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Toronto International Film Festival 2011 - UPDATE #7

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Directed by Lasse Hallström

An almost prototypical dramedy from Lasse Hallström, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen tells the story of efforts to introduce salmon fishing to the Middle East - with the effort primarily spearheaded by an academic (Emily Blunt's Harriet Chetwode-Talbot) and an uptight fisheries official (Ewan McGregor's Fred Jones). Hallström has infused Salmon Fishing in the Yemen with precisely the sort of entertaining yet bland sensibility that one has come to expect from the filmmaker, as the movie, which generally unfolds exactly as one might've anticipated, boasts an easygoing narrative that's been peppered with cute bits of humor and romcom shenanigans. There's little doubt that it's the endlessly charming work from both McGregor and Blunt that elevates the proceedings above, say, a garden-variety movie-of-the-week, with the actors transforming their nigh one-dimensional characters into genuinely likeable figures that the viewer can't help but root for. It is, however, impossible not to wonder just why such a simply story has been saddled with a running time of almost two hours, as Hallström offers up a leisurely pace that all-too-often prevents one from wholeheartedly embracing the narrative. Once the feel-good ending rolls around, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has certainly established itself as a perfectly watchable effort that falls right in line with such recent Hallström releases as 2006's The Hoax and 2010's Dear John.

out of

The woman in the fifth
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

A seriously strange little movie, The woman in the fifth follows Ethan Hawke's Tom Ricks as he arrives in Paris hoping to reconcile with his estranged ex-wife and spend time with his young daughter. When neither of these things occur, Tom takes a room in a shady motel, begins working for a slick mobster, and engages in an affair with a mysterious woman (Kristin Scott Thomas' Margit). It's a simple setup that's employed to surprisingly engrossing effect by filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, as the director has infused the proceedings with a low-key, character-study sort of vibe that's heightened by Hawke's consistently compelling performance. The straight-forwardness of the tale is admittedly punctuated with brief bursts of mystery, with the relationship between Tom and Margit certainly ranking high on the movie's list of unusual elements. The watchable atmosphere persists right up until around the halfway mark, after which point Pawlikowski infuses the proceedings with an increasingly meandering sensibility that forces the viewer to wonder if the filmmaker has a plan for all of this. It's worth noting that everything basically does come together at the end, though hardly in the manner that one might have expected. The ethereal finish basically works, even if it does leave the viewer wondering what it all means, and it's ultimately clear that The woman in the fifth has no clearer ambitions than to be labeled a curious yet passable art-house headscratcher.

out of

Directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo

Livid marks the first film from French directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo since 2007's superb Inside, and though the film does manage to sustain one's interest from start to finish, it's ultimately impossible to walk away from the proceedings without feeling a slight sense of disappointment. The off-kilter storyline follows three friends as they foolishly decide to break into a creaky old mansion to steal a coma patient's supposed fortune, with the movie subsequently detailing the bloody chaos that ensues as it becomes clear that the trio isn't alone. Maury and Bustillo take their time in getting things going and spend much of the film's first half establishing the characters and the situation, with the slow-moving pace, coupled with the familiarity of the premise, forcing the viewer to wonder if Livid is content to operate as a generic modern slasher. The strength of both the performances and the visuals ensure that the whole thing remains watchable even through its more overtly conventional stretches, and it's worth noting that there inevitably reaches a point at which the movie becomes a much more inexplicable piece of work than one might have initially anticipated. The inclusion of a few impressively brutal kill sequence generally compensates for the progressively surreal nature of the narrative, though there's little doubt that the pervasively head-scratching atmosphere ensures that the movie is lacking in the sort of pervasive dread that defined Maury and Bustillo's earlier effort. The pair's attempts at creating a nightmarish atmosphere, for the most part, are ultimately quite successful, although it's finally impossible not to wish that the whole thing had made a little more sense.

out of

You're Next
Directed by Adam Wingard

A superior home-invasion thriller, You're Next follows the members of an extended family as they gather to celebrate an anniversary within a remote country estate - with bloody chaos ensuing as the house is attacked by mask-wearing psychopaths. It's interesting to note that, barring an impressively promising opening, You're Next initially possesses the qualities that one associates with a contemporary indie drama, as filmmaker Adam Wingard has infused the early part of the proceedings with a low-key vibe that's perpetuated by the handheld camerawork and emphasis on the characters' subdued exploits. It's also worth noting that Wingard generally does an effective job of establishing/distinguishing the many characters from one another, though it's just as clear that the movie suffers from the less-than-accomplished performances from several of the actors. (Wingard's choice to enlist filmmaker friends like Ti West and Joe Swanberg to play small roles was probably not the smartest move.) And although Wingard botches the invaders' initial attack by employing needlessly shaky camerawork, You're Next undoubtedly improves steadily as it goes along and the cast list is slowly but surely pared down to its essentials. The striking, appreciatively brutal kill sequences go a long way towards perpetuating the movie's increasingly engrossing vibe, though there's little doubt that You're Next fares best when a certain survivor begins turning the tables on his/her assailants. The tense atmosphere ensures that it becomes awfully easy to overlook the few minor deficiencies here and there, with the balls-to-the-wall nature of some of the final death sequences confirming You're Next's place as a seriously fun little horror flick.

out of

Friends With Kids
Directed by Jennifer Westfeldt

Friends With Kids follows best pals Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) as they decide to have a kid together without actually becoming a couple, with the unusual scenario inevitably forcing the pair to confront the true nature of their friendship. The fairly conventional nature of the premise doesn't become problematic until close to the end, impressively enough, as filmmaker Westfeldt does a superb job of initially establishing a likeable, authentic-feeling atmosphere that's heightened by the efforts of an impressive cast. (In addition to Westfeldt and Scott's charming work, Friends With Kids boasts appearances by Jon Hamm, Kristin Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Chris O'Dowd as the pair's best friends.) The rather sitcom-like nature of the movie's execution is offset by the pervasively affable atmosphere, with the periodic inclusion of genuinely hilarious bits of business compensating for the expected emphasis on run-of-the-mill elements. Likewise, the presence of lightly dramatic moments here and there - eg a dinner party that eventually grows ugly - have been incorporated into the proceedings surprisingly well, and it's certainly quite refreshing to view a romantic comedy that's not rife with obviously improvised discussions and lines in this post-Apatow era. Unfortunately, Westfeldt doesn't quite seem to know where to wrap up the narrative and the film does, as a result, boast a disappointingly underwhelming final 20 minutes - with the fake break-up-inspired final stretch coming off as needless and unnecessary (ie there reaches a point at which the viewer is forced to wait patiently for the inevitable finish). Still, this is a fairly minor complaint for an otherwise strong debut effort - with Scott and Westfeldt's palpable chemistry together standing as an obvious highlight.

out of

Ten Year
Directed by Jamie Linden

It's really rather remarkable just how engrossing Ten Year eventually becomes, as the film boasts an opening hour that is, for the most part, utterly and completely disposable. The movie, which follows several characters as they get together for their tenth high school reunion, has been infused with a slick and superficial feel that prevents the viewer from embracing the majority of its characters, and there's little doubt that Ten Year initially comes off as a pervasively inconsequential work that has next to nothing interesting to say. It's a vibe that's perpetuated by the lack of compelling protagonists, as talented performers like Justin Long, Chris Pratt, and Max Minghella find themselves trapped within figures of a one-dimensional nature (eg who cares about the former relationship between Channing Tatum and Rosario Dawson's respective characters?) The only subplot that manages to make a positive impact in the movie's early stages is the rekindled friendship between a famous musician (Oscar Isaac's Reeves) and his former crush (Kate Mara's Elise), with the pair's scenes together boasting a Before Sunrise-like feel that generally fares surprisingly well. It is, in fact, Reeves' performance of his hit song, which, as we learn, was written for Elise, marks the film's turning point, as Ten Year subsequently becomes an engaging, surprisingly moving piece of work that ultimately makes a far more positive impact than one might've initially anticipated. It's hard to know how the first half would play in light of the happenings within the final half hour, but at any rate, Ten Year is that rare movie that really does reward the viewer's ongoing patience.

out of

The Oranges
Directed by Julian Farino

The Oranges details the changes that unfolds for a pair of New Jersey-based households after Hugh Laurie's David Walling begins an affair with his neighbor's (Allison Janney's Carol and Oliver Platt's Terry) twentysomething daughter (Leighton Meester's Nina), with the indiscretion forcing the remaining members of the two families to re-examine their own lives. At the outset, The Oranges comes off as a prototypically slick and sardonic domestic dramedy, and though the whole thing is awfully slight, there's certainly something inherently entertaining about the whole thing. Filmmaker Julian Farino's brisk sensibilities are heightened by the efforts of a uniformly stellar cast, with the inclusion of self-consciously off-kilter elements, as a result, not quite as problematic as one might've feared. By the time the movie morphs into a far more low-key endeavor in its midsection, the viewer's enjoyment rests entirely in the hands of the exceedingly capable cast - as there otherwise isn't a whole lot here worth noting or getting excited about. It is, by that token, not surprising to note that The Oranges does run out of steam somewhere around the one-hour mark, with Farino's increased emphasis on sentimental elements certainly at odds with the undercurrent of quirkiness within Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss screenplay. (What are we to make, for example, of the scene in which Catherine Keener's Paige takes out her frustrations on the situation by destroying Christmas decorations with her car?) There finally reaches a point at which one is simply unable to care about the fate of any of these people, with this vibe undoubtedly perpetuated by the script's tendency to take the easy way out in terms of the various characters' ultimate fates (ie they all wind up exactly where one probably would've guessed).

out of

© David Nusair