1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #5: "Coming Soon... (Part One)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 13, 1999

The lone value of a film festival isn't just the opportunity to gorge oneself on a vast, diverse buffet of cinematic courses, but the sense of camaraderie that comes from being with so many other people, from all corners of the word, who are doing the same thing. Over the years, I have been to a number of engineering conferences, and, in all that time, I have never had someone overhear something I was saying at dinner, pull up a chair, and join in the conversation. Yet at film festivals, this happens with surprising regularity. There's no elitism at festivals; everyone is in the trenches together. Regardless of whether you're a critic getting in on a pass or a paying film-goer (I split the difference, paying for some shows and going for free to others), no one gets out of standing in line (and, of course, the longer you stand, the better seat you get).

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of film festivals is getting to see a few pictures that one otherwise wouldn't have a chance of viewing. These are typically foreign or niche-market offerings that will not be picked up for distribution. (I'll discuss a few of these in a later update.) Of course, if that's not your type of thing, there are plenty of mainstream choices. In fact, most of my latest batch of movies fall into the "already have a distributor" category. The reason, in each case, is quite obvious: the films have a pedigree - either a known director, recognizable stars, or both. But, as we have seen time-and-time again (and one needs to look no further than Dogma for proof), those things don't necessarily mean anything. Even the best director in the world can make a dud, and there's probably no actor, regardless of how many Oscars he or she has, who wouldn't like to delete at least one title from his or her resume.

And that brings us to Mumford, Lawrence Kasdan's latest. It bowed here to a gala reception less than two weeks before it will open in theaters across North America (Touchstone Pictures, September 24), and it has to be the most bland motion picture I have seen at any festival in years. This is by-the-book filmmaking - the kind of thing that will appeal primarily to those who don't want to be challenged by their movies and who will allow themselves to be emotionally manipulated into a little feel-good corner. If you liked last year's Patch Adams, you'll probably go for this one, although, to be fair, I was less offended by Mumford than by Patch Adams.

Loren Dean, in a performance that is perhaps too understated, plays Dr. Mumford, the most successful practicing psychologist in the small town of Mumford. Mumford's patients include local billionaire Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee, doing double duty at the festival for this film and Dogma), who is lonely; pharmacist Henry Follett (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who prefers fantasy to reality; a wealthy housewife (Mary McDonnell) with an obsession for buying things; and the pretty Sophie Crisp (Hope Davis), who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome. It's Mumford's job to cure all these people while struggling with his own personal demons. Everything from the trajectory of the plot to the dialogue is trite and uninspired. Although the word "mainstream" is not necessarily a bad term, it definitely applies here. The fewer movies you see, the more likely you'll be to appreciate Mumford's dubious charms. This production doesn't offer a single new moment, idea, character, or otherwise interesting element. To give Kasdan his due, it's worth stating that the movie isn't downright awful, either. I stayed awake through all two hours of it, which, at a festival, can be something of an achievement. However, when it comes to recommendations, this gets the thumbs-down. It's more bland than cream cheese.

After being disappointed by Mumford, I moved on to see the latest from Chinese director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), who is making his first personal appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival. Chen's latest, The Emperor and the Assassin is a solid historical drama that concentrates more on politics than on characters. It's a worthwhile effort, and the kind of film I feel comfortable in recommending, but it lacks the impact of something like Concubine. Still, after having seen several lackluster movies in a row, I was impressed by the film's effectiveness in transporting me more than 2000 years back in time (to 221 BC) to a country that I have never visited.

The overall story is fairly complex, especially in the way it uses supplemental characters like chess pieces. There are three central figures: King Ying Zheng, the leader of the strongest kingdom in feudal China; Jing Ke, the land's most successful assassin; and Lady Zhao (played by Gong Li), the woman who brings them together at a pivotal moment in history. Lady Zhao is Ying Zheng's lover, and, when she believes that his attempts to unify China are for the best - an opportunity to offer "peace and prosperity for all" - so she supports him. But the constant bloodshed changes Ying Zheng. He becomes cold, calculating, and callous, and Lady Zhao finds her loyalties tested. Meanwhile, Jing Ke, the assassin hired by a rival king to kill Ying Zheng, is experiencing a crisis of conscience and has decided that, regardless of the cost, he will not kill again.

In crafting The Emperor and the Assassin, Chen has taken ancient Chinese history, fleshed it out with a heavy dose of labyrinthine politics (with an I, Claudius edge), and structured the resulting motion picture like something by Shakespeare. The result is an epic spectacle that delivers on many levels. It's an absorbing experience with a single weakness: character development. Chen becomes so involved in meticulously detailing the plots and counter-plots going on that he loses sight of the little subtleties that make characters real people (rather than servants of a script). Simply put, these individuals need a little more personality. After the flatness of Mumford, however, this was definitely a welcome change. The Emperor and the Assassin will be distributed this fall by Sony Pictures Classics, who will roll it out across North America in their typically erratic and sluggish fashion.

A film of an entirely different sort is Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, a tour de force for actor Terence Stamp, whose stunning performance isn't just scene-stealing, it's movie-stealing. Soderbergh has an excellent reputation on the film festival circuit - no one will forget the explosiveness of his debut, sex, lies, and videotape, which almost singlehandedly put Sundance on the festival map. Since then, Soderbergh has done some very good pictures (King of the Hill, Out of Sight), but nothing that has attracted a big box office. The Limey will more than likely fall into the same category.

The movie is a visceral thriller - a stylish take on the revenge picture. Call it the art film version of Death Wish. There really isn't anything deeper or more meaningful going on here. When Stamp's Wilson finds out that his daughter, Jenny, has been killed by American drug dealers, he crosses the Atlantic and goes on a one-man killing spree, knocking off one target after another as he gets close to the bulls-eye: Jenny's lover, pop music producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda).

The Limey possesses several traits that allow it to work better than the average revenge thriller. The first in Stamp's performance, which blazes with intensity and energy. The second is Soderbergh's style, which includes flashbacks and flashforwards, with dialogue from one scene constantly bleeding into its successor. The third is the brilliant, snappy dialogue which often sounds scripted, but is delightful nevertheless. And the fourth is the sense of macabre, offbeat humor that suffuses the picture, reminding us not to take anything that transpires too seriously. If The Limey had been a little less well-made, I'd call it a guilty pleasure. But, because it has been crafted with a great deal of attention and care, I'll drop the "guilty" and simply call it a "pleasure." Artisan Pictures owns the rights, and plans an upcoming, nationwide release.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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