2006 TIFF Update #6: "A Shower of Yellow Dots"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

One of the ways in which a film festival's success can be judged is by how many screenings it sells out. When I made my first trip here in 1997, Toronto would routinely sell out about 50% of its screenings. Most of the Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday shows would be standby-only, but you could pretty much walk up and by a ticket to any weekday movie, even high-profile ones being shown in the evenings. How things have changed.

I walk past the festival box office daily. Outside, there's a giant reproduction of the festival schedule. Every sold-out show has a yellow dot placed next to the title. Today, I noticed that well over 80% of those titles had yellow dots. The exceptions fell into two categories: obscure titles and movies being shown in HUGE venues (2000+ seats). Weekend walk-ups are as impossible as they were ten years ago, but that has now extended to many weeknights and even weekday afternoon screenings. It's becoming increasingly less feasible to simply show up at the festival and "impulse buy." That's still a possible way to go if you don't mind an eclectic schedule and don't care whether you see any "favorites" or not. However, if you want to be able to plan your schedule and get into a few high profile movies, you're going to have to purchase ahead.

Toronto is the second largest film festival in the world, and the largest that genuinely opens its doors to regular customers. (Cannes, which is #1, has become exclusive.) Patrons have responded, making the festival a bigger and more popular event every year. Based on random questioning of festival-goers, between 2/3 and 3/4 are from Toronto, many who are here at the university. The rest are film lovers from all across North America and even around the world. The number of sell-outs are troubling for some regular Toronto citizens who claim they can't do what they used to be able to do: go to a theater, buy a ticket, and be able to say they saw something at the film festival. I can sympathize with them, but the reality is that more sellouts equals more money and greater prestige and, in the long run, this can only be a good thing. Already, this year's film roster represents one of the best in the last ten years, easily topping what was offered in 2004 or 2005. So bring on more yellow dots!

Today's movie discussion will start with one of the most anticipated releases of the upcoming 2006 holiday season. I am referring to the latest offering from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, whose previous credits include The Devil's Backbone, Blade 2, and Hellboy. With Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro takes us into a world that infuses gothic fantasy elements into the real-life horrors of the second World War. Set in Spain during the days immediately before and after D-Day, the movie provides a window into the mind of a young girl who seeks escape from a life that features a cruel stepfather and a mother whose difficult pregnancy is killing her. But is this girl's method of escape a portal into another reality or is it a conjuration of her fairy tale obsessed imagination?

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) isn't just having a bad day, she's having a bad life. Her country is war-torn with the fascist government battling the rebel maquis. Her father has died, a victim of the fighting. Her mother (Ariadna Gil), alone and unprotected, was forced to marry the vicious Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) and conceive his child. She is now nearing full term, but it is a diffucult pregnancy and it is killing her. The potential of being left alone in the world with Vidal is enough to turn Ofelia's blood to ice. One day, while exploring the terrain around her new rural home, she discovers an ancient labyrinth made out of huge slabs of rock. Within live creatures of myth: faires and fauns. Ofelia learns an amazing thing: she is the long-lost princess, the daughter of the King of the Underworld. To prove her worthiness of this title, she must complete three tasks set out for her by the faun Pan (Doug Jones). If they are done before the next full moon, she will be welcomed into her kingdom.

Perhaps the film's greatest asset is the way in which it interweaves Ofelia's quests with the tale of the Spanish resistance fighters. Both are equally compelling. When one story is being told, we are sufficiently involved that we aren't anxious to return to the other. This is an achievement. Many films with "split personalities" invest all their creative energy into one aspect of the story, causing the other one to founder and feel obligatory.

The set design and special effects, which go hand-in-hand, are impressive. The gloom of the labyrinth, with its crumbling stone structures, permeates the outside world. (Or should that be the other way around?) I used the word "gothic" earlier, and it's an apt descriptor of how the entire film feels. CGI effects are used in creating the fairies, the faun, and a few other creatures. By not overusing them and overwhelming us, del Toro prevents Pan's Labyrinth from seeming to have been assembled on a computer. His actors, especially young Ivan Baquero and Sergi Lopez, are excellent.

The term "fairy tale" can be used to describe Pan's Labyrinth, and references to The Wizard of Oz are not out of place. However, these should not go along with the expectation that this is a kid-friendly movie, because it is not. It contains scenes of graphic violence and images that will cause all but the most stalwart children to have nightmares. Some scenes, like one in which a character is forced to use a needle and thread to close a gaping wound, may cause even adults to flinch. However, the lack of family friendliness does not diminish what del Toro has achieved with this magical motion picture.

Moving on, we come to an altogether different sort of motion picture: the second feature film from director Todd Field (In the Bedroom. Little Children is the rarest of movies - a literary multi-character drama. From the erudition of the voiceover narrative to the three dimensionality of the characters, Field's film is the closest it's possible to get to a book without reading one. The story is presented in an unhurried fashion with all the characters and situations being allowed to develop and expand in a natural fashion.

Although this is an ensemble piece, there are two anchoring characters. They are Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) and Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), neglected spouses who find happiness in each other's company as they chaperone their children's playdays. It takes a while but they eventually give in to the inevitable and become lovers. They dream of being with one another, but that seems more like a fantasy than a hope grounded in reality. Other characters orbiting like satellites around the main pair include Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), Brad's controlling wife; Richard (Gregg Edelman), Sarah's porn-obsessed husband; Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted pedophile; and Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), an ex-cop turned vigilante.

There's enough material here to fuel a series of lurid melodramas, but Field (who co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Perrotta, upon whose book it is based) keeps things low-key and under control. The scope of the project never gets away from him. The voiceover (unlike most voiceovers) is helpful, since it emphasizes the story's literary roots. Delivered in a smooth baritone, it offers observations and editorials on the action, occasionally with more than a hint of sardonic wit.

The performances, especially those by Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Noah Emmerich, and Jackie Earle Haley, are tremendous. Winslet and Wilson face the challenge of portraying regular, intelligent people who are trapped by the normalcy of their lives. Emmerich and Haley, on the other hand, must play individuals with monstrous personality defects, and they do so without making their characters seem either unduly sympathetic or reprehensible. This is especially difficult for Haley, considering the nature of Ronnie's crime (he exposed himself to an underage girl), but the actor succeeds.

It might seem to some that Little Children meanders too much or could have been better focused. While I agree that any of the characters would have made an excellent choice for a feature film, Field's goal here is to present a slice of the community. The main story deals with Sarah and Brad, but the other characters are given existences of their own, which is rare in motion pictures, and Little Children is richer for it. With In the Bedroom, Field demonstrated his mastery of difficult dramatic material and his ability to direct actors. His sophomore feature, which avoids the dreaded "slump," reinforces those characteristics and gives us reason to believe that Field is a director whose next project should be met with anticipation.

Peter O'Toole is the talk of Toronto, even though he's not here. (He was originally scheduled to attend, but illness forced him to cancel his trip across the Atlantic.) Everyone is rightfully praising his performance in Roger Michell's Venus, the story of the relationship between a 73-year old actor and a 20-year old would-be model. The 50 year gap makes this a March/December romance, and would impress even Charlie Chaplin and Tony Randall. This is dangerous territory for a film, but Michell navigates it with sensitivity and class. Venus is not crass or explotative. It deals seriously with the possibility that an old man might fall in love with a young woman, and that (at least on some level) those emotions might be reciprocated. There's a lot more going on here than a dirty old man ogling an attractive young thing.

Maurice (O'Toole) is a respected but aging actor. He has prostate cancer and senses that the end is near. It doesn't particularly worry him; in fact, he jokes about it with his good friend, Ian (Leslie Phillips), and his ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave). Into his life comes Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), Ian's neice's daughter. She's a trash-talking, sulky young woman who has come to London to find work, preferably as a model. Intrigued by her, Maurice takes an interest. Initially, he is rebuffed, but the two eventually work through their differences to form a bond. He takes her shopping, to the theater, and to a museum. She takes him to a dance club. They fall in love, although not in the conventional way. Maurice is impotent; his sexual desire has dried up. But he still appreciates the beauty of the female form. He wants to see Jessie naked and kiss her neck. She adores Maurice for his humor and intelligence, but isn't too keen for any skin-to-skin contact. Every once in a while, however, she allows him a liberty or two. She has limits, though: a hand on the breast gets him an elbow to the groin. Their relationship remains playful until Jessie's boyfriend enters the picture.

O'Toole deserves all the praise he has been getting for this part. Whether or not he will receive an Oscar nomination will likely depend on whether anyone sees the film. Maurice is a tough-talking, sharp witted old codger. He can recite Shakespeare one moment then launch into a profanity-laced tirade the next. When gazing at the Venus di Milo with Jessie, he remarks that the greatest expression of beauty for a man is the body of woman. She asks what the greatest beauty for woman is. He responds that it's her first child. This dumbfounds Jessie.

Jodie Whittaker, in her feature debut, falls into O'Toole shadow, but she has a strong enough presence not to get lost in it. She gives Jessie spunk and vigor, and helps us understand why Maurice falls in love. She's very good, but won't get the same accolades as her co-star, even though she takes her clothing off while O'Toole leaves his on. Supporting actors Leslie Phillips and Vanessa Redgrave are welcome additions. The verbal parrying between O'Toole and Phillips is one of Venus' undisputed highlights.

I was a little disappointed by the film's final 20 minutes - not so much how Michell (Notting Hill) chooses to wrap things up, but the mannner in which he goes about it. He places the audience in collusion with Maurice in wanting to see Jessie naked. However, when the moment comes, he reveals her in all her glory to the viewers, but Maurice isn't in the room. It feels a little like a cheat - not for us, but for him. The boyfriend subplot is also contrived and unnecessary. Ultimately, it doesn't serve much purpose (at his age, Maurice is beyond jealousy) other than to add a few minutes to the running time.

In Hollywood, romance is almost always equated with sex, so it's up to non-U.S. productions to remind us that there are other components to love. Like the platonic bond in Carrington, the interaction between the leads in Venus emphasizes that some of the deepest emotional relationships don't have physical components. This is a brave movie, because it addresses a subject that Hollywood feels uncomfortable about. Yet with O'Toole's authority informing his part, it's hard to believe that Venus won't find its audience.

The Last King of Scotland, in addition to having one of the most misleading titles of any movie to play at this year's festival, could also be 2006's Hotel Rwanda. Like last year's sadly overlooked feature, this one peers into another troubled African nation: Uganda. The Last King of Scotland explores the turmoil and troubles surrounding the beginning of one of the country's darkest recent periods: the Idi Amin regime, which lasted from 1971 through 1979, and resulted in thousands upon thousands of deaths. Based on actual events, the movie takes us into Amin's inner circle through the eyes of an outsider who is initially charmed by the charismatic leader until Amin's true nature begins to bubble to the surface.

In 1971, newly graduated Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) quits Scotland for Uganda to escape the talons of his overbearing father. Nicholas arrives in the African nation around the time that a military coup puts General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) into power. Amin is an immensely charismatic and popular leader. When he is injured in an automobile accident, Nicholas is the nearest doctor, and he is brought to attend to the wound. Amin is taken with the young Scotsman, and offers him a position as personal physician to the President. It's a job Nicholas can't refuse, although he will come to wish he had done so. At first, his experience living at Amin's residence is entirely positive, but as the ruler's paranoia begins to assert itself, Nicholas discovers that no one is safe. His own status is tenuous, especially since he is having an affair with Amin's neglected third wife (Kerry Washington). Every day, Amin relies more on his soldiers and less on his non-military advisors, and his enemies begin disappearing en masse.

Although Amin is not the lead character, he is the focal point of the movie. This is about the dissolution of his character. At the outset, he is an affable charismatic man, an individual with great aspirations for his country. His descent into paranoia and butchery is shown to be a gradual process, although there are plenty of warning signs which no one heeds. As Amin rightly points out, Nicholas views his participation in the Ugandan government as something of a game until he's in too deep to be able to extricate himself without help. The British government is all too willing to provide that aid, but there's a price to pay, and Nicholas is no assassin.

Solid performances help make this a worthwhile film. McAvoy, who is probably best known as Mr. Tumnnus in The Chronicles of Narnia, shows range as Nicholas - from the light-hearted, outgoing doctor who enters Uganda to the trapped, fearful man who finds his options narrowing as his position as Amin's "trusted advisor" becomes tenuous. Forest Whitaker is a scene-stealer, bringing the right mix of passion, charisma, and monstrosity to his portrayal of the Ugandan leader. Whitaker's Amin is larger than life - a figure equally capable of inspiring great love and great terror.

The Last King of Scotland does not refrain from showing the brutality of what Amin's reign becomes. The film contains its share of gruesome images, including a torture scene that depicts what happens to someone who betrays Amin. Director Kevin Macdonald has fashioned a film that is at times nearly as harrowing as his previous endeavor, Touching the Void. The Last King of Scotland isn't for everyone, but for those who can stomach its brutality, it offers a compelling look into how such a popular leader became known as one of Africa's most vicious dictators of the 1970s.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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