2006 TIFF Update #9: "The Not-So-Good Stuff"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Friday, September 15, 2006

Often at film festivals, the "worst" movies are not necessarily those that are of the poorest quality, but the ones that fail to live up to the pre-release hype and expectations. I have already covered a few of those films (Shortbus, All the King's Men) in earlier updates. But I gathered three titles together to discuss today. One of these films wasn't much of a disappointment, although I gave up a more promising movie to see it. Another was discouraging. And the third nearly broke my heart. (Those of you who knew what I was looking forward to seeing in Toronto already know what #3 is.) I'll handle them it that order.

Starter for Ten is a mildly enjoyable romantic comedy that stays within the safe bounds of the genre's formula. This is a British film, which may make it feel a little quirky to American viewers. The problem with it, to the extent that there is a problem, is that the movie is only sporadically funny and lacking in the romance department. The love story is perfunctory, and seems present more-or-less because the film bears the "romantic comedy" label, and it's hard to be a "romantic comedy" without some kind of love interest.

The movie transpires in 1985-86 on a university campus in England. Those who (like me) entered college during that era will find a lot in Starter for Ten that is familiar - the clothes, the attitudes of people, and the music. All of this background material lends color to the movie, but doesn't fully compensate for the trivial nature of the plot, which is a little stale and contains a few of what I call "stupid sitcom moments." The film's general blandness should generate some appeal for those who don't like edgy material, although there's too much profanity for it to achieve the golden PG-13 rating.

James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) is Brian Jackson, a nerdy guy in his first year at a posh British university. His primary goal at school is to become a contestant on the popular game show "University Challenge." After a few bumps in the road, he achieves this objective, becoming one member of a four-person group that includes team captain Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch), Alice (Alice Eve), and Lucy (Elaine Tan). Meanwhile, away from the team, Brian develops a comforable sparring friendship with Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a girl who will attend almost any left-leaning protest. Romantically, Brian has a choice to pursue either Alice or Rebecca. Romantic comedy veterans will know who he goes after and who he ends up with. That aspect is written in stone. Other elements of the film, such as what happens to the team on "University Challenge," are less predictable.

It will be hard to find anyone who actively dislikes Starter for Ten. This isn't the kind of film to generate passion one way or the other. It has a small film's appeal, although there are some big guns behind it. (Tom Hanks and Sam Mendes, to name two.) Words like "nice" and "pleasant" are appropriate, although I may have stifled a yawn or two during the proceedings. The acting is solid, with McAvoy and Rebecca Hall doing nice jobs, even though there's not a lot of chemistry between them. Alice Eve manages to keep her character from falling into the stereotype pit, although she spends some time teetering on the edge. To me, this is the kind of movie that's more deserving of a rental than a trip to a movie theater, and that means it's definitely sub-par for festival material, although I have seen worse this year.

Then there's Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering, which is evident as being broken fairly early during the proceedings. There's no shortage of candidates for the fatal flaw: the artificial storyline; the presence of a ridiculously cliched character; the lack of chemistry between illicit lovers. Blaming one of these problems is probably unfair. The movie's failure is likely based on a fusion of all these, and perhaps a few others.

Minghella has become known as a director of "chick flicks," primarily because of The English Patient and Cold Mountain. When viewed from a distance, Breaking and Entering would appear to fit into the same category, but there is a stark difference. In his previous efforts, Minghella created believable relationships between interesting characters. The same cannot be said of Breaking and Entering, where the situations are contrived and the key characters don't connect.

Will (Jude Law) is a successful architect who has relocated his business to one of the "bad parts" of London, King's Crossing. Because of the dysfunction in his home life, Will spends a lot of hours at work, further isolating him from his long-time live-in girlfriend, Liv (Robin Wright-Penn), and their 13-year old daughter, Bea (Poppy Rogers). Bea is not Will's biological daughter, but he has been her father-figure for 10 years. She currently has emotional problems - she can't cope with loud noises and suffers from insomnia. Will's solution to this is to avoid home as much as possible. After his business place is broken into twice and his computers are stolen, he camps out in his car at night to catch the thief. He is successful, and follows the boy, Miro (Rafi Gavron), to the home he shares with his mother, Amira (Juliete Binoche). Instead of calling the police or confronting Miro, Will instead makes the baffling decision to return the next day and engage Amira in conversation. He recognizes that both of them possess deep wellsprings of longing, so they begin an affair. Things become complicated when Amira discovers why Will originally sought her out.

Although the narrative outline would seem to have the potential to develop into a tear-jerker, the lack of chemistry between Binoche and Law creates a barrier. The two actors don't seem to be on the same page. Their sex scenes are passionless and their clothed interaction is no less sterile. Law in particular is frustrating. After starting his career with promise, he has become lazy in his acting. Every character he plays is essentially the same, and he has taken the low-key approach to extremes. To put it bluntly, he has become boring. Breaking and Entering also makes use of the worn-out cliche of the "hooker with the heart of gold." In this case, she's played by Vera Farmiga. I have no problem with the performance, but the character is so out-of-place and unrealistic that it makes one wonder what Minghella was thinking. Ray Winstone has a few nice scenes as a cop; he should have been in more of the film. All of the other actors are okay.

Benoit Delhomme contributes some moody cinematography, but his shot selection further enhances the film's cold, clinical look. While this is a reasonable approach to highlight the distance between Will and his family, it hurts Breaking and Entering's chances of generating something worthwhile between Will and Amira. Without that, the movie has little chance of success, even with those who have been Minghella supporters in the past.

Finally, there's the biggest dissappointment of the festival. I want to emphasize that this is not the worst film I have seen here (there are at least six less appealing ones, many of which I haven't bothered to write up), but I had high expectations for it - perhaps unreasonably high. There's enough in this movie to make it worth a qualfied recommendation, but I had hoped to be able to give it the heartiest "thumbs up" I could manage.

The Fountain is Darren Aronofsky trying to be Stanley Kubrick. However, while Aronofsky is able to match Kubrick frame-by-frame for ending ambiguity, that's one of the few areas in which The Fountain keeps pace with 2001. Technically, The Fountain is an impressive outing, but the fragmented story results in poor character development and Aronofsky's clinical approach limits identification. The overall experience fails to satisfy on a basic level. This is one of those films it's easier to be impressed with than it is to like.

The Fountain takes place in three eras: the 16th century, the 21st century, and the 26th century. The majority of the narrative transpires in a contemporary setting, where drug developer Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is trying to save his wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz), who is afflicted with an inoperable brain tumor. Izzy is writing a book about a 1500s quest for the Fountain of Youth in New Spain, with Queen Isabel (Weisz) sending a Conquistador (Jackman) to find it. Finally, there are flash-forwards to the future where a bald man (Jackman) is taking a space trip in the company of a giant tree. One of the objectives of The Fountain is to reveal the connective tissue between these stories.

There's little doubt this is an ambitious effort, but one can argue that Aronofsky's vision has exceeded his ability to bring it to the screen within the alotted running time. The Fountain isn't as perplexing or as profound as it would like us to believe. The conclusion, rather than revealing some great truth, comes across as little more than a quasi-mystical sleight of hand. The emotional content is almost entirely absent. At the core of the movie is Tommy's desperate obsession to save his wife. However, because the characters are so thinly drawn and poorly illuminated, we don't connect with Tommy's pain. We recognize it in an abstract fashion, but it doesn't reach us. That puts viewers in the position of asking: So what?

The acting by Jackman and Weisz, is fine, and the visuals are striking without being ostentatious, but there's a feeling about this movie that the Emperor has no clothing. However, I would rather experience an interesting failure like this than a "success" that displays neither ambition nor vision. The Fountain has both qualities, even if they remain only partially realized.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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