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Toronto International Film Festival 2006 - UPDATE #9

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing
Directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing is an eye-opening, thoroughly engaging documentary revolving around the firestorm of controversy that erupted after lead singer Natalie Maines made her now-infamous George Bush remark at 2003 concert ("we're embarrassed that the President is from Texas"). Filmmakers Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck follow the trio of musicians as they attempt to carry on with their careers, though this soon proves to be a far more difficult task than they ever could have imagined. It's clear almost immediately that Kopple and Peck aren't looking to win over the band's detractors, as Shut Up & Sing generally paints such folks as small-minded and flat-out ignorant (which they are, unquestionably). There's consequently no overlooking the feeling that the filmmakers are preaching to the choir, yet there's also no denying the movie's overall effectiveness. The inclusion of certain moments (including Maines' reference to Bush as a "dumb fuck") will surely provoke either riotous applause or derisive boos from audiences (it was the former at the film fest screening I attended), ensuring that Shut Up & Sing remains as divisive as George Bush himself.

out of

Un Crime
Directed by Manuel Pradal

Starring Harvey Keitel as a headband-wearing, boomerang-slinging sleazeball, Un Crime is a tedious, thoroughly pointless drama that has exceedingly little to offer even the most patient viewer. The story follows Vincent (Norman Reedus) as he attempts to track down his wife's killer, though he's made virtually no progress in the three years since her death. It's not until lustful neighbor Alice (Emmanuelle Beart) starts seeing a shady taxi driver (Keitel) that things finally begin to fall into place, particularly as Alice concocts a plan of her own to conclusively end Vincent's search. Director Manuel Pradal infuses Un Crime with a seedy, unpleasant sort of vibe that's tremendously off-putting - which would be fine if there was even a hint of authenticity to any of this. The film's screenplay - written by Pradal and Tonino Benacquista - fares even worse, as the dialogue (undoubtedly meant to come off as tough and spare) is almost uniformly absurd and pompous (ie "in the harsh light, you've got sadness written all over you"). Finally, in its third act, Un Crime begins to improve slightly thanks to a plot twist that's straight out of Memento - but really, it's far too late by then to care about any of this.

out of

The Abandoned
Directed by Nacho Cerdá

The feature-length debut of noted horror filmmaker Nacho Cerdá, The Abandoned is an admittedly stylish piece of work that's ultimately undone by an overly deliberate pace and increasingly confusing screenplay. Anastasia Hille stars as Marie, a Russian woman who embarks on a journey to the desolate countryside in an effort to unmask the true identity of her birth parents (things, of course, go horribly wrong). While there's certainly no denying the effectiveness of Cerdá's directorial choices - with the creepy, atmospheric vibe one of The Abandoned's few positive attributes - the emphasis of style over substance becomes more and more problematic as the movie progresses. Cerdá expects the viewer to care about Marie's plight but fails to offer up a single reason to do so; there's is consequently virtually nothing propelling the film forward, particularly in the film's first half (which seems to consist entirely of long sequences in which Marie wanders the darkness armed only with a flashlight). The confounding third act certainly doesn't help matters, as Cerdá - along with co-screenwriters Karim Hussain and Richard Stanley - deftly transforms what should have been a straight-forward ghost story into a seriously baffling ordeal.

out of

Quelques jours en Septembre
Directed by Santiago Amigorena

Generally interesting but only sporadically compelling, Quelques jours en Septembre follows a trio of characters (Juliette Binoche's Irene, Sara Forestier's Orlando, and Tom Riley's David) as they attempt to track down a shadowy figure (played by Nick Nolte) whilst avoiding a deadly assassin (John Turturro). Written and directed by Santiago Amigorena, Quelques jours en Septembre moves at an almost ridiculously deliberate pace - a problem that's exacerbated by the aimless vibe and inclusion of several decidedly needless sequences (the pillow fight (!) that ensues midway through is certainly an apt example of the latter). And while there are a few elements within the film that effectively hold the viewer's interest - ie Turturro's ultra-quirky performance - Quelques jours en Septembre suffers from an overall vibe of superfluousness that's virtually impossible to ignore (Amigorena idiosyncratic screenplay, which relies far too heavily on sequences in which characters discuss the merits of the United States' foreign policies, doesn't help matters). That being said, things do start to improve towards the end with the introduction of Nolte's character - although it's exceedingly difficult to actually care by that point.

out of

Black Book
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven's first Dutch movie in over two decades, Black Book tells the story of a circa-WWII Jewish singer (played by Carice van Houten) who joins the resistance after her entire family is gunned down by the Nazis. She eventually works her way up to the German SS, and starts working diligently to bring them down from the inside. Featuring a star-making performance from van Houten, Black Book is an old-fashioned and thoroughly entertaining piece of work that stands as one of Verhoeven's more consistent efforts (it doesn't even begin to approach his Hollywood masterpieces, however). The lack of subtlety within Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman's screenplay, coupled with a running time that's at least a half hour too long, ultimately ensures that Black Book never quite becomes anything more than a popcorn flick, although there's certainly no denying that the film is a substantial step above Verhoeven's last endeavor (2000's Hollow Man).

out of

Griffin & Phoenix
Directed by Ed Stone

Though anchored by two phenomenally effective lead performances, Griffin & Phoenix remains a strangely uninvolving piece of work - something that's due primarily to John Hill's absurdly sentimental and melodramatic screenplay. Dermot Mulroney stars as Griffin, a life insurance salesman who discovers that he has less than two years to live. This doesn't, however, stop him from dating Phoenix (Amanda Peet), and the film follows their efforts to forge something resembling a normal relationship. With its overly quirky dialogue and saccharine-laced plot developments, Griffin & Phoenix is almost entirely devoid of anything even resembling authenticity (this is essentially sitcom-level material). That being said, the movie does improve somewhere around the halfway mark after Hill starts to ease up on the relentless quirkiness and instead emphasizes various tearjerking elements (none of which are entirely successful, admittedly). And although Mulroney and Peet are quite good together, there's simply no overlooking the movie-of-the-week vibe that's permeating every aspect of Griffin & Phoenix.

out of

Directed by Emilio Estevez

Though the film is ultimately redeemed by a powerful third act, Bobby suffers from a distinctly uneven vibe that ensures it never quite comes off as the searing piece of work that filmmaker Emilio Estevez clearly wants it to be. The film, which follows over a dozen characters in the hours leading up to Robert Kennedy's assassination, features a whole host of familiar faces in prominent roles, ensuring that - initially, anyway - the constant cavalcade of stars can't help but come off as a distraction. That being said, Estevez has certainly done a nice job of inserting these performers into respectively appropriate roles, with a few of the actors (particularly Anthony Hopkins and William H. Macy) bringing some much-needed depth to the proceedings. As one might've expected, the effectiveness of the film's individual storylines varies - with most of these characters forced into unreasonably overwrought and melodramatic situations (the exploits of a May-December married couple, played by Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt, is a particularly apt example of this). Still, there's no denying the power of the film's final 15 minutes - to the extent that one can't help but wish that Estevez had imbued the rest of Bobby with a similarly engrossing vibe.

out of

The Hottest State
Directed by Ethan Hawke

Based on his novel, Ethan Hawke's The Hottest State is a sporadically effective but mostly overwrought look at the relationship that forms between a pair of relatively unlikable characters. Aaron Webber stars as William Harding, a struggling actor who finds himself falling hard for a local musician named Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno) - though it quickly becomes clear that Sarah does not share his feelings. Writer/director Hawke is clearly going for a gritty, John Cassavetes sort of vibe, and on that level he generally succeeds. With its jittery camerawork and distinctly avant-garde editing choices, The Hottest State often comes off as a prototypically rough-around-the-edges low-budget effort. And although Webber delivers a dynamic, exciting performance, Moreno doesn't fare quite as well; trapped within the confines of a thoroughly obnoxious and flat-out irritating character, the actress comes off as stiff and unconvincing (her tenuous grasp on the English language probably doesn't help matters). Laura Linney pops up late in the film as William's mother and briefly injects the proceedings with some much-needed life, but it's virtually impossible to actually care by then.

out of

© David Nusair