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Toronto International Film Festival 2016 - UPDATE #7

Sadako vs Kayako
Directed by Kôji Shiraishi

Hardly the fun mashup one might've expected (and hoped for), Sadako vs Kayako follows several characters as they attempt to stop the demons from the Ringu and Ju-on series by pitting them against each other. It's an exceedingly, excessively silly premise that's employed to mostly tedious effect by filmmaker Kôji Shiraishi, as the movie, which admittedly gets off to a strong start, spends much of its protracted running time focused on the less-than-engrossing exploits of its bland human characters. It's worth noting, however, that scripter Shiraishi does manage to weave both Kayako and Sadako somewhat organically into the narrative, although, by that same token, some of the stuff involving the former feels as though it's been dropped in from an entirely different movie. (The sequence in which four random kids foolishly wander into the Ju-on house, entertaining as it is, is certainly an ideal example of this.) The movie's decidedly erratic atmosphere certainly isn't helped by a third-act introduction of tedious new characters, as there does reach a point at which the viewer grows antsy for the promised battle to ensue. When said battle finally does arrive at around the 90 minute mark (!), however, Shiraishi bungles it to such an extent that one can't help but grow frustrated and annoyed. (All told, the ghostly characters "fight" for about 60 seconds worth of screen time.) The hilariously abrupt ending only cements Sadako vs Kayako's place as a rather colossal disappointment, as at least Freddy vs. Jason, which is a much worse movie, allowed its titular icons the chance to go mano-e-mano for more than just a few seconds.

out of

Never Ever
Directed by Benoit Jacquot

Based on Don DeLillo's novella The Body Artist, Never Ever follows famous filmmaker Rey (Mathieu Amalric) as he meets and falls hard for a winsome performance artist named Laura (Victoria Guerra) - with the ensuing relationship (and marriage) taking an unusual turn after Laura begins hearing odd noises in the attic. The ridiculousness of the setup - Rey and Laura fall into bed minutes after meeting - is initially offset by strong performances and filmmaker Benoit Jacquot's compelling directorial choices, with the emphasis on the central characters' mundane activities (eg Rey goes for long motorcycle rides, Laura adjusts to life at Rey's remote estate, etc) slowly-but-surely draining the viewer's interest in the proceedings. It's clear, then, that Never Ever briefly rallies thanks to an impressively unexpected twist at around the half hour mark, and it's clear, too, that the mystery surrounding Laura's increasingly oddball behavior buoys one's waning attention. And while it eventually does become clear exactly what's happening (but not why it's happening), Never Ever, ultimately and perhaps inevitably, establishes itself as a particularly slow-moving European art film with hardly any basis in reality - which does ensure that the movie's latter-half portrayal of Laura's growing insanity falls completely and hopelessly flat. By the time the especially intolerable final stretch rolls around, Never Ever has confirmed its place as a seriously tedious and often interminable drama with few, if any, elements designed to hold one's interest.

out of

Past Life
Directed by Avi Nesher

Past Life follows '70s era sisters Sephi (Joy Rieger) and Nana (Nelly Tagar) as they launch an investigation into their father's (Doron Tavory's Baruch) activities during the Second World War, with the siblings' dogged pursuit of the truth paving the way for a series of fairly unsurprising discoveries. There's nothing especially wrong with Past Life's premise - its familiarity isn't inherently a dealbreaker - but filmmaker Avi Nesher's aggressively static and pedestrian approach prevents the viewer from working up any interest in or sympathy for the protagonists' endeavors. The movie's almost total lack of momentum is compounded by an emphasis on thunderously dull subplots, including Sephi's friendship with a man who may or may not have answers and Nana's ongoing health problems and squabbles with her husband. And while both Rieger and Tagar are quite good in their respective roles, Nesher proves unable to transform their characters into wholeheartedly compelling figures and it goes without saying, of course, that the emotional revelations of the movie's third act fall completely and totally flat. Ultimately, Past Life just doesn't work in any way, shape, or form, which is too bad, really, given that the movie does possess a small handful of positive attributes (eg it is, thanks to cinematographer Michel Abramowicz, quite a handsome-looking production).

out of

A Wedding
Directed by Stephan Streker

A Wedding follows a Belgian teenager (Lina El Arabi's Zahira) as she's essentially forced to marry a distant Pakistani relative, with the movie subsequently and for the most part detailing Zahira's the battle of wills that ensues between Zahira and her extremely conservative parents. Filmmaker Stephan Streker does a superb job of immediately drawing the viewer into the slow-moving proceedings, as A Wedding opens with a very strong sequence in which Zahira questions an offscreen doctor about terminating her pregnancy. It's perhaps not surprising to note that the movie, past that point, segues into a deliberate midsection revolving entirely around Zahira's low-key exploits, with El Arabi's completely sympathetic turn as the central character going a long way towards keeping things interesting throughout. There's little doubt, however, that the less-than-subtle bent of Streker's screenplay does wreak havoc on the movie's already-tenuous momentum, as A Wedding's progressively predictable atmosphere lessens the impact of its (far-from-surprising) downbeat finale. The film is nevertheless a sporadically eye-opening look into the behind-the-scenes happenings within a decidedly backwards culture, with El Arabi's star-making performance ultimately elevating A Wedding above its somewhat lackluster execution.

out of

Directed by Morgan Spurlock

An obvious low point in Morgan Spurlock's hit-and-miss filmography, Rats documents the impact that the troublesome rodent has had and continues to have in locales as varied as New York City, England, and Cambodia. It's immediately clear that Spurlock isn't aiming for the vibe of a typical documentary, and although his ambition is initially admirable, Rats' overwrought instances of style (eg an aggressive score, flashy editing, etc) grow increasingly distracting and flat-out annoying as time progresses. Far more problematic, however, is the decidedly one-note nature of Spurlock's execution, as it quickly becomes apparent that the filmmaker has nothing to say beyond "rats are bad and hard to exterminate." (The movie does contain a few interesting tidbits here and there, ie that rats are carriers of diseases like ebola and zika, but such moments are increasingly rare.) Spurlock's efforts at expanding what should've been a short into a full-length feature grow increasingly desperate and surprisingly unpleasant as time progresses, with the most obvious example of this a seriously unwatchable stretch towards the end in which rats are hunted down and brutally killed by hunting dogs. (This is to say nothing of the pointless segment involving live rats that are transported from Cambodia to Vietnam, where they're casually drowned in a bucket before being cooked.) It's ultimately difficult to downplay just how objectionable Rats remains for most of its interminable runtime, and there's little doubt that the film's presence within the Midnight Madness program is nothing short of baffling.

no stars out of

© David Nusair