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Toronto International Film Festival 2011 - UPDATE #4

The Education of Auma Obama
Directed by Branwen Okpako

The Education of Auma Obama is a promising yet entirely pointless documentary revolving around the exploits of Barack Obama's half-sister, Auma Obama, Filmmaker Branwen Okpako offers up a fairly interesting opening half hour revolving around the history of Obama's family, with the peek into the lives of both Barack Obama's father and grandfather certainly intriguing enough to initially justify the movie's existence. By that same token, however, there does reach a point at which the film begins to resemble a glorified home movie - as Okpako places a consistent emphasis on sequences of a decidedly underwhelming nature (eg Auma tours her childhood home). The degree to which Okpako subsequently pads out the proceedings is nothing short of oppressive, as the filmmaker, in an effort at justifying the movie's feature-length running time, offers up utterly inconsequential stretches revolving around, for example, Auma's studies at a German university. (Honestly, who cares?) By the time the emphasis shifts to Auma's political exploits, it's become utterly impossible to work up the slightest bit of enthusiasm for anything that Okpako presents to the viewer - although, having said that, there's some intimate home-movie footage of Barack that all-too-temporarily buoys the viewer's now non-existent interest.

out of

Color of the Ocean
Directed by Maggie Peren

For the most part, Color of the Ocean comes off as a low-key yet persistently watchable piece of work that benefits substantially from its uniformly naturalistic attributes (including stellar performances and gritty visuals). The simple storyline details the impact that a refugee's (Hubert Koundé's Zola) arrival on the Canary Islands has on a handful of characters, including a vacationing woman (Sabine Timoteo's Nathalie) and a tough-as-nails immigration officer (Alex González's José). Filmmaker Maggie Peren has infused Color of the Ocean with an initial lack of context that does, at the outset, hold the viewer at arm's length, with the relatively intriguing nature of the basic setup - Zola attempts to save the life of his young son (Dami Adeeri's Mamadou) - ensuring the one is willing to patiently wait for the pieces to fall into place. And though Peren takes her time in fully explaining the relevance of Nathalie's presence here, the filmmaker does a superb job of transforming both Zola and Mamadou into sympathetic figures worthy of the viewer's ongoing interest. There inevitably does reach a point at which Nathalie's intentions become crystal clear, and though the narrative has been sprinkled with a few needlessly melodramatic elements (eg José's relationship with his junkie sister, etc), Color of the Ocean ultimately establishes itself as a stirring, consistently subdued drama that feels like a cinematic cousin to the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu.

out of

Sisters & Brothers
Directed by Carl Bessai

The latest effort from prolific Canadian filmmaker Carl Bessai, Sisters & Brothers details the exploits of four sets of siblings - including a movie star (Cory Monteith's Justin) and his struggling brother (Dustin Milligan's Rory), a struggling actress (Amanda Crew's Nikki) and her recovering addict sister (Camille Sullivan's Maggie), and a sullen teenager (Kacey Rohl's Sarah) and her newly-discovered Indian half-sister (Leena Manro's Sita). Filmmaker Bessai has infused Sisters & Brothers with a loose, freewheeling style that immediately sets the viewer on edge, as there's no getting around the feeling that Bessai is, for the most part, spinning his wheels in an attempt at padding out the running time. The movie's admittedly watchable vibe is due almost entirely to the efforts of an impressively eclectic cast, though the majority of the actors are trapped within the confines of one-dimensional, needlessly off-kilter characters. Bessai's pervasively lighthearted sensibilities become more and more problematic as time progresses, with the movie's complete and utter lack of laughs only highlighting the extraneous quirkiness that's been hard-wired into the proceedings. There does, as a result, reach a point at which the viewer begins to crave some depth, and it's disappointing to note that the dramatic moments that begin to crop up towards the end are undercut severely by Bessai's needlessly stylized directorial choices (eg the effectiveness of an argument by Nikki and Maggie is diminished substantially by the filmmaker's decision to pump up the wacky score). The inclusion of a few sincere, surprisingly moving moments near the conclusion come too late to make any real difference, and it's finally impossible to label Sisters & Brothers as a periodically passable yet consistently disappointing piece of work.

out of

Doppelgänger Paul
Directed by Dylan Akio Smith and Kris Elgstrand

It's ultimately impossible not to wonder just what filmmakers Dylan Akio Smith and Kris Elgstrand originally set out to accomplish with Doppelgänger Paul, as the movie, for the most part, comes off as an aggressively off-kilter and terminally strange piece of work that has absolutely no basis in reality. The storyline follows a struggling writer (Tygh Runyan's Karl) as he becomes fixated with Brad Dryborough's Paul, with the oddball friendship that ensues between the pair eventually resulting in a novel called A Book About How Much I Hate Myself. There's little doubt that Doppelgänger Paul strikes a thoroughly oddball note right from the get-go, with the unusual atmosphere exacerbated by Smith and Elgstrand's desperate attempts at eliciting laughs (eg Karl and Paul engage in a conversation while riding a kiddie train at the zoo). The surreal, deadpan tone ensures that the movie generally comes off as a love-it-or-hate-it endeavor, which effectively stymies the viewer's ongoing efforts at wholeheartedly connecting to either of the protagonists (and there is, in turn, little doubt that the roadtrip-centric midsection possesses a distinctly flat quality). It's the strong performances from both Runyan and Dryborough that ultimately prevent Doppelgänger Paul from becoming the totally disposable effort one might've feared, with the slow-but-steady abandonment of the relentless quirk that dominates the first half ensuring that the film does become semi-watchable as it progresses. (The passable vibe is destroyed in one fell swoop, however, as Karl and Paul engage in an eye-rollingly silly fight with another two characters.) In the end, it's impossible to label Doppelgänger Paul as anything more than a movie made by hipsters for hipsters (ie your mileage may vary).

out of

Directed by Avie Luthra

Saddled with as deliberate a pace as one could envision, Lucky ultimately establishes itself as a well made yet wholly uninvolving piece of work that does, at least, feature a fantastic performance at its center. The storyline follows the title character (Sihle Dlamini), a young boy who goes to live with his uncle in the city after his mother dies - though it quickly becomes clear that said uncle wants nothing to do with the boy. Lucky instead winds up befriending a crotchety old Indian woman (Jayashree Basavra's Padma), and the film essentially documents the unlikely friendship that inevitably ensues between the pair. It's a tremendously familiar premise that rarely feels as conventional or hackneyed as it might have, as filmmaker Avie Luthra's pervasively subdued sensibilities ensure that Lucky comes off as a low-key character study more than anything else. This is despite the fact that, in the final analysis, we really don't learn a whole lot about Dlamini's quiet character, though Dlamini does a superb job of transforming Lucky into a figure worthy of the viewer's interest and sympathy. It is, as such, obvious that the movie fares best when focused on the growing bond between Lucky and Padma, as the film is otherwise suffused with elements that feel as though they've been included solely to pad out the running time - as scripters Tanya Welz and Luthra subject the protagonist with one misfortune after another (eg he's kicked out school, he encounters a gang of homeless kids, etc, etc). The revelation that Luthra has expanded the film from a short ultimately comes as little surprise, and there's finally no labeling Lucky as anything more than a well-intentioned failure.

out of

Directed by Oliver Hermanus

A striking yet erratic piece of work, Beauty follows Deon Lotz's Francois as he's forced to confront his basest desires in the days after a friend's wedding. Filmmaker Oliver Hermanus kicks Beauty off with a hypnotic opening shot that pans across a busy reception and finally zooms in on one particular attendee, with the scene proving quite effective at foreshadowing the events to come and setting the stage for a deliberately-paced character study. Hermanus similarly does a superb job of peppering the movie's first half with unexpectedly mesmerizing moments, including Francois' arrival at a meeting within a stranger's kitchen - with the nature of the gathering kept secret until the last possible moment. It's a suspenseful interlude that triggers the film's shift into a slow-moving character study, and there's little doubt that the viewer's curiosity into where this is all going proves instrumental in initially compensating for the less-than-eventful atmosphere. It also doesn't hurt that Hermanus' captivating visuals are often heightened by Lotz's stirring work as the central character, with the narrative's deliberateness ensuring that Francois ultimately does become a fairly vivid figure. But there does reach a point at which Hermanus' laid-back modus operandi becomes somewhat problematic, as the film's taut stretches are inevitably outweighed by interludes of an overlong and needless variety. And although the director offers up an admittedly (and impressively) startling climax, Hermanus' reluctance to end the proceedings on a timely note ensures that the whole thing fizzles out to a rather disappointing degree - which effectively cements Beauty's place as an ambitiously uneven effort from a promising new filmmaker.

out of

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Directed by Lynne Ramsay

Based on Lionel Shriver's ponderous novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin follows Tilda Swinton's Eva Khatchadourian as she attempts to cope with her increasingly sinister son (Ezra Miller's Kevin) - with the film unfolding largely in flashback as Eva struggles to get on with her life after Kevin commits a heinous crime. Filmmaker Lynne Ramsay has pared Shriver's novel down to the bone and essentially offers up a freewheeling, impressionist piece of work that is, at the outset, nothing short of exhilarating. The viewer is forced to wonder just how long Ramsay is going to be able to keep this up, and it's worth noting that the director by and large sticks to the time-shifting narrative right to the bitter end. It is, as such, not surprising to note that the movie suffers from a palpable lack of momentum, though this ultimately isn't as problematic as the character of Kevin himself. As portrayed by both Miller and Jasper Newell (as a young boy), Kevin comes off as a ludicrously evil force who often seems as though he'd be more at home within a throwaway thriller (eg Orphan or The Good Son). The viewer is consequently left with the feeling that We Need to Talk about Kevin doesn't entirely work as either an art-house drama nor an over-the-top horror flick; despite this issue, however, the movie certainly remains quite watchable from start to finish and it's hard to deny the impact of the admittedly gripping final half hour. Both Swinton and Miller are superb in their respective roles, undoubtedly, and Ramsay has accomplished something quite unique here - which is, in itself, reason enough to embrace this challenging yet erratic piece of work.

out of

© David Nusair