Toronto International Film Festival 2009 - UPDATE #6
A Serious Man
Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
USA/105 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
An expectedly oddball effort from the Coens, A Serious Man follows circa 1960s physics teacher Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) as the various elements in his life start to unravel over the course of a few particularly eventful weeks. There's little doubt that A Serious Man receives a lot of mileage out of Stuhlbarg's absolutely stunning central performance, as the actor does a superb job of transforming Larry into a fully-formed, entirely compelling figure. The low-key character study vibe offered up by the Coens is subsequently easy enough to accept for about the first half, with the evocative portrait of Larry's community and the folks in his life effectively sustaining one's interest and compensating for the distinct lack of plot. This only holds true for so long, however, as there does reach a point at which the aimlessness of Joel and Ethan Coen's screenplay becomes increasingly difficult to stomach - thus ensuring that the film demonstrably starts to run out of steam somewhere around the midway point. And although the filmmaking siblings do a nice job of breaking the proceedings up with almost inexplicable segues (ie a long tale of a dentist who notices something odd about one of his patients), A Serious Man finally establishes itself as a typically inscrutable effort from the Coens that might hold some appeal for their die-hard fans (although even the most ardent Coen follower will find themselves scratching their head over the movie's almost comically abrupt conclusion).
Enter the Void
Directed by Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé's highly-anticipated follow-up to 2002's brilliant Irreversible, Enter the Void can't help but come off as an anti-climactic disappointment - as the almost absurdly overlong running time of 155 minutes ultimately wears the viewer down and negates the film's more overtly positive elements. The unapologetically thin nature of the plot - which revolves around a Tokyo-based drug dealer (Nathaniel Brown's Oscar) as he dies and subsequently embarks on a whirlwind tour of his life and struggles to keep a watchful eye over his beloved sister (Paz de la Huerta's Linda) - is initially not as problematic as one might've expected, as Noé (along with cinematographer Benoît Debie) peppers the proceedings with precisely the sort of audacious, downright eye-popping visuals he's become known for. It's just as clear, however, that without a palpable narrative thrust (ie Irreversible was ultimately fueled by the central character's quest for revenge), one's interest starts to wane somewhere around the one-hour mark. To be fair, the impressive stretch set within Oscar's memories does temporarily elevate the proceedings, yet there's little doubt that even this portion of the movie eventually succumbs to Noé's distinctly repetitive and aimless modus operandi. This is despite the fact that Oscar inevitably does become a far more compelling figure than one might've anticipated, with the creeping realization that he's reliving his biggest regret - the corruption of his sister - ensuring that the viewer inevitably can't help but sympathize with his plight. It's finally impossible not to imagine that Enter the Void would've (and should've) been a far more affecting piece of work had it been shorn of half its length, and - although there are some seriously impressive sequences towards the film's conclusion (ie the camera swoops around Tokyo and even enters a passing airplane) - it does seem unlikely that even Noé's most ardent fans will be able to wholeheartedly embrace the picture (especially since certain portions seem like they'd be more at home on an art gallery wall than within movie theaters).
The Sunshine Boy
Directed by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson
ICELAND/103 MINUTES/REAL TO REEL
Interesting and informative, The Sunshine Boy is a documentary following Margrét Dagmar Ericsdóttir's quest to learn more about autism after she learns that her own son is afflicted with the disease. Filmmaker Fridrik Thor Fridriksson generally follows Ericsdóttir around as she approaches various experts within the field, and also emphasizes the Icelandic woman's ongoing encounters with other families whose lives have been touched by autism. It's clear almost immediately that The Sunshine Boy, which is admittedly far from cinematic, would benefit substantially from a much shorter running time, as the movie ultimately does feel as though it would be a good fit for a one-hour documentary on PBS. Fridriksson's tendency to bog the proceedings down with dry and downright technical interviews only adds to this feeling, although - to be fair - the director generally does a good job of sporadically highlighting emotional interviews with the parents of children afflicted with autism. And although there's admittedly something fascinating about the treatment that one tenacious expert has come up with, there reaches a point at which the overuse of treatment scenes becomes impossible to overlook. Still, The Sunshine Boy stands as an effective primer into the world of autism - with the inclusion of several admittedly heart-rending stories setting the movie apart from its similarly-themed true-life brethren.
Directed by Martin Pieter Zandvliet
There's little doubt that Applause benefits substantially from star Paprika Steen's affecting, downright commanding performance, as the film is otherwise a fairly standard character study revolving around a substance abuser attempting to pull her life together. Thea (Steen) is a relatively famous Danish actress who appears to be delivering the performance of her life night after night on the stage, yet her attempts at picking up the pieces of her fractured personal life - stemming from a long stint of alcoholism - tend to bring her nothing but frustration and rejection (with her ongoing efforts at reconnecting with her two small children rife with problems and complications). It's a familiar set-up that's employed to gritty effect by filmmaker Martin Pieter Zandvliet, as the movie boasts a grainy visual style that aptly complements Zandvliet and Anders Frithiof August's low-key screenplay. The director's decision to shoot the majority of the proceedings in tight close-ups ensures that Steen has her work cut out for her, although it's instantly clear that the veteran actress is more than up to the task. Steen delivers as fearless and engrossing a performance as one can easily recall, and there's little doubt that the film ultimately finds itself unable to elevate itself to her level. This is particularly evident in the movie's final half hour, which suffers from a meandering sensibility that's reflected in the inclusion of several sequences that seem to have been padded out to buff up the running time (ie Thea's ill-fated encounter with a persistent bar patron). It's subsequently not surprising to note that the climax is hardly able to pack the emotional punch that Zandvliet is obviously striving for, and it's finally impossible to label Applause as anything more than a showcase for Steen's tour-de-force performance.
Directed by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza
SPAIN/85 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
Picking up directly where the original film left off, [REC] 2 follows a small team of soldiers as they enter the original film's quarantined building - along with a mysterious health department official - hoping to contain the outbreak before it spreads any further. It doesn't take long for [REC] 2 to establish itself as an equal to its impressively enthralling predecessor, as directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza instantly draw the viewer into the proceedings by offering up a series of jaw-droppingly visceral and appreciatively violent action set-pieces. The movie's blistering pace ensures that some of the admittedly ludicrous elements within the storyline - ie the reveal of the virus' true origins - are easy enough to overlook, and although the narrative does hit a minor lull as the point-of-view changes midway through, the viewer is quickly lured back into the proceedings with a hilariously inventive sequence in which a firecracker is creatively used to dispatch an antagonist. The action-packed atmosphere is only heightened by the increasingly sinister nature of the threat, which certainly explains why certain early reviewers have been calling [REC] 2 the Aliens to [REC]'s Alien (ie one couldn't envision a more apt comparison). And while it occasionally does seem as though some of the film's revelations ensure that the original film won't quite hold up to scrutiny on subsequent viewings, [REC] 2 is otherwise (and undoubtedly) one of the most successful horror sequels in cinematic history and it's certainly impossible not to expect great things for the inevitable third installment.
Directed by John Hillcoat
USA/119 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Based on Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed bestseller, The Road follows a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they attempt to traverse a post-apocalyptic wasteland following an undetermined disaster - with the bulk of the proceedings essentially detailing their various mishaps and encounters en route to the coast. Director John Hillcoat has infused The Road with a relentlessly downbeat sensibility that effectively captures the spirit of McCarthy's grim tale, yet - much like its inspiration - the film is only sporadically enthralling as a result of its unabashedly episodic structure. There's virtually nothing propelling the proceedings forward and it goes without saying that this lack of momentum - coupled with an extremely deliberate pace - ensures that the movie is rarely as engrossing as Hillcoat clearly wants it to be. It's just as clear, however, that the film benefits substantially from the pervasively bleak production design and the two stellar central performances, with Mortensen's stirring performance often elevating the movie and sustaining the viewer's interest. The uneven atmosphere is rarely as problematic as one might've suspected, as the movie boasts several striking and downright memorable sequences that effectively compensate for its less-than-engaging moments - with the protagonists' encounter with a grizzled old coot (Robert Duvall) certainly standing as a highlight. The unexpected emotional punch offered by the film's closing minutes ultimately ensures that The Road concludes on an admittedly high note, and it's finally obvious that the movie will have a far more pronounced impact on those viewers that loved the book (ie one couldn't have asked for a more faithful translation from page to screen).