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Toronto International Film Festival 2006 - UPDATE #4

Directed by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde

Featuring a pair of exceedingly compelling performances, Bella follows sensitive chef Jose (Eduardo Verastegui) as he spends the day with recently-fired (and newly pregnant) waitress Nina (Tammy Blanchard). Plotwise, that's about it; director and co-writer Alejandro Gomez Monteverde seems content to follow these two central characters as they engage in a series of increasingly personal conversations (revelations abound, particularly with regard to Jose's mysterious past). Despite the inclusion of a few melodramatic elements, Bella generally remains an engaging and accomplished piece of work - with the film's superb performances contributing heavily to this vibe. Blanchard, in particular, does a spectacular job of stepping into the shoes of a sassy, emotionally damaged figure. Best known for her role as the young Judy Garland in a made-for-television movie, Blanchard delivers a searing, unexpectedly powerful performance that certainly eliminates any doubt as to her abilities.

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Directed by Neil Armfield

Though Candy starts out as a typically oppressive flick about junkies, the film ultimately establishes itself as a surprisingly engaging and emotionally wrenching piece of work. Featuring a pair of absolutely phenomenal performances from Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish, the film follows their drug-addicted characters - Ledger's Dan and Cornish's Candy - as they attempt to form something resembling a normal life. Director Neil Armfield does a nice job of infusing the film with moments of levity, effectively ensuring that the whole thing never becomes bogged down in its inherently depressing subject matter. Ledger and Cornish are flat-out riveting; far more impressive, however, is the apparent ease with which they're able to turn their admittedly sleazy characters into figures worthy of the viewer's sympathy. And although the film sort of overstays its welcome - at a certain point, Armfield's emphasis on Candy and Dan's despair transforms Candy into precisely the kind overly bleak portrait of drug abuse that one expects from this genre - there's certainly no denying the effectiveness of Ledger and Cornish's work here (Cornish is undoubtedly headed towards the mainstream success that fellow Aussies Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts have achieved).

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The Art of Crying
Directed by Peter Schønau Fog

Though it features elements of comedy and drama, The Art of Crying fails at both primarily due to the deadpan, irritatingly idiosyncratic sensibility that's been hard-wired into to it by filmmaker Peter Schønau Fog. It certainly seems possible that Dutch viewers will find something here to embrace, though there's little doubt that most viewers will be left furiously scratching their heads. The story - what little there is - revolves around a mentally-disturbed young boy who discovers that his father has a real talent for delivering emotionally-wrenching eulogies, and subsequently arranges further funerals whenever his pop is feeling down. The Art of Crying has been suffused with characters that are uniformly reprehensible; aside from the murderous kid, there's the boy's child-molesting father and detached, equally sociopathic sister. As such, the viewer is left grasping for a single reason to care about any of this - a problem that's exacerbated by the unmistakably pointless vibe (the film goes absolutely nowhere).

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The Dog Problem
Directed by Scott Caan

The Dog Problem is a quirky, thoroughly lightweight film that's generally elevated by several engaging performances and Scott Caan's confident, almost cocky directorial choices. Giovanni Ribisi stars as Solo, a struggling writer who - on the advice of his shrink (played by Don Cheadle) - buys a scrappy little dog in an effort to bring some meaning into his life. Caan - who also wrote the film's screenplay and has a small role as Solo's skirt-chasing friend - does a nice job of mirroring The Dog Problem's initially (and inherently) superficial vibe with exceedingly glossy visuals, and it's consequently difficult not to be drawn into this poppy and fast-paced story. Ribisi delivers an engaging, likeable performance, while co-stars Mena Suvari, Kevin Corrigan, and particularly Caan (who seems to be channeling Vince Vaughn's Swingers character) provide solid support. And though there are a few lulls in the film's narrative, The Dog Problem is - by and large - a fun and breezy piece of work (and a welcome respite from the slow-paced, heavy-handed films that generally populate a festival such as this).

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Citizen Duane
Directed by Michael Mabbott

Citizen Duane is an entertaining yet distinctly forgettable little comedy revolving around the residents of a small Canadian town, where a tenacious high schooler Duane Balfour (Douglas Smith) decides to run for mayor. Director Michael Mabbott imbues Citizen Duane with an appropriately lighthearted touch - a vibe that's reflected in Jonathan Sobol and Robert DeLeskie's equally fluffy screenplay - and the film consequently moves at a brisk clip and generally remains an engaging (albeit inconsequential) piece of work. Smith is charismatic and likeable as the central character, while Donal Logue - playing one of Duane's eccentric relatives - deftly steals the film from under his co-stars at every turn (the sequence in which he recalls his fruitless efforts to cultivate a monkey jockey is probably worth the price of admission). But the movie sort of runs out of steam as it progresses, eventually dropping the laid-back tone in favor of something that's far more dramatic and ultimately heavy-handed than one might've expected. Nevertheless, Citizen Duane is - more often than not - an unusually breezy effort out of Canada.

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The Caiman
Directed by Nanni Moretti

Though there's little doubt that The Caiman has been designed to appeal to a very specific audience - the film has been compared to Fahrenheit 9/11 due to its less-than-sympathetic view of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - filmmaker Nanni Moretti has concocted a storyline that's compelling enough to ensure a reasonable level of interest among non-Italians. The Caiman follows B-movie producer Bruno (Silvio Orlando) as he inadvertently finds himself roped into making a controversial political film - a situation that's exacerbated by his crumbling personal life. Moretti - who also appears in a cameo role - initially infuses The Caiman with a distinctly over-the-top sensibility, peppering the plot with one broadly comedic set-piece after another (the majority of which simply aren't all that funny). And although the film soon drops such elements, there's no denying that The Caiman is ultimately hurt by the overt familiarity of its storyline (there's not much within the behind-the-scenes-of-a-movie genre that viewers haven't seen countless times before). Still, the film generally remains amiable enough to warrant an extremely mild recommendation (that being said, Moretti's fans will most likely be turned off by the overwhelmingly lighthearted tone).

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© David Nusair