmick. My faith in Solondz was diminished a little by Storytelling. Palindromes will likely be the title that determines whether he stays on or falls off my list of "must-see" directors.

The great John Sayles brings Silver City from Colorado to Ontario. 2003's Sayles offering, Casa de los Babys was one of the festival's biggest disappointments, but rumor has it that this is Sayles' best films in years. It deals with politics and environmental concerns, and features a number of standout performances (particularly by Chris Cooper as a George W. Bush-like caricature).

If you're a fan of John Waters, his latest, A Dirty Shame promises plenty of vulgarity and sex-related escapades. Plus there's the allure of catching Selma Blair sporting a pair of prosthetic breasts that are so huge that they have to be seen to be believed. Waters usually isn't my cup of tea, but there's no denying that the director is a maverick who never lets anyone influence his material.

There are also new films from Benoit Jacquot (A tout de suite), Francois Ozon (5x2, with an Irreversible-style structure), Alexander Payne (Sideways), Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs, which is said to have explicit sex scenes), Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside), Paul Cox (Human Touch), Lukas Moodysson (A Hole in My Heart), Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, which is getting extremely good buzz), and Bille August (Return to Sender). Plus there are plenty of promising movies from newcomers, unknowns, and relative unknowns.

Going into this festival, as is the case each year, I have high hopes that every film I see will be a winner. History and logic indicate that this will not be the case. By the time the festival is over, I will probably be frothing at the mouth about some films and rhapsodizing over others. My most fervent wish is that the number of titles in the latter category eclipses those in the former. Now, let the mayhem begin...

© 2004 James Berardinelli

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