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Toronto International Film Festival 2009 - UPDATE #7

The Loved Ones
Directed by Sean Byrne

An Australian riff on Misery, The Loved Ones follows rebellious teenager Brent (Xavier Samuel) as he prepares to attend an important school dance - with trouble ensuing as he's kidnapped by a fellow student (Robin McLeavy's Lola) and held captive for reasons that initially aren't made entirely clear. The promising nature of the movie's set-up seems as though it's going to be squandered at the outset, as filmmaker Sean Byrne emphasizes the almost unreasonably quirky nature of Lola's existence (ie her off-kilter relationship with her demented father). The campy atmosphere, which is just a little too reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, is exacerbated by the puzzling decision to have Brent remain silent for the duration of his ordeal, and it becomes increasingly impossible to believe that he wouldn't once ask Lola just what she's up to. There eventually does reach a point at which The Loved Ones becomes far more engrossing than one might've expected, however, as Byrne offers up a series of gleefully over-the-top gore sequences that effectively capture the viewer's waning interest. The film thereafter establishes itself as a fast-paced, downright fun horror-movie ride that's ideally suited to its Midnight Madness slot, although it's admittedly difficult not to question the inclusion of an entirely useless subplot detailing the ongoing exploits of Brent's best friend (ie it seems like the two storylines are going to converge at some point, but this never happens). Still, The Loved Ones - despite its thoroughly uneven sensibilities - stands as an above-average debut for promising new filmmaker within the horror genre.

out of

The Invention of Lying
Directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson

The Invention of Lying transpires within a universe where everyone must tell the truth at all times and casts Ricky Gervais as Mark Bellison, a hapless screenwriter who stumbles upon the discovery of a lifetime after he gains the ability to lie. It's a high-concept premise that's initially employed to relatively patchy results, as first-time filmmaker Gervais - along with codirector Matthew Robinson - infuses the proceedings with an improvisational sort of atmosphere that inevitably ensures that certain sequences work a whole lot better than others. And while there are certainly some clever elements within the movie's opening half hour - ie a print ad reads "Pepsi: When they don't have Coke" - The Invention of Lying doesn't really capture the viewer's interest until Gervais' character begins to stretch the truth in increasingly lucrative ways. It's during this portion of the film that Gervais offers up what just might be one of the most daring and flat-out hilarious interludes found within a mainstream comedy in recent years, as Mark essentially invents religion after convincing his dying mother that life doesn't end after you die. It's an audacious 15 minute segment that instantly establishes itself as the highlight of the film and unfortunately ensures that what comes after feels awfully anti-climactic, with the eye-rollingly melodramatic and sentimental third act certainly exacerbating this feeling (it also doesn't help that there reaches a point at which the movie could logically end but chugs along for another 20 minutes or so). It's ultimately impossible to wholeheartedly recommend The Invention of Lying, although there's little doubt that the movie is worth seeing if only for that impressively subversive stretch at its midway point.

out of

Survival of the Dead
Directed by George A. Romero

With Survival of the Dead, George A. Romero's Dead series has officially crossed into irrelevance - as the movie suffers from an egregiously low-rent sensibility that's perpetuated by an emphasis on wholly unappealing elements (ie characters, dialogue, visuals, etc, etc). The movie - which follows several soldiers as they arrive on a small island hoping to escape the zombie menace but must instead contend with an ongoing feud between a pair of rival clans - opens with some promise, admittedly, as writer/director Romero effectively returns to the atmosphere established by 2007's Diary of the Dead (with the decision to jettison that film's handheld visual style certainly working in its favor). But it's not long until the almost aggressively uninteresting storyline becomes impossible to overlook; the uniformly bland characters would be enough to sink the movie alone, yet it's the hopelessly silly subplot revolving around the two families' conflict that signals Survival of the Dead's death knell (ie it's just boring). The lack of decent kills or attack sequences ensures that even the zombie stuff grows repetitive almost immediately, and one can't help but walk away from the movie with the feeling that Romero's reserve of undead tales has run completely dry. Stripped of Romero's iconic name, Survival of the Dead would hardly be likely to earn a spot at your local Blockbuster let alone within the festival's Midnight Madness program.

out of

Mr. Nobody
Directed by Jaco Van Dormael

Though it rarely makes a lick of sense, Mr. Nobody quickly establishes itself as an inventive and visually sumptuous endeavor that more than makes up in innovativeness what it's lacking in coherence. The time-hopping narrative essentially concerns the title character - a 120-year-old man (and the last living mortal) who effectively reflects on his life and the choices he made (and didn't make) in the hours leading up to his death. Director Jaco Van Dormael has infused Mr. Nobody with an unapologetically arty and downright pretentious sensibility that's reflected in virtually every frame, as the far-from-linear storyline tracks the important events in Mr. Nobody's life - yet it's the emphasis on events that may never have even happened that's sure to infuriate certain viewers (ie if you're not willing to go with the premise almost immediately, Mr. Nobody will undoubtedly come off as a long slog indeed). The aggressively baffling atmosphere never becomes as problematic as one might've assumed, with the stellar performances - Leto is fantastic in the central role, while Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley, and Rhys Ifans offer up strong supporting work - and the consistently surprising and eye-popping visuals effectively sustaining the viewer's interest from start to finish. There's also little doubt that Van Dormael does a superb job of balancing the various timelines and realities, with the switch from - for example - a drab suburban landscape to a futuristic and clinical space station subsequently not nearly as jarring as one might've imagined. And although the pervasive lack of context ensures that the movie is, at least initially, not terribly emotionally resonant, there does reach a point at which Leto's character becomes a tremendously engaging figure. The dearth of explanations for all this - even as the film draws to a close - is finally a key part of Mr. Nobody's charm, yet it's just as clear that Van Dormael's almost avant-garde modus operandi cements the movie's place as a love-it-or-hate-it proposition.

out of

The Joneses
Directed by Derrick Borte

Though it fizzles out in a fairly pronounced way as it progresses, The Joneses boasts an agreeable opening half hour that's consistently held aloft by its surprisingly inventive premise. The movie concerns a seemingly normal nuclear family - Steve (David Duchovny), Kate (Demi Moore), Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), and Jenn (Amber Heard) - who, as it turns out, are actually a foursome of stealth marketers, with their task to infiltrate a wealthy neighborhood and surreptitiously convince its various residents to buy a series of high-end (and not-so-high-end) products. It's an outlandish yet thoroughly compelling set-up that's initially employed to promising effect by writer/director Derrick Borte, as the filmmaker effectively establishes the various characters and their ongoing efforts at selling their assigned products. The uniformly stirring performances certainly go a long way towards cementing the affable atmosphere, with Duchovny's expectedly charismatic work certainly standing as a highlight within the proceedings (Moore is also quite good, while Gary Cole, cast as the family's next-door neighbor, steals every one of his scant scenes). It's a shame, then, that Borte eventually places an increasingly prominent emphasis on elements of a decidedly melodramatic nature, as the various characters slow-but-surely find themselves confronted with problems and concerns of a decidedly soap opera-esque nature (ie the son grapples with his homosexuality, the daughter embarks on an affair with a married man, etc). By the time Duchovny's character delivers his climactic speech decrying materialism, one can't help but think that the film has seriously gone off the rails somewhere along the line. Still, The Joneses is generally a watchable piece of work that, if nothing else, stands as further proof that Duchovny deserves to be a much, much bigger star than he currently is.

out of

Directed by Atom Egoyan

Undoubtedly Atom Egoyan's most accessible endeavor to date, Chloe follows a successful Toronto doctor (Julianne Moore's Catherine) as she comes to suspect that her husband (Liam Neeson's David) is having an affair - which inevitably leads her to hire a prostitute (Amanda Seyfried's Chloe) to test David's fidelity. There's little doubt that Chloe initially doesn't fare quite as well as one might've hoped, as the film moves at precisely the sort of glacial pace that Egoyan has become known for - with the lack of emotional resonance among the various characters essentially perpetuating the cold, almost clinical atmosphere. This is despite expectedly fine work from the three stars; Moore and Neeson's superb efforts are easily matched by Seyfried's eye-opening turn as the title figure, with the younger actress' effortlessly successful attempts at holding her own opposite her powerhouse costars cementing her place as a promising up-and-comer. It's not until Egoyan begins to emphasize elements of an unapologetically salacious nature that Chloe becomes more than just an actors showcase, as the progressively over-the-top twists and revelations - trashy as they may be - prove effective at infusing the otherwise stately proceedings with instances of palpable intensity. By the time it threatens to morph into The Prostitute that Rocked the Cradle, Chloe has effectively established itself as an appealingly (and irresistibly) over-the-top thriller that's entertaining in ways that Egoyan probably didn't plan for.

out of

The Waiting City
Directed by Claire McCarthy

As one might've surmised from the title, The Waiting City boasts an unapologetically aimless atmosphere that, unfortunately, becomes increasingly difficult to stomach as the movie unfolds. The film stars Radha Mitchell and Joel Edgerton as Fiona and Ben, a married couple from Australia who have arrived in India to pick up their adopted daughter - with the bulk of the storyline revolving around their ongoing efforts at passing the time prior to meeting their sickly child. Before it wears out its welcome, The Waiting City establishes itself as a pleasant enough piece of work that benefits substantially from its scenery and from the stellar work of its two stars - with Mitchell's expectedly solid work proving instrumental in the movie's early (yet mild) success. The progressively repetitive nature of the movie's structure - Fiona and Ben bicker, tour the city, bicker some more, etc - inevitably comes to exacerbate the narrative's thoroughly uneventful nature, although it's not until the quasi-fake breakup rolls around that the viewer starts to seriously lose interest in the protagonists' ongoing endeavors. The inclusion of an admittedly surprising third-act development does temporarily elevate the proceedings, yet this is hardly enough to compensate for The Waiting City's otherwise underwhelming sensibilities.

out of

© David Nusair