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Toronto International Film Festival 2008 - UPDATE #5

Burn After Reading
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

There's little doubt that Burn After Reading ultimately fits quite comfortably within the Coen brothers' various comedic endeavors, as the movie - like such predecessors as Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers - relies primarily on the overtly quirky characters to hold the viewer's interest and propel the proceedings forward. But given the inclusion of as thin a storyline as one could possibly imagine, it's hard to deny that the movie is only able to capture one's attention in fits and starts. The convoluted plot - which essentially revolves around the efforts of several characters (including George Clooney's Harry, Frances McDormand's Linda, and Brad Pitt's Chad) to track down the missing memoirs of a disgruntled CIA analyst (John Malkovich's Osborne Cox) - has admittedly been adorned with a number of individually compelling moments, yet the Coens' penchant for moving briskly from one thread to the next ensures that it does become increasingly difficult to work up any enthusiasm for the film's myriad of tangents. That being said, it's impossible to deny the effectiveness of the various performances - with Clooney, Pitt, and McDormand effortlessly elevating Burn After Reading with their uniformly strong (and downright goofy) work. Yet it's inevitably J.K. Simmons - cast in what essentially amounts to a cameo role - who establishes himself as the film's secret weapon, as the actor offers up a performance that proves to be the most gratifying and flat-out entertaining aspect within the proceedings. It's small, isolated elements like that that generally assure Burn After Reading's mild success, though it's clear that the movie will have a far more positive effect on fans of the filmmaking siblings.

out of

Fear Me Not
Directed by Kristian Levring

Though it boasts yet another expectedly powerful performance from actor Ulrich Thomsen, Fear Me Not - saddled with what is essentially a one-note premise - remains curiously uninvolving for the bulk of its running time. That the film has been infused with as slow a pace as one could possibly imagine certainly doesn't help matters, as director Kristian Levring's appropriately stark visual choices eventually become oppressive in their relentlessness. Thomsen stars as Michael, a devoted husband and father who impulsively signs up for an anti-depressant trial and eventually starts to exhibit increasingly sinister personality changes. There's not much more to Fear Me Not than that, as screenwriters Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen essentially offer up a character study that suffers from a distinct atmosphere of uneventfulness. It's hard to deny, however, that the film does improve as it progresses, with Michael's exceedingly dark behavioral changes virtually transforming the whole thing into a thriller/horror picture (ie he torments his wife by subjecting her to a scalding shower and allowing rats to invade their bedroom). The admittedly impressive twist ending that closes the movie does ensure that it ends on a high note, yet it's not quite effective enough to allow one to overlook the almost egregiously sluggish opening hour.

out of

Ocean Flame
Directed by Liu Fendou

Ocean Flame is that rare cinematic endeavor that's almost entirely devoid of positive attributes, and it certainly goes without saying that the film ultimately establishes itself as a monumentally tedious piece of work that'll leave most viewers shaking uncontrollably with anger. The utter worthlessness of the movie is established early on, as filmmaker Liu Fendou's uncommon incompetence is firmly in evidence right from the very first shot - with his subsequent emphasis on pretentious and downright frustrating directorial choices certainly cementing his place as a talentless hack of epic proportions. Yet even if one were willing to overlook Fendou's meandering sensibilities and hopelessly bland visuals, Ocean Flame would still find itself saddled with an insurmountable obstacle in the form of star Liao Fan's astonishingly inept performance. The actor, cast as a gritty underworld type with a penchant for cruelty, proves utterly unable to convincingly step into the shoes of his tough-guy character, with the majority of his painfully overwrought performance boiling down to a series of hard-boiled poses and facial expressions. There's never the feeling that this guy is a real threat to anybody, and it's subsequently impossible to take him seriously even for one second (this proves especially problematic when his character comes face-to-face with the film's few convincingly menacing figures). The movie, which goes from tedious to interminable virtually immediately, is certainly not worth of its place within TIFF's Vanguard program, and - judging by the way it cleared out a fairly crowded press screening - it'll surely slink back into obscurity where it justifiably belongs.

no stars out of

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist
Directed by Peter Sollett

While there's little doubt that Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist ultimately comes off as an above average contemporary romantic comedy, it's worth noting that the film's various deviations from the source material - Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's superior novel - prove effective in transforming the whole thing into a far more conventional piece of work than one might've anticipated. The storyline - which essentially follows teenagers Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings) as they meet and fall in love over one long and eventful night - has been augmented with a number of entirely needless elements that detract from the strength of the two leads' palpable chemistry, with an ongoing subplot revolving around the disappearance of Norah's friend certainly the most obvious example of this. Cera and especially Dennings' effortlessly charismatic and compelling work does ensure that the movie suffers when they're apart, as evidenced by a mid-movie stretch in which they're separately off doing their own thing. Still, it's hard to deny that Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist remains entirely entertaining from start to finish - with the sporadic inclusion of hilarious cameo appearances proving effective in holding one's interest. The movie is finally at its romantic best towards the end as Nick and Norah finally spend some time alone, yet one can't help but question the baffling exclusion of the book's note-perfect ending.

out of

Slumdog Millionaire
Directed by Danny Boyle

Virtually the textbook definition of a crowd-pleaser, Slumdog Millionaire follows an impoverished young man (Dev Patel's Jamal) as he finds himself forced to battle accusations of cheating following a successful run on India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Director Danny Boyle - working from Simon Beaufoy's screenplay - has infused the film with an incredibly vivid visual sensibility that's certainly reflected in the briskly-paced storyline, with the ingenious use of flashbacks filling in the traumatic childhood of the central character. There's subsequently little doubt that it becomes increasingly difficult not to sympathize with Jamal's plight, as we slowly-but-surely learn of the almost tragic hardships that have driven him to this point (his Millionaire appearance is, perhaps inevitably, fueled by his desire to win over a girl). Patel's superb performance certainly proves effective in ensuring the viewer's rooting interest in his success, while the supporting cast - comprised, with the exception of Irfan Khan, largely of unknowns - adds a fair amount of color to the proceedings. The propulsive narrative culminates with a predictably upbeat yet undeniably enthralling finale, and it's ultimately hard to envision a more entertaining, flat-out enjoyable effort unspooling at this year's festival.

out of

The Burning Plain
Directed by Guillermo Arriaga

The directorial debut of 21 Grams screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, The Burning Plain employs an expectedly fractured narrative to tell the stories of several characters - including Charlize Theron's Sylvia, Jennifer Lawrence's Marina, and Kim Basinger's Gina. There's little doubt that although the film's various threads initially come off as kind of random and insignificant, the viewer is certainly more than willing to indulge the filmmaker up to a certain point - after which, however, it's hard to deny that the stagnant vibe does start to become a little oppressive. That the film generally remains watchable even through its more overtly plodding stretches is due almost entirely to the stellar work of the various actors, with Theron delivering an especially strong and affecting performance that proves instrumental in the movie's mild success. The increasingly melodramatic nature of some of these stories doesn't entirely help matters, and it's also worth noting that Arriaga tips his hat just a little too early in terms of some of the film's supposed surprises. But it's ultimately impossible to deny that, overlooking the film's time-shifting structure, The Burning Plain possesses the feel of a fairly standard drama, which would be fine for a run-of-the-mill debuting filmmaker but is certainly a disappointment coming from Arriaga (ie the emotional resonance of Babel and 21 Grams is almost completely absent here).

out of

Voy a Explotar
Directed by Gerardo Naranjo

A sporadically stylish yet egregiously uneventful effort, Voy a Explotar follows rebellious teens Román (Juan Pablo de Santiago) and Maru ( Maria Deschamps) as they hide out atop his parents' roof and spend their days chatting, eating, and just hanging out. Filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo does a nice job of setting up the story and characters, and it's hard to deny that the film's opening hour is far more briskly paced and light-hearted than one might've expected (ie in an early scene, we see Román staging a one-man play entitled "See You in Hell," which consists solely of his supposed suicide by hanging). By the time the two wind up on that roof, however, the film's momentum has essentially come to a dead stop, and it becomes increasingly difficult to genuinely care about the plight of the central characters. And while de Santiago and Deschamps both establish themselves are naturalistic and charismatic performers, Naranjo's screenplay leaves them with exceedingly little to do - which does ensure that the inevitably tragic conclusion inevitably fails to pack the kind of emotional punch that the filmmaker has clearly aimed for.

out of

© David Nusair