I ended my last post by discussing the work of film festival juries, and as it happens, this year in Toronto I find myself serving on one—not one of the festival's official juries, but rather the film critics' jury organized independently by FIPRESCI, a membership organization consisting of critics from just about every corner of the world. There, I am joined by three colleagues—one from France, one from Chile, and one from good old Canada itself. Our mission is to award a single prize to the best film in the festival's Discovery section, 14 movies described by the Toronto catalogue as “promising feature films by new and emerging directors.” Yet, halfway through the festival and having seen eight of the films, the only thing I've discovered thus far is that it is now possible to dwell almost anywhere on the planet and make films that are as concept-driven, slickly packaged, and direly uninspired as most of what emerges from the Hollywood dream factory.
Don't misunderstand: These aren't uniformly terrible films by any means—in fact, that's part of the problem. Most of them are impeccably well-photographed; some feature better-than-average acting. But just as so many movies from the ever-harder-to-define American Independent arena now look and feel like down-market knock-offs of their big-studio brethren, most of this year's Discovery titles feel like slightly exoticized versions of those Amerindie movie staples: the emo coming-of-age story, the earnest social-issues drama, and the “quirky” relationship comedy. And while the films themselves may hail from Spain, South Africa or Macedonia, their true birthplace is the film-school petri dish, where eager young filmmaking minds are taught "proper" screenwriting etiquette, the "correct" way to shoot and edit a scene, and other techniques designed to result in impersonal lifeless works.
Take, for example, September, a thick-headed civil-rights drama set amidst the farmlands of Western Australia circa 1968 that goes something like this: Idealistic white boy with a sensitive-artistic streak grows up buddy-buddy with the son of his father's aboriginal farmhand, until the ugly face of racial inequality frowns upon their blissful Camelot and turns the once-friendly jabs of the boys' afterschool boxing matches into punishing blows. Naturally, because these are good, honest country folk, they don't say more than four or five words at a time—all the better for the film's writer-director, Peter Carstairs, to fill the screen with lustrous images of wheat fields at dusk and barren rural roads (where, in the film's climax, we see our two protagonists walk past each other in opposite directions, just in case we didn't already get the point).
Or take—please—the shrill Danish comedy With Your Permission, in which the mild-mannered kitchen manager of a commuter ferry must concoct increasingly elaborate cover stories for the nightly physical abuse he takes from his shrew of a wife. Some have suggested that this is an Adam Sandler remake just waiting to happen. I spent most of the running time waiting for Norbit to call and ask for its plot back.
And lo, I have not yet even mentioned The Passage, which is most effectively described as a slightly artier (i.e., it opens with shots of cloud-covered mountaintops at dawn and hand pipes blowing on the soundtrack), less honestly exploitative version of last year's Turistas, here with B-movie-central's Stephen Dorff as an American photographer on vacation in Morocco who fails to heed that age-old wisdom: Beware the comely Muslim woman who cozies up to you in a crowded street bazaar, for inevitably she will want to kidnap you and sell your internal organs on the black market. This is, I feel fairly confident, the worst movie I will see this year, in Toronto or anywhere else. Things can only get better from here.
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