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Toronto International Film Festival 2010 - UPDATE #6

Directed by Guy Moshe

Completely pointless and utterly unwatchable, Bunraku tells the larger-than-life story of several battles that ensues within a lawless town after a mysterious stranger (Josh Hartnett) rolls in one day. It's frankly impossible to discern just what filmmaker Guy Moshe initially set out to do with Bunraku, as the movie comes off as a pervasively and aggressively incompetent piece of work that doesn't seem to boast any positive attributes. Moshe's efforts at evoking a colorful, comic-book-style world fall completely flat right from the word go, with the movie's gaudy sets, which seem like they'd be more at home on the old Batman television series, immediately setting a tone of unreasonable cartoonishness. It's the filmmaker's refusal to offer up even a shred of context that transforms Bunraku into a seriously interminable piece of work, however, as there's never a point at which either the characters or the story become compelling enough to justify all this silliness. Moshe's progressively desperate attempts at turning Bunraku into a cult classic are nothing short of pathetic, and it's ultimately impossible not to wonder just which demographic the film has been designed to appeal to. Adding insult to injury is an absurdly overlong running time that ensures that Bunraku often feels longer than a 12-part miniseries, and although there is admittedly one sequence that fares relatively well (an Elevator Action-inspired action sequence set in a hotel), Bunraku primarily and pervasively comes off as an attempt on a Sin City or Kill Bill-style actioner by a thoroughly inept filmmaker who has absolutely no idea what he's doing.

no stars out of

What's Wrong With Virginia
Directed by Dustin Lance Black

The directorial debut of Oscar winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, What's Wrong With Virginia follows Jennifer Connelly's title character through her various exploits - with the film primarily focused on her relationships with her teenage son (Harrison Gilbertson's Emmett) and her married lover (Ed Harris' Sheriff Tipton). It's clear right from the get-go that What's Wrong With Virginia's problems stem primarily from Virginia herself, as the character, despite fine work from Connelly, comes off as a hopelessly familiar figure that viewers have seen countless times before in far, far better movies. Black's stylized, hopelessly quirky sensibilities are exacerbated by an aggressively meandering narrative, with the pervasively pointless atmosphere ensuring that the film's various periphery characters remain utterly undeveloped from start to finish. It's subsequently not surprising to note that there's never a point at which the viewer is able to work up an ounce of interest in any of this, although, to be fair, the film does improve slightly in its final 20 minutes as the narrative adopts a darker and more downbeat tone. This is hardly enough to compensate for the aggressively meaningless nature of everything leading up to it, of course, and there's ultimately little doubt that What's Wrong With Virginia seems to exist purely as a result of Black's recent Oscar win for the vastly superior Milk.

out of

The Bang Bang Club
Directed by Steven Silver

The Bang Bang Club is about half of a surprisingly compelling drama, as the film follows four photographers (Ryan Phillippe's Greg Marinovich, Taylor Kitsch's Kevin Carter, Frank Rautenbach's Ken Oosterbroek, and Neels Van Jaarsveld's Joao Silva), nicknamed the Bang Bang Club by their colleagues, working in war torn Africa, as they attempt to outshoot one another to land the best and most memorable pictures. Filmmaker Steven Silver does a nice job of initially drawing the viewer into this perilous world, as Phillippe's character effectively stands as our surrogate (ie he's new to the scene when the movie opens) and it does become increasingly difficult not to derive entertainment from his dangerous exploits. The conventional yet compelling atmosphere is perpetuated by the uniformly strong performances, as Phillippe and his cast mates become their respective characters to an impressive degree. The sporadic inclusion of unexpectedly stirring interludes - ie Greg photographs a fiery execution - only heightens the film's extremely watchable atmosphere, yet there does reach a point at which it becomes impossible to shake the feeling that there's simply not enough story here to sustain the movie's almost two-hour running time. The decidedly repetitive nature of the narrative's structure ultimately serves to hit the overlong vibe home, as it does become far too easy to predict just what's going to happen next (ie the foursome head out on a dangerous assignment, followed by some downtime, embark on another gig, etc, etc). Silver's less-than-fresh screenplay is most keenly reflected in the ongoing exploits of Kitsch's character, as Kevin's drug-fueled downfall is precisely the sort of thing we've seen time and time again in other, better movies. Such deficiencies aside, The Bang Bang Club is generally an interesting look at an almost ridiculously unsafe profession - with Phillippe's thoroughly (and surprisingly) engaging performance elevating one's interest on a consistent basis.

out of

The Debt
Directed by John Madden

The latest effort from Shakespeare in Love filmmaker John Madden, The Debt follows a trio of Israeli agents (Sam Worthington's David, Martin Csokas' Stefan, and Jessica Chastain's Rachel) as they attempt to abduct (and bring to justice) a notorious Nazi criminal - with the film unfolding both in the past and in the late '90s, when the three comrades (Ciarán Hinds' David, Tom Wilkinson's Stefan, and Helen Mirren's Rachel) are forced to reunite following the publication of a book detailing their efforts. Madden generally does a nice job of establishing an impressively tense atmosphere, with the stretch set within a dingy apartment - where the agents are holding the aforementioned criminal - undoubtedly standing as a highlight within the proceedings. All three of the younger actors are quite good in their respective roles, with the real surprise here Worthington (ie after his wooden turn at the festival's Last Night, it's rather unexpected to discover that he's actually quite compelling here). The inclusion of a few electrifying interludes - ie the Nazi attempts to goad David into beating him up - staves off the stagy atmosphere one might've anticipated, yet it's ultimately difficult to muster up much interest in the love triangle that crops up about midway through. It's also worth noting that the film does run out of steam as it progresses, with the anticlimactic (and increasingly preposterous) third act effectively diminishing the impact of the frequently enthralling opening hour. Still, The Debt is a solid little thriller that undoubtedly stands as a marked improvement over Madden's last foray into the genre (2008's miserable Killshot).

out of

Red Nights
Directed by Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud

A seriously strange little movie, Red Nights details the violence that ensues after an opportunistic woman (Frédérique Bel's Catherine) attempts to scam a terrifyingly sadistic psychopath (Carrie Ng's Carrie). Red Nights opens with an incredibly striking sequence, in which a young woman steps into one of Carrie's bizarre torture devices (voluntarily!), that certainly proves effective at immediately grabbing the viewer's attention, with Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud's consistently captivating directorial choices going a long way towards perpetuating the film's impressively moody atmosphere. It's worth noting that by the time the movie segues into its cat-and-mouse battle between Carrie and Catherine, which isn't quite as enthralling as one might've liked, Red Nights has certainly succeeded in confounding the viewer's expectations at every turn (ie there's really never a point at which one is able to easily figure out just where all this is going). The watchable yet far-from-engrossing atmosphere eventually gives way to a spellbindingly brutal interlude that surely stands as the film's centerpiece, with the strength of the sequence unfortunately ensuring that everything that comes after it feels somewhat anticlimactic. The final showdown, which essentially plays out like a conventional shootout in an abandoned building, is especially disappointing, yet it's not enough to diminish what is otherwise a memorable and thoroughly twisted piece of work.

out of

Directed by Tom Tykwer

Tom Tykwer's first German-language film since 2000's The Princess and the Warrior, 3 follows a successful yet emotionally detached couple (Sebastian Schipper's Simon and Sophie Rois' Hanna) as they individually fall for the same man (Devid Striesow's Adam). There's little doubt that 3 bears few similarities to Tykwer's decidedly kinetic efforts of the past, as the film unfolds in a deliberate and surprisingly conventional manner that effectively prevents it from becoming anything more than a well-acted (and well-made) domestic drama. Tykwer even seems to be going out of his way to prevent viewers from wholeheartedly embracing the spare narrative, as the director offers up a trio of underdeveloped protagonists that remain completely uninteresting virtually from start to finish. Not helping matters is Tykwer's sporadic emphasis on oddball elements (ie Simon recites a poem with the spirit of his dying mother), as the film's tenuously authentic atmosphere is undoubtedly diminished significantly each and every time the filmmaker indulges his notoriously avant-garde sensibilities. It's finally impossible to label 3 as anything more than a typically talky European drama, which is certainly the last thing one would've expected from the man behind such thrilling endeavors as Run Lola Run and The International.

out of

© David Nusair