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A Week At The 2004 Toronto Film Festival

Who Needs Parties & Sleep? WE SAW MOVIES!
by Erik Childress

300-plus titles. 7 days. What’s a critic to do when attending the Toronto International Film Festival, the largest not only in North America but the world, surpassing Cannes, Sundance and the cornucopia of festivals that play every month in cities across the U.S.? The only answer I can accept and live by is to see as many movies as possible. I managed to see 34 and that’s not even counting what I got to before they showed up in Canada. So what are we waiting for. Let’s talk movies.

I inaugurated the festival with a screening not 90 minutes after I landed, taxied and checked-in to both the hotel and the press office. And what better way to kick off a festival with a film about the stage. OK, I suppose there are better ways and certainly better films than Istvan Szabo’s Being Julia, (3/5) starring Annette Bening as a popular 30s actress in the London Theatre. Bitchy and aging, Julia is a diva of the first order, bullying around her actor-turned-producer husband (Jeremy Irons, as sharp as always) and refusing to share the center of her stage with anybody. That’s when a young fan (Shaun Evans) comes into her life and puts the giggle back into her life, literally for a stretch of about 15 minutes when Julia can’t seem to stop. Cute and joyous at first, her antics quickly become as forced and unwelcome as Diane Keaton’s crying jag in Something’s Gotta Give. About midway through, the film takes a decidedly welcome turn from its Lifetime Channel meanderings to an acerbic tale of revenge and theatrical politics more in the vein of All About Eve. It takes a bit of nudging to survive the slow goings of the first hour, but Bening’s luminescent all-encompassing performance puts her in line for a richly deserved Oscar nomination and nearly makes the film worth recommending as a whole.

A far more entertaining slice of backstage backstabbing is Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty (4/5). Set a few centuries earlier, Billy Crudup stars as Edward Kynaston, the most beautiful woman on the English stage. That is, as a man playing a woman since the appropriate sex was outlawed from setting foot in front of an audience. Where exactly is the “ACT…ING!” when the novelty is no longer present? Claire Danes (yes, she cries again) plays his faithful dresser who has been moonlighting in a rival company’s production of Othello. She’s not much of an actress, but she is a woman and sometimes the innovation is enough to sell tickets. Thanks to a decree by King Charles II (a splendid Rupert Everett), Kynaston is forced to reinvent himself despite unsure of his own sexual identity. Overall, it’s more of a lightweight Shakespeare in Love than a definitive stamp for feminist strides, but it’s a fun show highlighted again by some first-rate actors (including Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin and Richard Griffiths) particularly Crudup who only continues to impress in an ambitious performance that may draw favorable comparisons to chameleons like Johnny Depp.

If it’s actual Shakespeare you want, than look no further than Michael Radford’s terrific adaptation of The Merchant of Venice (4.5/5). Jeremy Irons is on hand again as Antonio. Al Pacino dials it down to play the spurned Jew, Shylock. Young Shakespeare himself, Joseph Fiennes, gives perhaps his best performance since playing the Bard as Bassanio. But it’s newcomer Lynn Collins who breaks into the stratosphere with her passionate portrayal of Portia, the most wooed single gal in all of Venice. You may actually witness audiences gasp like the peanut gallery of all revelatory courtroom scenes as Shylock demands restitution for his bond from the fatigued Antonio. Radford skillfully blends the peanut butter-and-chocolate of the Bard’s most recognizable genres and makes for one of the most satisfying of all morality swaps.

From on-stage to backstage to off-stage to back again, comes Michael Epstein’s documentary, Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate (3.5/5), based on the book that encapsulated one of the most infamous punchlines in all of American cinema. A project that was conceived in the wake of an Oscar-winning triumph (The Deer Hunter), Michael Cimino’s attention to meticulous detail and egotistical unwilling to cut nary a single frame wound up bankrupting United Artists and ending the power of the director’s chair that came with the groundbreaking 1970s. Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges and Brad Dourif all contribute anecdotes about the production and it’s a fascinating tale. My favorite fact being that the only champion of the finished film at the time was Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times, known as one of the two big softball critics still working today and a staple of Criticwatch. The doc also wants to have its cake and regurgitate it too by condemning Cimino’s antics for 75 minutes and then trying to sell us that it now has more supporters than detractors. Try selling that elsewhere since even a restored print playing at the festival supervised by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond couldn’t get me to sit through those prologue-and-epilogue padded 4 hours again.

There are certainly more smiles to be had with Amanda Micheli’s Double Dare (4.5/5), which I first saw at this year’s South by Southwest Festival in Austin. It’s the engaging documentary of Jeannie Epper and Zoe Bell, two Hollywood stuntwomen, one who has been working for decades and another just at the beginning of a promising career. Both are joyous individuals (Bell is particularly infectious with her always-smiling energy) and you want success for both of them.

If you’d rather have a recount about Billy Crudup being the most beautiful man to don a dress in Toronto this year, then argue your case for Gael Garcia Bernal who goes partly transvestite in Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education (2.5/5) (a title, no lie, referred to by a young female patron of the press and industry variety as sounding like a Bon Jovi song.) Bernal’s hairstyles may warrant such a comparison, but it ends there. In the all-over-the-map film-within-a-flashback-within-a-fantasy-within-a-screenplay-within-reality story, Bernal plays a young man who endured sexual abuse at a Salesian Catholic school. He was separated from the boy who considered him his first love and they meet years later when Bernal’s Ignacio pitches the now film director with a story based on their experiences. Alberto Iglesias’ piercing Bernard Herrmann-esque score hints an Almodovar’s Hitchcockian intentions towards seduction, revenge and intensified melodrama. But it’s far from intense and its switcheroo narrative (partially enhanced by swapping matted and scoped aspect ratios) distracts us from an already disengaging story that ends with an unearned and rather silly Dragnet-like coda.

While everyone screams for Almodovar and argues whether its pronounced “Al-ma-DO-var” or “Al-MO-da-var”, I’d rather sing the praises for another “A” director in every sense of the letter. Alejandro Amenabar, who directed Open Your Eyes (aka the original Vanilla Sky) and The Others (aka the vastly superior Sixth Sense) is back with The Sea Inside (5/5) (aka the best of all the films I saw at Toronto this year.) The story of Ramon Sampedro is a tragic one. Left paralyzed from the neck down after a nasty cliff-diving accident, Ramon has been left at the mercy of his family and the distinctive lack thereof from a government who will not allow him to end his life. Yet for all its political and heartbreaking underpinnings, that’s precisely what this film is about – life and the wonders it holds for us in-between the disasters. Javier Bardem plays Sampedro in a bravura performance that cannot be overlooked at Oscar time. Playing a man full of restrained anger, Bardem brings a remarkable amount of humor to this confined man who is both blessed and cursed to find not one, but two loves come into his life at a junction when he has decided to give up. Amenabar, who also composed the magnificent score, is quickly vaulting himself into the A-list pool of filmmakers with this, one of the very best films of the year.

True stories and biopics, for better or worse, have become one of the prevailing themes of 2004. With the exception of documentaries about Ron Santo, Rodney Bingenheimer and Metallica, the pool of positives in this genre only rises with BAADASSSSS!, Miracle and the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ. You can count the “true story” of King Arthur if you want, but beyond that we’re left with The Alamo, Hidalgo, De-Lovely, Against the Ropes and Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius.

Toronto would also highlight the two extremes. I missed Bill Condon’s Kinsey (which will be the opening night gala at this year’s Chicago International Festival) starring Liam Neeson as the landmark sexual behavior biologist, but heard great things from colleague Scott Weinberg. (Read his review here.) Walter SallesThe Motorcycle Diaries (4/5) made one of its final stops on the festival circuit before hitting theaters this fall. Gael Garcia Bernal again stars, taking us on the journey of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose youthful exuberance to discover the world on a two-man motorcycle trip through South America opens his eyes into an adulthood that would find him becoming one of the most important revolutionaries of the 20th century. Salles spends the whole movie on the physical and spiritual journey of Guevara, rather than bombarding us with the aftermath. It’s a fresher approach to the story of a man’s life which is often not conducted in wholes, but meaningful chapters. The Motorcycle Diaries is Guevara’s prologue and it’s a terrific one.

Certainly far more interesting than the life of Bobby Darin, presented to us in Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea (2/5). Virtually taking the same plot structure that De-Lovely did with Cole Porter, Spacey’s Darin is guided through a flashback of his life by his younger self on the set of a movie based on his life. Follow that? Darin’s story has to be spiced up somehow which consists of rise to fame, romance of Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), overnight hippie transformation and a congenital heart condition that thankfully cuts the movie short. And there’s nothing short about 121 minutes of a languid (kinda) musical. The song-and-dance numbers look like they fell right off the stage…of community theater. Sure, Spacey can belt out a tune, but I’d say the same thing if he made a film about karaoke. No one ever seems to age over the course of time and it’s rather funny to see Spacey trying to play a 25-year-old in rolled-up jeans. The cast is filled with support from John Goodman to Bob Hoskins to an unrecognizable Greta Scacchi, but its Caroline Aaron’s laughable performance as Darin’s “sister” with a Chinatown complex that reeks of the desperation for this project to connect as something meaningful. By the time it was over, I was reminded more of Jim Morrison:

The Movie will begin in 5 moments. The mindless voice announced. All those unseated will await the next show. We filed slowly languidly into the hall. The auditorium was vast and silent. As we seated and were darkened. The voice continued. The Program for this evening is not new. You have seen this entertainment thru & thru. You've seen your birth life and death. You might recall all the rest. Did you have a good world when you died? Enough to base a movie on?” Not really, Bobby & Kevin.

Ray Charles certainly had a life worthy of exploration. Mainly because he recorded more songs and had a handicap that didn’t kill him. Taylor Hackford’s Ray (2.5/5) would be more appropriately referred to as Jamie Foxx’s Ray, cause this is a solo act from beginning to (almost) end. Transformation may not be quite the word for Foxx’s performance since once you put the glasses on him, he’s fortunate enough to already look the part. Foxx nails down the other half with Charles’ mannerisms, speech patterns and strut and its one of those dynamic acting jobs that’s impossible not to focus on. Other than that, Ray is A-B-C-1-2-3, taking us through the greatest and not-so-greatest hits of his life from his haunted childhood to drug dependency to adultery to betrayal to yadda, yadda and yadda. The film draws obvious connections from his songs to his personal life despite us never once seeing Ray specifically compose anything. “Hit the Road Jack” needs to be seen to be believed with Regina King playing another enraged black woman (big freakin’ surprise) who inspires it. But the grandiose sin committed by Hackford is saved for the end of the film, when (during a fantasy sequence) Ray Charles is given sight, removing his glasses to reveal…whaddya know – JAMIE FOXX! It leaves us on a sour note, quitting on us before ever getting to a performance of “America the Beautiful” or his role in The Blues Brothers. Not that the latter is particularly important to Charles’ life, but then again, neither is this film.

There were two more engaging films featuring the sight challenged at the festival. In my never-ending quest to find great dog movies, I found a pretty good one. Yoichi Sai’s Quill (3.5/5) starts with the birth of a litter of cute little Labradors and then follows one on his education into becoming a seeing-eye dog. Little Quill certainly doesn’t have the heritage to suggest he’s capable of such a task, but he puts in the hours, dazzles his teachers and soon becomes the guidance of a proud blind man who’d rather not have the assistance. But even a blind man can’t resist a dog as beautiful as Quill, even with the odd wing-shaped birthmark, and soon the two become inseparable. Perhaps my dog-afficionado sensibility continues to get the best of me, but Quill never goes Benji-cute on us, teaches us some new tricks and keeps the schmaltz down to a minimum. I don’t feel particularly comfortable labeling it as a family film considering its third act gets pretty death-heavy, including one shocking slip that seemed unnecessarily grim, but it’s a nice film that’s considerably more deeper than the likes of your average See Spot Run or Beethoven’s 10th.

From Korea to China we go as Zhang Yimou goes from Hero to House of Flying Daggers (4.5/5). It’s Zhang Ziyi’s turn to play blind as Mei, a courtesan who may belong to the Robin Hood-like Flying Daggers, a thorn in the side of the Tang Dynasty. The local authorities are prone to flushing them out and Captain Leo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) has fellow Captain Jin (Andy Lau) go undercover, hoping that Mei will lead them to their hideout. Deep cover leads to a bond between the two who must survive attack after attack before the true nature of all the warriors are revealed. Daggers doesn’t have the epic scope of the vastly overrated Hero, but its relationships are better defined and more emotional and its action sequences are more enthralling. Where Hero’s action bordered on self-parody, Daggers employs its effects with more simplicity and delivers a battle amongst the trees that slam dunks the excitement of Crouching Tiger’s. A beautiful and tremendously exciting film.

The protestors were on hand to say “the Toronto Film Festival supports cruelty to animals” all on account of the documentary Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat about an infamous animal cruelty case in Toronto of all places. Which my colleagues and I said is about as logical as the festival promoting death by swordplay. I didn’t get to see the doc, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get to see the best cat slaying all week. Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (4.5/5) is a manic road-runner kung-fu blast of energy that is silliness incarnate. Describing the plot would take an hour, but if you were down with Chow’s last directorial effort, Shaolin Soccer, (cutely referenced here), then it doesn’t matter. Chow has a clear love for both Hong Kong and American cinema and his knack for comedy from human behavior to cartoonish hyperactivity drips in every scene. It wears out its welcome a bit towards the end since it more or less repeats itself and has wrapped up at least six of its multiple plotlines, but this is nuttiness incarnate and a must for martial arts enthusiasts.

Celebrities lineup in Toronto. At least on paper as most are only in town for a day or two to attend their premieres, do some interviews and make an appearance at a party. Sometimes the cast lists of movies read like these celebrity lineups though as evidenced by a film like Paul HaggisCrash (4/5). Ranging somewhere between 2 Days in the Valley and Magnolia, it follows a dozen-plus characters through a couple days in Los Angeles where racial boundaries and attitudes exist beyond the mere words that strike the iron. The cast includes Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe and Larenz Tate. Just to name a few. Powerful if not entirely fresh, Haggis doesn’t shy away from the closeted hate in our society that is usually unjustifiably labeled as overt racism. Stereotypes exist for a reason and occasionally a spade is a spade. Despite one coincidence too many, Crash is a strong piece of work.

The flip side to that coin is Frank E. FlowersHaven (1/5), a horribly constructed mess of a picture that wants to play clever with its own crashing of characters but never gives us any character, situation or storyline worth caring about past the gimmick. Bill Paxton is a criminal dad on the run with his daughter (Agnes Bruckner). Orlando Bloom is an acid-scarred romantic who pines for Zoe Saldana over the objections of her family. What does one have to do with the other? Absolutely nothing except they happen to co-exist in the Cayman Islands. A half-dozen others and then some pop in-and-out as the film shifts in four month increments back and forth. By the third shift, I was done with it. The worst of my filmgoing experiences this trip.

Somewhere in-between was John SaylesSilver City (2.5/5), a political drama that plays like a first draft mishmash of his earlier works. Chris Cooper is about two scenes shy of an Oscar nomination for his wry characterization of a Dubya-like candidate for Governor, but he’s drowned out by an embarrassing performance by Danny Huston as an investigator trying to solve a potential scandal-in-the-making. A cast including Richard Dreyfuss, Maria Bello, Tim Roth, Thora Birch, Billy Zane, Miguel Ferrer, Michael Murphy and Kris Kristofferson is spread way too thin.

Chazz Palminteri’s Noel (2.5/5) is Love Actually-Lite with 10% more sugar. On Christmas Eve a bunch of characters wander through their lives in New York City lamenting and trying to salvage their latest holiday with somebody or by themselves. Susan Sarandon lost a child and has an Alzheimer’s-ridden mother in the hospital. Paul Walker has a jealous temper that drives away fiancé Penelope Cruz yet attracts the attention of a waiter (Alan Arkin) who believes him to be the reincarnation of his late wife. A surprise cameo late in the film catches us by surprise, but the film is what it is, the sum of its parts not adding up to much.

Dylan Kidd’s P.S. (3/5), his follow-up to Roger Dodger explores one of Noel’s plot strands a bit more efficiently. Laura Linney stars an admissions officer at Columbia University who takes an interest in a new student (Topher Grace) who has the same name and eerily resembles the former high school sweetheart who died. They begin a torrid affair and…and…well, that’s about it. The reincarnation aspect gets short shrift in the mystical sense and its drama never reaches an emotional peak even of a scandalous nature between the August-October couple. They’re only about 20 years apart, so who cares anyway? Linney continues to grow as both an actress and an attraction in my book, even if her sadder, older woman lusting after a young man indie cred is beginning to wear thin. Her Mystic River cohort, Marcia Gay Harden shows up unannounced late in an overwritten role and HER Miller’s Crossing squeeze, Gabriel Byrne, is underused as Linney’s ex-husband. Topher Grace, while fine in the role, is perhaps given the greatest disservice with a part that is really nothing more than a boytoy happy to be getting some great sex. Linney’s centerpiece speech to him is a powerful one that conveys what P.S. wants to be, but Kidd seems to be at the expense of another writer’s published weepie rather than the sharp repartee he brought to Roger Dodger.

Neve Campbell is a bit younger than Linney but the title of her collaboration with James Toback asks a familiar question, When Will I Be Loved? (3/5). Neve also gets one great scene in the film, and I’m not even referring to the naked shower scene that opens and closes the film or the lesbian tryst she keeps on keeping on in her kitchen. She’s a sexually confident woman who hides that part of herself to the men who see her as nothing but. Some of the film’s themes work but it also stumbles to a conclusion that makes her as hated as anyone else in the story and makes us wonder when the second act is going to begin.

Life-altering events and obsession are at the forefront of Roger Michell’s Enduring Love (2/5), a film which deconstructs a most promising opening to fall further into bargain basement ridiculousness faster than any film in recent memory. A group of strangers come together to the rescue of a hot-air balloon gone out-of-control. A young boy is saved, but another man fails to let go and falls to a most gruesome death. Joe (Daniel Craig) blames himself for leading the let-go phase of the rescue and another named Jed (Rhys Ifans) believes a spiritual connection passed between them as he begins to stalk him for answers Joe doesn’t know the questions to. Joe’s obsession alienates his artist girlfriend (Samantha Morton) and leads him into a darker corner with Jed who devolves into Mark Wahlberg right out of Fear. A stunning miscalculation in the ideas it setup to delve into.

I was far more involved in the questions and answers delivered by David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabee’s (4.5/5). Jason Schwartzman stars as an environmental activist searching for the meaning in a string of coincidences he’s recently experienced. He hires an existential detective team (Dustin Hoffman & Lily Tomlin) to spy on him and help him examine what he’s experiencing. Their brand of “everything is connected” teaching runs counter to a client-turned-skeptic (Mark Wahlberg) who is beginning to adopt other philosophies thanks to the detectives’ arch-nemesis (Isabelle Huppert). Jude Law is Schwartzman’s corporate adversary and Naomi Watts is the voice, face and body of her husband’s department store. Critics already seem sharply divided on Russell’s latest and audiences are likely to form the 15%-love-it-85%-hate-it standoff. I was enthralled and laughed from beginning-to-end. Russell & co-screenwriter Jeff Baena have constructed a dizzying shout-out to those who believe there’s only one answer for everything, whether it be religion, politics or love. Ironic how Russell sets out to challenge audiences only to be potentially opposed by those he’s pointing a finger straight at.

Another favorite of mine from the festival is another entry from one of filmfan’s greatest proponents. Alexander Payne’s Sideways (4.5/5) is a wonderful guy film without ever feeling like a “guy” film. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is taking his best buddy, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on the road for one last week before he finally settles down. Both in their mid-forties, Miles is a wine connoisseur who still carries the weight of a painful divorce and Jack is the ultimate bachelor, an actor who wants to get laid at least once on the trip. He encourages Miles to hookup with a waitress (a lovely Virginia Madsen) with similar interests while he gets his rocks off with one of her friends (Sandra Oh). The previews of the film giveaway a bit too much, but Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor have saved all of their best moments in the film. (Two of the best gags come in the final 20 minutes.) Giamatti continues his American Splendor roll (or role, for that matter) and Church makes for a perfect buddy foil. The screenplay packs double meanings into almost every crevice of its dialogue and ends on one of those perfect notes (like this year’s Before Sunset) that is guaranteed to continue your smile for hours afterwards. Plus, you’ll never want a glass of wine so much in your life.

If you’re more interested in sex than love, then along comes John WatersA Dirty Shame (2.5/5). It’s a one-joke movie that’s pretty funny for about a half-hour before variations on the same joke fail to elicit the same chuckles. Tracey Ullman is a suburban housewife in an uptight Baltimore neighborhood. A bump to the noggin though unleashes her dirtiest sexual behavior though and she must seek a sexualized messiah (Johnny Knoxville) and his cult of fetishes to uncover the ultimate sexual discovery. (And what a disappointment THAT turns out to be.) Nothing in the final hour is as interesting as reading an e-mail full of disgusting perversions. That doesn’t make you a prude, just someone who thinks a red-ass baboon vagina is only funny the first six times you hear it.

Essentially the arthouse version of Red Shoe Diaries is Eros (3/5). “Three stories from three masters” including Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni. Wong’s initial tale conveys the power of the human touch, particularly when touching in the right areas. The relationship of a courtesan and her tailor over several years is erotic in its own quiet (VERY quiet) way but is also quite cold and distant. Soderbergh’s is about an advertising exec (Robert Downey Jr.) who turns to a psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) for help with an erotic dream. It’s the most entertaining of the three and is less about sex than man’s humorous inability to focus on what’s important. Downey expertly handles the brunt of the dialogue while Arkin’s comic timing is unmatched. Antonioni’s final segment proves to be the most stimulating and yet the least interesting. Stimulating because it has some gorgeous naked women in it; uninteresting because it features unstimulating characters who are nothing with their clothes on. Maybe that’s the point.

Jerry Ciccoritti’s Blood (2/5) is a stagy adaptation about the potentially incestuous relationship between a brother and sister. It featured the most walkouts I’ve ever seen at a film festival. And that was BEFORE they even got to the hints of incest. I made it through, realizing I could have left and got something to eat, but stayed because I’m a pro. Who said being a movie critic is a fun job? The title of Carlo Mazzacurati’s An Italian Romance says all that really needs saying. It’s got Italians and there’s a romance. Very Harry & Sally in its approach to chance encounters but very Ho & Hum when it comes to the passion of an adulterous relationship between two blank stares. Speaking of which, Stuart Townsend is in another movie and he’s brought along main squeeze Charlize Theron (back to her pre-Monster weight) for the similar wartime romance, John Duigan’s Head in the Clouds. (2.5/5) One hopes they feel more for one another in real life than we do about their characters. The film itself is your atypical blasé “set against the backdrop of…” romances that’s more about plot and where it takes place than its inhabitants.

While I have Italians on the brain, reminding myself that I actually saw An Italian Romance, the Italian poet Ugo Betti once said, “I think the family is the place where the most ridiculous and least respectable things in the world go on.” Writers always seem to come back home eventually and Betti’s quote certainly fits what I saw at this year’s fest.

The religious molestation of Almodovar’s Bad Education didn’t end there. The kids of Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2/5) were also abused as children (one possibly by aliens.) The difference is that one of them actually liked it. I feel creepy even writing that or even joking about the simple pleasures of life naturally outweighing emotional and sexual abuse, but like I told all those who asked about it, “well, it’s a Gregg Araki film.” And I’d rather choose not to think about it. Kevin Bacon gives another remarkable performance as a reformed child molester in Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman (3.5/5), a Sundance premiere that’s certainly worth a look when it arrives in December.

David Gordon Green’s Undertow (3.5/5) struck me with the same power and ultimate detachment as his last film, All the Real Girls. In his manifestation of Night of the Hunter, Jamie Bell and Devon Alan are brothers who must deal with the arrival of their father’s (Dermot Mulroney) brother (Josh Lucas). The less you’re aware of the film’s plot the better with its ability to catch you off-guard and shift gears midway through. The first-half is borderline brilliant as an increasing tension threatens to overwhelm this family rife with individual issues. The second half strips down its thriller conventions and forces its way through an uneventful road trip up to a debatable ending about the journey’s fate. Performances are uniformly strong with Lucas at his slimy best and it’s certainly worth seeing, but Green’s pretension again shines on his schizophrenic storytelling.

Another disturbing, yet darkly humorous road trip can be seen in Todd Solondz’s Palindromes (3/5). “Rarely do you hear the argument for teen pregnancy,” said Matt LeBlanc on the pilot episode of Joey and Palindromes certainly isn’t that argument. Solondz officially kills off Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Dawn Weiner and in that death comes young Aviva’s proclamation that she wants to have lots and lots of babies. At the age of 13 she will have gotten pregnant and at the will of her parents is forced to have an abortion. Distraught, she takes to the road uncovering a wealth of Jesus freaks whose beliefs are only matched by their hypocrisy. The aforementioned Alexander Payne satirized this material with more scope in his debut, Citizen Ruth, and Solondz continually distracts us with his choice to have six different actresses (including Jennifer Jason Leigh for 10 minutes) play Aviva. We can speculate the tactic all we want but it will never parallel with the story’s central themes. It could work, I suppose, if we attached more to Aviva’s race, age, and weight than to her face.

The kids of David Weaver’s Siblings (2/5) talk all the time about killing their monster stepparents, so far removed through various marriages that you couldn’t draw a ripe bloodline between them. Circumstance comes-a-calling and soon their protective older brother turns from an intelligent guardian to a blathering nincompoop who makes every wrong choice imaginable in this increasingly strained wannabe black comedy. Maggie Cheung struggles to put her addictions behind her and get her son back in Olivier AssayasClean (3/5). Her portion of the story isn’t nearly as interesting as Nick Nolte’s father-in-law who takes in the boy but realizes he won’t be around forever. The story never lowers itself to the traditional custody battle and Nolte’s sympathy only makes us gravitate to his character even more while Cheung’s isn’t much more than a Yoko Ono wannabe.

On the lighter side of things is Danny Boyle’s Millions (3.5/5), a charming comic fantasy about money falling literally out of the sky and into the laps of a pair of Liverpudlian children. The younger boy is a study of all things sainthood and prefers the Flying Daggers approach of giving to the poor while his older brother would rather hide the dough and spend it on personal goodies. All this looms in the midst of Euro Day when their found pounds will be rendered useless with the conversion. Bloody Sunday’s James Nesbitt is terrific as their father who has a priceless reaction to the discovery of his boys’ secret. Despite personally wanting to smack the younger boy to just occasionally look out for number one and a bit overused device of him casually talking to saints, Millions is a fun lark that families will be able to enjoy once they remove the unnecessary “F” bomb out of it.

An even lovelier family drama is Shona Auerbach’s Dear Frankie (4/5), with the ever lovely Emily Mortimer as a mother to a deaf child who has written him letters over the years in the guise of a father he never knew. When the boy believes his father’s boat is docking in port, she hires a stranger (Gerard Butler) to pretend to be him for just one day. Sounds like Garry Marshall territory, but it sidesteps its cloying anticipation and potential wackiness by treating its material with serious emotional fortitude.

Frankie’s father and Boyle’s saints may be nothing more than figments of their imaginations, but Dan HarrisImaginary Heroes does anything but deal in fantasy. Imagine Ordinary People on another block as a suicide rocks a suburban family. Dad (Jeff Daniels) goes into a tailspin as his favorite child is now gone. Mom (Sigourney Weaver) gravitates towards their youngest (Emile Hirsch) who has never seem to fit amongst his family. Michelle Williams shows up every holiday as his supportive sister. Again, far from the most original concept, but Harris’ script has more than its share of quirks and never forces itself into big, showy scenes of emotion. Williams also stars in Wim WendersLand of Plenty (3/5) as a woman who returns to America after years of living abroad in search of her Uncle (a solid John Diehl), a Vietnam vet who has become a one-man lookout for terrorism in post 9/11 Los Angeles. Wenders highly political film suggests an America that has turned away from the problems of the inner city and wags the public’s dog about the war on terror. Duh! He drags his feet getting to the real meat in the (yet another) road trip between uncle and niece where the healing and understanding can begin.

The whacked out Takashi Miike wants to conjure up a new superhero with Zebraman (1.5/5), forged from the campy world of Japanese television like Ultraman and Spectreman. The premise is on target to take an ordinary schoolteacher and thrust him into a need to become a crimefighter. It even earns some well-placed chuckles when he’s forced to fight a rapist with a rubber crab head and a pair of scissors with signature moves like the Zebra Screw Punch. But the novelty wears beyond thin into invisibility with about 90 minutes of talk-talk-talk and 20 minutes of Super Zebra Back Kick while fighting off an alien invasion the cross-between Mars Attacks and Slimer. Boring beyond belief and unnecessarily vulgar to achieve true camp status.

Animation needs heroes too. Thankfully we have Pixar to fill that role because Dreamworks’ Shark Tale (2.5/5) sure as hell doesn’t. As if the sharks from Finding Nemo got their own movie, Shark Tale is the Joey of animated spinoffs. It’s a bright, gorgeous film to look at but it’s full of old jokes (Hammer Time? Please!) and when its not, it creates its own old jokes by replaying their conventions. The Shrek films knew to frontload their movies with some cheap, throwaway gags and Shark Tale does the same. But it also middleloads and backloads them and they aren’t the background jokes. They are the whole joke. Robert DeNiro has some funny material but is sparingly used. Martin Scorsese has some even better introductory moments but is reduced into Will Smith shtick more and more as the film progresses. Then, of course, there’s Will Smith as our hero. He was Will Smith in the 19th century (Wild Wild West). He was Will Smith in the futuristic I, Robot. He is now Will Smith as a fish and it’s about as fresh as an undouched crab.

Filling out the ranks of the sci-fi/horror screenings are two gems that I’ve been raving about since Sundance – James Wan’s Saw and Brad Anderson’s The Machinist – and one incredibly overrated film – Shane Carruth’s Primer. More “Midnight Madness” offerings and several of the films above will feature full-length reviews at the site over the days and weeks to come. Toronto 2004 has come and gone and has certainly lived up to its reputation by offering a multitude of premieres, previews and a wealth of others just waiting to be discovered. Stay tuned as we continue to bring you the most expansive festival coverage around.

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originally posted: 09/20/04 06:23:04
last updated: 11/04/04 11:30:32
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