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Toronto International Film Festival 2004 - UPDATE #4

House of Flying Daggers
Directed by Zhang Yimou

House of Flying Daggers is everything Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tried to be but wasn't. With its majestic visuals, astounding fight sequences, and genuinely compelling characters, the film outdoes Ang Lee's acclaimed hit in virtually every way. The film tells the simple story of a ninth century cop who is assigned the task of getting close to a blind assassin (Zhang Ziyi) in order to track down the notorious House of Flying Daggers (a covert group determined to bring down the government). Director Zhang Yimou imbues the film with a wonderful sense of style, ensuring that virtually every single scene is interesting on a purely visceral level. This is the sort of movie that demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible to fully appreciate the intricate work accomplished by Zhang (along with cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding). On top of everything else, the film is also incredibly romantic; the love triangle that emerges has an unexpected amount of emotional depth going for it. House of Flying Daggers is a real accomplishment and it's hard to imagine any other films at this year's festival topping this one.

out of

The Limb Salesman
Directed by Anais Granofsky

The Limb Salesman is the sort of flick one dreads encountering at a film festival, though it is inevitable. Pretentious and confusing, it's impossible not to wonder just what the point of all this is supposed to be. Set in a future where birth defects are common, The Limb Salesman follows the title character as he travels to the home of an oddball family for the purpose of fitting a young woman with a pair of black-market legs (the whole practice of selling limbs has been outlawed). There are plenty of potentially intriguing ideas in Granofsky and Ingrid Veninger's script - ie water has become incredibly rare and is more valuable than money - but with absolutely no backstory, such elements become more distracting than anything else (why is it that water is so scarce, and yet there are still oceans? Can't someone build a filter of some kind?) But worse than that, there's not a single compelling character here; with the limb salesman acting as sort of a straight man to the entire cast, we're not given a whole lot of options in terms of figures worth rooting for. And because of the obvious low budget, The Limb Salesman presents us with a grimy and visually unpleasant future in which everything resembles different eras of the past (the furniture looks like something out of an '80s rec room, while people still listen to records). In the end, the film eschews the sci-fi stuff all together and becomes a love story (!) - a ridiculous turn of events that doesn't work in the slightest, primarily because we couldn't care less whether or not any of these characters find happiness.

out of

Directed by David Gordon Green

Director David Gordon Green's obsession with the '70s continues with Undertow, a film that actually looks as though it's a product of that decade (even the reel changes look authentic!) There's no mistaking Undertow for anything but a Green movie, thanks to the aforementioned reliance on '70s techniques along with an extremely deliberate pace and several oddball periphery characters. The movie takes place somewhere in the deep south, where John (Dermot Mulroney) is raising his two sons (played by Jamie Bell and Devon Alan). But when John's long-lost brother, Deel (Josh Lucas), shows up unexpectedly, their simple way of life changes forever. While Green undeniably paints a vivid picture of life within this small town, the majority of the film just isn't terribly interesting. The film can easily be broken down into two sections - life on the farm and life on the run. Both aren't conventional by any stretch of the imagination, with Green taking his time in exploring the bizarre elements in Southern living. And while the film sure looks great - cinematographer Tim Orr does a wonderful job of photographing these weird locations - there's not much here to hold our interest.

out of

Bad Education
Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Pedro Almodovar's latest is a typically overstuffed melodrama that follows Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal) as he tracks down an old school chum named Enrique (played by Fele Martinez). Ignacio was the victim of abuse at the hands of a shifty priest, an event that forms the basis of a pivotal short story he's written called "The Visit." Bad Education takes an awfully long time to get going, with Almodovar placing the emphasis on bizarre characters (including a stereotypically swishy transvestite, played by Talk to Her's Javier Camera). But once Ignacio's storyline goes front and center, the film becomes just as enjoyable as you might expect (albeit in an expectedly odd, almost trashy way). And you've got to admire Almodovar's labyrinth-like screenplay, which is consistently playing with the audience's expectations through flashbacks and that old movie-within-a-movie trick. But in the end, it just feels like Almodovar is trying to do too much; the film would've undoubtedly been a lot more effective had he limited himself to just one or two of these storylines. Still, it's never boring and Bernal continues to prove that he's one of the more interesting young actors working today.

out of

Whisky Romeo Zulu
Directed by Enrique Pineyro

Whisky Romeo Zulu tells the true story of an Argentinean pilot who helped raise the bar in terms of airline safety, though this is not something we discover until well into the film. The first hour of the movie is devoted to flashbacks of said pilot's childhood, where he had a crush on a fellow classmate. Such sequences are intercut with his attempts to increase the level of safety awareness within his airline. It all seems so pointless and inconsequential, until it finally becomes evident what the film is actually about (something that doesn't happen until halfway into the movie!) Whisky Romeo Zulu has been written and directed by Enrique Pineyro, the real-life figure the movie is based on (he even plays himself). The story seems intriguing enough to warrant a straight-forward approach, instead of the structurally awkward style employed by Pineyro (ie there's absolutely no flow to the film's events, making it impossible to ever really get into the story). Once certain pieces begin to fall into place towards the end, the inclusion of certain elements begins to make sense (this is particularly true of a subplot involving an airline investigator which seems to be totally superfluous for most of the film's running time). Whisky Romeo Zulu's biggest problem is that it's just not terribly interesting; aside from providing a little information about an important event in Argentina's history, the film doesn't have much else going for it.

out of

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© David Nusair