2005 TIFF Update #4: "Remembering"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Sunday, September 11, 2005

Future generations will mark September 11 as just another calendar day. There will always be a footnote, but the passage of time will dim its meaning. The world changed that day, it's true, but four years later, things are pretty much back to "normal." The cloak of invincibility has returned, although more frayed and tattered than before. Many people believe it won't happen again. I think more in terms of "when" than "if." That "when" may be decades off, but it's lurking in the future.

This year, I'm in the same place I was in 2001. Every year since, I have thought about those harrowing days, and how the film festival came to a complete stop. The movies resumed, but the spirit was dead. Hopefully, I'll never have to experience that again. Two events in my life have left indelible impressions: in 1986, watching the space shuttle Challenger explode shortly after liftoff. And in 2001, walking out of the Cumberland theater after seeing Joy Ride and hearing a voice on a truck radio say: "The twin towers are no more." It was 11:10 am. The world had changed while I was watching a movie. My next film was From Hell, which seemed appropriate at the time.

This year, the movies keep rolling on, but I wonder how many people will spend at least a few minutes thinking back to where they were and what they were doing 48 months ago. Perhaps the greater concern is that people won't remember. In the press of a film festival, it's easy to lose track of date and time. Somehow, however, 9/11 is a little too important to be forgotten about in the rush to get to the next movie.

Here are a few more disconnected reviews. Generally, I do my best to find common themes in festival offerings, but diversity is the watchword for my schedule this year. I haven't seen a lot of things that can be grouped together. That may change later in the festival; it's too early to tell. I know, for example, that tomorrow I'm going to talk about two of the worst films I have seen any year in Toronto (and I watched them almost back-to-back).

* * *

When it comes to animation these days, it's all digital. So leave it to Tim Burton to buck the trend. Since the release of his popular collaboration with Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas, fans have been clamoring for a sequel. Although Corpse Bride doesn't precisely fill that need, it scratches the itch. Selick was not involved in the production, which supposedly took ten years to complete, but you would never know it. And the animation, which is stop-motion rather than computer generated, looks wonderful. The story is off the beaten path, but it's not as bizarre as Burton sometimes gets (despite indications to the contrary, there's no actual necrophilia). It is suitable for all but the youngest viewers.

Victor (voice of Johnny Depp) and Victoria (Emily Watson) have reached the eve of their arranged marriage without having met face-to-face. Her parents are high class but broke. His parents are nouveau riche - fish mongers who struck the mother load. So this engagement is intended to keep Victoria's family solvent. When Victor and Victoria meet, it's love at first sight. Unfortunately, during the wedding rehearsal, Victor freezes up, can't remember his lines, and flees in humiliation. On the way home, he wanders through a graveyard. While reciting his vows in an attempt to memorize them, he accidentally places the ring on a skeletal finger (which appears to be a stick). He then discovers, to his dismay, that he has married Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), the Corpse Bride. And she's not a cadaver to be trifled with. This earns Victor a trip to the underworld to meet his new in-laws.

If there's a Burton animated formula, this movie follows it. We spend a lot of time with skeletons and other things not of this world, there's a lot of fantastical imagery, and Danny Elfman contributes about four januty but forgettable musical numbers. At times, the movie plays like a comedy (a lot of the satire is subtle and will go over the heads of younger viewers), but there's a surprising tenderness to the proceedings. The three main characters (Victor, Victoria, Emily) are nicely developed, and we feel for all of them. Emily's tragic tale is touching, as is her plight: a woman murdered before she can fulfill her lifelong dream of reaching the altar.

The film looks great - better, in fact, than many of the recent crop of computer animated motion pictures. The unique look of the characters (the faces are almost all eyes, and the eyes are expressive) works. The background details match those in the foreground, and there are plenty of in-jokes sprinkled around. (For example, the brand of the piano played by Victor is a nod to one of the stop-motion trailblazers, Ray Harryhausen.) Corpse Bride clocks in at a skinny 1:18, so there's no room for extraneous material. As animated films go, this is easily the best of a weak year, and now that Burton has achieved a degree of mainstream success with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, maybe audiences will flock to see this during the pre-trick or treat season (it opens wide in late September). It's certainly more of the latter than the former.

* * *

Capote tells two stories, presenting both without hiccups. The first is an exposé of how the title author's In Cold Blood was written. The second shows the emotional and psychic dissolution of the man who starts out the film as a brilliant eccentric and finishes it as a basket case.

In Cold Blood made Truman Capote a household name, and led to him being ranked as one of the greatest American writers. It also destroyed him. He would never complete another book and, less than 20 years after finishing In Cold Blood, he would die of a drug overdose. Great authors often live unhappy lives. After his experiences putting together his legacy work, Capote's became almost unbearable. Bennett Miller's motion picture shows how obsession and self-absorption developed from personality traits into personal demons.

Capote opens in 1959. The title character (Philip Seymour Hoffman), tired of writing fiction, has decided to investigate four Kanas murders as a possible subject for a non-fiction article in the New Yorker magazine. With him, he takes his good friend, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who has recently completed the manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird. The local police chief (Chris Cooper) offers reluctant cooperation. After the killers - Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pelligrino) - are captured, Capote's interviews with Perry result in a twisted form of bonding and co-dependency. There is manipulation and empathy on both sides. At one point, Truman remarks, "It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. One day, I went out the front door and he went out the back." Eventually, with the appeals process prolonging the execution of the death penalty, Truman reaches the point where he just wants Perry to be hanged so this nightmarish phase of his life can reach closure. "All I want to do is write the ending, and there's no end in sight," he laments.

One cannot write about this film without tossing superlatives in the direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose performance will earn him an Oscar nomination. Hoffman doesn't merely imitate Capote. He becomes him. Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper, and Clifton Collins Jr. offer support, but this is Hoffman's movie from start to finish. Underrated for most of his career, this role will finally allow him to take his turn in the spotlight.

Capote is a deep movie with rich veins to mine. The lead character is not likeable. He is a user who exploits his relationship with Perry for personal gain. At the beginning, he doesn't know what it will ultimately cost him. As the movie develops, we see the complex love-and-hate relationship he develops with Perry and how this results in the slow erosion of his personality. The brilliance of Bennett's movie is that it concentrates on the characters and their interaction and never becomes a mouthpiece for one side or the other with respect to the death penalty. It would have been easy to turn Capote into a polemic, but Bennett resists the urge.

Although I had a stronger connection with Capote on an intellectual level than on an emotional level (I never came close to shedding a tear), the experience stayed with me for some time. That's unusual for a mid-day film festival offering, which usually leaves a minimal aftertaste before being washed away by the next feature. Capote is strong medicine that will get some Oscar recognition.

* * *

Before the screening of Elizabethtown, a representative of Paramount Pictures informed us that what we were about to see was not the final cut of Cameron Crowe's latest film. Apparently, the director had decided to make some changes, so what we were about to view was deemed a "work in progress." Unfortunately, it will take more than a few minor cuts to transform this mess into a focused, coherent motion picture.

The central problem with Elizabethtown is that it tries to cram too much into a 135-minute running time. It ends up seeming a least twice as long as it actually is. Somewhere in there, there's a great movie struggling to escape, but Crowe has buried it under layers of family drama clichés and scenes that go on too long or don't work. The flaws may be too serious to correct in the editing room, although it will be interesting to see the final cut. What's sad is that Elizabethtown contains two great sequences (an all-night telephone call and a road trip through the American south), but it's tough to generate much enthusiasm because they are suffocatated by crap.

Several weeks after being the toast of the company, hotshot Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) has been brought back to Earth. Hard. The pet project he developed for his footwear company, the Spasmotica, is about to cost Mercury Shoes $972 million. Needless to say, Drew no longer has a job. At the same time, his father dies while visiting relatives out east. Drew travels to Kentucky while his mother (Susan Sarandon) and sister (Judy Greer) remain at home in Oregon to deal with their grief in other ways. On the cross-country flight, Drew strikes up a friendship with chatty stewardess Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst). Later, after several trying days meeting with his extended family members, he calls Claire and they click in a more meaningful way than they did on the plane. Thus begins Drew's healing - patching over romantic heartache with a new relationship, and getting to know his aunt, uncle, counsin, and the town where his father grew up. By connecting with Elizabethtown, Drew re-connects with his dead dad.

Remove the uncle and aunt. Cut out the sub-plot with the cousin. And, as painful as it may be, reduce Susan Sarandon's part to that of a glorified cameo. Her ten minute standup routine brings the film to a screeching halt. It belongs elsewhere (probably as a deleted scene on the DVD). Crowe needs to show some balls when re-editing this film. At 30 minutes shorter, it might approach the level of his "lesser" efforts, Singles and Vanilla Sky. Not his best work, but better than a lot of what's out there in the marketplace. Crowe's strength is in developing romantic relationships, whether it's the two young lovers of Say Anything, the "You complete me" pair of Jerry Maguire, or the William/Penny Lane flirtation of Almost Famous. The best parts of Elizabethtown are those when Crowe is focusing on the growing attachment between Drew and Claire. That should be at the heart of the movie, bookended by the scenes of Drew's flameout (at the beginning) and his redemptive road trip (at the end). Everything else - the mending of family relations, re-connecting with his cousin, setting up his father's memorial service - is padding. It's not original or well-written, and it will cause less patient viewers to zone out.

Orlando Bloom is "vanilla." He doesn't give Crowe much to work with. Kirsten Dunst is a little better, but she's a little too "innocent cute." The pairing generates some lightweight romantic vibes, but no serious sexual tension. I can't help but wonder what would have happened had two more intense actors - say, Elijah Wood and Scarlett Johansson - been cast. Nevertheless, I think Bloom and Dunst would have been fine had Elizabethtown resisted the urge to cut away from them every time things get interesting. The supporting cast gives Susan Sarandon too much to do and Judy Greer too little. And, a side note, TV chef Paula Deen acquits herself nicely as an actress - although her role should have either been removed entirely or greatly reduced.

Cameron Crowe has such a great track record that anything less than a solid response to Elizabethtown has to be considered a major disappointment. This is far from a bad film, but it is sloppily assembled and, as currently constituted, represents a mixed bag. Hopefully, Crowe will be able to put it back together in the editing room in a way that will enable me to give the final version a "thumbs up." Sadly, that's something I cannot accord to the current version.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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