Toronto Film Festival Update #9

September 12, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

(Note: I have been asked by several readers to discuss the incident that occurred last week involving Roger Ebert and Lou Lumenick. However, while I was present at the screening and in fact was sitting rather near to Mr. Ebert, I did not personally witness anything. Therefore, I will refrain from commenting and allow those involved to make statements if they deem them necessary and appropriate. My sense is that the incident has been blown significantly out-of-proportion. There's no reason why this should have become a news item. It is not, in my view, news-worthy. And that's all I have to say.)

People don't normally consider weather to be an important consideration with regard to a film festival but, even though movies are generally viewed indoors, it's far from irrelevant. There's nothing worse than having to sit through a two hour movie in damp clothing, or wearing too little in a chilly theater or too much in a stuffy one. There have been years in the past when the film festival has been held in unseasonable heat or record-low cold. This year, the weather can best be described as "blah." It has been a little cooler than normal and many days have offered fitful periods of rain. Not great weather for tourism but just fine for sitting in auditoriums watching movies. Still, fascinated by weather as I am, I have paid as much attention to Hanna, Ike, and Josephine as I have to the free-fall of the Phillies. Here in Toronto, we received a little of Gustav's remnants, but Hanna passed well east. Still, I was on the phone with my wife Saturday getting updates from her. Ultimately, where I live, Hanna dumped enough rain to turn my grass green again, but it didn't come close to what happened with Floyd in 1999 (while I was at the festival). Now, I'm watching Ike's progress but, since I don't live in Texas (although my wife and I both have relatives there), it's more with distant empathy than immediate concern.

Here's a movie worth braving any kind of weather for: The Hurt Locker, from Kathryn Bigelow, may be the first movie set against the backdrop of the Iraq War with absolutely no political agenda. The film doesn't care if the invasion and occupation are right or wrong or moral or immoral. All that matters is that the troops are there, they have a job to do, and the most important thing for every man is to get to the end of his tour of duty alive and relatively intact. This is an action movie, pure and simple. The Americans and their allies are the "good guys" (relatively speaking, that is) and the insurgents are the "bad guys." It doesn't get any deeper than that. The result is a riveting, white-knuckle experience that boasts a number of unforgettable action sequences. The characters at the focus of this film are bomb technicians, and trying to defuse a bomb while being pinned down by sniper fire is about as nerve-wracking a job as one can have in the military.

The Hurt Locker boasts names like Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, and David Morse in its cast, but those well-known actors only have small roles. The real stars are Jeremy Renner (as James), Anthony Mackie (as Sanborn), and Brian Geraghty (as Owen Eldridge). They play three members of a bomb disposal unit working in Baghdad. Sanborn and Owen provide backup and cover; James is the man who works on the explosive. He's a risk-taker, which irritates Sanborn, and he nearly gets himself blown up on more than one occasion because he takes unnecessary chances.

This is a tense, well-crafted motion picture that keeps viewers on edge. As it proves during its opening sequence, The Hurt Locker isn't beyond dispatching characters unexpectedly and without fanfare. There are at least seven high-octane sequences, any of which could form the backbone of a tightly plotted feature. Bigelow rolls from one to the next with only brief pauses. Still, despite the focus on suspense and tension, the characters are all well realized and the setting is forcefully developed. More than any recent movie, this has a "you are there" feel to it that gives us a flavor of an Iraq we don't see on the nightly newscasts. (Filming took place in Jordan.)

To these men, tactical objectives are irrelevant. It's all about counting down the days until the tour of duty is over. The insurgents are one enemy; with them, it's kill or be killed. The other enemy is the explosive devices, and they are even less forgiving. In a way, this movie reminded me of the old British TV mini-series, Danger UXB in the way it depicts the struggle between man and bomb. One wrong move, and there's no chance to try again. The movie was picked up at the festival for United States distribution, so nearly everyone reading this will have a chance to experience one of 2008's most compelling thrillers in a theater.

After seeing The Hurt Locker, I changed gears and sat down to watch the Bill Maher/Larry David collaboration, Religulous. The success of the film may be based on expectations. If you are a deeply religious person, this is guaranteed to offend. If you're neither especially religious or irreligious, you'll probably get a few good laughs. However, if you're a member of the choir to which Maher is preaching, you may find this to be an especially shallow and uninteresting motion picture. It doesn't do anything provocative. It's a 90-minute, comically-tinged rant against religion that offers selectively edited interviews with ringers. Maher's thesis is that religion is irrational and dangerous, and that's not exactly groundbreaking material. I happen to agree with a lot of what he says, but I was not at all impressed by the way he goes about saying it. Those who are offended by this film have a right to feel that way - the movie cheats and, by cheating, trivializes the very message it attempts to promote.

Religulous combines short monologues by Maher with interviews to illustrate nearly every conceivable negative associated with religion and to highlight the inconsistencies that believers ignore (or which do not appear as inconsistencies to them). There are no meaningful dialogues on potentially thought-provoking topics such as faith, the separation of Church and State in the United States, and how religions view one another. More than 50% of the movie ridicules Christianity, leaving scant time for Judaism and Islam. Relatively minor sects/cults like Mormonism and Scientology are addressed while major religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are completely ignored.

In picking his interview subjects, Maher has largely elected to go with fringe figures rather than those who might engage him in a thoughtful and spirited debate. His talk with the Christian head of the Human Genome Project is brief and unenlightening. Mark Pryor, a Democrat Senator from Arkansas, might rank as the dumbest member of the U.S. government based on his interview. The fact is, however, that Maher follows in the footsteps of Michael Moore and Ben Stein by editing interviews in ways that serve his thesis. Many viewers of Religulous will be aware that what they're viewing has been sanitized and scrubbed to Maher's specifications.

While the film is an utter failure as a documentary (it's more of a visual op-ed piece), it has moments of genuinely funny comedy. There are times when the inserted movie and video clips are inspired choices and some of Maher's tongue-in-cheek sarcasm is effective. On the whole, however, the occasional chuckles provoked by the movie don't make up for its sloppy, less-than-rigorous examination of an issue that deserves something more exhaustive. If the subject of religion is as important to Maher as he claims during his end comments, then he should have followed those words with actions and made a movie that's more than a sum of inauthentic interviews, ranting attacks, and obvious observations. The choir may hum along with Maher but the rest of those watching this movie will be singing the blues.