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Toronto International Film Festival 2008 - UPDATE #2

Derrière moi
Directed by Rafaël Ouellet

Though infused with a number of admittedly positive elements - including an impressively naturalistic performance from star Carina Caputo - Derrière moi ultimately comes off as an egregiously slow-moving drama that's only able to hold one's interest in fits and starts. The paper-thin storyline revolves around a mysterious figure (Caputo's Betty) as she arrives in a small Quebec town and subsequently befriends a local teen named Lea (Charlotte Legault). There's not a whole lot more to Derrière moi than that, as writer/director Rafaël Ouellet devotes long stretches of the proceedings to Betty and Lea's casual and downright uneventful encounters (ie the pair spend a lot of time just talking and hanging out). The question surrounding Betty's true motives - ie is she simply looking to make friends or does she want something more? - can only carry the movie so far, with the almost egregiously laid-back pace eventually proving effective in diminishing the strength of Caputo and Legault's subtle work. And although the film's finale is admittedly quite stirring, Derrière moi is inevitably a victim of its own art-house sensibilities (ie the movie's punchline isn't quite powerful enough to warrant such an overtly deliberate build-up).

out of

Maman est chez le coiffeur
Directed by Léa Pool

An amiable yet entirely standard coming of age story, Maman est chez le coiffeur follows '60s-era youth Élise (Marianne Fortier) as she comes to the realization, over the course of one particularly eventful summer, that her family and friends are perhaps not quite as happy as she might've initially suspected. There's little doubt that Maman est chez le coiffeur, though treading in exceedingly familiar waters, does manage to come off as a consistently watchable endeavor, with the above-average performances certainly proving instrumental in the movie's thoroughly mild success. While the supporting cast is quite good - Laurent Lucas is especially effective as Élise's secretly homosexual father - it's Fortier's subtle, downright engrossing work as the beleaguered central character that tends to hold one's interest even through the film's sporadic lulls. Director Léa Pool does a nice job of capturing the feel of small-town 1960s life, and it's also worth noting that the filmmaker has wisely resisted the impulse to populate the supporting cast with a whole host of impossibly quirky figures. Despite its myriad of positive attributes, however, Maman est chez le coiffeur is never entirely able to engage the viewer for more than a few minutes at a time - something that would seem to be the result of both the routine nature of Isabelle Hébert's screenplay and the deliberateness with which the story unfolds.

out of

Lost Song
Directed by Rodrigue Jean

It's ultimately impossible to envision a more inept and flat-out excruciating cinematic experience than Lost Song, as the film - saddled with a premise that'd hardly be appropriate for a five-minute short - boasts a series of unbearably pointless sequences that'll surely leave even the most easy-going viewer contemplating suicide. The degree to which writer/director Rodrigue Jean proves unable to capture one's interest - even fleetingly - is nothing short of staggering, and it certainly goes without saying that there's virtually nothing within Lost Song that comes off as authentic or engaging (the scenery is kind of nice, I suppose). Patrick Goyette and Suzie LeBlanc star as Pierre and Elizabeth, a married couple who - along with their newborn - head out to the woods to spend the summer living in an old wooden cabin. The lack of subtlety within Jean's screenplay proves to be particularly problematic, as it's clear right from the get-go that Elizabeth is on the verge of a complete and total meltdown (ie she vomits during the car ride up, she can't handle the baby's relentless crying, she slaps a total stranger over spilled milk, etc). It subsequently becomes obvious that something terrible is going to happen to that poor baby, with director Jean's utterly misguided decision to offer up cheap shocks concerning the infant's fate (ie Elizabeth digs a tiny grave that turns out to be for a dead animal) lending the proceedings a desperate, almost exploitative vibe. There finally reaches a point at which the increasingly exasperated viewer can't help but wish that Elizabeth would just kill the baby already, as the movie - which certainly affords the viewer plenty of opportunities for daydreaming and bathroom breaks - ultimately comes off as the sort of interminable ordeal that one dreads encountering at a film festival (it's nice to have gotten what is sure to be the worst that Toronto has to offer out of the way early, however).

no stars out of

Dean Spanley
Directed by Toa Fraser

Saddled with as oddball a premise as one could possibly envision, Dean Spanley certainly has its work cut out for it in terms of winning over the viewer - with the almost unbearably uneventful nature of the film's opening hour certainly not helping matters. The story, set in the early 1900s, follows Jeremy Northam's Fisk as he becomes increasingly entranced by a local religious man's (Sam Neill's Dean Spanley) alcohol-fueled recollections of a previous life in which he lived a simple and thoroughly fulfilling existence as a dog. Director Toa Fraser - working from Alan Sharp's screenplay - initially places the emphasis on Fisk's efforts at procuring the very specific liquor that seems to trigger Dean Spanley's long lost memories, which he eventually accomplishes by hooking up with a well-connected fellow named Wrather (Bryan Brown). The deliberateness with which Fraser allows the proceedings to unfold - coupled with the downright pointless vibe that's been hard-wired into Fisk's early encounters with Dean Spanley - does ensure that the film often tests the limits of one's patience, and yet there admittedly reaches a point at which one is slowly but surely drawn into the thin storyline. The film's transformation from tedious ordeal to surprisingly engrossing drama is triggered by a fascinating sequence in which the title figure regales Fisk, Wrather, and Fisk's father (Peter O'Toole, in an absolutely mesmerizing performance) with tales of his dogdom, which is ultimately followed by a series of revelations - mostly concerning O'Toole's character - that ensure the final reel packs far more of an emotional wallop that one could've possibly anticipated (it's just too bad about that first hour, however).

out of

White Night Wedding
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

With White Night Wedding, director and cowriter Baltasar Kormákur attempts to transform an awfully slight storyline into a fully-realized and consistently compelling familial drama - though, as is clear almost immediately, the filmmaker's use of different timelines leaves the first act a muddled mess of confusion. Kormákur essentially drops the viewer smack-dab into the harried life of Jón (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) - a college professor who's preparing to marry a much younger woman and must consequently contend with her disapproving parents, an insurmountable debt, and the memories of his traumatic first marriage. Though it eventually becomes clear that Kormákur is exploring both the past and present, White Night Wedding's egregiously fractured screenplay does ensure that one is initially forced to struggle with the characters and their relationships with one another (ie why is Jón preparing to marry when he's clearly already involved with someone else?) And while there inevitably reaches a point at which the film's myriad of pieces fall firmly into place, it's almost impossible work up any enthusiasm for the foibles of the various characters thanks to an emphasis on eye-rolling instances of quirkiness and melodrama.

out of

Under Rich Earth
Directed by Malcolm Rogge

While it's entirely possible that Under Rich Earth might've made for a decent segment on 60 Minutes, there's simply no getting around the increasingly pervasive feeling that the film's subject matter just isn't compelling enough to sustain a full-length feature. Director Malcolm Rogge, in an effort to explore the conflict between Ecuadorian sugarcane farmers and the mining project that threatens to evict them from their homes, has infused the proceedings with an exceedingly dry sensibility that eventually proves oppressive, and it's subsequently impossible to work up any sympathy for the plight of the movie's downtrodden protagonists. Rogge's one-sided modus operandi inevitably forces the viewer to question the veracity of the film's various claims, as the filmmaker consistently goes out of his way to make the folks from the mining project look like the sort of villainous, soulless land developers one might expect to find in a cheesy 1980s actioner. There's little doubt that Rogge's increasingly desperate and downright frantic efforts at filling the 92-minute running time - ie an absolutely interminable sequence in which the locals seemingly question each and every person attempting to come into their community - will test the patience of even the most sympathetic viewer, and it's ultimately clear that Under Rich Earth has been designed to appeal solely to those intimately familiar with the dire situation.

out of

Wendy and Lucy
Directed by Kelly Reichardt

The degree to which Wendy and Lucy slowly-but-surely grows on the viewer is nothing short of astounding, as the movie suffers from an opening half hour that's almost mind-numbing in its uneventfulness. Michelle Williams stars as Wendy, a downtrodden young woman who's heading to Alaska in search of work accompanied by her dog Lucy - with the pair's journey interrupted by an unfortunate series of events in Oregon that culminate in Lucy's disappearance. There's not a whole lot more to the story than that; director and co-screenwriter Kelly Reichardt generally places the emphasis on sequences of Wendy looking for Lucy, with the monotony of the character's pursuit periodically broken by her encounters with a series of off-kilter yet surprisingly memorable figures (Wally Dalton's unnamed security guard surely ranks high among the film's supporting characters). The film's turning point comes with an expectedly idiosyncratic turn from Will Patton as a sympathetic mechanic, as the actor effectively pulls the viewer into the proceedings and it subsequently becomes difficult not to sympathize with Wendy's increasingly desperate efforts at tracking down her beloved pooch. Williams' quietly spellbinding performance certainly plays a significant role in the film's ultimate success, and while it's admittedly not too difficult to guess at where all this is going, Wendy and Lucy's lower-than-low-key sensibilities ensure that one inevitably winds up with an unexpectedly strong attachment towards both central characters.

out of

© David Nusair