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Toronto International Film Festival 2007 - UPDATE #4

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells the fascinating true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), a 43-year-old magazine editor who suddenly finds himself a prisoner in his own body following a debilitating stroke. Assisted by a team of tireless professionals (including a speech therapist superbly played by Marie-Josée Croze), Bauby slowly but surely adjusts to his new situation and even begins working on a book detailing his experiences. Filmmaker Julian Schnabel - along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski - has infused The Diving Bell and the Butterfly with a striking, almost avant-garde sensibility that's nothing short of astounding, and the movie - which is endlessly intriguing simply in terms of its visuals - effectively places the viewer in Bauby's shoes by employing a series of point-of-view shots that never become as oppressive as one might've feared. Such stylistic choices - coupled with Amalric's thoroughly moving performance - ensure that Bauby remains an incredibly sympathetic figure throughout The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's running time, with the end result a film that's as emotionally devastating as it is engrossing.

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No Country for Old Men
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

While there's little doubt that No Country for Old Men is the Coen brothers' most consistent and flat-out entertaining effort since 1996's Fargo, the film nevertheless suffers from an egregiously deliberate pace and a needless emphasis on overly quirky supporting characters. The storyline follows Texan hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) as he stumbles upon a cache of dead bodies and over $2 million in drug money, and - after deciding to keep the dough for himself - soon finds himself being pursued by a merciless assassin (Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh). Infused with a bleak, surprisingly stark sensibility by directors Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men certainly possesses a number of exceedingly positive attributes - with Bardem's terrifying and absolutely riveting performance clearly playing a significant role in the film's success. And though the Coens effectively pepper the movie with a number of distinctly indelible moments - ie a sequence in which Chigurh decides the fate of a random shopkeeper with the flip of a coin - there does reach a point at which the viewer's interest starts to wane (something that's undoubtedly a result of the slow-moving vibe and overlong running time). Such concerns are exacerbated by a conclusion that feels strangely anti-climactic, and there's ultimately no denying that the movie probably would've benefited from some judicious editing. Still, No Country for Old Men is often as suspenseful and compelling as anything within the Coens spotty filmography - ensuring that the film stands as a welcome comeback of sorts for the brothers.

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Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Sleuth, adapted by Harold Pinter from Anthony Shaffer's stageplay (which was the basis of a 1972 film), casts Michael Caine and Jude Law as adversaries who torment one another with a series of increasingly nasty mind games (their animosity stems from Law's illicit relationship with Caine's wife). Director Kenneth Branagh initially infuses Sleuth with an ostentatious sense of style that proves to be incredibly distracting, as the filmmaker places his camera in increasingly off-kilter locations (behind shutters, around corners, etc) and even relies heavily on security-cam footage during much of the movie's first act. Branagh's ill-fated directorial choices prove to be the least of the film's problems, however; Pinter's clunky dialogue couldn't possibly feel more artificial and stagy, while both Caine and Law (as effective as they are) find themselves trapped within the confines of incredibly unpleasant figures. It's consequently impossible to care about the fate of either of their characters, and Sleuth ultimately reveals itself to be little more than an actor's showcase.

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Run Fatboy Run
Directed by David Schwimmer

The directorial debut of former Friends star David Schwimmer, Run Fatboy Run casts Simon Pegg as Dennis - a likeable schlub whose life takes a turn for the worse following an ill-fated decision to run out on his pregnant fiancee (Thandie Newton's Libby). Five years later, Dennis - in a last-ditch effort to win Libby back - embarks on a quest to prove his worth by signing up for a grueling marathon (in which he'll compete against Libby's successful new boyfriend, Hank Azaria's Whit). Run Fatboy Run certainly gets off to a promising start, with Pegg delivering as subtle (and distinctly hilarious) a performance as one might've expected and Schwimmer effectively moving the proceedings along at a brisk pace. But there comes a point at which the more conventional elements within Pegg and Michael Ian Black's screenplay become oppressive and eye-rollingly overt, ensuring that the whole thing eventually devolves into a mess of sentimental cliches (ie Azaria's Whit, established as a nice guy, ultimately reveals himself to be a scummy jerk). The inclusion of several distinctly over-the-top bits of physical comedy certainly doesn't help matters, and there's just no denying that - despite its few positive attributes - Run Fatboy Run ultimately establishes itself as yet another hopelessly paint-by-numbers romantic comedy.

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The Orphanage
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona

Though infused with a few admittedly effective moments and a superb central performance from Belén Rueda, The Orphanage is ultimately undone by its egregiously deliberate pace and pervading vibe of familiarity. Set almost entirely within the confines of a creaky, oversized house, the movie follows Rueda's Laura as she slowly but surely comes to the realization that her home just might be haunted. Director Juan Antonio Bayona has infused The Orphanage with an understated sense of style that certainly suits the material quit well, while there's no denying the effectiveness of the film's promising, sporadically creepy first half. But there comes a point at which screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez essentially drops the more horrific elements within the story and instead transforms The Orphanage into a slow-moving drama about a woman forced to confront her past. The incredibly unsatisfying conclusion only exacerbates the film's various problems, and it's clear that comparisons to superior (yet similarly-themed) efforts such as The Others and The Sixth Sense are entirely unwarranted.

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L'Âge des Ténèbres
Directed by Denys Arcand

It's hard to imagine just what filmmaker Denys Arcand was attempting to accomplish with L'Âge des Ténèbres, as the movie - though infused with a few interesting interludes and a fantastic central performance from Marc Labrèche - comes off as a consistently underwhelming effort that's never even remotely as engrossing as his last effort (2003's The Barbarian Invasions). Set within an Orwellian Quebec that's been overrun by political correctness and red tape, the movie follows a put-upon civil servant (Labrèche's Jean-Marc) as he escapes from the myriad of annoyances in his life by engaging in fantasies that are primarily sexual in nature (he will, however, occasionally imagine a harsh comeuppance for his controlling boss). There's a distinct feeling of repetitiveness to much of L'Âge des Ténèbres, as Arcand hammers home many of the same points time and time again - with a particular emphasis on the government's proclivity towards wastefulness. And while Jean-Marc is certainly an intriguing figure, he's been surrounding by a series of over-the-top caricatures (including his workaholic wife and his perpetually sullen daughter). The incredibly uneven structure only exacerbates the film's various problems, as there reaches a point at which Arcand plum runs out of things for Jean-Marc to do (a seriously tedious excursion to a Crusades re-enactment in the third act smacks of needlessness). The inclusion of a few honest moments towards the film's conclusion come too late to make any real impact, with the end result a staggeringly disappointing effort from a genuinely talented filmmaker.

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La Fille coupée en deux
Directed by Claude Chabrol

Lifeless and disjointed, La Fille coupée en deux is a typically slow-moving and overly talky French drama that possesses few traits designed to hold the viewer's interest for more than a few minutes at a time. The thin, egregiously plain storyline follows an up-and-coming weather girl (Ludivine Sagnier's Gabrielle) as she finds herself falling for a much older man (François Berléand's Charles) - much to the chagrin of a suitor her own age, the spoiled heir to a pharmaceutical fortune (Benoît Magimel's Paul). Directed by Claude Chabrol, La Fille coupée en deux does hold some promise in its early scenes - as the filmmaker effectively establishes these fairly interesting characters and their admittedly melodramatic crises. But Chabrol and co-writer Cécile Maistre's reluctance to spell out just what it is that Gabrielle sees in Charles - given that she essentially becomes obsessed with the man - single-handedly assures the film's downfall. The inclusion of a few admittedly unexpected third-act twists notwithstanding, La Fille coupée en deux is nothing less than an entirely forgettable piece of work and it's ultimately impossible not to wonder what a master like Chabrol saw in this hopelessly stale material.

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Starting Out in the Evening
Directed by
Andrew Wagner

Starting Out in the Evening stars Frank Langella as Leonard Schiller, an obscure novelist whose latest effort has been in the works for almost ten years. His life changes dramatically when a young graduate student (Lauren Ambrose's Heather) approaches him with the hope of writing her master's thesis on his works; there's also a subplot revolving around Leonard's daughter (Lili Taylor's Ariel) and her efforts to settle down with an old boyfriend (Adrian Lester's Casey). Buoyed by Langella's incredibly effective central performance, Starting Out in the Evening initially comes off as a low-key yet undeniably engrossing piece of work - with the richness of the film's central characters certainly lending the proceedings a distinctly authentic sort of vibe. The increasingly overt inclusion of melodramatic bits, however, slowly but surely puts a damper on the film's overall effect, and there's little doubt that a pivotal (yet entirely needless) third-act development plays a key role in Starting Out in the Evening's ultimate downfall. That being said, it's impossible to overstate the effectiveness of Langella's work here - as the actor delivers what may just be the most compelling performance of his career.

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© David Nusair