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Toronto International Film Festival 2009 - UPDATE #9

A Single Man
Directed by Tom Ford

Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man follows a 1960s English professor (Colin Firth's George) as he attempts to settle his various affairs prior to killing himself - with his suicidal intentions set into motion by the tragic death of his longtime partner (Matthew Goode's Jim). A Single Man marks the directorial debut of noted fashion designer Tom Ford and it's clear instantly that the filmmaker is hardly lacking for ambition, as the movie has been infused with an almost unreasonably ostentatious sense of style that threatens to hold the viewer at arm's length from start to finish (ie the whole thing initially plays like a parody of an art film). There does reach a point, however, at which one is slowly but surely drawn into the proceedings, with Firth's striking performance inevitably proving instrumental in A Single Man's transformation from a misguided cinematic experiment into an unexpectedly affecting drama. Firth's thoroughly engaging work is matched by a stellar supporting cast that includes Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, and Ginnifer Goodwin, and there's little doubt that the movie - which only grows more intriguing and compelling as it progresses - ultimately packs a far greater emotional punch than one might've originally anticipated.

out of

Whip It
Directed by Drew Barrymore

Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, Whip It follows a Texas-based teenager (Ellen Page's Bliss Cavendar) as she surreptitiously joins a local roller derby league and quickly discovers that she possesses a real calling for the sport - much to the inevitable chagrin of her parents (Marcia Gay Harden's Brooke and Daniel Stern's Earl). Barrymore has infused the early part of Whip It with a lighthearted and thoroughly affable atmosphere that proves an ideal complement to Shauna Cross' admittedly familiar screenplay, with the encroaching emphasis on Bliss' roller-derby shenanigans handled especially well by the first-time filmmaker - as the jocular chemistry between Bliss' newfound teammates becomes increasingly difficult to resist (and it doesn't hurt that Barrymore has enlisted folks like Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, and Ari Graynor to portray the various athletes). And although Page makes for an incredibly compelling protagonist, the movie's narrative hits a fairly significant lull as Cross slowly but surely stresses a series of almost eye-rollingly hackneyed elements - including a falling out between Bliss and her best friend (Alia Shawkat's Pash) and her parents' discovery of her extracurricular activities. The atmosphere of high melodrama persists right up until the rousing finale - which does ensure that the film ends on a high note, at least - and it's clear that Whip It could've benefited from some serious trims (ie at almost two hours, the movie is at least 20 minutes longer than necessary), yet the stellar performances and Barrymore's obvious enthusiasm for the material ultimately proves instrumental in allowing the viewer to overlook the myriad of flaws.

out of

Mother and Child
Directed by Rodrigo García

An obvious return to form for filmmaker Rodrigo García (following 2008's disappointing Passengers), Mother and Child follows a trio of women - Annette Bening's Karen, Naomi Watts' Elizabeth, and Kerry Washington's Lucy - as they're forced to confront a series of issues primarily revolving around parenthood. As expected, García has infused Mother and Child with an exceedingly deliberate pace that ultimately proves instrumental in cementing the film's success - as the writer/director subsequently manages to cultivate an atmosphere of authenticity that's reflected in the impressive array of compelling, fully fleshed-out characters (ie it's not difficult to envision an entirely separate feature being built around some of the film's periphery figures). And although García has assembled a flawless supporting cast that includes, among others, Jimmy Smits, Samuel L. Jackson, and Amy Brenneman, it's the stellar work from the three leads that cements Mother and Child's place as an above average drama - with García's willingness to infuse his protagonists with prickly attributes (and the actress' willingness to portray the same) effectively establishing (and sustaining) an irresistible vibe of gritty realism from start to finish. The end result is a slow yet rewarding endeavor that's been punctuated with a number of genuinely moving interludes, and it's ultimately clearer than ever that there's just nobody who does this sort of thing better than García.

out of

The Angel
Directed by Margreth Olin

The Angel follows a young woman (Maria Bonnevie's Lea) as she attempts to kick a crippling addiction to heroin after her daughter is born, with the disjointed plot chronicling her present struggles as well as her bleak past (ie her relationship with an abusive stepfather). Noted documentary filmmaker Margreth Olin, making her fiction debut here, has infused The Angel with a pervasive air of authenticity that initially proves effective at compensating for the overtly familiar storyline, with the atmosphere of gritty realism perpetuated by Bonnevie's stirring turn as the downtrodden central character. Such positives are inevitably rendered moot, however, by the increasingly predictable trajectory of The Angel's narrative, and there's little doubt that the protagonist's less-than-sympathetic nature exacerbates the film's various problems (ie it's hard to root for a character that would choose heroin over her own child). And while there are a few admittedly compelling sequences sprinkled here and there - ie Lea reluctantly hands over her young daughter to foster parents - The Angel's inherently run-of-the-mill sensibilities ultimately prevent it from becoming anything more than a showcase for Bonnevie's undeniably impressive performance.

out of

The Ape
Directed by Jesper Ganslandt

There's always one at every film festival. Devoid of positive attributes, The Ape is a frustrating and thoroughly tedious moviegoing experience that primarily comes off as a cinematic endurance test that's been designed to weed out all but the most avant-garde of viewers. The almost comically thin storyline - which follows a Swedish driving instructor (Olle Sarri's Krister) as he goes about his day and attempts to piece together his (apparently brutal) actions from the night before - is exacerbated by Jesper Ganslandt's eye-rollingly hackneyed directorial choices, as the less-than-competent filmmaker offers up precisely the sort of low-key visuals one has come to fear from movies of this ilk (ie shaky camerawork, long, pointless takes, etc). And while the mystery of just what happened to Krister - he does, after all, wake up covered in blood - kind of sustains the viewer's interest for a little while, the relentlessly uneventful nature of Ganslandt's screenplay ensures that the movie grows more and more interminable as it progresses (ie it ultimately feels as though 90% of The Ape simply consists of interludes in which Krister wanders from one place to the next). The ongoing emphasis on Krister's entirely mundane activities - ie he participates in a quick tennis match - lends the proceedings a vibe of aggressive pointlessness that's nothing short of mind-numbing in its ferocity, with the pervasive lack of context preventing the viewer from working up even the slightest bit of interest in the central character's plight. The laughably pretentious conclusion - which boasts the most baffling final line since Alain Resnais' Les herbes folles - cements The Ape's place as an unwatchable ordeal of epic proportions, and it's impossible to envision a more objectionable waste of time rolling down the pike in the weeks and months to come.

no stars out of

Solomon Kane
Directed by Michael J. Bassett

Based on the stories of Robert E. Howard, Solomon Kane follows the title character (James Purefoy), a feared medieval warrior, as he renounces his violent ways after surviving a vicious encounter with one of Satan's reapers. After he's thrown out of a monastery, Solomon hits the road in search of peace and forgiveness - yet there inevitably reaches a point at which the beleaguered fighter is forced to once again pick up arms and fight. Filmmaker Michael J. Bassett has infused Solomon Kane with an epic, unexpectedly lush visual sensibility that instantly draws the viewer into the proceedings, with the fantastic pre-credits sequence - in which Kane and his men encounter that aforementioned reaper - effectively establishing an atmosphere of tongue-in-cheek fun that's perpetuated for the duration of the movie's running time. It's worth noting that the movie succeeds even in its quieter moments, as Bassett offers up a surprisingly compelling midsection revolving around Kane's tentative friendship with a family of travelers. And although the writer/director has elicited fine work from a talented supporting cast that includes Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige, and Rachel Hurd-Wood, there's little doubt that Solomon Kane benefits substantially from Purefoy's compelling, thoroughly charismatic turn as the title character (ie he effortlessly transforms Kane into an almost iconic big-screen hero). The film's only real misstep lies in its less-than-stellar third act, which is ultimately exacerbated by an almost egregiously frenetic finale that simply feels anticlimactic and needlessly over-the-top - yet this isn't quite enough to diminish what is otherwise an exciting initial entry in what could (and should) be an ongoing series.

out of

How to Fold a Flag
Directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein

How to Fold a Flag marks the third documentary from filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein centered around the conflict in Iraq (following 2004's Gunner Palace and 2006's The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair), and although saddled with an admittedly far-from-innovative sensibility, the movie ultimately comes off as a compelling look at the efforts of four former soldiers to adjust to life after war. Tucker and Epperlein's quartet of subjects - Michael Goss, Wilf Stuart, Jon Powers, and Javorn Drummond - possess personalities that are as varied as one could possibly envision, yet there's little doubt that the directors effectively manage to transform each of the men into figures worth rooting for and sympathizing with (which is no small feat, given that a few of these guys possess attributes that are nothing short of off-putting). It's just as clear that certain of the men's stories are far more resonant and interesting than others, with Powers' run for Congress undoubtedly towering over, for example, Drummond's ongoing attempts at maintaining his ramshackle home. The inclusion of several surprisingly poignant interludes - ie the parents of a deceased soldier succumb to their emotions while recalling their son - cements How to Fold a Flag's place as a familiar yet solid piece of work, and it subsequently goes without saying that the movie effectively completes Tucker and Epperlein's stirring trilogy.

out of

© David Nusair