Toronto Film Festival Update #6

September 09, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Watching movie after movie after movie in sequence throughout this film festival, a thought has occurred to me: Where have the opening credits gone? As recent as ten years ago, the norm was for every movie to have opening credits. When exceptions occurred (as with all of the credits at the end and only a title at the beginning), they were rare and typically reserved for "prestige" movies. Today, films are increasingly adopting the end-of-the-film approach to credits. Of the more mainstream pictures I have seen in Toronto, I can only recall one or two that provide the names of the actors and director before the story has been told. This change won't necessarily be obvious to the occasional movie-goer, or even to someone who sees a film per week. But, when watching about 30 pictures in rapid succession, it's impossible to overlook. Just an observation.

As I sat awaiting the screening of Good to start, someone nearby mentioned: "Viggo Mortensen and Nazis - how can you go wrong?" Let me count the ways…

Good tells the story of a "good" German who is seduced into the Nazi party because being a member offers greater opportunities for advancement and because he has an inflated opinion of how he might be able to influence policy from within. Of course, it's a slippery slope and, by selectively turning a blind eye to certain aspects of Hitler's agenda (in particular, the virulence of the anti-Semitism), he ends up becoming a part of the problem. The film can be viewed on a purely historical level or it can be seen as a commentary about current events (what happens when "good" people do not stand against the "evil" policies of their government). Regardless of how it is interpreted, however, the film's title cannot be seen as a commentary about its quality.

The story starts in 1933 as the Third Reich is in ascendency. Halder (Mortensen), a university professor, is invited to write a paper for Hitler about "the case for mercy death on the grounds of humanity." By accepting this offer, Halder embarks upon a path that will end with him divorcing his wife and marrying a much younger Aryan woman, Anne (Jodie Whittaker), and gaining an honorary SS commission. This does not sit well with Halder's best friend, a Jewish psychologist named Maurice (Jason Issacs). As things become more dangerous for Jews in Germany, Maurice approaches Halder for exit papers but the professor is unwilling to risk his own standing to save his friend.

For a movie that's supposed to be about the subtlety of the transition from repugnance to willful ignorance, Good is anything but subtle. Characters are two-dimensional with obvious, easily delineated personality characteristics. Complexity is only hinted at, never explored. Halder comes across as a dullard, in part because of the way in which he's written and in part because of the way the role is performed. It's hard to believe that a man in his position could have his head embedded so deeply in the sand. There's a plot device (a delusion that Halder has of random people lip synching to a phonograph song) that is ill-advised. It also seems that only about half the narrative has been filmed. The movie ends abruptly in 1942, so events that occur after the war has concluded are absent. One could argue that this might have offered the potential for more compelling drama that what is provided here by director Vincente Amorim.

Over the years, there have been numerous complex stories about survival in Nazi Germany by those who joined the party for a variety of reasons, those who fought against Hitler from within, and those who were marginalized during his time in power. Good lacks the complexity, emotional depth, and historical scope of many of those tales. There is moral ambiguity but it is presented in a facile manner, and the shock of recognition that closes the movie is too quick and too pat a resolution. Schindler's List provided an effective perspective of the turmoil afflicting a German citizen torn by a love of country and a horror of the Nazis' programs, and exhibited a deftness of touch that entirely eludes Good. Viggo Mortensen looks the part but never brings it home with great conviction or passion. I never believed in the character and that greatly diminished the film's ability to argue its ethical case.

Ghost Town is one of those romantic comedies that never quite clicks. At times, its humor is effective, provoking chuckles and laughs. At other times, the comedy feels forced and awkward. The romantic element is equally hit-and-miss. The chemistry that emerges between the leads during the film's second half is largely absent from the first 45 minutes. And the premise, rich with promise and pregnant with possibilities, is reduced to a plot device that allows Ghost Town to turn into a low-rent, modern-day version of A Christmas Carol.

The movie's opening scene is a winner, with philanderer Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) having a phone conversation with his wife, Gwen (Téa Leoni), who has just discovered he's having an affair. Frank wraps up the call just as the curtain falls on his time on Earth. Director David Koepp orchestrates his end brilliantly, with a sleight-of-hand that is both funny and surprising. However, instead of making his way to the next life, Frank finds himself stuck in Manhattan as a ghost. He can see and hear everything, but is invisible and unable to do more than observe. Enter Bertram Pincus, D.D.S. (Ricky Gervais), the most unpleasant dentist in the city.

Something unfortunate happens to Bertram during a routine colonoscopy. He has a bad reaction to the anesthesia and "dies." The hospital staff is able to revive him and he's released in good condition, but there's an unfortunate side-effect: Bertram, like a plus-sized, British version of Haley Joel Osment, can see dead people. As soon as they realize they have a connection to the world of the living, the ghosts converge on Bertram. Frank offers him a deal: do one thing for him and Frank will make sure the ghosts leave Bertram alone. Gwen is about to marry someone who Frank believes is after her only because of her money, so the goal is for Bertram to foil the union. Predictably, the rest of the film is about Bertram falling for Gwen and how the dentist's interaction with the dead transforms him into a better person. God bless us, every one.

Ghost Town's comedy is maddeningly inconsistent. Masterful sequences such as the opening one in which Frank meets his demise are interspersed with episodes that not only don't work on a comedic level, but run on for too long. Those who take a glass half-full approach to Ghost Town will probably enjoy it the most. There is romance, there is comedy, and there is a feel-good ending. For some, those things will be enough, and the fact that they're not as well developed or effectively nurtured as they might be will not be a significant detraction. Ultimately, however, the movie cries out for an offbeat approach such as the one Marc Forster utilized in Stranger than Fiction. Ghost Town's unwillingness to escape from a safe orbit keeps the movie trapped in mediocrity.

Moving on from the dead to the living… Filmmakers love weddings (probably more than many people do). The reasons are obvious: so many characters, so much potential for drama and romance, so many things that can go wrong. Weddings are also events that most people, in one way or another (whether as a guest or a participant) can identify with. Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme's contribution to this field, uses a wedding and its attendant chaos as the backdrop for a character-based story about a young woman struggling to remain clean after emerging from rehab. Told in a simple, spare style that imitates Lars von Trier's Dogma initiative, Rachel Getting Married is anything but simple in the way it explores the complexities and contradictions of the lead character. At times, the movie gets bogged down in minutia but the emotions evoked and captured are as honest and brutal as one is likely to find captured on film.

Kym (a brilliant, career-redefining performance by Anne Hathaway) has arrived home from rehab on the day before the wedding of her older sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). A junkie since her teens, Kym has been clean for nine months, but her sobriety has not altered her basic personality. Kym is flamboyant and self-centered, but there is a deep core of pain and guilt within her that no amount of bluster and bravado can entirely conceal. Her overprotective father (Bill Irwin) hovers around her like a mother hen. She causes a scene when she learns that Rachel has chosen her best friend, Emma (Anisa George), to be the maid of honor. And she looks forward to the rehearsal dinner so she can be reunited with her superficial mother (Debra Winger).

The wedding might be all about Rachel, but the movie is all about Kym. She is a complicated, volatile individual with obvious bipolar tendencies. Her instability provides a source of dramatic tension, but it never feels forced or artificial. Gradually, Jenny Lumet's screenplay unveils the source of Kym's pain, and a stinging confrontation with her mother brings it all home. By the end of the movie, the viewer may not like her (she can be mean, spiteful, and self-absorbed - not exactly likeable qualities), but understanding comes with this kind of candid, unexpurgated examination. As a bonus, the storyline does not veer into the overused cliché one often expects from a film centered upon a recovering addict.

Movies about weddings tend to highlight quirky characters and resort to facile resolutions. Neither flaw is evident here. The participants are real and the unanswered questions echo what life often provides. Rachel Getting Married is not a happy movie, but neither does it wallow in unrelieved bleakness. There's an element of hope in the ending and there are moments of understated humor sprinkled throughout. For those who enjoy character studies that explore the nature of pain and guilt, this is a solid drama, and would make a nice, down-to-earth pairing with Mike Leigh's latest, Happy-Go-Lucky (discussed in Monday's column, #5).