1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #3:
"Sundance Goes North"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 11, 1999

It's fairly common knowledge among those who attend more than a handful of film festivals that there's a sharing process going on. The so-called "film festival circuit" is just that - a conduit along which many low-profile motion pictures flow, hoping to attract the attention of a distributor, or, failing that, to be seen by those who frequent festivals. It's not unusual for some movies to make appearances in more than a dozen festivals over the span of a year or more. Significant "hubs" on the festival circuit include Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Venice, and Sundance. The latter festival is the latest addition. Until a few years ago, Sundance was regarded as a lesser festival, but its growing prominence and popularity has catapulted it into the upper echelon.

In a typical year, Toronto hosts a large number of films that played at Cannes, Telluride, and Venice. Before 1999, little output from Sundance has made it to Toronto - typically only one or two films a year. One reason for this is the time differential between the two festivals. Sundance is in January and Toronto is in September, and many of the best Sundance films have been released theatrically before the end of the summer. Another reason is profile. When Sundance was a small festival, the Toronto programmers could ignore it. Now that it has become a major player, it attracts a great deal of attention.

In the past, Sundance and Toronto have always shared films, but the typical route for such pictures to take was to appear at Toronto before making their way to Park City. Recent examples include the likes of Run Lola Run, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, and Praise. This is the first year when the reverse is true, with nine Sundance debuts appearing on the Toronto schedule.

Arguably the best, and certainly the most intriguing of these is Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the latest from one of the world's premiere documentary filmmakers, Errol Morris. Mr. Death a masterful character study that raises dozens of questions about morality, scientific process, and human nature. Many who see this film will have heard of Fred Leuchter, even if they don't recognize the name. An engineer by trade, Leuchter became known as an "execution technologist" when he designed a new, "more humane" kind of electric chair, then followed that invention with a lethal injection machine. What put Leuchter in the national spotlight, however, was a pseudo-scientific report he released in 1988 claiming that the "alleged" gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps were nothing of the kind.

While Morris calls upon several witnesses to illuminate the flaws in Leuchter's scientific process, Mr. Death is not an examination of the "revisionist history" movement. Instead, it's a deeply thoughtful look at Leuchter. Is he an anti-Semite and hate-monger, or is he merely someone so convinced of his own infallibility that he cannot accept that he might be in error? Leuchter comes across as a sympathetic figure, not the incarnation of evil some might expect him to be. He's an unassuming man with some odd views (he's a proponent of capital punishment, but believes that all executed men should be allowed to die with dignity and minimal pain), but not the kind of person one would associate with providing "proof" that the Holocaust never happened. Morris peppers the film with moments of wry humor, and the project as a whole is steeped in irony, but the most remarkable quality of Mr. Death is that it gives us real insight into the workings of the lead character's mind, and challenges us to form our own opinions.

Guinevere, the debut feature of screenwriter Audrey Welles, appears at Toronto on the eve of its North American theatrical release (it's due to open in New York on September 24, then go wider two weeks later). The standout aspect of Guinevere is the performance of actress Sarah Polley, a native Canadian and Toronto favorite. (This year, her first directorial effort, the short "Don't Think Twice," is playing as part of the Perspective Canada program. She can also be seen in Jerry Ciccoritti's The Life Before This.) Polley plays Harper, a lonely 20-year old girl who is ignored by her parents. She's miserable and filled with self-doubt until she meets Connie Fitzpatrick (Stephen Rea), a photographer who's older than her father. Connie takes an interest in Harper, but is he really concerned with developing her hidden artistic talent, or is he a lecher whose sole purpose is getting her into his bed? Most of the film is devoted to the relationship between these two, and the sharpness of Wells' focus on the characters keeps the movie engaging, even when it ventures into familiar territory.

Happy, Texas was one of the hottest tickets at Sundance '99, rivaling only The Blair Witch Project and Sex: The Annabel Chong Story in the "need to see" department. The film, from first-time director Mark Illsley, has a top-notch cast, including a laconic Jeremy Northam, Illeana Douglas, and scene-stealers Steve Zahn and William H. Macy. The plot centers on two escaped convicts (Northam and Zahn) who impersonate gay beauty contest directors and hide out in the small Texas town of Happy. The movie's greatest strength (not surprisingly) is the comedy, which varies from mildly amusing to hilarious. Zahn's performance is a highlight, and Macy contributes a scene of genuine pathos when his sheriff character is brutally rebuffed romantically. Light and unpretentious, Happy, Texas was one of Sundance's best 1999 offerings for pure entertainment.

Judy Berlin, Eric Mendelsohn's black-and-white feature, debut received praise for its examination of real-life characters in real-life situations, and received Sundance's Dramatic Film Directing Award. As critic Harlan Jacobson put it, "You can believe these characters existed before the film started and that they'll continue existing after it ends." However, while that may be true, believable characters aren't necessarily interesting characters, and the individuals in Judy Berlin are as boring as they come. The film examines the day-in-a-life tribulations of several ordinary people - a would-be actress (Edie Falco) and aspiring movie director (Aaron Hornick) who discover an attraction for each other while they're reminiscing about high school, a grade-school teacher (Barbara Barrie) and a principal (Bob Dishy) who share a first kiss, and a housewife (Madeline Kahn) who uses the darkness of a prolonged solar eclipse to shed a few inhibitions. Although the interaction between the two young characters is moderately interesting, uneven acting robs the dialogue of some of its power. At its best, Judy Berlin is a diversion. At its worst, it's a bore.

Winner of Sundance's Dramatic Film Filmmakers Trophy, Gavin O'Connor's Tumbleweeds is a pleasant, unambitious picture that uses low-key manipulation to become a crowd favorite. It's a classic "chick flick," focusing on the relationship between a mother, Mary Jo (Janet McTeer), who keeps moving from marriage-to-marriage, and her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Ava (Kimberly Brown). The mother/daughter relationship holds this film together as the plot veers uncertainly through a minefield of melodramatic situations: failed marriages, abusive menfolk, and teenage rebellion. Mary Jo and Ava are almost like sisters; they tell each other their intimate fears and fantasies, and have a seemingly unbreakable bond. It helps that both McTeer and Brown are capable actresses. In lesser hands, these parts could have become flat and familiar, and that would have doomed the entire production.

Finally, there's Dan Clark's The Item, which showed in competition at Sundance and is being presented here as part of the Midnight Madness program (about the only place it belongs). Of everything I saw at Sundance, there was no worse film than this. A science fiction thriller abut a group of lowlife characters who guard a box containing an alien life form, The Item was designed as a farce/spoof. And, while the outrageously exaggerated violence of the shoot-outs shows some inventiveness, that only accounts for 5% of the running time. The rest of the movie is so dull and uninteresting that, at such a late hour, it may put half the audience to sleep. The dialogue (and there's a lot of it) is nauseatingly banal, the acting is flat, and what's supposed to be clever is actually uninspired. I liked the last scene, but it came 90 minutes too late.

For the record, there are three other Sundance films playing here: Frank Whaley's Joe the King, Gregg Araki's Splendor, and Chris Smith's American Movie (which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary). All three (particularly American Movie) have good word-of-mouth, although I haven't seen them. It's also worth noting that of these nine films, only two (Judy Berlin and The Item) are without distributors, so missing them on the festival circuit doesn't necessarily mean missing them altogether.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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