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Toronto International Film Festival 2010 - UPDATE #2

Special Treatment
Directed by Jeanne Labrune

The latest film from French filmmaker Jeanne Labrune, Special Treatment follows a slick prostitute (Isabelle Huppert's Alice) and an unhappy therapist (Bouli Lanners' Xavier) as they unknowingly help one another solve their respective problems following a chance encounter. There's little doubt that Special Treatment's disastrously uninvolving opening half hour is exacerbated by Huppert's mere presence, as the actress is effectively playing the exact same role that she's played on so many occasions before (ie doesn't she get sick of playing cold, calculating women?) The film's episodic structure ensures that the viewer's interest tends to run hot and cold throughout the proceedings, with the number of compelling interludes (ie Alice explains exactly how she works and what she charges to Xavier) almost entirely equal to the number of less-than-enthralling segments (ie Xavier visits an almost comically sordid sex club in which a pig makes an appearance). The increasingly prominent emphasis on subplots of a decidedly needless nature certainly contributes to the film's hopelessly uneven atmosphere, and it's ultimately clear that the rambling narrative diminishes the strength of the surprisingly conventional endings for the two central characters.

out of

Wasted on the Young
Directed by Ben C. Lucas

Wasted on the Young is a striking new film from first-time filmmaker Ben C. Lucas, with the director's remarkably intriguing sense of style complemented by a storyline that possess a number of jaw-droppingly unexpected twists and turns. The movie, which follows several privileged students as they deal with a violent act, is admittedly a little slow going in its opening half hour, as Lucas offers up a rather routine portrait of wealthy teens that's occasionally marred by questionable plot developments (ie why would the most popular kid at school risk his reputation by raping an unconscious fellow student?) There's little doubt, however, that the movie picks up with a vengeance following an impressively unexpected mid-movie twist, with the narrative subsequently building to an absolutely enthralling confrontation between several students at their high school. (Seriously, this section is about as good as it gets in terms of captivating cinema.) It's a marvelously compelling stretch that unfortunately stands as the movie's high point, with the remainder of the proceedings unable to entirely sustain the viewer's rapidly dwindling interest (while the Saw-inspired finale ensures that the film does end on a decidedly underwhelming note). Still, Wasted on the Young is an otherwise engrossing piece of work that bodes well for Lucas' future endeavors.

out of

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Undoubtedly one of the most disappointing cinematic experiences to come around in quite some time, Biutiful follows Javier Bardem's Uxbal as he attempts to get his affairs in order after discovering that he has terminal cancer. Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has infused Biutiful with the feel of a rather conventional character study, with the growing realization that Uxbal simply isn't terribly interesting ensuring that the viewer's interest dwindles steadily over the course of the movie's aggressively overlong running time. (This is despite an expectedly strong performance from Bardem.) It is, as a result, impossible to work up any enthusiasm for the character's rather tedious day-to-day exploits, as Uxbal must contend with his flighty ex-wife, deal with shady Japanese sweatshop owners, etc, etc. Iñárritu's typically low-rent directorial style, which worked so well in his 2003 masterpiece 21 Grams, ultimately plays an integral role in cementing Biutiful's downfall, with the decision to emphasize locations of an almost unreasonably seedy nature contributing heavily to the film's atmosphere of relentless unpleasantness (ie this is undoubtedly one of the most visually unpleasant endeavors within recent memory). And although the movie does improve slightly in its final half hour as Uxbal is finally forced to confront his impending demise, Biutiful is, in the final analysis, a heartbreakingly misguided piece of work that doesn't possess even an ounce of the emotional resonance of 21 Grams or Babel.

out of

In a Better World
Directed by Susanne Bier

Filmmaker Susanne Bier's first Danish effort since 2006's After the Wedding, In a Better World follows two young boys - William Jøhnk Nielsen's angry, sullen Christian and Markus Rygaard's open-hearted, bullied Elias - as their friendship ultimately winds up impacting both their lives and their families' lives. In a Better World initially comes off as a solid drama that grows more and more riveting and engrossing as it progresses, as Bier does an absolutely stunning job of transforming each and every one of the film's central characters into fully-fleshed out, entirely compelling figures whose exploits one can't help but latch onto. The low-key yet fascinating atmosphere is heightened by both the uniformly stirring performances and by the sporadic inclusion of riveting stand-alone sequences; in terms of the latter, there's a sequence in which Elias' pacifist father (Mikael Persbrandt's Anton) confronts a bully that's as suspenseful and tense as it is cringe-worthy. (It's just a fantastic bit of filmmaking.) There's likewise little doubt that Bier does a superb job of ensuring that the emotional resonance of the proceedings builds steadily throughout, with the movie's powerful third act diminished very slightly by a prolonged (and faintly unnecessary) coda that goes on just a bit too long. Still, In a Better World is a dramatic masterpiece that surely stands as the crowning achievement in Bier's consistently enthralling filmography (with 2007's Things We Lost in the Fire standing as a rare misfire for the director).

out of

Oliver Sherman
Directed by Ryan Redford

Oliver Sherman is an almost extraordinarily subdued little drama detailing the trouble that ensues after the title character (Garret Dillahunt) arrives on the doorstep of a former wartime colleague (Donal Logue's Franklin Page), with Franklin's efforts at making Sherman feel at home ultimately complicated by the character's inability to let go of the past. Filmmaker Ryan Redford has infused Oliver Sherman with a low-key sensibility that ultimately pervades every aspect of the proceedings, with the deliberate pace and uneventful narrative certainly ensuring that the movie is never quite as riveting as one imagines it's meant to be. There's little doubt, however, that the film boasts an impressive undercurrent of suspense, as one is never entirely sure if the whole thing is meant to come off as a subtle character study or as something just a little more sinister (ie what is Sherman up to, exactly?) Dillahunt's remarkably subtle performance certainly goes a long way towards holding the viewer's interest, yet it's worth nothing that the narrative is occasionally just a little bit more predictable than one might've liked (ie when Sherman offers to carry two plates of hot dogs, you just know something is going to go horribly wrong). And while this does ensure that the movie is often more effective as an actor's showcase than as a fully realized cinematic experience, Oliver Sherman is certainly never dull and it's also worth noting that the expectedly low-key finale does pack far more of an emotional punch than one might've anticipated.

out of

Directed by Gareth Edwards

A sporadically intriguing yet terminally uninvolving failure, Monsters follows two strangers (Scoot McNairy's Andrew and Whitney Able's Sam) as they attempt to make their way from South America to the United States - with the relatively simple journey hindered by the presence of terrifying creatures along the way. It's clear right from the get-go that filmmaker Gareth Edwards is simply not interested in offering up a traditional monster movie, as the film primarily comes off as a subdued drama that just happens to boast occasional appearances by blood-thirsty aliens. It's subsequently clear that one's ability to get into the spare storyline is directly related to one's ability to form an attachment to the two characters, which ultimately proves easier said than done given that Edwards offers little in the way of character development or backstory. The pervasively uneventful atmosphere only grows more and more problematic as time passes, with the inclusion of several seriously tedious interludes - ie Andrew and Sam attempt to negotiate safe passage into the States - ensuring that Monsters inevitably morphs from a relatively watchable piece of work to a dull and flat-out annoying indie drama. Worse than that, however, is the realization that we couldn't possibly care less whether Andrew and Sam get together at the end, as the performers are unable to transform their respective characters into figures worth caring about (ie Sam is flighty and indecisive and Andrew is headstrong and sleazy; that's about all we learn about these people). And while Edwards does deserve some credit for seamlessly integrating over-the-top special effects into a Duplass-esque storyline, Monsters is ultimately a failure on each of the various levels that it attempts.

out of

© David Nusair