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Toronto International Film Festival 2013 - UPDATE #4

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker
Directed by Danis Tanovic

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker follows an impoverished Bosnian couple (Senada Alimanović and Nazif Mujić, playing themselves) as they're forced to scramble for assistance after Senada suffers from a miscarriage, with the movie, for the most part, detailing Nazif's ongoing efforts at cobbling together the funds to pay for his wife's life-saving medical treatment. Filmmaker Danis Tanovic has infused An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker with documentary-like feel that's heightened by the spare nature of his screenplay, as the early part of the proceedings is devoted primarily to Nazif's low-key day-to-day exploits (eg he chops firewood, he dismantles a car for parts, etc). The subsequent atmosphere of gritty realism goes a long way towards compensating for the less-than-engrossing narrative, and it's clear, too, that the viewer's growing affection for the characters plays a key role in the movie's extremely mild success (ie certain sequences, including the couple's first trip to the hospital, become fairly engrossing due to one's attachment to the protagonists). Curiously, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker ultimately fares better in its less eventful first half than in the more plot-driven stretch that follows - as Tanovic emphasis on Nazif's efforts at cutting through miles of red tape isn't quite as enthralling as the filmmaker has clearly intended. There is, as such, little doubt that the movie isn't entirely able to justify its already-brief 74 minute running time, with the end result an intriguing yet uneven look at life in a rarely filmed corner of the world.

out of

Standing Aside, Watching
Directed by Yorgos Servetas

Standing Aside, Watching follows Antigone (Marina Symeou) as she returns from Athens to her small, somewhat backwards hometown, with the film detailing the mess of trouble that Antigone slowly-but-surely stirs up among most of the characters she encounters. Writer/director Yorgos Servetas does a nice job of immediately luring the viewer into the proceedings, as the movie's opening stretch boasts a sense of foreboding that proves difficult to resist (eg a character, upon noticing Antigone's arrival, ominously notes that "a storm is coming.") From there, however, Standing Aside, Watching transforms into an almost excessively slow-moving drama revolving around the central character's low-key exploits, with the focus placed primarily on Antigone's ongoing efforts at integrating herself back into her old community (eg we watch as she looks for a job, catches up with old acquaintances, lands a boyfriend, etc, etc). It's a far-from-enthralling feel that's compounded by Servetas' sporadic emphasis on the context-free antics of several periphery figures, and there's little doubt that Standing Aside, Watching, as a result, has been suffused with dull, hopelessly uneventful stretches that seriously test the viewer's patience (ie the movie is, for the most part, not really about anything). The film, which only grows more and more endless as it progresses, seems to be building to a violent finale and Servetas doesn't disappoint in that regard, admittedly, but it's just such an interminable slog making it to that point - which ultimately does confirm Standing Aside, Watching's place as a frustratingly half-baked endeavor.

out of

Blood Ties
Directed by Guillaume Canet

A remake of 2008's Les liens du sang, Blood Ties, which unfolds in 1970s New York City, details the rocky relationship between two brothers on opposite sides of the law - Clive Owen's recently-paroled Chris and Billy Crudup's dedicated cop Frank. Filmmaker Guillaume Canet does a superb job of immediately capturing the viewer's attention, as Blood Ties opens with a fantastic and thoroughly exciting hotel-room shootout that seems to promise a gritty crime thriller. It becomes clear soon enough, however, that Canet, working from a script cowritten with James Gray, has something far more low-key in mind, with the movie's subsequent atmosphere of deliberately-paced drama testing one's interest on an all-too-frequent basis (ie there's no doubt that Chris is going back to his criminal endeavors, so it's impossible not to wish that Canet would just get on with it, already). Blood Ties' midsection, more than anything else, seems to be devoted to the romantic exploits of the two central characters, which certainly perpetuates the less-than-engrossing feel and highlights the rather miscast nature of many of the movie's roles (ie the acting is superb, admittedly, and yet folks like Owen, Mila Kunis, and Zoe Saldana are simply unable to seamlessly disappear into their respective characters). The film's passable vibe, then, is due primarily to the impressive period detail and smattering of high-octane action sequences, with, in terms of the latter, an engrossing armored-car robbery standing as an obvious highlight within the proceedings. There's ultimately no denying that Blood Ties, despite Canet's epic, Scorsese-like sensibilities, just isn't as affecting (or effective) as one might've hoped, and it's finally clear that this story worked much, much better in the original French-language movie (which, ironically enough, starred Canet in one of the central roles).

out of

Blue Ruin
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

Blue Ruin is an impressively spare thriller following Macon Blair's Dwight, a scruffy hobo, as he embarks on a mysterious campaign of revenge, with the movie detailing the various complications that ensue as Dwight's increasingly brutal reign of terror unfolds. It's a strong premise that's utilized to consistently engrossing effect by filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier, and there's little doubt that the writer/director does a superb job of immediately capturing the viewer's interest and sympathies - as the movie kicks off with an almost dialogue-free opening stretch that's nothing short of riveting. (Blair's remarkably expressive turn as the tortured central character goes a long way towards perpetuating the film's better-than-expected vibe, to be sure.) From there, Blue Ruin morphs into a slow-moving yet compulsively watchable thriller that's rife with impossible-to-anticipate plot twists and gripping action sequences - although, by that same token, Saulnier's minimalist sensibilities ensure that there are a few lulls in the (somewhat padded-out) narrative, with the most obvious example of this the deliberate buildup to the movie's violent climax. (But when it does arrive, that climax is unquestionably worth the wait.) The end result is a striking effort that, for the most part, transcends the well-worn limitations of its setup, and it's clear that Saulnier has earned a place for himself as a director worth watching.

out of

Directed by Lisa Langseth

Hotel follows controlling career woman Erika (Alicia Vikander) as she sinks into a deep depression after a personal tragedy, with the film detailing the character's reluctant decision to participate in group therapy and her subsequent recovery. Filmmaker Lisa Langseth has infused Hotel with an exceedingly subdued feel that is, at the outset, somewhat oppressive, although, to be fair, the writer/director initially compensates for the deliberately-paced vibe by offering up a handful of engrossing sequences - with the best and most potent example of this the aforementioned personal tragedy. It's clear, too, that Vikander's frequently engrossing work as the central character plays an instrumental role in the movie's early success, and there's little doubt that the group-therapy sequences hold a fair amount of promise as a result. And while some of this stuff is undeniably quite silly and sitcom-like, Langseth has infused Hotel's midsection with an undercurrent of crowd-pleasing accessibility that's admittedly quite difficult to resist (eg the gang attempts to help one of their lonely members by finding someone for her to sleep with). It's only as Hotel rolls into its palpably meandering midsection that one's interest begins to wane, with the spinning-its-wheels atmosphere paving the way for an anticlimactic final stretch that's exacerbated by an emphasis on cheap melodrama - which is too bad, really, given the strength of both Vikander's stirring turn and the initial setup.

out of

A Wolf at the Door
Directed by Fernando Coimbra

Though it initially presents itself as a thriller, A Wolf at the Door ultimately comes off as a slow-moving and hopelessly irrelevant drama revolving around Bernardo's (Milhem Cortaz) decision to cheat on his wife (Fabíula Nascimento's Sylvia) and the problems that inevitably ensue. The movie is, in its opening scenes, concerned with the kidnapping of Bernardo and Sylvia's young daughter, and it does seem as though the narrative is going to follow the procedural-like efforts of the police to track her down. But filmmaker Fernando Coimbra instead segues into a series of flashbacks detailing the aforementioned affair, and there's little doubt that these pointless and uncommonly dull flashbacks pave the way for a midsection that's nothing short of interminable (ie it is, from start to finish, impossible to work up an ounce of interest in Bernardo's illicit activities). It does, as a result, go without saying that the film, rife as it is with padded-out and irrelevant sequences, is mostly a chore to sit through, with the only respite coming in the form of an admittedly shocking third-act twist. (It's just such an endless slog getting to that point, however.) A Wolf at the Door is, in the final analysis, a hopelessly misguided endeavor that will test the patience of most viewers, and it's ultimately impossible not to wonder what Coimbra originally set out to accomplish with this monotonous mess.

out of

© David Nusair