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Toronto International Film Festival 2003 - UPDATE #2

Directed by Hector Babenco

Carandiru tells the real-life story of the titular prison, where 111 prisoners were murdered by over-eager riot police. If Hollywood ever decides to remake the film, they won't have to change much; Carandiru already has in place the sort of cutesy characterizations and simplistic plotting that mainstream American movies seem to crave. The first two hours of Carandiru essentially works like an average prison film, with a select group of inmates coming to the forefront. Among them is a charismatic prisoner named Highness (Ailton Graca, whose resemblance to Denzel Washington is uncanny) who's juggling two wives, and Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro), a transvestite planning to marry a fellow inmate. We meet the various convicts through the eyes of a doctor (played by Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) that's just started work at the prison. Finally, after two hours of almost interminable soap opera-esque shenanigans, the movie focuses on the pivotal riot that triggered the horrifying bloodbath. Carandiru clearly has its intentions in the right place - this is an awful event that most people have never even heard of - but the execution undermines the authenticity of the story. Director Hector Babenco (who also co-wrote the screenplay) apparently believes the audience will lose interest unless he peppers the film with quirky supporting characters, including the aforementioned prisoners. As a result, there are few figures in the movie that feel realistic; the compassionate doctor is one of them, but his screen time is fairly limited. As it turns out, the prison itself is far more compelling than anyone inside it; the inmates are seemingly allowed to bunk where ever they like, and decorate their cells to their choosing (the character of Lady Di even has an actual bed in his room). And once the massacre does begin, the movie goes completely over-the-top - portraying the attacking soldiers as rabid dogs and the prisoners as defenseless kittens. It's at this point that Carandiru turns into an Important Movie, with slow motion accompanied by sweeping music as we view the carnage and the dead inmates. Babenco even goes so far as to film one of the casualties in the Christ pose, which is taking things just a tad far (putting it mildly).

out of

Hollywood North
Directed by Peter O'Brian

As Project Greenlight has already proved, there's nothing quite so entertaining as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the making of a movie in which everything goes wrong. And while Hollywood North does a fairly effective job of portraying just that, the film had the potential to be a biting satire of not just the movie industry but of the way Hollywood views Canada (hence the title). Unfortunately, the movie seems content to simply exist as a wacky comedy (how else do you explain the presence of Alan Thicke?), which is somewhat disappointing. Hollywood North follows producer Bobby Meyers (Matthew Modine) as he attempts to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to make a film based on a beloved Canadian novel called Lantern Moon. But when a washed-up Hollywood star named Michael Baytes (Alan Bates) is cast in the central role, he insists on making changes that effectively turn the film into an action picture (with the much less ambiguous title of Flight to Bogota). Not helping matters is the presence of Sandy Ryan (Deborah Kara Unger), a filmmaker who's on hand to document the entire production. Hollywood North is enjoyable enough, in a movie-of-the-week sort of way. With Flight to Bogota, screenwriter Tony Johnston and director Peter O'Brian have done a fantastic job of recreating the sort of cheesy low-budget action flick that was all-too-common in the '70s. And the various behind-the-scenes shenanigans are entertaining, in a manner that's more farcical than anything else. But the movie completely falls apart in the last 20 minutes, with Baytes believing that he's under attack from a Cuban freedom fighter (rather than his character, you see). It's a turn of events that probably looked better on paper, but just doesn't work; everything comes to a halt as this exceedingly silly plot-twist threatens to turn the movie into a bad SNL sketch. But Modine proves to have a real knack for comedy, and the eclectic supporting cast keeps things interesting. It's just a shame that Hollywood North never becomes anything more than an innocuous time-waster.

out of

Directed by Carl Bessai

Emile is the sort of prototypical movie that one expects from a made-in-Canada production; ie there's not much of a plot to speak of, and characters spend a lot of time examining their own lives. But despite long passages of dullness, the film generally works primarily because of Ian McKellen's fantastic lead performance. McKellen stars as Emile, a retired professor returning to his birthplace of Canada to accept an honorary degree. His niece, Nadia (Deborah Kara Unger), offers to let him stay at her house - along with her daughter, Maria. Storywise, that's about it. Emile's plagued by the ghosts of his childhood, including his relationship with his two brothers, and spends an awful lot of time wandering through his memories (McKellen plays his younger self, which is more than a little jarring). It's those flashbacks that prove to be the film's undoing, as their every appearance takes the viewer out of the story and completely interrupts any flow the movie had going for it. Emile finally picks up towards the end, as McKellen's character begins to form a bond with Maria (and, by association, Nadia), but it's too little too late by then. Bessai clearly has talent - he's got a keen eye for what looks good on screen - but his attempts to turn Emile into a story about redemption and forgiveness fall flat. Still, the acting (particularly by McKellen, who leaves all traces of Magneto and Gandalf firmly behind him) makes this worth a look for the curious, but really, this would've been far more effective as a short.

out of

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Directed by Peter Webber

It doesn't really matter whether or not you're aware of the fact that Girl with a Pearl Earring is an actual painting from the 17th century; the film works as a drama involving a young peasant girl. Scarlett Johansson stars as Griet, a 17-year-old sent to work as a servant in the Vermeer household. Patriarch Johannes (Colin Firth) is a tortured painter that hardly seems to enjoy his work, but there's no denying his ample talent. But Vermeer's lack of inspiration changes after he spots Griet cleaning a window in his study, and though his family and village disapprove, Vermeer begins to paint the young woman. Unlike a lot of films set in this time period, Girl with a Pearl Earring manages to entertain throughout - primarily due to Griet's compelling nature. She's someone we sympathize with, and because it occasionally seems as if everyone is against her (particularly Vermeer's wife, who presumably suspects the two of having an affair), her plight becomes all-the-more intriguing. It's that fish-out-of-water element that keeps the film interesting initially, with Griet working to insinuate herself into the lives of the Vermeer family (particularly Johannes, obviously). But as the movie progresses, it becomes more about Griet being painted secretly - which isn't quite as compelling as her attempts to blend into the household. Still, director Peter Webber (making his debut) does a fantastic job of establishing the Dutch landscape of the past; the poorer areas are dank and dirty, while the wealthy neighborhoods are as elegant and ornate as one might imagine. It's interesting to note that certain sequences - such as when Griet and a suitor walk through a forest - are shot in such a way as to look like paintings; as it turns out, this was intentional and such moments have been crafted to replicate actual, well-known paintings.

out of

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© David Nusair