Toronto International Film Festival 2008 - UPDATE #4
Directed by Larry Charles
USA/101 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Religulous is a slight yet entertaining documentary following Bill Maher as he investigates the more ludicrous aspects of certain religions, with the bulk of the proceedings devoted to segments in which the comedian confronts staunchly devout subjects on their beliefs. Director Larry Charles has infused the movie with an appropriately light-hearted sensibility that's echoed in the consistent (and occasionally oppressive) inclusion of random bits of silliness - ie after remarking that Jesus as a teen probably sported a Jew-fro and had trouble talking to girls, Charles cuts to a shot of Jonah Hill in Superbad - yet there's little doubt that Religulous is at its best when Maher goes one-on-one with a myriad of theologically-minded individuals (including a sketchy TV evangelist and a man portraying Jesus at a Bible-centered amusement park). And while Maher and Charles admittedly do seem to be going out of their way to offer up an even-handed take (initially, anyway), there inevitably reaches a point at which the pair are essentially preaching to the choir (ie we know that the "talking snake" and virgin birth are absurd; let's move onto something else). It consequently goes without saying that Religulous begins to seriously run out of steam somewhere past the halfway mark, as the repetitive nature of the movie's structure becomes increasingly tough to take. The vitriolic final monologue - undoubtedly destined to provoke arguments and stir up controversy - ensures that the film ends on a thoroughly positive note, which ultimately does lead one to wish that Charles and Maher had included more of the same throughout the remainder of the proceedings.
Directed by Stephen Belber
USA/93 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Management casts Steve Zahn as Mike, an affable yet slightly goofy hotel manager who finds himself instantly smitten with a guest (Jennifer Aniston's Sue). Tightly-wound Sue is inevitably drawn to Mike's easy-going sensibilities, yet - as expected - the two must overcome a series of problems before reaching their happy ending. Writer/director Stephen Belber has infused the early part of Management with a laid-back, undeniably sweet feel that proves irresistible, with the palpable chemistry between Zahn and Aniston certainly playing a key role in the film's initial success. Yet there reaches a point at which Belber starts to emphasize overtly silly elements - something that's exemplified by Woody Harrelson's over-the-top work as Sue's punk-rock ex-boyfriend - and it's hard to deny that the tonal shift from sweet romance to off-the-wall comedy is rather jarring (to say the least). By the time Zahn's character finds himself at a Buddhist monastery, one can't help but feel that the film has seriously lost its way - although, to be fair, the low-key character-study atmosphere of the third act is actually pretty well done and emotionally involving. There's little doubt that Management benefits substantially from a genuinely romantic finale, which is almost effective enough to allow one to overlook the otherwise egregiously uneven nature of the proceedings.
Not Quite Hollywood
Directed by Mark Hartley
AUSTRALIA/102 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
Not Quite Hollywood is an audacious, in-your-face documentary detailing the glut of exploitation films that were produced in Australia during the '70s and early '80s, with a particular emphasis on the sexually adventurous and brutally horrific fare that essentially spawned the film industry down under. Director Mark Hartley has infused Not Quite Hollywood with an over-the-top sensibility that certainly suits the subject matter, as the filmmaker peppers the proceedings with quick cuts, big explosions, and a relentless pace that ultimately becomes somewhat exhausting. There just reaches a point at which one can't help but feel that the whole thing is just too much, although - admittedly - one does walk away from the proceedings with a pretty in-depth understanding of the so-called "Ozploitation" subgenre. Hartley offers up interviews with a whole host of talking heads, from the actors who worked on the films to the critics who reviewed them, yet there's little doubt that the scene-stealer here is Quentin Tarantino. The excitable auteur offers up his thoughts on a myriad of thoroughly obscure movies, and one subsequently can't help but walk away from Not Quite Hollywood wanting to actually sit down and watch some of these long forgotten efforts.
Directed by Guy Ritchie
UNITED KINGDOM/114 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
As one has come to expect from a Guy Ritchie picture, RocknRolla has been suffused with tough-guy dialogue, larger-than-life performances, and a convoluted storyline that often borders on incoherent. Yet it's hard to deny that the film is often very entertaining and consistently engaging, as Ritchie's penchant for incredibly brisk pacing and gleefully over-the-top visuals essentially propels the proceedings from start to finish. This is despite a storyline - revolving around a missing painting and the seedy underworld types affected by its disappearance (including Gerard Butler's One Two, Tom Wilkinson's Lenny, and Tom Hardy's Handsome Bob) - that often seems just a little too frenetic for its own good, with the myriad of characters and plot threads essentially demanding one's full and complete attention for the duration of the film's admittedly overlong running time. And while Ritchie does keep the violence quotient fairly low, there's little doubt that the movie's few action-oriented sequences are nothing short of astounding in their effectiveness (ie a scene in which Butler and his cronies must escape a pair of unusually tenacious Russian mobsters). It's consequently easy enough to overlook the fact that RocknRolla does start to run out of steam towards the end, and one ultimately can't help but hope that Ritchie delivers the sequel promised in the film's closing moments.
Directed by Fabrice Du Welz
FRANCE/UNITED KINGDOM/BELGIUM/96 MINUTES/VISIONS
Vinyan marks director Fabrice Du Welz's follow-up to the visually audacious yet thoroughly dull Calvaire, and while the movie does suffer from precisely the same sort of pacing issues that plagued its predecessor, it's ultimately impossible to deny the effectiveness of the astonishingly grim atmosphere. The flm casts Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart as Paul and Jeanne, a well-to-do couple whose young son disappeared during the infamous Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. One night at a party, however, Jeanne is convinced that she sees her boy on a video shot within the jungles of Burma - which sets into motion a perilous journey that'll eventually take the pair deep into the heart of Burma's harsh terrain. Du Welz - along with cinematographer Benoît Debie - has infused Vinyan with a palpable sense of style that generally proves effective in holding one's interest even through the film's more overtly pointless interludes, as the mystery at the heart of the story - the fate of Paul and Jeanne's kid - can only carry the proceedings so far. The moody and atmospheric vibe is undoubtedly heightened by the superb work of the two stars, with Sewell especially good as a man who wants to believe his son is still alive but realizes the chances are awfully slim. The sluggish midsection does prove a test to one's continuing interest, yet there reaches a very specific point - a magnificent overhead shot of Paul and Jeanne entering creepy ruins - at which one is instantly sucked back into the story. The final half hour redeems everything that came before it, as it's unflinching and dark in ways that one might not have initially expected.
Directed by David Koepp
USA/103 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Though it's not difficult to predict precisely where the film is going at any given time, Ghost Town largely manages to hold one's interest due almost entirely to the efforts of star Ricky Gervais. Gervais' irresistibly sarcastic persona - cultivated on shows like The Office and Extras - is in full force here, and it's subsequently difficult not to smile (at the very least) at most of his line readings. The storyline follows Gervais' Bertram Pincus, a people-hating dentist, as he finds himself cursed with an ability to interact with dead people, which instantly makes him a target for a series of walking apparitions looking to complete their unfinished business. The most insistent of said ghosts is Greg Kinnear's Frank Herlihy, who worries that his former wife (Tea Leoni's Gwen) is about the marry a very bad guy (Billy Campbell's Richard). Director and cowriter David Koepp has infused Ghost Town with a bright and vibrant sense of style that certainly suits the material, although it's hard to deny that the pace is occasionally a little too relaxed for its own good. Yet the movie remains watchable even through the sporadic lulls within the narrative, something that's due almost entirely to Gervais' almost ridiculously entertaining performance. The film even manages to make an unexpected emotional impact on the viewer late in the proceedings, with an undeniably affecting montage sure to leave most viewers with a lump in their throat. Ghost Town is, ultimately, a purely entertaining diversion that comes off as a refreshing change of pace from the gloomy, deliberately-paced fare that tends to dominate film festivals.
The Brothers Bloom
Directed by Rian Johnson
USA/109 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Rian Johnson's follow-up to his acclaimed debut, 2005's Brick, The Brothers Bloom has been jam-packed with a whole host of effective elements - including uniformly strong performances and a vivid visual sensibility - and yet the film remains curiously uninvolving for the majority of its running time. This is despite an opening bit, narrated by Ricky Jay no less, that would seem to indicate a fun and light-hearted romp, as the title characters (played by Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody) are established as cunning siblings with a penchant for engaging in almost ridiculously complex con games. Johnson has infused the proceedings with a distinctly off-kilter directorial style that generally ensures that the whole thing never becomes a flat-out bore, though the filmmaker proves unable to transform either of the central characters into wholly compelling or engaging figures. Only Rachel Weisz, cast as the brothers' naive and sweet target, is able to make any kind of affecting impact on the viewer, and it's ultimately difficult not to wish Johnson had imbued Ruffalo and Brody's characters with a similar amount of depth (Brody comes close, though his moroseness does grow tiresome after a while). Also problematic is the movie's erratic structure; the story essentially reaches a point at which things seem to be wrapping up, and yet the whole thing goes on for an additional half hour or so (to call this section of the proceedings anti-climactic is an understatement). And while one can't help but admire Johnson's decision to eschew one of those crazy twist endings that one has come to expect from an endeavor of this sort, The Brothers Bloom ultimately comes off as a misfire that's admittedly not entirely unwatchable.