2006 TIFF Update #10: "The Comfy Chair"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Saturday, September 16, 2006

One of the most underrated instruments in a critic's arsenal isn't the computer keyboard, the notepad, or the tub of popcorn - it's the theater chair. For an average one-and-done screening, the size and shape of the chair doesn't make much difference, but when it comes to four or five movies per day for more than a week, uncomfortable seats lead to unpleasant viewing experiences.

Stadium seating is nice. Good lines of sight are nicer. An open seat on one or both sides is desriable, if possible. But more important than all these things are soft, high backs, the chair angled properly to face the screen (critical if you're in the first three rows), and a few extra inches of arm room on either side (requires about two fewer seats per row, or about 30 fewer seats in an auditorium).

Contrary to common belief, critics don't get overly preferential treatment at the Toronto Film Fetival. Yes, we have a separate Press and Industry screening roster which opens more opportunities to see things, but the price to pay is standing in long lines. I have a friend who attended 30 public screenings this week. His average arrival at theaters before the posted movie start time was about 15 minutes. My average arrival time before a press screening: 45 minutes. For some high-profile screenings, it was an hour, and never was it less than 20 minutes. I arrived at Death of a President about 55 minutes before it started and was among the final 100 people to get into the theater. The guy at the front of the line had been waiting for nearly three hours. Yet the lines don't seem as bad if the seats feel good.

Fortunately, most press screenings are held at a place called the Varsity Cinemas, where the seats couldn't be more ideal. Even in the rather cramped Cinema 7, there are nice seats (to go along with poor sight lines and a lack of stadium seating). The other major press location is the Cumberland. There, three of the four auditoriums have okay seating. But woe to those who are forced to sit near the front in Cinema 3. (My fate on two occasions.) The seat cushions are lumpy and the backs are hard and short. If you try to scrunch down to avoid neck strain from looking at the screen, you'll need a pillow to cushion your head.

Comfort during a movie can play a role in how a film is received. It won't turn a bad review into a good review (or vice versa), but it can brighten or darken the shadings. Critics are human too. External factors can influence reviews, if ever so slightly. Fortunately, Toronto (for the most part) stacks the deck by providing excellent theater conditions and comfy chairs. Contrary to what Monty Python might argue, it's not torture at all.

Two more films to discuss as I wind down the coverage. The press screenings are all done. Now it's time to clean things up. These movies could fall into a category titled "Under the Radar and Straight from the Heart."

I have now forgiven director Brad Silberling for making Moonlight Mile, a painfully melodramatic flim I endured here in Toronto four years ago. The Lemony Snicket film helped get him back in my good graces, and his latest, 10 Items or Less has decided matters. This low-budget, unpretentious film is as charming as anything I saw at the festival this year, and proves that the class of Morgan Freeman and the fire of Paz Vega can carry a motion picture.

Plots don't get much simpler. Freeman is playing a veteran actor who's doing research for an upcoming role. Although never identified by name, let's call the character "Morgan Freeman." Vega plays Scarlet, a cashier who doesn't give a damn about her job. When it's time for her to go home, she realizes Morgan has a problem: his ride hasn't arrived, and he's lost in L.A. He doesn't remember his own phone number, he doesn't have any friends to call (his agent and publicist are both unavailable since they're Jewish and it's a Jewish holiday), and he doesn't have any money. Scarlet agrees to drive him home, but he has to accompany her on a few urgent errands first. This allows Freeman to experience the wonders of Target, among other things.

About 60 of the movie's 82 minutes feature no one other than Vega and Freeman. As they drive around Los Angeles, they discuss life, self-respect, and a bunch of other topics. They get to know each other and, in the process, find out a few things about themselves. Scarlet gains the confidence to quit her despised job and interview for a new one. If she doesn't get it, it's no big deal - she'll try again. Morgan decides to get back into filmmaking (he has been semi-retired), even if it's only to star in an indie production.

10 Items or Less recalls Lost in Translation and Before Sunrise, but without the romantic aspect. Like the characters in those films, Scarlet and Morgan have only a limited time together. During that time, they develop a surprisingly strong bond, but when the day is over, they will never see each other again. However, where love blossomed between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and sexual tension arced between Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, the relationship between Morgan and Scarlet remains platonic.

10 Items or Less is not landmark cinema nor is it deeply thought-provoking, but it's smart, funny, knowledgeable about life and people, and a crowd-pleaser (at least for those who don't expect action scenes). Freeman oozes charisma and Vega couldn't be more alluring (even wearing the supermarket smock). There's instant chemistry between the two actors and it never evaporates.

The good news is that Thinkfilm has purchased the distribution rights so the movie will be available in a limited theatrial release in places other than New York and Los Angeles. The bad news is that the MPAA will give the movie an R because the word "fuck" is used several times. It's unfortunate because this is a perfect motion picture for teenagers who are serious about movies (as oppoosed to teenagers who only spend their dollars on the latest blockbusters). Irrespective of what the MPAA might claim, 10 Items or Less is a pleasant experience for viewers of all ages.

Moving along, we come to Outsourced, another small film that is headed for a limited U.S. run. While that's not as good as a general multiplex release, it's better than a direct line to obscurity.

Like 10 Items or Less, Outsourced is sweet and light. It's a celebration of cultural diversity and an affirmation that, despite differences in race, religion, and societal norms, people are essentially the same, with lack of understanding being a key block to better relations. This message is not hammered home in a heavy-handed manner. Instead, Outsourced is primarily a fish-out-of-water comedy with a little romance thrown in.

Todd (Josh Hamilton) is the manager of a call center for a novelty company based in Seattle. Once day - seemingly no different from any other - his world crumbles when his boss informs him that the entire department is being outsourced. Todd can keep his job, but there's a condition: he must travel to India to train his replacement and get the new call center's MPI (Minutes Per Incident) rate under 6.0. Reluctantly, Todd agrees to go. Af first, he has trouble adjusting, but the help of Puro (Asif Basra), the man he's training, and Asha (Ayesha Dharker), with whom he develops a bond more intimate than friendship, he begins to acclimate to Indian society.

Outsourced is not overly jokey in the way it approaches Todd's cultural discomfort. There's humor to be found in these circumstances, as when a cow wanders into the call center and only Todd notices something unusual. However, the comedy is not forced or sit-com influenced; instead, it's more subtle than that. Similar claims can be made about the movie's romance. Asha is engaged to be married (it's a union that was arranged when she was four years old), so there's no future in her relationship with Todd. They have a fling and, although their feelings for one another are sincere, they are not destined to be together. This bittersweet component makes Outsourced seem better grounded in reality.

Director John Jeffcoat and his low-key cast deserve the credit for making Outsourced such a delight. The film does not ignore the painful economic impacts caused by outsourcing and downsizing, but if finds new ways in which to address them. By taking Todd to India, Outsourced provides an opportunity to observe the situation from a different angle. This is a feel-good comedy, but there's truth to be mined beneath the lighthearted surface.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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