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Toronto International Film Festival 2018 - UPDATE #2

Assassination Nation
Directed by Sam Levinson

A pervasively annoying endeavor, Assassination Nation follows four vapid friends (Odessa Young's Lily, Hari Nef's Bex, Suki Waterhouse's Sarah, and Abra's Em) as they're targeted by an entire town after being accused of hacking several prominent figures. It's clear immediately that filmmaker Sam Levinson has infused Assassination Nation with all the texture and subtlety of a generic music video, as the movie boasts (or suffers from) an extremely slick and aggressively smug feel that's reflected in its various attributes - with the over-the-top tone established right from the get-go with an eye-rollingly silly "trigger warning" for what's to come. The decidedly less-than-involving vibe is compounded by Levinson's emphasis on characters of a uniformly generic nature, and it's obvious, too, that the movie's deliberately-paced and frustratingly meandering narrative only perpetuates the misguided, misbegotten atmosphere. And although Levinson does manage to include one or two decent sequences (eg Lily explains to her down-to-earth principal the rationale for drawing a series of x-rated pictures), Assassination Nation's terminally unfocused sensibilities ensure that there's simply never a point at which one has anything invested in the protagonists' tedious exploits - which ensures that the picture's bizarre third-act transformation into a Purge knockoff fares even worse than one might've feared (and this is to say nothing of the hilariously, unreasonably heavy-handed note on which the movie concludes). The end result is a hopelessly slipshod and mostly atrocious piece of work that fails on virtually every level, with Levinson's earnest yet wholly wrongheaded efforts at cultivating a "woke" atmosphere contributing heavily to the film's status as a massive trainwreck.

out of

El Angel
Directed by Luis Ortega

Inspired by true events, El Angel follows sociopathic teenager Carlitos (Lorenzo Ferro) as his criminal endeavors are elevated significantly after he connects with Ramon (Chino Darín) and his felonious father. It's a fairly interesting premise that's employed to persistently (and distressingly) underwhelming effect by director Luis Ortega, as the filmmaker, working from a script written alongside Rodolfo Palacios and Sergio Olguín, delivers a deliberately-paced and often excessively spare narrative that's almost entirely devoid of standout interludes. (The movie's obvious highlight is a very late-in-the-game prison escape sequence, which, when coupled with an admittedly strong conclusion, ensures that the movie at least ends on a positive note.) The less-than-engrossing atmosphere is especially disappointing given the picture's proliferation of stirring elements, as Ortega effectively elicits solid work from his various performers and infuses the proceedings with a stylish, evocative feel that's generally difficult to resist (eg there's a decent stretch set to a Spanish-language version of The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun.") It's nevertheless impossible to deny that much of El Angel comes off as uninvolving and curiously flat, with the absurdly padded-out length of almost two hours undoubtedly playing a key role in cementing the movie's failure (ie the lack of momentum here stems primarily from an ungainly running time) - which is a shame, certainly, given the potential afforded by the setup and the talent on both sides of the camera.

out of

Free Solo
Directed by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

An erratic yet ultimately rewarding documentary, Free Solo follows rock climber Alex Honnold as he embarks on a quest to scale a 3000 foot cliff in California - with the movie detailing Alex's day-to-day exploits along the way, including his sporadically tempestuous relationship with an exceedingly patient girlfriend. Filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin generally do an effective job of establishing the movie's subject and the degree to which his dangerous exploits have shaped his existence (although the central question of "why?" is mostly avoided), and it's clear, too, that Free Solo stands as a fairly comprehensive primer into the exceedingly perilous world of safety-rope-free mountain climbing. (As one talking head notes, "everybody who has made free soloing a big part of their life is dead now.") It's just as apparent, however, that the picture's meandering midsection proves a progressively prominent test to one's patience, as Vasarhelyi and Chin deliver a second act that seems, far more often than not, to be spinning its wheels in the buildup to the climactic climb. (The movie spends quite a bit of time dwelling on the coupling between Alex and his girlfriend, and yet there's never a point at which we see exactly what she gets out of the relationship.) Such concerns become moot as Free Solo enters its often astonishingly gripping final stretch, as the palpably dangerous nature of Alex's efforts imbues the proceedings with a striking and seriously tense feel that's impossible to resist - which ensures that, if nothing else, the picture ends on as gripping a note as one could possibly envision.

out of

Directed by Kiah Roache-Turner

Exceedingly tedious virtually from start to finish, Nekrotronic follows a sanitation worker (Ben O'Toole) as he discovers that he comes from a long line of demon hunters - with the movie detailing his training alongside two seasoned warriors and, eventually, his efforts at taking down an evil queen of the underworld (Monica Bellucci). Director Kiah Roache-Turner, working from a script written with Tristan Roache-Turner, has certainly infused Nekrotronic with as fast-paced and over-the-top a feel as one could envision, and although this does ensure that there's some fun to be had in the early goings, the filmmaker's style-over-substance sensibilities quickly pave the way for a maddeningly broad narrative that's often as nonsensical as it is familiar (eg much of the movie's midsection revolves around the central character's introduction to his familial legacy and the predictably dreary training to develop his newfound powers). It is, as such, not surprising to note that there's virtually nothing here to wholeheartedly (or even partially) connect to, with the lack of any real stakes certainly preventing one from working up any real interest in or sympathy for the protagonist's ongoing endeavors. The endless, special-effects-heavy climax ensures that Nekrotronic concludes with a whimper, and it's ultimately clear that Roache-Turner's goal of creating a modern cult classic has fallen hopelessly flat.

out of

The Sisters Brothers
Directed by Jacques Audiard

Based on a book by Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers follows title characters Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) as they're contracted to find and kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) in the Old West - with the narrative also detailing the exploits of a detective (Jake Gyllenhaal's John Morris) hot on Hermann's trail. Director Jacques Audiard, working from a script written with Thomas Bidegain, has infused The Sisters Brothers with a meandering, deliberately-paced feel that perpetually prevents the viewer from connecting to the material, as the movie's episodic structure ensures that it boasts (or suffers from) an excessively hit-and-miss atmosphere - with problems ensuing as the picture eventually becomes more miss than hit (and it's clear, too, that the seriously overlong running time only exacerbates its various problems). There's little doubt, however, that the movie does boast its fair share of appealing elements, with the impressive and sporadically captivating work by stars Reilly and Phoenix certainly going a long way towards keeping things interesting. (It's clear, too, that Gyllenhaal delivers as sturdy and compelling a performance as one might've anticipated.) The ongoing inclusion of amusing vignettes (eg Eli learns how to use a toothbrush, Charlie drunkenly chases customers out of a saloon, etc) effectively paints a fairly vivid picture of life during that time period, and yet it's impossible not to wish the whole thing added up to something a bit more compelling (ie there's exceedingly little here in the way of actual forward momentum). And although the film is likewise stacked with memorable scenes (eg Charlie and Eli discuss their future together), The Sisters Brothers ultimately never quite manages to become more than the sum of its parts - with this vibe certainly cemented by a fairly underwhelming (and nigh endless) climax.

out of

© David Nusair