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Toronto International Film Festival 2015 - UPDATE #6

Directed by Jonás Cuarón

Directed by Jonas Cuaron, Desierto follows a group of Mexicans as they attempt to cross over into the United States - with their efforts eventually hindered by a gun-toting maniac named Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Desierto is, in its early stages, content to operate as a gritty little drama revolving around the exploits of the aforementioned Mexicans, with the film eventually escalating into high gear as Morgan's menacing character arrives on the scene armed with a high-powered rifle and a vicious attack dog. It's hard to deny the pure visceral impact of the antagonist's first encounter with the wayward immigrants, and it's clear, too, that this riveting sequence kicks off a tense midsection that essentially plays like a cat-and-mouse chase thriller. Gael García Bernal, cast as the central protagonist, does a nice job of stepping into the shoes of his impressively pragmatic character, while Morgan delivers a scene-stealing turn that's matched by the incredibly talented canine playing his sidekick, Tracker. It's the latter's needlessly brutal death, however, that triggers Desierto's downfall, as Cuaron lingers on the dog's rather horrible demise to such an extent that the viewer immediately checks out of the proceedings (and even begins rooting for Morgan's character!) It's a shame, really, as Desierto certainly had the potential to be one of the more memorable thrillers to come around as of late, and one can only hope that Cuaron judiciously edits said pooch's grisly end before the movie receives its wide release.

out of

Directed by Jon Cassar

A hopelessly generic western, Forsaken follows Kiefer Sutherland's John Henry Clayton as he returns to his hometown after a stint in the Civil War and several years as a feared gunslinger - with the film detailing John Henry's efforts at reconciling with his estranged father (Donald Sutherland's William) and steering clear of an impending battle between the townspeople and a vicious land baron (Brian Cox's McCurdy). (It's not exactly a spoiler to reveal that violence eventually does ensue.) The by-the-numbers nature of the movie's narrative is nothing short of shocking, as scripter Brad Mirman offers up a storyline that's rife with some of the hoariest elements found within the western genre - with the best and most obvious example of this the entire character arc of Sutherland's John Henry. (The former gunslinger who wants to put his violent past behind him but is forced to take up arms once again? Really?) Both Sutherlands are good here, to be sure, but it's equally clear that the actors are riffing on previously-established personas (ie Donald is playing a stern patriarchal figure, while Kiefer offers up an old-west Jack Bauer). The climactic shootout is admittedly quite exciting and well done, but there's just no denying that it's a hell of a slog getting to that point - which ultimately confirms Forsaken's place as a fairly tedious western that seems to have emerged directly from a template for such flicks.

out of

Directed by Can Evrenol

One of the worst films to play Midnight Madness in ages, Baskin follows a squad of generic cops as they respond to an emergency call in an isolated building and subsequently find themselves under siege by a group of devil-worshipping maniacs. Filmmaker Can Evrenol opens Baskin with an admittedly promising flashback sequence involving a creepy childhood incident and, from there, segues into an almost astonishingly dull stretch in which the cops enjoy a Tarantino-esque sojourn at a local diner, with the tedious atmosphere paving the way for a meandering midsection that boasts few attributes designed to capture and hold one's interest. (It doesn't help, certainly, that the various protagonists remain hopelessly underdeveloped, thus ensuring that one has absolutely nothing invested in their respective fates.) Far more problematic, however, is the fact that the movie doesn't improve in the slightest once the cops arrive at the aforementioned building, as Evrenol initially places a punishing emphasis on the characters' exploration of their dark, dank environs - with the nigh incoherent atmosphere compounded by a lack of sympathy for the heroes' progressively perilous situation. And by the time the "horrific" stuff starts to go down, Baskin has transformed into a flat-out unpleasant experience that manages to make extreme instances of gore boring - as the initiation sequence that closes the proceedings is as tedious and endless as one could possibly imagine. It's ultimately not surprising to discover that Baskin started out as an 11 minute short film, as the movie, for the most part, feels like its comprised of sequences designed to pad out the often interminable running time.

no stars out of

Five nights in Maine
Directed by Maris Curran

Though extremely well acted, Five nights in Maine suffers from an uneventful and thoroughly subdued feel that does, particularly as time progresses, render its positive attributes moot. The wafer-thin storyline follows David Oyelowo's Sherwin as he agrees to visit the estranged mother (Dianne Wiest's Lucinda) of his recently-deceased wife, with the majority of the proceedings detailing the initially awkward and eventually healing encounters between the two characters over, of course, a five day period. It's clear immediately that filmmaker Maris Curran doesn't have any loftier goal than to allow her actors to shine, as Five nights in Maine, for the most part, really doesn't have a whole lot worth recommending aside from the admittedly stellar work of stars Oyelowo and Wiest. Curran's exceedingly subdued sensibilities ensure that there's a lack of momentum here that remains prevalent from start to finish, with the movie generally boasting the feel of a series of low-key vignettes that have been loosely strung together. It is, as such, perhaps not surprising to note that Five nights in Maine remains unable to wholeheartedly (or even partially) capture the viewer's total attention, with the passable atmosphere sporadically heightened by electrifying moments of drama (eg Lucinda finally breaks down over her daughter's death). The whole thing's oh-so-slight vibe ultimately confirms its place as nothing more than a actor's showcase, and it does seem like the film might fare better in the intimacy and comfort of one's home than on an enormous theatre screen.

out of

The Girl in the Photographs
Directed by Nick Simon

The Girl in the Photographs follows a sleazy, Terry Richardson-like photographer (Kal Penn's Peter Hemmings) as he and his crew head to a small town to exploit a series of brutal murders, with trouble inevitably ensuing as the killers decide to turn their attention to the unwanted visitors. It's apparent virtually from the get-go that The Girl in the Photographs has almost nothing to separate it from most similarly-themed efforts one can easily find on Netflix, as filmmaker Nick Simon has infused the proceedings with a palpably low-rent feel that's reflected in everything from the score to the characters to the visuals. (The latter is especially shocking given that the film has been shot by legendary cinematographer Dean Cundey.) There's just a pervadingly generic feel that's been hard-wired to every aspect of The Girl in the Photographs, and there's just never a point at which one is able to embrace anything contained within the cookie-cutter narrative. (It doesn't help, certainly, that the movie's midsection has been devoted to a series of impossibly dull segments revolving around the exploits of the one-dimensional protagonists and antagonists.) Things improve slightly, admittedly, as the film progresses into its murder-heavy final stretch, though even this portion of The Girl in the Photographs is destined to remind viewers of other, better movies. By the time the almost spectacularly unsatisfying conclusion rolls around, The Girl in the Photographs has cemented its place as an utterly forgettable horror effort that has no place within a film festival's roster.

out of

© David Nusair