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Toronto International Film Festival 2014 - UPDATE #1

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Featuring a remarkably hypnotic performance by J.K. Simmons, Whiplash follows aspiring drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) as he sets out to please a notoriously hard-as-nails instructor named Terence Fletcher (Simmons) - with the movie detailing Terence's alternatingly paternal and antagonistic relationship with his would-be protégé. There's little doubt that Whiplash fares best in its almost astonishingly engrossing opening hour, as filmmaker Damien Chazelle does a superb job of establishing the movie's evocative atmosphere and vivid characters - with Teller's above-average turn as the increasingly unhinged protagonist, for the most part, dwarfed by Simmons' commanding, awe-inspiring work here. Chazelle has infused the various encounters between Andrew and Terence with an energy that's nothing short of electrifying, and it's worth noting, too, that many of the characters' sessions possess more suspense than most contemporary thrillers. And although the setup seems to promise a very specific sort of story, Chazelle deserves credit for confounding the viewer's expectations at virtually every turn - with the narrative going in much darker directions than one might've initially expected. It's disappointing to note, then, that Whiplash, once it passes a very specific point, begins to fizzle out to a fairly palpable degree, as Chazelle offers up a comparatively conventional third act that's almost entirely lacking the first half's edge-of-the-seat tension - with the separation of Teller and Simmons' respective characters wreaking havoc on the film's late-in-the-game momentum. (The movie does, at least, conclude on an exceedingly positive note.) Whiplash's few problems are ultimately rendered moot by Simmons' pervasively captivating performance, and it's not a stretch to label the role of Terence Fletcher the high-water mark of the actor's eclectic filmography.

out of

Directed by Andrea Dorfman

Written and directed by Andrea Dorfman, Heartbeat follows Tanya Davis' quirky Justine as she decides to shake up her monotonous existence after meeting a confident drummer named Ruby (Stephanie Clattenburg). It's an appealing premise that is, at the outset, employed to underwhelming effect by Dorfman, as the filmmaker has infused the early part of the proceedings with a painfully off-kilter feel that's nothing short of disastrous (ie there's initially nothing separating the movie from any number of forgettable, all-too-twee indie comedies). There's little doubt, however, that the movie improves substantially as it progresses, with the deliberate pace ensuring that Justine slowly-but-surely morphs into an impressively compelling, thoroughly sympathetic central character. It's a vibe that's heightened and perpetuated by Davis' charming and completely engaging performance, as the actress does a superb job of capturing Justine's socially awkward mannerisms without descending into parody (ie Justine never becomes the one-dimensional hipster one might've anticipated). Justine's journey of self-discovery is ultimately tremendously satisfying and engrossing, and it's difficult not to embrace the heartfelt nature of the character's relationship with Clattenburg's Ruby. There's ultimately just something unexpectedly rewarding about the protagonist's overall arc - ie she's an outsider who ultimately finds her place in the world - which does cement Heartbeat's place as a slightly erratic yet wholeheartedly engrossing little drama that would make a fine companion piece with Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love (ie Justine shares more than a few traits with that movie's hero, Barry Egan).

out of

Infinitely Polar Bear
Directed by Maya Forbes

Though well made and superbly acted, Infinitely Polar Bear suffers from a pervasively familiar atmosphere that holds the viewer at arms length for the duration of its (mercifully brief) running time. The film, set during the 1970s, details the coming-of-age exploits of two young girls (Imogene Wolodarsky's Amelia and Ashley Aufderheide's Faith), with the narrative primarily revolving around the kids' ongoing efforts at dealing with their manic-depressive father (Mark Ruffalo's Cameron). It's obvious immediately that writer/director Maya Forbes isn't looking to tread new or innovative ground here, as Infinitely Polar Bear boasts (or suffers from) the various attributes that one has come to associate with movies of this ilk - with the film, which essentially wears its good intentions on its sleeve, subsequently unable to build up any real momentum from start to finish. (The episodic structure only exacerbates this issue, unfortunately.) The film's failure is made all-the-more disappointing by the skill with which it's clearly been made, as Forbes, armed with a talented roster of performers, does an effective job of establishing the specific landscape occupied by the various characters - although, as becomes increasingly clear, the evocative vibe ultimately winds up perpetuating the movie's been-there-done-that feel (ie there have been far too many coming-of-age stories set during the '70s). The end result is a decent yet completely forgettable debut by Forbes, with the filmmaker's closeness to the material - much of the subject matter here is autobiographical, apparently - paving the way for a self-indulgent drama that could (and should) have been much better.

out of

It Follows
Directed by David Robert Mitchell

Though it fizzles out to a slight degree in its final stretch, It Follows nevertheless establishes itself as one of the most inventive, exciting, and truly frightening horror flicks to come around in ages. The movie, which follows Maika Monroe's Jay as she's pursued by a malevolent force, gets off to an impressively engrossing start, as writer/director David Robert Mitchell opens the proceedings with a riveting stretch that's heightened by the viewer's initial confusion as to the threat's true nature. (Mitchell subsequently does an effective job at holding off on explaining just what's going on until the last possible minute.) From there, It Follows segues into a deliberately paced yet thoroughly engrossing midsection that both develops the various characters and explores Jay's initial exposure to the aforementioned force - with the movie's midsection essentially playing like a hybrid of a low-key indie drama and a John Carpenter-esque chiller. The captivating atmosphere is perpetuated by the inclusion of several almost astonishingly electrifying moments, with Mitchell's steady directorial hand infusing the film's more overtly creepy interludes with an ominous, genuinely frightening feel that's nothing short of astounding. It's somewhat disappointing to note, then, that It Follows begins to lose its vice-like grip on the viewer as it passes the one-hour mark, as Mitchell offers up a protracted third act saddled with a series of false endings and an almost incongruously action-packed climax. This is a relatively minor complaint for what is, mostly, an instant classic within the horror genre, and it's clear that Mitchell has definitively established himself as an up-and-coming filmmaker worth watching.

out of

The Vanished Elephant
Directed by Javier Fuentes-León

The Vanished Elephant follows crime novelist Edo Celeste (Salvador del Solar) as he's drawn into an increasingly convoluted mystery involving his missing fiancée, with the movie, for the most part, detailing Edo's ongoing efforts at distinguishing reality from fiction. Filmmaker Javier Fuentes-León has infused The Vanished Elephant with a pervasively stylish feel that proves effective at initially capturing the viewer's interest, with the watchable vibe, at the outset, perpetuated by the emphasis on Edo's attempts to solve the aforementioned mystery. And although Fuentes-León does a nice job of peppering the narrative with pleasingly head-scratching elements - eg who's sending those packages? - The Vanished Elephant abandons any pretense of coherence as it progresses and adopts an increasingly surreal vibe that does, in time, become more confounding than engaging. Fuentes-León's decision to essentially abandon reality ensures that one's efforts at embracing Edo's quest wane considerably past a certain point, with the nonsensical nature of the movie's final half hour, which culminates with a frustratingly half-baked conclusion, completing The Vanished Elephant's transformation into a sporadically watchable yet wholeheartedly underwhelming art-house experiment.

out of

© David Nusair