Toronto Film Festival Update #10

September 13, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Another ten days in September, another festival in the book. I'll offer some parting thoughts at the end of today's final update, but first there are three additional movies I want to offers comments upon.

Flash of Genius is based on the real-life story of engineer Bob Kearns, who is credited with inventing the intermittent windshield wiper. The movie, which recounts the period beginning with the invention and continuing through a lawsuit against Ford Motor Company, follows the popular "David vs. Goliath" formula of the Little Guy fighting against the Big Corporation. One reason the film lacks punch is because, unlike similarly-themed movies like A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich, there are no health issues involved. This is purely a patent infringement case, and that subject matter is a little dry. The key for a movie like this is to develop things in a manner that makes us want to watch it even though the story is familiar, and Flash of Genius succeeds only marginally in that vein.

In 1967, Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear) and his business partner, Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney), received patents for the intermittent windshield wiper, a device Bob developed in his garage after noticing that cars were not equipped to handle misty or drizzly conditions. Convinced there was a market for his mechanism, he shopped it to Ford. Initially, the reception was enthusiastic, but the company backed out at the last minute for unspecified reasons. Two years later, Ford was offering intermittent, variable-speed wipers as an option on cars. Bob was crushed, believing that Ford stole his idea without giving him credit. He sued Ford in 1978 for patent infringement and, when his lawyers backed out after Bob turned down an out-of-court settlement, he elected to act as his own attorney. Unable to stand the stress, his wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham), moved out. His six children, however, helped him with the legal legwork. Bob finally got his day in court in 1990.

While it's true that movies of this sort can be crowd-pleasers, the general tone and approach of Flash of Genius are too slow and low-key to generate the spark that will have audiences boisterously applauding Bob's struggle. Viewers who stick with the film will be behind him at the end, but this isn't the kind of film that delivers the rapturous surge of emotion that some David vs. Goliath films provide. Engineers may find a limited fascination with the movie's depiction of the process by which Bob develops the intermittent wiper, but there may be too little of that to generate real interest. In short, Flash of Genius fails to make viewers care with any depth about the story it's telling. We have seen this kind of tale before, and director Marc Abraham(a longtime producer making his filmmaking debut) is unable to convince us that we want to see it again.

I've Loved You So Long is a meditative French drama about awakening from a metaphorical death. It's about how a shared past can inform present expectations and about whether relationships can bridge a gulf of years and extend beyond a tragedy that is in many ways neither understood nor explained. Writer/director Philippe Claudel's approach to the material is straightforward and free of melodrama, but he elects to present a critical aspect of the protagonist's past as an element of mystery. Rather than peeling back the curtain on the past to the audience at the beginning, he gradually reveals pieces of the central tragedy and what it means, and has meant, for those involved.

After fifteen years in prison, Juliette Fontaine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is coming home. Her younger sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), has invited her to come live with her family, despite the misgivings of Lea's husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius). Luc, who has never met Juliette, has good reason to be uncertain. He and Lea have two young daughters, and Juliette's prison sentence was for killing her own six-year old son. But why did she do it? Why did she remain silent during the trial and offer no defense? Lea, who was a teenager when those events occurred, does not know. The Juliette who emerges from behind bars is a very different woman from the one Lea knew growing up, but she is determined to make their relationship work. Juliette, clearly haunted by ghosts, is slow to thaw and finds it difficult to exist in a society where her life is defined by a crime whose motivations are unknown and viewed by some as irrelevant.

Because I've Loved You So Long is fundamentally about how some of the "little things" in life can be very big things for someone in Juliette's circumstances, it will come as no surprise that the film focuses on the day-to-day minutia of living. This is not a movie of big revelation and melodramatic sequences. It touches the emotions by developing a careful rapport with Juliette then gently unveiling the central tragedy of her existence. We are not asked to understand her until we have been given a chance to become comfortable with who she is now.

I've Loved You So Long is the kind of film that will bore to tears those who do not enjoy simple, unforced character dramas. The movie's action largely takes place beneath the skin. The pace is slow but not glacial, but Claudel demands patience. Ultimately, I've Loved You So Long is uplifting, although one might not expect that from the thematic material. The production rewards viewers who roll with the shifting tones, explore the mystery of Juliette's past alongside Lea, and stay to the end. This may be a tough sell in a marketplace dominated by ADD motion pictures, but I'm convinced there's an audience out there.

With Charlie Kaufman, the writer of such movies as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one expects something weird and wonderful. So it will come as no surprise that "weird" is an apt descriptor for Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman's directorial debut. But "wonderful?" Not really. This is the kind of maddening, overstuffed, overambitious, self-indulgent motion picture that will divide critics and viewers (those few who see it). However, while there are times when this film could be considered strangely compelling, it's mostly an overlong, pretentious bore. Kaufman is clearly striving for greatness - "art" at the expense of all else, including logic - but he falls short by a considerable margin. Just because a movie is ambitious and challenging doesn't mean it can't also be tedious and at times unbearable.

The film starts out almost conventionally. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a Skinectity, New York-based playwright and director who is being forced to face his mortality as a result of a series of bizarre ailments. (Blood in his stool, red urine, pustules on his face, etc.) His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), a painter, is becoming increasingly distant from him. She misses the opening night of his new interpretation of "Death of a Salesman" and decides that she doesn't want him accompanying her on a trip to Germany. Meanwhile, an increasingly lonely Caden is becoming involved with two co-workers: Hazal (Samantha Morton), who works at the box office in the theater where "Death" is playing, and Claire (Michelle Williams), his leading lady. With Adele soon out of the picture in Europe, Caden seeks affection elsewhere, but his growing despondence causes him to struggle with his art and strive to fashion something of astounding and lasting greatness.

During the film's second half, Caden creates a replica of New York City within a warehouse and populates his mini-city with actors. There are actors playing Caden (Tom Noonan) and Hazal (Emily Watson), and the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur. The real Caden has an affair with the faux Hazal and the faux Caden has an affair with the real Hazal. It takes a scorecard to keep everything straight, and there's a sense of recursion about the whole thing with Caden directing faux Caden, who's directing the same scene within the play-within-a-play featuring a faux faux Caden.

Synecdoche, New York is relentlessly bleak. That in and of itself is not a problem but it eliminates any joy that might result in unraveling Kaufman's mind-benders. The director doesn't want viewers to enjoy themselves watching this movie. It is meant to be uncomfortable and challenging and, assuming those to be his objectives, he succeeds. Kaufman's previous films ventured along the razor's edge separating ponderous from insightful, but always had a strong enough narrative to anchor them. Here, any pretense at a coherent plot is jettisoned midway through the proceedings. We're left with a movie that becomes so bloated and self-important that it's tough to sit through. The final 30 minutes in particular are difficult because, by then, we've lost the connection to Caden. Synecdoche, New York is less a movie than a series of disjointed meditations on art, death, and the connection between the two. Viewers who love to ascribe meaning to the cryptic will have a field day. To me, it seems more like weirdness for weirdness' sake.

I walked out of Synecdoche, New York feeling frustrated and a little cheated. If I look hard enough, I'm sure I could find something meaningful in this wreckage of a motion picture, but I don't feel compelled to dig through the detritus. Kaufman is inviting meaning-seekers to enjoy his masturbatory ride. He has sacrificed plot, character, and logic on the altar of self-aggrandizement. Yes, parts of the film work. Individual scenes are funny, or poignant, or thought-provoking. But the picture as a whole is a mess. Some will call this art. I'll content myself with thinking of it as an ambitious misstep by a creative individual who failed to realize what he was trying to represent.

Time to wrap up this year's coverage. The roster of TIFF 2008 films was universally regarded as being more "low key" than what was offered in recent years, meaning that Hollywood kept many of its big fall guns holstered. No matter - there was plenty to enjoy, and one of the benefits of fewer recognizable titles is a greater opportunity for discovery. On balance, I would have to say I enjoyed this year's schedule as much as I did last year's. And there certainly wasn't the kind of precipitous drop-off in quality that caused me to revolt against Sundance following the 2001 edition of that festival.

Three films are guaranteed to make splashes later this year when they reach U.S. theaters. Slumdog Millionaire won the Cadillac People's Choice Award and will receive undiluted enthusiasm (and possibly a Best Picture Oscar nomination) when it opens in a multiplex near you. The Wrestler opened eyes and gained a distributor. This film also has Oscar aspirations, and not just in the Best Picture category (also Best Actor for Mickey Rourke). It will be coming to an art house near you, probably in December. The Hurt Locker is a superior thriller. As yet, there's no release date, and this probably isn't an Oscar contender, but it will eventually reach theaters.

I saw two superior films that will likely never achieve North American theatrical distribution, although there's a good chance one or both of them will be available at local film festivals. They are Mark of an Angel (a French offering) and Once Upon a Time in Brazil.

Bad films are less worth mentioning than disappointing ones. Movies that didn't live up to my expectations included Miracle at St. Anna, Good, Pride and Glory, and Religulous. The worst film I saw at this year's festival may be the worst film I have ever seen in Toronto, and that's saying a lot. It's called Gigantic, and purports to be a romantic comedy starring Paul Dano and Zooey Deschanel. The writing his horrible, Dano sleepwalks his way through it, there's no evidence of sexual or romantic chemistry, and the production has a cheap, shabby look. I didn't write anything about this movie because it will likely never be shown beyond Toronto and spending more than a few words on it is a depressing prospect.

So keep an eye out for Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, and The Hurt Locker. Also worth looks are The Brothers Bloom, Burn After Reading, Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Rachel Getting Married, I've Loved You So Long, and Happy Go Lucky. Those are the films that brightened the last 10 days in Toronto and will offer hours of pleasure for movie-goers this fall.