Toronto International Film Festival 2004 - UPDATE #10
Tell Them Who You Are
Directed by Mark S. Wexler
USA/95 MINUTES/REAL TO REEL
Breezy, entertaining film by Mark Wexler about his father, famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler. The elder Wexler is just about the perfect subject for a documentary; he alternates between ranting about the state of things (just about everything, in fact) and insisting that his son shoot the movie his way. The film also includes interviews with the various filmmakers and actors Wexler has worked with in his long career, including Conrad Hall and Jane Fonda. The director's easy-going, laid-back sensibility is just about the polar opposite of his father, and as a result, much of Tell Them Who You Are features the two men playfully arguing with each other. The movie is also surprisingly poignant on occasion, particularly in a sequence that finds the father and son visiting their Alzheimer's-afflicted ex-wife/mother. Ultimately, though, the film goes on just a little bit too long - as the director attempts to do too much, when it's clear right from the get-go that it's his relationship with his father that's the most intriguing aspect of Tell Them Who You Are.
Directed by Shane Carruth
It's easy enough to see what writer/director Shane Carruth is attempting with Primer. With its almost complete lack of expository dialogue and barely developed characters, Carruth is clearly going for a vibe of realism within the context of a science fiction film. On that level, Primer is undoubtedly a success. It really does feel as though we've been dropped into a very specific period in the lives of these people; imagine a documentary minus the narration explaining just what's going on, and you've got Primer. The basic premise of the movie involves two computer geeks - Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth) - who are working on a device that, when eventually finished, has world-changing ramifications. The first half hour or so of Primer seems to consist entirely of Robert Altman-esque sequences in which these guys work on the project, while spouting all this complicated dialogue has absolutely no meaning for us. And though it's a complete cliché, the film really could've used one of those scenes in which either Abe or Aaron sits down an outsider and explains the whole thing to them (and to us, by association). Without such a sequence, Primer remains baffling virtually from start to finish - which is a shame, really, given that this does seem to be a really cool premise for a movie (it seems to be, anyway).
Return to Sender
Directed by Bille August
DENMARK/UNITED KINGDOM/103 MINUTES/GALA
It's really astounding just how trashy Return to Sender eventually becomes, particularly given how distinctly non-trashy the film's subject matter is. The story involves a former lawyer named Frank Nitzche (Aidan Quinn), who now earns a living writing to death row inmates and selling the letters after they're executed. His latest mark, Charlotte Cory (Connie Nielsen), is scheduled to die for the murder of her boyfriend's baby. But as Frank gets closer to Charlotte he becomes convinced that she's innocent, and begins working with her lawyer (played by Kelly Preston) to clear her name. It doesn't come as much of a surprise that Return to Sender's screenplay has been written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, a pair best known for their work on The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. The film's third act shenanigans - including a race against the clock to free Charlotte, a car chase, and even a sequence featuring a madman with a rifle - certainly seem like they'd be more at home in a high-octane action flick, and their placement here serves only to diminish the film's anti-death penalty message. Yet there's something oddly compelling about Return to Sender; primarily because it keeps one-upping itself with sleazy plot developments (think Melrose Place or The O.C.) On that level, the movie works - though it's hard to believe director Bille August was going for that sort of vibe.
Directed by Marc Evans
UNITED KINGDOM/93 MINUTES/VISIONS
While there's nothing terrible about Trauma, the whole thing just feels entirely underwhelming - particularly in the wake of director Marc Evans' last film, the surprisingly disturbing My Little Eye. Ben (played by Colin Firth) is struggling to cope with the death of his wife in a car crash, but finds himself being haunted by visions of her where ever he looks. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman (Mena Suvari) has just entered Ben's life, though this doesn't stop him from pursuing clues relating to his wife. Evans imbues Trauma with an incredibly slow pace, which would be fine if the film was building up to a monumental twist or revelation. Instead, the movie plays like a second rate Jacob's Ladder, with Ben haunted by these weird visions and nightmares. Firth's performance, not surprisingly, is the best thing about the movie, and the actor does a nice job of portraying Ben's increasing paranoia.
Directed by Paul Haggis
USA/100 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
A few years ago, a film called All the Rage premiered at the festival; packed with an all-star cast, the movie was an extremely pompous and overblown look at the gun problem in America. Crash takes a similiar route towards exploring race relations in that country, yet it never quite steps into heavy-handedness thanks to a surprisingly funny and touching screenplay by Robert Moresco and director Paul Haggis. The film follows several characters - including a pair of cops (played by Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe) and a District Attorney and his wife (Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock) - as they weave in and out of each other's lives, while confronting their feelings on racism. There's nothing terribly subtle about Crash - the redemption of most of these characters appears in the form of extreme coincidences - but that's something that becomes easy to accept as the film progresses; it certainly doesn't hurt that Haggis includes a number of genuinely moving sequences that are unexpected but effective.
Three of Hearts
Directed by Susan Kaplan
USA/95 MINUTES/REAL TO REEL
Three of Hearts is an incredibly comprehensive documentary (it was filmed over the course of nearly 10 years!) that follows three people in a committed relationship - with each other. The unusual alliance started with Sam and Steven, a gay couple looking to add a woman to the mix. They eventually find Samantha, whose natural curiosity draws her to the two men - but it's not long before all three are falling in love with each other. Director Susan Kaplan doesn't shy away from presenting the audience with some of the more awkward moments in the relationship, which includes the surprising decision by one of the participants to eventually walk away. Three of Hearts is mostly engaging, though there are a few sequences that seem to go on longer than necessary (a routine by the trio at a family reunion is a perfect example of this). Yet there's no denying the effectiveness of the film, and it's rare to find a documentary in which the viewer becomes so involved with the folks up on screen.