TIFF #5: Dante, Portman, and Hicks Disappoint

September 14, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

It seems like forever since we've heard from director Joe Dante. Back in the '80s, he was one of the kings of teen-oriented thrillers, with titles like Gremlins and Innerspace on his resume. He continued working into the '90s but with increasingly limited visibility. The Hole represents a would-be comeback. Dante has employed the basic framework of many family-oriented horror/thriller movies and amped it up by taking it 3-D. The result, unfortunately, is not what one might hope. The Hole is lacking in the creativity department and, while Dante still knows how to get a good jump or two out of viewers, he's working with a subpar screenplay. Gremlins was made with the 13-year old in mind but worked regardless of the audience member's age. The Hole was made for the same target demographic but its ability to reach beyond those in their teens is limited at best.

As is too often the case with circularly polarized 3-D, there are process-related issues. (It should be noted that these issues do not occur with linear polarization, the format used for IMAX 3-D.) Disney 3-D, Dolby 3-D, and Real 3-D all use circular polarization and all have a similar set of problems, chief among which are the watering down of colors and a darkening of the image. Think of watching a movie with sunglasses on and that's basically the effect. (Some 3-D glasses are uncomfortable, but that's another issue.) For the most part, Dante's use of 3-D is subdued. There aren't too many instances in which items fly out of the screen at the viewer, but the way in which the hues are muted and dark scenes are rendered almost invisible causes the 3-D implementation to cheapen the picture. I have had this complaint with nearly every 3-D movie (except one: Coraline) and it will continue to be an issue until filmmakers take the time and effort to compensate for the negative elements of circular polarization in their 3-D films.

3-D aside, The Hole still doesn't work. The setup is promising. Two boys, 17-year old Dane (Chris Massoglia) and 10-year old Lucas (Nathan Gamble), move with their single mother (Teri Polo) from the lusty metropolis of New York City to the backwater town of Bensonville, Oregon. Lucas is okay with the move but Dane is bummed - until he sees that living next door is a sexy teenage girl named Julie (Haley Bennett). With Mom working long hours, Dane and Lucas have plenty of time to explore, and their explorations uncover a strange trap door in the basement. When Julie hears about this, she's interested in getting involved (anything to relieve the boredom of Bensonville). The door leads to a hole that opens into a bottomless pit. There's something dark down in that pit and, once unleashed, it refuses to be trapped again.

For a while, The Hole seems to be vintage Dante, but then something unwelcome begins to occur - the more that is revealed about the mystery of what's in the hole, the less interesting the story becomes. Two of the three threads developed during the course of the movie end with massive anticlimaxes and the third is derivative. For something that starts with such promise, this one fizzles by the midpoint and limps all the way home. Lack of inventiveness is a major problem, but there are also niggling issues that often arise in horror movies, such as why kids who know there's a portal to hell in their basement would refuse to tell their mom about it and would continue to live in the house. Are they stupid? Have they been lobotomized?

There are some nice moments in The Hole. Some of the early scenes associated with the pit in the basement are creepy. The clown doll gave me the willies, but maybe that's just because I'm one of those who find clowns more freaky than funny. Bruce Dern has a nice turn as the former owner of the haunted house. And there's a swimming pool scene that's worth watching if only because it provides an opportunity for Haley Bennett (who's a 21-year old playing someone about 5 years younger) to model a bikini. Hey, in a PG-13 film, you have to get your T&A where it's offered…

The Hole feels out-of-place in a film festival setting, in part because of the need for 3-D glasses. This might have been mitigated had the movie been up to the Dante standard of old, but this attempt at a comeback can only be considered a disappointment. It's not the only one for Toronto 2009. Here are a couple of others.

Don Roos' Love and Other Impossible Pursuits is a family drama that wants viewers to leave uplifted. Unfortunately, that's not really what happens. The film's success rests on the shoulders of Natalie Portman, but her performance is uneven. Portman is very good when it comes to scenes that require emotional distance and coldness, but when she is expected to show warmth and vulnerability, she is at times unconvincing. For the movie's ending to have the impact Roos intends, she needs to be sympathetic, but that's not in evidence.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, which is based on the book by Ayelet Waldman, is a family drama wrapped around a tragedy. The film begins in the present, with Emilia Greenleaf (Portman) having trouble connecting with her young stepson, William (Charlie Tahan), while recognizing the growing distance between herself and her husband, Jack (Scott Cohen). As we learn through flashbacks, Emilia was once Jack's mistress, but he left his ex-wife, Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow), to be with Emilia, and that created bad feelings. At the time of the marriage, Emilia was pregnant, but the baby girl died three days after birth. Emilia also has "Daddy issues" that date to a time when she caught her father engaged in an affair with a Russian-born stripper.

Emilia is, generally speaking, an unpleasant person who seems to be reaping her karmic just desserts. She is, after all, a homewrecker, and it's no surprise that William resents her. What's left unresolved is whether his digs at her regarding his dead sister ("According to Jewish Law, Isabel didn't live long enough to be a real person") are the result of anger or a child's naivete. I think Roos wants us to be sympathetic toward Emilia, but Portman does such a good job portraying her cold, self-absorbed side that it's difficult. And, on those occasions when Emelia is intended to show humanity, Portman is unable to convey the necessary emotion.

There is an undercurrent of deep sadness in all of this, and we can feel the pain. As gradually becomes apparent, everything in the film is connected to Isabel's death. It has deflated Emilia, created a distance between her and Jack, and resulted in an ambivalent relationship between Emilia and William. We sometimes don't understand her motivations regarding the child. For example, in an attempt to become closer to him, she takes him to get ice cream. When he notes that he's lactose intolerant, she ignores this and lies to him that the ice cream has been sprinkled with a powder that will allow him to eat it safely.

Roos has done fine work in the past in the areas of both drama (Bounce) and comedy (The Opposite of Sex). Although there is some dark humor to be found here, this is basically a straightforward Lifetime-style movie with a high profile cast and top-notch production values. It churns the emotions (although it might have been more effective with a more balanced lead actress) but the ending comes across as rushed and unconvincing. It may work for those in search of a good cry but as a story of a damaged woman to touch the soul, it misses the mark.

Nevertheless, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits doesn't misfire quite as badly as The Boys are Back, another film about the impacts of death on a family. In this case, it's the wife instead of the child, but some of the themes about guilt and loss are the same, and there are an equal number of flashbacks. (Tangential note: I have noticed an inordinate number of stories told via flashback in this year's festival. I hope this isn't a developing trend in cinema, because this is not a storytelling method of which I'm fond. It can work, but only in specific circumstances.)

It's fair to day there's nothing disastrously wrong with this leisurely paced chronicle of a single father's struggles parenting his two sons, but there's nothing terribly right with it, either. It's well-acted, competently directed, and features some beautiful cinematography (Greig Fraser provides some breathtaking shots, especially one of tall grass being prompted by a strong breeze), but the story is ordinary and the emotional involvement is limited. It is often said that melodrama can ruin a motion picture, but that comment typically refers to an excess. The Boys Are Back could benefit from an injection of a little. This is the kind of movie that works best when one relates to it on a more primal level than a purely intellectual one. Director Scott Hicks, who showed an uncanny ability to walk the line between too much and too little melodrama in Shine, is arguably too reticent in his treatment of this father/sons story. Let's call a spade a spade: this film is boring.

Joe Warr (Clive Owen, playing against type and doing a credible job at it) is a British-born sports writer who is living and working in Australia. When his wife (Laura Fraser) dies of cancer, he is left alone to care for his eight-year old son, Artie (George MacKay). Artie, having difficulty coping with his mother's death, becomes a problem child: seemingly "normal" one moment, angry the next, and moody and uncommunicative the next. Joe, never having had a close relationship with his son (he was often out of town on assignments), finds it difficult to handle Artie. The situation becomes more complicated when Joe's older son from a previous marriage, Harry (Nicolas McAnulty), arrives to spend a summer down under. Although Harry develops a bond with Artie, he is nonplused by Joe's "no rules" style of parenting and ultimately takes on more responsibility than he is ready for.

Hicks' novel is loosely inspired by the real life memoir of Simon Carr, which couldn't be filmed "as is" because of its random, stream-of-consciousness approach. The film's central problem lies in the father/son relationships. While the interaction between Joe and Artie and Harry is believable, it's not as compelling as Hicks would like us to believe it is. There's something half-realized in the way these individuals relate to each other. The Boys Are Back keeps a distance between the characters and viewers that allows us to scrutinize Joe's shortcomings as a parent (his approach to fatherhood often results in placing his children in harm's way) without tapping into the emotional core.

Single parents will likely see in Joe's life reflections of elements of their own, and this may build a keener understanding of the man. Try as I might, however, I cannot summon much enthusiasm for this movie, which is too overly familiar to offer any real insight and too reserved to allow one to relate to the characters on a visceral level. Hicks has made a technically adept film, but one that, for all of its strong acting and vivid photography, left me less moved than I should have been.

The trailer for The Boys Are Back: