Toronto International Film Festival 2008 - UPDATE #3
All Around Us
Directed by Ryosuke Hashiguchi
JAPAN/140 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
With its egregiously bloated running time and aggressively meandering structure, All Around Us' place as a sporadically intriguing yet hopelessly uneven effort is established almost immediately - with star Lily Franky's surprisingly engaging performance generally remaining the film's one overtly positive attribute. Writer/director Ryosuke Hashiguchi offers up a decade-spanning tale that primarily revolves around the exploits of married couple Kanao (Franky) and Shoko (Tae Kumura), though the filmmaker periodically focuses on Kanao's work as a courtroom sketch artist (which affords the character an up-close-and-personal vantage point at some of Japan's most notorious trials). Hashiguchi's decision to pepper the proceedings with a number of head-scratchingly inconsequential sequences - including a five-minute, single-take scene in which Kanao and Shoko argue about sex - ultimately cements All Around Us' downfall, as it becomes awfully difficult to work up any enthusiasm for the various problems and issues within the central characters' rocky relationship. Far more ineffective, however, is Hashiguchi's emphasis on Shoko's increasingly unstable mental state, with the filmmaker's inability to fully flesh out the character inevitably lending an air of confusion to some of her outbursts and decisions (ie why does she not tell her spouse about that abortion?) It goes without saying that the emotional moments that crop up towards the end are consequently drained of their power, which is a shame, certainly, given the strength of relative newcomer Franky's work within the film.
Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri
FRANCE/LUXEMBOURG/BELGIUM/93 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
Though it boasts a career-best performance from Jean-Claude Van Damme, JCVD is never quite able to hoist itself up to the level of its star - with the sporadically tedious storyline and relentlessly overblown visuals ranking high on the movie's list of transgressions. Van Damme, playing himself, has returned to Belgium in an effort to get back to his roots, though it's not long before the Muscles from Brussels finds himself caught up in an increasingly perilous hostage situation. Mabrouk El Mechri has infused JCVD with an aggressively irritating directorial style that effectively prevents one from fully connecting with the material, as the filmmaker - along with cinematographer Pierre-Yves Bastard - consistently places the emphasis upon grainy, needlessly washed-out visuals that are virtually headache-inducing in their ostentatiousness. Far more problematic, however, is the tired hostage-drama plot that feels as though it'd be perfectly at home within any number of the straight-to-video fare that Van Damme laments throughout the film's running time, and it's often impossible not to get the feeling that Mechri and co-scripter Frederic Benudis have simply shoehorned the erstwhile action star into a pre-existing screenplay. That being said, JCVD does possess more than a few elements designed to appeal to Van Damme's more overtly ardent followers - with an emotional speech delivered directly into the camera at the film's midway point an obvious highlight. And while one can't help but get a kick out of several tongue-in-cheek references to Van Damme's ailing career - ie the revelation that he lost a role to Steven Seagal after the portly actor agreed to chop off his ponytail - JCVD's inability to entirely live up to its promise would seem to indicate that the production would've benefited substantially from a more competent filmmaker behind the camera.
It Might Get Loud
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
USA/97 MINUTES/REAL TO REEL
Though sporadically bogged down in needless tangents, It Might Get Loud generally comes off as an intriguing (yet entirely forgettable) documentary revolving around three generations of rock guitarists (Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White). Director Davis Guggenheim devotes the bulk of the film's running time to one-on-one profiles of each of his subjects, with particular emphasis placed on their respective musical influences, their start within the business, and even how they came to own their first guitar. While it seems fairly obvious that fans of the individual performers will find more here to embrace than neophytes, Guggenheim does an effective job of ensuring that the movie remains accessible even for those viewers with a minimal interest in rock music. There's little doubt, however, that it's Guggenheim's decision to bring the three men together for a conversation/jam session that assures It Might Get Loud's success, as there's something inherent fascinating about watching these accomplished musicians casually chat about their craft and even rock out to each other's songs (ie The Edge leads Page and White in a performance of U2's "I Will Follow"). And though the remainder of the film has been periodically punctuated with engrossing tidbits, it's subsequently impossible not to wish that Guggenheim had devoted more screen time to that thoroughly compelling, downright legendary meeting.
The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
USA/130 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Director Kathryn Bigelow's first film in six years, The Hurt Locker follows three American soldiers (Jeremy Renner's cocky James, Anthony Mackie's pragmatic Sanborn, and Brian Geraghty's jittery Owen) as they encounter a series of perilous situations during the last few weeks of their tour in Iraq. The episodic structure employed by screenwriter Mark Boal
admittedly does take some getting used to, as the film - which is essentially plotless - consists primarily entirely of stand-alone sequences detailing the central characters' various day-to-day escapades. There's little doubt, however, that the almost unbearably suspenseful nature of some of these scenes - ie James must disarm an explosive strapped to a reluctant suicide bomber - effectively ensures that one's interest rarely flags, although it's worth noting that the movie does start to run out of steam towards the end (with the inclusion of a fairly tedious nighttime mission certainly not helping matters). That's an awfully minor complain for a war film that is otherwise uncommonly taut and uniformly well acted; in terms of the latter, Renner delivers a breakthrough performance that's nothing short of stunning in terms of its power and effectiveness (Mackie and Geraghty, along with cameo players Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and David Morse, are also quite good).
Directed by Amos Kollek
ISRAEL/CANADA/GERMANY/FRANCE/BELGIUM/100 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
As becomes clear virtually immediately, Restless doesn't boast a whole lot of attributes designed to capture and retain one's interest - as the film's pervasive air of mediocrity is exacerbated by a central character that simply isn't all that compelling. Writer/director Amos Kollek devotes the bulk of the movie's running time to the plotless escapades of an almost extraordinarily shifty scumbag named Moshe (Moshe Ivgy), with a particular emphasis on his burgeoning fame as an underground poet (there's also an eye-rolling subplot detailing his tentative yet entirely unconvincing relationship with a soldier-turned-bartender). Kollek has infused Restless with a sleazy, downright unpleasant visual sensibility that admittedly mirrors the gritty day-to-day exploits of its protagonist, yet the relentless seediness ultimately ensures that one is never able to connect with the material in a substantial way. Of course, it certainly doesn't help that at the film's increasingly intolerable center lies Moshe - an almost jaw-droppingly dull figure that never feels even remotely authentic or real (Ivgy's wholly ineffective performance probably doesn't help matters). And while the all-too-scant scenes involving Moshe's cross-dressing Israeli soldier son fare slightly better by comparison, Restless is, in the final analysis, just another hopelessly middling effort that one inevitably encounters from time to time at a film festival such as this.
The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World
Directed by Weijun Chen
UNITED KINGDOM/THE NETHERLANDS/DENMARK/80 MINUTES/REAL TO REEL
The inherently intriguing nature of The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World's subject matter is squandered time and time again by director Weijun Chen, as - in an effort to fill the 80-minute running time - the filmmaker has suffused the proceedings with a mind-numbing amount of entirely superfluous tangents and elements. At the movie's core is, of course, the story of West Lake Restaurant, which - though in operation for just a few years - has established itself as the largest eatery on the planet (it's so enormous, in fact, that certain employees actually live there). And while Chen does spend some time exploring the day-to-day operation of the restaurant - including a rags-to-riches profile of the establishment's owner, Qin Linzi - the director devotes the lion's share of screen time to increasingly pointless stories about some of the customers that have celebrated milestones within the building's expansive walls (ie a couple gets married, an elderly woman turns 70, etc, etc). It's virtually impossible to care about any of these people and the continued inclusion of their tales is nothing short of baffling, with Chen's decision to casually brush past the film's few marginally interesting elements a head-scratcher of almost epic proportions (ie Linzi makes a reference to her abusive father; why not explore that in some detail rather than the couple looking to celebrate their baby's birth?) That the movie boasts several unusually unpleasant instances of certain animals - ie fish, ducks, snakes - being killed and (in some cases) tortured serves only to alienate the viewer even further, and it's ultimately impossible to view The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World as anything more than an interminable misfire.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
CANADA/BRAZIL/JAPAN121 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Based on the novel by José Saramago, Blindness follows several unnamed characters - played by actors like Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and Gael Garcia Bernal - as they find themselves forced to contend with an outbreak of inexplicable blindness. It's a promising premise that's squandered from beginning to end by screenwriter Don McKellar and director Fernando Meirelles, as the film gets off to an almost disastrous start thanks to the perplexing decision to set the proceedings within a fictional country. This assures that one is entirely unable to place oneself in the shoes of the various figures, with the incredibly forced and downright stilted atmosphere setting a tone of inauthenticity that ultimately pervades every aspect of the film. The worst is yet to come, however, as Blindness' entire midsection is set entirely within the confines of a dark, thoroughly unpleasant former sanitarium, where those afflicted with the unexplainable disease are sent to live and fend for themselves. It's not surprising to note that the movie quickly becomes almost unbearably stagy, as McKellar's exceedingly artificial dialogue - coupled with the increasingly improbable behavior of the characters - serves only to exacerbate the stagnant nature of the nonexistent storyline. And while the film does improve slightly in its final half hour, Blindness is, ultimately, an utterly misguided disaster that's a sure candidate for the worst of the year.