Toronto International Film Festival 2008 - UPDATE #8
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond
Directed by Jodie Markell
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is evidently based on a rare original screenplay from noted playwright Tennessee Williams, and - if the final product is any indication - the script probably should've stayed buried. The film, unsurprisingly set in the 1920s, follows a rich society girl (Bryce Dallas Howard's Fisher) as she prepares to attend an important social event alongside an impoverished local (Chris Evans' Jimmy), though Fisher's plans for a good time are derailed after she loses a $5,000 "teardrop" diamond. While the movie is generally well acted and pleasant to look at, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is almost completely devoid of interesting elements - with the stunningly inert pace exacerbating the film's various problems. There's little doubt that the proceedings come to a dead stop once the action shifts to that all-too-important party, as the various characters are left with little to do but spout flowery instances of dialogue and engage in backstabbing antics. The wait for something (anything) of interest to occur becomes more and more interminable as the movie progresses, with the superficial and entirely one-note nature of Howard's character effectively highlighting the lack of plot within Williams' eye-rollingly outdated screenplay.
Middle of Nowhere
Directed by John Stockwell
USA/95 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
Entertaining yet utterly forgettable, Middle of Nowhere follows perpetual screw-up Dorian (Anton Yelchin) as he reluctantly takes on a job at a local water park at the insistence of his parents - with the bulk of the movie revolving around his friendship with a studious coworker (Eva Amurri's Grace) and their subsequent decision to go into business selling marijuana. Director John Stockwell has infused Middle of Nowhere with a laid-back, low-key sensibility that proves effective in establishing a very specific time and place within the lives of the various characters, yet there's little doubt that Stockwell's relaxed approach often seems at odds with Michelle Morgan's almost egregiously busy screenplay - as the writer has peppered the proceedings with a number of subplots that ultimately prove a needless distraction from the ongoing Dorian/Grace storyline. It's not surprising to note that the emotional impact that Stockwell is clearly striving for is consequently dulled by the proliferation of such elements, although - to be fair - there are a few sequences that do manage to effectively tug at the viewer's heartstrings (something that's especially true of Dorian's short-lived encounter with his birth mother). That being said, Middle of Nowhere remains an affable piece of work for the duration of its brisk running time - as one is increasingly drawn into the personable shenanigans of the almost uniformly likeable characters.
Public Enemy Number One: Part One
Directed by Jean-François Richet
Based on the true story of notorious French criminal Jacques Mesrine, Public Enemy Number One: Part One possesses the feel of an almost generic crime movie - yet there's little doubt that the high energy contained within both Vincent Cassel's performance and Jean-François Richet's direction effectively cements the film's success. The movie charts Mesrine's (Cassel) rise from a low-level thug to one of France's most notorious figures, thanks primarily to his penchant for abrupt bursts of violence and bold claim that no prison can hold him. Though screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri does tend to leapfrog over the years - Mesrine's three kids seem to come out of nowhere - Public Enemy Number One: Part One generally does an effective job of transforming the central character into a fully-rounded, endlessly captivating figure. Cassel's electrifying work certainly proves instrumental in holding one's interest even through the film's sporadic lulls, as there admittedly does seem to be a bit of an effort to pad out the running time to warrant two full movies (which inevitably does lead to a frustratingly abrupt conclusion). The flabby midsection does give way to an enthralling stretch set within a Quebec prison, where Mesrine runs afoul of an evil warden and eventually pulls off a breathtaking escape that ultimately stands as the highlight of the film. And while it's difficult to pass final judgment without having seen the second half - Part Two is evidently still in the post-production phase - Public Enemy Number One: Part One's kinetic modus operandi ensures that it succeeds as a Scorsese-esque bit of violent escapism.
Directed by Matt Aselton
There's little doubt that the almost egregious atmosphere of quirkiness that's been hard-wired into Gigantic initially proves disastrous, as director and co-writer Matt Aselton places the emphasis on oddball elements that effectively prevent one from connecting with the material. It's hard to deny, however, that the movie does improve considerably as it progresses, with the personable performances and sporadic inclusion of authentic moments ultimately transforming Gigantic into a slight yet entertaining piece of work. Paul Dano stars as Brian Weathersby, a mattress salesman whose efforts at adopting a Chinese baby are temporarily sidetracked by his tentative relationship with Zooey Deschanel's loopy Harriet (how loopy? When asked what she's reading in a magazine, she replies, "mostly just ads"). The proliferation of off-kilter elements within Gigantic's opening stretch - ie there's a crazy homeless guy hunting Brian, Brian consumes hallucinogenic mushrooms with his 80-year-old father in a cabin in the woods, etc - does lead one to initially assume that the film is going to be just another irritatingly precious indie comedy, yet even during its intolerable stretches the movie does benefit from the undeniable chemistry between Dano and Deschanel's respective characters (and as is usually the case, Deschanel's presence alone tends to lift the movie out of its doldrums). Provided one is able to power through the almost unwatchable first act, Gigantic - buoyed by Brian and Harriet's increasingly compelling coupling - inevitably grows on the viewer to an admittedly unexpected extent.
Directed by Jon Hewitt
AUSTRALIA/91 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
Saddled with an almost maddeningly uneven sensibility, Acolytes ultimately possesses the feel of a sporadically engaging yet entirely underwhelming horror effort that admittedly benefits from a thrilling third act. The storyline follows a trio of teenagers (Sebastian Gregory's Mark, Joshua Payne's James, and Hanna Mangan-Lawrence's Chasely) as they essentially stumble upon a body buried in the woods, with the bulk of the film following their ill-fated decision to use the discovery as a means for getting revenge on a childhood bully. There's little doubt that Acolytes takes a sharp detour off the plausibility path following the central figures' decision to dig up (and then re-bury!) that body, though this is hardly as problematic as the almost painfully uneventful nature of the movie's midsection - which has been devoted primarily to scenes in which the three friends hang around and cause all manner of mischief. The strong performances eventually prove instrumental in sustaining a mild level of interest among viewers, despite the fact that screenwriters S.P. Krause, Shayne Armstrong, and Jon Hewitt - in addition to emphasizing more than a few head-scratching plot developments (ie he just happened to be driving out in the middle of the woods?) - have infused the characters with attributes that are far from authentic. Director Jon Hewitt's penchant for punching up even the most harmless of sequences with sharp noises eventually becomes comical, and while there's certainly no denying the effectiveness of the film's brutal (and downright surprising) final ten minutes, Acolytes primarily comes off as an endeavor that probably would've been better off as a short.
Directed by Stephan Elliott
UNITED KINGDOM/93 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Easy Virtue takes its origins from a Noel Coward play in which characters talk very quickly and spout heaps of "witty" bon mots, which - though the film has been infused with strong performances and impeccable set design - does ensure that the whole thing ultimately comes off as a sporadically amusing yet pervadingly tedious piece of work. The movie revolves around the madcap shenanigans that ensue at a palatial countryside estate after a privileged young man (Ben Barnes' John Whittaker) brings his new American wife (Jessica Biel's Larita) to meet his eccentric family, with John's cold mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) making few attempts at welcoming Larita into the fold. Easy Virtue's exceedingly familiar modus operandi becomes clear virtually from the get-go, as screenwriters Stephan Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins populate the proceedings with precisely the sort of stereotypes one expects to find in a film of this ilk (ie the sarcastic drunk, the grumpy butler, etc). The inclusion of a few genuinely hilarious comedic interludes notwithstanding (ie a Can-Can performance that become unwittingly risque), Easy Virtue suffers from a plotless atmosphere that inevitably becomes oppressive - although, to be fair, it's impossible to deny that the movie does improve slightly as it progresses thanks to an all-too-slight increase of substantive elements. Having said that, the shift from lighthearted romp to familial drama in the third act will leave even the film's fans shaking their heads and there's subsequently little doubt that the movie's final 20 minutes drag in ways that one couldn't possibly have anticipated.