1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #12: "Bringing Down the Curtain"
Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 19, 1999
A giddy mixture of exhaustion and elation. Final images seen through a haze of fatigue. Movies running together into a continuum of colors and sounds, with only a few shining stars standing apart. These are a few of the sure signs that a film festival is coming to a close. Critics and rabid festival attendees alike can now enjoy a normal night's sleep with the sure knowledge that there are no early screenings tomorrow morning. Until the next festival, days will no longer be divided into film blocks; meals will not be muffins and burgers grabbed while on the run from one theater to another. And coffee will no longer be the only thing keeping many viewers from napping during a screening. Festivals are addictive, however, and, as with any addiction, there will be a period of withdrawal. As punishing as it can be to see four, five, or even six films per day for more than a week, when it's all over, the sense of emptiness can be overwhelming, with a letdown as painful as it is welcome.
In many ways, the choice to close out the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival with Onegin was an odd one. Certainly, lead actors Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler are marketable names, but they are not the biggest stars to have appeared at the festival this year (Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington, to name two, have a greater wattage). The movie, the directorial debut of Fiennes' sister, Martha, is oddly low profile. In fact, until it had been announced as the festival's final offering, I had never heard of it.
Quality-wise, Onegin is not a bad film, although it's not a great one, either. It's a period piece set in mid-19th century Russia, and focuses on the tragic, ironic love affair between the title character (played by a subdued Ralph Fiennes) and a young woman named Tatiana (Liv Tyler, who is surprisingly effective). At their first meeting in the countryside, Tantiana falls madly in love with Onegin, but, when she declares her feelings, the aristocrat gently rebuffs her, telling her that he's not made for marriage. Six years later, circumstances bring the pair together again, this time in St. Petersburg. Now, the tables have been reversed. Onegin is enraptured by Tatiana's beauty, but she is now happily married and shows no interest in reviving her old feelings.
Character development in Onegin, which is based on Aleksandr Pushkin's poem "Yevgeny Onegin," is spotty. It's strong enough for us to understand the protagonist's conflicted feelings, but not so forceful that we are truly drawn into the drama and emotion of the situation. Martha Fiennes' direction is stately and detached. The film looks great but moves slowly, and there is a tangible distance between the audience and the characters. It also feels like a significant portion of the second half was left on the cutting room floor (or never filmed). The first hour of Onegin, which details the first meeting between Yevgeny and Tatiana, is nicely detailed, but the events surrounding their reunion are rushed.
Onegin has an international distributor - Seven Arts - but it will likely not play in many U.S. theaters. It's the kind of movie that's worth seeing if it shows up at a convenient locale, but isn't worth searching out. Had it taken an "ordinary" slot in the festival, it would have seemed more impressive, but, as the Closing Night Gala - a position that should be given to a striking and memorable motion picture - Onegin come across as inadequate. It's little more than a truncated Masterpiece Theater mini-series with impeccable production values.
As is always the case, there were a few films I was unable to fit into one of my previous updates (for a variety of reasons). In brief, here are some thoughts on these four:
- Simpatico: With a cast featuring Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, Sharon Stone, Albert Finney, and Catherine Keener, and a script based on a Sam Shepard play, I expected a lot more from Simpatico than it gives. The film investigates the link between wealthy business man Carter (Bridges) and a down-on-his-luck bum named Vinnie (Nolte). The connection between these two is so strong that, when Vinnie calls, Carter hops on a plane and flies across the country to visit him, even though he is in the midst of negotiating the multi-million dollar sale of a former Triple Crown winning horse. Once Carter has arrived in Southern California, Vinnie orchestrates a kind of identity swap, and flies back to Kentucky as Carter, leaving he businessman stranded in his trailer. The problem with Simpatico is poor character motivation and a lack of internal logic. The choices these characters make are badly reasoned at best, and often make no sense whatsoever. If the situation has been properly developed, I could have accepted the idea of a tycoon giving up after a few setbacks, but Simpatico expects us to swallow this situation just because it's necessary to the plot, not because it's reasonable or believable. And this sort of thing doesn't happen once; it occurs several times, reducing this movie into a strain on even the most generous viewer's willing suspension of disbelief.
- Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris: Japanese monster movies have come a long way since the '60s. The effects are no longer cheesy and the plots, while not masterpieces of construction, are at least coherent. Gamera 3 is the latest movie to feature the giant, fire breathing turtle. This time, he's battling an opponent dubbed "Iris," who is intent upon ravaging Kyoto. Guess who wins? Gamera 3 is a guilty pleasure, and was presented as part of the Midnight Madness program. More than anything, it opened my eyes as to how good the special effects in Japanese monster movies have become. (Once upon a time, I used to watch these things religiously on Saturday afternoons, but it has been years since I last saw one.) They aren't quite as impressive as those in the recent American version of Godzilla, but the movie as a whole is more entertaining. Actually, I saw Gamera 3 primarily because I was intrigued by the short preceding it. "George Lucas in Love" is the clever, amusing brainchild of Joe Nussbaum, who postulates that Lucas used people and situations from his college days to develop his script for Star Wars. I enjoyed this 9-minute effort; unfortunately, its length almost guarantees that it won't be shown anywhere. (Lucas should buy the rights from Nussbaum and include the movie as a supplement on the Star Wars DVD, whenever it is released.)
- Music of the Heart: Wes Craven is known for his horror movie successes, which include (among others) the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. With Music of the Heart, Craven attempts to make the jump into the mainstream, but it's an ill-executed leap. The story, about a single white mother who teaches the violin at a poor Harlem grade school, is an exercise in unrestrained melodrama and manipulation. It is over-the-top and often unskillful, and is frequently guilty of pandering to a crowd-pleasing mentality. There's no edge to the script (by Pamela Gray), and the characters seem to have been generated by a cookie cutter. On top of that, there isn't a strong narrative drive propelling things forward. The movie feels more like back-to-back episodes of a TV drama than a feature film. This is Mr. Holland's Opus meets Dangerous Minds. To add insult to injury, lead actress Meryl Streep is merely okay - which is tantamount to saying that this is easily one of her least impressive efforts in a decade. Craven should stick to what Craven does best; this Frank Marshall impersonation doesn't suit him.
- Anywhere But Here: The latest film from Wane Wang (The Joy Luck Club once again affirms that Wang is one of a few male directors capable of bringing a film to the screen that focuses on credible, intelligent female characters. Anywhere But Here traverses fairly familiar cinematic territory as it explores the tempestuous relationship between a mother, Adele August (Susan Sarandon), and her teenage daughter, Ann (Natalie Portman). One day, the restless Adele packs up her belongings and her daughter and decides to drive cross country to relocate from Bay City, Wisconsin to Beverly Hills. Ann, however, is upset about leaving behind a stable life, close friends, and a stepfather she likes. The divide between them deepens once they reach California and it becomes clear that Adele's aspirations for her daughter are at odds with Ann's own hopes. With a less intelligent script, this could have been a melodramatic and formulaic effort, but Alvin Sargent's screenplay (based on the novel by Mona Simpson) gently draws us into the characters' world, and makes every incident, no matter how trivial, seem important. From the directing chair, Wang avoids overplaying certain key moments, limiting melodrama and manipulation (two easy paths for this type of film to follow). And it helps that both Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman (taking a break from flying around in George Lucas' far, far away galaxy) are in peak form. Anywhere But Here is an enjoyable, emotionally true, and uplifting motion picture. (This is sort of a higher budget, higher profile version of Tumbleweeds.)
Finally, doing an overall roundup, here are the 39 films I have written about, divided into four categories:
Highly Recommended (must see): American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, Felicia's Journey, The Hurricane, The Legend of 1900, Mr. Death, Princess Mononoke, Snow Falling on Cedars, The War Zone
Recommended: 8 1/2 Women, Annaluise and Anton, Anywhere But Here, The Emperor and the Assassin, Guinevere, Happy Texas, The Life Before This, The Limey, Onegin, Pas de Scandale, Le Petit Voleur, Romance, Sunshine, Sweet and Lowdown, The Third Miracle, Tumbleweeds
Marginally Recommended: Dogma, Gamera 3, Gregory's Girls, Me Myself I
Not Recommended: All the Rage, The Big Brass Ring, Breakfast of Champions, The Item, Jakob the Liar, Judy Berlin, Moloch, Mumford, Music of the Heart, Simpatico
I'll be back on the festival circuit in another four months, when I'll be writing from the frozen tundra that it Park City, Utah in January...
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