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Toronto International Film Festival 2018 - UPDATE #5

Directed by Boaz Yehonatan Yacov & Joseph Madmony

Redemption follows Moshe Folkenflik's Menachem as he sets out to raise money for his daughter's medical costs by starting up his old band, with the deliberately-paced storyline detailing the various complications that ensue and Menachem's efforts at reconciling his newly-devout religious beliefs with a rock ‘n roll lifestyle. It’s the sort of premise that easily could’ve been employed in service of a brisk, feel-good narrative, and yet it’s clear immediately that filmmakers Boaz Yehonatan Yacov and Joseph Madmony have absolutely no interest in taking a mainstream approach to the material - as Redemption’s been saddled with a low-key and thoroughly lackadaisical feel that generally holds the viewer at arms length. The pervasively unambitious atmosphere is compounded by a seriously (and often distractingly) subdued lead performance, as Folkenflik's decidedly charisma-free take on his morose character makes it virtually impossible to work up any real interest in or sympathy for Menachem's exploits. There’s little doubt, then, that Redemption benefits from an ongoing inclusion of compelling sequences, including a stirring interlude in which Menachem is confronted by a fellow band member regarding his strict adherence to his newfound religious outlook (ie Menachem is using god as an excuse to hold everyone and everything at a distance). The watchable atmosphere is also perpetuated by a handful of admittedly engaging and memorable musical moments, although such positives are virtually canceled out by an anticlimactic and wheel-spinning final stretch - with the end result an almost passable yet entirely underwhelming character study that could’ve used a few more conventional elements.

out of

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
Directed by Henry Dunham

Written and directed by Henry Dunham, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek details the paranoia that ensues after the member of a small militia engages in a mass shooting against police officers - with the movie following James Badge Dale's Gannon as he attempts to figure out which individual is behind the incendiary attack. Filmmaker Dunham does a pretty fantastic job of initially luring the viewer into the low-key proceedings, as the movie's somewhat irresistible setup seems to promise a bizarre yet compelling blend of Reservoir Dogs and The Thing - although, as becomes clear fairly quickly, Dunham doesn't really have much of a plan beyond the striking premise. The bulk of The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is devoted to increasingly tedious interrogation sequences between suspicious militia members and Dale's one-note character, with Dunham's stagy, egregiously talky screenplay compounded by an emphasis on dimly-lit visuals and a pace that's often punishingly deliberate (ie there is, in terms of the latter, absolutely no momentum at work here). It consequently goes without saying that Dunham's ongoing efforts at establishing a tense atmosphere of escalating paranoia fall hopelessly flat, and although the inevitable standoff, when it finally does arrive, is admittedly quite impressive (and legitimately suspenseful), The Standoff at Sparrow Creek's pervasively uninvolving and underwhelming vibe has long-since rendered its few positive attributes moot.

out of

Directed by Esther Rots

An ambitious misfire, Retrospekt follows Circé Lethem's Mette, a wife and mother of two, as her decision to give a battered woman safe haven ultimately has disastrous consequences - with the time-shifting narrative exploring the period both before and after a fairly calamitous event. Filmmaker Esther Rots certainly does an effective job of immediately drawing the viewer into the proceedings, as Retrospekt opens with a striking, electrifying sequence detailing Mette's encounter with a knife-wielding man at a clothing shop. From there, however, the picture segues into a puzzle-like midsection that’s ultimately not as engrossing or compelling as surely intended - with the increasingly busy storyline suffused with far too many elements to really make much of an impact (ie there’s just too much going on here, ultimately). And though the mystery of just what happened to Mette provides the movie with an undercurrent of suspense, Rots' refusal to answer this question until the movie’s closing moments also serves as a fairly problematic distraction. The movie is likewise packed with elements that prevent the viewer from connecting to and sympathizing with the central character’s plight, and it’s clear, too, that Rots' various stylistic choices, intriguing as they sporadically are, contribute heavily to the arms-length feel. (This is especially true of an ongoing reliance on overbearing songs written just for the movie.) The end result is an interesting experiment that just never quite lands, with Rots' decidedly singular approach to the material certainly boding well for her future endeavors (ie there’s plenty of potential here.)

out of

The Good Girls
Directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella

Set in early 1980s Mexico, The Good Girls follows wealthy housewife Sofia (Ilse Salas) as she’s forced to cope with her husband’s (Flavio Medina's Fernando) sudden financial difficulties - with the narrative detailing Sofia's initial attempts at keeping up appearances and, eventually, merely keeping her family afloat. It’s a minor premise that’s employed to exceedingly and excessively tedious effect by director Alejandra Márquez Abella, as the filmmaker, working from her own screenplay, places an long emphasis on the hopelessly mundane exploits of the shallow central character - which paves the way for a momentum-free narrative that’s rife with underwhelming, uninvolving sequences (eg Sofia throws an opulent birthday bash, Sofia spends time with friends at an exclusive club, etc). There’s little doubt, as a result, that the viewer can’t help but wish Abella would just cut to the chase already, as the episodic atmosphere grows more and more stifling as time very slowly progresses (ie what’s the point of all this, exactly?) Abella's stylish visuals ultimately can’t even remotely elevate such aggressively minor material, and it’s clear, too, that long stretches of the movie are about as engrossing as watching paint dry. And although the protagonist’s mental unraveling in the endless third act is kind of interesting, The Good Girls has long-since passed the point where it’s even remotely possible to care about any of this. (The bold yet nonsensical conclusion only confirms the film’s status as a hopeless misfire.)

out of

Les Routes en Février
Directed by Katherine Jerkovic

An exceedingly (and often excessively) low-key drama, Les Routes en Février follows Arlen Aguayo Stewart's Sarah as she travels to Uruguay to spend some time with her grandmother (Gloria Demassi's Magda) - with the virtually plotless narrative detailing Sarah's day-to-day exploits in the sleepy little village and her ongoing efforts at bonding with her closed-off grandma. It's clear almost immediately that first-time filmmaker Katherine Jerkovic is in absolutely no hurry to tale this rather simple tale, as Les Routes en Février progresses at a glacial pace that's compounded by an ongoing emphasis on the central character's inconsequential exploits. (There is, for example, a sequence in which Sarah spends time on Magda's porch just staring into space.) There's little doubt, then, that Les Routes en Février benefits substantially from Stewart's appealing, compelling turn as the movie's affable protagonist, while the sporadic inclusion of actual dramatic moments effectively does infuse the proceedings with much-needed instances of substance (eg a fantastic sequence in which Sarah and Magda discuss their life choices and regrets). The picture's lack of momentum ultimately prevents it from making any kind of real impact, however, with Jerkovic's pervasively subdued approach to her spare screenplay often threatening to put the viewer to sleep - and yet Les Routes en Février's thoroughly earnest atmosphere, coupled with a winning lead performance, cements its place as a decent debut for Jerkovic.

out of

© David Nusair