Toronto International Film Festival 2007 - UPDATE #9
Body of War
Directed by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue
USA/87 MINUTES/REAL TO REEL
Body of War is a powerful documentary that concerns itself primarily with the efforts of former soldier Tomas Young to adjust to his new life as a paraplegic, though there's also a sporadic emphasis on the American government's build-up into the Iraq War. Directors Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue have infused the proceedings with a straight-forward approach that proves to be entirely appropriate, with their decision to eschew Michael Moore's bombastic sensibilities clearly playing a substantial role in the movie's success (ie the movie is ultimately more compelling than anything within Moore's filmography). And while the more overtly political elements within the film are undoubtedly quite interesting - particularly Spiro and Donahue's emphasis on the blatant manner in which certain lawmakers tow the company line - there's no denying that it's Young's story that elevates Body of War to more than just another run-of-the-mill political documentary. Despite the filmmakers' penchant for offering up much more information than necessary in terms of his medical problems, Young slowly but surely becomes an increasingly compelling figure - to such an extent that one ultimately can't help but sympathize with his plight and his efforts to engender some kind of change within Washington. Spiro and Donahue's use of several original songs by Eddie Vedder - coupled with downright heartbreaking images of grieving protestors - ensures that Body of War packs a fairly substantial emotional punch, and there's little doubt that the movie deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
The Devil's Chair
Directed by Adam Mason
UNITED KINGDOM/90 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
The Devil's Chair is a sporadically interesting but mostly interminable little horror flick revolving around the bloodshed that ensues after a macho twit (Andrew Howard's Nick West) stumbles upon a chair that is, in fact, a portal to some sort of demonic underworld. It's clear right off the bat that filmmaker Adam Mason is trying to do something different here, and although he does succeed in offering up one or two viscerally thrilling moments (that chair is quite gruesome, admittedly), the film is by and large dominated by the uninteresting shenanigans of several wholly uninteresting characters. The unusually silly vibe only worsens as the movie progresses, with the presence of horse-faced demons and sinister piles of laundry ratcheting up the ludicrous factor exponentially. That Howard's entire performance essentially boils down to a Jason Statham impression (complete with whispery narration!) certainly doesn't help matters, and the bottom line is that I preferred this movie back when it was called Session 9.
Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury
FRANCE/85 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
A compelling, unusually nasty little horror flick, Inside takes an exceedingly simple premise - a pregnant lady is terrorized by a psychopath - and just runs with it. Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is nine months pregnant when a crazy maniac (Beatrice Dalle) breaks into her house and immediately makes it clear that she's not leaving without the unborn child. Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury have infused Inside with an exceedingly dark (both literally and figuratively) sensibility that proves impossible to resist; the incredibly stylish visuals (which certainly owe a lot to Panic Room) are undoubtedly a highlight, while Paradis does a superb job of ensuring that Sarah never quite becomes a horror-movie stereotype (Dalle's chilling work as the seemingly unstoppable villain is just as effective). The inclusion of several almost unbearably tense sequences - as well as the presence of some seriously gory moments - ultimately ensures that Inside will be remembered as one of the most creative and flat-out engrossing horror movies to hit the scene in years. (It's also worth noting that the film manages to breathe new life into the increasingly prevalent homemade tracheotomy cliche).
Directed by Melisa Wallack and Bernie Goldmann
USA/92 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Bill casts Aaron Eckhart as the title character, a bank executive who's thrust into a mid-life crisis after he learns that his wife (Elizabeth Banks' Jess) is having an affair with a smarmy newsman (Timothy Olyphant). There's little doubt that Bill's mild success is due almost entirely to Eckhart's expectedly ingratiating and flat-out engrossing performance, as the actor does a fantastic job of turning Bill into a sympathetic figure one can't help but root for. The increasingly silly machinations of the film's screenplay lends the proceedings a forgettable vibe that's certainly lamentable, and there's ultimately little doubt that scripter Melisa Wallack (who co-directs with Bernie Goldmann) simply ran out of things for Bill to do (how else to explain such needless sequences as one in which the character gets stoned in a department store?) The lack of a consistent tone is exacerbated by a flabby third act that just seems to go on and on, with the end result a movie that's basically entertaining yet entirely forgettable.
Directed by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai
HONG KONG/CHINA/89 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Interminable and pointless virtually from start to finish, Mad Detective is the latest underwhelming effort from overrated director Johnnie To (who co-directs with Wai Ka-fai). The movie probably fares even worse than any of the filmmaker's previous efforts, as it's almost entirely lacking in action and features - at its core - a mystery that couldn't possibly be less interesting. The story concerns the title character, Lau Ching-wan's Bun, a mentally-unbalanced lawman who has become something of a legend among cops due to his ability to communicate with the "inner personalities" of any given suspect. Bun's latest case threatens to permanently send him off the deep end, however, as the detective finds himself confronted with a whole host of exceedingly off-kilter figures. To and Ka-fai - working from Ka-fai and Au Kin Yee's screenplay - have infused Mad Detective with a hyper-stylized sensibility that proves to be disastrous, with the film's complete and utter lack of authenticity ensuring that even the most open-minded viewer will quickly lose patience with the egregiously (and relentlessly) quirky tone. The dearth of action sequences only exacerbates the movie's many, many problems, and while To's legion of fans will probably find something here worth embracing, Mad Detective is ultimately as ineffective and dull a film as the would-be auteur has ever been involved with.
Directed by Vadim Perelman
USA/90 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
In Bloom, filmmaker Vadim Perelman's follow-up to The House of Sand and Fog, is an intricately-plotted and richly conceived drama that ultimately doesn't entirely come together in as profound and emotionally-affecting manner as one imagines it's meant to. Perelman, working from Laura Kasischke's novel, has employed a complex structure that essentially leaves the viewer in the dark while the pieces slowly but surely fall into place - with the end result a film whose overall effectiveness can't quite be determined until the end credits roll. The basic premise - involving one woman's efforts to deal with a school shooting years earlier - has been filled out with a myriad of subplots, and there's certainly no denying that the movie occasionally feels busier than it needs to be. Perelman's use of dreamy, almost otherworldly visuals complements the material quite well, and the performances - particularly Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood as the older and younger versions of the central character - are incredibly strong and engaging. But the remarkably ambiguous conclusion all but assures that most viewers will leave the film questioning the fate of a key character, and one would imagine that the novel more effectively spelled out exactly what happened. Still, In Bloom - anchored primarily by Perelman's striking directorial choices - is an ambitious piece of work that generally succeeds in painting a vivid portrait of the way one random act of violence can color an entire life.
Rails & Ties
Directed by Alison Eastwood
USA/96 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Rails & Ties, Alison Eastwood's directorial debut, is an extraordinarily slow-moving and sporadically overwrought effort that's ultimately redeemed by Kevin Bacon's expectedly engrossing performance. Bacon stars as Tom, a morose train conductor who finds a new lease on life after a young boy (Miles Heizer's David) comes to live with him and his cancer-afflicted wife (Marcia Gay Harden's Megan). Saddled with a decidedly unimpressive screenplay by Micky Levy, Rails & Ties certainly has its work cut out for it in terms of winning over the viewer. Levy's predilection for dialogue that's just unreasonably on-the-nose (ie a co-worker of Tom's exclaims, "you're dead inside and everybody knows it!") often threatens to negate the movie's positive attributes, and there's little doubt that the screenwriter's relentless emphasis on melodrama ultimately strips the film of whatever authenticity it may have possessed. Eastwood's perfunctory direction doesn't entirely do the film any favors; though her willingness to allow the story to unfold slowly is admirable, it often feels as though she's trying too hard to emulate the methodical, deliberate tone of her father's movies. Still, Bacon's searing work - coupled with the simple yet thoroughly effective conclusion - is strong enough to allow one to overlook the film's various deficiencies.
New York City Serenade
Directed by Frank Whaley
USA/103 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
The third film from actor Frank Whaley, New York City Serenade is a well-intentioned effort that does boast a few nice performances and a number of individually compelling sequences - and yet the movie is, on the whole, ultimately doomed by its egregiously uneven structure. The film - which revolves around the crumbling friendship between a straight-laced filmmaker (Freddie Prinze Jr) and a free-wheeling alcoholic (Chris Klein) - initially boasts an amiable vibe that's due largely to the surprisingly effective work from Klein and Prinze Jr, as the actors effortlessly transform their scummy characters (one cheats on his fiancee while the other pursues underage girls) into likeable, even charismatic figures. Their chemistry with one another is certainly reminiscent of the jocular relationship between Vince Vaughn's Trent and Jon Favreau's Mike in Swingers, and it's to their credit that New York City Serenade remains tolerable even through some of its more interminable sequences (that final scene just seems to go on forever). The low-key, downright gritty sense of style employed by Whaley effectively captures a different side of oft-filmed New York City, as the director - who also turns in a very funny cameo appearance - eschews the town's familiar sights in favor of a seemingly authentic experience. New York City Serenade is, in the end, not quite as ingratiating as one might've hoped, though one can't help but admire the feisty independent spirit with which the film has been imbued.