2007 TIFF Update #8: "Festival Sports"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
For Thursday, September 13, 2007

There are three common sports available to film festival goers. I have become adept at two. The third I leave to others.

The first one is line-standing. One might think that this doesn't apply to accredited critics. Alas, no one is immune. While it's true that it's possible to get to the theater five minutes before a film is scheduled to start and still get in, there's a difference between getting a seat and getting a specific seat. Premium seating requires long line times. Since the average length in line is probably about 30 minutes (shorter for some films, longer for others), and I see about 30 films in a festival, that means about 15 hours of the last week has been spent in line. I don't consider the time to be "wasted," however. It's rare that I actually stand there quietly. Nine times out of ten, I end up in a conversation with someone next to me. That's how you get the buzz.

The second sport is seat endurance. The average movie theater seat is designed for about two hours worth of comfort. Unfortunately, even the best seats start to feel uncomfortable when you have been sitting in them for 10 hours a day, seven days a week. There are three kinds of seats for the majority of screenings. The most comfortable are the high backed, ultra-wide ones found in the largest multiplex theater. Then there are the less wide but still reasonable ones in the small stadium-seating auditoriums. Finally, there are the torturous, circa-1985 embarrassments at the Cumberland. If you are unlucky enough to end up in the front row in one of those seats, you will need a chiropractor when you're done. People underestimate the importance of seats when planning out a film festival schedule. I long ago learned that such a mistake can result in neck and back strain - not something pleasant when it's all over if you have a long flight or drive home.

Finally, there's star watching. This is more of pastime than a sport, actually. There are numerous residents of Toronto who don't go to any films but stand around outside of the prime venues waiting to catch a glimpse of Brad Pitt or Reese Witherspoon in the flesh. Over 500 filmmakers and celebrities are attending the festival this year. Not all of them walk the red carpet, but there are enough to keep the paparazzi cameras snapping. Personally, I have never understood the fascination with taking pictures of actors (don't we all know what they look like?), but each to his (or her) own. My basic approach is to try my best to avoid places where celebrities are likely to be found. Celebrities draw crowds. And crowds slow down my progress getting to the next line I need to stand in so I can avoid being stuck sitting in a bad seat. See how it all fits together?

One of the least press friendly stars here is Sean Penn. Last year, he caused a furor by smoking during a press conference in violation of a no smoking ban. This year, he's back in Toronto with Into the Wild, but without the cigarettes in inappropriate areas. He dutifully answered all questions asked at the smoke-free press conference, smiled cordially, and didn't punch any photographers (he has mellowed somewhat since his days with Madonna). It's pretty easy to dislike Penn. Fortunately, it's not necessary to appreciate the man to be impressed by his movie. Critics were sharply divided over this one. I fall into the category of those who think it was one of the best things playing here.

There's something seductive about the idea of turning one's back on civilization and all its trappings. Most of us entertain this thought as a pleasant daydream but not the act of a rational human being. From time-to-time, an exception makes the news, although it's not always a pleasant story. Consider Timothy Treadwell, whose video diary of life among the Alaskan grizzlies was chronicled in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. Then there's Chris McCandless, a disillusioned young man who discarded his entire existence so he could make his way to Alaska and survive there for a season on his own. It is McCandless' story that Penn has dramatized in Into the Wild.

Into the Wild combines two popular genres: the road trip and the struggle of man versus nature. Both are handled well by Penn and their interweaving is effective. As the movie begins, Chris (Emile Hirsch) has already reached his goal. Flashbacks are employed to show how he got there. Meanwhile, interspersed with the glimpses of the past, the narrative in the present moves forward, gradually straying into darker territory. Chris' story is both heroic and cautionary; brave and foolish. Penn gets this. He does not lionize the character or his actions. He shows admiration for a man who would go to these lengths in pursuit of a dream and a cause. In the end, however, there is a simple lesson to be learned: happiness is meaningless unless you have someone to share it with.

Into the Wild is narrated by Chris' sister (Jena Malone). We meet him as a child, trapped between his warring parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), then as a newly minted graduate of Emory University. Even as he earns his degree, he is turning his back on the materialistic life his parents have mapped out for him. He donates all his money to OXFAM, torches his ID, then goes walkabout. Now known by the moniker of "Alexander Supertramp," he heads west. The year is 1990 and the era of the hippie is long past, but that doesn't stop him from encountering a couple of them (Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker). He stays with them for a time, then moves on, spending time working for a grain harvester (Vince Vaughn), then rafting down the Colorado River. Later, he has a brief romance with a teenage singer (Kristen Stewart) in a gypsy camp and is subsequently "adopted" by a lonely, aging man (Hal Holbrook). And that's all before he gets to Alaska.

It is said that in road movies, the journey is what matters, not the destination, and that's the case in Into the Wild. For Chris, the trip to Alaska is what gives him joy. When he gets there and goes into the wilderness by himself, he ultimately finds the experience to be hollow. It takes him a while to recognize that his spiritual journey reaches its conclusion long before the physical one does.

Into the Wild is a beautifully made motion picture and some of the segments (especially those with Hal Holbrook and those that transpire around "the magic bus" in Alaska) are powerful. Chris initially comes across as an idealistic jerk - the kind of guy who will thoughtlessly hurt others if they stand in the way of his achieving a goal. Gradually, he is revealed as being more complex. By the end of the movie, I don't know that I liked Chris, but I understood him and sympathized with him, and sometimes that's more important.

During the course of the movie, Penn dances with pretentiousness and self-importance. He never slips over the brink but lines like "material things cut [Chris} off from the truth of [his] existence" make this kid's odyssey sound more important than it is. There are moments like this in Into the Wild but they are thankfully isolated.

Into the Wild is a long motion picture, clocking in at about 150 minutes. But the strength and breadth of its material earns it the extended running time. It's about many things, but the final truth it distills reveals something crucial about what it means to be human - something that Chris doesn't realize until it's too late.

Another film about survival - albeit of a different sort - is Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth: The Golden Age. This is one of those rare beasts - a sequel to a movie whose primary audience is not teenagers. Presumably, Kapur rejected calling the movie Elizabeth II because that would have created all sorts of confusion.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age lacks some of the intricate plotting that characterized its predecessor. The screenplay is more action-oriented but not as smart. Many of those involved in the first Elizabeth have returned, including actors Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush; director Kapur; screenwriter Michael Hirst; and cinematographer Remi Aderfarasin. Elizabeth: The Golden Age feels like what it's supposed to be - a continuation of the story begun in the 1998 feature. If it lacks some of the power and grandeur of the first chapter... well, sequels almost always show a fall-off, and the drop here is far from precipitous.

It's 1585 and every Catholic in England is a possible assassin. The Pope has declared a holy war against the Protestant queen and her kingdom. The struggle is being led by Spain's King Philip II, who has decided that the best approach is to supplant Elizabeth (Blanchett) with her cousin, Queen Mary of Scotland (Samantha Morton), who is a Catholic. Failing that, he's ready to send his mighty armada across the seas and into battle. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is dealing with domestic matters. Her advisors, including the faithful Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), are pressing her to marry. She rejects many appropriate suitors but finds herself drawn to the dashing Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), an adventurer who has also caught the eye of her principal lady in waiting (Abbie Cornish). Soon, however, problems with Mary and Spain force Elizabeth to make some terrible choices.

From a purely visual standpoint, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is every bit as impressive as Elizabeth. With respect to costumes and set design, this is a sumptuous affair. The script is less even, as is the pacing. The first two-thirds of the movie deal almost exclusively with the intrigue of Elizabeth's court and it isn't nearly as engaging as the poisonings and backstabbing we have become used to in many historical epics. The war with Spain comes quickly, is told mainly through montages, and is over too easily and bloodlessly. The entire movie could have focused on that and, by condensing it in such a manner, there's a sense that it's not given its due.

Blanchett is the film's chief asset, picking up where she left off nearly ten years ago. This isn't the star-making turn it was at that time, but it's solid, colorful work. Geoffrey Rush has less to do and, as a result, is a less forceful presence. Clive Owen is suitably dashing and Abbie Cornish is adorable, but neither draws the camera with regularity. Although the performances are all workmanlike, they are unlikely to garner much notice when it comes time for Oscar nominations to be announced. (Blanchett may well be nominated, but her chances are better as Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' I'm Not There than as the Queen in Elizabeth.)

Historians may have fits with some of the liberties taken regarding the established record, but the story retains enough factual backing to keep it from becoming a complete fiction, and the decisions made help with the story's flow. The problem with Elizabeth: The Golden Age is that Kapur tries to shoehorn too much material into a two-hour time slot. The betrayals and other assorted goings-on of the first 80 minutes deserve their own movie as does the war with Spain. Cramming all of that into a single film does an injustice to both aspects. The battle between the English Navy and the Spanish Armada is over so quickly that there's no time for suspense (even though we know from history which side wins). In short, this is a decent follow-up to the critically lauded Elizabeth and will satisfy most fans of the genre, but it does not top its predecessor nor is it likely to be a forerunner in 2008's Oscar race.

It would be hard to find a film more unlike Elizabeth: The Golden Age than Margot at the Wedding. One is a grand historic epic where the fates of nations hang in the balance. The other is a small, character and dialogue driven drama whose ripples are limited both in dramatic power and amplitude.

The best way to describe Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding is to consider it an English-language homage to the works of the great French director Eric Rohmer. Not only does Baumbach (who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing) borrow heavily from Rohmer's approach of employing heavy, dense passages of dialogue, but even the title echoes films like Pauline at the Beach, Chloe in the Afternoon, and Claire's Knee. Strangely, this has been a big year for Rohmer. He has a new film out (Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon) and Chloe was remade by Chris Rock as I Think I Love My Wife.

Accompanied by her adolescent son, Claude (Zane Pais), Margot (Nicole Kidman) has come home for the wedding of her sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to Malcolm (Jack Black). The reunion between siblings is prickly and the tension grows with every passing moment. Margot is in the process of separating from her husband (John Turturro) and thinks Pauline is making a horrible decision by tying herself to a rootless individual. Malcolm has become distracted by the young babysitter Pauline employs to watch her daughter. And the next-door neighbors want Pauline to cut down an old tree near the property line - or else. Will the wedding go off without a hitch? Will Pauline and Margot allow old wounds to heal or will they pick at the scabs? And will the tree survive the movie?

The problem with Margot at the Wedding is that these questions are all that matter. There isn't a whole lot else, and they aren't very interesting questions. In and of itself, some of the dialogue is enjoyable but it's sound and fury signifying nothing. With Rohmer's films, there was always a universal truth at the heart of his characters' interactions and dilemmas. The conversations aren't just enjoyable, they offer sustenance. Here, there's nothing more than a bunch of self-centered, neurotic people bitching and whining. It grows tiresome after a while. Jack Black's presence doesn't help. Here's an actor who can be brilliant in supporting, comedic roles. Give him something meatier and serious and his hamminess sinks any chance of his being taken seriously. Margot at the Wedding still would have been uncomfortable to absorb without him but, by adding him into the mix, Baumbach has made this a bitter pill to swallow.

© 2007 James Berardinelli