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Toronto Film Festival 2008 (Day 3)
by Erik Childress

Saturday morning and afternoon was either going to be brimming with possible discoveries and potential Oscar contenders or it was going to be a lull of dramatic hooey wrapped in historical fact-fudging and Babel-ing time shifts. If it would turn out to be the latter then I would certainly welcome Bill Maher and Larry Charlesí Religulous to end the evening so I could join in on renouncing God for not saving us from all the cinematic sins bestowed upon movie patrons this year. Save your angry e-mails. You havenít even seen the movie yet.

During a pivotal point in Flash of Genius (based on the trials of Robert Kearns vs. the Ford Motor Company), the plaintiff, representing himself, counters testimony with the words of Charles Dickens. ďIt was the best of times. It was the worst of times,Ē and so on. His implication was to challenge Fordís claim that the pieces Kearns used to create the intermittent windshield wiper were already in place and he didnít invent anything new. None of the letter groupings that Dickens used could be considered his ďown wordsĒ either. He just found a new way to use them in a manner that had never been used before, or as in Kearns case, never worked before. Ironic for Flash of Genius to take that approach as itís an underdog story weíve seen innumerable times before. Same parts. Same assembly. Not quite the spark.

When youíre watching a true story like this, thereís a rail it usually runs upon that keeps the story moving like those family car rides you find at a Six Flags. Itís the driver who tends to floor it and try to break free of that rail who manages to create something of cinematic value rather than just tell a somewhat interesting story. Despite everyone loving an all-American fighting the corporations, itís one thing to invent a whole car like Preston Tucker and another to just improve a windshield wiper. And the film functions in much the same way as Kearns innovation. The first half-hour consists of idea, execution and the seeds of a deal with Ford planted. Wipe. Then comes the falling out, the realization that heís been screwed and a quick dissent into potential madness in his search for justice, catching us up to the opening scene where an unshaven Kearns has boarded a bus in hopes to speaking with ďthe Vice President.Ē Wipe. The third half-hour deals with his second wind, finding new avenues to take on the bigwigs at the expense of seeing his family fall apart. Wipe. Then the final half-hour (probably one too many) that deals with the trial and resolution where Dickens words are used; one side of the wipe or the other, best or worst, but no setting for average. In-between the wipes there are attempts to reconcile the family unit, frequent visits from a corporate bagman upping a settlement offer and a two-scene Alan Alda appearance that seemed like a prologue to a similar role Iíll see later in the festival. Flash of Genius is not a bad movie. Marc Abraham has been producing films for Universal for years and has finally been rewarded with his own directorial effort but not a script above the movie-of-the-week level.

OSCAR EYE ALERT: If youíve seen some on the online ads for Flash of Genius you may think you had someone missed this yearís Oscars. Where were the nominations? Who hosted? When did Flash of Genius even open?

Heís already WON? Wow, good for Kinnear. I like the guy. Fine actor. Great comic timing in Little Miss Sunshine. Underseen in Auto Focus. Great story going from TV host to respected actor. Would love to see him nominated some day. Itís not going to be for this though. Which, naturally, would prevent Larry Kingís statement from being true. Nothing against Kinnearís performance, but the film is likely to be forgotten by November.

Flash of Genius

While the last film didnít exactly deliver on its titular promise, The Burning Plain certainly opens with such. A trailer home in the middle of the plain is engulfed in flames, burning before our very eyes in the very first shot. But as this is a film written by Guillermo Arriaga, instinctually we know that this isnít the beginning. Playing catch-up is Arriagaís specialty, having penned the Inarritu trifecta of Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel and maybe the best of them all, the underseen Tommy Lee Jones film, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Round and round we go the timeline, settling at first on Charlize Theronís Sylvia whoís casual trysts with men make you think sheís got one of Staplesí Easy Buttons attached to her body. Her frequent nakedness kind of disposes that theory unless itís right above the holiest of holies. Sylvia is clearly some kind of a mess, contemplating suicide and cutting herself. Before you can even ask why that Mexican is following her and refusing sex as payment for driving her home, weíre going back to her teenage years where her mommy (Kim Basinger) had her own Mexican on the side whom she would meet at a trailer out on the plain. Oooooooooohhhhh. What could possibly have happened?

It doesnít take a DeLorean to connect the dots to the fire, no matter how many subplots and timeshifts Arriaga has to disorient us. My rule of thumb for a film like this is determining how it would play as a straight narrative. Would the filmís drama succeed without the tricks used to puzzle us or to fold the thematic connections it wants to make for easy consumption by the audience? In the case of The Burning Plain, the answer is a resounding no. All the intrigue we have about the older Sylvia is lost the more time we spend in the past. We never feel the influence of the forbidden love or how the eventual parting left the hole in the rest of her life. The revelation of the fire (never in doubt) becomes an unconvincing balance of revenge, psychosis and regret all within seconds of each other. Theron creates such intrigue in a performance of very few words in the early scenes that itís a shame how forgotten it becomes the longer we spend on standard affairs and base racial tensions in the past. Arriagaís attempt with poignant reconnections at the end canít strike the emotional footnote it wants at the fade as heís muddled it up trying to get us to make all the obvious connections from the previous 100 minutes.

The Burning Plain

Say, did you know that in the 18th century there were arranged marriages? Can you believe that those marriages were often unhappy ones with the more powerful male taking up any number of mistresses? Ever hear that inside baseball that the husbands wanted their trophy wives to deliver them sons so they could have a male heir? Bet you never knew that, right? Well, Saul Dibbís The Duchess presents its story as if these are all new concepts to us. We already had one Other Boleyn Girl this year, but even as the occasional blip of droll humor in this new film breaks up the monotony and ďtell me something I donít knowĒ developments, itís still quite a dullardís affair. Keira Knightley is Georgiana Cavendish who married the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) in 1774. Sheís an active sign, heís a bored sign. She likes to mix it up with and entertain his political counterparts. Heíd rather entertain himself and mix it up with the help. Whatever will happen when Georgiana moves her best friend into the house; a down-on-her-luck society gal who looks like Hayley Atwell? Oh so she still harbors feelings for the tool from Mamma Mia and SHEíS the bad guy? Are we watching the new 90210 or the story of one of the more celebrated women of power of her time? A woman whose family lineage leaked into modern times in the form of one Princess Diana? All of Georgianaís brief moments of excellence in The Duchess barely qualify as subplotting since it all comes back to just one relationship or another causing strife. In other words, just another modern trip through 18th century feminism that canít do it justice.

The Duchess

As the press screening schedule became thinner than Alexis Dziena after killing a gypsy, I booked a few hours over at the press office to catch up on whatever I couldnít fit into my week. I didnít have to trek over to the Ryerson again for Religulous until after 8:00, so hopefully Iíd have a discovery waiting for me, or at least something to boost my decreased viewing total thanks to the festival all but eliminating any screenings later than 8:30. I wonder if some journos complained that they werenít getting their sleepy time after 10:00+ screenings of films like Babel and The Assassination of Jesse James over the years. Donít get me wrong, I was able to squeeze in the occasional public screening that I could get a ticket for in the late evening slot (not to mention a meal, a paragraph or another hour of winks) but I hope next year they revert back to later screenings. If itís such a problem, just do your best to schedule the 90-minute films in the later slots and save the Cheís and Miracle at St. Annaís for earlier in the day, where no doubt there will be complaints for them being too early in the morning. Critics can be such little whiners sometimes. I wonder how many of them the press screening office has to deal with on a daily basis because something isnít available or they have no open stations. Patience is a virtue that tends to be stomped on during a festival schedule, but not from me. When I get a wonky screener at a wonky station like the film Good, I simply exchange it and move on to the next one. Sometimes this can be a blessing in disguise. In later days I would discover from several colleagues that the film wasnít close to living up to its title. At which point I would begin telling them about Cooperís Camera.

Adopting the basic premise that has been used primarily for horror films like Diary of the Dead, Cloverfield and [Rec] (soon to be Quarantine) and Brian DePalmaís overstated Redacted, Cooperís Camera ingeniously brings us back to some of the humble beginnings of home video technology and does it with big, BIG laughs. Taking place over the course of Christmas Day in 1985, the film co-written by Mike Beaver and The Daily Showís Jason Jones, puts the Cooper family on video after they receive their first home movie camera. Jones stars as the family patriarch along with real-life wife and TV co-star, Samantha Bee, and if you take the worst parts of Homer Simpson, Clark Griswold and Peter Griffin you get an idea of who Gord Cooper really is. With his gravelly suburban hick voice and clueless adapting to the times heís living in, Gord is a great comic creation that Jones gets to throw himself into for an additional 80 minutes beyond the usual five he gets on some of The Daily Showís classic bits. Throw in a brotherly feud, some infidelity, hot cousin ogling and Mike Beaver as their own amplified Cousin Eddie and you basically have a much vulgar Christmas Vacation that only stutters a little in the middle when it comes to delivering big laughs. Hopefully this one wonít just get lost on the video shelves as itís funnier than easily 80% of all the comedies released in any calendar year.

Cooperís Camera

After that unexpected bit of joy, I trekked on again over to the Ryerson to see one of my most anticipated films of the festival. A gathering of maybe a dozen protestors were sectioned off in front of the theater, walking in a tiny circle and holding signs condemning the film despite clearly not having a ticket to actually see the damn thing. There were even protestors heckling the protestors; so skeptic that they believed the others were actually hired to hype up the controversy. Seems like the perfect audience for Religulous. During the Q&A afterwards, Maher was asked if he did, in fact, hire the picket line to which he explained, ďif I hired them they wouldnít be so lame.Ē

Bill Maher and Larry Charlesí Religulous was promising to blow the lid off of the dangers of religion in this world. Shooting down myths and exposing the hypocrisies that have usually turned our brothers and sisters against one other instead of into each otherís arms. Maher has never been shy to let loose his feelings on people who believe in the Bibleís stories (as opposed to its teachings) in literal terms; following up on the type of glorious dissection that George Carlin performed on the Ten Commandments and guardian angels. So he took to the road with the director of Borat in tow to potentially discover the meaning of it all. At least thatís one interpretation of the overall mission. Others might see him as just taking his act to the road and exposing the hardcore fanatics to their face. It might be mean-spirited, it might seem smug or elitist picking on guys who dress up as Jesus or those who believe they are the Savior reincarnate. But does Maher make his point? Well, yes and no.

Having been educated through the Catholic school system, Iíve had my fair share of religious studies Ė both of the light and dark periods. So hoping to discover something new in Maherís findings was its own exercise in faith. Serious followers are not going to have doubt shine upon them no matter what Maher says, although he does try. Early on one trucker (as part of a congregation that regularly meets in the back of one) walks out on Maher just as heís asking questions. While it comes off like the kind of stunt scene you might see in a Michael Moore doc, it does get to the heart of Maherís argument. His holy trinity comes in the form of the words ďI donít knowĒ and itís the lesson he wants to shout from the pulpit Ė even if thereís some arrogance in believing that he knows everyone else is wrong when he doesnít have any definitive answers. Sure, believing that Noah got every species on the planet on a boat to procreate and that humans rode dinosaurs like horses is a bit certifiable. It took all of second grade (my first year at Queen of the Rosary) to learn that the stories of the Old Testament were fables and not to be taken at face value. But try telling that to some of the people Maher interviews.

He goes through the list of usual suspects including religious theme parks, ďcuredĒ gay men, and various members of the Mormon and Islamic communities. The most damning and interesting bit of evidence on his side comes during a montage which reveals that Jesusí biographers may have been the first plagiarists. Other than that, skeptics arenít going to learn much of anything new to support their case the way more damning docs like Twist of Faith or Deliver Us From Evil did. But if youíre a fan of Maher and his shows, then Religulous is going to give you the same brand mixture of topical comedy and debate. Interspersed with a Greek chorus of film clips from biblical titles to Scarface that never fail to jolt the audience with just the right laugh at the right time, Iím still surprised they missed the chance to include Ernie Hudsonís classic proclamation from Ghostbusters when Bill is asked if heís ďa God.Ē Religulous ends on an ironic, almost hypocritical, footnote though as Maher stands upon a rant of fire and brimstone (while the appropriate film clips play under it) about the danger of allowing religion to guide us to its natural climax of Revelations. True believers may see it as the path to heaven or just into scaring us to do their bidding, but even while expressed as a warning, Maher ends up doing precisely the same thing in trying to get us to follow his path of doubt. Unlike Borat, Maher isnít playing the naÔve innocent from abroad looking for answers. But we know what he believes so much of the film becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than an even-handed skewering of both sides. Do scientists truly have all the answers too? I know I donít. And thatís where Religulous wants us to be. If we know everything about the ins and outs of our working universe then how can we continue to grow as a people? Ask questions. Curiosity clearly didnít kill all the cats. Donít protest Religulous, but embrace it for at least trying to get to the bottom of something that isnít hellfire, and doing it with a lot of laughs along the way.


OSCAR EYE ALERT: Religulous seems like it might be a favorite for an Oscar nomination, if only for being the most high-profile documentary of the year. It certainly will be in the running. Itíd be shocking if it didnít make the doc departmentís short list. But with one slot probably already reserved for the insanely overrated Man On Wire (couldnít that bastard have just fallen?) Religulous will have to compete with American Teen, Bigger Stronger Faster and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired among others. Most will likely fall by the wayside since they love to nominate talking head docs no one has ever seen. If thereís any justice in this Godless universe that Maher preaches then all of these films will lose out to Kurt Kuenneís stunning, magnificent, heart-rupturing Dear Zachary.

Day 4 will continue with Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Blindness, Three Blind Mice and Nothing But The Truth.

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originally posted: 09/26/08 00:50:53
last updated: 09/26/08 01:05:21
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