Toronto International Film Festival 2007 - UPDATE #8
With Your Permission
Directed by Paprika Steen
For a while, With Your Permission accomplishes the seemingly impossible as it uses spousal abuse as fodder for a wry, low-key comedy. The story concerns a cruise-ship chef (Lars Brygmann's Jan) who tends to arrive at work sporting a new injury on a daily basis, which he covers up by blaming his inherently clumsy nature. But after his boss eventually figures out what's really going on, he orders Jan into a group therapy session for battered spouses; wackiness ensues after Jan inadvertently walks into the session for wife beaters. DirectorPaprika Steen - working from Anders Thomas Jensen's screenplay - infuses the early part of With Your Permission with a subtle yet sporadically hilarious sensibility that proves impossible to resist, with Brygmann's very effective central performance certainly playing a significant role in the movie's early success. But the lack of propulsive force within the storyline - coupled with the increasingly noticeable dearth of laughs - ultimately ensures that the film eventually wears out its welcome, despite the inclusion of a few genuinely poignant elements within the third act.
Directed by Woody Allen
UNITED KINGDOM/108 MINUTES/GALA
Were it not for the inclusion of a third act that just seems to go on and on, Cassandra's Dream would undoubtedly rank among Woody Allen's best films - as it is, more often than not, an exceedingly well acted and sporadically electrifying little thriller. The movie casts Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor as close-knit siblings Terry and Ian, and follows the pair as they find themselves in a whole mess of trouble after their wealthy uncle (Tom Wilkinson's Howard) makes a rather sinister request. It takes an awfully long time for the mysterious elements to kick in, however, as Allen spends much of Cassandra's Dream's first half focused on the relationship between Terry and Ian. And because the filmmaker does such an effective job of capturing the inherent camaraderie between the brothers, there's little doubt that the movie is at its best during low-key sequences in which the two characters are just chatting and hanging out (ie there's an authenticity to such moments that's nothing short of remarkable). That being said, there's certainly no denying that the film's initial transformation into a thriller is exceedingly well done - with an absolutely riveting sequence in which Wilkinson's Howard lays out his request an obvious highlight. But Allen doesn't quite know when to stop; Cassandra's Dream is consequently longer than it needs to be, though - before it reaches that point - the movie comes off as one of Allen's most engaging efforts in years.
Directed by Brad Furman
USA/96 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Before The Take undergoes one of the most jarring thematic shifts in recent history, the film comes off as a gripping little thriller that boasts a surprisingly strong performance from John Leguizamo (Tyrese Gibson, on the other hand, is as ineffective as ever and saddled with some seriously ridiculous fake teeth). Leguizamo plays Felix De La Pena, an armored-truck driver who's left for dead after a vicious thug (Gibson's Adell Baldwin) shoots him in the head during a robbery attempt. After emerging from a long coma, Felix's crumbling mental state is exacerbated by the revelation that the cops are looking at him for the crime. Director Brad Furman - working from Josh and Jonas Pate's screenplay - has infused the early part of The Take with an appropriately jittery sensibility, and there's ultimately little doubt that the film contains the seediest portrayal of Los Angeles since Harsh Times. The relentlessly gritty atmosphere works for a while, though there does reach a point at which Furman's visuals become more distracting than anything else - with the movie's transformation from thriller to low-key drama undoubtedly playing a significant role in this feeling. The wildly uneven structure eventually cancels out the movie's positive attributes, while the inclusion of an almost incomprehensible third-act chase sequence (think Spike Lee on crack) leaves The Take with an awfully sour aftertaste.
Death Defying Acts
Directed by Gillian Armstrong
UNITED KINGDOM/AUSTRALIA/97 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Death Defying Acts casts Guy Pearce as Harry Houdini, with the bulk of the film revolving around the legendary magician's relationship with a conniving Scottish psychic (Catherine Zeta-Jones' Mary McGregor) and her scrappy daughter (Saoirse Ronan's Benji). Anchored by Pearce's expectedly charismatic performance, the film generally comes off as a watchable yet entirely unexceptional effort; director Gillian Armstrong's lush visuals effectively complement Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward's slow-moving screenplay, yet there's no denying that the movie occasionally feels as though it's been put together with a prefabricated mold for costume dramas. Zeta-Jones' expectedly lackluster work as Mary (including a questionable Scottish accent) is offset by yet another eye-opening performance by Ronan, who - between this and Atonement - is surely setting herself up as a major new talent within the industry. And while Death Defying Acts is rarely out-and-out boring, the film's inability to make any real impact upon the viewer ultimately transforms it into a distinctly forgettable piece of work.
Directed by Ira Sachs
USA/90 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Undoubtedly a substantial improvement over filmmaker Ira Sachs' last effort, 2005's Forty Shades of Blue, Married Life generally comes off as a small, low-key drama that's agreeable enough and ultimately elevated by the uniformly superb performances. Set in the 1940s, the film follows four central characters - Chris Cooper's Harry, Patricia Clarkson's Pat, Pierce Brosnan's Rich, and Rachel McAdams' Kay - as they're forced to deal with a whole host of relationship issues after Harry (who's married to Pat) begins having an affair with Kay. Rich, Harry's best friend and an avowed bachelor, subsequently finds himself drawn to Kay, while Pat is harboring a substantial secret of her own. Sachs has infused the early part of Married Life with a breezy, light-hearted sensibility that proves impossible to resist, with Brosnan's wry narration certainly cementing this vibe. There does reach a point, however, at which Sachs' emphasis on the characters' sprightly shenanigans comes to a close, as the director starts to infuse the proceedings with a decidedly slow-paced and flat-out dark sort of atmosphere. It's a fairly jarring shift that doesn't entirely work, though there's little doubt that the stellar work by the actors - particularly Clarkson and Cooper - effectively holds the viewer's interest even through some of the film's more uneven stretches.
Directed by Stuart Gordon
CANADA/USA/94 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
Though infused with styleless visuals and an overtly low-budget sensibility, Stuck quickly establishes itself as a brutal, thoroughly engaging horror effort from director Stuart Gordon. Mena Suvari stars as Brandi, a kind and conscientious retirement-home caregiver who accidentally strikes a homeless man (Stephen Rea's Tom) while driving home from a party. Rather than call the police, Brandi - panic-stricken and scared - instead decides to park her car in her garage and bide her time until Tom (who's now lodged in the front windshield) dies from his extensive injuries. Gordon - working from John Strysik's screenplay - does a nice job of transforming both Brandi and Tom into fully-fleshed out characters, with Tom's first-act progression from down-on-his-luck businessman to penniless hobo particularly intriguing and well done. Of course, it's ultimately in the crowd-pleasing instances of over-the-top gore that Stuck establishes itself as an instant classic - with Gordon offering up a number of memorable and downright exhilarating kill sequences (including the most indelible use of a pen as a weapon since Casino). The bottom line is that Stuck is just as entertaining (if not more so) than some of Gordon's previous horror efforts - including 1985's Re-Animator and 2003's King of the Ants - and the film is undoubtedly the most flat-out fun entry within this year's Midnight Madness program.
Battle in Seattle
Directed by Stuart Townsend
USA/100 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
The directorial debut of actor Stuart Townsend, Battle in Seattle is an entertaining yet heavy-handed and ultimately simplistic look at the '99 WTO protests that essentially turned Seattle into a war zone. Townsend makes absolutely no effort to hide his bias, and the filmmaker has consequently infused the movie with a number of far-from-subtle elements designed to win the viewer's sympathy (something that's particularly true of a fairly useless subplot in which a pregnant woman - played by Charlize Theron - receives a police baton to the gut). The melodramatic mini-dramas among the various characters are kind of interesting but mostly predictable, while Townsend's expected use of jittery camerawork becomes tiresome awfully fast. But despite such deficiencies, Battle in Seattle is basically entertaining; actors like Ray Liotta, Andre Benjamin, and Martin Henderson effectively breathe life into their one-dimensional characters, and the movie rarely slows down long enough to allow the viewer time to dwell on the more eye-rollingly obvious elements within the script (ie the superficial reporter who discovers her social consciousness). Much like last year's Bobby, Battle in Seattle has clearly been made by a passionate filmmaker with his heart in the right place - yet, despite the inclusion of several first-class performances and a number of individually compelling sequences, there's just no overlooking the various flaws inherent within much of the film's running time.
Directed by Rodrigo Plá
Directed by Rodrigo Plá, La Zona is a slow-moving drama revolving around a cover-up that ensues within an exclusive gated community after three thieves break in during a power outage. There's never a point at which La Zona becomes anything more than an exercise in tedium, as Plá has infused the proceedings with a distinctly less-than-subtle sensibility that proves disastrous. Plá's efforts at satirizing the class struggle within Mexico fall entirely flat, and there's little doubt that his heavy-handed tactics ultimately negate all of the film's few positive attributes (including some sporadically compelling visuals). The almost total lack of compelling characters surely doesn't help matters, although - admittedly - the film does possess a number of effective performances (Daniel Tovar, playing a key resident of the mini-society, is a stand-out). And given that the community is painted as such a restrictive and oppressive place, one can't help but wonder just what kind of person would willingly choose to live there.