Martin Sheen walks Camino de Santiago in "The Way"

Faith-Based Films at the Toronto International Film Festival

Why come to a festival like the Toronto International film Festival (TIFF) if not to find what Michael Lewis calls “the new new thing” ?

One of those things this year is the faith-based film, at least the version of that genre represented by The Way, the latest film by Emilio Estevez, starring his father Martin Sheen. Hint — Remember “Jesus said, I am The Way”? The title also comes from the Spanish word “camino,” the road.  What better story could there be for Sheen, whos a Spanish-speaking church-going Roman Catholic?

In this road movie (without cars), Sheen plays a comfortable ophthalmologist who walks across Spain (and into his own destiny) after traveling from the golf course in Los Angeles to the French border to identify and cremate the body of his son who dies in a flash snowstorm.

Martin Sheen in The Way

Martin Sheen in "The Way"

Its a journey of self-discovery for Sheens character, for better or worse. Beneath the bonhomie that he finds with other eccentric characters on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela, this is an earnest search for meaning, sort of like Under the Tuscan Sun, but for a man. Note that it seems easier to find meaning when the food, wine and weather are good.  (And when youre walking all day, who needs to diet?)

Estevez and company do connect with some of the Chaucerian bawdiness that made pilgrimages so attractive back then. Those were the days when you could have sex with a prostitute (they were aplenty long the way) and then atone for it by walking toward a shrine at double-speed. This films problem is that the filmmakers dont know the territory. The pilgrimage trail is a magical place, and The Way barely connects with that magic. If it fails to do well in the marketplace, the Spanish Tourist Board can always cut it up and use it as advertising.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip. Photograph: BBC/Revolution/Phil Fisk/Revolution

The alternative – or antidote – to The Way, is The Trip, Michael Winterbottoms new road movie, which seems to have a car in every other shot. The Trip, not to be confused with the classic 1967 acid film of the same title (directed by Roger Corman, with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper), follows two Brits – Steve Coogan and Robob Brydon – as they travel through the picturesque Lake Country, stopping at a rarefied restaurant for every meal. (Their generic term epithet for the coulis and whipped sauces of nouvelle cuisine is bird-shit, which they eat nonetheless, giving you an idea of how The Trip compares to The Way.) The two comedians manage to find no meaning in life, even though the food is good, but they compete like schoolboys over everything from imitations of movie stars to the number of films that theyve made.

The Trip is as much fun as any film this year, and a lot more fun than Winterbottoms nasty undignified adaptation of Jim Thompsons The Killer Inside Me which came and went from theaters since its ill-starred premiere at Sundance in January.  If youre a Winterbottom fan -and everyone should be, since hes one of the best directors out there on his good days – youll think of his clever Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (which made about $10 at the box office, proving that good and bad films by the same director can be flops).

The script for The Trip, improvised or just non-existent, seems to take its inspiration from talk-fest television shows like Seinfeld – you can see Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David in these two guys.  Listen to their competing Woody Allen imitations, and youll be reminded how many American movies these Brits watch. Youll walk out of the film trying to talk like Sean Connery.

If your taste runs to films in the Boston accent, there was The Town, the adaptation of The Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, directed by Ben Affleck, which got plenty of hype even before the festival. But the film to watch was Conviction, Tony Goldwyns drama about the wrongful murder verdict in 1983 that kept Kenneth Waters in prison on a life sentence until a team led by his sister, a lawyer, convinced a court to void the conviction almost 20 years later. The sister, Betty Ann Waters, was a high school dropout who went to college and law school to get her brother freed.  Hilary Swank plays Betty Ann as the daughter of a neglectful mother who was raised to make mischief with her brother, and then devotes her life to reversing a verdict based on testimony offered two years after the killing from two coerced exes. Sam Rockwell gives the performance of his life as a town nuisance – by most accounts a charming loser and a volatile petty crook – who ends up railroaded by cops who want to solve an open case.

As wrongful convictions go, and there are plenty of them, this case was particularly horrendous – witnesses were threatened, records were buried, cops and prosecutors were unrepentant.  Juliette Lewis as a drunken ex-girlfriend is another great moment in a film that could have been another car chase and bar brawl melodrama, but gives us much more.

If Conviction is a dream team cast with a budget, Monsters is anything but that. Whatever its budget was, it was low in this road thriller debut by Brit effects specialist Gareth Edwards about an American journalist struggling to cross the border back into the US Southwest from Central America across territory controlled by aliens.   Yes, and these arent undocumented aliens. Think of District 9 on a shoestring. You would expect Edwards to create believable monsters, but he also gets at the emotional dread and the landscape of desperate poverty. In the US, the creatures roam a hurricane-ravaged territory. If only Edwards had known about the oil spill when he was filming.

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