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Toronto International Film Festival 2009 - UPDATE #10

L'Affaire Farewell
Directed by Christian Carion

It's ultimately difficult to envision most viewers finding much within L'Affaire Farewell worth embracing, as the movie suffers from an impenetrable and thoroughly convoluted sensibility that effectively cements its status as a sporadically intriguing yet hopelessly uninvolving political thriller. Set in the early 1980s, the movie follows French engineer Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet) as he becomes the contact person for a Russian spy (Emir Kusturica's Sergei Grigoriev) - with complications ensuing as more and more people become aware of Pierre and Sergei's surreptitious exploits (including Willem Dafoe's head of the CIA and Fred Ward's Ronald Reagan). It's clear almost instantly that scripter Eric Raynaud is concerned primarily with exploring the political ramifications of Pierre and Sergei's ongoing spy games, as there's never a point at which either character manages to become as fully fleshed-out as one might've hoped. There's little doubt, however, that even the non-political stuff falls disappointingly short, with the proliferation of almost eye-rollingly silly plot twists lending the proceedings the feel of a second-rate melodrama (ie Sergei's affair with a coworker is discovered by his son). It's a shame, really, given that the central characters' increasingly perilous situation should've resulted in a number of tense sequences, yet there's never a point at which the viewer is able to work up any real enthusiasm or concern for their respective fates. And while the novelty of Fred Ward as Ronald Reagan does carry the scant English-language interludes for a little while, it's worth noting that - like everything else within L'Affaire Farewell - even these moments ultimately lose their entertainment value. The inclusion of one or two genuinely suspenseful moments - ie a dialogue-free montage detailing the arrest of several spies (including one inexplicably played by Diane Kruger) - ensures that the film never quite becomes an all-out wash, yet the promise of the premise and the uniformly strong cast invariably force one to wonder what could have been.

out of

Leaves of Grass
Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, Leaves of Grass casts Edward Norton as identical twins Bill and Brady - with the surprisingly violent storyline kicked into motion after drug dealer Brady comes up with a scheme that essentially requires him to be in two places at once (thus necessitating the unwitting involvement of his scholarly brother). There's little doubt that Leaves of Grass improves substantially as it progress, with the movie's relatively underwhelming opening half hour undoubtedly exacerbated by an almost egregiously deliberate pace and a pervasive emphasis on unappealing elements (with the latter essentially personified by Brady's impossibly shady personality and his equally sketchy cohorts). It's only as Bill and Brady are reunited that the film slowly but surely begins to grow on the viewer, as the chemistry between the two oddball characters becomes increasingly difficult to resist - with Norton's absolutely spellbinding work undoubtedly playing a significant role in the film's undeniable success. And while Nelson has assembled an impressive supporting cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Keri Russell, and Nelson himself, It's Richard Dreyfuss' all-too-short-lived appearance as a vicious drug lord that stands as Leaves of Grass' most compelling and flat-out entertaining attribute - as the actor's indelible work ensures that his presence is felt long after his character exits the proceedings. The amiable groove that the movie settles into following Bill's arrival in Brady's neck of the woods is almost enough to carry the film through to its relatively frenetic third act, although it's hard to deny that there does reach a point at which the whole thing starts to run out of steam. Still, Leaves of Grass is an intriguing and engaging piece of work that's worth checking out if only for Norton's phenomenal, Oscar-worthy turn as the film's diametrically opposed twins.

out of

The Good Heart
Directed by Dagur Kári

Unapologetically oddball from start to finish, The Good Heart casts Brian Cox as Jacques - an almost impossibly surly bartender who forges a tentative friendship with a meek homeless kid (Paul Dano's Lucas) after suffering his fifth coronary. Jacques, perhaps realizing that he doesn't have much time left, decides to pass on his years of misanthropic wisdom to Lucas by putting him to work in his bar, with the movie subsequently revolving around the two characters' plotless escapades (as well as that of the various regulars that seem to make Jacques' establishment their home away from home). Filmmaker Dagur Kári has infused The Good Heart with an almost distractingly grimy visual sensibility that initially threatens to render the movie's positive attributes moot, with the viewer's patience inevitably rewarded as the relationship between Jacques and Lucas becomes more and more compelling as the thin storyline unfolds. There's little doubt that Cox's absolutely spellbinding work plays a significant role in the film's mild success, as the actor steps into the shoes of his abrasive and downright mean-spirited character (ie he says things like, "we're not here to save people, we're here to destroy them") with a fearlessness that's nothing short of hypnotic. Kári's episodic screenplay eventually lends the proceedings the feel of a gritty sitcom (ie think Cheers without the jokes or accessible characters), with the stellar performances and gleefully idiosyncratic atmosphere ultimately cementing The Good Heart's place as a minor triumph.

out of

Solitary Man
Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien

The first effort from filmmakers Brian Koppelman and David Levien since 2001's Knockaround Guys, Solitary Man casts Michael Douglas as Ben - a once-successful car dealer who has become a shadow of his former self following a business scandal that has essentially left him broke. There's little doubt that Koppelman and Levien have created a low-key character study that's primarily held aloft by Douglas' expectedly ingratiating performance, with the relatively lighthearted nature of the movie's opening half hour effectively drawing the viewer into the proceedings - as it becomes virtually impossible to resist Ben's newfound mentor/protege relationship with an awkward college student (Jesse Eisenberg's Cheston). Douglas' charismatic work is matched by an impressively diverse supporting cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, and Mary-Louise Parker, and it's clear that Solitary Man is generally at its best when focused on Ben's encounters with the various folks in his life. The movie's inevitable progression into darker, more somber territory isn't quite as abrupt as one might've feared, admittedly, yet it's hard to deny that the shift from comedy to drama slowly but surely drains the proceedings of its momentum (ie it's just not as compelling as it was at the outset). Still, Solitary Man lives up to its promise as a better-than-average showcase for Douglas' still extremely potent talent and it's worth noting that the film ultimately makes a fine companion piece to 2000's (undeniably superior) Wonder Boys.

out of

Life During Wartime
Directed by Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz's first movie since 2004's underwhelming Palindromes, Life During Wartime boasts as idiosyncratic a sensibility as one as come to expect from the filmmaker and essentially functions as a direct sequel to 1998's Happiness - with the catch being that all the roles have been recast with new actors. It subsequently becomes clear almost immediately that one's familiarity with the storylines and character revelations within Happiness will greatly enhance one's appreciation of Life During Wartime, as Solondz rarely pauses to explain just who these people are and why they're doing what they're doing (ie Shirley Henderson's Joy, previously inhabited by Jane Adams, finds herself haunted by the ghost of Jon Lovitz's Andy, now played by Paul Reubens). There's little doubt, however, that the various performers effectively manage to put their own spin on these already-established figures, with the most obvious example of this undoubtedly Ciaran Hinds' fascinatingly somber take on the sex offender portrayed by Dylan Baker in Happiness - although it's hard to downplay the effectiveness of a supporting cast that includes Allison Janney, Charlotte Rampling, and Ally Sheedy. Of course, it's Life During Wartime's relentlessly off-color sensibilities that instantly establish it as a product of Solondz's gleefully deranged mind - with the continual emphasis on hilariously inappropriate bursts of dialogue generally compensating for the film's flaws (ie in discussing whether or not forgiveness should be extended to the 9/11 hijackers, a character remarks, "well, of course you can't forgive those terrorists - they're dead!") It's not until around the one-hour mark that the movie begins to demonstrably run out of steam, as the plotless atmosphere is slowly but surely hindered by an emphasis on repetitiveness (which, in turn, only highlights the unapologetically deliberate pace). The final result is an endeavor that will surely hold more appeal for Solondz fans than for neophytes, yet there's no denying the enjoyment that can be derived from seeing Life During Wartime with a large crowd (ie their collective shock at some of the film's more overtly shocking bits of dialogue would surely be worth the price of a ticket).

out of

High Life
Directed by Gary Yates

A vast improvement over filmmaker Gary Yates' last TIFF entry, 2004's Seven Times Lucky, High Life follows a quartet of thugs (Timothy Olyphant's Dick, Joe Anderson's Donnie, Rossif Sutherland's Billy, and Stephen Eric McIntyre's Bug) as they conspire to rob several ATM machines at a local bank - although, as expected, the foursome's clashing personalities ensure that the scheme doesn't quite go off as planned. Yates - working with cinematographer Michael Marshall - has infused High Life with a washed-out, downright grimy visual sensibility that admittedly does take some time to get used to, with the relatively stagnant nature of the opening half hour exacerbating the movie's less-than-enthralling atmosphere. There does reach a point, however, at which the viewer is slowly but surely drawn into the proceedings, as Yates superbly establishes the heist in both its planning stages and its execution - which, when coupled with the blistering pace and appreciatively short running time, proves effective at carrying the film right through to its thoroughly satisfying finale. The palpable chemistry between the four stars certainly goes a long way towards perpetuating the affable vibe, with Olyphant's surprisingly straight-forward turn as the group's ringleader an obvious highlight. And although the familiar subject matter ultimately lends the film an awfully slight sort of vibe, High Life nevertheless comes off as a fun, fast-moving caper flick that'll surely thrill fans of the genre.

out of

The Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans
Directed by Werner Herzog

Armed with an unabashedly over-the-top yet thoroughly entertaining performance from Nicolas Cage, The Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans effectively overcomes an almost egregiously convoluted storyline to establish itself as an engrossing, downright campy moviegoing experience. The film, which bears no connection to 1992's Bad Lieutenant, follows New Orleans homicide detective Terence McDonagh as he finds himself hooked on painkillers after suffering a crippling back injury, with the bulk of the proceedings subsequently detailing the doped-up cop's efforts at solving the murder of several African immigrants. There's really never a point at which William Finkelstein's screenplay is able to wholeheartedly draw the viewer into the mind-numbingly nonsensical storyline, yet - as becomes clear almost instantly - the film remains engaging from start to finish thanks entirely to Cage's go-for-broke work as the title figure. It's in McDonagh's interactions with the movie's supporting cast that The Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans excels, as the character's increasingly belligerent sensibilities ensure that he's generally either going off on drug-fueled tangents or saying things that are hilariously inappropriate (ie in terms of the latter, McDonagh harasses a couple of old ladies who may or may not have some information on a subject and eventually tells them, "you're the fucking reason this country is going down the drain!") The one-man-show atmosphere that ensues isn't remotely as problematic as one might've assumed, and it's worth noting that director Werner Herzog generally does a nice job of mirroring McDonagh's unhinged mental state by emphasizing progressively off-kilter visuals (ie McDonagh's imagined confrontation with a couple of lizards). The end result is a surprisingly compelling piece of work that'll undoubtedly (and deservedly) earn itself a cult following in the years to come, with Cage's consistently captivating performance effortlessly compensating for the movie's myriad of less-than-enthralling attributes.

out of

© David Nusair