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Toronto International Film Festival 2004 - UPDATE #8

Seven Times Lucky
Directed by Gary Yates

Seven Times Lucky is one of those films that isn't terrible exactly - it's fairly well made and well acted - but it's just so inconsequential and low-key that it's forgotten minutes after it's over. The movie casts Kevin Pollak as Harlan, a shyster who has recently taken in a new partner named Fiona (Liane Balaban). The two spend their time scamming random people out of relatively small amounts of money, but are quickly presented with the opportunity to pull off a score that'll allow them to retire. Of course, this being a movie about conmen, there are twists and double-crosses a-plenty. Writer/director Gary Yates effectively imbues Seven Times Lucky with the sort of seediness one expects of a movie like this, while Pollak does a nice job of crawling into the skin of this down-on-his-luck loser. But the familiarity of the story and characters is so extreme that it's impossible to ever really get into the movie, despite the best intentions of everyone involved. However, it's hard not to get a kick out of seeing the Principal from Back to the Future (James Tolkan) back on the big screen.

out of

Directed by Danny Boyle

It's hard to pinpoint just where Millions goes wrong, especially given the talent behind the camera (director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce), but the film's fantastical vibe never quite takes hold - leaving us with a flat comedy that doesn't really work on any level. The movie follows two brothers that stumble upon a duffle bag full of British Pounds, which they must spend before the Euro comes into effect (thus rendering the Pounds worthless). It's the sort of fun setup that should've translated into an easy-going ride, but Boyce overloads the movie with pointless subplots and excessively "magical" sequences - to the extent that it becomes impossible to connect with any of these characters. Boyle peppers the film with an expectedly audacious sense of style, though certain choices are more silly than anything else (ie the youngest brother's penchant for having imaginary conversations with Saints). But the bottom line is that this just isn't a terribly interesting story, despite the best efforts of everyone involved. It's really a case of a film trying to do too much; instead of a breezy comedy about a pair of kids trying to spend millions of dollars, we get a movie that feels as though it's constantly searching for the right tone.

out of

Directed by Chazz Palminteri

And you thought Elf was sentimental. Noel marks actor Chazz Palminteri's directorial debut and his shameless love for uplifting stories couldn't be more evident. The film follows several characters in the days leading up to Christmas, as they confront what it really means to be happy. A few of the more prominent figures are: Rose (Susan Sarandon), a cheerful sort whose lack of love in her life is getting her down; Mike (Paul Walker), a quick-tempered cop on the verge of losing his fiancée (Penelope Cruz); and Artie (Alan Arkin), a restaurant owner who is convinced that Mike is actually the reincarnation of his dead wife. It's not exactly subtle stuff, and David Hubbard's script throws in every cliché you could imagine. And though the film doesn't have much to offer in the way of surprises, there's something kind of entertaining - even sweet - about the way everything plays out. Palminteri seems to have accepted the heavy-handed nature of the screenplay and embraced it whole-heartedly. Noel isn't destined to join the ranks of classic Christmas films like A Christmas Story or Die Hard, but the film's impossibly naive vibe proves difficult to resist.

out of

Directed by Fabrice du Welz

While it's clear right from the get-go that director Fabrice du Welz is looking to emulate the success of other disturbing French movies like Irreversible and Haute Tension, Calvaire's leaden pace and increasingly absurd plot twists make that impossible. Laurent Lucas stars as Marc Stevens, a magician whose van breaks down in the middle of nowhere en route to a gig. He's assisted by a helpful inn keeper named Paul Bartel (no, really), whose kindness quickly transforms into something far more sinister. Calvaire seems to be building up to something monumentally creepy, particularly with the presence of so many oddball periphery characters (including a gruff farmer played by Irreversible and Haute Tension co-star Phillipe Nahon). And while du Welz occasionally infuses the film with some much-appreciated instances of style - including a couple of blatantly obvious yet highly entertaining shots "inspired" by Brian De Palma - the payoff isn't even remotely worth the almost interminable setup, something that's exacerbated by du Welz's reluctance to show gore (he'll often cut away just prior to a violent act).

out of

Land of Plenty
Directed by Wim Wenders

Land of Plenty is the sort of movie film critics like to refer to as an interesting failure, though there's no denying the fact that it's a marked improvement over some of director Wim Wenders' more recent efforts (ie The End of Violence). The movie stars Michelle Williams as Lana, a young girl who returns home to the United States after several years of living in Israel. Her only relative in the country is Paul (John Diehl), though he proves difficult to track down (a Gulf War veteran, he spends his days spying on possible terrorists). As an examination of the post-9/11 landscape, Land of Plenty is undoubtedly a success. The film effectively captures the sense of paranoia and shortsightedness that seems to have plagued the United States since that horrific event. And though the movie has some genuinely interesting ideas - including frank conversations on homelessness and 9/11 - Wenders spends the bulk of the story's midsection focusing on Paul's investigation of a potential terrorist plot, a choice that eventually proves to be the film's undoing. Still, the performances are incredibly strong - Williams effectively steps out of the Dawson's Creek mold, while character actor Diehl does a nice job of portraying Paul's weariness - and Wenders' decision to shoot the movie using digital cameras isn't nearly as distracting as it could've been (ie Collateral). Ultimately, though, Land of Plenty just doesn't work - though you've got to admire Wenders for trying something different.

out of

The Sea Inside
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar

The Sea Inside tells the true story of Ramón Sampedro (played by Javier Bardem), a quadriplegic who spent 30 years fighting for his right to die. Director Alejandro Amenabar tells this story simply and effectively, resisting the temptation to liven things up with unnecessary visual flourishes (something that can't be said of Whose Life Is It Anyway?, the John Badham movie with a similar premise). Of course, The Sea Inside wouldn't be nearly as compelling as it is if it weren't for Bardem's fantastic performance - a feat made all the more impressive considering the actor spends the majority of the film completely unable to move. It's Bardem's acting that makes it easy enough to overlook the film's occasional jaunts into melodrama, while even the most jaded viewer will find it difficult to resist the inherent power of this story.

out of

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© David Nusair