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Toronto International Film Festival 2005 - UPDATE #10

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones

Featuring a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a tough, gritty little Western that marks the directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones (who also stars). As one might expect from a script by Arriaga, the film features a heavy emphasis on time-shifting - much of the film's first act follows two separate storylines, with one having happened a few days in the past - though this isn't even remotely as complicated as 21 Grams. Jones plays Pete Perkins, a grizzled foreman who doesn't take too kindly to the murder of his ranch hand, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo). He does a little digging and learns that a green Border Patrolman (Barry Pepper) is responsible, and it's not long before Pete has kidnapped said Patrolman and forced him to return Melquiades' body to his wife (under Pete's watchful eye, of course). The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada moves at a deliberate pace and Jones imbues the movie with a solid, straight-forward sense of style, and though the movie is hurt by an overlong running time, the performances by both Jones and Pepper are engaging enough to keep the viewer intrigued throughout.

out of

Trust the Man
Directed by Bart Freundlich

Trust the Man is a cute but thoroughly underwhelming little romantic comedy revolving primarily around two key couples - the seemingly happily married Tom (David Duchovny) and Rebecca (Julianne Moore), and Tobey (Billy Crudup) and Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who have been dating for eight years. The film doesn't break any new ground, but for a while, it's enjoyable enough. Writer/director Bart Freundlich imbues the movie with an appropriately light-hearted touch, while the various actors deliver charming, engaging performances (something that is particularly true of Duchovny, who proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is ideal leading man material). But Freundlich just doesn't know when to quit, and the film runs out of steam well before it finally ends (a shorter running time would've definitely been more appropriate). And then there's the film's conclusion, which is weirdly over-the-top and hopelessly conventional, as the characters all converge on the opening night of a play to save their respective relationships. Still, the movie's basically entertaining - though it's clear that Freundlich could use a lesson from Richard Curtis in how to do a romantic comedy right.

out of

The Last Hangman
Directed by Adrian Shergold

The Last Hangman tells the true story of Albert Pierpoint (Spall), a British executioner who gained a reputation for being one of the most efficient and thoroughly professional men to do the job - to the extent that he was eventually commissioned by the war effort to help terminate convicted Nazis. The Last Hangman has the style and pace of a made-for-television production, with the sole difference between this and small-screen fare being Spall's magnificent performance. Though this isn't quite his best work (Secrets & Lies remains the actor's crowning achievement), Spall does an amazing job of stepping into the shoes of this exceedingly complex figure. Director Adrian Shergold imbues the movie with a distinctive air of austerity, while screenwriter Jeff Pope keeps the focus almost entirely on Pierpoint (Juliet Stevenson and Eddie Marsan, as Pierpoint's wife and best friend, deliver effective supporting performances). But the bottom line is that The Last Hangman just isn't terribly cinematic; there's little doubt that the film will work just as well on the small screen as it does in theaters.

out of

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Directed by Park Chan-wook

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the final installment in director Park Chan-wook's revenge trilogy, is an extraordinarily convoluted and hopelessly overlong thriller that boasts some intriguing visuals and a surprisingly compelling third act but little else. Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae), just released from jail after a thirteen year stint, enlists the help of her former cell mates to carry out an epic plan for revenge against the man responsible for her imprisonment. That's the simplified version of the plot, though Chan-Wook packs the story with an almost-absurd amount of needless diversions and superfluous characters. To say that Sympathy for Lady Vengeance sports an uneven pace is a gross understatement, as Chan-Wook's relentless use of cut-aways and flashbacks eventually becomes nothing more than a distraction. As a result, it's virtually impossible to get into the story - until, that is, Lee Geum-ja's plan finally comes to fruition. It's during this 25-minute portion that Sympathy for Lady Vengeance finally becomes interesting, as there's a brutal simplicity to this stretch that's completely absent from the rest of the movie's far-too-long running time. Unfortunately, it's followed up by more meaningless lunacy, and though it's clear that Chan-Wook possesses a certain amount of talent, the filmmaker has yet to corral that talent into something worth watching.

out of

Directed by Tim McCann

Runaway casts Aaron Stanford as Michael Adler, a young man who has absconded from his family home with his little brother (Zach Savage) in tow. Through sporadic and almost indecipherable flashbacks, we learn that Michael was abused by his father (Michael Gaston) as a child and wants to protect his sibling from similar treatment. It's not long before Michael finds a job at a local convenience store, where he begins a tentative romance with a brassy local named Carly (played by Robin Tunney). Director Tim McCann attempts to compensate for Runaway's decidedly uncinematic look (it was shot digitally) by throwing in a variety of visual tricks that ultimately lend the film an arty, ostentatious sort of vibe. Having said that, there's plenty here worth recommending - primarily the superb performances by Stanford and Tunney, both of whom effectively step into the shoes of characters that aren't always likable. There's also a fairly unexpected twist towards the end that doesn't come off as gimmicky, thanks to Bill True's subtle yet complex screenplay.

out of

Winter Passing
Directed by Adam Rapp

Though it moves at a snails pace (if that), Winter Passing is nevertheless an oddly compelling, beautifully acted drama revolving around a houseful of quirky characters. Reese Holden (Zooey Deschanel) is a bitter and sarcastic struggling actress who returns home for the first time since her mother's death, only to discover that her father's reclusive ways have severely worsened in the years since. There's no denying that Winter Passing takes an awfully long time to get going; much of the film's first act is devoted to Reese's miserable, New York-based existence, where she brutally murders a kitten. As a result, Reese is - initially - far from likeable, although this slowly changes as she arrives at her father's house and we begin to discover what makes her tick. It certainly doesn't hurt that supporting cast members Ed Harris and Will Ferrell deliver uncommonly strong performances (well, uncommonly strong for Ferrell at least; Harris is expectedly superb), while writer director Adam Rapp peppers the storyline with genuinely funny moments and a real sense of authenticity.

out of

Directed by Eli Roth

It's hard not to feel somewhat disappointed by Hostel, given that writer/director Eli Roth kept proclaiming that the film was to be an uncompromisingly disturbing exercise in fear. But, as it turns out, the movie is no more extreme than most similarly-themed R-rated flicks and it seems fairly obvious that Roth was forced to censor himself in order to placate the MPAA. The storyline follows three fun-loving young adults who, while backpacking across Europe, stumble upon an unspeakable horror involving an illicit website. The first half of Hostel comes off like a grittier version of Eurotrip, with these characters partying their way from city to city - until some seriously messed up stuff starts to go down. The problem emerges when it becomes clear that Roth either isn't able or isn't willing to create an atmosphere of dread, resulting in an opening hour that's basically disposable. And while there are few enjoyably over-the-top moments of gore, the movie is - on the whole - pretty tame (something that's exemplified by the cop-out ending, which isn't even remotely as dark as it should have been). That Hostel was originally to conclude on a much more shocking and downbeat note, according to comments made by Roth after the screening, just solidifies the film's status as an overly cautious piece of work.

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© David Nusair