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Toronto International Film Festival 2003 - UPDATE #4

Falling Angels
Directed by Scott Smith

Falling Angels, based on the novel by Barbara Gowdy, is one of the most effective family dramas to emerge in a good long while. Set at the end of the 1960s, the film follows the Field family through their trials and tribulations over a particularly tumultuous couple of months. Mother Mary (Miranda Richardson) spends the majority of her day lying on the couch, hopped up on pills to deal with her depression - while dad Jim (Callum Keith Rennie) uses his military background to run his household. Their three daughters have problems of their own: Lou (Katherine Isabelle) is a rebellious sort who's just begun a relationship with a draft dodger from the States; Sandy (Kirsten Adams) has also started seeing someone, a sleazy shoe salesman (played a little too convincingly by Mark McKinney), and honestly hopes to settle down with him; Norma (Monte Gagne) is the outcast of the family, with her extremely low self-confidence and fixation on their dead brother. Not surprisingly, Falling Angels doesn't contain much in the way of plot - that's par for the course with movies of this type - but the characters are so compelling here that it's barely noticeable until the very end (which goes on a bit longer than it should). Director Scott Smith has a keen eye for '60s details (the film feels authentic, from the Volkswagen minibus that Lou's boyfriend drives to the old-school TV commercials that can occasionally be glimpsed), and he's assembled a pitch-perfect cast. Rennie surely must've been tempted to channel Robert Duvall's tough-as-nails Great Santini character, but he manages to turn Jim into a far more complex figure. His good intentions rarely wind up the way he hopes (a routine Scrabble game turns into an awkward spelling battle between Jim and Lou), mostly because he refuses to see things from his wife or daughters' point of view. The only weak link is Miranda Richardson's Mary; the character isn't developed to the extent where we understand her indolence. Jim's behavior would indicate that Mary's been forced to withdraw completely from the world, but the screenplay never really allows us to get under her skin. Still, that's a minor complaint for a film that's otherwise surprisingly moving and emotional.

out of

Milwaukee, Minnesota
Directed by Allan Mindel

Milwaukee, Minnesota is such a thoroughly unpleasant and pointless movie, it's impossible not to wonder what screenwriter Richard Murphy was trying to do. Is the film meant to operate as a portrait of loneliness and alienation? If so, why has Murphy populated the story with such unsympathetic characters? The film revolves around a mentally handicapped man named Albert (Troy Garity) who lives with his overbearing mother (Debra Monk), while working at a local photocopying store. A pair of swindlers passing through town, Tuey and Stan (Alison Folland and Hank Harris), learn that Albert has a good deal of money socked away, and plan to cozy up to the man to get at the cash. Milwaukee, Minnesota is filled with stereotypes - the sleazy salesman decked out in a '70s brown leather jacket, the aging bar floozy, the domineering mother, etc - to the point where it becomes virtually impossible to care about a single character. Tuey is the most obvious example of this, a walking cliche that seems to exist only to have her cold heart melted by the Albert's naivete and kindess. The one-dimensional nature of the characters is exacerbated by the terminally slow pace; director Allan Mindel admittedly does a nice job of establishing the mood of this small town, but it's a moot point since the audience is given nothing to become involved with. A waste of time, really, but Josh Brolin's inexplicable cameo as a lingerie-wearing thug has to be seen to be believed.

out of

School of Rock
Directed by Richard Linklater

It's certainly an odd choice for a film festival, there's no denying that. But Richard Linklater's School of Rock is a thoroughly enjoyable comedy that finally gives Jack Black a role he can really sink his teeth into. For those that dislike the actor, the movie will probably be about as entertaining as a root canal. But for his fans, School of Rock essentially allows Black to unleash all his ticks and mannerisms in a forum that encourages it. Dewey Finn (Black) has been rockin' since the '70s, sticking with his dream to hit it big as the guitarist for a rock 'n roll band. But when he's kicked out of said band, Dewey quickly discovers that he's become something of a joke in the music world. Desperate for cash, he assumes the identity of his substitute teacher roommate and begins working at a prestigious private school. As you've probably already guessed from the film's promotional materials, Dewey tricks the kids into forming their own band and starts teaching them how to rock. There's nothing ground-breaking or innovative about School of Rock - the idea of gathering a ragtag group of kids and turning them into a cohesive team is nothing new - but the execution and particularly Black's performance ensure that the movie remains entertaining throughout. And though Mike White's script goes exactly the route you'd expect regarding the discovery of Dewey's true identity, that portion of the story is kept mercifully short. The film works best in sequences involving Dewey and the kids, and thankfully, those make up the bulk of the running time. It's not exactly high art, but it's probably one of the best comedies to emerge out of Hollywood in a while (which isn't saying much, really).

out of

Directed by Lars von Trier

A lot's been made of the fact that Lars von Trier entirely shot Dogville in a warehouse, without sets of any kind. Houses are marked with chalk on a black floor, and the background alternates between black and white to indicate day and night. And it's not that aspect of the film that I object to - it's easy enough to see past the minimalist set design - it's the severely overlong running time (three hours!) and inexplicably odd behavior among characters that does the film in. Set in the '30s, Dogville stars Nicole Kidman as Grace - a fugitive on the run from gangsters. She arrives in Dogville, a small town located in the Rocky Mountains and slowly insinuates herself into the lives of its residents - particularly Tom (Paul Bettany), a kind would-be writer. But as time progresses, the denizens begin to realize the control they have over Grace and eventually use that knowledge to their advantage. Dogville's been accused of being anti-American, a claim that's not far off the mark. Von Trier clearly believes the majority of Americans (or is it just humans?) are ready and willing to submit to mob mentality and - worse yet - that most men have no problems with rape (evidently, in von Trier's world, the only thing preventing a man from becoming a rapist is the time and effort that goes into it). Without giving too much away, the film's bizarre transformation into Boxing Helena with better actors is completely absurd and not believable in the least. And it's such a shame, too, as von Trier does a nice job in setting up the town and people in it; almost every character winds up fairly well-developed, and the town becomes intimately familiar to us fairly quickly (I suppose that's what happens when there are no walls hindering our view). Still, the film never becomes all-out boring - a testament to the talented actors, with Kidman and Bettany clear stand-outs. While I don't really recommend the movie, the whole thing might just be worth sitting through to witness the spectacularly cruel ending.

out of

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© David Nusair