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Toronto International Film Festival 2011 - UPDATE #6

Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

Nacho Vigalondo's first film since 2007's Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial details the chaos that ensues among several characters after enormous spaceships appear over Spain - with the film primarily detailing the protagonists' dishearteningly sitcom-like exploits. Filmmaker Vigalondo does a complete 180 from the serious-minded, sci-fi-heavy nature of Timecrimes, as Extraterrestrial boasts a pervasively lighthearted vibe that immediately sets the viewer on edge - with the complete and total absence of laughs effectively exacerbating the movie's increasingly stagnant atmosphere. Vigalondo's decision to infuse Extraterrestrial with a seriously (and, eventually, oppressively) stagy feel proves disastrous, and there's simply never a point at which one is able to work up an ounce of interest in the characters' astonishingly dull exploits. Vigalondo's penchant for extreme silliness - eg the mere presence of a Kramer-esque wacky neighbor - ensures that Extraterrestrial, for the most part, comes off as an old-school farce, which is rather odd, to put it mildly, given the film's otherworldly premise. (The presence of the spaceships is ultimately meaningless.) The inclusion of a few earnest and sentimental moments towards the end are fine, sort of, though it's virtually impossible to wholeheartedly care about the characters or their respective fates by then. Extraterrestrial is, in the final analysis, nothing short of a disaster, and it's depressing to think that fans of Timecrimes or science fiction in general might be tricked into checking the film out based on the premise.

out of

Union Square
Directed by Nancy Savoca

Well intentioned yet ultimately underwhelming, Union Square follows Mira Sorvino's brash, loudmouthed Lucy as she arrives at her comparatively uptight sister's (Tammy Blanchard's Jenny) apartment to stay for a few days. Filmmaker Nancy Savoca does a nice job of immediately capturing the viewer's interest, as the director kicks off the proceedings with a fairly hypnotic sequence in which Sorvino's character runs the gamut of emotions while chatting with a lover over a cell phone. The gritty, handheld vibe initially seems to promise a low-key, Keane-esque character study, yet it becomes clear that Savoca has something far more conventional in mind - as the film morphs into a fairly typical Odd Couple-like story once Lucy arrives at Jenny's meticulously-kept home. The authenticity of the performances goes a long way towards initially compensating for the routine storyline, although it's worth noting that Savoca ultimately does push her uneventful modus operandi much, much farther than the narrative can withstand (ie it's just not interesting on an ongoing basis). The viewer's lack of affection for either of the central protagonists ensures that Union Square grows more and more tedious as it unfolds, with the inclusion of a fairly surprising twist somewhere around the one-hour mark not really helping matters (ie it's initially just confusing). It's finally impossible to label the movie as anything more than an earnest actor's showcase, which, given the strength of Sorvino's brash performance, isn't necessarily such a bad thing.

out of

Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope
Directed by Morgan Spurlock

Unquestionably Morgan Spurlock's most entertaining effort since his debut, 2004's Super Size Me, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope essentially details the ins and outs of the annual comic convention that unfolds in San Diego every summer - with a specific emphasis on how the con impacts four different attendees (including Holly, a talented cosplayer, and Eric, a struggling comic-book artist). Spurlock, who actually doesn't provide narration for the first time in his career, does a fantastic job of immediately drawing the viewer into the briskly-paced proceedings, as it's impossible not to sympathize with and root for the film's immensely likeable subjects. And though it initially does seem as though the entire movie is going to unfold from their respective perspectives, Spurlock devotes much of the movie's midsection to an overview of the convention's goals and history - which he primarily accomplishes through engaging interviews with folks like Kevin Smith, Eli Roth, and Joss Whedon. (The latter offers one of the film's funniest lines, as he remarks of the con's attendees: "These are the people that buy the toy, then they buy another one so they don't have to open it.") Spurlock also offers up a number of entertaining digressions, including a toy collector's efforts at snagging a rare action figure and an attendee's nervous preparations for proposing to his girlfriend during Smith's panel. (This crowd-pleasing section undoubtedly stands as a highlight.) And although the film might be a little on the long side (which is a very minor complaint, admittedly), Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope is primarily an engrossing, consistently entertaining documentary that takes the viewer deep into an alien world that certainly does, from the outside, seem quite appealing and warm.

out of

Directed by Oren Moverman

Oren Moverman's follow-up to 2009's The Messenger, Rampart details a few weeks in the life of an increasingly beleaguered Los Angeles police officer (Woody Harrelson's Dave Brown) - with Brown's past indiscretions catching up with him after he beats an unarmed suspect. Moverman has infused Rampart with a jittery, documentary-like sensibility that initially proves rather off-putting, with the lack of an entry point for the viewer ensuring that Harrelson is simply unable to transform his inherently unlikable character into a wholeheartedly compelling figure. (This is despite the fact that the actor offers up an eye-opening, consistently riveting performance.) Just as the meandering atmosphere threatens to turn oppressive, Moverman injects the proceedings with some much-needed substance as Brown increasingly finds himself drawn into a high-profile scandal - with the passable atmosphere heightened by the impressive cavalcade of familiar faces (including Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, and, most entertainingly, Ben Foster as an off-kilter, bearded, homeless war veteran). It's worth noting, though, that even during this stretch Moverman is unable to wholeheartedly grab the viewer, as the filmmaker's reliance on less-than-engrossing subplots (eg Brown's relationships with the mothers of his children) ensures that the movie slowly-but-surely fizzles out to a demonstrable degree. By the time Brown winds up at an unreasonably sleazy sex club, Rampart has clearly taken a wrong turn somewhere and established itself as a progressively unpleasant piece of work - although the film admittedly does succeed as a low-key portrait of one man's downward spiral.

out of

Directed by Derick Martini

A complete disaster from beginning to end, Hick follows Chloe Grace Moretz's Luli as she runs away from home and attempts to make her way to Las Vegas - with her journey bringing her into contact with a number of unusual figures (including Blake Lively's flighty Glenda). It's clear right from the get-go that filmmaker Derick Martini has infused Hick with a painfully aimless sort of feel, as the movie boasts a hopelessly inconsequential opening half hour that revolves primarily around Luli's less-than-ideal relationship with her parents (Juliette Lewis' Tammy and Anson Mount's Nick). And though the performances are fine, there's just no hook to initially capture the viewer's interest - with the tedious, inauthentic atmosphere paving the way for a slow-moving roadtrip midsection that's nothing short of interminable. The almost remarkably uninteresting vibe is exacerbated by the underwhelming vignettes that come to dominate the proceedings, as Luli is subjected to one eye-rollingly stupid encounter after another (including a run-in with a hot-tempered Texan and a near-rape at the hands of a pool shark). The viewer is, as a result, forced to wonder just what the point of all this is, as the movie doesn't even work as a low-key coming-of-age story - since there's never a point at which Luli become developed enough to become worthy of our sympathy or interest. The increasingly inexplicable third act - which also boasts a head-scratching celebrity cameo - cements Hick's place as an utterly misguided and worthless piece of work, and it's finally impossible not to wonder just what Martini originally set out to accomplish here.

no stars out of

Directed by Morten Tyldum

Based on the novel by Jo Nesbo, Headhunters follows slick corporate headhunter Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) as he augments his primary income by stealing high-profile paintings on the side - with problems ensuing as a potential mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's Clas Greve) inexplicably launches a full-scale assault against him. It's a fascinating premise that's initially employed to watchable yet far-from-engrossing effect by filmmaker Morten Tyldum, as the director essentially offers up a fairly standard crime drama that contains many of the beats and turns in the plot that one might've anticipated (eg Roger's problems with his beautiful wife, Roger's dealings with an unpredictable cohort, etc). The passable vibe persists right up until around the halfway mark, after which point the movie morphs into something completely unexpected - with the cat-and-mouse pursuit that ensues between Roger and Clas immediately injecting the proceedings with a palpably enthralling feel. Tyldum does a superb job of infusing the movie's action-oriented moments with a visceral, white-knuckle feel that proves impossible to resist, and it's worth noting that many of the movie's more overtly high-octane moments are much, much more exciting than anything cranked out by Hollywood as of late. The inclusion of a few astoundingly tense moments (eg Roger must play dead to evade Clas' advances) perpetuates the movie's shift into a seriously engrossing piece of work, and although the climax isn't quite up to the level of that which preceded it, Headhunters has, by that point, long-since established itself as one of the most exciting, flat-out captivating thrillers to come around in quite some time.

out of

The Awakening
Directed by Nick Murphy

Though handsomely made and well acted, The Awakening, for the most part, comes off as an egregiously familiar ghost story that simply isn't able to wholeheartedly justify its existence (ie we've seen this type of thing countless times before). The narrative follows Rebecca Hall's Florence Cathcart, a famed debunker of ghost-related happenings, as she agrees to prove that a remote boys school is not, in fact, haunted, with the film primarily following Florence as she and a handful of staff members (includingDominic West's Robert Mallory) attempt to explain the spooky occurrences. It's a creepy setup that's unfortunately employed to pervasively tedious effect by filmmaker Nick Murphy, as the director's decision to infuse the proceedings with as deliberate a pace as one could possibly envision serves only to highlight the less-than-fresh nature of the storyline. And although Murphy has certainly peppered the proceedings with a number of suspenseful interludes, there's virtually nothing here that doesn't smack of excessive familiarity (eg a scene in which Florence skulks the enormous grounds armed with only a lamp). The presence of a few genuinely stirring moments - eg Florence's encounter with a creepy dollhouse - prevents the viewer from tuning out completely, while Hall does a decent job of stepping into the shoes of her almost eye-rollingly hackneyed character. There's finally little doubt that one's efforts at overlooking the conventional atmosphere are consistently stymied by the needlessly slow-moving atmosphere, which ensures that by the time the expectedly unexpected twist ending rolls around, The Awakening has confirmed its place as a hopelessly superfluous bit of horror filmmaking.

out of

© David Nusair