2008 Toronto Film Festival Update #1

September 04, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Every festival is different, but this year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival may prove to be much different than "usual." This is my twelfth consecutive trip to this festival. Unlike many who make this annual late summer pilgrimage, my attendance doesn't go back to the early days when Toronto was struggling to become known. By 1997, it was a world-class festival and closing in on the position it would soon capture as the largest and most important film festival in North America. In a dozen years, it has come a long way. The press and industry corps has tripled in size. On-line critics and bloggers have become omnipresent. (In 1997, I was one of only three accredited members of the media who wrote exclusively for an on-line publication. I was told by a festival official that year that if it hadn't been for a letter of introduction written by Roger Ebert, the accreditation would not have been granted at that time.) Theaters have come and gone. But every year, it seemed that Toronto has gotten bigger. Until 2008.

For the first year since I have attended, Toronto has scaled back. There are approximately 20 fewer films on tap this year, and many of those showing have shorter running times. In addition, Hollywood has changed its strategy with respect to Toronto and its European sibling, Venice (which runs at about the same time every year). Many of the expected Oscar contenders are not being launched this year at either Toronto or Venice. Filling their vacuum are a series of "forgotten" movies - once high-profile productions that have become orphans as a result of studio consolidation, overstuffed schedules, or an uncertainty about how to market them. The films' distributors are filling Toronto's big slots (the Galas and the "Special Presentations" selections) with these movies. The goal: generate buzz so when they open there will be some interest. This may mean that the quality of the big movies will be better, but it also means that Toronto's star power may be dimmed.

That's not to say there are no Oscar contenders here, just not as many as in recent years. The Coen Brothers, always loyal to Toronto, have brought their latest, Burn After Reading. While the buzz surrounding this isn't as strong as it was for last year's No Country for Old Men (which went on to win Best Picture), it's hard to believe it won't receive consideration for something. Appaloosa, from director Ed Harris, is being called the next great Western, and both Harris and Viggo Mortensen are being mentioned as possible Best Actor contenders.The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley, and Happy Go Lucky, from director Mike Leigh, are two from across the ocean that are expected to make some waves. Spike Lee gets into the business of making war with the nearly 3-hour long Miracle at St. Anna. (This is the one that resulted in his war of words with Clint Eastwood. ) The Secret Life of Bees looks like traditional "Oscar bait" - a film that was made largely with end-of-year consideration in mind.

Pride and Glory, a cop story with Edward Norton and Colin Farrell that has sat on shelves for a while, and The Burning Plain, with Charlize Theron, are two lesser-profile Oscar would-be's trying to attract attention. The Wrestler, from Darren Aronofsky, is said to feature a spectacular performance by an unlikely candidate: Mickey Rourke. Ghost Town is a supernatural comedy with Ricky Gervais and Greg Kinnear. Rachel Getting Married, from Jonathan Demme, features an image-altering performance by Anne Hathaway - this will change some minds about her being a lightweight. Synecdoche, New York is the weirdest thing yet from Charlie Kaufman. The Lucky Ones takes some Iraq war vets on leave and follows them on a cross-country road trip. Zack and Miri Make a Porno gives Kevin Smith a chance to make his way into a territory that he in a way pioneered but in which Judd Apatow has lately laid a claim.

RockNRolla represents Guy Richie's attempt to recover from Revolver - something that won't be easy. Nick and Nora's Playlist wants to be a cross between Before Sunrise and Juno. Good turns Viggo Mortensen into a "good" Nazi. The Brothers Bloom, with Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and Rinko Kikuchi, has great word-of-mouth and should be a lot of fun. Management is a romantic comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn. (One wonders how this got on the Toronto schedule.) Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire drew raves at Telluride and looks like it could be this year's Juno. Gigantic is another rom-com, this one featuring the woman with the most amazing eyes in Hollywood, Zooey Deschanel.

In addition to reporting on many of those films with recognizable stars and potentially solid mainstream pedigrees, I'll be surveying some smaller fare as well. My approach to movies with uncertain distribution prospects is simple: if I like it, I'll write about it. If it's mediocre, it may or may not get a write-up, depending on how deep my backlog is. A few films in this category include a new title from German filmmaker Caroline Link called A Year Ago in Winter; the Polish Four Nights with Anna; Once Upon a Time in Rio; The Ghost; and Acne. Given my one-time devotion to Dungeons & Dragons, it would be remiss of me to miss the documentary The Dungeon Masters, about a group of D&D aficionados who take things to extremes.

As is always the case, schedules for film festivals are made to be changed, so I'll end up missing some of the films I am planning to see, and will see things that are not currently on my radar. This year's festival, because it has so many smaller and lesser-known titles, promises to be a challenge to plan and execute, but offers the potential of riches found in unexpected places. At their best, film festivals offer a sense of discovery and that may be more true of 2008 Toronto than of any of any festival I have attended in the last 10 years. It all starts with Passchendaele, this year's Opening Night Feature.

In terms of cinematic depictions, World War I has gotten the shaft. When it comes to movies about 20th century conflicts, there's no shortage of tales related to World War II and Vietnam, but World War I (like Korea) rarely forms the backdrop for motion picture endeavors. I guess the belief is that trench warfare doesn't play well. While Passchendaele isn't just a "war story," it fills the bill as one of those uncommon tales set against the backdrop of the sprawling conflict that was known at the time as "the Great War." Director Paul Gross (who also has the lead role) has made a film that is shamelessly romantic and, with the help of private funding, he has obtained a budget sufficient to mount a production with Hollywood-quality production values and period details. It's the kind of movie that will go over well with an Opening Night crowd at a film festival, where the sentiment favors melodrama over quality. Opening Night films don't have to be good (and they often aren't); they just have to be crowd-pleasing enough to promote more than polite applause. While far from masterpiece status, Passchendaele is capable of that.

Passchendaele observes the life of Sergeant Michael Dunne (Gross), who is injured in action and awakens in a Canadian hospital, where he is being cared for by a nurse named Sarah (Caroline Dhavernas). Predictably, they fall in love and, when Sarah's asthmatic brother, David (Joe Dinicol), enlists in the army to impress his would-be father-in-law, Michael returns to service so he can accompany David to Europe and keep him from harm's way. David is suitably resentful of this but Sarah is not and, after misjudging Michael, she takes her nursing training to the battlefield. All three of them become involved in the historical Battle of Passchendaele, one of Canada's shining moments in the war.

The movie has all the sophistication of a Harlequin romance and contains a lot of hardboiled dialogue to go along with a few too many clichéd coincidences. (If you expect to see something in a war romance, it's probably here.) The use of symbolism (especially regarding crucifixion and bearing crosses) is excessive and heavy-handed. The love story is poorly presented, with Gross showing highlights of the relationship rather than allowing it the time and breadth necessary to fan these fitful sparks into a flame. The lack of chemistry and emotion is as much a function of how perfunctory the romance is as it is a failing in the performers to connect.

The acting is unremarkable on all fronts. Gross possesses the rugged good looks of a younger Robert Wagner, but there's little depth to his performance. Dhavernas, while lovely, is uneven. There are scenes in which she generates an emotional response, but there are also times when she's flat. Dinicol's portrayal is amateurish and doesn't belong in a moderately-budgeted film.

Despite all the problems, there are some nice things to say. Passchendaele is beautifully photographed and features wonderful set design. It's not hard to believe that the action is transpiring in 1917 Canada and on the Western Front. Sadly, all of the eye candy in the world can't obscure the movie's failings, which are too numerous to warrant Passchendaele's being picked up for distribution. It may show up at some distant time in a few art houses in the United States, but it will largely be lost or ignored south of the border. This is yet another Opening Night film that plays well only within the friendly and overly kind confines of a film festival.