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Toronto International Film Festival 2014 - UPDATE #8

Directed by Kiki Álvarez

Shot independently in Cuba, Venecia follows three friends/hairdressers (Maribel Garcia Garzón's Mónica, Claudia Muniz's Violeta, and Marianela Pupo's Mayelin) as they finish an average workday and head out for a night of fun. Filmmaker Kiki Álvarez's has infused Venecia with an extremely, aggressively uneventful feel that's especially problematic in the film's opening half hour, as Álvarez's camera pursues the three central characters as they go shopping, gossip about their boyfriends, and engage in sundry other inconsequential matters. It's worth noting, however, that Álvarez does manage to pepper the proceedings with a handful of interesting sequences, with, for example, the girls' frank conversation about relationships and sex, which segues into a revealing game of "I Never," possessing an authenticity that's difficult to resist. And although the film does improve past that point - the protagonists' make their way deeper and deeper into Cuba's nightlife and sink into an escalating debauchery - Venecia, by and large, suffers from a persistent inability to wholeheartedly capture (and sustain) the viewer's interest. It's a shame, really, given that the performances are all quite good and that Álvarez manages to imbue the movie with bursts of unexpected style - and yet the perpetually erratic, padded-out atmosphere ultimately cancels out the film's positive attributes.

out of

Still Alice
Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

Based on the book by Lisa Genova, Still Alice follows linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) as she's forced to make big life changes after receiving a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's. It's an inherently engrossing premise that is, at the outset, employed to disappointingly underwhelming effect by filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, as the directors' initial efforts at luring the viewer into the deliberately-paced proceedings fall flat - which is curious, to say the least, given that Still Alice boasts an extremely polished feel that's reflected in its various attributes. The run-of-the-mill vibe persists for much of the film's first half, and it's not until Alice's condition worsens that the movie begins to improve demonstrably - with Moore's absolutely spellbinding performance surely playing a key role in this dramatic turnaround. There's little doubt that the increasingly grim trajectory of the story ensures that Still Alice becomes more and more engrossing as it progresses, with the captivating vibe heightened and perpetuated by the inclusion of several emotional, heart-wrenching moments (eg Alice delivers a moving speech detailing the impact of her disease). The stirring (yet depressing) conclusion confirms Still Alice's place as an above-average adaptation, although it's clear that the movie could (and should) have been much, much better in its opening stretch.

out of

Directed by Jaume Balagueró

The worst of the [REC] movies, [REC]4 follows Manuela Velasco's Angela Vidal as she's extracted from the first film's apartment building and sent to a high-security quarantine facility aboard an ocean freighter - with chaos subsequently unfolding as the zombie menace makes its inevitable appearance on the ship. [REC]4 establishes its less-than-stellar sensibilities right from the get-go, as filmmaker Jaume Balagueró offers up a slow-paced and surprisingly dull opening stretch detailing Angela's initial exploits aboard said ship - with the tedious atmosphere compounded by an almost total lack of compelling, sympathetic figures. (Even Angela falls under this category, as the character's transformation at the end of [REC] 2 makes it difficult to root for her.) And although Balagueró has abandoned the found-footage conceit of the first two films, [REC]4 suffers from a pervasive use of often incoherently shaky camerawork that drains the excitement and tension out of its action-oriented sequences (which is no small feat, certainly, given the inclusion of several typically over-the-top moments). The movie's been-there-done-that atmosphere is exacerbated by an almost shockingly repetitive midsection, as scripters Balagueró and Manu Diez devote far too much time to sequences in which survivors are attacked in dark, dank hallways. The hopelessly anticlimactic final stretch ultimately confirms [REC]4's place as a seriously disappointing capper to a series that started out incredibly strong, with the movie's utter failure forcing one to reevaluate their opinion of the first two installments (ie maybe [REC] and [REC] 2 weren't as good as one remembers).

out of

The Reach
Directed by Jean-Baptiste Leonetti

The Reach follows Michael Douglas' ruthless corporate shark as he and a guide (Jeremy Irvine's Ben) embark on a hunting trip in the Mojave Desert, with problems ensuing after an accidental act of violence triggers a cat-and-mouse showdown between the pair. Filmmaker Jean-Baptiste Leonetti does an effective job of initially luring the viewer into the spare proceedings, with The Reach boasting an engaging opening half hour that nicely introduces and develops the two central characters. Douglas' gleefully smarmy performance goes a long way towards perpetuating the thoroughly watchable atmosphere, with the movie taking a turn for the engrossing after Irvine's affable character is forced to make a life-changing choice. It's a fantastic sequence that paves the way for an impressively tense, compelling midsection, although, admittedly, there's little doubt that certain sequences during this stretch fare somewhat better than others. The erratic vibe is generally rendered moot by Stephen Susco's persistently creative screenplay, with the film benefiting from an emphasis on Ben's inevitable efforts at turning the tables on his fierce opponent (ie the character begins to utilize his own skills as a rugged outdoorsman). By the time it reaches its predictably violent finale, The Reach has certainly established itself as a tough little thriller that ultimately overcomes its less-than-stellar attributes (eg it's rather difficult to believe that Ben would make the initial decision that he does).

out of

Time Out of Mind
Directed by Oren Moverman

Though it's certainly a distinctive piece of work, Time Out of Mind, which details the exploits of a homeless man (Richard Gere's George) over a few days, suffers from an almost excessively avant-garde sensibility that does, from start to finish, prevent the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting to the material. Writer/director Oren Moverman offers up a freewheeling narrative that's only sporadically interesting, as the movie, for the most part, follows Gere's character as he simply attempts to get by on the streets of New York City - with the uneventful atmosphere all-too-rarely alleviated by sequences of an admittedly engrossing nature (eg George sits through an invasive Q&A to gain admittance to a shelter). It's clear, too, that Time Out of Mind's hands-off vibe is compounded by Moverman's questionable directorial choices, with the filmmaker's decision to shoot most of the movie from distant vantage points, as though the viewer were spying on the protagonist, adding little to the overall atmosphere and generally perpetuating the arms-length feel. There's little doubt, however, that Gere's tremendously affecting performance goes a long way towards smoothing over the film's various deficiencies, as the actor steps into the shoes of his sympathetic character to a degree that's nothing less than captivating. Gere's thoroughly effective (and affecting) work here ultimately can't compensate for a pervasive lack of momentum, which does, in the end, confirm Time Out of Mind's place as an intriguing yet underwhelming cinematic experiment.

out of

Directed by Christian Petzold

Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Phoenix follows Nina Hoss' Nelly Lenz as she emerges from a concentration camp badly disfigured and subsequently undergoes plastic surgery to restore her pre-war appearance. The plot kicks into gear after Nelly manages to reunite with her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) and convince him that she's someone else, with the narrative, for the most part, detailing the problems that inevitably ensue as Nelly attempts to perpetuate this lie. Filmmaker Christian Petzold has infused Phoenix with an oppressively deliberate pace that's immediately problematic, as the subsequent lack of an entry point ensures that the viewer is left with virtually nothing to latch onto in terms of plot or characters. It's just as clear, however, that one's patience does begin to pay off as the film passes the halfway mark, with the increasingly compelling nature of the storyline heightened by the presence of several intriguing twists - with, additionally, the stellar performances playing a key role in cultivating the relatively watchable vibe. Despite its positive attributes, though, Phoenix never quite becomes the engrossing period piece that Petzold has obviously aimed for - which is a shame, certainly, given that the movie ends with one of the most memorable and spellbinding final scenes in recent cinema history.

out of

© David Nusair