Toronto Film Festival Update #3

September 06, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

A quasi-scandal had grabbed some attention this year, and it highlights the fine line that film festivals walk when balancing the desire to program creative, interesting movies with the need to generate as much publicity as possible. By veering a little too far into the realm of overmarketing, the 2008 festival has fallen into the web of none-other than Mistress Media Whore Herself, Paris Hilton - the woman who is famous for being famous and is a celebrity because she's rich and courts the paparazzi. Hilton has appeared in several mainstream movies but her best-known role is something called One Night in Paris. You won't find it reviewed on this site, although I'm tempted to say it's more compelling than The Hottie and the Nottie. At any rate, Ms. Hilton is the featured subject of a new "documentary" called Paris, Not France, which is no doubt deep and probing. It was due to show at this year's festival, and that's where the intrigue begins.

Word began circulating on Wednesday that the movie had been pulled from the Toronto schedule due to an unspecified lawsuit. The rumor, like an urban legend, was short on details, but everyone repeating it was absolutely sure it was true. And, while the press screening and one of the public screenings had been eliminated, there was still a showing next Tuesday evening (at 6:00). Yet the rumor persisted. The truth appears to be that Hilton and the festival conspired to cancel two of the three screenings to create a little hype and increase interest. The bit about the lawsuit is disinformation, but I can assure readers that it is widely believed. For reasons I can't quite pinpoint, I find this incident a little unsavory and disturbing. Call me naïve, but I had believed Toronto to be above this sort of thing. Oh well. Another bubble burst. As long as it doesn't impact my screening experiences, it doesn't bother me… much.

I was going to write a little about the Coen Brothers' latest, Burn After Reading, but I decided a better approach was to write the full review (since it opens next weekend) and link to it HERE. That says everything I would have written in this space, and a little more.

There are a couple of road trip movies out there. The first is the teen-oriented Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, which is being marketed as 2008's answer to Juno. It isn't, but that's because it was never intended to be, although a co-starring role for Michael Cera makes it impossible to ignore last year's surprise indie hit. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is shaped more like a kinder, gentle After Hours with a little Before Sunrise thrown in for good measure. It's a romantic comedy for the iPod generation and has a soundtrack that will threaten to be heard in greater numbers than those who see the movie.

The premise is simple enough. Nick (Cera) is still pining after his ex-girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dziena, the naked girl from Broken Flowers), long after she dumped him. One Friday night, his buddies drag him out on the town (the "town" being New York City) in search of the secret site where his favorite band, Where's Fluffy, is playing a gig. Also going on this treasure hunt is Norah (Kat Dennings), who has a sort-of long-distance crush on Nick. Nick and Norah end up at the same club as Tris, who begins to toss verbal darts at Norah about her not having a boyfriend. Norah impulsively retorts that she has one, and thereafter nominates Nick for the role by the nonplused guy on the lips. Tris is shocked and her interest in Nick is re-kindled now that he suddenly seems interesting again. Meanwhile, Nick and Norah, forced together by circumstances, go in search not only of Where's Fluffy, but Norah's drunk friend Caroline (Ari Graynor), who is missing in Manhattan.

At its heart, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is a romantic comedy, and it never loses sight of that. To that end, it does the two most important things any such film must do: gets us to like the characters as individuals and to like them even more as a couple. There's ample chemistry between laid-back Nick and spunky Norah, and the two are given sufficient screen time together to allow it to smolder and smoke before catching fire. The relationship develops as the characters roll through a series of comically tinged misadventures before solidifying during the last 20 minutes when Nick and Norah, alone at last, are allowed to have their Before Sunrise moments.

The dialogue is witty enough to separate Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist from the rom-com continuum of dumb screenplays, but not so witty that it will receive a Diablo Cody-level backlash. Director Peter Sollett, adapting from Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's novel, adeptly fashions a movie that will appeal to both mainstream movie-goers and those who demand a little more. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is fresh without being alien and fun without being moronic. There are perhaps a few too many secondary characters and subplots and I could have done without the story of the traveling chewing gum. (Cautionary note: next time you swap gum with anyone, be sure you know where it has been.) Overall, however, it's hard to deny that the film is able to touch both the heart and the funny bone. Combine that with two winning lead performances and a top-notch soundtrack, and it's hard not to be bullish about Nick and Norah's city-bound roadtrip in a Yugo.

Another road trip movie playing at this year's festival is more conventional. If one was to apply loose definitions, The Lucky Ones could be considered a "war movie." In reality, however, this is less about how the characters react under fire than how they react when removed from it. The Lucky Ones is, as previously stated, a road movie and, in the tradition of the genre, it follows a small group of protagonists on a journey from Point A to Point B. Along the way, they encounter difficulties, meet "colorful" individuals, and find out a few things about themselves. There are times when the framework appears creaky and unwieldy, especially considering the story that director Neil Burger wants to tell, and events near the end of the movie take contrivance to the point of absurdity. However, the characters are likeable and well-developed, and this goes a long way toward mitigating problems that exist in tone and plotting.

Cheever (Tim Robbins), Colee (Rachel McAdams), and TK (Michael Peña) are on their way home from serving in Iraq. All have suffered injuries. Cheever's back required surgery, Colee was shot in the leg, and TK was hit in the groin by shrapnel. For Cheever, this marks the end of his stint in the army. He's looking forward to returning to a quiet life as a civilian. For Colee and TK, it's a one-month respite before they return to active duty. They meet on a plane to New York, and end up carpooling when their outbound flights from JFK are indefinitely delayed. Their ultimate goal: Las Vegas. Colee is headed there to return her dead boyfriend's guitar to his family. TK is hoping to visit a "high priced specialist" who may be able to cure the impotence resulting from his wound. And Cheever needs $20,000 so his son can attend Stanford - casino tables beckon.

As with all road trip movies, this one is constructed as a series of vignettes, some of which are more compelling than others. These include a car accident, a visit to a church, a barroom brawl, an encounter with a tornado (complete with unconvincing special effects), and a kinky encounter for Cheever that he's not broad-minded enough to accept. As is common with films of this genre, what happens at the destination is less interesting than the little detours and side-trips that occur along the way. The weakest aspect of The Lucky Ones is by far the conclusion, which feels a little flat and contrived.

By excising questions about the morality of the situation from the narrative, The Lucky Ones is able to focus on the characters. The film is neither anti-war nor pro-war. It accepts the war as a fact and endeavors to show how it impacts the lives of those whose lives are touched by it. The problems Burger encounters have nothing to do with the way he handles the war; they relate to the unevenness with which he represents their journey.

It would be remiss of me not to mention one of the "hidden treasures" I discovered yesterday - a film that may well not get U.S. distribution but is worth seeking out if it does or if it subsequently becomes available on DVD. The title in question is Once Upon a Time in Rio, a Brazilian production from director Breno Silveira. The movie explores the gang warfare and class divisions within Rio, where workers who dwell in the slums do all the menial jobs for the upper class who live in luxurious condos overlooking the pristine Ipanema beach. This is the backdrop for a "Romeo and Juliet"-themed love story between a white, upper class girl, Nina (Vitoria Frate), and a darker-skinned boy from the slums, De (Thiago Martins). The key to Silveira's success is that he takes the time to develop the romance and he does so in a credible manner. We know the film is not going to end well - it is clear from the beginning that this is a tragedy not a fairy tale (and there's plenty of foreshadowing) - but we become involved in the lives of the characters. The ending perhaps has one coil too many, but that's a relatively minor quibble about one of the best films I have seen thus far in Toronto, and the only one that caused a lump in my throat as I left the theater.