Toronto International Film Festival 2005 - UPDATE #7
Thank You For Smoking
Directed by Jason Reitman
USA/92 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Based on the satirical novel by Christopher Buckley, Thank You For Smoking follows slick tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) as he encounters obstacles and quirky characters over a particularly tumultuous period in his career. The film, written and directed by Jason Reitman (making his debut here), is enjoyable enough - the opening half hour, in particular, is fast-paced and funny - but there comes a point at which it becomes increasingly obvious where all this is going. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Nick is going to have a Jerry Maguire-esque breakdown, although - to be fair - Nick never entirely denounces his profession. As a result, the film loses its comedic edge as it approaches its conclusion - until finally becoming a surprisingly tedious character study. Effective as Eckhart is in the central role, Nick never entirely becomes a thoroughly compelling character - which makes it difficult to care about his third-act revelations. Still, with a cast comprised of familiar faces - including William H. Macy, JK Simmons, and Robert Duvall - Thank You For Smoking remains a pleasant enough way to kill 92 minutes (although one has to imagine that Buckley's book packed more of a punch than this).
Directed by Richard E. Grant
UNITED KINGDOM/SOUTH AFRICA/FRANCE/97 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Watching Wah-Wah, it's virtually impossible for the viewer to feel anything other than complete and total apathy; apathy for the characters, apathy for the story, and apathy for director Richard E. Grant's stylistic choices. It's a shame, really, since the movie is actually fairly well made - particularly in terms of the performances, which are almost uniformly above-average. The film revolves around a young boy named Ralph Compton (played by Zachary Fox and Nicholas Hoult at different ages), who finds himself caught in the middle of his parent's crumbling marriage. Years later, his father (Gabriel Byrne) marries a brash American (Emily Watson) who proceeds to shake things up in a big way. Wah-Wah marks Grant's directorial debut, and given that the filmmaker also wrote the screenplay, there's little doubt that the story holds a fair amount of personal meaning for him. Unfortunately, it also feels as though he's made the movie just for himself - as there's nothing here for the viewer to connect with. This is despite the inclusion of several dramatic moments, which - not surprisingly - provide virtually no emotional impact. The bottom line is that we've seen this sort of film countless times before, and Grant offers little in the way of innovation.
A Little Trip to Heaven
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
ICELAND/98 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
With A Little Trip to Heaven, director Baltasar Kormákur - in his zeal to imbue the film with an innovative sense of style - overwhelms the viewer with increasingly oppressive visuals and a score that strikes all the wrong notes right from the get-go. There's absolutely nothing subtle about Kormákur's directorial choices, which serve only as a needless distraction from the storyline. That the plot is just as muddled as the film's look certainly doesn't help matters, and there are certain elements within Kormákur's screenplay that are never resolved (ie what are we to make of the car crash that opens the movie?) Forest Whitaker (sporting a ridiculous, would-be midwestern accent that renders an unfortunate amount of his dialogue unintelligible) stars as an insurance investigator who is sent to a small town on assignment, where a shady husband and wife (played by Jeremy Renner and Julia Stiles) stand to inherit a million bucks if a questionable claim goes through. A large proportion of A Little Trip to Heaven makes absolutely no sense, but worse than that, it's just not interesting. The film's mystery is virtually impossible to follow, while the characters remain hopelessly under-developed - making it exceedingly difficult to care about any of this. The needlessly arty vibe only serves to exacerbate matters, and there's little doubt that A Little Trip to Heaven's appeal is limited to fans of the director.
Directed by Wayne Beach
USA/93 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
With its convoluted storyline and forgettable sense of style, Slow Burn can't help but feel like a typically overblown straight-to-video thriller. This is despite the presence of folks like Ray Liotta, Taye Diggs, and LL Cool J in the film's cast, but at the film's core is a mystery that simply isn't interesting. Liotta stars as a district attorney who finds himself embroiled in a massive conspiracy involving a notorious crime boss, while Enterprise's Jolene Blalock plays a bi-racial lawyer who may or may not be telling the truth about a violent rape that kicks off the story. While Slow Burn does admittedly pick up towards the end - as the film morphs into a flat-out ripoff of The Usual Suspects - there's virtually nothing in the first hour that even comes close to holding the viewer's interest. In his efforts to keep the various plot strands and character deceptions straight, writer/director Wayne Beach has neglected to turn any of these people into figures worth caring about. And though his script is peppered with some choice bits of dialogue (ie "she walked into the room smelling like mashed potatoes and every guy wanted to be the gravy"), Beach imbues the movie with an smoky, unpleasant visual style that becomes an annoyance almost immediately.
Directed by Udayan Prasad
UNITED KINGDOM/97 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
Opa! is a delightful, breezy little romantic comedy that doesn't offer any great shakes in terms of characters or plotting, but is surprisingly compelling from start to finish (thanks primarily to the engaging performances and breathtaking scenery). Matthew Modine plays Eric, an American archeologist who arrives in Greece intending to unearth a rare artifact that his father spent his entire career pursuing. Shortly after arriving, Eric finds himself falling for the beautiful owner of a local tavern named Katerina (Agni Scott) - although the budding romance is soon threatened by the revelation that said artifact just happens to be buried underneath Katerina's establishment (which would, of course, have to be demolished during the excavation). It's not at all difficult to figure out where all of this is going, and yet it's hard not to be drawn into the relatively simple storyline. Though Raman Singh and Christina Concetta's screenplay is peppered with various cliches of the genre - including the dreaded fake break-up and the last-minute race to reunite with a departing lover - the palpable chemistry between Modine and Scott successfully allows the viewer to overlook such things. It certainly doesn't hurt that the film transpires against the romantic backdrop of Greece, lending the proceedings the feel of an effective travelogue for the country.
Directed by Aric Avelino
USA/95 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
With American Gun, director and co-writer Aric Avelino is clearly attempting to explore his country's fascination with guns and their effect on everyday citizens. But the filmmaker's less-than-subtle approach and workmanlike directorial choices quickly transform American Gun into an overblown and surprisingly tedious polemic. The movie transpires during a particularly tumultuous period in the lives of several characters, including a dedicated inner-city principal, the mother of a high school shooter, and an aimless young college student who's forced to work in her grandfather's gun shop. With performances from folks like Donald Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, and Marcia Gay Harden, American Gun remains somewhat entertaining throughout - although it's hard to shake the feeling that this is just a poor man's Crash. Adding to that feeling are some of the more over-the-top plot developments, including a ridiculously broad confrontation between the high-school shooter's mother and some unreasonably upset neighbors (who might as well be carrying pitchforks and torches). American Gun is a passable first effort, but Avelino's reliance on cliches and hackneyed elements to propel the story forward prevent it from becoming anything more than a mildly diverting curiosity.