1998 Toronto International Film Festival Update #4: "What Were They Thinking???"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 17, 1998

Contrary to popular opinion, film festivals are not bastions of artistic and creative excellence that offer excellent movies from morning to night. With every film festival, there are bound to be duds - movies that cause anyone but the most undiscriminating viewer to question what the programmers were thinking when they accepted a particular motion picture. Given the time constraints of a festival schedule, where every available slot counts, the experience of seeing a bad film can be exceptionally galling. This year, I have managed to pinpoint a few of the least entertaining movies, each of which made me want to (a) walk out, (b) fall asleep, or (c) do both. They're not necessarily all terrible or of one-star quality, but they're not the kinds of movies that I traveled to Toronto to see.

In a previous update, I discussed L.A. without a Map, so I won't re-hash the gory details here, except to say that this particular movie played as a Gala, and certainly wasn't anything to get excited about. At its best, the film is diverting; at its worst, it's dreadful. This is precisely the kind of routine, generic motion picture that audiences attend festivals to get away from. There's nothing special about this film, and it commits the crime of underusing a fine actress like Julie Delpy. It's hard to predict whether L.A. without a Map will find an distributor, but, if it opens in a theater near me, I won't be seeing it a second time.

Thus far, romantic comedies have represented the weakest genre of the festival. In addition to L.A. without a Map, two other lifeless films fall into the same category: Desert Blue and Hair Shirt. Desert Blue is a dull, overly-familiar story of a Hollywood starlet who becomes stranded in a small town and re-discovers her humanity by falling for one of the local boys. The movie's lone asset is Christina Ricci, but she is relegated to a small role as one of about a dozen quirky supporting characters. Lead actor Brendan Sexton III displays little or no charisma, and, while his female co-star, newcomer Kate Hudson, shows promise, the script relegates her to playing a stereotype. Director Morgan J. Freeman's feature offers evidence of how the desire to secure a distributor is causing many members of the current wave of independent films to fall prey to Hollywood's need to "dumb down" everything.

Worse still is Hair Shirt, which is surely one of the most unbearable films to play at the festival. Bordering on unwatchable, this supposed romantic comedy offers more irritation and boredom than laughs and love. The formula-driven plot - boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, girl falls for boy, boy screws things up, couple gets back together - is further hurt by the lack of interesting, likable characters or intelligent dialogue. In fact, the protagonist is such a skunk that I kept hoping he would end up as roadkill. Are we supposed to be rooting for this misogynist and liar to get the girl? I might have liked the film a little better if even one of the jokes had provoked a genuine chuckle, but the level of so-called humor in Hair Shirt is of sit-com level (at best). The acting, especially by a shrill Neve Campbell in a supporting role, is atrocious (yes, I know she's supposed to be over-the-top, but that doesn't excuse this performance). Every time she appears on screen, it's like fingernails on a blackboard. Currently, there is no distributor for this movie; hopefully, there never will be one, because about the only thing director Dean Paras gets right is that the print is in focus.

Another film to avoid is Julie Lynch's maudlin, manipulative, melodramatic debut, Getting Off. When I first saw a cut of this film in May at the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, (where it showed with the title Remembering Sex), I was less-than-impressed. Four months later with a new name, Lynch's film has been re-edited and tightened up, but it's not appreciably better. Getting Off, the story of three women who anxiously await the results of an AIDS test that could identify one or all of them as HIV+, purports to give us an intimate view into the female psyche, but it's the same kind of inarticulate, over-the-top presentation offered by Let's Talk about Sex. The movie mistakes formulas for drama, glibness for dialogue, and stereotypes for characters.

Missteps and disappointments at the Toronto Film Festival are not limited to English-language independent features. One of the most eagerly awaited big-budget premieres, Bryan Singer's Apt Pupil, falls flat on its face. The movie was highly anticipated for three reasons: (1) the director's previous movie, The Usual Suspects, was successful on almost every level, (2) many adaptations of Stephen King's non-horror stories (Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne) have been well received, and (3) the premise has potential. In brief, the storyline tells of a high school student (Brad Renfro) who uncovers a nasty secret about an elderly neighbor (Ian McKellan). The man is actually a former Gestapo officer who is now hiding under a false identity. Armed with this knowledge, the boy sets out on a scheme of blackmail, but finds himself in over his head.

Alas, the reality of the film doesn't come close to any reasonable expectations. Although McKellan gives a wonderful performance, he's one of the few good things the movie has to offer. Characterization is largely one-dimensional, tension is sporadic and rarely sustained, and the script's numerous contrivances force the audience past the point of a "reasonable suspension of disbelief." Added to that, I was a little disturbed by the callous manner in which Apt Pupil uses the Holocaust - it's a vaguely distasteful and arguably exploitative approach. All of these things taken together left a sour taste in my mouth.

From time-to-time, even the French turn out a dud. When the presence of the stunning and reliable Emmanuelle Beart can't save a movie, you know it's in trouble. Such is the case with Yves Angelo's Voleur de vie, one of the festival's most boring and pretentious entries. The movie deals with its subjects -- loss and the relationship between sisters -- in a cold and uninvolving manner. Voleur de vie runs only 105 minutes, but it seems a lot longer than that. This is a picture without heart or soul - it's cold and interminable. When movie-goers call French cinema dull, this is the kind of film they're thinking of.

The one positive aspect of seeing a bad movie at a festival is that it's easy to put the experience behind and move on to another, hopefully better, offering. In my next update, I'll discuss a handful of films, all of which have North American distributors, that have helped make this year's Toronto International Film Festival a worthwhile trip.

© 1998 James Berardinelli

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