Thursday, 23 May 2013

Five Big Names And Their (Bad) Unheard Of Festival Films

Ah, festivals. Those bastions of excellence that unspool the finest cinematic offerings for the most discerning of movie tastes, yes?

Those of us who have dragged ourselves through six screenings a day and rushed off to catch titles that at any other point of the year would be ignored in droves know enough through experience what miserable excuses for movies can await around the next auditorium corner at even the most renown of fests. The reasons are vast - some governmental organizations whose concern is for offering their nation's works regardless of quality and knowing the festival is hot for films A and B are fine with providing those efforts...but only perhaps if spots can be found for the ugly sister movies C and D as well. Of course there is the issue of loyalty to a fest - many events have favorite filmmakers whose past films have always screened the years before and are invited back out of gratitude and loyalty...even if said director has been on the down elevator ride re: quality for some time. (Egoyan, anyone?)

And of course there's always the case of where a fine cinematic talent has tried their best and just had an off-effort, constructing a less-than-appealing offering. No big deal. Happens all the time.

But what of films supplied by A-list/legendary figures that were less than serious productions to start with and turned out to be silly wastes of time for fest goers? Just because you happen to have a film extravaganza waiting seems to have led some to believe they can choose such events to inflict nonsense that would not see the time of day in the routine world. What excuses (and gall) allowed some of their less-then-sterling efforts to screen at these events and then (deservedly) disappear?

I attended the Toronto International Film Festival (and it's predecessor, the Festival of Festivals) for several years and share here some memories of a few of those movies that have led the way in illustrating that just because it's in town doesn't mean it shouldn't be run out of town:

Paul Schrader - Forever Mine -  (1999) - there is no denying that Schrader has been a cinematic force (screenplays of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull - directorial efforts including Mishima and Blue Collar) but it has been his history to prove himself as an erratic talent at best. Unfortunately, it may have been the worst of his off-efforts that I came across at TIFF that fall.

Joseph (The Other) Fiennes portrays a cabana boy who pays too much attention to the young wife (Gretchen Mol) of a corrupt political figure (Ray Liotta). After the thug figures things out, he has his boys beat the livin' daylights out of said towel boy until there is basically nothing left in his crippled body, especially of his face.

But that, unfortunately, does not bring this lifeless mess of a movie to a conclusion. No - fast forward to several years in the future where the Fiennes character remarkably returns, unrecognizable in appearance,  as an international power broker who may be just what the Liotta character needs to get out of some legal messes.

How did the cabana boy get a new face? How did he become such an incredibly powerful figure? Ah, he just Schrader.

Yes, ridiculous indeed. This is where the film moved from boring to outright laughable.

I remember Schrader coming out before the screening and telling the audience he wanted to do this kind of "old-fashioned picture". I thank Mr. Director for educating me that "old-fashioned" is apparently a cinematic euphemism for "incredibly-bad-excuse-to-do-an-unforgiveable-half-assed-amateurish-effort-and-screen- half-baked-ideas-for-unknowing-saps-at-a-film-festival"! Aside from a few good lines by Liotta and (if you're into it) some stunning visuals of a delicious looking Mol in her semi-nude states, this mediocre mess personified the term "straight-to-video".

(Fortunately, Schrader followed up this debauchery with the more than admirable Auto Focus.)

Brian De Palma - Home Movies -  (1980) - Yes, I get it. How sweet. Circa 1980, De Palma is a name director who has become fond of the fledgling festival in Toronto. He has allowed his pupils at Sarah Lawrence College to try their hands at some big-time directing by submitting their opinions for some of the scenes in a glorified student film experiment that came in at less than a million bucks. Brian gets to, promote...the career of his wife Nancy Allen at the same time. (Okay, maybe not.) And then this unwatchable film thesis gets a gala gig at said nascent festival

As memory serves me, there was a cancellation of another film (that happened often in the early years of the Toronto fest) and this amateurish effort with the insistent mugging of Kirk Douglas as the mad scientist-type filmmaking guru coaching the younger dude recording his family goings-on became a waste of time five minutes in! Hey, De Palma was a name for an event that required it. But this?...would this deliberate train wreck of a film screen in Cannes or Berlin? Someone actually bothered to construct a more elaborate view of this mess you may want to bother reading.

Home Movies is an experiment that should never have left the lab.

Steven Soderbergh - Schizopolis -  (1996) - "I want to assure you that no expense was incurred in bringing this motion picture to your theatre..." (Soderbergh as film narrator.)

Truer words were never said.

Alright, it's probably unfair to lump Soderbergh's return to bare-bones filmmaking with the rest of these dregs, as this experimental, nearly impossible to describe (the "Movie Info" notes in this Rotten Tomatoes page does as good a job as any) comedy flic is clearly meant to be some attempt on his part to sort out his cinematic sanity. And, to his credit, Soderbergh inflects his torturous directorial ramblings toward one actor in particular...himself (and at times shows a pretty good comic knack).

Sure, things like the generic greeting bit have their humour and charm...but perhaps more in a SNL skit I can watch for free than at a film festival screening that cost me more than lunch. I suppose there's actually a place for a film like Schizopolis in a festival setting - I merely submit it as one more example of a major talent bringing less than their best to such a gathering. A bunch of gags that probably read funnier on paper. A student-type 15 minute film that lasted 96 minutes. Enough said.


Anthony Quinn (via Daryush Shokof) - Seven Servants (1996) -  In some ways, I look at Shokof (excuse me..."artist/filmmaker Shokof") as being like the faux Italian neo-realist filmmaker Federico Fabrizi, portrayed by Peter Sellers in De Sica's After The Fox...someone that no one has heard of, therefore he must be good.

Seriously, check out part of this bio from his IMDB profile and tell me how it sounds to you (emphasis in bold is mine):
"He has made his movies through the help of private friends and contribution and cooperation from great many professionals who believed and supported in his abilities as an artist-filmmaker. He has never had any of his movies released to the public and has never received any funding for any of his films from any official film industry related companies, and or from any country. He continues making films under amazing conditions which in itself are truly an interesting story to make a film about."
Is that not the second coming of Federico Fabrizi or what? And look at the reviews that were left behind on IMDB - mostly glowing beyond belief (and most of them with the same type of spelling/grammatical errors...hmm...)

Anyway, it's not Shokof I'm nailing, it's the legendary Anthony Quinn...yes, "Zorba" Quinn himself who deserves the take-down. Rumour would have it that Quinn was dueling Marlon Brando for the lead in playing this eccentric old dude who knows he's dying and hires seven servants to stick their fingers in his various body openings for the last days of his life. Yup, that's what happens. While I usually have no need for reviews from Variety, this one on Seven Servants pretty much sums up my feelings...kitsch silliness indeed.

Quinn was a legend nearing the end of his own life and it's a tragedy that this was one of  his last works. A pity he exposed it to the Toronto crowd. If Shokof's films are never seen by the "public" that should include the film festival public as well.

Beyond these lesser lights that I had the misfortune to bear witness to, here is one more rather legendary effort...

Johnny Depp - The Brave -  (1997) - I will admit that I have never seen this film (and, by most accounts, there's a good reason for that). Several of the critics at the Cannes fest had nothing but the worst to say about Depp's first (and only) directorial effort, although some later noted more positive aspects of the project.

Still, it's my understanding Depp himself is disappointed by the effort, even if it was a learning experience and he may try again one day.

I admit The Brave is not so much a knowingly bad film released to a film festival - Depp wanted to make this film and I'm sure put his heart and soul into it. (And it has an Iggy Pop soundtrack!) Clearly the folks at Cannes must have been excited to have his directorial debut. Perhaps a non-competitive event like Toronto's would actually have been a better launch pad. At risk of contradicting myself, many an actor has screened their first directorial efforts at TIFF (see Denzel Washington, Kevin Spacey, Tom Hanks), knowing they would receive a lot of attention without the same critical focus surrounding Cannes, Venice or Berlin.

Be warned - just because you are at a major film festival and the biggest names are on display, the smallest efforts often follow.

Would be interested to know if anyone else has encountered similar fest fromage.

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