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Toronto International Film Festival 2009 - UPDATE #4

Defendor
Directed by Peter Stebbings
CANADA/95 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS

The directorial debut of Canadian actor Peter Stebbings, Defendor casts Woody Harrelson as Arthur Poppington - a dim-witted construction worker who doubles as crime-fighting superhero Defendor at night. Though the cops think that he's a joke and his best friend urges him to stop, Arthur/Defendor doggedly pursues the drug dealer he believes responsible for his mother's death - with the arrival of a scrappy prostitute (Kat Dennings' Kat) ultimately complicating matters. Stebbings has infused Defendor with a low key, almost low-rent sensibility that pervades its every aspect, with the movie's admittedly light storyline complementing the first-time filmmaker's laid-back aspirations. Harrelson's expectedly engaging performance undoubtedly goes a long way towards initially sustaining the viewer's interest, yet there does reach a point at which the increasingly languid pace triggers the film's transformation from watchable comedy to hopelessly inconsequential piece of work. Stebbings' difficulties in straddling the line between do-it-yourself superhero caper and uneventful character study inevitably renders Defendor's more overtly positive attributes moot, and it certainly goes without saying that the rousing finale doesn't quite possess the impact that the director was clearly shooting for.

out of


Vengeance
Directed by Johnnie To
HONG KONG/CHINA/FRANCE/108 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS

Vengeance casts venerable French actor/musician Johnny Hallyday as Costello, a Parisian chef who arrives in Macao intending to avenge the deaths of his son-in-law and grandchildren. He enlists a trio of professional assassins to aid in his perilous quest, and it's not long before the four men are shooting their way through a notorious criminal organization. It's an exceedingly promising premise that's slowly-but-surely squandered by filmmaker Johnny To, which - though not entirely unexpected - proves to be especially disappointing given the undeniably entertaining nature of the movie's opening half hour (ie the very idea of Hallyday lumbering his way into Macao's seedy underbelly, Charles Bronson style, is more than enough to whet the appetite of virtually any action fan). The flabby midsection marks the primary indication that something has gone awry somewhere along the line, although the movie doesn't entirely go off the rails until the first major shoot-out rolls around - as it (and its many like-minded cousins) has been infused with virtually all of the excessive elements one has come to associate with To's work (with an eye-rolling reliance on slow motion undoubtedly standing as the filmmaker's most aggravating crutch). The movie's subsequent transformation from promising revenge thriller to tedious Hong Kong actioner is cemented once Hallyday temporarily exits the proceedings and the viewer is left with the dull escapades of the three hitmen, with the utterly routine nature of their ongoing efforts at completing Costello's task proving a serious test to one's patience. By the time the silly, Memento-esque finale rolls around, Vengeance has sealed its fate as the latest in a long line of disappointments from To (ie Mad Detective, Exiled, PTU, etc, etc).

out of


Triage
Directed by Danis Tanovic
IRELAND/SPAIN/FRANCE/99 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS

Triage is an odd little movie that's rarely as engaging as one imagines it's meant to be, yet there's certainly no denying the effectiveness of certain sequences and of star Colin Farrell's tremendously captivating performance. The storyline follows war photographer Mark Walsh (Farrell) as he arrives home following a near-death experience in Kurdistan, with the bulk of the proceedings subsequently detailing his efforts at moving on with his life. The degree to which Triage ultimately becomes an unapologetically low-key drama is admittedly somewhat surprising, as the movie opens with a series of visceral sequences featuring Mark's efforts at documenting the atrocities within Kurdistan. It's not surprising to note that the film's abrupt change into a subdued character study does take some getting used to, with Farrell's career-best work undoubtedly ensuring that the transformation isn't quite as jarring as it could have been. The sudden appearance of Christopher Lee's Joaquín Morales, the man who inevitably helps Mark work through his issues, initially contributes to the undeniably uneven atmosphere, although the dialogue-heavy scenes between Mark and Joaquín inevitably play an instrumental role in triggering the movie's admittedly powerful climax. It's the mystery surrounding what really happened to Mark that ultimately propels the story forward and sustains the viewer's interest, with the final result a deliberately paced endeavor that's consistently elevated by Farrell's eye-opening performance.

out of


Max Manus
Directed by Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning
NORWAY/DENMARK/GERMANY/118 MINUTES/GALA

Although essentially devoid of technically inept elements, Max Manus nevertheless remains oddly uninvolving throughout its distinctly overlong running time - which is certainly a shame given the seemingly can't-miss nature of the movie's true-life premise. The storyline follows title character Max Manus (Aksel Hennie) as he and several friends become pivotal forces within Norway's resistance movement during the Second World War, with their ongoing efforts at sabotaging the Nazis eventually transforming Max into an almost mythical figure. Filmmakers Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning have infused Max Manus with an unabashedly sweeping sensibility that instantly affords the proceedings the feel of an old-fashioned epic, although Sandberg and Roenning's failure to transform the central character into a wholeheartedly compelling figure effectively renders the film's various positives moot. It becomes obvious quickly enough that because Max lacks a clear personal stake in the outcome of his endeavors, the movie suffers from a pervasive absence of urgency that ensures the majority of its high-octane sequences fall entirely flat (ie contrast Max's mechanical modus operandi with that of Black Book's fiery protagonist). The underdeveloped nature of Max's myriad of cohorts exacerbates the film's less-than-enthralling atmosphere, while the hopelessly padded-out third act - which persists for a good 20 minutes longer than necessary - results in an anti-climactic finish that's sure to turn off even those viewers with an emotional investment in the slow-moving story.

out of


Ong Bak 2
Directed by Tony Jaa
and Panna Rittikrai
THAILAND/110 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS

A sequel in name only, Ong Bak 2 follows Tony Jaa's Tien as he rises from humble beginnings to become the feared leader of a rogue group of bandits - with the bulk of the proceedings essentially detailing his ongoing (and unapologetically brutal) efforts at avenging the deaths of his family members. There's little doubt that Ong Bak 2 fares best in its opening half hour, as filmmakers Jaa and Panna Rittikrai have infused the movie with a lush, almost 300-esque sensibility that proves effective at initially capturing the viewer's interest and setting the stage for what promises to be an eye-popping epic spectacle. It's subsequently rather disappointing to note that the film eventually settles into a groove of tedious training sequences and context-free battles, with the screenplay's utter lack of momentum ensuring that Ong Bak 2 essentially lurches from one brawl to the next with all the grace of a lumbering elephant. The inclusion of several thoroughly pointless flashbacks contributes heavily to the movie's aggressively (and increasingly) uneven atmosphere, and there's simply no denying that the fight scenes start to lose their appeal as the film progresses. Jaa and Rittikrai's refusal (or inability) to offer up the tiniest semblance of a storyline results in a host of exceedingly superfluous interludes (ie the central villain is treated to an elaborate song-and-dance routine), while the flabby structure inevitably drains the combat sequences of their effectiveness (ie there reaches a point wherein Tien appears to be fighting just for the sake of fighting). The comically abrupt conclusion - which is sure to leave most viewers baffled and annoyed - cements Ong Bak 2's place as an entirely underwhelming piece of work, with the almost total absence of awe-inspiring stunts destined to turn off even die-hard fans of the original.

out of


Harry Brown
Directed by Daniel Barber

UNITED KINGDOM/97 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS

Starring Michael Caine, Harry Brown follows the title character (Caine) as he's forced to take matters into his own hands after a gang of street toughs kill his best friend - with complications ensuing as a local police officer (Emily Mortimer's Frampton) develops a creeping suspicion that Harry isn't quite the harmless old man he appears to be. It's an admittedly irresistible premise that leads the viewer to expect something along the lines of Death Wish or Straw Dogs, yet it's clear right from the get-go that screenwriter Gary Young is aiming for a far more low-key and laid-back vibe - as the emphasis is initially placed on Harry's deliberately-paced daily routine (ie he visits his ailing wife's hospital bedside, he plays a game of chess with a chum, etc). The disparity between the movie's set-up and its execution is hardly as problematic as one might've imagined, with Caine's commanding and downright masterful performance effectively compensating for the less-than-electrifying nature of Young's script. It's only as Caine's character is increasingly relegated to the sidelines that one's attention starts to wane, as Young spends an awful lot of time on subplots that, when compared to the central storyline, simply aren't all that interesting (ie Frampton's ongoing efforts at convincing her skeptical superior that there's more to Harry than meets the eye). The inclusion of a few suspenseful (and surprisingly badass) interludes - ie Harry, in a sequence that ultimately reveals itself as the highlight of the film, visits an exceedingly sleazy drug den to procure a firearm - allows Harry Brown to live up to its logline, although, in the final analysis, the movie is generally far more successful as a subdued character study than as a revenge thriller.

out of