Toronto International Film Festival 2011 - UPDATE #5
Sons of Norway
Directed by Jens Lien
NORWAY/88 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
Sons of Norway follows circa 1970s adolescent Nikolaj (Åsmund Høeg) as he adopts a punk lifestyle after his mother passes away - with the movie detailing the impact that Nikolaj's transformation has on both himself and on his grieving father (Sven Nordin's Magnus). Filmmaker Jens Lien has infused the early part of Sons of Norway with a briskly-paced and lighthearted sensibility that proves impossible to resist, with the affable atmosphere perpetuated by the likeable performances and the emphasis on Nikolaj's relationship with his hippie parents. And while some of this stuff is admittedly quite funny - eg Magnus forbids Nikolaj from drinking cola because it's "the black blood of capitalism" - Lien finds himself unable to elevate the material above that of a fairly typical coming-of-age drama. The underwhelming atmosphere is certainly not helped by the tediously episodic narrative, as it eventually does feel as though the film's engaging sequences are outweighed by those of a needless variety (eg Magnus and Nikolaj's trip to a nudist colony). It is, as such, not surprising to note that the movie fizzles out substantially as it passes the one-hour mark, with Lien's ongoing (and fruitless) struggles at filling the padded-out running time ensuring that Sons of Norway finally concludes with a whimper. (An amusing one-minute cameo from Johnny Rotten towards the end arrives far too late to make any real difference.)
Directed by Karl Markovics
Breathing follows Thomas Schubert's Roman Kogler, an inmate at a juvenile facility, as he begins a job on the outside hauling dead bodies, with the film detailing the character's day-to-day exploits both in and out of the prison. Actor-turned-director Karl Markovics has infused Breathing with an almost astonishingly deliberate pace that never becomes as oppressive as one might've feared, as the first-time filmmaker does a superb job of transforming Schubert's character into an intriguing figure worthy of the viewer's interest. Markovics' decision to focus on the minutia of Roman's work is certainly an intriguing choice, as the movie dwells on the microscopic details of Roman's less-than-enthralling existence to a degree that eventually becomes hypnotic. (There is, for example, a long sequence in which Roman and a coworker meticulously prepare a corpse for transport.) The movie's sporadic peeks into the central character's personal life - eg his ongoing efforts at finding the mother who abandoned him - proves effective at fleshing him out, with Schubert's impressively closed-off performance ensuring that Roman's rare displays of emotion are more affecting than one might've anticipated. The end result is a persistently watchable piece of work that never quite becomes the riveting piece of work Markovics obviously wants it to be, yet the movie undoubtedly stands as a stirring debut from a promising new filmmaker.
From the Sky Down
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Directed by Davis Guggenheim, From the Sky Down primarily follows U2's four band members - Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr - as they set out to follow-up 1987's insanely successful The Joshua Tree with 1991's Achtung Baby. There's little doubt that Under the Sky Down improves steadily as it progresses, as the movie's opening half hour ultimately feels like a typically superficial behind-the-scenes featurette on a bonus DVD. It's only as Guggenheim digs deeper into the band's astronomical rise to fame with The Joshua Tree that the film begins to adopt a more substantive atmosphere, although, by that same token, Guggenheim does display a penchant for dwelling on topics of a less-than-engrossing nature (eg there's a whole stretch on the impact that the Berlin Wall coming down had on the band). Having said that, From the Sky Down certainly contains a number of palpably enthralling sequences and interludes - with an obvious highlight the creation of the song "One," which almost seems to happen accidentally. (There's something quite thrilling about listening to Bono spout gibberish in place of lyrics as he discovers the song's infamous melody.) By the time the movie begins documenting the creation of U2's ZOO TV tour, Under the Sky Down has certainly established itself as a passable piece of work that's clearly been designed to appeal primarily to die-hard fans of the band.
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life
Directed by Werner Herzog
USA/106 MINUTES/REAL TO REEL
A palpable improvement over last year's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life follows Werner Herzog as he tackles the contentious capital punishment debate by exploring one specific crime in which three people were killed - as the filmmaker interviews every major person involved in the murders, including the young man scheduled to be executed for his part in the deaths. Unlike many of Herzog's past documentaries, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life doesn't contain expectedly idiosyncratic narration from the filmmaker - as Herzog instead employs onscreen titles to fill in any informational gaps. (This is not to say that Herzog's typically off-kilter sensibilities are completely absent, as the director can be heard asking questions that occasionally border on the absurd.) Herzog's impressive ability for eliciting painfully honest answers from his subjects ensures that the film is often far more emotional than one might've anticipated, as it does become increasingly difficult not to become caught up in the tragedy of this real-life case (eg the sister of one of the victims explains how she lost virtually everyone in her immediate family within a six-year period). There's little doubt, however, that the movie does contain a handful of tangents that aren't quite explored to the degree that one might've liked, with the most obvious example of this everything revolving around the wife of one of the perpetrators (eg the two met while he was in prison, but Herzog doesn't really explore what she ultimately hopes to get out of the relationship). Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life is nevertheless a stirring documentary that provides an eye-opening glimpse into a seriously divisive issue.
Sarah Palin: You Betcha!
Directed by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill
UNITED KINGDOM/90 MINUTES/REAL TO REEL
For a little while, Sarah Palin: You Betcha! comes off as a surprisingly even-handed look at the life and political career of politician Sarah Palin - as filmmakers Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill speak to the various folks in Palin's life and fill out the details of her past through archival footage. There is, as such, not much here to immediately capture the viewer's interest, as the filmmakers explore the less-than-engrossing details of Palin's background (eg her stint on a women's basketball team). There reaches a point, however, at which Broomfield and Churchill begin their relentless campaign of unearthing the dirt on the former Alaskan mayor, with the compilation of her on-camera flubs triggering the film's transformation into a mean-spirited hit piece (which, oddly enough, Broomfield insists on several occasions he's not making). As such, the latter half of Sarah Palin: You Betcha! Is chock-a-block with examples of Palin's ineptitude - though Broomfield and Churchill are simply unable to offer up any shocking or even unknown bits of information on their subject. The point has long-since been made that Palin is incompetent and corrupt, but Broomfield and Churchill have nowhere else to go from there (ie what's the point of all this muckraking?) It is, as a result, impossible not to wonder which demographic this is meant to appeal to, as there's nothing here Palin's detractors didn't already know - while the politician's supporters will unlikely make it past the half hour mark before giving up entirely.
Directed by Alexander Payne
USA/115 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Alexander Payne's first film since 2004's Sideways, The Descendants follows George Clooney's Matt King as he inevitably grows closer to his two young daughters (Shailene Woodley's Alexandra and Amara Miller's Scottie) after his wife is severely injured in a boating accident. There's little doubt that The Descendants is completely engrossing right from the outset, as Payne does a superb job of immediately luring the viewer into the proceedings - with Clooney's tremendously charismatic performance ensuring that his character becomes an immediately sympathetic figure. The compelling vibe is perpetuated by Matt's relationship between his two daughters, and there's certainly no denying the palpable chemistry that exists among the three performers. Payne's leisurely sensibilities result in a midsection that is certainly quite watchable, yet it's hard to deny that the movie never quite manages to recapture the stellar feel of its opening half hour. It doesn't hurt, however, that Payne has sprinkled the proceedings with a handful of undeniably captivating sequences, including a fantastic scene in which Matt confronts the man who almost destroyed his family. Otherwise, though, Payne is perfectly content to perpetuate the movie's affable atmosphere, which confirms The Descendants' place as a typically watchable yet far-from-consistent effort from the filmmaker.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
UNITED KINGDOM/AUSTRIA/FRANCE/BRAZIL/115 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Directed by Fernando Meirelles, 360 follows several characters as they're forced to individually confront issues of love and loss over the course of a few eventful days. It's a promising setup that's employed to persistently underwhelming effect by Meirelles, as the filmmaker's difficulties in transforming any of the movie's many protagonists into wholeheartedly compelling figures holds the viewer at arm's length right from the get-go. The rather conventional nature of the individual stories - eg a couple's (Jude Law and Rachel Weisz) marital problems lead to acts of infidelity, a sex offender (Ben Foster) attempting to go straight finds himself in a tempting situation, etc - certainly goes a long way towards exacerbating the film's less-than-engrossing atmosphere, with Meirelles' ostentatious directorial choices certainly not helping matters. (The consistently jarring soundtrack is undoubtedly the best example of this, as Meirelles pummels the viewer with distracting elements such as a spoken-word version of The Beatles' "A Hard Days Night.") The only subplot that manages to make an overtly positive impact revolves around a man (Anthony Hopkins) who is trying to track down his missing daughter, with Hopkins' expectedly compelling performance infusing the proceedings with some much needed depth. It finally becomes clear that 360 is nothing more than a well-cast and expensive-looking actor's showcase, as Meirelles' efforts at making some kind of a profound statement on modern relationships falls flat on a dismayingly consistent basis (ie what's the point of all this, exactly?)