2005 TIFF Update #11: "355 Days and Counting"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Sunday, September 18, 2005

Before I get to the wrap-up, there are two remaining films I want to say a few words about. The first, Lie with Me, is this year's "sex film." Originally, I hadn't intended to write anything about this movie (not believing it merited space), but then I learned that ThinkFilm intends to distribute this next month, so I changed my mind. The second film rounded out my Toronto experience on a satisfying note: The Matador, a heartwarming comedy that has a chance to do well at the box office if it finds the right audience (an iffy proposition with a film like this).

Lie with Me belongs in the category of film dubbed as "art porn" by its critics. Although not as hardcore as 9 Songs, the film is nevertheless explicit, featuring shots of an erect penis. (Note: my guess - and it's only a guess - is that this is a prosthetic. As Sex and Comedy showed, it's easy to trick an audience into believing they're seeing something more explicit than what they're actually seeing.) The film is steamy without a doubt. But take away the sex, and there's not much left.

Canadian director Clement Virgo, working from a screenplay by Tamara Berger, introduces us to Leila (Lauren Lee Smith), a young woman with an insatiable sexual appetite. She likes variety, which results in a new man every night. And she doesn't believe in love until (of course) she finds it - or it finds her. The object of her obsession is David (Eric Balfour), a hunky guy who, according to a previous girlfriend, is "unable to commit." Thus begins a dance between Leila and David to determine whether what they have is strong enough for a lasting relationship. To provide breaks from the sex scenes, both characters have subplots. Leila's parents are getting a divorce and David's dad is dying.

The formula is straightforward: sex scene, exposition/dialogue, another sex scene, more exposition/dialogue, etc. There aren't many surprises - the storyline moves forward in an expected fashion, with both of the characters making the sophomoric discovery that love is a more rewarding emotion than lust. Without the sex, this would have been a tedious soap opera. With it, it feels like something from soft-core emperor Zalman King.

The acting is credible, which is more than can typically be said of a sex movie. Lauren Lee Smith (The "L" Word) brings a lot of energy to the part of Leila, and looks great both clothed and naked. Eric Balfour (24) matches her both in terms of acting ability and exhibitionism (although, as mentioned above, it's not clear whether the erect penis is his or a prop). Virgo does his best to make the film look good, and Berger's screenplay is full of pretentious wordiness. I was neither thrilled nor bored with Lie with Me. Individual reaction will depend on how well you like the genre, of which it is a passable entry.

It's easy to be more enthusiastic about The Matador, an uncommon buddy film starring Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear. The film has a nicely modulated mix of comedy and pathos, but succeeds as much because of the two lead performances as Richard Shepard's writing and directing. This is an audience-pleaser through-and-through, but one wonders whether the title (which is appropriate but not catchy) may fail to entice viewers.

Brosnan plays Julian Noble, a burned-out hitman trying to perform a few last jobs before getting out of the business. One night in a Mexico City hotel bar, he encounters businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), and strikes up a conversation. The next day, they meet again, and Julian ends up taking Danny to a bullfight. True confessions ensue, and Julian reveals to Danny that he's an assassin, then gives him a primer on how to kill someone. (This is a lot funnier than it sounds - trust me.) The two part, only to re-kindle the friendship a year later when Julian shows up at Danny's Denver home.

One of the reasons this film works as well as it does is because Danny doesn't go through the shock/outrage phase when he learns about Julian's profession. He's nonplused, but takes it in stride. As a result, we get one of the movie's best sequences, in which Julian teaches Danny the tricks of his trade as they go on a mock hit. Another wonderful scene occurs later, when Julian shows up in Denver and Danny's wife (Hope Davis) wants to see his gun. In addition, there's a moment reminiscent of the boulder scene in Sexy Beast, except in this case the object is a tree instead of a big rock.

Brosnan plays the role with a kind of manic energy more appropriate to Basil Fawlty than James Bond. Kinnear is the straight man. Together, these two make an appealing pair - something that's mandatory for the story to work. They're an odd couple, to be sure, but each fills a need for the other. It can be difficult to find the right mix of comedy and drama in a movie of this nature, but Shepard does a solid job. There's nothing edgy or groundbreaking about The Matador, but it's funny, touching, and ultimately endearing - and it's tough to ask more of this sort of film.

With all the movies behind me, I can now look back on the 10-day marathon as a whole. Roger Ebert has written that he believes this to have been a strong festival, which makes me wonder whether he got enough sleep. (He was looking pretty tired on Wednesday.) Other critics I spoke to rated this as anywhere from "average" to "below average," with no one voicing the same kind of enthusiam expressed by Roger. Personally, this is the worst festival I have attended in Toronto since I started going in 1997, and the least inspired group of movies since Sundance 2001 (which caused such overwheliming disillusionment that I vowed never again to return to Park City in January).

Disappointments abounded. Titles like Tideland, Revolver, Where the Truth Lies, Everything Is Illuminated, Elizabethtown, and In Her Shoes left me in a funk. All were bad or below expectations. Pleasant surprises were far between - only Pride and Prejudice and April Snow were better than I anticipated them to be. Looking back on the festival without consulting my notes, only a few movies stick in my memory: Proof, Romance and Cigarettes, Shopgirl, Capote, Walk the Line, April Snow, and Mrs. Henderson Presents. Two of those (Capote, Proof) have a shot at appearing on my Year-End Top 10 list, but none are worthy of four stars.

I believe the slim pickings at Toronto are reflective of the general state of movies. Roger Ebert's comments notwithstanding, I believe that 2005 has been the worst year for movies in at least 12 years - if not longer. Toronto typically predicts the fall movie season, and, at the moment, it looks as bleak as the treeline will be in early December. What's especially discouraging is that Toronto is usually the cream of the crop. If this is the best, what unpleasantness lurks out there?

I don't blame the sleep-deprived festival organizers for this lackluster line-up. They work with what's available. And I don't regret going. There were enough highs to counterbalance the lows, and it's those highs that keep me coming back. (Besides, if I didn't see the films here, I'd have to see them at screenings over the next few months.)

Finally, to close, here are the festival's official award winners. Unlike Cannes, Venice, and Sundance, awards aren't a big part of Toronto's program. (There's no jury prize.) But, since the festival presents them, it would be unfair not to at least a mention. They will go without comment, however, since I haven't seen any of them.

People's Choice Award: Tsotsi
Discovery Award: Look Both Ways
FIPRESCI Prize (Voted by critics): Sa-Kwa
Cititv Award for Best Canadian First Feature: Familia and The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico (tie)
Toronto City Award for Best Canadian Feature Film: C.R.A.Z.Y.

© 2005 James Berardinelli


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