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Toronto International Film Festival 2004 - UPDATE #3

The Forest for the Trees
Directed by Maren Ade

The Forest for the Trees follows a kind-hearted and naive young woman named Melanie (Eva Lobau) as she leaves the safety of her home for a job as a schoolteacher in a city where she doesn't know anyone. Though she tries her hardest to ingratiate herself to her students, colleagues and neighbors, Melanie seems to have a knack for saying and doing exactly the wrong thing at any given time. Plotwise, that's about it; the film is content to exist solely as a character study of this socially awkward person. We watch with horror as she systematically alienates virtually everyone she meets, though she doesn't do any of this intentionally. It's impossible not to emphasize with Melanie, as she's beaten down by so many outside forces (her aggressive students, fellow teachers, and even a pony at a petting zoo!) Director Maren Ade does a nice job of imbuing the movie with an appropriately gritty sense of style, while Lobau is amazing in the central role (though we're often cringing at Melanie's behavior, Lobau ensures that the character always remains believable). Ade, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps the tone consistent right up until the film's ludicrous conclusion - which doesn't make a bit of sense and ends the movie on an inexplicable and unpleasant note of fantasy.

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Lila dit ca
Directed by Ziad Doueiri

Lila dit ca is one of those movies that's more notable for its sense of style than anything else. Director Ziad Doueiri perfectly complements the film's admittedly spare storyline with appropriately dreamy visuals - including a camera that seems to float through the film's events - and a wonderful soundtrack featuring bands like Air. The movie follows a quiet young writer named Chimo (played by Mohammed Khouas) as he becomes infatuated with the flirtatious Lila (Vahina Giacante), who's just moved into his small neighborhood. Chimo's rebellious friends don't know about the friendship, and mercilessly taunt the new girl on her less-than-conservative behavior and style of dress. Lila dit ca coasts along on the charisma of the two central performers, along with Doueiri's endlessly creative direction, until the film finally runs out of steam towards the end. It also becomes increasingly difficult to believe that someone as kind and gentle as Chimo would hang out with these thugs, particularly in light of their third act actions. Still, Doueiri does manage to paint an indelible portrait of this small town and it seems clear that he's destined for bigger and better things.

out of

Imaginary Heroes
Directed by Dan Harris

Imaginary Heroes marks screenwriter Dan Harris' directorial debut, and it seems fairly evident that the man's got a natural gift for filmmaking. This relatively simple story, following the Travis family as they attempt to deal with the suicide of the eldest son, admittedly owes a lot to Ordinary People but Harris does a nice job of stepping out on his own. The film stars Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels as the dead kid's parents, while up-and-coming young actor Emile Hirsch turns in an impressive performance as their underachieving son. Though Harris bogs the film down with a few needless and overly quirky subplots - occasionally giving the film the feeling of a rough cut, with several superfluous moments and characters left in - the film certainly picks up towards the end, as Harris (who also wrote the screenplay) drops the quirkiness in favor of honest emotions. As a result, Imaginary Heroes is a very good movie that falls short of excellence; had it been about a half hour shorter, there's no doubt that the film would've been a strong contender for the Oscars. Still, as far as debut features go, this is pretty darn impressive.

out of

The Machinist
Directed by Brad Anderson

For his role in The Machinist, Christian Bale lost over 60 pounds (a third of his body weight!) - a shocking transformation that's more than just a stunt. Bale stars as Trevor Reznik, a machinist who has't slept in over a year. As a result, Trevor is paranoid and suspicious of everyone around him - though there are two women in his life he seems to trust, a kind waitress (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) and a weary prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Director Brad Anderson is clearly going for more of a '70s character study vibe rather than that of a thriller, a decision which absolutely works. Along with cinematographer Xavi Gimenez, Anderson imbues The Machinist with a stark visual style that complements the film's bleak tone perfectly - something that can't be said of Roque Banos' score, which is over-the-top and distracting. Screenwriter Scott Kosar eschews plot in favor of a prolongued focus on Trevor, and as a result, we really get under the skin of this guy. Of course, it's Bale's amazing performance that propels the story forward; though he's always been a solid actor, this'll probably be the role that garners him the most attention before he dons the Batsuit next summer.

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Phil the Alien
Directed by Rob Stefaniuk

Comedy is incredibly subjective, which is why it's easy to enough to imagine certain audience members howling at the many jokes in Phil the Alien. Though I laughed only once (at a bit involving puppies and a cheese grater), writer/director/star Rob Stefaniuk imbues the movie with enough spunk and energy that it never becomes an all-out bore. Stefaniuk plays Phil, a shape-shifting alien who arrives on Earth and immediately takes human form. Hot on his tail is a washed-out agent looking to redeem himself by capturing Phil, a mission exacerbated by the fact that Phil has convinced several Canadians that he's the Messiah. Stefaniuk's screenplay often places the emphasis on broad, obvious jokes - a choice that'll undoubtly divide audiences (leaving some to stare blankly at the screen, and others to laugh hysterically). The Canadian references come fast and furious, while the film's cast consists of one familiar face after another. And though the movie is essentially instantly forgettable, it's hard not to get a kick out of Joe Flaherty's voiceover work as a sarcastic beaver (no, really).

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© David Nusair