Toronto International Film Festival 2005 - UPDATE #9
Directed by Lars von Trier
Manderlay picks up almost immediately after the events of Dogville, with Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) living amongst former slaves in an old plantation. Grace assumes that she can teach these people how to get by without a master, though it's not long before things start to go wrong. As expected, von Trier imbues Manderlay with an exceedingly low-key aesthetic, forgoing sets in favor of chalk outlines and imaginary doors (complete with ludicrous sound effects each time someone enters a room). As a result, it's virtually impossible for the viewer to get lost in this world - a problem that's exacerbated by the extraordinarily dull vibe. Much of Manderlay consists of pointless sequences and extraordinarily mundane conversations (you'd be hard pressed to find stagier dialogue on Broadway), and though there are a few interesting moments here and there, there's certainly not enough to keep the viewer engaged. This is despite Howard's electrifying performance and an unexpectedly intriguing conclusion, but the bottom line is that Manderlay is a pretentious mess from start to finish.
Directed by Joshua Michael Stern
USA/108 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Given the presence of such notable cast members as Aaron Eckhart, Ian McKellen, William Hurt, and Nick Nolte, it really is shocking just how dull Neverwas eventually becomes. The story revolves around a psychiatrist named Zach Riley (Eckhart), who goes to work in the very same institute where his father was treated years earlier. There, he meets a mysterious old patient (McKellen) with a tenuous grasp on reality, and it's not long before Zach uncovers a few of his father's buried secrets. Writer/director Joshua Michael Stern imbues Neverwas with a somber, almost ethereal sense of style, which - when combined with the extraordinarily slow pace - lends the film a tedious, tiresome quality. It certainly doesn't help that the more fantastical elements in Stern's screenplay become more and more pronounced as the movie progresses, making it virtually impossible to care about Zach's plight. Eckhart delivers an expectedly sturdy performance, while McKellen goes over-the-top early and often (although, to be fair, the character demands such histrionics). Stern's reliance on overly-convenient plot developments - ie a key discovery that Zach makes midway through (he walks into a house that just happens to be unlocked) - exacerbates the film's problems, and it seems obvious that Neverwas is unlikely to find much of an audience outside of the film festival circuit.
Beowulf & Grendel
Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson
CANADA/UNITED KINGDOM/ICELAND/103 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Based on the famed epic poem, Beowulf & Grendel tells the astonishingly dull and hopelessly irrelevant story of a legendary warrior named Beowulf (Gerard Butler) who must hunt down and kill a murderous troll before it does any more damage. With a storyline that involves sea monsters, larger-than-life heroes, and quirky fortune tellers, it seems clear that Beowulf & Grendel has been geared specifically to appeal to children - although the presence of some awfully scary moments towards the end would seem to refute that idea. The result is a movie that's not entirely appropriate for kids but way too silly for adults, while Gunnarsson's bland directorial choices ensure that even fans of the source material will be left scratching their heads. The performances are competent, at least, although a large portion of the dialogue is virtually impossible to follow thanks to Gunnarsson's ill-conceived vision (it's either flowery to such an extent that it doesn't make any sense or it's drowned out by some seriously heavy accents). That Robert Zemeckis' next film is also based on this story is a frightening thought, and it's impossible not to wonder just what it is about this pointless tale that its followers have latched onto.
Directed by Richard Shepard
The Matador is a lightweight but entertaining black comedy revolving around two disparate characters that become unlikely friends. Julian (Pierce Brosnan) is a burnt-out hitman who'd like nothing more than to hang up his silencer for good, while Danny (Greg Kinnear) is a well-meaning salesman who worries that his wife (played by Hope Davis) is going to leave him if business doesn't pick up soon. Written and directed by Richard Shepard, The Matador moves at a brisk pace and features a pair of exceedingly enjoyable performances - with Brosnan particularly effective playing a character that couldn't be further away from James Bond. Shepard's script is peppered with a number of genuinely funny moments, and the inclusion of a couple of surprising plot twists towards the conclusion keeps things interesting. And while there's no denying that The Matador is the sort of movie one forgets about moments after it's ended, the movie's breezy vibe quickly proves to be irresistible (particularly smack-dab in the middle of a day rife with intense dramas and searing documentaries).
Directed by Amos Gitaï
A colossal misfire of epic proportions, Free Zone is an interminable, pointless, and thoroughly dull film revolving around three women in the Middle East (played by Natalie Portman, Hanna Laslo, and Hiam Abbas). Director Amos Gitaï imbues Free Zone with an almost nonstop barrage of poor directorial choices, something that's compounded by the astoundingly inane dialogue (to paraphrase a line from Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, this dialogue isn't even interesting accidentally). The film kicks off with a self-indulgent, seemingly endless shot of Portman's character sobbing, and only gets worse from there. Gitaï's use of handheld cinematography feels claustrophobic and amateurish right from the get-go, although that's not even as bad as his decision to superimpose three images over each other for absurdly prolonged periods of time (ie a POV shot of a car driving is layered with a shot of Portman's character staring out the window, which is layered with two characters talking). Making things worse (which hardly even seems possible) is the complete and total lack of interesting characters, as Portman and her two co-stars play figures that aren't even remotely developed (Portman's character is from New York, and that's virtually all we learn about her). Add to that a truly grating performance from Laslo (who comes off as a stereotypical and utterly obnoxious Jewish mother), and you've got a recipe for an unquestionably awful, awful film.
no stars out of
Directed by Lee Daniels
USA/93 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
Starring Cuba Gooding Jr as a stone-cold hitman (!), Shadowboxer marks the directorial debut of noted independent producer Lee Daniels. Daniels imbues the film with an overly lush sense of style, transforming virtually every scene into a weirdly over-the-top mini-movie. Gooding Jr plays Mikey, who - along with partner Rose (Helen Mirren) - makes a decent living killing people. But when Rose refuses to murder a pregnant woman, Mikey finds his orderly life turned upside down. While Will Rokos' screenplay goes in several unexpected directions, Shadowboxer never quite becomes anything more than a mildly diverting thriller - thanks primarily to Daniels' arty directorial choices and Gooding Jr's far-from-compelling performance. In terms of the latter, while there's no denying that the actor is actually quite effective here (particularly considering some of his recent efforts, ie Boat Trip and Snow Dogs), the emotionless nature of his character makes it virtually impossible for the audience to really connect with his plight. Having said that, Shadowboxer is basically entertaining throughout - though it seems obvious that Daniels needs to take a lesson from the less-is-more rulebook.