Toronto International Film Festival 2007 - UPDATE #10
The Girl in the Park
Directed by David Auburn
USA/109 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Anchored by a pair of phenomenal lead performances, The Girl in the Park is a sporadically overwrought but mostly compelling film concerning the disappearance of a young girl from a public park. Sixteen years later, the girl's mother (Sigourney Weaver's Julia) is still unable to deal with the loss of her child - though her mental state seems to improve considerably following the arrival of a scrappy young woman named Louise (Kate Bosworth) into her life (it's clear, however, that Julia is secretly hoping that Louise might be her long lost daughter). Noted playwright David Auburn makes his directorial debut with The Girl in the Park, and he's infused the movie with a deliberate sensibility that generally works - although the filmmaker occasionally can't quite resist the temptation to emphasize a few melodramatic elements (ie the sequence in which Julia is arrested for hanging around a playground). There's little doubt that it's the stellar work by both Weaver and Bosworth that ultimately transforms The Girl in the Park into a surprisingly involving little drama, with the mystery surrounding Louise's true identity (is she or isn't she?) effectively holding the viewer's interest even through some of the film's less-than-successful sequences.
Directed by David Ross
A striking yet thoroughly uneven debut from David Ross, The Babysitters follows straight-A student Shirley (Katherine Waterston) as she transforms her babysitting service into a full-fledged prostitution ring. Despite the admittedly risque subject matter, Ross' approach never feels exploitative; assisted by Chad Fischer's dreamy score and Michael McDonough's strong visuals, the filmmaker manages to infuse the proceedings with a sensitive, distinctly artful touch that's quite mesmerizing. Ross' screenplay is, at times, bitingly authentic and darkly comedic - with the central character's transformation from model student to tough-as-nails pimp certainly the most overt example of the latter. It's a shame, then, that the movie eventually adopts the structure of a Scorsese flick - with the characters' initial success followed by a drug-fueled and ego-centric downfall. It's a development that brings a distinctly familiar feel to a story that's otherwise quite original and innovative, although - admittedly - it's not quite ineffective enough to tarnish the film's overall impact (Waterston's star-making performance virtually earns the movie a recommendation all on its own).
Directed by Gael García Bernal
Déficit, Gael Garcia Bernal's directorial debut, casts the actor as Cristobal, an affluent layabout who holds a party at his parents' palatial estate and soon finds himself at the center of several mini-crises. Infused with an ultra low-rent visual sensibility and a distinctly free-wheeling sort of vibe, Déficit is one of those movies that takes an awfully long time to get going - as the viewer is initially confronted with a series of characters that are far from likeable. But there comes a point at which it becomes exceedingly difficult not to get caught up in the fun-loving hijinks of these people, with the presence of several decidedly down-to-earth figures (primarily in the form of the family's servants) ensuring that the whole thing never quite becomes a Mexican variation on Rules of the Game. Having said that, it's just as clear that the movie starts to seriously fizzle out as it passes the one-hour mark - particularly as Bernal's emphasis on the drug-fueled escapes of the characters becomes increasingly tiresome. Still, given just how flat-out ugly the visuals tend to be, one can't help but marvel at just how entertaining Déficit sporadically is - though the inclusion of an admittedly charming moment lifted directly from Garden State is puzzling, to say the least.
Directed by Ulrich Seidl
Import Export marks Ulrich Seidl's first fictional effort since 2001's Dog Days, and there's little doubt that the film is just as challenging (and plotless) as its predecessor. Seidl's fascination with society's underbelly continues here, as the filmmaker places the emphasis on characters that are uniformly screwed up (in Seidl's universe, everybody is either miserable or cruel). The wafer-thin storyline follows a man (Paul Hofmann's Paul) and a woman (Ekateryna Rak's Olga) as they leave their respective homes in search of a better life, with Paul traveling to the Ukraine to install videogambling machines and Olga landing a job as a cleaner at an Austrian geriatric home. As expected, Seidl has infused Import Export with a number of long (and distinctly interminable) sequences in which characters do nothing of any significance or importance - a vibe that's exacerbated by the inclusion of dialogue that's clearly been improvised (the movie is rife with circular conversations that go absolutely nowhere). And while Seidl's relentless emphasis on the extreme tediousness of his characters' lives does eventually lull the viewer into a hypnotic reverie, there's just no denying that Import Export's extreme length (143 minutes!) proves to be far too insurmountable an obstacle for the filmmaker to overcome.
Directed by John Sayles
USA/123 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Meandering but evocative, Honeydripper - filmmaker John Sayles' 16th feature - follows a '50s juke joint owner (Danny Glover's Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis) as he attempts to avoid bankruptcy by booking a legendary guitar player named Guitar Sam. After the famed strummer backs out at the last minute, Tyrone - banking on the knowledge that nobody in his community actually knows what Guitar Sam looks like - decides to run the show with a talented drifter (Gary Clark Jr's Sonny) standing in for the headliner. As expected, Sayles offers up an incredibly vivid portrait of this small town and the various inhabitants within - ensuring that one can't help but feel as though they know the place by the time the movie concludes. Sayles' penchant for delving into the personal lives of even the most periphery of characters ultimately lends the proceedings a distinctly rambling vibe, however, and there's little doubt that the film would've benefited from some judicious editing (at 123 minutes, the movie suffers from a leisurely pace that often threatens to become oppressive). Still, it's awfully difficult not to be drawn into this refreshingly low-key and simple tale - with the uniformly superb performances (Glover's never been better) certainly playing a substantial role in the movie's mild success.
Then She Found Me
Directed by Helen Hunt
USA/100 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Then She Found Me marks the directorial debut of actress Helen Hunt, and while it's not terribly difficult to discern where the story is going at any given point, the film generally comes off as a charming and downright delightful spin on the romantic comedy genre. Hunt plays April, an elementary school teacher who learns - in the same week that her husband leaves her and her mother dies - that her birth mother is actually a local talk show host (Bette Midler's Bernice). There's also a subplot revolving around April's budding relationship with the father (Colin Firth's Frank) of one of her students, a union that's ultimately complicated by the revelation that she's pregnant with her ex's child. There's little doubt that Hunt's experiences as a sitcom actress have played a significant role in her directorial style, as Then She Found Me is rife with the sort of timing - both in the dialogue and scene transitions - that one generally associates with a half-hour comedy. This turns out to be an appropriate fit for the material, however, as the movie is often genuinely hilarious; it's also worth noting that the expectedly dramatic third-act developments (including that darned fake break-up) are subsequently not as jarring as they could've been. The uniformly strong performances - with Hunt herself particularly good here - cement the film's place as an above-average romcom, and it's ultimately difficult to resist the various audience-pleasing attributes that have been hard-wired into Then She Found Me.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Directed by Sidney Lumet
USA/123 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Though consistently entertaining and uniformly well acted, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead ultimately comes off as nothing more than a perfunctory thriller - which is especially disappointing given the level of talent both in front of and behind the camera (ie this should have been electrifying). The story follows a pair of brothers (Ethan Hawke's Hank and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Andy) as they collaborate on a scheme to rob their own parents' jewelry store, although the whole thing quickly goes awry after their hired goon (Brian F. O'Byrne's Bobby) brandishes a gun during the heist. Director Sidney Lumet - working from Kelly Masterson's screenplay - has infused Before the Devil Knows You're Dead with a complex, time-shifting structure that doesn't work quite as well as one might've hoped, though there's little doubt that it effectively keeps the viewer guessing through the majority of the film's running time. Ultimately, however, there's just no shaking the feeling that a linear approach would've been a more apt choice - as the relentless barrage of flashbacks and flashforwards eventually becomes something of a distraction. Still, it's impossible to entirely dismiss Before the Devil Knows You're Dead if only due to the uniformly stellar performances (it has to be said, though, that Michael Shannon steals every single one of his few scenes as a thug who insists on referring to Hawke's character as "Chico").
Nothing is Private
Directed by Alan Ball
USA/134 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATION
Based on Alicia Erian's novel Towelhead, Nothing is Private follows an Arab-American teenager (Summer Bishil's Jasira) as she encounters a number of quirky characters - including a racist reservist (Aaron Eckhart) and a nosy neighbor (Toni Collette) - after moving to an affluent Texas neighborhood. The film marks Six Feet Under creator and American Beauty writer Alan Ball's directorial debut, and there's little doubt that it possesses many of the expected off-kilter touches that have come to define his work. Ball's remarkably frank approach to a number of decidedly taboo subjects - rape plays an increasingly key role as the movie unfolds - is generally allayed by the undercurrent of darkly comedic elements, though it's ultimately Bishil's exceptionally strong performance that holds the viewer's interest throughout the movie's admittedly uneven running time. And while one might be tempted to compare Nothing is Private to American Beauty - both movies paint an awfully bleak picture of suburbia - Ball has infused the proceedings with a light-hearted and free-wheeling sort of vibe that immediately sets it apart from its 1999 predecessor. There's consequently no denying that the movie's plotless structure ensures that certain stretches are far more interesting than others, and yet it's clear that Nothing is Private surely stands as an exceedingly promising first effort from a novice filmmaker.
Sukiyaki Western Django
Directed by Takashi Miike
JAPAN/121 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
Hard as it may be to imagine, Sukiyaki Western Django just might be Takashi Miike's most inept and flat-out boring effort to date - which is no small feat, really, given the presence of such failures as 2000's Dead or Alive and 2003's Gozu within the director's bloated filmography. Miike's lack of talent has - thus far in his woefully prolific career - been hidden behind a smokescreen of relentless output, as the filmmaker generally tends to crank out four or five movies a year. Sukiyaki Western Django - which has been filmed entirely in English, though most of the actors clearly aren't native speakers of the language - follows a mysterious stranger (Hideaki Ito) as he rolls into a prototypically violent Old West Town, where he quickly finds himself caught smack-dab in the middle of a feud between two warring clans. Miike's various stylistic choices - ie the garish production design and eye-bleeding visuals - ensure that Sukiyaki Western Django wears out its welcome almost immediately, while the various performances range from awful to flat-out inexcusable (this also applies to guest star Quentin Tarantino, whose over-the-top work here makes one long for the subtlety and nuance of his previous stints as an actor).
no stars out of