2007 TIFF Update #5: "Grim Tales"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
For Monday, September 10, 2007

In past years, I have written about how coffee is the lifeblood of festival goers. Certainly, there’s no shortage of places to get it in Toronto. Starbucks are ubiquitous. My hotel is a fifteen minute walk from the Varsity cinema complex, where most of the press screenings (and many of the public ones) are held. During that fifteen minute walk, I pass three Starbucks. Three! There are other coffee shop chains as well: Timothy’s and Second Cup. When one considers the amount of coffee that needs to be bought in order to keep all these places afloat, one has to assume that Toronto is afloat in caffeine. The festival simply adds a few thousand bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived customers to the endless coffee shop queues.

I have gone through the last couple of days without coffee, substituting orange juice, but I can only do that so long. Show me someone who rejects a morning cup of Joe in the middle of a film festival like this, and I’ll show you someone who is guaranteed to fall asleep. This year, I have noticed prominent film critics dozing off during films as diverse as Lust, Caution; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; and Into the Wild. Coffee doesn’t ensure a nap-free day of movies, but it helps. (Personal revelation: I have snoozed during a French film and a Spanish film, neither of which will be written up.) The fact is, when one is seeing so many movies back-to-back-to-back with perhaps only five or six hours of sleep in between, it often doesn’t matter how good the films are.

It’s times like these, when I see the masses pouring into Starbucks, that I wish I owned stock in the company. Even if or when the economy goes into a slump, it’s hard to imagine the coffee industry being hard-hit. Coffee has become as much of a necessary resource as oil or gasoline, only it fuels the workforce rather than their automobiles. Strange to think that 20 years ago, people got their morning cup of Joe from diners and community Mr. Coffees at the office. (And where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?)

With only a few exceptions, film festivals love “serious” fare, and “serious” almost always equates to “grim.” As long-time readers know, I’m usually partial to unhappy movies. It must be something deeply rooted in my psyche. However, although “serious” often equates to “grim,” “grim” doesn’t always equate to “good.”

For an example of that, consider David Cronenberg’s latest, Eastern Promises. Although the director has re-teamed with his The History of Violence star, Viggo Mortensen, the results aren’t as satisfactory. Eastern Promises is a jumbled string of mob-related clichés that mesh into something that’s derivative and at times uninteresting. Aside from two “Cronenberg” scenes, the movie is lifeless and concludes on a note that makes the movie feel unfinished. I have been complaining about a lot of the movies at this festival being needlessly long; Eastern Promises might have been a better production had it added another 15 or 20 minutes on the back end, beefing up an anticlimactic finale.

Naomi Watts is Anna, a midwife at a London hospital. After delivering a baby for an unwed mother who dies in childbirth, Anna goes in search of the girl’s living relatives. Her quest unexpectedly brings her into contact with the Russian mob, presided over by the kingpin, a restaurant owner named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and his creepy son (Vincent Cassel). They pretend to be nice to her, but their goal is to obtain an incriminating diary possessed by the dead mother. To do their dirty work, they employ Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), whose official role is as Semyon’s driver, but who is also referred to as “the undertaker.” Nikolai has his own secrets, not the least of which is a desire to depose Semyon and replace him upon the throne of the Russian criminal underworld in London.

Eastern Promises concentrates on two basic plots, neither of which radiates originality. The first pertains to Anna’s near-obsessive need to find a family for the motherless baby. We learn that she lost a child and so relates to the newborn on a maternal level. Then there’s the crime element of the story, which includes gamesmanship among the gangsters to see who will ultimately end up on top. The “surprise” twist (which won’t be unexpected to some viewers) introduces more problems than it solves and leads in part to the incomplete feeling that accompanies the ending.

Cronenberg delivers twice when it comes to gore and violence. The movie opens with one of these trademark scenes as a man’s throat is slit while he’s in a barber’s chair. (Encouragement to tip well.) Later, there’s a no holds-barred two-on-one between Nikolai and a couple of thugs. What makes this interesting is that Viggo Mortensen is naked for the entire battle. This is one of those rare movies when there’s plenty of male nudity as Mortensen literally lets it all hang out. (Hetero men will be glad to know that there are a few bare breasts here and there, although none belongs to Naomi Watts.) Sadly, those are the only two sequences likely to remind the viewer that he or she is watching a Cronenberg movie. The rest of what’s on offer - including everything related to Anna - is banal. Perhaps the director set the bar so high with The History of Violence (a flawed but at times brilliant motion picture) that there was no way he could equal it with Eastern Promises, but for him to fall so far short is nothing less than criminal.

Looking on the brighter side of darker matters, Joe Wright’s interpretation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement proves that, when it comes to literary adaptations, he understands what he's doing. Wright’s previous feature was Pride and Prejudice, a significantly happier production than this one (although both are love stories). He brings along his leading lady, Kiera Knightley, newly finished from swashbuckling alongside Captain Jack Sparrow, and has cast her alongside James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) and Romola Garai. Also making a brief but important appearance is Vanessa Redgrave.

McEwan’s novel isn’t the easiest to adapt but, by employing occasional, targeted changes and by not jettisoning the essence of the ending, Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton succeed in making a motion picture that is faithful in many ways to its source material. The film is gorgeous to look at, well paced (especially during the first half), and by turns touching and sad. The ending packs an emotional punch, which is what one would expect from any movie developed from a McEwan novel. McEwan may be many things, but he’s no Jane Austen. Atonement is a period piece (is Knightley ever in anything else these days?) but it shows growth for Wright as he moves into darker territory.

In 1935, the world is poised on the brink of war, but some families in the English countryside remain isolated and immune. One such family, the Tallises, are seeing their own personal drama unfold. 13-year old Briony (Saoirse Ronan, later played by Romola Garai) is watching a developing relationship between her older sister, Cecilia (Kiera Knightley), and a servant, Robbie (James McAvoy). She feels a combination of jealousy and overprotectiveness. On the one hand, she has a crush on Robbie, but she also views him as a rake and seducer and wants to keep Cecilia safe from his advances. When a girl staying with the family is raped, Briony steps forward with a lie that forever alters three lives.

The film, as the book, is divided into two principal sections with a short epilogue. The second half of the story, which takes place during wartime and follows Robbie to Dunkirk and Briony and Cecilia as nurses, is the less interesting. It lacks the sharp dialogue and character interaction that characterizes the first hour. Over two films, Wright has shown he’s at his strongest when emphasizing people and dialogue over action. There’s nothing wrong with his wartime depictions of Britain and Northern France, but there’s nothing special about them, either.

Wright does some things to make the tale more cinematic. In order to capture the flavor of two scenes in the book in which Briony’s perceptions don’t match the reality, he shows events twice - once through Briony’s eyes and once from a neutral perspective. It’s an effective approach because it helps us to understand what the girl mistakenly believes is occurring. Later, at Dunkirk, there’s a three minute unbroken take that weaves in and out with characters as they wander across the beach then pans back to show the dispirited evacuation.

Kiera Knightley gets star billing, but Cecilia is the least important character of the main trio. Consequently, Knightley doesn’t have the opportunity to shine the way she did in Pride and Prejudice. Briony is played by three actresses: Saorise Ronan as a 13-year old, Romola Garai as an 18-year old, and Vanessa Redgrave as an old woman. Great care is taken to make Ronan and Garai look alike and have similar mannerisms. Redgrave doesn’t appear much like either, but she’s like Meryl Streep or Glenn Close - if you can get her in a movie, you don’t sweat the details.

Atonement is a tragic story regardless of whether it’s presented in book form or movie form. The film is more quickly and urgently paced than the book and the dissonant music, which uses a typewriter as a percussive instrument, keeps the audience on edge. Atonement is effective at getting under the skin, and some audience members won’t like that. Overall, it’s a finely crafted motion picture - perhaps not the equal of Wright’s Austen adaptation, but strong enough to make it worth seeing for fans of the book and the genre.

From the sublime to the slightly ridiculous…

The last scene of In the Valley of Elah may be the most ridiculously ham-fisted and over-the-top moment in all of 2007’s supposed prestige cinema. This image is so blatant and cheesy that it makes one wonder whether director Paul Haggis’ success with Crash was some kind of fluke. In fact, the film as a whole raises that question. Crash was not the most subtle film, but its clever structure and finely tuned character moments camouflaged many of its weaknesses. The same cannot be said of In the Valley of Elah, which takes two hours to make an oh-so-obvious point: war dehumanizes human beings. Is there anyone alive over the age of 12 who doesn’t know that?

The majority of the film is a plodding police procedural. In the Valley of Elah is not without its moments. When it’s a meditation on loss, it works. When it’s a half-baked chronology of a criminal investigation, it seems like a bad episode of N.Y.P.D Blue. Unfortunately, Haggis’ screenplay gives more weight to the latter elements. It’s not just that the investigation isn’t interesting but that it unfolds in such an unrealistic manner that we’re left shaking out heads. Consider, for example, that despite his snappish attitude and Texas accent, Tommy Lee Jones is pretty much playing Sherlock Holmes.

When Mike Deerfield, a soldier just back from Iraq, goes AWOL, his superiors pay a courtesy call to his dad, retired officer Hank Deerfield (Jones). They warn him that if Mike isn’t back on base in a few days, he will be reported as missing. This sends Hank, an ex-military cop, into search-and-discover mode. He jumps in his car, leaving behind a worrying wife (Susan Sarandon), and heads for Fort Rudd in New Mexico. Once there, he spends some time poking around on the base then tries to liaise with an overworked non-military cop, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Then the charred pieces of a hacked-up corpse are identified as belonging to Mike, and Hank must shuffle through his son’s past to uncover how the culture of soldiers in Iraq led to Mike’s untimely death.

The effective scenes in In the Valley of Elah are the character-based ones - the quiet instances when fine actors like Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon are allowed to perform. Jones, for example, is a perfect picture of barely contained grief as he channels all of his efforts into determining who killed his son and why. Theron’s scenes with Emily’s son represent her strongest moments. The movie becomes plodding and, eventually, hard to swallow when it delves into the investigation. And it’s a huge disappointment that the point of these two hours is to inform us that men and women who go away to war often see such horrible things that life no longer has the same meaning. I can name at least a dozen films that have presented the same theme a lot more effectively.

Like Rendition, this production is so overtly one-sided and political that it makes it points stridently and with a lack of elegance. There’s a difference between a movie with a political point of view and a movie that exists as a sermon for a position; The Valley of Elah feels more like the latter than the former. I’m not offended by Haggis’ message because I think there’s merit to it. But the ungainly manner in which it is presented damages all aspects of the movie.

The film’s title comes from the location of the Biblical struggle between David and Goliath, and could be symbolic of a number of things. But, like a lot of other things in this movie, using “The Valley of Elah” as a symbol is a jumbled association. The more one thinks about it, the less sense it makes. Less consideration is necessary to make the same deduction about the movie as a whole.

Finally, a few words are necessary about Silk which, along with Helen Hunt’s Then She Found Me, ranks among the festival’s most unwatchable fare. By any standards, this is a bad movie. It’s a perfect example of how awful direction and performances can ruin an adequate screenplay. Granted, what’s on paper isn’t perfect and it contains a number of ripe lines of dialogue, but the way it is butchered by director Francois Girard is shocking. There’s very little that this movie does right; it’s hard to believe it came from the man who directed two acclaimed motion pictures (Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, The Red Violin).

Based on the novel by Alessandro Baricco, Silk introduces Herve Joncour (Michael Pitt), a young man who takes a commission to buy silkworm eggs from Japan so the local silk mill owner (Alfred Molina) can stay in business. As a side benefit, this will also allow Herve to marry his one true love, Helene (Kiera Knightley). It’s 1862 and travel to the Orient is not an easy thing to accomplish. Eventually, Herve arrives in Japan and makes the deal. While there, he spies a beautiful Japanese concubine (Miki Nakatani) who becomes an obsession even once he has returned to France. In fact, she has such a forceful grip on his thoughts that he jumps at a chance to return to Japan and see her again.

Stories about sexual obsession can be powerful when developed and presented effectively. Execution is the problem with Silk. The choice of Michael Pitt to play Herve is the first of numerous errors. Pitt staggers through the film as though caught in headlights. His delivery of lines is amateurish, he shows nothing in the way of emotional range, and his voiceover narration is delivered in a monologue. Any chance of character identification is killed as a result of Pitt’s portrayal. Supporting work by Keira Knightley (having even less to do than in Atonement) and Alfred Molina is insufficient to elevate the movie to a watchable level.

The film is handsomely photographed, but even the images lack power. Scenes with the concubine dripping water on Herve are supposed to be suggestive; instead, they’re about as erotic as a wet noodle. Much of the narrative seems comprised of shots of Herve traveling back and forth from France to Japan. There are impressive snowscapes, but this kind of monotony is not conducive to keeping audiences involved. Added to that is a maddeningly repetitive piano score that fills up all the dead space in the soundtrack when there's no dialogue - by the end of the film, I wanted to take Truffaut’s advice and shoot the piano player.

Silk may or may not arrive in a theater near you, depending on what distribution choices New Line Cinema makes regarding it. One suspects they know they have a dog on their hands. My advice is that, even given a choice, you avoid Silk. Despite the title, it’s rougher than burlap and twice as uncomfortable.

© 2007 James Berardinelli