Toronto International Film Festival 2016 - UPDATE #1
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
FRANCE/131 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
A disappointingly bland drama from Paul Verhoeven, Elle details the comings and goings of fiftysomething businesswoman Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) as she experiences a tremendous upheaval in both her professional and personal lives. Verhoeven, working from David Birke's screenplay, certainly doesn't waste any time establishing a somewhat salacious atmosphere, as Elle opens with what may or may not be a brutal rape and segues into a series of calamities experienced by the central character. There is, as such, little doubt that Elle works best in its low-key yet relatively interesting first half, with the movie's slice-of-life, character-study vibe faring better than one might've expected due mostly to the various surprises in Birke's script. It's clear, though, that the film's effectiveness wanes as time progresses, as the disastrously overlong running time paves the way for a midsection that's almost unreasonably rife with lulls - with the less-than-engrossing vibe compounded by a typically underwhelming performance by Huppert. The notoriously cold actress is simply unable to transform her character into a believably three-dimensional figure, and it's consequently impossible to sympathize with any of the many indignities to which Michèle is subjected (and, worse, Huppert's one-note turn prevents Michèle's character arc from making the shocking impact that Verhoeven has obviously intended). The degree to which Elle ultimately fizzles out is nothing short of astounding, and it is, in the end, impossible not to wonder just what Verhoeven originally set out to accomplish with this leaden, poorly-paced endeavor.
Directed by Ben Wheatley
UNITED KINGDOM/90 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
The latest cinematic trainwreck from Ben Wheatley, Free Fire follows an assortment of thugs and criminals as they gather in an abandoned warehouse to complete an arms sale - with all hell breaking loose after a minor misunderstanding unfolds between two of the characters. The degree to which Free Fire ultimately loses its grip on the viewer is nothing short of astounding, as, admittedly, the movie's opening stretch boasts an agreeably off-kilter feel that's perpetuated and heightened by an eclectic cast that includes Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Noah Taylor, and Brie Larson. It does become increasingly clear, however, that scripters Amy Jump and Wheatley have little interest in actually developing any of the film's many characters, which ensures that one's efforts to work up any interest in or sympathy for their eventual efforts at staying alive fall hopelessly flat. Far more problematic is the progressively static nature of Free Fire's one-note narrative, as the movie, past a certain point, is devoted entirely to the armed standoff that ensues within the grungy, claustrophobic confines of that aforementioned abandoned warehouse. (The film is essentially the climax of a generic '80s actioner expanded to feature length.) There's just nothing compelling about any of this; Wheatley and Jump clearly have no idea what to do with these one-dimensional figures and the film is, for the most part, rife with long, painfully tedious scenes in which characters conspire with one another and figure out their next moves (ie it's just all so static and stagnant). And while Wheatley's audacity for even attempting something like this is impressive, certainly, Free Fire's completely ineffective and underwhelming execution ensures that it feels much, much longer than its 90 minutes.
Directed by Alan Gilsenan
CANADA/IRELAND/93 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Based on a book by Carol Shields, Unless follows Catherine Keener's Reta and Matt Craven's Tom as they attempt to bring their suddenly, inexplicably panhandling daughter (Hannah Gross' Norah) back home. The seemingly straight-forward premise is employed to rather underwhelming effect by filmmaker Alan Gilsenan, with the writer/director's decision to transform Norah's sudden homelessness into a mystery ultimately proving disastrous - as the movie's relentless emphasis on the character's newfound hobo lifestyle rings false, to say the least. (It doesn't help, certainly, that the film opens with a 19-days-earlier prologue in which Norah is portrayed as a happy, well-adjusted college student.) Devoid of any real context, Unless comes off as a tedious series of inauthentic scenes detailing Reta and Matt's efforts at caring for their daughter without actually helping her (ie why wouldn't they enlist medical professionals to get her off the streets?) The film's less-than-engrossing atmosphere is compounded by ongoing occurrences of ludicrously pompous dialogue and voiceover, and it's clear, too, that the overly deliberate pace plays a significant role in preventing the viewer from wholeheartedly (or even partially) connecting to the material. And while the big reveal of Norah's triggering event certainly explains a lot (while also making Reta and Tom's inaction look even worse), Unless comes off as a misguided drama that just isn't able to transcend its literary origins to become a fully-realized (and persistently compelling) motion picture.
Trespass Against Us
Directed by Adam Smith
UNITED KINGDOM/94 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Adam Smith's directorial debut, Trespass Against Us details the day-to-day exploits of several low-class, white-trash criminals residing in the British equivalent of a trailer park - with the emphasis placed on Michael Fassbender's Chad Cutler and his continuing efforts at creating a better life for his girlfriend and two small children. It's clear almost immediately that Smith, working from Alastair Siddons' screenplay, isn't looking to cultivate an atmosphere of entertainment here, as Trespass Against Us suffers from an uneventful and aggressively meandering vibe that slowly-but-surely renders its few positive attributes moot. There's little doubt, as well, that the less-than-compelling vibe is compounded by Smith's decision to stress unpleasant, unlikable characters, with the viewer, to an increasingly palpable degree, given little reason to work up any interest in or sympathy for the film's various lowlifes and thugs. (By the time one such figure murders a police dog, it's legitimately become impossible not to actively root against their success.) The pervasive lack of momentum, coupled with a storyline that's devoid of surprises, paves the way for a narrative that rarely feels as though it's building towards anything, and indeed, Trespass Against Us culminates in an anticlimactic final stretch that's riddled with hilariously ineffective instances of sentiment. And although Fassbender and his assorted costars deliver strong work, Trespass Against Us ultimately comes off as an absolute failure of movie that's as infuriating as it is interminable. (This is to say nothing, as well, of the often impenetrable accents.)
Barakah Meets Barakah
Directed by Mahmoud Sabbagh
SAUDI ARABIA/88 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
A Saudi Arabian romcom, Barakah Meets Barakah follows personable civil servant Barakah (Hisham Fageeh) who falls for an Instagram star named Bibi (Fatima Al Banawi) - with the movie revolving around the inherent difficulties of dating in a backwards, overly religious country. First-time filmmaker Mahmoud Sabbagh has infused Barakah Meets Barakah with an irresistible breeziness that does, generally speaking, compensate for the rough-around-the-edges vibe, with the movie's assortment of amateurish elements (eg many supporting performances) made relatively easy to overlook by Sabbagh's gleeful, lighthearted approach to the material. It's clear, too, that the film benefits substantially from Fageeh's thoroughly agreeable turn as the likable protagonist, with the actor, who essentially comes off as a Middle Eastern Zach Braff, transforming Barakah into a compelling figure that one can't help but root for and sympathize with. And while there's little chemistry between Barakah and Bibi, something that's mostly due to Al Banawi's standoffish performance, Barakah Meets Barakah has been suffused with a handful of unexpectedly striking sequences that keep things interesting (eg a Spike Lee-inspired scene in which Barakah laments the changes that have occurred in his country within the last 50 years). The degree to which Barakah Meets Barakah fizzles out in its third act is disappointing, to say the least, as the movie is, up until that point, a better-than-average debut that bodes well for Sabbagh's future endeavors.