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Toronto International Film Festival 2012 - UPDATE #4

Blackbird
Directed by Jason Buxton
CANADA/103 MINUTES/DISCOVERY

Directed by Jason Buxton, Blackbird follows isolated high schooler Sean Randall (Connor Jessup) as he's accused of plotting a Columbine-like rampage and sent to juvenile hall. There's unfortunately never a point at which Blackbird is able to become the searing, engrossing drama that Buxton has clearly intended, with the artificiality of the characters, particularly the protagonist, initially preventing the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting to the spare storyline (ie Sean almost comes off as a parody of a goth teen). Jessup's competent yet closed-off performance only exacerbates the movie's arm's-length feel, and although Buxton offers up one or two compelling sequences (eg the guards count the cutlery after every meal, lest a prisoner walk away with a knife), Blackbird suffers from an excessively deliberate pace that only grows more and more problematic as time progresses. There does, as such, reach a point at which the viewer begins to feel like they're trapped in prison with Sean, which might be exactly what Buxton intended, admittedly, yet it's impossible to deny that the film ultimately feels much, much longer than its 103 minutes. It's consequently not surprising to note that Blackbird, as it passes the one-hour mark, transforms into a dramatically inert and seriously interminable piece of work, with the movie's increasingly uninvolving atmosphere canceling out its few positive attributes (eg Sean spends some time in solitary confinement) and cementing its place into a missed opportunity of nigh epic proportions.

out of


At Any Price
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
USA/105 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS

At Any Price is a low-key yet entertaining endeavor revolving around the exploits of the Whipple family, with a particular emphasis placed on patriarch Henry's (Dennis Quaid) efforts at keeping his seed-selling business afloat and also holding onto the affections of his increasingly distant youngest son (Zac Efron's Dean). It's worth noting that At Any Price is, at the outset, awfully difficult to wholeheartedly embrace, as filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, perhaps in an effort at cultivating an atmosphere of down-to-earth authenticity, initially stresses the day-to-day complications of Henry's job to a degree that's occasionally overwhelming. It's worth noting, however, that the movie remains completely watchable even through its less-than-engrossing stretches, with the strength of the performances going a long way towards compensating for the less-than-accessible storyline. (Efron's expectedly solid work is no match for Quaid's scene-stealing and consistently spellbinding turn as the wheeling-and-dealing protagonist.) There's little doubt, too, that the film improves steadily as it goes along, as scripters Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton increasingly emphasize the father/son relationship between Henry and Dean - which does, in turn, ensure that the problems faced by both characters (eg Henry's impending seed audit and Dean's racecar-driving exploits) grow more and more compelling as time progresses. It's ultimately not surprising, though, to note that At Any Price is at its best when focused on the fractured relationship between Quaid and Efron's respective characters, and there is, as such, no denying that the film manages to pack an unexpectedly resonant emotional punch as it moves into its impressively dark final stretch - which finally does confirm the movie's place as a thoroughly engaging little family drama.

out of


Gone Fishing
Directed by Carlos Sorin
ARGENTINA/78 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA

Subdued almost to the point of ridiculousness, Gone Fishing follows Alejandro Awada's Marco Tucci as he arrives in Patagonia for a weekend of relaxation and fishing - with Marco's efforts at tracking down his estranged daughter providing the film with its dramatic heft. Filmmaker Carlos Sorin admittedly does establish his low-key sensibilities right from the get-go, as Gone Fishing opens with a pre-credits interlude detailing Marco's stop at a remote gas station and his subsequent conversation with a fellow traveler. It's an incredibly low-key sequence that effectively sets an unassuming tone that persists for the duration of the movie's appropriately brief running time, with Awada's confident and frequently spellbinding performance playing an instrumental role in sustaining the viewer's interest through the narrative's more overtly uneventful stretches. The lighthearted atmosphere remains fairly constant from start to finish, admittedly, although Sorin does a nice job of infusing the proceedings with some much-needed depth by stressing the central character's fractured relationship with his adult daughter. It's worth noting, however, that the movie, despite running less than 80 minutes, begins to wear out its welcome as it passes the one-hour mark, as the viewer can only take so much of Marco's easygoing exploits before craving a little more substance (and it's worth noting, too, that the emotional impact of the film's final few scenes is diminished significantly by the laid-back vibe) - with the end result a breezy yet all-too-slight divertissement that benefits substantially from Awada's indelible work.

out of


The Impossible
Directed by J.A. Bayona
SPAIN/USA/107 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS

Based on a true story, The Impossible follows married couple Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) as they and their three sons (Tom Holland's Lucas, Oaklee Pendergast's Simon, and Samuel Joslin's Thomas) arrive in Thailand for a relaxing vacation over the Christmas holidays - with the family's fun interrupted by the notorious tsunami of 2004. It's a promising setup that's employed to disappointingly underwhelming effect by J.A. Bayona, as the filmmaker, working from a script by Sergio G. Sánchez, proves unable to capture the viewer's attention on an ongoing basis - with the tsunami sequence, which is as riveting and captivating as one might've hoped, ultimately standing in sharp contrast to the majority of what follows (ie the movie's midsection is, for the most part, padded-out and uneventful). It's hard to find much fault with the actors or with Bayona's visuals; it's instead the episodic bent of Sánchez's screenplay that slowly-but-surely diminishes the viewer's interest, with the continuing emphasis on the adult characters' individual exploits (eg Maria languishes in a Thai hospital while Henry searches frantically for his family) exacerbating the movie's deliberate and uneventful atmosphere. There's consequently little doubt that the movie's heartstring-tugging moments (eg a joyful reunion) are unable to pack the emotional punch that Bayona has surely intended, and it's worth noting, too, that the shifting perspective results in a lack of suspense that's admittedly somewhat distressing (ie we know exactly which characters are alive). It's ultimately the performances and Bayona's steady (yet shamelessly manipulative) direction that tends to hold one's interest, although, given the inherently engrossing subject matter, it's more than a little disappointing to discover that The Impossible is simply unable to become the electrifying piece of work one might've expected.

out of


The Iceman
Directed by Ariel Vromen
USA/103 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS

The Iceman is a fairly standard biopic that's ultimately elevated by Ariel Vromen's stylish direction and a typically riveting performance from Michael Shannon, with the film, which details the life and times of a notorious mob enforcer named Richard Kuklinski (Shannon), subsequently holding the viewer's interest even through it's more predictable stretches. As expected, The Iceman details the title character's exploits in both his personal and professional lives - with, in terms of the former, Kuklinski's relationship and marriage to Winona Ryder's Deborah responsible for many of the movie's more tender moments (eg the pair's tentative first date). But the real attraction here is unquestionably the emphasis on Kuklinski's steady rise within the mob's empire, as Vromen has populated this aspect of the film with one familiar face after another - including Ray Liotta as a high-ranking gangster, Chris Evans as a quirky fellow assassin, and David Schwimmer (!) as a mustachioed, ponytail-sporting, tracksuit-wearing loose cannon. The episodic bent of the movie's midsection is, as a result, not as problematic as one might've feared, although it does become increasingly clear that the narrative boasts as many electrifying sequences as it does those of a needless and padded-out variety. Throughout it all, however, Shannon's commanding performance remains a highlight - as the actor effortlessly transforms his character into a consistently engaging and genuinely frightening figure. The Iceman ultimately does fizzle out to a fairly demonstrable degree, yet this isn't quite enough to diminish the movie's place as a solid and consistently watchable true-life tale.

out of


Writers.
Directed by Josh Boone
USA/96 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS

Written and directed by Josh Boone, Writers. follows the epically dysfunctional Borgens family - Bill (Greg Kinnear), Erica (Jennifer Connelly), Sam (Lily Collins), and Rusty (Nat Wolff) - as they're forced to confront and overcome their respective personal problems over the course of one eventful year. Writers. admittedly doesn't hold much promise in its early scenes, as filmmaker Boone has suffused the narrative with various elements of a hackneyed, sitcom-like quality - with the writer/director's reliance on familiar character types exacerbating this atmosphere (eg Sam is a mistrustful, cynical figure who needs to learn how to love). It's worth noting, however, that the protagonists are all likeable and charismatic enough that such things aren't as problematic as one might've feared, and there's little doubt that the uniformly stellar performances go a long way towards perpetuating the movie's easygoing, affable vibe. The periodic inclusion of unexpectedly captivating sequences plays an instrumental role in triggering Writers.' shift from watchable to engrossing, with the continuing emphasis on Sam's tentative relationship with a friendly fellow student (Logan Lerman's Lou) providing the film with its most heartfelt and emotional moments (eg it's impossible not to get a kick out of the unabashedly romantic sequence in which Lou plays his favorite song for Sam). And although the film begins to fizzle out as it predictably progresses into its downbeat third act (ie fake break-ups and the like), Writers. closes with an irresistibly upbeat stretch that effectively brings the narrative full circle - which ultimately cements the movie's place as an above-average familial drama and a striking debut for a promising new talent. (And, if nothing else, all the literary references make one want to run out to a library or book store as soon as the credits begin to roll.)

out of


The Company You Keep
Directed by Robert Redford
USA/125 MINUTES/GALA

The Company You Keep follows Robert Redford's Jim Grant, a lawyer who was once a member of the activist/terrorist organization the Weather Underground, as he's forced to go on the run after a tenacious journalist (Shia LaBeouf's Ben Shepard) uncovers his true identity, with the film subsequently detailing Jim's ongoing efforts at proving his innocence while evading a variety of pursuing forces (including Terrence Howard's dogged FBI agent). Filmmaker Redford, working from a screenplay by Lem Dobbs, does a superb job of immediately capturing the viewer's interest, with the film's compulsively watchable atmosphere heightened by a fast-paced (and inherently engrossing) storyline and a series of compelling appearances by an eclectic group of supporting players (including Susan Sarandon, Anna Kendrick, Stanley Tucci, and Richard Jenkins). Redford's expectedly (yet ridiculously) charismatic performance is matched by a solid turn from LaBeouf that stands in sharp contrast to his grating work in the Transformers movies, while Dobbs' screenplay, which initially focuses on both Ben's continuing investigation and Jim's on-the-run exploits, is packed with a number of individually enthralling moments that perpetuate the movie's propulsive feel. There's little doubt, however, that The Company You Keep does begin to run out of steam as it approaches its finale, with Redford's emphasis on a series of momentum-killing sequences - eg Jim's drawn-out confrontation with a former colleague (Julie Christie's Mimi Lurie) - ensuring that the film fizzles out to a rather disheartening degree. Still, The Company You Keep, for the most part, stands as a smart and engaging thriller geared towards adults that benefits substantially from Redford's solid work both in front of and behind the camera.

out of

© David Nusair