Toronto International Film Festival 2007 - UPDATE #1
Shake Hands with the Devil
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
CANADA/113 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
As the fourth film to deal with the Rwandan genocide in as many years - following previous Festival flicks Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs, and A Sunday in Kigali - Shake Hands with the Devil suffers from a vibe of familiarity that ultimately prevents it from making any kind of a real impact. And though it's as technically proficient and well acted as any of its predecessors, the movie is strangely lacking in the emotional resonance that one would have expected from the subject matter. Based on Romeo Dallaire's autobiography of the same name, Shake Hands with the Devil follows Dallaire (superbly played by Roy Dupuis) as he attempts to keep the peace during the mid-'90s extermination of over half a million Tutsis. Director Roger Spottiswoode - working from Michael Donovan's screenplay - bogs things down with an emphasis on the minute details of Dallaire's mission, and there's subsequently no doubt that the viewer is left with exceedingly little to connect with (even Dallaire himself is portrayed as an emotionally-closed off figure). The inclusion of several admittedly powerful sequences - particularly one in which Dallaire defiantly walks through a heavily-armed checkpoint - ensures that the film is never boring exactly, yet one can't help but feel a palpable sense of fatigue with this topic (that being said, this is probably the most all-encompassing look at the tragedy to date).
Poor Boy's Game
Directed by Clement Virgo
CANADA/104 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
After the pretentious excess of 2005's Lie With Me, Poor Boy's Game certainly marks a step in the right direction for filmmaker Clement Virgo - as the movie, though undeniably overlong, generally comes off as a moving and occasionally riveting piece of work. Rossif Sutherland stars as Donnie Rose, a rehabilitated thug who returns to his old neighborhood after a 10-year prison stint and must subsequently confront the family and friends of the young man he beat into a brain-damaged stupor. Poor Boy's Game certainly benefits from the almost uniformly strong casting choices, with Sutherland's superb work matched by costars Flex Alexander, Laura Regan, and particularly Danny Glover. The latter, playing the victim's conflicted father, offers up a subtle yet powerful performance that anchors the film and effectively sustains the viewer's interest even through the undeniably flabby midsection. That being said, there's simply no denying that Virgo loses his way as the movie enters its third act - as the director offers up a few needless twists and a protracted climactic boxing match (the latter of which also suffers from an unexpected development that probably worked better on the page). Still, Poor Boy's Game is - for the most part - a compelling effort that hopefully marks a new chapter in Virgo's career.
Contre toute espérance
Directed by Bernard Émond
CANADA/90 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
Filmmaker Bernard Émond's followup to 2005's La Neuvaine, Contre toute espérance casts Guylaine Tremblay as Réjeanne - a switchboard operator whose life is thrown into turmoil after her husband (Guy Jodoin's Gilles) suffers a debilitating stroke. The movie transpires both in the past and in the present, with the latter revolving around a lieutenant's (René-Daniel Dubois' Allard) efforts to solve Gilles' murder and the former dealing with Réjeanne and Gilles' crumbling relationship. As was the case with La Neuvaine, Contre toute espérance unfolds at an exceedingly deliberate pace that admittedly serves the material quite well - as as it becomes increasingly difficult not to sympathize with Réjeanne's plight. Tremblay's subtle, absolutely riveting performance unquestionably cements this vibe, though Dubois' heartbreaking work as Gilles is certainly just as deserving of kudos. Equally strong is the time-shifting structure employed by Émond; in oscillating between the past and the present, the director cultivates an atmosphere of mystery that proves impossible to resist (ie as the pieces start to fall into place, we learn what happened in the present and why it happened in the past). But the torpid manner in which Contre toute espérance unfolds ultimately prevents it from becoming the compelling piece of work Émond clearly wants it to be, as the movie is simply unable to sustain a level of fervent interest within the viewer for more than a few minutes at a time.
Directed by Paolo Barzman
CANADA/99 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
The sort of film one dreads encountering at a film festival, Emotional Arithmetic follows several characters - including a trio of Holocaust survivors (Susan Sarandon's Melanie, Gabriel Byrne's Christopher, and Max von Sydow's Jakob) - as they reunite and hash out the past over one particularly tumultuous summer evening. Director Paolo Barzman has infused Emotional Arithmetic with a very serious, very stately atmosphere that proves to be meaningless, as Jefferson Lewis' screenplay emphasizes artificiality at almost every turn; this lack of authenticity is likewise reflected in the stagy dialogue and almost uniformly broad performances (though Byrne manages to emerge from this turkey unscathed, Sarandon's quirky, relentlessly spastic work is nothing short of embarrassing). The desperation that's been hard-wired into almost every aspect of the movie is palpable, and there's ultimately never a point at which Emotional Arithmetic feel as though it's not pandering to the awards-season crowd.
Young People Fucking
Directed by Martin Gero
CANADA/90 MINUTES/CANADA FIRST!
It's a shame that certain viewers will be scared away from Young People Fucking based entirely on its title - understandable, given that it sounds like yet another sleazy, Larry Clarkesque exercise in depravation - as the movie is generally a fast-paced and very funny look at contemporary relationships. Set over the course of one particularly hectic evening, the film follows a series of couples as they attempt to define (and redefine) their respective relationships (and yes, sex is involved). Director and co-writer Martin Gero has infused Young People Fucking with a light-hearted, breezy sensibility that initially proves impossible to resist; the various actors effectively bring their sharply-defined characters to life, and Gero and Aaron Abrams' script does possess a number of palpable truths. That the filmmaker isn't quite able to sustain the energy and pace of the movie's opening hour is lamentable (if somewhat expected), and there's ultimately no denying that the whole thing never quite adds up to much. Still, Young People Fucking mostly comes off as a fun diversion that's certainly a welcome respite from the festival's predominantly dark, depressing fare (and c'mon, how could one not get a kick out of a film that so memorably name-drops former Beverly Hills, 90210 star Ian Ziering?)
Directed by Bruce Sweeney
CANADA/81 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
American Venus is a strange, almost indescribable little movie that revolves around an uptight skating coach (Rebecca De Mornay's Celia) whose life quickly spirals out of control after her figure-skating daughter (Jane McGregor's Jenna) decides to quit the sport and move to Vancouver. Celia's downward spiral worsens after traveling to Canada to be with Jenna, as her efforts to procure a firearm (and consequently vent her frustrations at a gun range) prove fruitless. Written and directed by Bruce Sweeney, American Venus unfolds at an exceedingly deliberate pace and initially plays like a low-key domestic drama, with the relationship between Celia and her increasingly irate daughter dominating the proceedings. Sweeney's decision to shift the emphasis onto Celia's efforts at tracking down a handgun prove to be less successful, as the distinctly off-kilter vibe ultimately prevents the movie's emotional moments from packing the sort of emotional punch that the filmmaker is clearly striving for (Celia's cathartic realization, for example, garnered laughter at a screening). De Morney's superb, eye-opening performance is clearly the highlight here, and the movie's mild success is undoubtedly due to her surprisingly strong work - though there's little doubt that if Sweeney intended American Venus to come off as a gritty, authentic character study, he's failed utterly and completely.
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
ICELAND/GERMANY/93 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
Based on Arnaldur Indriðason's bestselling Icelandic novel, Jar City follows an experienced detective (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson's Erlendur) as he attempts to solve a seemingly routine murder - though it's not long before the case becomes far more complex than he ever could've imagined. Jar City features a plot that's almost absurdly complicated - particularly as Baltasar Kormákur's screenplay layers in a whole host of suspects and clues - but there's little doubt that the viewer's patience is rewarded as the various pieces start to fall into place. Filmmaker Kormákur has effectively infused the proceedings with a stark sensibility that complements the material just about perfectly, while star Sigurðsson delivers a quiet and subtle performance that's absolutely compelling. Jar City is ultimately a very smart, very effective thriller that bears more than a passing resemblance to such thematically-similar efforts as The Crimson Rivers and Insomnia, and there's little doubt that the movie marks a tremendous step forward for Kormákur (his last effort, 2005's A Little Trip fo Heaven, was virtually unwatchable).
Breakfast with Scot
Directed by Laurie Lynd
CANADA/95 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
Saddled with a premise that's beyond familiar, Breakfast with Scot manages to impress thanks to its brisk, breezy pace and the uniformly personable performances. The story follows two gay men (Tom Cavanagh's Sam and Ben Shenkman's Ed) who find themselves forced to care for a flamboyant little boy (Noah Bernett's Scot) after his mother dies. Neither man is terribly thrilled about the arrangement, but - as expected - it's not long before Scot begins to melt their respective hearts. There are few surprises to be had throughout Breakfast with Scot's running time, and yet the movie generally remains an amiable piece of work - up to a point, that is. The film's melodramatic third-act shenanigans ensure that it slowly-but-surely starts to wear out its welcome, although there's certainly no denying the effectiveness of the expectedly heart-warming finale.