1998 Toronto International Film Festival Update #3: "Coming Soon to a Theater Near You (Part 1)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 15, 1998

The best, most complete film festivals offer a distinctive mix of the mainstream and the obscure, and most attendees who want the full festival experience will choose from both camps when putting together an itinerary. In my last update, I wrote about a few of Toronto's low-profile entries. Now it's time to turn to movies that not only have distributors, but release dates as well. In fact, more than one of these productions will have opened in select North American theaters before my plane back to New Jersey lands.

Perhaps the highest-profile of these soon-to-be-released pictures is Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, a dramatic comedy that tells of a father's efforts to protect his son from the horrors of a World War II concentration camp by creating a fantasy world for the boy to believe in. At times, Life is Beautiful is a wonderful film, and the final hour is as emotionally compelling as a movie can get. The problem is the first fifty minutes, which are rather unspectacular, and, more importantly, unfunny. However, this is one of the few movies playing at Toronto where the ending redeems a weak beginning, rather than the other way around (see Sunday's update). Despite its flaws, Life is Beautiful is worth seeing. It may be a little overrated and overhyped, but that doesn't reduce its inherent value. The U.S. release is set to begin in October.

While Life is Beautiful presents a unique take on the Holocaust, David Veloz' Permanent Midnight offers a fairly common picture of a man in a drug-induced downward spiral. It's no coincidence that most movies about drug abusers follow similar patterns, because abuse is like that. It's about denial, loss, and possible self-destruction. Films that focus on drug abuse are occasionally uplifting, but, if they are realistic, they're mostly gritty and unpleasant. Permanent Midnight, based on the true-life memoirs of TV writer Jerry Stahl, is one of these. The occasional moments of humor tend to be of the gallows variety.

For those who are familiar with this sub-genre of dysfunctional family films, Permanent Midnight won't offer any startling or original themes. Instead, it gives viewers an amazing, award-worthy performance from lead actor Ben Stiller, who shrugs off his comedic image to present a finely-tuned dramatic turn. This outing should do for Stiller what Leaving Las Vegas did for Nicolas Cage. On the whole, the movie is competently put together and remains compelling throughout the relatively-short 85 minute running length, but it's Stiller's work that makes Permanent Midnight memorable. Artisan Entertainment is opening the film within the next two weeks.

Speaking of abuse, that's one theme of another Artisan release, Ken Loach's powerful My Name is Joe -- only here it's alcohol, not drugs, that lies at the center of the misuse. On the surface, this movie seems to be about the everyday trials and tribulations in the life of Joe (Peter Mullan), a recovering alcoholic who lives in the underprivileged sections of Glasgow. We see Joe coach a soccer team, develop a tender relationship with a local social worker (Louise Goodall), and seek to better the life of one of his players. As is almost always true of a Loach film, however, there's a lot more going on than is initially apparent. My Name is Joe is not as much about abuse as it is about accepting the consequences of one's actions. In seeking to atone for past misdeeds, Joe tries to "save" another man, but ends up confronting the reality that his actions may be more harmful than helpful. The ultimate dilemma that Joe faces is only unsolvable for a man who believes he can take another's burdens upon himself.

The greatest strength of My Name is Joe is (as is true of almost all of Loach's films) the sense of stark reality. There is humor and tragedy, and all without a whiff of melodrama. The acting, from largely unknown actors, is top-notch, and the movie will leave the viewer with a profound sense of disquiet, although the final scene offers a nugget of hope. My Name is Joe is slated for a late-1998 release, albeit in a small number of theaters.

To date, the most disappointing film of the festival has been Paul Greengrass' The Theory of Flight, starring Kenneth Branagh and real-life companion Helena Bonham-Carter as a man and woman who share a special friendship. The movie isn't disappointing because it's bad (in fact, it's quite watchable), but because I expected a lot more than "good" from this cast, crew, and premise. The problem isn't with Branagh and Bonham-Carter, both of whom turn in strong performances (he's an eccentric inventor obsessed with building a flying machine; she's a physically impaired victim of Motor Neuron Disease), but with the script, which doesn't stay focused and fails to build an effective emotional bridge between the characters and the audience. Greengrass' movie contains some wonderful moments and the relationship between the two leads is nicely developed, but there are many instances when scenes don't ring true, and the final quarter hour feels rushed. Fine Line Features plans to open The Theory of Flight on Christmas Day.

So far, the festival has offered two mainstream thrillers, both of which are on their way to theaters even as I write this. The first, and more entertaining, is Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan. The second, less successful one is David Dobkin's Clay Pigeons. Raimi's film is better on many levels: the acting is more accomplished, the script makes more sense and does a better job of building suspense, and the direction is more sure. Clay Pigeons, on the other hand, has trouble maintaining a reasonable threshold for the viewer's willing suspension of disbelief. The movie starts out solid, but, the closer things get to the climax, the more preposterous the plot turns become.

A Simple Plan, which features strong performances from Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as brothers who keep the $4,400,000 they find in the wreckage of a crashed plane, builds suspense as it develops the characters and the way the presence of the money fractures their relationships. The plot contains a number of twists, some of which are predictable, others of which are not. The atmosphere, which features Fargo-like snowscapes, enhances the overall level of tension. Ultimately, however, it's the complexity of the characters that elevates A Simple Plan to its high level.

On the other hand, complex character development is exactly what Clay Pigeons lacks. This film relies on labyrinthine plot developments to keep the viewer involved. For a time, this approach works: the first half-hour is enjoyable. After a while, however, things start to get silly; logic is thrown out the window. Even the presence of the always-delightful Janeane Garofalo playing a deadpan FBI agent can't completely redeem this mess. The story concerns the most unfortunate man in Mercer, Montana: Clay Bidwell (Joaquin Phoenix). Clay ends up with two dead bodies on his hands. He didn't kill either person, but, if he doesn't get rid of them, he's going to be blamed for both murders. Shortly thereafter, a stranger by the name of Lester Long (Vince Vaughn) shows up in town. Then Clay finds a third body and the cops start to get suspicious. Clay Pigeons will reach theaters in advance of A Small Plan, but for those who prefer intelligent, well-crafted thrillers, the second film is the one to wait for.

That's not the entire list of mainstream releases playing in Toronto. There are plenty more, and I'll tackle some of them in a future update. Next up, however, I'm going to ask the question that every festival-goer utters when they see a bad film: "What were they thinking????"

© 1998 James Berardinelli

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