Toronto International Film Festival 2012 - UPDATE #7
No One Lives
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
USA/86 MINUTES/MIDNIGHT MADNESS
No One Lives details the chaos that ensues after a seemingly normal couple (Luke Evans' nameless character and Laura Ramsey's Betty)) runs afoul of a gang of ruthless criminals, with the movie subsequently detailing the battle of wills (and cat-and-mouse) between Evans' protagonist and the aforementioned gang. It's a seemingly routine setup that's almost immediately turned on its ear by filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura, as the director, working from a script by David Lawrence Cohen, offers up an opening half hour that's packed with implausible yet irresistible plot twists. Kitamura perpetuates the film's irresistibly watchable atmosphere by emphasizing a series of hilariously over-the-top gore sequences, with the movie's highlight unquestionably a scene in which a certain character makes an absolutely absurd yet applause-worthy entrance. It's only as No One Lives enters its almost incongruously deliberate midsection that one's interest begins to flag, with the uneventful atmosphere compounded by a lack of compelling characters and a muddled relationship between Evans and Adelaide Clemens' Emma (ie why'd he choose her, of all people?) (It doesn't help, either, that even by the standards of horror-movie characters most of these people are complete idiots.) And although Kitamura has admittedly punctuated the proceedings with a few decent kill sequences, No One Lives is never quite able to recapture the gloriousness of its opening half hour - which is a shame, really, given that the movie was well on its way to becoming an instant classic within the genre.
Shores of Hope
Directed by Toke Constantin Hebbeln
GERMANY/116 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
An utterly generic, uninvolving piece of work, Shores of Hope tracks the lives of two German friends (Alexander Fehling's Cornelis "Conny" Schmidt and August Diehl's Andreas) in the early 1980s - with Andreas' decision to become a spy for the notorious Stasi ultimately resulting in unfortunate consequences for the noble and moral Conny. The decidedly conventional bent of the setup is initially not as problematic as one might've feared, as director Toke Constantin Hebbeln has infused Shores of Hope with a fast-paced feel that's heightened by Fehling's charismatic turn as the affable central character. (It's worth noting that, even at the outset, the film is far from the engrossing endeavor that Hebbeln obviously wants it to be, however.) It's only as the movie progresses into its comparatively uneventful midsection that the viewer's mild interest begins to flag, as scripters Ronny Schalk and Hebbeln emphasizes Conny's prison-based exploits to a degree that eventually becomes oppressive. The padded-out atmosphere (ie there are long stretches where absolutely nothing of significance occurs) forces the viewer to wish that Hebbeln would just get on with it already, and there's little doubt that the film's second half drags to an extent that becomes more and more disastrous as time progresses. It doesn't help, either, that Hebbeln stresses elements of a decidedly hackneyed nature, with the presence of an unreasonably evil prison guard standing as the most obvious example of this. The predictable and highly anticlimactic finale cements Shores of Hope's place as a well-intentioned yet misguided drama, and it seems fairly obvious that the movie would've benefited from a few more passes through the editing bay.
What Richard Did
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
IRELAND/87 MINUTES/CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
What Richard Did details the low-key exploits of the affable title character (Jack Reynor), an Irish teenager whose new relationship with a pretty local ultimately has tragic consequences. Filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson has infused What Richard Did with a deliberately paced yet strikingly naturalistic feel that initially proves difficult to resist, with the easygoing atmosphere perpetuated by an emphasis on the central character's laid-back exploits (eg Richard hangs with his mates, Richard spends time with his girl, etc, etc). It's an uneventful atmosphere that is, at the outset, not terribly problematic, due mostly to Abrahamson's appealing visual sensibility and Reynor's tremendously charismatic performance, and it's worth noting, too, that there is a slight undercurrent of suspense generated by the title (ie one would assume that whatever Richard did can't possibly be good). And although there's an authenticity here that's palpable, What Richard Did inevitably does reach a point at which the uneventfulness starts to become a little oppressive, and although the occurrence that lends the movie its title is striking and does result in a brief burst of energy, the film's second half fizzles out to a degree that only grows more and more troublesome as time progresses - with the nigh interminable final 20 minutes (ie Abrahamson just doesn't seem to know where to end the story) virtually canceling out the film's positive attributes (including a stirring farther/son scene that stands as precisely the type of emotionally gripping moment of which the narrative could've used more).
The Brass Teapot
Directed by Ramaa Mosley
The Brass Teapot follows struggling young couple Alice (Juno Temple) and John (Michael Angarano) as they come upon an ancient teapot that pours out money every time they hurt themselves, with the film subsequently detailing the pleasant and not-too-pleasant ramifications stemming from their newfound possession. It's an appealing setup that's initially employed to impressively watchable effect by filmmaker Ramaa Mosley, with the personable work from the two leads perpetuating the movie's irresistibly high-concept atmosphere. It doesn't hurt, either, that Mosley has peppered the early part of The Brass Teapot with a handful of amusing set pieces, including a hilariously entertaining montage in which Alice and John explore new ways to injure themselves (eg Alice asks for the "full Brazilian" at a salon, John undergoes a dental procedure without narcotics, etc). The predictable nature of Tim Macy's screenplay is, as a result, not as problematic as one might've feared, although, by that same token, there does reach a point at which the story, which becomes more and more grim as time progresses, begins to lose its admittedly tenuous grip on the viewer. There's a padded-out feel to the narrative's last half hour that's exacerbated by an overly familiar storyline (eg the protagonists become corrupted by the teapot), and there does reach a point wherein Mosley's efforts at prolonging the running time results in elements of desperate nature (eg this doesn't seem like a movie that needs a villain). By the time the weird True Romance-like finale rolls around, The Brass Teapot has effectively squandered the good will engendered by its pleasant first half and it's ultimately difficult to wholeheartedly sympathize with (or care about) the central characters' plight.
Our Little Differences
Directed by Sylvie Michel
It's difficult to know quite what to make of Our Little Differences, as the movie, which follows two concerned parents as they attempt to track down their missing kids, has been infused with an almost unreasonably subdued feel that proves distracting right from the get-go. Filmmaker Sylvie Michel, working from a script cowritten with Melissa de Raaf and Razvan Radulescu, initially stresses the mundane exploits of the various characters, which results in an opening half hour that's rife with less-than-engrossing sequences revolving around small talk and the cooking of meals. (It doesn't help, either, that the movie is also a little confusing, as the characters toss around names like confetti despite the fact we're still not quite sure who's who.) There's little doubt, then, that it's impossible to work up any interest once the kids do go missing, and the degree to which Michel continues to emphasize the mundane nature of the parents' exploits is generally nothing short of astonishing. (If Michel set out to create a low-key portrait of bad parenting, she's essentially succeeded, admittedly.) And although the film improves slightly in its final stretch, especially as emotions run hotter and hotter, Our Little Differences' complete lack of ambition has long-since cemented its place as a curiously pointless little drama.
Directed by Dante Ariola
USA/101 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Arthur Newman casts Colin Firth as the title character, a mild-mannered schlub who decides to fake his death and start over as a golf pro - with the film detailing the unusual relationship that forms between Arthur and a similarly-damaged lost soul named Mike (Emily Blunt). Filmmaker Dante Ariola, for the most part, doesn't display any real interest in capturing and sustaining the viewer's interest, as Arthur Newman progresses at an unreasonably deliberate pace that's compounded by a narrative that's jam-packed with hackneyed elements and twists (ie neither Arthur nor Mike are convincing enough or developed enough to justify the deliberate, character-study vibe.) The viewer is subsequently forced to wait for something interesting or worthwhile to occur, and it goes without saying that the movie's ability to stave off total mediocrity is due primarily to Blunt and Firth's expectedly compelling work. The generic feel that's been hard-wired into virtually everything that transpires within Arthur Newman grows more and more disheartening as time progresses, which does, as expected, prevent one from working up any interest in the characters' inevitable transformation into happier, more content figures. (There's also a weird subplot revolving around the exploits of Arthur's girlfriend and son which adds nothing to the proceedings and serves only to pad out the already overlong running time.) It's a shame, really, as Arthur Newman could and should have been something good (if not great), instead of a disappointing waste of time both for those involved in its production and for those saddled with the task of watching it.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
USA/86 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Directed by Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha follows the flighty yet endearing title character (Greta Gerwig) as she's essentially forced to grow up after a series of setbacks. Baumbach, shooting in black and white, has infused Frances Ha with a loose and irresistibly easygoing feel that's mirrored in Gerwig's tremendously engaging performance, with the actress' charmingly awkward work proving effective at drawing the viewer into the less-than-dense narrative. There's an undercurrent of authenticity here that only perpetuates the movie's compulsively watchable feel, with the most obvious example of this the believable friendship between Frances and Mickey Sumner's Sophie. Baumbach's playful sensibilities (eg Frances runs several blocks to grab cash from an ATM after her credit card is declined) go a long way towards compensating for the episodic bent of his and Gerwig's screenplay, although there does, perhaps inevitably, reach a point at which the meandering vibe becomes more noticeable than one might've liked (ie the slightness of the plot ensures that even at less than 90 minutes Frances Ha feels a little on the long side). It's worth noting, too, that the central character's arc isn't exactly fresh, with the bubbly first half giving way to a second half in which Frances is forced to confront her bad decisions. Still, Frances Ha is, for the most part, an agreeably easygoing piece of work that benefits greatly from Gerwig's consistently engaging performance (and it's impossible not to love the absolutely note-perfect final shot).