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Toronto International Film Festival 2010 - UPDATE #1

Directed by Rodrigo Cortés

A remarkable, frequently spellbinding achievement, Buried follows the virtually real-time trials and tribulations of a truck driver (Ryan Reynolds' Paul Conroy) who finds himself buried alive in a small wooden coffin - with his only link to the outside world a cell phone left by one of his captors. Director Rodrigo Cortés effectively forces the viewer to place themselves in Paul's shoes, as the film never once leaves the confines of the character's claustrophobic environment. It's astonishing, then, just how exciting and visceral Buried often is, as Cortés does a superb job of infusing the proceedings with a number of impressively cinematic visual flourishes - while Chris Sparling's screenplay has been peppered with a number of enthralling episodes that ensure one's interest never wanes. At the heart of Buried, however, is a fantastic, consistently engaging performance from Reynolds, with the actor's unexpectedly impressive performance certainly proving instrumental in the film's success (ie the viewer truly comes to like this guy and root for his survival). Cortés has ultimately managed to craft one of the most enthralling thrillers to come around in quite some time, and there's little doubt that the lack of periphery performers is hardly the deficit that one might've anticipated.

out of

How to Start Your Own Country
Directed by Jody Shapiro

Sporadically intriguing yet ultimately needless, How to Start Your Own Country essentially documents the efforts of certain individuals and corporations at creating self-sufficient, wholly independent states. Director Jody Shapiro initially does a nice job of capturing the viewer's interest, as the filmmaker kicks the proceedings off with a tongue-in-cheek look at the nation of Molossia - which is a 1.3 acre territory located in Nevada. It's a lighthearted and frequently hilarious sequence (ie Kevin Baugh, the leader of Molossia, notes that he always raises his flag "unless it's snowing and I don't feel like putting it up") that is unfortunately not indicative of everything that follows, with Shapiro's repetitive modus operandi ensuring that the movie ultimately does become a lamentably interminable experience. The filmmaker's inability or refusal to delve deeper into his subjects' lives - ie why are they doing this? - ensures that the movie possesses an awfully superficial vibe, and it's also worth noting that Shapiro's reluctance to speak to even one dissenting voice proves disastrous. The end result is a well-intentioned documentary that nevertheless plays like something you'd watch in a high school geography class, which ensures that the film is ultimately only able to hold the viewer's attention for just a few minutes at a time (although it admittedly does seem likely that those with an inherent interest in the subject matter will find more to embrace here than neophytes).

out of

Amazon Falls
Directed by Katrin Bowen

Amazon Falls follows the increasingly sad exploits of a former B-movie actress (April Telek's Jana) who is, on the eve of her 40th birthday, attempting to break through into the mainstream, with the film detailing Jana's day-to-day encounters with the various people in her life (including a coke-snorting boyfriend and a sad-sack of an agent). Filmmaker Katrin Bowen's unabashedly melodramatic approach proves effective at initially luring the viewer into the proceedings, as the central character attempts to navigate the impressively seedy underbelly of the Hollywood scene. There's little doubt that Bowen's light-hearted touch results in a number of unexpectedly compelling and frequently funny interludes, including Jana's audition for a leading role that eventually morphs into an audition for a Russian sex cyborg. The film's admittedly stagnant atmosphere inevitably does become a bit of a problem, however, and it's clear that the uneventful bent of Curry Hitchborn's screenplay results in a less-than-enthralling midsection. That said, the movie picks up as it becomes a progressively darker character study, with Telek's striking performance ensuring that one can't help but feel a great deal of sympathy for Jana's increasingly depressing spiral into anonymity (and this is to say nothing of the memorably downbeat finale).

out of

Behind Blue Skies
Directed by Hannes Holm

Set in the mid '70s, Behind Blue Skies follows Swedish teenager Martin (Bill Skarsgård) as he accepts a job at a posh summer resort and eventually becomes his boss' right-hand man (Peter Dalle's Gösta) - though it's soon apparent that Gösta's various business ventures aren't exactly legal. There's little doubt that Behind Blue Skies fares best in its first half, as filmmaker Hannes Holm offers up a rather conventional yet frequently charming coming-of-age story - with Martin's tentative relationship with a fellow worker (Josefin Ljungman's Jenny) certainly a sweet and compelling highlight. As the film progresses, however, it essentially becomes a Goodfellas-esque look at the rise and fall of a fledgling criminal, as Holm places an increasingly prominent emphasis on a variety of almost eye-rollingly hoary cliches (ie Martin begins acting like a jerk amongst his old friends). By the time the film morphs into a full-fledged crime movie - complete with informants and drug-enforcement agents - one can't help but think that the whole thing has gone off the rails at some point. It's consequently not terribly surprising to note that Behind Blue Skies becomes a progressively underwhelming piece of work as it limps to its conclusion, with the almost disastrously overlong running time ensuring that one's patience is seriously tested towards the end (ie it just goes on and on). That said, the film is just barely worth a minor recommendation based on the strength of its performances and the decidedly evocative nature of Holm's period-inspired visuals.

out of

Directed by Justin Lerner

Girlfriend follows Evan (Evan Sneider), a man with Down syndrome, as he attempt to survive on his own after the death of his mother (Amanda Plummer's Celeste), with the character's most pressing concern his friendship with a former high school colleague (Shannon Woodward's Candy). Girlfriend marks the directorial debut of Justin Lerner and it's clear right from the get-go that the filmmaker does possess an admittedly strong eye for striking visuals (ie that first shot is killer). The unabashedly low-key nature of Lerner's thin storyline ensures that, on the one hand, the movie does possess a very evocative feel, yet, on the other hand, there's no denying that the whole thing is often just a little too slowly paced for its own good. The impressive performances certainly complement Lerner's subdued approach, with Sneider's spellbinding turn as the central character certainly playing a strong role in the film's mild success. (Likewise, Woodward and Jackson Rathbone, cast as Candy's sleazy ex-boyfriend, are quite impressive.) The stellar efforts of everyone in front of and behind the camera are unfortunately diminished by the exceedingly deliberate pace, with the end result a sporadically strong yet lamentably uneven first effort from a promising filmmaker. (And wouldn't it be nice if Sneider got some more work as a result of his commanding performance here?)

out of

Directed by Patrick Demers

Jaloux's claim to fame - and presumably the only reason it's playing at the festival - is the fact that it was evidently improvised from start to finish, and although the final product does possess a polish that is admittedly rather surprising, there's little doubt that the film suffers from a pervasively uneventful and thoroughly tedious atmosphere that ultimately proves disastrous. The thin storyline follows bickering married couple Thomas (Maxime Denommée) and Marianne (Sophie Cadieux) as they arrive at a friend's cabin hoping to reconcile their differences, with problems ensuing as a mysterious stranger (Benoît Gouin's Jean) begins to slowly but surely ingratiate himself into their lives. Filmmaker Patrick Demers does a fairly decent job of establishing the characters and the situation, although it's clear right from the get-go that one's efforts at forming any kind of attachment to the characters are thwarted on an all-too-consistent basis. There's never a point at which Demers is able to transform any of these people into wholeheartedly compelling figures, as we learn preciously little about their pasts or what drives them to do the things they do. (This proves to be particularly problematic in the case of Gouin's character.) And although Demers has punctuated the proceedings with a few attention-grabbing elements - ie what's the deal with that guy tied up in Jean's cabin? - Jaloux primarily comes off as a frustratingly (and aggressively) pointless endeavor that proves improvisation is best left to comedy sketch shows.

out of

Casino Jack
Directed by George Hickenlooper

Casino Jack casts Kevin Spacey as notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, with the film effectively detailing the character's rise and fall over a two year period of time. It's clear immediately that filmmaker George Hickenlooper deserves credit for opening the proceedings to viewers with little or no knowledge of Abramoff's exploits, as the director does a nice job of setting up the various players and the respective roles they play. Spacey's expectedly magnetic turn as Abramoff certainly proves instrumental in initially capturing the viewer's interest, as the actor effortlessly transforms his character into a compelling and surprisingly likeable figure. (It doesn't hurt that the film begins with an absolutely transfixing sequence in which Abramoff delivers a lengthy monologue into a bathroom mirror, although, as becomes clear, the remainder of the proceedings simply can't live up to its promise.) Casino Jack's politics-heavy modus operandi eventually does become something of an obstacle to one's enjoyment, and there's little doubt that the film will hold more appeal for those viewers with an inherent interest in the subject matter. Hickenlooper's playful sensibilities - the movie is, for example, often a lot funnier than one might've anticipated - is ultimately unable to compensate for the familiarity of the narrative, as screenwriter Norman Snider employs a structure that feels as though it'd be more at home within a Scorsese picture. The end result is a sporadically compelling yet lamentably uneven endeavor that is simply unable to wholeheartedly sustain the viewer's interest from start to finish, though there's certainly no downplaying the effectiveness of Spacey's Oscar-worthy turn as the title character.

out of

© David Nusair