Toronto International Film Festival 2008 - UPDATE #9
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel
USA/101 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
There's no denying that Deadgirl ultimately possesses the feel of a shot-on-a-shoestring STV horror effort, as the film's low-rent production values are exacerbated by an increasingly outlandish storyline and characters that are far from authentic. The movie follows two scuzzy friends (Shiloh Fernandez's Rickie and Noah Segan's JT) as they stumble upon a bound and still-breathing woman deep within the bowels of an abandoned hospital, with the bulk of the proceedings revolving around their efforts to keep the title character's existence under wraps for as long as possible. Admittedly, Deadgirl does hold some promise in its early scenes, as directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel effectively set up the two central characters and their less-than-savory reputations both at home and at school. It's only with the discovery of the dead girl that the film starts to go off the rails, as JT's initial reaction is to eschew telling the cops in favor of holding onto her as, essentially, a living sex toy. It's a baffling decision that ultimately colors everything that follows, as the movie becomes more and more far-fetched as it progresses - yet this is hardly as problematic as the almost painfully uneventful nature of Trent Haaga's screenplay (ie once the movie reaches a certain point, nothing much of interest happens). The inclusion of an eye-rollingly silly subplot involving Rickie's crush on an unattainable fellow student is as pointless as it sounds, and it's ultimately hard to work up any real enthusiasm for a film that paints virtually all of its male characters as sleazy rapists with necrophilic tendencies.
The Stoning of Soraya M.
Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh
While there's little doubt that filmmaker Cyrus Nowrasteh's heart is in the right place, The Stoning of Soraya M. effectively (and consistently) reduces an admittedly devastating subject matter to a series of eye-rollingly hoary clichés and stereotypes. Nowrasteh - working from a script cowritten with Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh - has infused the proceedings with a lack of subtlety that pervades its every aspect, which ultimately diminishes the power of the film's few compelling elements (including the surprisingly brutal third-act stoning). The movie, which details the build-up to the public execution of the title character, boasts an entirely needless wraparound story that sets an underwhelming tone right from the get-go, as Jim Caviezel pops up as a French journalist who learns of Soraya's unfortunate fate from close friend Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) after his car breaks down in a small Iranian village. It's a misguided structural choice that would be easy enough to forgive were it not for the heavy hand with which Nowrasteh has imbued the remainder of the film, with the director's ridiculously black-and-white modus operandi adversely coloring even the most innocuous of sequences. It's consequently not surprising to note that the characters are painted as either good or evil, something that - in terms of the latter - is exemplified by a laughable line of dialogue from one of the moustache-twirling men ("muzzles should be for women, not dogs!") And although Nowrasteh does include a few poignant moments here and there - ie Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) tearfully says goodbye to her children before the execution - The Stoning of Soraya M. primarily comes off as an amateurish, egregiously simplistic piece of work that climaxes with an absurd finale that'll turn off even the most forgiving viewer (after Caviezel's character escapes from the village armed with proof of Soraya's murder, Zahra, arms outstretched, exclaims to the heavens, "now the world will know what happened here! The world will know!")
Me and Orson Welles
Directed by Richard Linklater
UNITED KINGDOM/107 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
A light and frothy confection, Me and Orson Welles follows an aspiring young actor (Zac Efron's Richard Samuels) as he goes to work at New York City's legendary Mercury Theatre - where he quickly lands a bit part in a staging of Julius Caesar by wunderkind Orson Welles (Christian McKay). It's a thin premise that's generally used to positive effect by director Richard Linklater, as the filmmaker does a nice job of capturing the behind-the-scenes chaos surrounding Welles' almost impossibly ambitious plans for the production. There's little doubt that Efron's younger fans will consequently find exceedingly little here worth embracing, with the movie's relaxed pace and relatively arcane subject matter sure to leave the average teen viewer scratching their head. The quality of the movie itself is virtually irrelevant in the face of McKay's absolutely spellbinding work as Welles, however, which certainly ensures that one's interest tends to dwindle whenever he's off camera (this is despite fine supporting work from Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, and, yes, Efron). The inclusion of a few extraneous elements within the narrative - coupled with a running time that's perhaps just a little too long - does result in a midsection that's not quite as enthralling as one might've liked, and it ultimately goes without saying that Me and Orson Welles possesses the feel of a fun, consistently enjoyable endeavor that is, admittedly, a tad on the forgettable side.
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
An unapologetically bizarre yet sporadically compelling piece of work, Uncertainty casts Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins as Bobby and Kate - a youthful couple whose decision to flip a coin at the film's opening sets in motion two wildly different stories that unfold simultaneously. In the first, the pair find themselves forced to participate in shootouts and foot chases following the discovery of a cell phone in a taxicab - with their ill-advised attempt at holding the device for ransom prompting all manner of violence and chaos. The second tale immediately establishes itself as a far more low-key endeavor, as Kate and Bobby set out to celebrate the Fourth of July with Kate's family while also weighing their options regarding an intensely private matter. Filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel have infused both timelines with a gritty, almost avant-garde feel that efficiently evokes the spontaneous vibe they're clearly going for, while the superb work by both Gordon-Levitt and Collins plays an instrumental role in carrying the proceedings through its less-than-enthralling stretches. And while both stories are admittedly quite entertaining - even if the second one is, at times, occasionally consumed with minutia to an almost unreasonable degree - there's little doubt that the mystery surrounding the film's central question (ie which of the two timelines is the real one?) effectively prevents one from fully embracing either tale (ie what's at stake for the characters, if anything?) The absurdly inconclusive finale does the proceedings no favors, and although there are a few admittedly affecting moments sprinkled here and there, Uncertainty ultimately comes off as a cinematic experiment that's unlikely to have much appeal beyond the art-house arena.
$5 a Day
Directed by Nigel Cole
USA/90 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
An almost prototypical road-trip comedy, $5 a Day casts Alessandro Nivola as Flynn - a food inspector whose epically bad day (he's just lost his job and he's been dumped by his long-time girlfriend) gets even worse after his shifty father (Christopher Walken's Nat) announces that he's dying. Though there's some friction between the two men, Flynn reluctantly agrees to drive Nat from his low-rent apartment to New Mexico - where Nat is to receive some kind of radical treatment for his illness. Director Nigel Cole has infused $5 a Day with a genial, low-key sensibility that certainly complements Neal Dobrofsky and Tippi Dobrofsky's amiable screenplay, with the easy-going vibe cemented by the two leads' thoroughly ingratiating performances (and as effective as Walken is here, it's Nivola's comparatively sedate work that stands as the movie's most compelling element). The film's road-trip structure is primarily employed as a springboard for a series of oddball interludes, with Nat's penchant for chicanery landing the two characters into one overtly goofy situation after another (ie Nat and Flynn crash a corporate function, Nat and Flynn spend the night in a furnished "for sale" house, etc, etc). It's all very amusing and agreeable, yet there's little doubt that the almost egregiously familiar atmosphere - which, of course, includes a sentimental third act - impedes one's ability to wholeheartedly embrace the story and the characters. Still, $5 a Day generally stands out as a lighthearted endeavor that's certainly a refreshing change of pace from the relentlessly dark fare one tends to encounter at a film festival.
Directed by Vicente Amorim
UNITED KINGDOM/GERMANY/96 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Based on the play by C.P. Taylor, Good follows WWII-era professor John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) as he finds himself slowly-but-surely drawn into the Nazi party after several high-ranking officials take an interest in his work. Director Vicente Amorim has infused Good with a laid-back, exceedingly deliberate sensibility that presumably reflects the source material, yet there's little doubt that the viewer quickly grows antsy for something (anything) of interest to occur. Amorim, working from John Wrathall's screenplay, generally places the emphasis on the minutia of Halder's day-to-day activities, which - though effective in fleshing out the character - imbues a palpable vibe of uneventfulness into the proceedings that's ultimately impossible to overlook. It's only as Halder is reluctantly swept into the Nazi party that Good becomes a relatively intriguing piece of work, with the inclusion of several admittedly captivating subplots - ie Halder attempts to find out just what happened to his Jewish friend (Jason Isaacs' Maurice) - proving instrumental in temporarily lifting the film out of its doldrums. One's ability to wholeheartedly embrace the story is consistently hampered by the distinct atmosphere of staginess and artificiality, with the head-scratching decision to allow the actors portraying Germans to speak accented English certainly standing head and shoulders above the movie's various problems. It's subsequently difficult to label Good as anything more than a well-intentioned misfire, although - to be fair - it's impossible to understate the effectiveness of the film's haunting, downright jaw-dropping final shot (which follows Halder as he takes an Atonement-esque tour of a concentration camp).