Toronto Film Festival Update #4

September 07, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

The only thing needed more at a film festival than a large supply of coffee is an equally generous abundance of volunteers. Without them, chaos would reign supreme, fistfights would break out from line cutting violations, and the festival would collapse. Toronto lines up an army of volunteers. At times, it seems there are more people wearing the identifying green shirts than there are patrons. It's interesting that, during the early days of the festival, newbie volunteers are more clueless than veteran movie-goers, and those of us who "know the ropes" offer helpful tips. The baptism by fire typically comes Friday night, when the crowds arrive in force. After that, the new volunteers have come up to speed and the rest of the festival moves smoothly. Of interest, but not necessarily germane to any point I might make is that an overwhelming majority of the volunteers are female. Does that mean that women are naturally more giving to charitable causes than men? Maybe that's a good topic for someone's psychology thesis. At any rate, here's to the volunteers, even when they make mistakes. After all, they're doing some tedious grunt work and dealing with irate customers for the measly price of a ticket voucher.

I have now entered the mainstream mixed bag territory. It's odd how a film for which I had modest expectations turned out to be a rousing success while films from which I anticipated more ended up nearly putting me to sleep. (I am proud not to have dozed off during either, especially considering that I was unfortified with coffee.)

Slumdog Millionaire comes from director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who fashion what is at heart a romance into a mystery and a thriller with Dickensian undertones. It's tough not to think of David Copperfield when we see the "orphanage" to which the film's main character is consigned during his youth. What's more, this filmmaking team has found a new and inventive way to approach the storyline that not only invigorates the material but adds a whole new layer to it.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is a poor boy from the slums of Mumbai who finds himself center stage opposite a smug host being watched by 90 million people on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Improbably, Jamal is able to answer question after question, answering the penultimate query and earning 10 million rupees just as time runs out for the episode. The next day, he will return with a chance at the biggest prize. However, that night, the police take Jamal in for questioning, certain that he has cheated. After being tortured, he explains to them how he knew the answer to every question. This results in a flashback-rich tour of Jamal's life and the two recurring characters in it: his violent brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal), and the girl he loves, Latika (Freida Pinto). Growing up together, they were the "Three Musketeers" until circumstances tore them apart. It soon becomes apparent that Slumdog Millionaire isn't actually about how Jamal did so well on a TV game show, but whether there will be a happy ending to his found her-lost her-found her-lost her-found her- lost her relationship with Latika. With Garry Marshall, a happy ending would be mandatory, but Danny Boyle isn't nearly as conventional.

The film has all the elements necessary to make it a major winner when it enters general release. It's superbly acted, wonderfully photographed, and contains enough English not to chase away the subtitle-phobic. The story works on multiple levels - it can be seen as a sweeping romance, as a thriller, or as a glimpse at the ways in which a fast-developing economy is convulsing the fabric of Indian society. Some of the film's funniest and most satirical scenes occur within a massive call bank where customer service operatives try to convince callers that they are not, in fact, located in a foreign country.

Some films keep viewers on the outside looking in, able to appreciate the production in technical terms but not on other, more basic levels. This is not the case with Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle's feature draws the viewer in, immersing him in a fast-moving, engaging narrative featuring a protagonist who is so likeable it's almost unfair. The movie has moments of heartbreak and tragedy but it is ultimately uplifting and contains pretty much all the instances an audience will want. Boyle has come a long way to get to this point from Shallow Grave and Trainspotting but, after experiencing the pleasure of Slumdog Millionaire, I'm glad it's a road he has elected to take. ("I am located just around the corner from you, Ma'am…")

Would that I could be as positive about Spike Lee. Recently, Lee has been in the news feuding with Clint Eastwood about the absence of black servicemen in Eastwood's recent Iwo Jima duology. One could argue that Lee's reason for making his complaint public was little more than a publicity stunt for Miracle at St. Anna, the controversial filmmaker's World War II tale about black soldiers in the European theater. Knowing Lee to be as passionate as he is outspoken, I prefer to think his words are reflective of his feelings rather than just sound bytes useful for the promotion of a film. Maybe the distributor (Disney/Touchstone) feels otherwise.

Miracle at St. Anna is historical fiction based on the novel by James McBride (who wrote the screenplay). It follows four members of the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers caught behind enemy lines in a small village in Tuscany during the waning days of the war. The Germans have become desperate and are turning against their Italian allies and the spillover of this conflict reaches all the way into the seemingly remote hiding place where Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Cummings (Michael Ealy), Corporal Negron (Laz Alonso), and Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) are hiding out, awaiting extraction. While there, they share some quiet moments with the locals, care for a boy rescued by Train from a collapsing building, and prepare for the inevitable that will accompany the arrival of the Germans.

Lee emphasizes the prejudice experienced by black soldiers during the second World War in ways both subtle and obvious. One character tellingly remarks that he "feels more free in a foreign country" than at home. Sex between a black man and a white woman is not the taboo in Tuscany that it would have been in the United States. The arguments presented in Miracle at St. Anna are not dissimilar to those in Glory, although there's an 80 year gap between the time periods reflected in the movies. Lee arguably becomes too heavy-handed with his decision to make a commanding officer a one-note racist. It's easy enough to understand why Lee pounds the pulpit so hard, since stories of black wartime heroism are few and far between.

Miracle at St. Anna is overlong and poorly focused. It tends to meander, the military context is not well established, and too much time is spent on interaction with underdeveloped secondary characters. The bookending sequences which take place in 1984 get the movie off to a rousing start but provide a weak ending and ultimately prove unnecessary and perhaps even detrimental to the story as a whole. On the other hand, there are three exceptionally powerful sequences: an event early in the proceedings in which members of the 92nd must face a verbal barrage from propagandist "Axis Sally" as they approach an engagement, a German massacre at a church, and the final battle against improbable odds. There's enough energy in those scenes to indicate what Miracle at St. Anna could have been. Because of the subject matter, it's impossible not to admire what Lee has wrought here, and the evident passion with which it has been brought to the screen. However, the realization is flawed, and those flaws make this 160-minute epic feel a little too much like an ordeal.

It would be difficult to find a more different film from Miracle at St. Anna than The Duchess. However, in the end, I felt much the same about them. Both were longer than they needed to be, boasted superior acting and set design, and failed to engage me on a visceral level. The Duchess has the added disadvantage of seeming like about a dozen Masterpiece Theater productions I have seen over the years. It's a period piece lover's period piece, and will probably only be appreciated by those who don't mind seeing an overly familiar story re-hashed in a way that could hardly be considered fresh or invigorating. As lovely as it is to look at and as effectively as the cast works, I found The Duchess to be not only slow but borderline inert and possessing a dramatic power that makes the similarly-themed The Other Boleyn Girl seem like a powerhouse.

Keira Knightley plays Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire. Married to the Duke (Ralph Fiennes in a one-dimensional portrayal of glum repression) before the age of 18, Georgiana becomes a favorite daughter of late 18th century England (dubbed "The Empress of Fashion") and uses her popularity to advance the political causes of the Whig party. Behind the scenes, however, things aren't cheerful. Georgiana has presented William with two daughters but not the sought-after son. His patience wearing thin, he takes her by force in an attempt to impregnate her. Meanwhile, he has also cultivated a mistress (Hayley Atwell) under the same roof as Georgiana. Applying the "sauce for a goose" proverb, she begins an affair with rising political star Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but learns that in the man's world of the 1780s, her options are much more limited than her husband's.

Director Saul Dibb does what British directors always seem to do with unimpeachable expertise: recreate a lost era. His actors are top-notch, the set design is error-free, and the movie in general feels like it was lensed via a time machine. If only it was a little more energetic and interesting… Maybe it's just that the story feels so familiar. It's not just the lack of originality, but the lack of presenting old themes and elements in ways that at least trick the viewer into thinking they're fresh. This is Masterpiece recycled. There is a Harlequin romance aspect to it and anyone largely unfamiliar with British period pieces will be duly impressed, but there are few moments during the course of The Dutchess when I didn't feel as if I was watching a re-run. That might be okay for TV viewing, but it's less-than-desirable in a movie theater.

Today's "buried treasure" pick is The Mark of an Angel, from French director Safy Nebbou. A study of shifting psychological balance, the film provides a perspective of a character that gradually shifts as new information is revealed to the viewer. Nebbou has taken a true event and embellished it in such a way that it becomes the underpinning for a fascinating examination of one character and her potentially tenuous grip on reality. Catherine Frot is Elsa, a drug store clerk who is in the process of divorcing her husband and whose past problems with depression endanger her likelihood to retain custody of her son. Elsa's problems stem from the death of her infant daughter in a hospital fire seven years ago. When she sees a little girl at a birthday party attended by her son, she becomes obsessed by a belief that, somehow, the girl is actually her dead daughter. Her first move is to meet the girl's mother, Claire (Sandrine Bonnaire). After that, she begins to insert herself into Claire's life. But her insistence and the inappropriateness of some of her actions transform her from helpful to creepy and her actions take on stalker-like characteristics. Certainly, The Mark of an Angel is not mainstream fare, but it is compelling and challenging, and it weaves a spell that's impossible to ignore or evade. I strongly recommend this to anyone who gets a chance to see it. (It currently has no U.S. distributor, but is the kind of movie that could end up with a limited run in major U.S. cities sometime in the next 12 months. It will also eventually be out on DVD in France.)