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Toronto International Film Festival 2012 - UPDATE #9

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

A seriously off-the-wall piece of work, Yellow follows troubled thirtysomething Mary (Heather Wahlquist) as she attempts to get her life together by confronting the various demons from her past. In its early stages, Yellow comes off as a typically low-key character study - as director and co-writer Nick Cassavetes has infused the proceedings with an appropriately subdued feel that's perpetuated by star Wahlquist's down-to-earth performance. But there reaches a very specific point at which Yellow begins to announce its progressively inexplicable intentions, as Cassavetes transforms a seemingly serious sequence into a full-fledged musical number - with this scene marking the tip of the iceberg in terms of Cassevetes' off-the-wall sensibilities (eg an argument is presented as a stage play, family members morph into talking animals, Mary interacts with cartoon characters, etc, etc). It's almost impressive in its audacity, admittedly, but it does become more and more difficult to sympathize with Mary's problems as a result of Cassavetes' comically distracting choices. Far more problematic is the realization that we have absolutely no idea what's real and what's just a figment of Mary's mind, which does, as expected, result in a progressively abstract atmosphere that's almost entirely free of context. It doesn't help, either, that scripters Cassavetes and Wahlquist eventually stress the exploits of Mary's crazy family to a degree that's nothing short of oppressive, with the white-trash house-of-horrors vibe ensuring that Yellow ultimately comes off as a fairly ideal companion place to last year's equally disastrous Hick. It's finally impossible not to wonder just what the heck Cassavetes originally set out to do here, as Yellow fails as both a weird flight of fancy and as an attempt to get into the mind of a seriously screwed-up individual. It's the type of movie for which the term "debacle" was invented, and it's virtually impossible to envision the film ever receiving any kind of real release (which is probably for the best, really).

out of

The Time Being
Directed by Nenad Cicin-Sain

The Time Being follows struggling artist Daniel (Wes Bentley) as he agrees to shoot a series of videos for a mysterious millionaire (Frank Langella's Warner), with Warner's decidedly unusual requests (eg he wants Daniel to film a playground at a very specific time) forcing one to wonder if the off-kilter figure has a more sinister agenda up his sleeve. First-time filmmaker Nenad Cicin-Sain has, along with cinematographer Mihai Maliamare Jr, infused The Time Being with a striking visual sensibility that immediately grabs the viewer's attention, with the stark, cryptic atmosphere elevated by Langella's consistently captivating (and palpably oddball) performance (eg after Daniel asks him what he does for a living, Warner remarks that the question is "a very American way to qualify a person's values"). It's clear that the movie does, at the outset, receive plenty of mileage out of the mystery behind Warner's true motives, as it's impossible not to wonder just what Langella's character is hoping to accomplish with all of his bizarre tasks (ie is his endgame the destruction of Daniel's life?) There reaches a point, however, at which the film settles into a deliberately-paced yet completely watchable groove, with the emphasis on the relationship between the two men ensuring that The Time Being ultimately succeeds as a low-key drama. The ongoing inclusion of emotionally-wrenching moments confirms the movie's place as a captivating piece of work, and it certainly goes without saying that Cicin-Sain has instantly established himself as a director worth following.

out of

Directed by Soi Cheang

Produced by Johnnie To, Motorway follows a cocky young cop (Shawn Yue's Cheung) as he and his days-away-from-retirement partner (Anthony Wong's Lo) attempt to take down a legendary getaway driver and his crew of illicit criminals. It's an almost laughably familiar premise (Cheung and Lo are, after all, an Asian variation on Riggs and Murtaugh) that's employed to tedious effect by filmmaker Soi Cheang, as the director, working from a script by Joey O'Bryan, Kam Yuen SzeTo, and Francis Fung, has suffused the spare narrative with a proliferation of one-dimensional, hopelessly uninvolving characters - which subsequently does ensure that the movie's myriad of car chases are almost completely devoid of thrills or excitement (ie the viewer has nothing invested in the fates of the protagonists). And while Cheang has admittedly peppered the proceedings with a handful of compelling moments - eg the smug villain manages to escape a cramped corner by drifting through it - Motorway is, for the most part, dominated by sequences of a padded-out and frustratingly needless variety. (In terms of the former, there's an absolutely interminable interlude in which Lo attempts to teach Cheung how to perform that aforementioned drifting trick.) The scripters' reliance on hoary, hackneyed elements (eg Wong hasn't participated in a chase since almost dying in one years ago, in a character arc that's laughably similar to that of Al Powell's in the first Die Hard film) is compounded by a narrative that slowly-but-surely morphs into a standard cops-and-robbery story, which effectively cements Motorway's place as an aggressive misfire on virtually every level imaginable.

out of

White Elephant
Directed by Pablo Trapero

White Elephant follows two priests (Ricardo Darín's Father Julián and Jérémie Renier's Father Nicolás) as they attempt to clean up a rundown slum in Buenos Aires, with their ongoing efforts stymied by a wide variety of outside forces (including an increasingly dangerous turf war between two rival drug lords). It's interesting to note that White Elephant gets off to a less-than-engrossing start, as filmmaker Pablo Trapero, working from a script cowritten with Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui, and Santiago Mitre, opens the proceedings with a series of context-free sequences that establish an atmosphere of arms-length confusion (eg Father Nicolás has some trouble in a remote village). It's only as the story moves into the aforementioned rundown slum that one is slowly-but-surely drawn into the narrative, with the increasingly intriguing vibe heightened by the inclusion of several irresistibly cinematic sequences (eg Trapero has peppered the movie with a handful of absolutely hypnotic unbroken SteadiCam shots). And although both Darín and Renier are fantastic in their respective roles, White Elephant, saddled with a palpably overlong running time, suffers from a distinctly uneven feel that's perpetuated by an ongoing emphasis on subplots of an almost needless variety. There is, however, little doubt that the film improves substantially in the buildup to its climax, as Trapero layers in a series of complications that effectively ensure that the action-heavy finale packs quite a punch - which does, ultimately, cement the movie's place as an erratic yet stirring piece of work.

out of

Ghost Graduation
Directed by Javier Ruiz Caldera

An unabashedly high-concept comedy, Ghost Graduation follows meek teacher Modesto (Raúl Arévalo) as he attempts to help five dead high schoolers, all of whom have been trapped within the school's walls since perishing in 1986, make their way from this world to the next. There's little doubt that Ghost Graduation, for the most part, coasts on the appeal of its inherently appealing premise, as the film has otherwise been suffused with a variety of less-than-captivating attributes - including an erratic, episodic narrative and an emphasis on jokes and gags of a hopelessly unfunny nature. The movie's watchable atmosphere is, generally speaking, perpetuated by both the setup and the likable characters, and it doesn't hurt, either, that filmmaker Javier Ruiz Caldera, working from Cristobal Garrido and Adolfo Valor's screenplay, has peppered the proceedings with a number of irresistible references to various '80s movies (including an appreciative nod to 1985's Back to the Future). There's no denying, though, that Ghost Graduation's lack of momentum becomes more and more problematic as time progresses, with the padded-out, spinning-its-wheels second half compounded by a emphasis on needless dramatic elements. The crowd-pleasing final stretch ensures that Ghost Graduation concludes on an appropriately positive note, however, and it's ultimately clear that the film, though far from the home-run one might've hoped for, comes off as an affable (if forgettable) little piece of work.

out of

Directed by Peter Webber

Directed by Peter Webber, Emperor, set just after the close of WWII, follows American soldier Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) as he's tasked with determining Emperor Hirohito's complicity in the attack on Pearl Harbor. (There's also a subplot revolving around Bonner's past romance with a Japanese local, and his continuing efforts at tracking her down.) There's little doubt that Emperor fares best in its early stages, as the movie boasts a palpably old-fashioned feel that's heightened by both the epic production design and strong performances - with, in terms of the latter, Tommy Lee Jones' scenery-chewing (yet all-too-brief) appearance as General Douglas MacArthur standing as an obvious highlight (eg MacArthur expresses his frustration at a crucial witness' absence by barking to Fellers, "do not come back to this office unless you are dragging him by the balls!") And although Webber, working from David Klass and Vera Blasi's screenplay, has infused the film with a handful of standout sequences (eg Fellers attempts to gain access to the Imperial Palace), Emperor suffers from a midsection that's devoted almost entirely to Fellers' increasingly tedious investigation into the buildup to that fateful day in 1941 - with the procedural-like nature of Fellers' exploits resulting in a progressively stagnant vibe. (It doesn't help, either, that the stuff involving Fellers' relationship with the aforementioned Japanese local fares just as poorly.) The movie recovers for an incongruously compelling final stretch that's a far cry from the tedium of everything preceding it, and it's ultimately impossible to label Emperor as anything more than a well-intentioned yet hopelessly dull historical drama.

out of

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas
Directed by Edward Burns

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, true to its title, details the comings and goings of the oversized Fitzgerald clan in the buildup to their annual Christmas get-together, with a specific emphasis on oldest sibling Gary's (Edward Burns) continuing efforts at convincing his mother and brothers and sisters to allow their long-since banished patriarch (Ed Lauter's Jim) to return home for one final holiday season. At its outset, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas comes off as a pleasingly familiar, compulsively watchable comedy from filmmaker Burns - with the writer/director's strong ear for dialogue and penchant for vivid characters heightening the movie's easygoing atmosphere. (The film is often laugh-out-loud funny, too; one character tells two atheists to baptize their child to make sure that the kid doesn't wind up "stuck in limbo in case you two heathens are wrong.") It's only as the movie progresses into its increasingly meandering midsection that one's interest begins to wane, as the proliferation of characters naturally ensures that certain subplots fare better than others (eg Gary's sweet romance with Connie Britton's Nora remains a highlight) - with the erratic atmosphere ultimately wreaking havoc on the film's tenuous momentum. There's little doubt, too, that the narrative adopts a rather repetitive feel as the story unfolds, with the majority of the movie's second half devoted to a series of debates revolving around whether or not Lauter's character should be forgiven. The increased emphasis on melodramatic elements compounds the film's uneven feel and it's disappointing to note that the emotional impact of the final few scenes is, as a result, virtually non-existent, which ultimately confirms The Fitzgerald Family Christmas' place as a perfectly watchable yet overlong and inconsistent piece of work.

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© David Nusair