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Toronto International Film Festival 2010 - UPDATE #8

Meek's Cutoff
Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Set during the 1800s, Meek's Cutoff follows a disparate group of settlers (including Michelle Williams' Emily, Paul Dano's Thomas, and Will Patton's Soloman) as they attempt to make their way across Oregon's infamous (and perilous) trail. Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has infused Meek's Cutoff with an atmosphere of palpable authenticity that's undoubtedly quite impressive, yet the director's refusal to develop the various characters or offer up even a shred of plot ensures that the movie quickly becomes a seriously (and aggressively) tedious piece of work. The film, which ultimately comes to feel more like punishment than entertainment, has seemingly been designed to appeal solely to those viewers with a deep-seated interest in the time period, as it's impossible to envision anyone else finding anything here worth embracing. Exacerbating the film's hand's-off atmosphere is the frustratingly unintelligible nature of over 80% of its dialogue, as Reichardt has evidently directed her actors to either mumble or whisper the majority of their lines. (It's a problem that's so bad, in fact, that coming upon a completely coherent conversation is akin to stumbling on a spring in the middle of the desert.) The end result is a maddeningly dull drama that might fare well among historians, admittedly, yet it's impossible to envision even fans of the actors walking away from the proceedings satisfied.

out of

Directed by James Gunn

An expectedly oddball effort from James Gunn, Super follows meek cook Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) as he decides to become a superhero named the Crimson Bolt after his wife (Liv Tyler's Sarah) is lured into a web of crime and drugs by a shady figure named Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Gunn has infused Super with a consistently irreverent feel that's reflected in its various attributes, with the likeable yet over-the-top performances, frequent instances of broad comedy, and underlying current of extreme violence certainly cementing the movie's place as a consistently off-the-wall piece of work. It's just as clear, however, that the film is never quite as enthralling or as engrossing as on might've expected based on the premise, with Gunn's exceedingly rough-around-the-edges sensibilities proving an ongoing hindrance to one's wholehearted enjoyment of the film. That said, Super does manage to hold the viewer's interest virtually from start to finish by virtue of its can't-miss premise, its uniformly captivating selection of performance, and by the inclusion of several stand-out stand-alone sequences (ie the Crimson Bolt delivers swift and impressively brutal justice to a pair of line butters). But without any real sense of direction and a tone that's just all over the place (ie what's with the absurdly earnest finale?), Super is finally unable to establish itself as anything more than a watchable bit of forgettable escapism.

out of

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Directed by Werner Herzog

From filmmaker Werner Herzog comes this sporadically interesting yet pervasively pointless documentary detailing the discovery of centuries-old drawings within a French cave, with Herzog's use of 3D undoubtedly standing as the most obvious hindrance to the movie's success. The added dimension adds nothing to the viewer's appreciation of the admittedly impressive etchings, and there quickly reaches a point at which one is simply tempted to close their eyes and listen to Herzog's expectedly off-the-wall narration. Headache-inducing visuals aside, Cave of Forgotten Dreams suffers from a repetitive, almost academic sensibility that's certain to alienate even the most patient of viewers (ie this thing has clearly been geared towards a very, very specific demographic). Herzog's inability to make the viewer care about any of this proves disastrous, and it's also worth noting that the filmmaker's efforts at stretching out the incredibly thin premise into a feature-length endeavor grow increasingly desperate as time progresses (ie was the spear demonstration really necessary?) And although Herzog's legendarily insane voice-over work remains a highlight - ie he makes a reference to a "crocodile that looks back into the abyss of time" - Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a miscalculation that even the idiosyncratic filmmaker's fans will have trouble defending.

out of

Peep World
Directed by Barry Blaustein

A breezy, entertaining piece of work, Peep World follows four siblings (Michael C. Hall's Jack, Rainn Wilson's Joel, Sarah Silverman's Cheri, and Ben Schwarz's Nathan) as they prepare for their overbearing father's annual birthday dinner. Peep World spends the majority of its first half dwelling on the individual exploits of the siblings in the build up to the big dinner, which effectively ensures that some of these subplots ultimately fare better than others. For example, Nathan has an ongoing storyline detailing his ill-fated decision to receive a penis-enlargement treatment from an exceedingly shady doctor - with the almost eye-rollingly puerile nature of such scenes certainly standing as a lowlight within the proceedings. Filmmaker Barry Blaustein's sitcom-like sensibilities are generally not as problematic as one might've feared, with the thoroughly likeable work from the various performers undoubtedly going a long way towards cementing the film's agreeable atmosphere. It's also worth noting that the movie does possess a few admittedly poignant moments, with the big speech delivered by Hall's character towards the end of the picture standing as an ideal example of this. As for that big dinner, it's as over-the-top and full of revelations as one might've expected - yet there's little doubt that the abrupt ending, which feels awfully rushed, ensures that the movie ends on a rather anti-climactic note.

out of

Stake Land
Directed by Jim Mickle

An impressively bleak horror effort, Stake Land transpires within a world that's been overrun by blood-thirsty vampires and follows two survivors (Connor Paolo's Martin and Nick Damici's Mister) as they attempt to make their way to a supposed safe zone called New Eden. It's clear right from the get-go that filmmaker Jim Mickle has absolutely no interest in offering up bursts of either self-referential gimmickry or tension-relieving humor, as Stake Land boasts a consistently dark (literally and figuratively) sensibility that immediately establishes an atmosphere of palpable authenticity and realism (ie the movie comes off as a spin on The Road, except with vampires). The lack of tongue-in-cheek high jinks ensures that Stake Land generally remains taut even through its less-than-eventful stretches, with the almost episodic nature of its midsection - ie Martin and Mister move from one obliterated town to the next - ultimately ensuring that the protagonists, as well as several periphery figures, do become more and more well-developed and sympathetic as the movie progresses. It's also worth noting that Mickle has infused the proceedings with a number of genuinely enthralling stand-alone sequences, with the two central characters' encounter with a religious psycho (Michael Cerveris' Jebedia Loven) undoubtedly standing as a highlight. Stake Land is, in the end, one of the most fiercely original (and thoroughly engrossing) horror films to come around in quite some time and one can only hope that the movie receives the exposure it surely deserves (ie fingers crossed that it doesn't premiere on home video sometime down the line).

out of

The Whistleblower
Directed by Larysa Kondracki

Based on true events, The Whistleblower follows police officer turned peacekeeper Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) as she discovers a deadly sex trafficking ring while on a mission in Bosnia. Though it's clear that filmmaker Larysa Kondracki has nothing but the best of intentions, The Whistleblower comes off as a preachy, hopelessly heavy-handed piece of work that often feels like a gritty spin on a Lifetime Network movie-of-the-week. The film's pervasive lack of authenticity effectively quashes its few positive attributes, and, far more problematic, there's little doubt that the movie's frequently grisly instances of violence tend too come off as exploitative as a result. Weisz, despite her best efforts, is simply never able to convincingly become this woman, as the actress' performance seems to boil down to a series of clips one might expect to see on Oscar night. Only David Strathairn, cast as a compassionate Internal Affairs agent, manages to infuse the proceedings with anything even resembling depth, but his screentime proves to be seriously (and lamentably) limited. The lack of subtlety within Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan's screenplay only grows more problematic as time progresses, as the scripters ultimately rely on moustache-twirling villains and laughable instances of speechifying to make their points. Look, The Whistleblower is clearly attempting to shed light on an important subject matter - yet the pedestrian treatment of the subject matter does the material more of a disservice than anything else.

out of

© David Nusair