2007 TIFF Update #1: "The Long Road"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
For Thursday, September 6, 2007

For some reason, nearly every film playing at this Year's Toronto International Film Festival seems extraordinarily long. In the past, the average running time of a film here has been around 100 minutes, which is roughly the average length of a theatrically released motion picture. Sure, there's occasionally a two-hour or even two and one-half hour movie. Not this year, though. In 2007, long is in. Using the pool of films I'm likely to see, I calculated the average running length and came up with a none-too-svelte 116 minutes. In that group, there are a gaudy twelve movies of at least two hours - and three of those are at least 2 1/2 hours.

Length isn't a determining factor in whether I choose to see or not to see something, but I have to admit a preference for shorter films. Why? Most of the time, long films tend to be padded. That's not to say that a 90 minute movie can't feel like it lasts for a week, but my experience is that the longer the running length, the greater the chance it will slip into self-indulgence. I have seen plenty of good two-hour movies that would have made great 100-minute features. It's more rare (although not unheard of) for the reverse to be true.

Since a lot of those films will end up as Oscar bait in general release this fall, it means that a lot of 2007's prestige films are going to hit the two hour mark and keep running. If something is immersive, it doesn't matter. The uncomfortable trappings of the theater fall away. If it's not, however, you'll be reminded that the floor is sticky, the auditorium smells like mixed faux butter and nachos, the seat squeaks whenever you move, and the guy two rows in front won't shut up.

So what's worth seeing at this year's festival? As usual, I'm going to survey a few of the highlights that I expect to be reporting on, but there's no guarantee about any of them. Things can change fast in festivals, scuttling plans to see something that's on a preliminary schedule in order to catch something about which there's a lot of buzz. And I don't write about everything I see - that would be exhausting. As it is, I average about 6 hours of sleep per night, which mandates a big cup of coffee in the morning or the risk that I'll be snoozing mid-way through the 8:45 am screening.

The festival opens with Fugitive Pieces, a drama about how the ghosts of childhood can haunt an adult. (See below for some thoughts.) It closes with Paolo Barzman's Emotional Arithmatic which, like Fugitive Pieces is also about connections between the past and present. Emotional Arithmatic boasts an impressive cast: Susan Sarandon, Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, and Gabriel Byrne. Nevertheless, lack of time and opportunity means it's unlikely I'll be reporting on it. Then there are all the films in between...

Picking 30 out of more than 250 features represents a significant challenge, and it takes a blend of knowledge, alchemy, and luck to have a good festival. Some years are better than others, and it's always a challenge to say whether one year is "good" or "bad" or whether I just choose well or poorly. Two years ago, I thought the festival was lackluster, but I understand it was acclaimed as one of the best festivals in the past decade. I thought last year's experience was an improvement but the consensus was that it was average, or perhaps a little below. (Thankfully, nothing is ever likely to be worse than 2001.)

Lust, Caution is Ang Lee's 160-minute NC-17 erotic thriller set during World War II in occupied China. Indications are that this is likely to be a visual masterpiece that doesn't shy away from depicting sex. (I am reminded of The Lover, although the films may turn out to have little in common.) A movie with both a long title and a long running length is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There's reason to wonder about this Western because of the amount of tweaking that has been done. Sean Penn's Into the Wild clocks in at 150 minutes and tells the true story of a young man who gave away his fortune and tried to lose himself in Alaska.

The Coen Brothers are back with No Country for Old Men and Woody Allen is here with Cassandra's Dream, which is said to be one of his more serious films. Battling the Coens for most off-beat offering on the festival's mainstream side will be Craig Gillsepie, whose Lars and the Real Girl is about a guy who falls in love with a blow-up doll. Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a rare sequel to an art house film. It will likely spur the same controversy as the original about taking liberties with established facts. Eastern Promises has David Cronenberg again working with Viggo Mortensen in a story about the Russian mafia. Kenneth Branagh leaves behind Shakespeare to helm Sleuth a remake of the Laurence Olivier/Michael Caine film that recasts Caine in the Olivier role and uses Jude Law to replace Caine. (This is the second time he has done that – remember Alfie.)

Kiera Knightley fans can have a double-header. She re-teams with her Pride and Prejudice director, Joe Wright, for Atonement. Based on the Ian McEwan novel, it's guaranteed to have lot less romantically satisfying resolution. She's also in Silk, an unhappy love story about a French silkworm merchant who falls for a Japanese concubine. Knightley plays the man's betrayed wife. And hell hath no fury...

Ang Lee is back with Lust, Caution. His Oscar foe from a couple of years ago, Paul Haggis, also has a new production here. In the Valley of Elah looks at the effects of war on the psyche when an active soldier goes AWOL after returning to his home town. Rendition is another war-themed movie in which Reese Witherspoon continues to pursue serious roles. In this one, her husband is captured and held out of the country by American anti-terrorist officials. Reservation Road teams director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) with Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo to show the reverberations that can result from the death of a child.

Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney as a "finisher" in a corporate law firm, is a "thinking thriller" (as opposed to an "action thriller"). King of California stars another A-list actor, Michael Douglas, as a slightly demented treasure hunter. The Brave One puts Jodie Foster in the Charles Bronson role in a modern-day version of Death Wish that's a little more thoughtful than the typical revenge flick. Across the Universe is Julie Taymor's beleaguered ode to Beatles music. Supposedly taken out of her hands and re-cut by the producer, it's questionable whose vision (if anyone's) this represents. It stars Evan Rachel Wood, who's also in King of California.

Some of the less prominent (but by no means "little") films I'll be seeing include Juno, with Ellen Page as a smart teenager who's having trouble navigating a pregnancy. (This generated strong word-of-mouth out of Telluride, where it premiered.) Nothing in Private, from Allan Ball, postulates what might happen if a teenage Arab-American girl fell for a white supremacist. Les Amors D'Astree et De Celadon is the latest historical epic from French icon Eric Rohmer - and looks to be a costume drama lesbian love story. The Counterfeiters tells of a Jewish counterfeiter who is pressed into service plying his trade for the Nazis. Chaotic Ana, from Julio Medem, is about a globetrotting mystical girl. La Fille Coupe en Deux represents the latest from another legendary French filmmaker, Claude Chabrol.

Speaking of legends, George A. Romero is here with his new zombie movie, Diary of the Dead. It's likely the only entry in the popular Midnight Madness program that I'll see. For those not so interested in gore, there are a couple of notable "chick flicks." One is The Jane Austen Book Club, about a group of friends who gather to talk about Austen's novels and help each other out as their personal dramas unfold. Then She Found Me is Helen Hunt's directorial debut, and stars (amongst others) Hunt and Colin Firth. Firth is also on display in And When Did You Last See Your Father?, which is about sons, fathers, and how sons perceive fathers. Frank Langella headlines Starting out in the Evening, which is a May-December romance but is said to bear no resemblance to last year's Venus.

Having taken a broad look at my expected corner of the festival, now it's time to examine this year's Opening Night Gala film, Jeremy Podeswa's Fugitive Pieces.

This is not the strongest way to start a festival, but Toronto doesn’t have a history of tremendous opening films. In a word, Fugitive Pieces can be described as “forgettable.” The film has lofty goals, but comes across as leaden and pretentious. It’s a character study in which the lead participant is the least interesting person in the movie. There’s something inherently frustrating and satisfying about that. As a viewer, you want to become involved in this man’s life but the film never takes you to a point where that’s possible. This is a fatal flaw.

Fugitive Pieces spans a period of roughly 35 years, beginning in 1942 and concluding the late 1970s. At the outset, Jacob (Robbie Kay) is a young Jew in Poland forced to watch from hiding as his mother and father are killed and his sister captured during a raid. He is eventually saved by the Greek Athos (Rade Sherbedgia), in whose care he begins to re-connect with the human race - although he cannot keep the nightmares at bay. Eventually, the pair moves to Canada where Athos begins writing a book called Bearing False Witness: History and Memory while Jacob (now played by Stephen Dillane) pursues a degree. Eventually, after Athos’s death, Jacob enters into a marriage with the vivacious Alex (Rosamund Pike), hoping that she will provide him with the spark he needs to find happiness. But his obsession with the past threatens their union. As Alex remarks after reading his diary: “To live with ghosts requires solitude.”

Told in a strictly linear fashion, Fugitive Pieces might be so dry and ponderous as to be unwatchable. Fortunately, Podeswa (The Five Senses), adapting from the novel by Anne Michaels, varies the chronology by nesting flashbacks within flashbacks. We never spend more than a few consecutive scenes in any one time period. The title informs the storytelling style - the intent is for all the pieces to eventually come together to form a narrative and emotional whole. To an extent, that is what happens. It’s just that the “whole” isn’t compelling. There have been numerous powerful motion pictures about Holocaust survivors and how their traumatic experiences have shaped their lives. This is not one of them.

The film boasts a pair of strong performances, both in supporting roles. Rade Sherbedgia, as Athos, is effective, although his part - that of the gruff, lonely old man who devotes his later years to raising a boy - is a cliché. And, although she’s not in the movie for many scenes, Rosamund Pike (who played Jane in the most recent theatrical version of Pride and Prejudice) adds life and spark to an otherwise somber production. Unfortunately, lead actor Stephen Dillane is unremarkable. While there’s no question that Jacob is supposed to be emotionally wounded and in search of wholeness, Dillane provides a flat portrayal that dooms Jacob to seeming two-dimensional. Only at the very end is there any sense of resonance.

It would be nice to trumpet from the rooftops that Fugitive Pieces is an unqualified triumph - the correct choice to get the festival off to the right start. Such a statement, however, would go beyond hyperbole into the realm of an outright lie. I can’t argue that Fugitive Pieces is a safe choice. It has tragedy and pathos, is directed by a Canadian and is set in part in Canada, and treads into serious territory by showing scenes that take place during the Holocaust. All of those things make it a reasonable choice for a night that’s more about festivities than movie quality. It’s too bad, however, that Fugitive Pieces couldn’t have provided both.

© 2007 James Berardinelli