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Toronto International Film Festival 2010 - UPDATE #3

Directed by Ebrahim Saeedi

A seriously annoying piece of work, Mando follows several Middle Eastern family members as they attempt to transport their dying patriarch to Iran - where he has expressed a desire to spend his final days. Filmmaker Ebrahim Saeedi's decision to shoot the entirety of Mando from the aforementioned patriarch's point of view proves utterly disastrous, as the movie subsequently suffers from a pervasively inauthentic atmosphere that's reflected in its various attributes - with the uniformly amateurish performances certainly ranking high on the film's list of underwhelming elements (and it certainly doesn't help that, by necessity of the POV structure, the actors are forced to perform/overact directly into the camera). It's also worth noting that the first-person perspective diminishes the impact of the group's more overtly dangerous encounters (ie they drive through the aftermath of a terrorist attack), with such moments essentially turned into the cinematic equivalent of an amusement park ride. The movie is just as ineffective in its quieter, character-based interludes, as Saeedi has infused such moments with a hopelessly melodramatic sensibility that's nothing short of laughable. Making matters worse - and the final straw, really - is the fact that most scenes are accompanied by the central character's heavy breathing, which inevitably goes from annoying to downright infuriating and certainly cements Mando's place as an aggressively ill-advised endeavor.

no stars out of

Norberto's Deadline
Directed by Daniel Hendler

Written and directed by Daniel Hendler, Norberto's Deadline follows the title character (Hendler) as he spontaneously decides to join a drama club - where he inevitably finds himself fitting in for the first time in his life. It's a workable premise that's squandered from the word go by Hendler, as the first-time filmmaker proves utterly unable to turn his sad-sack character into a figure worthy of the viewer's interest or sympathy. The movie, which has clearly been designed to come off as an old-school character study, boasts a hopelessly meandering structure that ultimately exacerbates its various problems, and there's little doubt that the viewer is forced to wait patiently for something - anything - of interest to occur (which never happens, by the way). It's also worth nothing that Hendler's decision to sporadically emphasize the laughably pretentious exploits of Norberto's drama club proves disastrous, as such interludes effectively infuse the proceedings with a decidedly amateurish vibe that contributes to the movie's overall atmosphere of pointlessness. Of course, it might have been easy to overlook such concerns had Hendler bothered developing Norberto beyond his most superficial attributes - yet the character remains so one-dimensional that the viewer is left scratching their head when his wife eventually leaves him. The drab, dreary visual style employed by the director cements Norberto's Deadline's place as a seriously underwhelming piece of work, and it's nothing short of stunning to discover that the film is described as, among other things, "witty," "inspiring," and "hilarious" (!) in TIFF's program guide.

out of

Daydream Nation
Directed by Mike Goldbach

Before it completely wears out its welcome, Daydream Nation basically comes off as a watchable teen drama revolving around Caroline Wexler's (Kat Dennings) arrival at a small-town high school - where she quickly launches into an illicit affair with one of her teachers (Josh Lucas' Barry Anderson). Filmmaker Mike Goldbach has infused Daydream Nation with an incredibly ostentatious sense of style that proves effective at initially capturing the viewer's interest, as it becomes relatively easy to overlook the familiarity of the first-time director's screenplay as a result (ie the viewer is kept distracted by Goldbach's consistently over-the-top visual choices). It's only as the movie progresses that one's interest begins to wane, with Dennings' almost hopelessly familiar performance - ie how many times is she going to play a precocious, sardonic teen? - certainly playing a key role in the film's downfall. Far more problematic, however, is the decidedly (and progressively) absurd nature of Lucas' storyline, as his character is ultimately subjected to several plot twists that would seem over-the-top on a daytime soap. (And this is to say nothing of the eye-rollingly melodramatic nature of the movie's third act, which contains, among other things, a fake break-up.) The final result is a woefully misguided endeavor that might've worked as a 15 minute installment in a short-film compilation, yet, within the context of a full-length feature, Daydream Nation is simply unable to positively impact the viewer on anything resembling a consistent basis.

out of

Last Night
Directed by Massy Tadjedin

Unabashedly European in its execution, Last Night follows a well-to-do couple (Sam Worthington's Michael and Keira Knightley's Joanna) as their fidelity is tested over the course of one very long night - as Michael finds himself spending time with an attractive co-worker (Eva Mendes' Laura) during a business trip, while Joanna encounters a former flame (Guillaume Canet's Alex) on the streets of New York. Filmmaker Massy Tadjedin does a nice job of initially establishing the two central characters and the decidedly prickly nature of their relationship, with Joanna's suspicions that Michael has already cheated with Laura triggering an argument-heavy first act that paints a fairly vivid portrait of the pair's dysfunctional coupling. And although Tadjedin manages to sustain the film's tone of chatty authenticity virtually from start to finish, there's really never a point at which one is able to work up any enthusiasm or interest in the central characters' ongoing exploits. This proves to be especially problematic as the movie progresses and the viewer is presumably meant to derive suspense from the will-they-or-won't-they-cheat scenario, yet, despite the best efforts of a strong cast, it becomes awfully difficult to actually care one way or another - with Worthington's rather wooden turn as Michael only exacerbating the film's hand's-off vibe (ie the actor's utter lack of screen presence ensures that scenes involving his character fare especially poorly). (Contrast Worthington's one-dimensional work with Canet's admittedly electrifying turn as Joanna's almost comically smooth ex.) It's finally impossible to label Last Night as anything more than a perfectly watchable yet all-too-slight endeavor that's fine for what it is, though one can't help but wish that Tadjedin had strived for something a little more compelling.

out of

A Beginner's Guide to Endings
Directed by Jonathan Sobol

An entertainingly light-hearted romp, A Beginner's Guide to Endings details the fallout that ensues among three brothers (Jason Jones' Nuts, Scott Caan's Cal, and Paulo Costanzo's Jacob) after their father (Harvey Keitel's Duke White) kills himself and posthumously reveals that the trio are dying as a result of a sketchy medical trial he signed them up for 10 years earlier. Director Jonathan Sobol has infused A Beginner's Guide to Endings with a fast-paced, thoroughly irreverent sensibility that results in a refreshingly (and unabashedly) entertaining atmosphere, with the admitted lack of laughs ultimately more than compensated for by the uniformly stirring performances and consistently engaging screenplay. There's little doubt that the movie hits its stride in its almost episodic midsection, as the emphasis is placed on the three central characters' respective efforts at dealing with the news (ie Cal decides to pop the question to old flame Miranda (Tricia Helfer), Jacob, in the movie's sweetest scene, finally works up the courage to speak to a girl he's had a crush on, etc). It's worth noting, however, that this structure also ensures that certain sequences don't fare quite as well as others, with Cal's encounter with one of Miranda's dangerous ex-boyfriends, which culminates with the two handcuffed to a railway track, certainly standing as an apt example of Sobol's occasional reliance on elements of an egregiously off-the-wall nature. Such small concerns are inevitably rendered moot once the movie arrives at its incredibly satisfying and beautifully conceived finale, which, though admittedly stronger than anything preceding it, effectively ensures that A Beginner's Guide to Endings leaves the viewer on as positive a note as one could envision.

out of

Black Ocean
Directed by Marion Hänsel

An incredible disappointment from Sounds of Sand filmmaker Marion Hänsel, Black Ocean details the exploits of several young men stationed on a circa 1970s French battleship. There's little doubt that Black Ocean fares best in its opening half hour, as Hänsel does a superb job of capturing the day-to-day minutia of these guys' lives - with the inherently fascinating nature of their uneventful exploits proving effective at initially capturing the viewer's interest. It's only as the film progresses that it becomes an increasingly interminable experience, as Hänsel's low-key modus operandi inevitably lends the proceedings a palpable vibe of pointlessness that grows more and more problematic as time slowly marches on. Exacerbating matters is an unusual emphasis on elements of a remarkably mean-spirited nature, with the director's sadistic streak reflected in several key moments throughout the proceedings - including a jaw-droppingly unpleasant sequence in which one of the central characters angrily handles a seriously adorable dog. Even if one were willing to overlook Hänsel's use of shock tactics, Black Ocean suffers from a pervasively aimless final half hour that's nothing short of unwatchable - as the filmmaker stresses the tedious exploits of three soldiers on shore leave (ie the guys hang out and have fun and chat, but that's about the extent of it). It's an agonizingly drawn-out stretch that's capped off with as random and abrupt a conclusion as one could envision, and it's finally impossible to label Black Ocean as anything more than a self-indulgent and utterly needless piece of work.

out of

Blessed Events
Directed by Isabelle Stever

Blessed Events is a seriously bizarre little movie revolving around a mousy thirtysomething (Annika Kuhl's Simone) who has a one-night stand on New Year's Eve with Hannes (Stefan Rudolf), with the remainder of the proceedings detailing Simone's increasingly domestic relationship with Hannes. It's a simple premise that's employed to consistently oddball effect by filmmaker Isabelle Stever, as the director has peppered the proceedings with an almost absurd number of curious elements (ie in an early scene, Simone arrives home with a mysterious piece of meat and, while cooking it on her stovetop, steps into the bathroom to apparently vomit). The inclusion of such inexplicable moments forces the viewer to approach Blessed Events as more of a mystery than as a character study, yet, as ultimately becomes clear, Stever has clearly intended the movie to come off as a run-of-the-mill drama (as evidenced by the shockingly abrupt and comparatively normal final shot). The bizarre dichotomy between the film's two perspectives would surely be a whole lot easier to take had Stever not infused the movie with an insanely uneventful structure, as the emphasis is consistently placed on staggeringly mundane happenings (ie Simone and Hannes head to the store to buy a stroller). The watchable yet uninvolving atmosphere - ie this is exactly the kind of film that's destined to provoke long jaunts of daydreaming among viewers - ensures that Blessed Events never even comes close to packing the punch that Stever has clearly intended, with the ongoing presence of frustratingly unexplained elements (ie what's the deal with the bearded neighbor that seems to know Simone?) cementing Blessed Events' place as a misguided bit of avant-garde filmmaking.

out of

© David Nusair