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Toronto International Film Festival 2009 - UPDATE #2

Directed by Carl Bessai

The latest effort from prolific Canadian filmmaker Carl Bessai, Cole - set within British Columbia's tiny town of Lytton - follows Richard de Klerk's Cole Chambers as he attempts to transcend his dead-end existence by enrolling in a short-story class at a nearby college. While Cole impresses his teacher and falls for a pretty fellow student (Kandyse McClure's Serafina), his sister (Sonja Bennett's Maybelline) finds herself trapped within an increasingly perilous situation after her husband (Chad Willett's Bobby) becomes more and more abusive. Bessai admittedly offers up an evocative portrait of the tiny community within which the central characters reside, and there's little doubt that the movie has been infused with some seriously impressive visuals ad performances. But, as becomes progressively clear, there's virtually nothing here we haven't seen countless times before in other, better movies of this ilk (ie as hard as he tries, Bessai is simply unable to bring anything new or exciting to the table). The inclusion of several almost eye-rollingly simplistic elements within the screenplay - ie Willett's comically obnoxious white-trash character seems to have emerged directly from a taping of The Jerry Springer Show - effectively ensures that the viewer is never quite able to make an emotional connection with anything on screen, and it's ultimately impossible to envision Cole having much appeal beyond the film festival circuit.

out of

Cairo Time
Directed by Ruba Nadda

Cairo Time follows an American magazine writer (Patricia Clarkson's Juliette) as she arrives in Cairo hoping to spend some time with her husband, though his ongoing work-related absence ultimately forces Juliette to see the sights with a friendly local named Tareq (Alexander Siddig). Director Ruba Nadda does a superb job of luring the viewer into the proceedings almost instantly, as the filmmaker effectively captures the inherent chaos and sleaziness of the titular city - yet it's just as clear that the awe-inspiring visuals and Nadda's emphasis on seriously scenic locales inevitably ensures that the film comes off as an unexpectedly captivating travelogue. The plot, which is certainly as thin as one could possibly envision, exists primarily as a springboard for Juliette's continuing escapades in and around Cairo, with her back-and-forth banter with Siddig's character establishing itself as a highlight within the proceedings virtually from the get-go - as Clarkson and Siddig offer up compelling, thoroughly ingratiating work that draws the viewer into even the most seemingly inconsequential of their encounters (ie the two share a nighttime cruise around the Nile river). Siddig's effortlessly magnetic performance is nothing short of a revelation, as the actor - best known for his role on Deep Space Nine - more than holds his own opposite an equally affecting Clarkson and cements his place as the film's secret weapon early on. The end result is a very low-key, very charming little movie that's as delightful as it is entertaining, with the touching (and unexpectedly heartbreaking) conclusion ensuring that Cairo Time lingers in one's mind long after the end credits have rolled.

out of

Leslie, My Name is Evil
Directed by Reginald Harkema

Reginald Harkema's follow-up to 2006's Monkey Warfare, Leslie, My Name is Evil essentially details the build-up to Charles Manson's notorious trial - with a particular emphasis on one of the infamous killer's sweet-faced disciples (Kristen Hager's Leslie). The movie also revolves around the coming-of-age of a young juror named Perry, as Gregory Smith steps into the shoes of a deeply religious character who finds his various convictions tested as the trial wears on (with his growing fascination with Leslie effectively coloring his perception of the entire case). Writer/director Harkema has infused Leslie, My Name is Evil with a slow-paced, distinctly low-rent atmosphere that grows increasingly problematic as the movie unfolds, with the inherently intriguing nature of the true-life storyline only able to sustain one's interest up to a certain point - after which the film slowly but surely succumbs to its oddly detached and downright campy sensibilities. Harkema's oddly superficial approach certainly proves effective at exacerbating the movie's various problems, as the filmmaker's refusal to flesh out the characters and explain their motives (ie what drew these girls into Manson's "family"?) inevitably preventing the viewer from connecting to the material in a substantive manner. The expected inclusion of overtly avant-garde attributes ultimately adds nothing to the proceedings and in fact contributes heavily to the ongoing atmosphere of inauthenticity, with the periodic emphasis on inexplicable elements (ie what is that cat doing in the cell with the prisoners?) cementing Leslie, My Name is Evil's place as a sporadically intriguing yet hopelessly misguided endeavor. (That song playing over the opening credits sure is catchy, though.)

out of

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Directed by Rebecca Miller

Director Rebecca Miller's first film since 2005's The Ballad of Jack and Rose, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee essentially explores the ins and outs of the title character's existence - with her move from New York City into Connecticut triggering an identity crisis that dates back to her childhood. There's little doubt that The Private Lives of Pippa Lee takes an awfully long time to get going, as Miller bogs the early part of the proceedings down with a theatrical, overtly quirky sensibility - as well as an almost oppressive amount of flashbacks - that prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting with the material. As the movie unfolds, however, Pippa - as well as the various figures in her life - becomes a fully-fleshed out character that one can't help but sympathize with, although the exact nature of her connection to several supporting characters remains muddled far longer than one might've liked (ie is Winona Ryder's Sandra her sister or just a close friend?) Robin Wright Penn's expectedly phenomenal turn as the central character certainly plays a significant role in the movie's success, yet it's impossible to discount the efforts of a uniformly impressive supporting cast (which includes Julianne Moore, Alan Arkin, and Keanu Reeves). And although the emotional climax doesn't quite possess the impact that Miller is clearly striving for, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee primarily comes off as a solid drama that's consistently elevated by the efforts of the various performers.

out of

Life According to Agfa
Directed by Assi Dayan

Though originally released in 1992, Life According to Agfa appears within the festival's schedule as part of the "City to City" program - with each of this year's titles set in and around Tel Aviv. The movie, set primarily within the claustrophobic confines of a grungy bar, follows a series of underdeveloped, hopelessly sleazy characters as they interact with one another over the course of one long night, with a particular emphasis placed on the establishment's grizzled (yet oddly promiscuous) owner, a cop on the hunt for an easy lay, and a suicidal girl who has been ordered not to be alone by her psychiatrist. Filmmaker Assi Dayan's penchant for placing his characters into the most mundane and downright banal of situations sinks Life According to Agfa almost immediately, and it becomes increasingly difficult to overlook the movie's aggressively uneventful sensibilities (ie why should we care about any of these people or their eye-rollingly soap opera-esque problems?) The uniformly amateurish performances prove effective at perpetuating the community-theater-type atmosphere, while Dayan's low-rent visual choices ensure that the film is as dull visually as it is thematically. And because the film only grows more oppressive and interminable as it progresses, the violent climax - presumably meant to come off as shocking and disturbing - is entirely lacking in the emotional power that Dayan is clearly aiming for (with the derisive laughter from several critics during this sequence certainly confirming its ineptitude).

out of

Directed by Catherine Corsini

Though it initially boasts the feel of an almost eye-rollingly routine French drama revolving around infidelity, Partir slowly-but-surely morphs into a far less predictable piece of work than one might've anticipated based on the set-up. The film stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Suzanne, a wealthy housewife who is preparing to go back into the workforce after raising two children - with her decision to open a physiotherapy office out of her home eventually bringing her into contact with swarthy contractor Ivan (Sergi Lopez). It's not long before the two have embarked on a torrid affair; Suzanne's unexpected decision to tell her husband (Yvan Attal's Samuel) about the relationship sets the movie's consistently surprising second half into motion, in which - without delving too far into spoiler territory - Suzanne is quickly forced to go to incredible lengths to sustain her coupling with Ivan. There's little doubt that Partir initially benefits substantially from Scott Thomas' superb, downright magnetic performance, as the actress effectively ensures that Suzanne remains a sympathetic figure even in the face of some seriously (and increasingly) questionable choices. The otherwise far-from-enthralling atmosphere persists right up until Suzanne comes clean with Samuel, after which point the deliberately-paced narrative becomes awfully difficult to resist. Filmmaker Catherine Corsini's fly-on-the-wall visual sensibilities proves an appropriate complement to her low-key screenplay, although one can't help but question her decision to kick off the storyline with a flash-forward involving Suzanne and a gunshot (ie the revelation that this whole thing is going to turn out badly for someone colors the remainder of the proceedings). The final result is an appealingly accessible endeavor that one can easily envision being remade somewhere down the line, with, say, Diane Lane, Richard Gere, and Antonio Banderas undoubtedly a comfortable fit for their French-language predecessors.

out of

© David Nusair