1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #10: "Coming Soon... (Part Two)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 17, 1999

Those frustrated by yesterday's update, in which I detailed four worthwhile motion pictures unlikely to receive U.S. theatrical distribution, will be heartened by today's, which features six motion pictures poised to open in multiplexes (or at least art houses) between now and the end of the year.

By the way, since I'm not a gossip columnist, I usually don't talk about the comings and goings of stars at the festival, but every year seems to have one major "celebrity event" (last year, for example, it was the arrival of Tom Cruise). In 1999, Bruce Willis' one night in town gets the honors. Willis, who came in to Toronto to participate in an on-stage pre-film introduction to Breakfast of Champions and host an exclusive, invitation-only party at Planet Hollywood, generated an amazing amount of media and paparazzi attention. A sizable throng of onlookers gathered around the entrance to the packed Elgin Theater, making it a challenge for legitimate ticket holders to get in. Personally, while I have nothing against Willis, I wish he had stayed home. It's hard enough dealing with crowds and long lines to have to go through this aggravation. (End of gripe.)

Speaking of Breakfast of Champions, Alan Rudolph's adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel, it's being shown here a short time in advance of its United States opening. In fact, some intrepid readers may already have seen the film by the time I get around to writing the full review. It has been 15 years since I read the book, and it has always seemed to me to be unfilmable. Rudolph's effort has calcified that belief. As I watched Breakfast of Champions, two other movies sprung to mind: The Bonfire of the Vanities and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And those are two films no production wants to be associated with.

Bruce Willis plays Dwayne Hoover, a car salesman and local celebrity in Midland City, USA. Dwayne seems to have it all, but, in reality, he's losing his mind. Nick Nolte, giving a scene-stealing performance, is Dwayne's best friend and has a lingerie fetish. And Albert Finney is author Kilgore Trout, who is hitchhiking across the United States to speak at Midland City's arts festival. There's nothing wrong with the acting in Breakfast of Champions (in fact, Nolte is outstanding), but the flat characterization is a problem, as is the plot. For what is supposed to be a blistering satire of middle class American society, this movie comes across as bland, plodding, and derivative. There's no edge. Rudolph limits his "inventiveness" to some oddball camera angles and minor optical effects. There's not nearly enough here to fill out the 110 minute running time. In fact, take away Nolte, and there's almost nothing of value left (and his character is gone by the halfway point). Breakfast of Champions ranks as one of the festival's most significant disappointments.

Woody Allen's 1999 release, called Sweet and Lowdown, had its North American premiere in Toronto (following hot on the heels of its World Premiere in Venice). While not a masterpiece, it's a strong effort (certainly better than last year's Celebrity), and deserves to be seen by those who have an affinity for the director's work. Sweet and Lowdown is a bio-pic of '30s jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, whose personality traits included an inferiority complex to a French gypsy guitarist named Django, a mild case of kleptomania, and a tendency to show up "late, drunk, or not at all" for shows. Played brilliantly by Sean Penn, Ray comes alive through a series of episodic vignettes, many of which are more in the nature of tall tales than historically accurate recreations. Allen himself provides some of the linking narration, but, other than that, the director is absent from the screen.

Sweet and Lowdown is more dramatic than Allen's most recent few films, but the comedic element is still very much in evidence. Penn understands the film's tone perfectly, and emphasizes the right aspect of his character for each scene. There are times when we laugh with Ray, times when we laugh at him, and times when we feel his carefully buried pain. In her supporting role as Hattie, the deaf love of Ray's life, Samantha Morton matches Penn for strength of performance. And there's the kind of great jazz score one might expect from this sort of movie. Sweet and Lowdown isn't a monumental event, but it is a pleasant diversion.

The War Zone is the most devastating film I have seen in several years. The directorial debut of renowned actor Tim Roth, this film takes an unflinching look at the devastating effects of incest. The movie does not deal in euphemisms nor does it hide the physical and emotional brutality of the act from viewers. Audience reaction ranged from stunned disbelief to vocal outrage. The script is incisive and intelligent; by not answering every question, it allows the individual to apply his or her own interpretation to certain events.

The film takes place in the rural Devon countryside, where a family of four has just moved from London. Events are related from the perspective of 15 year old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), whose world is turned upside down when he spies a sexual act between his 18 year old sister, Jessie (Lara Belmont) and his father (Ray Winstone). Tom confronts Jessie about the incident, but she denies it. He is not convinced, however, and sets out to learn the facts. The truth he must face, and its ramifications upon every member of the family, form the core of this searing drama.

I will be up front about two things: this is the best film I have seen this year (to date) and a significant portion of the film-going population will not be able to sit through the entire movie. It is that disturbing. If you cannot endure graphic, frank movies about controversial subjects, The War Zone is not for you. Those who go need to be aware of what to expect - gritty realism about a problem that is too often swept under the carpet. There is no comic relief and no happy ending (although there is a catharsis of sorts). This movie's approach to its subject is the most honest and brutal I have seen on the big screen. Special mention must be made of Lara Belmont's work. Her three co-stars are solid, but Belmont, appearing in her first role, gives a performance of unimaginable courage, depth, and power. The character is stripped naked both physically and emotionally, and the result is stunning. Not only is Belmont's acting the standout of 1999, but it represents one of the top three or four most memorable performances of the '90s.

On a lighter note, there's Peter Greenaway's 8 1/2 Women, an unusual farce from a director who can best be described as iconoclastic. As is always the case with Greenaway films, this one contains copious instances of sex and nudity (both male and female). Greenaway's actors generally don't hold anything back (or keep anything hidden). "Victims" this time around include John Standing, Matthew Delamere, Polly Walker, Toni Collette, and Amanda Plummer. The story is about two British gentlemen (a father and son) who collect a harem of 8 1/2 women (an obvious reference to Fellini's picture) on their Geneva estate.

8 1/2 Women is sometimes blisteringly funny, sometimes dramatically solid, and almost never follows a predictable or safe course. Those familiar with the director's previous work, such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, will recognize his unmistakable hand at work. Although Greenaway mostly avoids the technical and visual oddities that have marked some of his previous efforts, his surreal, darkly comic vision is very much in evidence. 8 1/2 Women is the kind of motion picture that I love to see at a film festival, because it challenges the viewer while offering a totally different experience from anything else.

You don't have to be a lover of animation to appreciate Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, a 1997 Japanese production that has been re-dubbed into English this year for a North American theatrical release by Miramax. Miyazaki, who has been working since the mid-1980s, is internationally recognized as one of the best in the industry. His features are certainly strong enough to challenge Disney's recent efforts, so, to avoid any potential competition, Buena Vista has gobbled up the North American rights to Miyazaki's movies. To their credit, they have done a fine job with Princess Mononoke, which arrives on the market with a completely new soundtrack featuring the voices of Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, and Billy Bob Thornton.

Princess Mononoke is an epic animated adventure. The visuals don't match Disney's best, but the plot is deeper and richer in scope than anything that has emerged from the Magic Kingdom. It is also adult in nature - although there is no overt sexuality, the violence is graphic (there are decapitations and instances when bloody limbs are torn or hacked from bodies). The film tells the story of Ashitaka, a warrior afflicted with a curse who travels far from his homeland in a quest for the fabled God of the Forest. Along the way, Ashitaka encounters warring humans, talking boars & wolves, and a wild young woman named San/Princess Mononoke, with whom he falls in love. With a running length of nearly 2:15, Princess Mononoke opens a vast world of romance, fantasy, and excitement that is unlike anything to emerge from Western animation. And there's even a low-key conservationist message thrown in for good measure.

Finally, there's Norman Jewison's The Hurricane, which may have been the best-received motion picture of the festival. Starring Denzel Washington, the movie tells the story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a champion boxer who was arrested, tried, and jailed for three murders he did not commit. Carter spent two decades in prison until the efforts of a group of Canadians on the outside earned him a new trial and the chance to prove his innocence. With Washington, Jewision, and Carter in attendance, a work print of the The Hurricane was shown to a packed house. When the powerful, moving drama was over, Jewision and company received a three-minute standing ovation. I have encountered such moments at film festivals before, but never one that lasted as long or were as heartfelt.

The Hurricane earned its ovation. It is a well written, wonderfully acted drama about the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity. The fact that it's a true tale adds to its appeal. Jewison is at his best when making films with a social conscience, and this is one of his most moving endeavors in years. It also features one of Washington's strongest performances. Combining all the elements together, The Hurricane generates a storm of great emotional and intellectual power. Toronto may have missed the ravages of Hurricane Floyd, but they were square in the path of Hurricane Carter.

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