2004 TIFF Update #3: "The Hall of Memories"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Saturday, September 11, 2004

Typically, concepts like "day" and "date" become irrelevant during a film festival, with morning, noon, and night all merging into a mass as one races against the clock to see the next screening. But the date of September 11 is associated with too many ghosts to be ignored the way September 10 and 12 are. Everyone has their own memories of where they were and what they were doing three years ago today. When the news sunk in, I was sitting in a theater that no longer exists. The grand old Uptown, once the heart of the Toronto Film Festival, was leveled last fall to make way for a new high-rise condominium building. As it came down, it not only took along a life, but memories of thousands of festival-goers.

I heard the news before I reached the Uptown for a screening of From Hell. I watched the images on TV, then went to see a film. Never have I been more distracted. The movie that played out on the Uptown 2's screen was not the movie that was playing in my mind. Immediately after, Toronto suspended the festival for the rest of the day. When it resumed the next morning, it had undergone a fundamental shift from which it didn't recover (at least not that year). In four days, I saw only four additional movies, and my heart was not in watching any of them. I was obsessed with plane reservations and trying to find out when the airports were going to re-open. Toronto is a wonderful place to be - unless you're trapped there. A cage, no matter how gilded, still has bars.

Three years later, everything is different, yet everything is the same. The festival moves forward on and through September 11, but everyone who was here in 2001 will pause for at least a moment to reflect. 20 years from now, if I'm still attending Toronto, it will be the same. The date is now so embedded in the consciousness of every American citizen that it will live in infamy for my generation the way December 7 did for that of my grandparents. For now, my most sincere hope is that there will not be another day any time soon that we will have to remember for similar reasons.

Two days ago, I said that, after seeing two previews for David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees, I had no idea what it is about. Now, having seen the movie, I still feel like I'm on the outside looking in. I certainly realize why the preview is so obtuse. There's no way that two minutes of snippets can begin to convey what this film is trying to do. In fact, in order to understand what's going on, you have to sit through all 105 minutes of the running time, and that's an experience that will try the patience of many mainstream movie-goers. It's no exaggeration to say that this movie is not for everyone.

What is Huckabees about? Four different individuals - an environmental activist, Albert (Jason Schwartzman); a fireman, Tommy (Mark Wahlberg); a TV commercial model, Dawn (Naomi Watts); and a coroporate hot-shot, Brad (Jude Law) - employ new age philosophies in an attempt to bring meaning to their lives. The men and women peddling those philosophies are "Existential Detectives" Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lilly Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman), and their rival, author Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). After a number of false starts, enemies Albert and Brad, who are fighting over how the department store Huckabees will use a tract of open space, find common ground; and Dawn and Tommy discover new people to love.

Viewed from a dramatic perspective, Huckabees will have a lot of people scratching their heads. Where viewers get into trouble with this film is that they try to buy into its philosophical diatribe, believing it to be offering some kind of profound truth. Sure, there's an element of pretentiousness in the screenplay, but Huckabees is first and foremost a satire of cinematic pretentiousness. And, on top of that, it's occasionally just plain funny. Russell hasn't equaled the laugh-aloud quotient of Flirting with Disaster, but the way he throws zingers at the audience creates enough offbeat moments of humor to make Huckabees worth seeing even by those who don't understand a thing that Hoffman, Tomlin, ande Huppert are saying.

Much of what appears on the surface to be deeply philosophical is, in fact, satirical. Huckabees does present a pair of competing life views - that everything is interconnected or that truth is derived only through pain and isolation - but observes that, in the case of these characters, neither approach is more obviously effective. Russell is openly critical of those self-righteous individuals who believe their way is "the" way. Instead of espousing the bizarre existential doctrines of his characters, he mocks them. If you don't understand all of the pseudo-psychological/philosophical mumbo-jumbo, you haven't missed the point. (If you do get everything, you may need to seek professional help.)

Huckabees can be considered an acquired taste. I'll admit that a lot of people are going to describe it as a waste of time. Yet I found the characters to be likeable and sufficiently developed to hold my interest. The performances are winning, and there are enough successful comedic vignettes to be worth the price of admission. (Consider, for example, the sight of Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman sneaking around, diving into garbage cans, and being sprayed by a sprinkler. Tomlin may have done this sort of thing before, but it's not what one expects from an actor of Hoffman's reputation. Yet he does it with a smile.) And that doesn't include the tongue-in-cheek cameo by Shania Twain (who must have a good sense of humor to agree to appear after being subtly ridiculed throughout most of the movie).

Brad Anderson's The Machinist is about as far from Huckabees as a film can get. A noir horror movie, The Machinist takes you into the unstable mind of an insomniac with a dark secret whose life has become a bleak emotional wasteland devoted only to going through the motions of working. Blessed with an extraordinary performance by Christian Bale, this movie plays out like a nightmare, and will remind some viewers of The Fight Club, Memento, and Insomnia. Although The Machinist may at times seem to be derivative of those films, and is inferior to them, it is nevertheless a harrowing experience for those to whom this sort of story appeals.

Bale's Trevor is, as the title implies, a machinist at an assembly-line factory. He clocks in every morning, then clocks out every afternoon, keeping basically to himself. When he returns from work, he does nothing more remarkable than to frequent an airport diner where he converses with the same waitress (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) on a daily basis or to visit his "regular" prostitute, Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But something strange is happening. A mysterious man named Ivan (John Sharian) is haunting him, and he is having strange visions. The question is whether these are figments of a deranged imagination or part of a larger external conspiracy to drive him insane. How much of what is happening is transpiring within Trevor's psyche? Who, if anyone, is real? Why has the clock stopped at 1:30? Why is the refrigerator bleeding? (And why does Ivan look like Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now?)

Style builds suspense. The scenes around the machinery are staged in a way that radiates menace. The expectation - which is fulfilled - is that something will go horribly wrong. The camerawork and claustrophobic atmosphere are designed to externally replicate Trevor's mental state. In addition, Anderson has drastically de-saturated the color, resulting in a spartan look that is only one step up from monochrome. And there's a scene with an approaching thunderstorm that is perfect in the way it is composed and presented.

Typically, the "hooker with a heart of gold" is rescued by Prince Charming, but Trevor is no Richard Gere and Stevie is no Pretty Woman. Ther may be something cliched about the character of Stevie, but her circumstances are grim enough to divorce her from the stereotype. Jennifer Jason Leigh has played plenty of vulnerable, damaged characters, so this one isn't much of stretch for her. She's solid in this part, and provides a sympathetic face in a motion picture where most visages are less than friendly.

If Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman could win Oscars for allowing physical ugliness to enhance their performances, then what about some consideration for Christian Bale? Emaciated as a result of losing about 80 pounds via a calorie-depleted diet, Bale barely looks like his usual robust self. His physical appearance transforms a strong performance into a memorable one. Take away the walking skeleton, and the film would not have been as disturbing.

Even for those who are able to piece together exactly what is happening before the movie explicity reveals everything, The Machinist is still capable of capturing the attention. The film is dark, but rewarding, and it never cheats the viewer. There are no sudden twists designed to blindside an audience. The reveals occur gradually, with Anderson allowing us the pleasure of putting the pieces together. The Machinist requires a certain kind of viewer - one who is comfortable with grimness and a certain amount of gore. Members of that group will appreciate what this picture has to offer.

Dear Frankie, the feature debut of director Shona Auerbach, is a perfect example of a mediocre motion picture. Neither awful nor impressive, it features moments of genuine power and instances when it is cloying. The end result is an unremarkable, unmemorable movie that deserves neither praise nor approbation. Those who are willing to overlook its numerous shortcomings will no doubt be moved by its occasionally trite story of bonding; those who expect more from a film than a series of forced relationships will be irritated by its frequent manipulation.

The film transpires in Scotland, where Frankie Morrison (Jack McElhone) and his mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), have set up residence in an out-of-the-way port town. For nearly nine years, most of Frankie's life, they have been fleeing from his abusive father, always trying to stay one step ahead of him. Frankie, who is deaf, doesn't know the truth about his dad. Instead, Lizzie has constructed a detailed fabrication of her husband's identity, making up a story about him being a sailor on the HMS Acra. However, when the Acra docks at the town's port, Lizzie must pay a total stranger (Gerard Butler) to pretend to be the boy's seafaring sire. The arrangement works out surprisingly well - almost too well - and Lizzie finds herself as attracted to the mysterious visitor as her son is.

On the plus side, the acting is strong. As the protective mother, Emily Mortimer is wonderful, conveying warmth and humanity. Jack McElhone is effective as Frankie, developing his character with a sense of irony and a pragmatic life-view. This is not one of those disabled individuals who suffers from a case of terminal cuteness. As the stranger (who is never named), Gerard Butler shows tenderness beneath a seemingly callous exterior. The fact that we believe in this trio (as well as Mary Riggans as Frankie's grandmother and Miranda Richardson-lookalike Sharon Small as Marie, a helpful neighbor) goes a long ways towards making the storyline seem less syrupy than it is.

Contrivances abound, and sometimes they are a little too obvious to pass the test of reasonable suspension of disbelief. The attachment between Frankie and the stranger develops too deeply to be credible. No matter how appealing the kid is and how lonely the mariner is, it's hard to accept that these two would become like father and son after spending only part of one day together. Likewise, the budding romance between Lizzie and the stranger feels forced. There's some chemistry between these two, but they spend so little time together that the kiss comes across as grossly out-of-place.

Arguably, the element of the film that works best involves Lizzie's interaction with Frankie's real father, who is ill and pleads with her for an opportunity to see his son before he dies. This presents Lizzie with a moral conundrum - shatter her son's illusions about his father or deny a terminal man his dying wish. The resolution is a little facile, but not a total cop-out. However, Frankie's eleventh-hour revelation seems more like a screenwriter's invention than the pronouncement of a genuine (even precocious) child. Like almost all of Dear Frankie, this is a mixed bag. There's enough potential in the premise to make the uneven execution a disappointment.

© 2004 James Berardinelli

Back to Main Festival Page