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Toronto International Film Festival 2011 - UPDATE #2

Summer Games
Directed by Rolando Colla

Unbearably slow, Summer Games follows several young kids as they befriend one another over the course of one extremely lazy summer - with the film also offering a glimpse into the kids' less-than-ideal home lives. Filmmaker Rolando Colla has infused Summer Games with an extremely laid-back sensibility that isn't initially quite as problematic as one might've feared, as the movie, which is consistently quite well made, admittedly, boasts several strong performances and a lazy, pleasant visual style that captures the scenic nature of the central locale. Even during its early goings, however, Summer Games is simply not terribly captivating - with the continuous emphasis on the kids' frolicking lending the proceedings an aimless vibe that grows more and more oppressive at time progresses. It doesn't help, either, that Colla's ongoing attempts at infusing the proceedings with depth generally fall flat, as the director stresses elements of a decidedly (and dishearteningly) melodramatic nature (eg one kid has to deal with his abusive father, another must contend with a less-than-truthful mother, etc). The routine and downright conventional atmosphere only compounds the otherwise uneventful nature of Colla's screenplay, and there is, as such, never a point at which one is able to work up an emotional connection with any of these people. (It doesn't help, either, that the kids participate in oddly sadistic games within an abandoned shed.) By the time the protagonists stone a local dog to death, Summer Games has certainly confirmed its place as a misguided, sporadically unpleasant piece of work.

out of

Oslo, August 31st
Directed by Joachim Trier

Filmmaker Joachim Trier's followup to 2006's Reprise, Oslo, August 31st follows recovering drug addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) as he leaves his rehab facility for the first time and spends the day catching up with old friends and attempting to find his place in society. It's a familiar storyline that's often far more captivating than one might've expected, as Trier does a superb job of initially drawing the viewer into the proceedings - with the film's slow-moving atmosphere proving effective at transforming Anders into a compelling figure. The uneventfulness of the narrative is, at the outset, a little bit of a problem, yet there's little doubt that things improve steadily as Anders heads out into the world and begins encountering familiar faces. (Ander's visit with an old friend is certainly a highlight within the early part of the proceedings.) Trier's handheld directorial choices prove effective at mirroring the low-key nature of the storyline, although, having said that, the director does a superb job of peppering the movie with sequences of a decidedly electrifying nature (including a spellbinding interlude in which Anders eavesdrops on conversations around him). Unfortunately, Oslo, August 31st does feature a second half that's simply not as engrossing as the first - as Trier stresses Anders inevitable backslide into the world of drugs and drinking. It's handled quite well, admittedly, but such moments are overly familiar and even conventional. Still, the movie does pick up for a grim yet memorable finale - which effectively confirms Trier's place as one of the most promising new directors on the international scene.

out of

The Good Son
Directed by Zaida Bergroth

The Good Son follows fledgling actress Leila (Elina Knihtilä) as she and her two sons, teenager Ilmari (Samuli Niittymäki) and adolescent Unto (Eetu Julin), arrive at a beachfront property to spend time with friends and relax, with the film subsequently revolving around the conflict that arises after Leila engages in a romantic relationship with a former colleague (Eero Aho's Aimo). Filmmaker Zaida Bergroth has infused The Good Son with a naturalistic feel that's reflected in everything from the authentic performances to the uneventful narrative, although, as becomes clear almost immediately, Bergroth's pervasively low-key sensibilities ensure that the movie is rarely as engrossing or even entertaining as one might've hoped. Bergroth's decision to stress the central characters' day-to-day exploits (eg a party that just seems to go on forever) ultimately proves disastrous, as one inevitably can't help but wish that the filmmaker had infused The Good Son with a more substantive vibe (ie the viewer is all too often left wishing that Bergroth would just cut to the chase already). It's worth noting, however, that the movie never quite morphs into the art-house disaster it often threatens to, as Bergroth effectively peppers the proceedings with a number of overtly ominous sequences (ie it becomes clear early on that Ilmari possesses decidedly sociopathic tendencies). As such, The Good Son does improve a fair amount as it progresses, with the predictably violent finale injecting the otherwise sedate proceedings with a jolt of life and energy. It's a little too late to wholeheartedly care by that point, however, and it's ultimately clear that the salacious premise is at odds with Bergroth's subdued modus operandi.

out of

The Hunter
Directed by Daniel Nettheim

The Hunter casts Willem Dafoe as Martin David, a mercenary who travels to Australia to hopefully find and kill a presumed extinct tiger for a shady client - with the film detailing Martin's ongoing efforts at both tracking the creature and dealing with the locals (including the family with whom he's staying). Filmmaker Daniel Nettheim has infused The Hunter with an almost extraordinarily low-key sensibility that's reflected most keenly in its slow-moving pace, with the continuous emphasis on the protagonist's subdued (and solo) exploits ensuring that the film is rarely as engrossing or captivating as one might've hoped. There's little doubt, however, that Nettheim does manage to sustain the viewer's interest throughout, with the striking scenery and Dafoe's expectedly engaging performance going a long way towards perpetuating the amiable atmosphere. And though there's certainly something inherently fascinating about Martin's meticulous efforts at tracking a creature that may or may not exist, The Hunter is often at its best when focused on the central character's encounters with the aforementioned family - with, in particular, Martin's dealings with the two small kids infusing the proceedings with an undercurrent of irresistible lightheartedness (eg the scene in which the kids attempt to bathe with Martin is alone worth the price of admission). The inclusion of a few last-minute twists - as well as an unexpectedly enthralling action sequence - finally cements The Hunter's place as a perfectly watchable piece of work, with the almost incongruously uplifting conclusion ensuring that the movie ends on an unexpectedly feel-good note.

out of

The Forgiveness of Blood
Directed by Joshua Marston

Joshua Marston's first film since Maria Full of Grace, The Forgiveness of Blood details the turmoil that ensues after the patriarch of an Albanian family participates in the murder of a rival - with the death triggering a blood feud that forces said patriarch to go into hiding and leaves his family, including a scrappy teenage son (Tristan Halilaj's Nik), trapped inside their own home. Before the plot kicks in, however, Marston is initially concerned with exploring and establishing the flavor of this small Albanian town - with the emphasis primarily placed on the subdued day-to-day exploits of the various characters. It's relatively interesting stuff that's heightened by Marston's naturalistic style and the uniformly strong performances, although there inevitably does reach a point at which the pervasive lack of context starts to become something of a problem. The film does begin to show some promise once the inherently fascinating premise kicks in, however, as Marston does a nice job of offering up an eye-opening look into the workings of a fairly backwards culture. By that same token, though, the nature of the setup ensures that The Forgiveness of Blood boasts a distressingly uneventful midsection that revolves entirely around the central characters' efforts at passing time in their newfound prison - with the sporadic inclusion of a few admittedly engaging sequences (eg the eldest daughter encounters one of the rival's hot-tempered family members) occasionally lifting the proceedings out of its dull doldrums. It's the pervasive lack of drama that ultimately sinks The Forgiveness of Blood, as it becomes harder and harder to work up any sympathy for or interest in the protagonists' plight - with the fairly sudden ending leaving too many questions unanswered.

out of

The Island President
Directed by Jon Shenk

The Island President is an engaging yet overlong documentary revolving around the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, with a specific emphasis placed on Nasheed's ongoing efforts at raising awareness on climate change. Filmmaker Jon Shenk does an excellent job of initially luring the viewer into the proceedings, as the director opens the movie with a whirlwind look at Nasheed's journey from political prisoner to public official - with the inherently fascinating nature of this stretch certainly setting the stage for a fast-paced and eye-opening documentary. The movie does, however, slow down considerably once it begins dealing with Nasheed's environmental exploits, with the comparatively sedate nature of this portion of the film admittedly taking some getting used to. It's ultimately Nasheed himself who compensates for the movie's uneven atmosphere, as the remarkably even-tempered politician comes off as a tremendously likeable and engaging figure who seems universally beloved by his people (and with good reason). It is, as such, not surprising to note that The Island President eventually does even out to become a watchable behind-the-scenes documentary, although it's equally clear that the movie's overlength does become more and more problematic as time progresses (ie the movie's final half hour features a few too many dry, overtly political stretches). Still, The Island President is, for the most part, a stirring piece of work that effectively throws the spotlight on an important issue and shines the spotlight on an incredibly charismatic world leader.

out of

The Loneliest Planet
Directed by Julia Loktev

Julia Loktev's first film since 2006's Day Night Day Night, The Loneliest Planet follows a couple (Gael García Bernal's Alex and Hani Furstenberg's Nica) as they and their tour guide (Bidzina Gujabidze's Dato) backpack through the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia - with the film, for the most part, concerned with the trio's plotless escapades within the picturesque countryside. The Loneliest Planet, which boasts perhaps the single most inexplicable opening shot all year, is initially concerned with the protagonists' dialogue-free, exposition-free exploits, as Loktev follows the three characters as they, for example, cross a tricky stream or walk over a rocky hillside. The unabashed uneventfulness of the narrative inevitably does become somewhat hypnotic, and the fact that we never learn any concrete personal details about any of these people is, as a result, not as problematic as one might've feared. There's little doubt, however, that Loktev's plotless aesthetic is occasionally pushed to its limits; by the time Alex and Nica are competing to see who can stand on their head the longest, the viewer is forced to wonder where (if anywhere) this is all going or what the point of all this is. It's the inclusion of an event at around the halfway point that deftly and firmly resuscitates the viewer's dwindling interest, with the admittedly shocking nature of this sequence infusing the proceedings with a much needed jolt of energy. It's interesting to note that this occurrence completely changes the dynamic between the three characters, and though Loktev's dialogue-free modus operandi is never more frustrating than it is here (ie wouldn't they talk about this at least once?), it's worth noting that the three actors manage to communicate plenty using just their facial expressions and their body language. The watchable atmosphere persists until right around the 90 minute mark, after which point it does feel like Loktev is spinning her wheels - with the inclusion of an absolutely endless nighttime sequence certainly confirming this feeling. The criminally abrupt ending finally cements The Loneliest Planet's place as a challenging, audacious, yet ultimately unsuccessful cinematic experiment, which is a shame, really, given the strength of Loktev's directorial choices and the three central performances.

out of

© David Nusair