Toronto International Film Festival 2012 - UPDATE #2
A Late Quartet
Directed by Yaron Zilberman
USA/105 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Directed by Yaron Zilberman, A Late Quartet follows the members of a string quartet (Christopher Walken's Peter, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Robert, Catherine Keener's Juliette, and Mark Ivanir's Daniel) as they're forced to collectively confront a wide variety of issues - including Peter's health problems, Robert's driving ambition, and Daniel's romantic entanglements. Though it eventually does become quite involving and even moving, A Late Quartet has been saddled with an opening half hour that is, to put it mildly, somewhat off-putting - with the viewer's efforts at embracing the characters initially stymied by Zilberman's meticulous and decidedly chilly sensibilities (ie the film does, at the outset, mirror the cold, impersonal feel of the soundtrack's classical pieces). It's just as clear, however, that the movie improves demonstrably as it delves into the characters' personal lives, with, especially, the emphasis on the continuing strife in Robert and Juliette's marriage slowly-but-surely transforming A Late Quartet into an impressively engrossing drama. And as effective as Keener and Walken are here, it's Hoffman's consistently spellbinding performance that stands as the movie's most compelling attribute - as the actor's typically immersive work ensures that his character becomes increasingly sympathetic as time progresses. And although some of the plot developments are admittedly on the melodramatic side, A Late Quartet, which is capped off with a conclusion that packs a palpably emotional punch, is ultimately far from the arm's-length and somber piece of work one might've anticipated.
Directed by Kate Melville
Picture Day follows rebellious teen Claire Paxton (Tatiana Maslany) as she strikes up an unexpected friendship with a shy outcast (Spencer Van Wyck's Henry), with the largely plotless film subsequently detailing Claire's ongoing exploits - including her illicit relationship with the thirtysomething lead singer (Steven McCarthy's James) of a struggling local band. Though it's been hard-wired with an appealing punk-rock sensibility by first-time filmmaker Kate Melville, Picture Day is ultimately unable to hold the viewer's interest for more than a few minutes at a time - with the protagonist's inauthentic nature ranking high on the movie's list of underwhelming attributes. Maslany's strong performance is, generally speaking, unable to compensate for the artificiality of Claire's personality and demeanor, as the character has been painted in unreasonably broad strokes that prevent her from becoming the wholeheartedly compelling figure that Melville has surely intended. It doesn't help, either, that Melville has punctuated the proceedings with simplistic, eye-rollingly obvious elements (eg Claire's rebellious antics are intercut with scenes of Henry gleefully playing cards with his parents), and the movie, though generally watchable, suffers from a meandering midsection that's rife with needless sequences and interludes. The padded-out atmosphere reaches a boiling point with an absolutely interminable third-act road trip, which does, finally, cement Picture Day's place as a well-intentioned yet wholly misguided coming-of-age story.
Directed by Luis Prieto
UNITED KINGDOM/87 MINUTES/VANGUARD
A remake of Nicolas Winding Refn's 1996 debut, Pusher follows tough-as-nails drug dealer Frank (Richard Coyle) as he's forced to scramble after a buy goes awry and he loses a hefty chunk of cocaine - with the film primarily detailing Frank's ongoing efforts at piecing together the cash that he now owes a fearsome drug lord (Zlatko Burić's Milo). Filmmaker Luis Prieto admittedly does a fantastic job of immediately luring the viewer into the proceedings, as the movie opens with a striking sequence introducing the various characters that's hilariously over-the-top yet undeniably engrossing. From there, Pusher, in its early stages, comes off as an irresistibly lurid crime drama that's heightened by Coyle's compelling performance and Prieto's propulsive direction - with the actors' uniformly thick accents, as a result, not quite as problematic as one initially might've feared. It's only as the narrative moves into its distressingly conventional midsection that Pusher begins to lose its grip on the viewer, as the emphasis on Frank's tedious money-cobbling exploits wreaks havoc on the movie's momentum and ensures that the energetic score and visuals are subsequently rendered moot (ie the film is, to an increasingly prominent degree, suffused with lifeless plot twists and character arcs). By the time the curiously abrupt and unconvincing ending rolls around, Pusher has certainly established itself as a questionable reboot that is unlikely to enjoy the success (and sequels) of its predecessor.
Directed by James Ponsoldt
USA/85 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
There's nothing especially groundbreaking or innovative about Smashed - it is, for the most part, a fairly conventional portrait of alcoholism - yet the movie remains compulsively watchable from start to finish due, in most part, to star Mary Elizabeth Winstead's engrossing, immersive performance. The film follows Winstead's Kate Hannah, an alcoholic with an equally tipsy husband (Aaron Paul's Charlie), as she attempts to quit drinking in the wake of a crack-fueled rock-bottom incident, with Kate's efforts helped along by a sympathetic coworker (Nick Offerman's Dave) and a pervasive desire to get her life back on track. Director James Ponsoldt is, at the outset, unable to cultivate the atmosphere of gritty authenticity that he's clearly striving for, with the filmmaker's reliance on overly familiar elements initially holding the viewer at arm's length and preventing one from wholeheartedly embracing Winstead's seriously damaged character. The film's palpable transformation into a better-than-average drama comes at a very specific point, with Kate's riveting speech at her first A.A. meeting possessing exactly the sort of emotional feel that one might've anticipated from the material. There's little doubt that Winstead's stirring work proves instrumental in subsequently sustaining the movie's engrossing vibe, as the actress ultimately does a nice job of compensating for the sporadically meandering narrative and ongoing reliance on hackneyed elements - with the latter typified by the almost eye-rolling occurrence that triggers Kate's inevitable backslide. The end result is an actor's showcase that does, generally speaking, get the job done, and it's clear that, if nothing else, the viewer is forced to walk away from the proceedings with a completely different perspective on Winstead's abilities (ie she's certainly not just another pretty face).
The Suicide Shop
Directed by Patrice Leconte
FRANCE/BELGIUM/CANADA/79 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
An exceedingly off-the-wall animated endeavor, The Suicide Shop follows the somber Tuvache family, dad Mishima, mom Lucrezia, and children Vincent and Marilyn, as they go about their day-to-day lives running a store devoted entirely to poisons, knives, and other suicide-assisting objects - with the clan's morose existence threatened by the birth of a bouncing and perpetually upbeat little boy, Alain. The outrageousness of the premise is, for the most part, mirrored by filmmaker Patrice Leconte's oddball visual sensibilities, and there's little doubt that the movie's animation style, which admittedly does bear more than a few similarities to Sylvain Chomet's work, goes a long way towards perpetuating the off-kilter nature of Leconte's screenplay. And although the musical numbers are uniformly forgettable and the 3-D is typically worthless, The Suicide Shop benefits from the pervasively (and impressively) dark atmosphere that's heightened by an ongoing emphasis on far-from-family-friendly interludes (eg Mishima imagines brutally murdering his chipper boy). The admittedly repetitive midsection - one customer after another enters the store and is helped by one of the Tuvaches - is subsequently not as wearying as one might've feared, with the movie improving demonstrably as Alain's upbeat perspective begins to positively affect the lives of his parents and siblings (eg Marilyn falls in love with a prospective client of the titular establishment). The Suicide Shop's all-too-slight vibe ultimately confirms its place as a passable yet unspectacular piece of work, and it's worth noting, too, that the film ends on a disappointingly anticlimactic note with a musical number that's incongruously heavy-handed in its moral message.
West of Memphis
Directed by Amy Berg
West of Memphis tells the familiar story of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley (also known as the West Memphis Three), and explores the circumstances that led to their arrest and conviction for the murder of three little boys. Though the majority of viewers are aware of the basic facts surrounding the case, West of Memphis nevertheless boasts an opening half hour in which the evidence against the accused is systematically laid out - to the extent that it would certainly be easy to envision neophytes initially holding the assumption that the three men are indeed guilty as charged. It's only as filmmaker Amy Berg doubles back and begins exploring the degree to which the case was mishandled that the guys' innocence becomes clear, as Berg, along with an army of talking heads, explains, with remarkably clarity, exactly why it's impossible that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley could have committed this heinous crime. (The director tackles everything from the handling of the confession to the supposed knife marks on the bodies to the veracity of the prosecutor's statements.) There's little doubt that most of this is admittedly quite interesting, yet by that same token, West of Memphis, saddled with an absurdly overlong running time, suffers from a repetitive midsection that slowly-but-surely drains the viewer's interest - with the inclusion of an almost remarkably tedious stretch revolving around the possible guilt of one of the boys' fathers compounding the movie's progressively arm's-length feel. The end result is a sporadically fascinating yet hopelessly erratic documentary that might work best among those with little to no knowledge of the case, although, having said that, it's hard to deny the power of the buildup to and aftermath of the trio's release from prison.