Toronto International Film Festival 2007 - UPDATE #2
Directed by David Cronenberg
UNITED KINGDOM/CANADA/96 MINUTES/GALA
Coming on the heels of 2005's A History of Violence, Eastern Promises certainly feels like an apt follow-up for director David Cronenberg - as the film possesses a number of similarities to its forebearer, including an expectedly deliberate pace, shocking bursts of violence, and an absolutely compelling turn from star Viggo Mortensen. This time around, Mortensen steps into the shoes of a Russian mobster who must placate his sinister boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) while ensuring the safety of a well-meaning midwife (Naomi Watts). Cronenberg is certainly well within his element here, and the director does a nice job of keeping things interesting even through some of the more repetitive moments within Steven Knight's screenplay. Though infused with a number of thrillerish elements, the film is ultimately a character study revolving around Mortensen's Nikolai Luzhin - which, thanks primarily to Mortensen's astounding work, ensures that the whole thing is always quite interesting (if not quite consistently compelling). Of course, this being a Cronenberg film, Eastern Promises' most engaging moment arrives in the form of an extremely brutal fight scene that's sure to leave most viewers reeling. It's an intense, unapologetically violent sequence that proves to be the film's highlight, and there's ultimately no denying that Cronenberg's career has been on quite the upswing as of late (and just in the nick of time, too; remember eXistenZ?)
Walk All Over Me
Directed by Robert Cuffley
CANADA/98 MINUTES/CANADA FIRST!
Though the film is well acted and stylishly directed, Walk All Over Me is ultimately undone by its emphasis on relentlessly quirky elements - with the hopelessly routine storyline only exacerbating the movie's various problems. Leelee Sobieski stars as Alberta, a dim-witted grocery store clerk who finds herself caught up in an increasingly dangerous situation after she assumes her roommate's identity (which just happens to be that of a dominatrix). Director Robert Cuffley certainly tries his hardest to inject some energy into his and Jason Long's lifeless screenplay, though even the most talented filmmaker would be hard-pressed to liven up this material (this is, after all, a movie that features a Eurotrash villain and a pair of eye-rollingly moronic goons). That Cuffley expects the viewer to sympathize with Alberta's plight is nothing short of absurd, as the character's complete lack of authenticity ensures that she (along with virtually every other figure within the movie) generally comes off as a walking cliche. Tricia Helfer's Celene, the aforementioned dominatrix, is clearly one of the few bright spots within the movie, although even she falls victim to the script's rampantly inconsistent vibe (ie why is she able to expertly defend herself against one character but not another?)
Directed by Chaz Thorne
CANADA/94 MINUTES/CANADA FIRST!
While there's certainly plenty of potential within Just Buried's premise - a young man, in an effort to keep his failing mortuary from going under, starts offing locals to drum up more business - the off-kilter, relentlessly quirky sensibility employed by writer/director Chaz Thorne ultimately proves to be as wrong a choice for the material as one could possibly imagine. This is despite an opening half hour that's actually pretty amiable (if not entirely compelling), with stars Jay Baruchel and Rose Byrne certainly playing a significant part in the film's mild early success (Byrne is particularly effective in a rare comedic role). But there comes a point at which the script's desire to come off as another Very Bad Things starts to clash with Thorne's loopy directorial choices, and the film's various positive attributes are slowly-but-surely crushed beneath the weight of several overtly outlandish elements (including, but not limited to, Darren Fung's accordian-heavy score). And with the third act ramping up the body count, Just Buried finally becomes a fairly unpleasant piece of work - effectively cementing its status as a sporadically amusing yet entirely uneven misfire.
Directed by Terry George
USA/102 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Based on the novel by John Burnham Schwartz, Reservation Road follows a college professor (Joaquin Phoenix's Ethan) as he attempts to cope with the death of his young son at the hands of a hit-and-run driver (Mark Ruffalo's Dwight). Though his wife (Jennifer Connelly's Grace) wants to put the tragedy behind them, Ethan - frustrated at the police's inability to catch the perpetrator - becomes increasingly consumed with thoughts of revenge. It's ultimately hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment at Reservation Road's decidedly less-than-compelling vibe, as the film features a premise that should've resulted in an electrifying, thoroughly compelling piece of work (somewhere along the lines of thematically-similar efforts 21 Grams and In the Bedroom). And while the film is consistently entertaining, it never quite packs the emotional wallop that one might've hoped for - with the final confrontation between Ethan and Dwight especially disappointing. The inclusion of a number of almost ridiculous coincidences within the storyline (ie Dwight's ex-wife is Ethan's daughter's teacher, Ethan eventually hires Dwight as his lawyer, etc) certainly doesn't help matters, although it does remain fairly easy to overlook such concerns thanks to the uniformly effective performances (Phoenix is especially good here). In the end, however, Reservation Road would've clearly benefited from the presence of a stronger filmmaker behind the camera - as Terry George just doesn't seem to have the temperament for such material.
Directed by Joe Wright
UNITED KINGDOM/123 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Self-indulgent and relentlessly unpleasant, The Tracey Fragments follows a rebellious 15-year-old (Ellen Page's Tracey Berkowitz) as she fights with a succession of authority figures and eventually embarks on a search for her missing younger brother. It's not the premise or the performances that sink The Tracey Fragments; rather, it's director Bruce McDonald's inexplicable decision to break up the screen into tiny little windows for the duration of the film's far-too-long running time. The end result feels more like an art-gallery installation than a movie (or, worse yet, a film-school experiment gone horribly wrong), and there's ultimately exceedingly little here that actually works. Even if one were able to overlook the egregiously in-your-face visuals, Maureen Medved's meandering, remarkably pointless screenplay would surely frustrate even the most avant-garde viewer (ie the whole thing is so pretentious that even the word pretentious doesn't really do it justice). Only the casting of noted cinematic weirdo Julian Richings as a British (and female!) psychiatrist prevents The Tracey Fragments from sinking into complete mediocrity, though it's still awfully difficult to imagine anybody walking away from the movie satisfied.
Directed by Gavin Hood
Director Gavin Hood's first film since the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, Rendition casts Reese Witherspoon as an American whose Arab husband is detained by the United States government for allegedly assisting terrorists. The film follows her efforts to get him back and also revolves around several other characters as they deal with the ramifications of a deadly attack, with a Senator's assistant (Peter Sarsgaard), a shady official (Meryl Streep), and a rookie CIA analyst (Jake Gyllenhaal) all getting involved. Screenwriter Kelley Sane generally does an effective job of balancing the various characters and their respective storylines, though there's certainly no denying that some of these subplots are far more interesting than others (ie there's a seemingly pointless digression concerning an illicit relationship between two young Arabs, the relevance of which isn't made clear until the film's final moments). It's not until the pieces finally start to fall into place that Rendition becomes the hard-hitting, thought-provoking drama Hood clearly wants it to be (which, given the filmmaker's propensity for glossy visuals, is certainly no small feat), although there are admittedly a number of individually compelling moments along the way (ie an electrifying encounter between Streep and Sarsgaard).
Lars and the Real Girl
Directed by Craig Gillespie
USA/106 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Lars and the Real Girl casts Ryan Gosling as Lars, a socially-inept office drone whose unconventional relationship with a sex doll (which he's named Bianca) forces his community to band together and pretend that Bianca is as real as Lars seems to think she is. Though Gosling delivers as compelling a performance as one might've expected, the film - saddled with an extraordinarily one-note premise - never quite makes it up to his level; screenwriter Nancy Oliver has infused the proceedings with a number of overtly comedic elements, a choice that ultimately feels at odds with Gosling's distinctly down-to-earth take on his character. There is consequently very little here that's actually funny, as the viewer can't help but feel sorry for Lars (this is a guy who has problems talking to members of his own family, after all). The sporadic emphasis on the town's efforts to keep the Bianca charade going proves to be the only reasonably interesting aspect of the film, although it's clear that Gosling's strong, subtle work here may just earn Lars and the Real Girl a small but devoted following.