Toronto International Film Festival 2011 - UPDATE #9
Directed by Frederic Jardin
FRANCE/BELGIUM/LUXEMBOURG/89 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
An ambitious though not entirely-successful bit of genre filmmaking, Sleepless Night follows crooked cop Vincent (Tomer Sisley) as he's forced to embark on a rampage within a ridiculously oversized nightclub after a shady gangster abducts his young son. It's a simple premise that's employed to surprisingly convoluted effect by filmmaker Frederic Jardin, as the director offers up an almost unreasonable number of periphery characters and subjects all of them to a situation that sporadically seems more complicated than it really needs to be (ie the film has been suffused with vicious gangsters, shady internal-affairs cops, approachable prostitutes, and more). Fortunately, Jardin does a superb job of peppering the proceedings with a number of appreciatively tense interludes that prove effective at drawing the viewer into the overstuffed narrative, with Vincent's frantic efforts at passing flour off as cocaine certainly standing as an early highlight. And although the film does contain a number of striking action sequences, Jardin diminishes their effectiveness by overusing shaky camerawork - something that's especially true of a still-exciting prolonged battle in the club's kitchen. But it does become increasingly clear that the one location is more of a hindrance than anything else, as too much of the movie involves characters looking for other characters or characters hiding from other characters. Still, Sleepless Night is, for the most part, an impressively visceral piece of work that boasts a number of thrilling action sequences and interludes.
Directed by Doug Aarniokoski
USA/90 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
The Day follows a ragtag group of survivors as they attempt to make their way across a ravaged countryside, with the film detailing the quintet's exploits within a seemingly abandoned farmhouse. It's a fairly hackneyed premise that's utilized to pervasively underwhelming effect by filmmaker Doug Aarniokoski, as the film boasts virtually all of the attributes and elements that one has come to associate with the post-apocalyptic thriller genre - including washed-out visuals and dirty, grizzled protagonists. The familiarity of the storyline is compounded by Aarniokoski's decision to employ an unreasonably deliberate pace, with the pervasive uneventfulness within Luke Passmore's screenplay effectively pushing the viewer's patience to the limit. It doesn't help, either, that Aarniokoski holds off on providing answers to the viewer's questions (eg what happened, exactly? What do the bad guys want?), which ultimately does make it increasingly difficult to work up much sympathy for or interest in the central characters' ongoing exploits. The less-than-convincing atmosphere reaches a head once the Assault on Precinct 13-like third act rolls around, as we're not even entirely sure why these villains are trying so desperately to wipe out our heroes. (This is a vibe that's compounded by the presence of the antagonists' seriously non-threatening leader.) Adding insult to injury is the fact that the action sequences simply aren't all that compelling, with the shaky camerawork and overuse of computer-generated gore effects ensuring that such moments come off as flat and uninspired. The end result is a far cry from such recent similarly-themed efforts as Stake Land and The Road, and it's ultimately impossible not to wonder just what Aarniokoski had hoped to accomplish with this disappointingly uninvolving piece of work.
Directed by Eduardo Sánchez
USA/99 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
The latest effort from Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sánchez, Lovely Molly follows a pair of newlyweds (Gretchen Lodge's Molly and Johnny Lewis' Tim) as they move into a rickety old house and immediately find themselves prey to strange happenings - with the situation ultimately impacting Molly to an increasingly sinister extent. Sánchez admittedly does a superb job of getting things off to a tense start right from the get-go, as the movie boasts an impressively suspenseful interlude near the beginning in which Molly and Tim hear a strange noise in the middle of the night. The tense atmosphere persists for quite some time, with the slow build certainly proving effective in perpetuating the movie's old-school ghost story vibe. It's only as Sánchez begins emphasizing the title character's progressively unhinged mental state that the movie slowly but surely loses its hold on the viewer, with the ambiguity surrounding Molly's situation - ie is she possessed or is she just nuts? - growing more and more oppressive as time progresses. There reaches a point, then, at which the viewer begins to crave a more substantive vibe, and although the film does kind of work as a low-key character study, Lovely Molly is finally a rather colossal disappointment in terms of its horror elements.
The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best
Directed by Ryan O'Nan
Though it boasts an uncomfortably quirky opening half hour, The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best eventually does manage to become an engrossing, surprisingly affecting piece of work. The movie, which follows a pair of off-kilter musicians (Ryan O'Nan's Alex and Michael Weston's Jim) as they play a series of gigs in the build-up to a battle of the bands, boasts a pervasively deadpan feel that is, at the outset, somewhat off-putting, with the movie's lack of overt laughs certainly compounding the atmosphere of indie preciousness. There reaches a very specific point - Alex and Jim create a song from the ground up during a car ride - at which the film begins to win over the viewer, with first-time filmmaker O'Nan's decision to ease up on the quirkiness proving instrumental in the movie's transformation into an unexpectedly captivating comedy. The strong performances by the two leads are heightened by a selection of songs that are uniformly stellar, with the twosome's unusual sound labeled "The Shins meets Sesame Street" by another character. It's also worth nothing that O'Nan handles the expectedly dramatic happenings within the third act quite well, with Alex's confrontation with his religious older brother (Andrew McCarthy) possessing an impressively authentic, far-from-heavy-handed feel. By the time the feel-good finale rolls around, The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best has certainly managed to overcome its twee beginnings to become an inspiring, engrossing drama about the importance of following one's dreams.
God Bless America
Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
USA/99 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
Easy to like but difficult to love, God Bless America follows bitter, misanthropic Frank (Joel Murray) as he decides to embark on a killing spree after reaching his breaking point for pop-culture silliness - with his efforts eventually assisted by a scrappy teenager (Tara Lynn Barr's Roxy) with a similar world view. Filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait kicks off God Bless America with a striking, shocking opening sequence that brilliantly establishes the film's irreverent and risqué sensibilities, with the central character's penchant for saying exactly what most of us think (eg he refers to an American Idol-like show as a "karaoke contest") instantly transforming him into a sympathetic and likable figure. The affable vibe is certainly perpetuated once Frank embarks on his killing spree, with the justified nature of his targets (eg a My Super Sweet 16-type spoiled brat) ensuring that the film does, for a little while, possess a wish-fulfillment sort of vibe. (This is especially true of Frank and Roxy's treatment of several disruptive figures within a movie theater.) The chemistry between the two protagonists is heightened by both Murray and Barr's impressively striking performances, and it does become easy enough to overlook the feeling that Roxy could only exist in a movie like this (ie she's not the most authentic, naturalistic of characters). The decidedly thin premise does, however, ensure that the film does suffer from an increasingly uneven sort of vibe, and Goldthwait does have a penchant for repeating himself towards the end (eg Frank delivers a speech in the third act that's a mirror-image of a similar speech from the beginning). It's ultimately clear that God Bless America would've benefited from a much shorter running time, with the less-than-tight atmosphere ultimately affecting the movie's overall impact and confirming its place as a well-intentioned yet flawed piece of work.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass
USA/83 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
An astounding leap forward for filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass, Jeff, Who Lives at Home follows 30-year-old stoner Jeff (Jason Segel) as he leaves his mother's basement to run a simple errand - with Jeff's efforts consistently confounded by a number of distractions (including his brother's ongoing marital problems). Jeff, Who Lives at Home initially feels as though it's going to fall right in line with the Duplass' previous efforts, as the movie boasts a low-key, likable feel that doesn't seem as though it's going to lead anywhere special. Segel's tremendously appealing work as Jeff immediately sets the film apart from its similarly-themed brethren, however, and it does become increasingly difficult not to become wrapped up in the character's easygoing exploits (eg there's a charming sequence in which Jeff participates in a pickup basketball game with inner-city characters). The progressively involving vibe is heightened by the inclusion of a few unexpectedly engrossing subplots, including Jeff's mother's (Susan Sarandon) continuing flirtation with an unknown figure in her workplace. The film's transformation into more than just an agreeable comedy comes in its final 15 minutes or so, as the various plot threads come together in a fashion that packs an absolute gut-punch of an emotional impact. The end result is one of the most entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny, and unexpectedly touching efforts to come around in quite some time, and it'll certainly be interesting to see how the Duplass brothers inevitably choose to follow-up this minor masterpiece.
Directed by Marco van Geffen
THE NETHERLANDS/84 MINUTES/DISCOVERY
Among Us follows Polish nanny Ewa (Dagmara Bak) as she arrives in The Netherlands to work for a well-to-do couple - with Ewa's secretive nature ultimately alienating her from her friendly employers. The big gimmick within Among Us is its structure, as filmmaker Marco van Geffen offers up three different perspectives on the same events - with the slow-but steady revealing of information filling out a (relatively) complete picture of Ewa's experiences. It's not the structure that ultimately prevents the viewer from fully embracing the narrative, however; rather, it's van Geffen's decision to employ as deliberate a pace as one could possibly envision. The extreme slowness of the proceedings proves effective at holding the viewer at arm's length virtually from beginning to end, with the uniformly stirring performances - Bak is especially good here - almost compensating for the otherwise less-than-engrossing atmosphere. There's finally no overlooking the feeling that this exceedingly simple story could've been told a whole lot quicker, and it also goes without saying that the movie's overall impact is hindered by its fairly head-scratching conclusion (ie what does that final shot mean, exactly?)