Toronto International Film Festival 2010 - UPDATE #7
Directed by Michael Henry
Despite a premise that seems to promise a fast-paced, twist-laden thriller - several students attempt to murder the teacher they feel is responsible for the suicide of one of their own - Blame primarily comes off as a stagnant, irritatingly talky drama that ultimately feels like an abject exercise in needlessness. It's clear that filmmaker Michael Henry's reliance on almost unreasonably deliberate pacing plays an instrumental role in Blame's failure, as there's never a point wherein the viewer is able to wholeheartedly embrace the decidedly perilous situation in which the various characters have found themselves. There's also little doubt that Henry's decision to hold off on explaining just what happened exacerbates the movie's problems, as it's initially (and ultimately) impossible to care about either the students' efforts or the efforts of the aforementioned teacher to stay alive. The uneventful atmosphere is occasionally alleviated by a few admittedly compelling stand-alone interludes, with the film's highlight a surprisingly suspenseful moment in which the teacher attempts to catch the attention of a friendly (yet almost comically oblivious) mail carrier. The film's final insult comes with the big revelation at its conclusion, as it is, to say the least, incredibly anticlimactic and not terribly surprising (with the less-than-subtle performance from one of the actors immediately implying that something's not quite right with this person). It's a finish that adds a whole new layer of pointlessness to the proceedings and effectively cements Blame's place as a hopelessly irrelevant piece of work.
Vanishing on 7th Street
Directed by Brad Anderson
USA/85 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
Directed by Brad Anderson, Vanishing on 7th Street follows four strangers (Hayden Christensen's Luke, John Leguizamo's Paul, Thandie Newton's Rosemary, and Jacob Latimore's James) as they're forced to band together after an unknown force essentially abducts every living soul not within sight of a light source. It's a hell of a premise that proves effective at immediately capturing the viewer's interest, as Anderson, certainly no stranger to the horror genre, does a superb job of establishing the admittedly unbelievable situation and the four disparate heroes. And although the movie does segue into a disappointingly uninvolving and undeniably stagy stretch set within a bar, Anderson ensures that boredom never quite sets in by periodically emphasizing suspense-oriented sequences that are awfully exciting (ie Luke and Paul, having ventured outside, must escape the encroaching darkness). It's also clear that the mystery behind what's happened goes a long way towards keeping things interesting, while the film does grow more and more compelling as the story becomes progressively darker (figuratively speaking, of course). In the end, while it wouldn't be surprising to learn that Vanishing on 7th Street was originally planned as an episode of the Masters of Horror or Fear Itself anthology series (to which Anderson contributed two installments), the movie comes off as a solid little chiller that admittedly might have benefited from a slightly less vague conclusion.
Directed by Jacob Tierney
CANADA/98 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
A seriously oddball little movie, Good Neighbours follows three tenants (Jay Baruchel's Victor, Scott Speedman's Spencer, and Emily Hampshire's Louise) of a Montreal-based apartment building as they weave in and out of one another's lives - with complications ensuing as it becomes increasingly clear that each person has a secret or two that needs to stay buried. Though it eventually begins to go in progressively strange directions, Good Neighbours starts out as a fairly conventional drama concerning young adults and their interrelationships - with the affable performances certainly ensuring that the movie fares best in its early scenes. It's the likeable nature of the three central characters that effectively sustains the viewer's interest even as the narrative takes turns of a decidedly inexplicable nature, as filmmaker Jacob Tierney infuses each of the movie's protagonists with bizarre and downright off-the-wall attributes (ie Louise's far-from-healthy fixation on Victor's imported cat). By the time the film takes an almost astonishingly brutal turn, Good Neighbours has certainly established itself as a thoroughly unpredictable piece of work that is often more enthralling on a scene-by-scene basis than as a cohesive whole (yet there's little doubt that the movie stands as a tremendous improvement over Tierney's unwatchable debut, 2003's Twist).
Directed by Mike Mills
USA/104 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Mike Mills' followup to Thumbsucker, Beginners, which unfolds in both the past and the present, details an artist's (Ewan McGregor's Oliver) relationships with a quirky actress (Melanie Laurent) and his ailing (and recently out-of-the-closet) father (Christopher Plummer). Mills' unabashedly avant-garde tendencies stand as the most obvious impediment to Beginners' wholehearted success, as the film boasts plenty of positive attributes that are essentially suffocated by Mills' oddball directorial choices. It's worth noting, however, that there's still plenty here worth embracing, as all three of the film's stars deliver subdued yet impressively authentic performances that prove impossible to resist (and this is to say nothing of the meet-cute that ensues between McGregor and Laurent's respective characters, with the moment ranking as one of the best of its kind to come along in quite some time). But Mills' reliance on as meandering a structure as one could envision is inevitably exacerbated by the film's almost oppressively deliberate pace, and it does go without saying that the pervasively uneven atmosphere is essentially heightened by the ongoing emphasis on off-the-wall elements. It's a shame, really, as Mills undoubtedly has a strong eye for realism, with the progression of McGregor and Laurent's relationship ultimately coming off as an impressively vivid portrait of one couple's journey from first encounter to eventual domesticity (yet, by that same token, this hardly seems like the kind of story that calls out for a fake break-up). Likewise, the emotional stuff involving Plummer's character feels awfully real - which finally ensures that Beginners' positive elements, more often than not, manage to outweigh its almost pervasively pretentious sense of style.
John Carpenter's The Ward
Directed by John Carpenter
USA/86 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
A tremendously disappointing (and dispiriting) piece of work, John Carpenter's The Ward details the horrific happenings within a mental ward for young girls (which houses, among others, Amber Heard's Kirsten, Danielle Panabaker's Sarah, and Mamie Gummer's Emily). Screenwriters Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen initially offer up a slow-moving drama set within that aforementioned ward, with the less-than-enthralling atmosphere compounded by the presence of characters that are uniformly uninteresting and underdeveloped. The emphasis is placed all-too-frequently on the interaction between the girls and on their encounters with the floor's seemingly kind doctor (Jared Harris' Dr. Stringer), which ensures that one's patience is tested on a fairly pronounced basis in the film's early stages. Carpenter's expectedly strong visuals stand as the film's one overtly positive attribute, and it's also worth noting that the filmmaker does a nice job of building suspense in the movie's horror-oriented sequences (and there are a also a few appreciatively brutal instances of gore sprinkled here and there). The pervasive atmosphere of tedium ultimately ensures that certain revelations towards the end are simply not able to pack the punch one imagines they're meant to, with the action-packed finale subsequently coming off as anticlimactic and underwhelming (ie it's impossible to care who lives and who dies). The final straw comes with a last-minute twist that's nothing short of ludicrous, and there's little doubt that a far more entertaining movie would've had problems seamlessly pulling that one off. Carpenter's efforts at reinventing himself for a new generation have undoubtedly failed, and it does appear as though the once-reliable filmmaker has lost his way in a seemingly insurmountable manner.
Directed by James Wan
USA/97 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
Undoubtedly James Wan's best movie since 2004's Saw, Insidious follows well-to-do couple Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) as they move into a old, creaky house with their two small children - with problems ensuing almost immediately as Renai starts to hear (and see) strange things. Screenwriter Leigh Whannell, who also has a small role as a paranormal researcher, does a nice job of turning the haunted-house genre on its head, as the scripter generally avoids the temptation to allow the protagonists to behave like mindless victims (ie the pair smartly decide to move once things get really creepy). It's also worth noting that Wan effectively establishes an atmosphere of progressive dread, with the film's jump scares used sparingly yet effectively (ie there are no it-was-just-a-cat moments here). The film's tense vibe persists right up until its climactic seance sequence, with the scene undoubtedly destined to remind certain viewers of a similar moment in Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell - though it's worth noting that Wan is hardly going for the same broad, almost cartoonish effect as Raimi (ie this seance is genuinely creepy and sinister). It's a strong interlude that's unfortunately followed by a silly and fairly anticlimactic stretch in which Josh attempts to save his son from the clutches of a malevolent demon, with the entertaining yet broadly envisioned nature of the sequence diminishing the movie's overall impact. Still, Insidious is nevertheless a strong (if disappointingly gore-free) creeper that generally manages to get the job done.
Directed by John Curran
USA/105 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Stone casts Robert De Niro as Jack Mabry, a rigid parole officer who's just a few months away from retirement - with the film primarily detailing the relationship that ensues between Jack and a quirky inmate (Edward Norton's Gerald “Stone” Creeson) angling for an early release. It's a compelling setup that's initially utilized to promising effect by director John Curran, with the engrossing subject matter undoubtedly heightened by Norton's expectedly electrifying performance. Sporting cornrows and an almost comically exaggerated "street" accent, Norton is clearly the most engaging aspect of Stone and it does go without saying that he proves to be a far more compelling and flat-out charismatic presence than his Oscar-winning costar. It's consequently not surprising to note that the movie does become a progressively tedious piece of work as it unfolds, as Norton's character disappears for long stretches of time and the emphasis is placed on Jack's efforts at grappling with issues of identity and religion. The less-than-engrossing nature of Jack's personal struggles are exacerbated by De Niro's disappointingly by-the-numbers performance, as the actor offers up a closed-off and downright bland turn that ensures that the viewer has exceedingly little invested in his character's plight. It's a shame, really, as Stone boasts a conclusion that's clearly been designed to evoke an emotional reaction from the viewer, yet the pervasively tedious atmosphere effectively prevents the viewer from feeling anything more than relief once the end credits start to roll.