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Toronto International Film Festival 2009 - UPDATE #1

Passenger Side
Directed by Matthew Bissonnette

Subdued almost to the point of distraction, Passenger Side follows brothers Michael (Adam Scott) and Tobey (Joel Bissonnette) as they spend the day driving around Los Angeles in search of something that Tobey initially keeps secret - with the bulk of the proceedings subsequently revolving around the pair's various conversations and their encounters with a series of off-kilter figures (including a transsexual prostitute, a man missing two fingers, and a drunk hitchhiker). Filmmaker Matthew Bissonnette's excessively understated modus operandi is, at the film's outset, threatened by a pervasive emphasis on relentless quirkiness, as the writer/director stresses the sarcastic banter between the central characters to an almost aggressive extent - thus ensuring that the viewer is effectively left craving anything even resembling authenticity or genuineness. There inevitably does reach a point, however, at which Michael and Tobey's palpable chemistry together becomes impossible to resist, with the two actors ultimately transforming their respective characters into compelling, fully fleshed out figures whose back-and-forth rapport boasts the sort of familiarity that one associates with siblings. It's nevertheless worth noting that, despite the easy-going vibe and the effectiveness of Scott and Bissonnette's work, one's ongoing efforts at wholeheartedly connecting with the material fall disappointingly flat, as the movie's unabashedly low-key sensibilities tend to hold the viewer at arm's length from start to finish - although, to be fair, there is one sequence towards the end of the picture that makes an unexpected emotional impact (ie Michael, with brutal honesty, summarizes his less-than-successful existence for Tobey). The final result is a fairly affable endeavor that admittedly does grow on the viewer as it progresses, with the movie's phenomenal soundtrack and Scott's eye-opening performance ranking high on its list of small pleasures.

out of

Directed by Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig

A vast improvement over the Spierig brothers' 2002 debut, Undead, Daybreakers transpires within a similarly fantastical world - in this case, a landscape populated mostly by vampires - yet boasts a plot that's generally intriguing enough to sustain one's interest through the narrative's periodic lulls. The movie kicks off with an incredibly stylish and effective opening ten minutes in which the admittedly off-kilter atmosphere is effectively established without a single word of dialogue, as the storyline follows an undead scientist (Ethan Hawke's Edward) as he finds himself unwittingly caught up in a scheme to reverse the vampire disease. The Spierig siblings, Michael and Peter, effectively punctuate the proceedings with impressively conceived and thoroughly enthralling bursts of action, with the highlight undoubtedly an electrifying car chase that puts a surprisingly inventive spin on the hoary convention. Hawke's expectedly solid work as the film's protagonist is backed up by a strong supporting cast that includes Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan, and Isabel Lucas, although there's little doubt that it's Willem Dafoe's thoroughly (and appreciatively) idiosyncratic turn as a former blood-sucker named Elvis that stands as Daybreakers' most unabashedly entertaining element. And while there is a bit of a lull as the story moves into its third act, the film wraps up with an appreciatively violent finale that proves instrumental in cementing its place as an exciting (albeit slightly uneven) addition to the vampire-movie canon.

out of

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire
Directed by Lee Daniels

Directed by Lee Daniels, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire follows the title character (Gabourey Sidibe's Clareece "Precious" Jones) as her ongoing efforts at creating a better life for herself and her mentally-handicapped son are consistently thwarted by her abusive, overbearing mother (Mo'Nique's Mary). Daniels - working from a script written by Geoffrey Fletcher - effectively evokes the seemingly hopeless nature of Precious' existence, with the filmmaker's unflinching modus operandi ensuring that the movie is often quite difficult to watch. Sidibe's downright jaw-dropping performance undoubtedly goes a long way towards creating and maintaining an atmosphere of raw authenticity, and there's no denying that Precious quickly becomes a figure worthy of the viewer's sympathy. It's just as clear, however, that the plotless nature of Fletcher's screenplay prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting with either the central character or her downtrodden surroundings, as the film subsequently suffers from an atmosphere that's only truly compelling in fits and starts. The movie's emotional highlight - Precious breaks down while speaking to a social worker (Mariah Carey's Mrs. Weiss) - is certainly quite impressive and moving, yet it's an interlude that ultimately proves to be the exception rather than the rule (ie the viewer is primarily kept at arm's length from the material for the duration of the film's running time). It's nevertheless impossible to deny the strength of both Daniels' direction and the various performances, with the eye-opening work from an almost uniformly flawless cast often elevating Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire above its inherently uneven sensibilities.

out of

An Education
Directed by Lone Scherfig

Set in 1961 London, An Education follows 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) as she embarks on a relationship with a thirty-something art dealer (Peter Sarsgaard's David) and subsequently finds her drab existence punctuated by visits to jazz clubs, trips to Paris, and the like. It's initially almost impossible not to wonder just why nobody in Jenny's life objects to her coupling with a man old enough to be her father, with the almost blase reaction of her parents (Alfred Molina's Jack and Cara Seymour's Majorie) sure to leave most viewers scratching their heads - although, to be fair, the film transpires within a time and place that's nothing short of alien to most contemporary audiences (ie perhaps this sort of thing was commonplace in Europe at the time?) One also can't help but wonder just what it is that David sees in Jenny; as she's not sleeping with him, it does become exceedingly difficult not assume that he possesses ulterior motives for carrying on with the school girl. Such issues eventually become moot, however, as the film's appeal ultimately lies in its irresistibly evocative visuals, Nick Hornby's snappy, clever dialogue, and, in particular, the splendid performances from an almost flawless cast - with Mulligan's star-making turn as the central character often smoothing over the film's more overtly prominent deficiencies. By the time the admittedly predictable third act rolls around - one's initial guesses as to where all this is going ultimately are inevitably proved correct - An Education has essentially lived up to its place as a relatively conventional coming-of-age drama that's a slight cut above its similarly-themed brethren due mostly to the third-act choice that Jenny faces (ie continue with her education or embrace David's freewheeling lifestyle).

out of

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
Directed by Brigitte Berman

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel documents Playboy founder Hugh Hefner's rise from struggling magazine publisher to cultural icon with a decidedly conventional flair - as filmmaker Brigitte Berman approaches her subject with a reverence that generally ensures Hefner is presented in an almost idealized light. This ultimately isn't quite as problematic as one might've initially suspected, however, as Berman does a nice job of exploring virtually every facet of Hefner's existence - which ensures that one ultimately walks away from the picture with a new appreciation for the legendary magnate (ie he's far from the sleazeball that the media often paints him as). Hefner's interest in a myriad of socially-conscious causes ultimately receives the lion's share of screentime, with the emphasis consistently placed on the surprising impact that Hef has had on, among others, the civil rights movement and the fight for free speech. And as fascinating as some of these anecdotes admittedly are - ie Alex Haley, in his capacity as an interviewer for Playboy, recalls his less-than-friendly encounter with neo Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell - Berman's tendency to remain on one topic well past the point of necessity ultimately dulls the impact of the film's more overtly positive elements. The 135-minute running time undoubtedly exacerbates this feeling, as one ultimately can't help but imagine that the movie would've been better off had it been capped at the hour-and-a-half mark - yet despite its deficiencies, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel remains worth a look due to its all-encompassing look at Hefner's storied existence and also for its intriguing selection of blast-from-the-past clips (ie in addition to its various interviews, the movie offers up performance excerpts from an eclectic selection of musicians and comedians).

out of

Under the Mountain
Directed by Jonathan King

Under the Mountain follows scrappy twins Rachel (Sophie McBride) and Theo (Thomas Cameron) as they're shipped off to their aunt and uncles' place after their mother dies suddenly, with the movie subsequently detailing the adventures that ensue as the siblings slowly but surely realize that there's something not quite right about the creepy house across the lake. Though it often seems to have emerged directly from a teen-friendly fantasy-movie template, Under the Mountain is initially far more entertaining and engaging than one might've anticipated - with the striking, picturesque visuals and personable performances going a long way towards sustaining the viewer's interest. Director Jonathan King's decision to scale back the dialogue and essentially allow the visuals to tell the story proves instrumental to the film's early success, with the heavy, sporadically impossible-to-understand New Zealand accents generally not impeding one's enjoyment as a result. There's little doubt, however, that the narrative does hit a lull as it approaches its third act, as screenwriters King and Matthew Grainger - presumably in an effort to fill time before the final confrontation - offer up a series of sequences in which the various characters bicker and stumble around in the dark. And although Sam Neill - cast as a mysterious stranger - appreciatively receives plenty of screentime during this stretch, Under the Mountain is simply unable to recapture the unexpectedly engaging atmosphere of its opening 45 minutes (which effectively dulls the impact of its special-effects-heavy climax).

out of

© David Nusair