I had decided before today even started to use the idea of “audience films vs. festival films” as a theme for my discussion of the day’s screenings.
Who knew I would run into such a run of dreary “festival films”? Granted, festivals are always a crapshoot – that’s a given. But generally, between knowing the director, cast, source material or synopsis – or all of the above – you can make some educated guesses about which offering to risk your time on during a day of movie viewing.
But sometimes you have days like the one I had Sunday. I walked into five films – and only made it to the end of two of them. I walked out of the other three after between 15 and 45 minutes, in each case ruing the time I’d lost. In only one case was I able to scramble into another screening room, just as a film was starting. Thankfully, I escaped to “Last Night,” a film starring Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington, which I liked quite a bit.
A film like “Made in Dagenham,” which I saw on Saturday, though it was being shown at Toronto, is an audience film: not too challenging, a linear plot, characters the audience can identify with, a sense of humor. Festivals always toss a few of these in; they’re also screening “Easy A,” a teen comedy opening in theaters on Friday, for some inexplicable reasons.
And festival films? Well, there are movies like “Brighton Rock,” my first film of the day which I left after 45 minutes (I stayed as long as I did more out of inertia than anything else), or “Bunraku” (the one I escaped after 15 minutes) – they challenge the audience by putting plot and character second to style.
Not that “Brighton Rock” didn’t have a story to tell; it is, after all, based on a Graham Greene novel. But writer-director Rowan Joffe used a restless camera and characters who were stylized to the point of making actual film noir look tame. Worse, he used unappealing actors in his central roles.
Still, something like “Brighton Rock” plays at a festival exactly because a programmer decided it was an experiment in style that he or she wanted to support. Its style may even be mistaken for commercial appeal, particularly if a critic writes something the least bit encouraging – in which case it might get a brief theatrical run.
But it’s the kind of movie that can only breathe the rarefied air of a festival, attracting audiences, perhaps, because they see the names of Helen Mirren and John Hurt in the cast (though both play small supporting roles). Set it loose in the real world and it will sink like a stone.
Something like Guy Moshe’s film “Bunraku” could only be seen at a festival – and nowhere else. An expressionistic tale of a world in revolutionaries try to take down a crime boss in a world in which guns have been banned, it begins with a staged samurai-sword showdown between two gangs on a soundstage – sort of a cross between “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Dogville.” It’s deliberately stagey and self-conscious, so much so that I was choking on the pretension and fled after 15 minutes. It was a one-joke movie and that joke had quickly worn out its welcome.
Then there was the woe begotten “What’s Wrong with Virginia?”, a film written and directed by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for writing “Milk.” “Virginia,” however, was like half-baked “Nurse Betty,” with Jennifer Connelly as a cancer-stricken, mentally ill single mother of a teen-age boy, whose father may be the holier-than-thou local sheriff (Ed Harris). But he denies paternity, right up until her son expresses a lascivious interest in the sheriff’s teen-age daughter (Emma Roberts). It’s meant to be weirdly funny and it’s not; it’s meant to evoke pathos and it doesn’t.
Again, it’s the kind of movie – the directing debut of a talented writer – that festivals love to take a chance on. Hey, it’s only one movie; if you don’t like that one, we’ve got 300 others to choose from.
By the way, don’t confuse “festival movies” with “critics’ movies.” The latter are films – again, with little conventional audience appeal – that audiences wouldn’t touch if critics didn’t champion them. I’d point to such recent films as “Cyrus” and “Winter’s Bone” as examples of films that might not have found any audience (not that either was a big hit) if critics didn’t speak up.
On the other hand, the critics’ film cuts both ways. I would single out last year’s Oscar nominee, “The White Ribbon,” as an example of the kind of movie that many critics embraced, despite the fact that it was mean-spirited, slow-moving and opaque. That’s the kind of critics’ film that makes readers distrust critics.
The other two films I saw Sunday achieved varying levels of success. I’ve been a fan of John Sayles for about 30 years, so I was willing to give him a chance with “Amigo,” a film about American imperialism and adventurism – in this case, the invasion of the Philippines as part of the Spanish-American War in 1900.
Sayles’ point was an interesting one: He told the story from three viewpoints: the native insurrectionists, the invading American soldiers – and the people of a small village who are caught in the middle between them. But Sayles’ film was flat and slow-moving, with mostly colorless acting, except by Garret Dillahunt (as the American officer who comes to understand the people he’s charged with controlling), Chris Cooper (as his angry commander) and an indigenous cast.
Otherwise, it was as if Sayles purposely avoided creating suspense or tension. The irony and juxtaposition – of the similarities between the Americans and the insurgents or the Americans and the villagers – was obvious without ever having a bite to it. And it may be the digital projection at this festival, but this was one of several films I’ve seen this week that looked washed-out in a cheap, digital way.
The film that salvaged the day for me was “Last Night,” written and directed by Massy Tadjedin. Starring Knightley and Worthington as a pair of married Brits living in New York, it examined a period of about 36 hours, in which both of them must come to terms with their own ideas of marital fidelity, as well as their faith and trust in their mate.
Knightley initially is the jealous one; at a party, she spots hubby Worthington looking a shade too cozy with co-worker Eva Mendes and is convinced there’s something going on. He finally convinces her there isn’t – just as he is headed out of town with Mendes and another coworker to pitch a client in Philadelphia. Almost as soon as he is out the door, Knightley runs into an old flame of hers (played by Guillaume Canet) – and winds up going out to dinner and spending the evening with him. As the film cuts back and forth between the two, it provides a fascinating examination of what constitutes intimacy and betrayal of trust in a way that has nothing to do with having sex (though that does figure into it). It’s a surprisingly touching and thoughtful film.
Meanwhile, I wanted to circle back to “Hereafter,” the Clint Eastwood film I saw on Saturday night. At the age of 80, Eastwood continues to surprise. He’s made a movie about people who have the ability to communicate with the dead – and people who want to use them to speak to a dearly departed. Ultimately, he tells three different stories (in a script by Peter Morgan) that eventually twine together in ways that will either satisfy you or strike you as maudlin and unbelievable.
Personally, I got caught up in the emotions that Eastwood was reaching for, in his plain-spoken, matter-of-fact way. With a cast that includes Matt Damon, Bryce Dallas Howard and Cecile de France, the movie features a couple of big action set-pieces, even as it tells an intimate, character-driven story.
Monday is my final full day at the festival, including my first press screenings in the Bell Lightbox, the new festival headquarters that had its grand opening on Sunday.