1998 Toronto International Film Festival Update #5: "Coming Soon to a Theater Near You (Part Two)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 18, 1998

I have been getting a number of e-mail complaints/questions about why I'm not assigning star ratings to the films in these updates. This is, as many readers have noted, a departure from the way that I covered festivals in the past. The reason is quite simple: often, my opinions are not fully formed when I author these brief assessments, and I would prefer not to be placed in a position where I have to change a rating when I write a full-length review because the fine-tuning of my impressions has caused a film to gain or lose half-a-star.

That said, however, you can be reasonably certain that every film I talk about in this update will receive at least a "high" *** out of ****. These are some of the best films offered at the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival (at least amongst the group I have seen). The good news is that, of the eight mentioned here, all but one have deals in place with significant U.S. distributors. (One note of caution: movies distributed by Artisan, October, and Sony Pictures Classics might not make a theatrical appearance in smaller markets.)

The best thriller of the festival, A Simple Plan is something I discussed two updates ago. It's a thoroughly enjoyable motion picture, with richly-textured characters, an intelligent and engaging plot line, and wonderfully-photographed scenery. It's certainly a step up from some of the festival's other high-profile thrillers, which include Clay Pigeons, Apt Pupil, and Judas Kiss. Paramount will be releasing A Simple Plan in wide distribution this fall.

If you're not in the mood for murder and suspense, there are plenty of other choices. British director Ken Loach, the champion of the lower classes, brought his latest, My Name is Joe. Like many of Loach's other films, this one stars a wonderfully-adept actor (Peter Mullan) who will not be familiar to most North American film-goers (I don't think I've ever seen him before). The story also stays firmly rooted in familiar territory, with Loach showing the struggles of those whose incomes fall below the poverty line. The central character, Joe, is a reformed alcoholic who has decided to devote his life to bettering the lot of his fellows. His is a path of atonement, and he believes that he will find redemption by helping out someone who is as unfortunate as he once was. Joe's choice is a young man named Liam, who plays on the soccer team he coaches. However, in setting himself up as Liam's "savior," Joe defines a goal that he may never be able to reach. Slowly and deliberately, Loach builds the plot by letting us deep into the lives of a series of entirely-believable characters. The inevitable end, which enforces the age-old theme that every man must ultimately be responsible for the consequences of his actions, is delivered with a painful and ironic blow. My Name is Joe is an unsettling film, but a rewarding 105 minutes for those who make the effort. Artisan Entertainment owns the U.S. distribution rights.

The Dream Life of Angels (La vie revee des anges), like My Name is Joe, debuted at Cannes and is making an encore appearance here in Toronto. It's a fabulous film, perhaps the best that the festival has to offer. There's really not a flaw in the production - it's beautifully acted, perfectly paced, and powerfully written. The Dream Life of Angels tells the apparently simple story of two college-age girls who are struggling to find their way in life while lacking jobs and career ambitions. The two become fast friends and move into a flat together, but differences in their life expectations cause a gulf to open up between them. Essentially, Erick Zonca's debut feature is a detailed examination of a friendship from beginning to end. It is funny, poignant, and never strikes a false chord. One might think that such a tale could be boring, but few offerings at this year's festival have been more compelling. I was riveted from beginning to end. The Dream Life of Angels will be released later this year by Sony Pictures Classics, which acquired the film rights at Cannes.

Another French film well worth seeking out is Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale (Conte d'automne), the final movie in his Tales of Four Seasons cycle. Although the film does not yet have an American distributor, Rohmer's reputation alone virtually guarantees it some degree of release Stateside. The picture is nothing short of brilliant - a romantic comedy filled with subtle humor and stunning performances - which is exactly what we have come to expect from Rohmer. The director's greatest two strengths are his ability to fashion entirely believable characters and write striking and intelligent dialogue. He also never cuts away from scenes too quickly. Autumn Tale is a delightful movie about a middle-aged woman's quest for love. Since she's too shy to seek out a man on her own, two of her friends decide to play matchmaker. However, complications arise when the men they choose for her both arrive to meet her in the same place at the same time. With Autumn Tale, Rohmer uses some of the most common romantic comedy plot elements, such as the mistaken identity, in new and thoroughly enjoyable ways.

Speaking of mistaken identities, that's the central idea in actor/director Stanley Tucci's hysterical screwball comedy, The Impostors. Tucci, who previously co-helmed Big Night with Campbell Scott, re-affirms our belief that he knows what he's doing behind the camera. The Impostors is a masterpiece of comic timing, and, with all apologies to There's Something about Mary, the funniest film of the year so far. It's also something of a risk, since this kind of farce has rarely been done well since the advent of the color era. Although once a staple of the motion picture industry, screwball comedies have long since fallen out of favor. Tucci wanted to do one, however, and, using the inspiration of the Marx Brothers and Chaplin and the money from Fox Searchlight (the only studio willing to fund the project), he has fashioned 100 minutes of pure entertainment. The plot, which involves two stowaway actors (played by Tucci and Oliver Platt) on a cruise ship, is almost inconsequential - it's just the framework for a seemingly-endless series of perfectly-directed comic sequences, including a tribute to silent movies and an amazingly clever look at subtitles. The film will receive wide distribution, and, for anyone who likes to laugh, it should not be missed.

Another comedy playing at the festival, Todd Solondz's Happiness, is in a far different vein. Much of the laughter elicited by this movie is of the nervous variety - nervous because everyone in the audience is likely to see some part of himself or herself in one or more of the dysfunctional characters that Solondz places on-screen. The film, which deals with such "taboo" subjects as pedophilia and child molestation, is about as dark as a comedy can get, and, from time-to-time, it challenges audiences not to squirm in their seats. Solondz, whose previous movie, Welcome to the Dollhouse, was an indie hit, admits that Happiness is a difficult movie, but it's also a deliciously wicked one. The film raises a lot of moral issues, not the least of which is whether this approach to these dark subjects treads over a dangerous line into exploitation. Ultimately, however, Solondz seems to understand the ramifications of the film. He doesn't cheapen the issues, even though he solicits laughter. In fact, we laugh because the only alternatives are to cry or run screaming from the theater.

Happiness is certain to be one of the festival's most controversial films. It's not easy to digest (in fact, Universal Pictures, which had originally bid for the rights, dropped the movie like a hot potato once the controversy started swirling). In a bizarre way, Happiness can almost be viewed as a kindred spirit to Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse and Neil LaBute's Your Friends and Neighbors. It's an ensemble piece that features several seemingly-normal individuals, each of whom hides a dark streak. And, as is almost always true of a powerful motion picture, you don't forget about this movie the moment you walk out the theater door. Good Machine Releasing will distribute the film in the United States.

Hilary and Jackie is the title of Anand Tucker's debut feature, which is based on the relationship between sisters Hilary and Jacqueline du Pre. During the late '60s and early '70s, Jaqueline was a world-renowned cellist whose interpretation of Edward Elgar's "Cello Concerto" was without par (a recording of her performance of the piece is used in the film). She died in 1987 of Multiple Sclerosis after enduring a painful, 14 year illness. The movie, which is based on a biography written by Hilary and Piers du Pre, tells the story of the two sisters from childhood to Jaqueline's untimely death, highlighting the elements that bound them together and the ambitions and jealousies that tore them apart. It's a particularly fine dramatization because it concentrates first and foremost on developing the characters, and a balance is maintained between Hilary and Jackie (the first half of the film is told from Hilary's perspective, while Jackie's point-of-view is used for the rest). The performances by Emily Watson as Jacqueline and Rachel Griffiths as Hilary are outstanding. Watson, who spent three months of nearly nonstop practice to be able to effectively mimic playing the cello, is especially impressive. On a purely emotional level, this was one of the most satisfying films of the festival. October Films will be releasing it in America.

Probably the best Hollywood-made drama to show in Toronto this year is Peter Chelsom's The Mighty, the story of two mismatched "freaks" who come together to form one imposing individual. It's a magical film that illustrates the immense powers of the imagination and friendship. It is also a family film in the truest sense of the word - that is to say that it should hold equal appeal for viewers who are under ten, in their teens, and well over the age of majority. It's the kind of movie that adults can go to with or without children. Miramax Films will begin releasing The Mighty in October. It will undoubtedly be one of the month's most memorable features.

It's easy enough to grumble about Toronto's misses, but when a film festival offers eight such finely-crafted, provocative movies, it's impossible to say that it wasn't worth the trip. The 1998 festival has been a Jekyll and Hyde affair, with films mostly being very bad or very good (not much in the way of mediocrity), and, fortunately, entries into the latter category have outnumbered those in the former. In my next update, I'll add one more to each, and talk about a few of the movies comprising the festival's tail-end.

© 1998 James Berardinelli

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