2004 TIFF Update #10: "Last Rites"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Saturday, September 18, 2004

So another year in Toronto has come to a close. Before preparing to leap without a parachute into the fall movie season, it's time to look back through my notes from the festival and acknowledge some of the movies I should have written about but haven't gotten to thus far. There are two I have lengthy comments about, then another three that I can't pass without saying a thing or two. Then, as always, I'll offer up a final assessment of what I have seen.

Taylor Hackford's Ray has a tremendous performance by Jamie Foxx and a soundtrack that is jammed with recordings by the late Ray Charles, but both work in service of a paint-by-numbers screenplay that runs too long and could have been developed in Biopic 101. This is a stagnant motion picture that runs out of energy well before the halfway point, then staggers through the seemingly interminable final hour. The movie may only be 2 1/2 hours in length, but it seems to take a lot longer to cover less than two decades of Charles' life. Some critics are being surprisingly kind to this movie, which may indicate that they're afraid criticism of the movie will somehow be seen as crticism of Ray Charles. Such thinking is flawed. Charles was a great artist; Ray is far from a great film.

I'm sure that Ray Charles (née Ray Charles Robinson) lived a pretty intersting life - maybe even one worthy of turning into a feature film. But you couldn't tell based on what Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Devil's Advocate) has done with it. If I was to accept his view of Charles' first 35 years, I would conclude that he lived every cliché in the music business. Hackford has turned this saga into a bad soap opera.

The film opens in 1951, with a 21-year old Ray heading for Seattle to play in a lounge club. Ray progresses from this jumping-off point, with occasional flashback forays to the '30s to present events from the lead character's formative years. The bulk of the movie transpires during the '50s and early '60s, and illustrates Ray's development from lounge singer to recording superstar. Along the way, he falls in love and gets married, battles drug addiction, and has a baby out of wedlock. His support of the Civil Rights movement gets him banned from ever again playing in Georgia (a ban that was subsequently rescinded), and one of his mistresses dies of an overdose.

The one consistent in the film is Jamie Foxx, who does more than just mimic Ray Charles; he inhabits him. Put the glasses on Foxx and sit him down at the piano, and the actor vanishes. The illusion is dispelled only once, during a dream/fantasy sequence in which Hackford ill-advisedly gives Ray sight. With the glasses removed and the eyes open, the character looks exactly like Jamie Foxx. Foxx will almost certainly get an Oscar nomination, although at this time it's unclear whether the honor will be conferred for Ray, Collateral, or both.

Sluggish, conventional, and almost completely lacking in energy, Ray is a textbook example of how not to make a bio-pic. Take away the brauvura performance by Foxx and a soundtrack that chronicles Charles' early recording history, and you're left with a tranquilizer. And the film is long enough to provide an opportunity to catch a few winks.

5x2 is a departure for François Ozon, at least from his recent films. This is a simpler, more basic story than Swimming Pool or Under the Sand, and does not star either Charlotte Rampling or Ludivine Sagnier. Ozon's take on Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, 5x2 deconstructs the union of two individuals whose plans for a lifetime of shared happiness end up in divorce court. 5x2 doesn't tackle any "big" themes - it's simply an autopsy of a marriage. Because the union is so ordinary, extrapolations are possible, but Ozon is not making blanket statements.

The movie provides five scenes (all of about equal length) from the marriage of Marion (Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stephane Friess). The sequences are presented in reverse chronological order, starting with an amicable divorce followed by some rough "good-bye" sex. Next is a dinner party a few years earlier, when cracks in the relationship are beginning to show. Half-way through the marriage, Marion gives birth to a son, and Gilles is too freaked out to be present or visit his wife in the hospital. Then there's the wedding, where Gilles sleeps while Marion wanders, and the meeting where the attraction between them becomes obvious (even to Gilles' long-term girlfriend at the time).

The simplicity of the film gives it a certain charm. Marion and Gilles are not good or bad. Like most real people, they're flawed but not dysfunctional. The performances are unaffected; we lose sight of the actors and just see the characters. And the reverse structure allows Ozon to conclude this ultimately downbeat story on a positive and romantic note. 5x2 is a little talky and the pace is slow, but, for this kind of motion picture, it's one of the best around.

Now, a few "short takes."

Return to Sender: A startlingly awful movie, but one that crosses into "so bad it's good" territory. An unintentional comedy from Danish director Bille August, this is the story of Charlotte (Connie Neilsen), a death row inmate who may not be guilty, and Frank (Aidan Quinn), the guy who starts out wanting to exploit her and ends up falling in love with her. By-the-book plotting that hits every imaginable cliché, ludicrous dialogue, and a dream scene that had everyone in the audience howling with laughter characterize this film. It came to Toronto without a distributor and it's hard to imagine that it won't leave in the same state.

A Hole in the Heart: I'm a big fan of Lukas Moodysson. Two of his previous films (Show Me Love, Lilya 4-Ever) made my end-of-the-year Top 10 lists, so the sheer horror of how unbearable this film is left me stunned. There isn't much of a story - A Hole in the Heart spends time in an apartment where a group of people are making a home porn video. The film moves at a glacial pace. The dialogue, much of which is improvised, is astoundingly unintersting. There is quite a bit of nudity, but the titillation factor is nil. Then there are the images that Moodysson splices in to allow the movie to "push the envelope." These include documentary footage of a vaginal reconstruction and a lovely scene in which one character vomits into the mouth of another. There are those who will laud this movie as cutting-edge cinema. You know the type: pretentious cineastes who only like dull movies that offer no entertainment value. And that's a pretty good description of A Hole in the Heart.

Old Boy: This film, from South Korean director Park Chan-wook, is a highly original revenge film that is pieced together like a puzzle. The lead character, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), is a kidnapped victim who is kept in captivity for 15 years. He emerges to find his wife murdered and his daughter missing. As he tries to figure out who imprisoned him and why, the clues lead him to other, more complex equations. Kinetic and sometimes very violent, the film is as intriguing as it is confusing. The editing is part of the problem - Old Boy runs about 30 minutes longer than it needs to. Rumor has it that an American re-make is in the cards. If the right improvements are made, this could be a real winner.

Since I do not assign "stars" during festivals, it is my custom to wrap up my coverage by assigning each of the films I have written about to one of three categories: "highly recommended," "recommended," and "not recommended." So, in no particular order, here's the breakdown:

Highly Recommended: Silver City, Hotel Rwanda, Sideways, Moolaadé, Downfall, The Sea Inside

Recommended: Dear Frankie, Old Boy, Being Julia, I Heart Huckabees, The Machinist, House of Flying Daggers, Crash, Shark Tale, The Woodsman, P.S., Millions, 5x2

Not Recommended: A Dirty Shame, A Hole in My Heart, Return to Sender, Ray, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Bad Education, Palindromes

That's all for 2004. See you in 12 months.

© 2004 James Berardinelli

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