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Toronto International Film Festival 2009 - UPDATE #5

Directed by Alejandro Amenábar

Agora documents the life of Greek professor and scholar Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) against the backdrop of Christianity's rise within 4th century Alexandria, with the bulk of the proceedings following Hypatia's friends and colleagues as they deal with the tumultuous changes in radically different ways (ie some convert while others choose to fight). Filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar - working from a script cowritten with Mateo Gil - has infused Agora with an unapologetically old-fashioned sensibility that's clearly meant to evoke the larger-than-life epics of yore, although the emphasis on countless underwhelming elements ensures that the movie remains terminally uninvolving virtually from start to finish. Ranking high on the film's list of deficiencies is its almost total lack of compelling figures; Weisz's admittedly sympathetic turn as Hypatia aside, Agora boasts as unappealing a selection of supporting characters as one could possibly envision and there's little doubt that it becomes increasingly difficult to work up any enthusiasm for their respective endeavors. Amenábar's sweeping directorial choices are consistently undermined by the pervasively artificial atmosphere, as the movie primarily transpires on expensive sets that look like expensive sets - with the less-than-authentic vibe ultimately exacerbated by the screenplay's relentlessly overwrought nature (ie the interplay between certain characters smacks of high melodrama). The ongoing absence of momentum within the narrative ensures that Agora becomes more and more tedious as it unfolds, with the tragic conclusion subsequently unable to pack the emotional punch that Amenábar is clearly striving for - thus cementing the movie's place as a misguided and utterly forgettable piece of work.

out of

Directed by Carlos Carrera

Inspired by true events, Backyard follows Mexican cop Blanca Bravo (Ana de la Reguera) as she attempts to solve the grisly murders of several young women in the small border town of Ciudad Juárez - with the movie's multi-character structure reflected in the ongoing emphasis on several periphery figures (including a low-paid laborer and a smug local entrepreneur). There's little doubt that Backyard ultimately fares best at the outset, as director Carlos Carrera devotes the lion's share of screen time to Bravo's investigation - which essentially ensures that the film initially comes off as a fairly intriguing police procedural (with the cultural differences - ie Bravo's superior laments the presence of women on the force because they think with their hearts rather than their heads - inevitably setting the movie apart from its American counterparts). It's just as clear, however, that the flabby midsection slowly but surely drains the proceedings of its energy, with the increased emphasis on far-from-enthralling subplots - ie Bravo encounters bureaucratic stumbling blocks during her investigation - effectively transforming Backyard into a progressively tedious experience. There's simply no getting around the feeling that the film is spinning its wheels in the build-up to its underwhelming third act, which is a shame, certainly, given the relatively promising nature of the opening half hour.

out of

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Directed by Werner Herzog

An unusually unwatchable effort from filmmaker Werner Herzog, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done follows Michael Shannon's mentally unstable Brad McCullum as he murders his mother (Grace Zabriskie) and holds two unknown figures hostage. The flimsy storyline ultimately exists as a springboard for a myriad of eye-rollingly quirky interludes, as screenwriters Herzog and Herbert Golder eschew anything even resembling normalcy and authenticity and instead offer up one aggressively off-the-wall sequence after another (ie two men stop in mid-conversation and stare directly into the camera, while a tuxedoed Verne Troyer lurks in the background). It's subsequently not surprising to note that My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done establishes itself as a baffling ordeal virtually from the get-go and maintains this feeling of frustrating pointlessness right up until the anti-climactic finale, which is undoubtedly a shame given the presence of some seriously talented actors within the supporting cast (including Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, and Brad Dourif). As for the movie's star, Shannon's notoriously idiosyncratic sensibilities serve him quite well here - as the actor delivers as relentlessly oddball and weird a performance as one has come to expect (although it's just as clear that this marks the apex of his career in terms of his ability to tackle similarly over-the-top figures in the future). And while there are a few admittedly amusing moments sprinkled here and there - ie an ostrich steals Udo Kier's glasses - My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is nothing less than a monumental misstep that boasts few attributes designed to capture and sustain the interest of even the most avant-garde viewer.

out of

Jennifer's Body
Directed by Karyn Kusama

Diablo Cody's follow-up to Juno, Jennifer's Body follows popular high schooler Jennifer (Megan Fox) as she becomes a blood-thirsty monster after a mysterious encounter with a sleazy band of Satanists - which effectively forces her best friend (Amanda Seyfried's Needy) to shut her down before the body count gets out of hand. As expected, Jennifer's Body has been infused with a pervasively irreverent sensibility by Cody - as the quirky screenwriter places a consistent emphasis on precisely the sort of off-kilter dialogue for which she's become known (ie "she's actually evil, not high school evil.") It's clear almost immediately that the horror elements within the proceedings don't fare quite as well as moments of a more overtly dialogue-based nature, as director Karyn Kusama generally proves unable to infuse the story's horrific moments with any real sense of dread or terror. It's consequently not surprising to note that the movie suffers from an increasingly erratic structure that effectively ensures that the bloody finale doesn't quite pack the punch one imagines it's meant to, with the lamentable lack of over-the-top instances of gore exacerbating this feeling. Having said that, however, Jennfer's Body generally does manage to sustain one's interest from start to finish (albeit in a less-than-electrifying manner) - with the performances often buoying the proceedings even through its ineffective stretches . Fox, playing a variation on her sex-kitten persona, does a surprisingly nice job here, though it's Seyfried's down-to-earth work that ultimately holds the movie together (and, of course, J.K. Simmons, cast as a dopey teacher, does his expected scene-stealing thing with total ease). The final result is a hopelessly uneven endeavor that's good for a few laughs but little else, with the film's almost total absence of palpable scares cementing its place as a less-than-stellar horror offering.

out of

Directed by Jon Amiel

Creation stars Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin and follows the famed scientist as he struggles to complete his groundbreaking work On the Origin of Species, with the bulk of his inner turmoil stemming from both the death of his beloved daughter and from the opposition of his deeply religious wife (Jennifer Connelly's Emma). There's little doubt that Creation opens with a fair amount of promise, as screenwriter John Collee initially focuses on Darwin's ongoing anguish over his scientific endeavors - with the vehemence of his colleagues (ie one tells him that he has effectively "killed god") causing a considerable amount of friction within his home life. It's that emphasis on Darwin's familial affairs that ultimately sinks the movie, with the almost unbearably slow pace with which filmmaker Jon Amiel has infused the proceedings undoubtedly exacerbating its various problems. Despite the movie's deliberateness, however, Darwin never entirely becomes the compelling figure that one might've expected - with the viewer's inability to form any kind of emotional investment in his problems making it almost impossible to sympathize with his plight. This is hardly Bettany's fault, though; the actor delivers a subtle yet enthralling performance that quickly proves a highlight within the film (and Connelly is just as good as Darwin's fierce wife). It's not until Creation heads into its final stretch that it begins to improve slightly, with Darwin's newfound desire to complete his work infusing the film with a sorely-missed atmosphere of urgency - yet this does prove to be a case of too-little-too-late and it's inevitably impossible to label the movie as anything more than a sporadically intriguing misfire.

out of

The Men Who Stare at Goats
Directed by Grant Heslov

Evidently inspired by true events, The Men Who Stare at Goats stars Ewan McGregor as Bob Wilton - an unassuming reporter who stumbles upon what he believes to be the story of his life after encountering a former soldier named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Despite Bob's initial skepticism, Lyn eventually convinces the young journalist that he's able to control his surroundings using only his mind - which inevitably triggers a series of adventures as the two men embark on a mysterious quest laid out by Lyn. The Men Who Stare at Goats has been infused with an unapologetically silly and irreverent sensibility that proves effective at instantly luring the viewer into the proceedings, with the impressively go-for-broke performances - Clooney is especially entertaining here - initially compensating for the decidedly thin storyline. The inclusion of countless flashbacks and cutaways effectively perpetuates the off-the-wall, almost sketch comedy-like atmosphere, and it does become awfully difficult to resist the shamelessly affable nature of first-time filmmaker Grant Heslov's modus operandi. There does reach a point, however, at which the movie starts to run out of steam, as the plot slowly but surely adopts attributes of a comparatively dramatic nature - with the film's relatively routine third act ensuring that the whole thing wraps up in a disappointingly conventional manner (ie Bob and Lyn's quest is as predictable as one could imagine). It's nevertheless impossible to entirely discount The Men Who Stare at Goats, with the gleefully anarchic opening hour essentially compensating for the movie's less-than-successful finale.

out of

© David Nusair