1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #8: "Midweek Potpourri"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 15, 1999

Midweek at a film festival is typically the most relaxed and least hectic time. The crowds are down, the lines are shorter, and the volunteers now understand all the procedures. Midweek is also the time for small movies and discoveries. The bookending weekends are when the hot films play (Dogma and Anywhere But Here, for example). Between Monday and Thursday, almost anything can be seen, even sold out screenings. Rush lines are typically reasonable, and there are so many seats in a couple of the big venues (The Roy Thomson Pavillion, where the Galas are held, and the Elgin, where the high profile Special Presentations bow) that complete sell-outs are unlikely except on weekends.

Many of these smaller, midweek movies turn out to be gems (that's tomorrow's subject), but, as is often the case when mining an unknown load, there are likely to be a few cave-ins. I have never been to a film festival where I didn't see at least one stinker, and, considering the sheer volume of movies at Toronto, there are bound to be some land mines out there. Word-of-mouth allows the viewer with an ear to the ground to avoid some, but a complete immunity is almost impossible. So far, I have managed to stumble across a few. I have already written about one of these (Lawrence Kasdan's Mumford). Here, I'll present a couple more.

Consider the following cast: Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, Andre Braugher, Robert Forster, Gary Sinise, Anna Paquin. With so many Oscars and Oscar nominations, one has a right to anticipate something worthwhile. So I went into a press screening of James D. Stern's All the Rage with relatively high expectations. Twenty minutes into the film, I knew I was in trouble. (So did a large number of my fellow critics, at least 30 of whom walked out on the movie - perhaps the largest mid-screening exodus I have ever witnessed here.) The film was going nowhere, and taking a long time to get there.

All the Rage is all about structure. It's about the director showing his cleverness at getting characters into certain places so their paths can briefly intersect. Stern has clearly been influenced by movies like Pulp Fiction and 2 Days in the Valley, but the only thing he seems to have learned is a certain structural panache. The plot is banal and the characters are so lifeless as to be inconsequential. All the Rage lacks both personality and soul.

The movie attempts to use irony and dark comedy to present a case against guns. Most of the individuals in this film handle a gun at one time or another, and they either end up killing someone or being killed. As anti-gun films go, this one is ineffective. If we had cared about even one of the characters, the situation might have been different. Stern's glittering cast is also largely wasted. No one does a terrible job, but their abilities aren't challenged. A no-name group of actors would probably have accomplished as much (but would not have landed All the Rage a film festival berth - festival directors can be seduced by big names just as easily as audiences can). The silver lining is that the picture has a couple of very funny scenes (one involving a gun-wielding Giovanni Ribisi imitating Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood, and one illustrating that every video store clerk does not have the same definition of an "adult movie"), but waiting for them is hardly a reason to endure everything that surrounds them.

The Big Brass Ring is said to be based on an unfilmed screenplay by Orson Welles. If this movie is even reasonably faithful to that source material, it's easy to see why it was never committed to celluloid. In both conception and execution, this is an uninspired production, and the only obvious evidence of Welles' posthumous involvement is a joke about Rosebud. Instead of being characterized by the tight scripting and brilliant cinematography that were the late, great filmmaker's hallmarks, The Big Brass Ring is dumb, dull to look at, and poorly acted. About the only area where this movie can claim a measure of success is in its ability to offer a narrow window into the reason why wives stay with disloyal, philandering politician husbands.

The film, which has all the intensity and intelligence of a made-for-TV movie (indeed, Showtime lent financial backing), follows the campaign of Blake Pellerin (William Hurt), an independent candidate in the Missouri gubernatorial election. Pellerin is way ahead in the polls until an interview with his former mentor, Dr. Kimball Menaker (Nigel Hawthorne), by a tabloid TV journalist (Irene Jacob) raises questions about the candidate's past. The majority of The Big Brass Ring deals with the improbable way in which Pellerin's staff attempts damage control while Pellerin struggles to come to grips with events he had buried deep in the recesses of his memory.

It's easy to pinpoint the movie's problems. First, the scenario isn't all that interesting (especially since more juicy political tales have unfolded in real life). Secondly, the "secret" is far from earth-shattering. And, finally, the talented cast doesn't produce. William Hurt, as is often the case, is wooden. The normally stunning Irene Jacob isn't much better. (She is the centerpiece of the single most gratuitous nude scene in any movie I have seen at this festival.) Miranda Richardson, playing Pellerin's perpetually drunk wife, is over-the-top. Only Nigel Hawthorne manages to escape with a shred of dignity intact. In an era when the media coverage of political campaigns often plays like a soap opera, movies need to be more involving and incisive than The Big Brass Ring to capture an audience's attention.

Of course, not all lesser-known midweek movies are ineptly made. In fact, quite the opposite is often true. Take Catherine Breillat's Romance, which has been generating an increasingly positive buzz as the festival has worn on. Rumor had it this was a stunningly frank examination of sex and love, and that proved to be an accurate capsule description. The Film Festival Catalogue has the following to say: "Romance features graphic sex (which may offend some) of a kind not seen in the cinema since... In the Realm of the Senses." That too is accurate, and it raises an interesting question about what kind of distribution the film will get in the United States (Trimark Pictures has procured the rights).

Any kind of write-up of Romance must be divided into two parts, the first examining the themes and issues explored by the film and the second discussing the explicit manner in which Breillat has elected to present them. Not much of a plot is in operation here. The movie's protagonist is Marie (Caroline Ducey), whose boyfriend has inexplicably decided to begin an open-ended period of celibacy. Confused, angry, and sexually frustrated by his unwillingness to make love to her, Marie embarks upon an exploration of other ways to be satisfied, including a brief, torrid affair with a stranger and a lengthier relationship with a man who dabbles in domination and submission.

The strength of the film is that it raises numerous questions about sexuality, sexual politics, and the differences between the sexes. Through Marie, who is an extraordinarily well developed individual, Breillat is able to open up a variety of themes in a frank and honest manner. In actuality, Romance is an exceptionally talky film. The characters not only engage in sex, but they talk about it in great detail, and Marie's running internal monologue gives us insight into how she views her life and circumstances.

Romance is provocative and controversial not so much because of the subject matter, but because of the way the director has chosen to push the envelope of non-pornographic motion pictures. As thought provoking as the film is, it will offend many viewers. Romance contains multiple hardcore instances that include masturbation (male and female), fellatio, cunnilingus, penetration, and ejaculation. Since this isn't a porn film, they are far less titillating than one might expect, but they're there on screen with nothing hidden from the camera. However, those going to Romance with the hope of seeing porn will likely be disappointed (not to mention bored): the movie is about 75% talk and 25% nudity & sex.

Romance isn't close to the best film I have seen at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, but it is one of the most lively conversation-starters and certainly the most daring. And that's the best kind of thing that can come from any screening, whether it's in the middle of the week or on a weekend.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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