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Toronto International Film Festival 2017 - UPDATE #3

Soldiers: A Ferentari Story
Directed by Ivana Mladenovic

It's certainly not surprising to learn that filmmaker Ivana Mladenovic's first full-length feature was a documentary, as Soldiers: A Ferentari Story could, for much of its running time, be mistaken for an exceedingly intimate portrait of an unexpected romance between two men. The plot, what little there is, follows anthropologist Adi (Adrian Schiop) as he arrives in a small Bucharest town to research a specific subgenre of pop music, with the film subsequently detailing Adi's illicit relationship with a jovial, extroverted local named Alberto (Vasile Pavel-Digudai). Mladenovic devotes much of Soldiers: A Ferentari Story's opening stretch to the protagonist's encounters with several colorful residents, with the seemingly off-the-cuff nature of these conversations certainly perpetuating the movie's pseudo-documentary vibe (ie it does seem like many of these scenes have been completely improvised). The intensely authentic atmosphere and natural performances from the two leads play a key role in keeping things interesting, and there's undoubtedly something fascinating about watching the men's unconventional bond begin to form. It's just as clear, however, that the film is definitely, without question much, much too long, as the pared-down storyline simply can't sustain an almost epic running time of 119 minutes. And although the movie ends on a somewhat anticlimactic note, Soldiers: A Ferentari Story, despite its problems, comes off as a better-than-expected drama that bodes well for Mladenovic's future endeavors.

out of

Mary Goes Round
Directed by Molly McGlynn

Written and directed by Molly McGlynn, Mary Goes Round follows Aya Cash's Mary as her alcoholism drives her back to her childhood home - where she attempts to stage a reconciliation with her estranged father and the half-sister she's never met before. It's familiar subject matter that's initially handled quite well by first-time filmmaker McGlynn, as the director does an effective job of establishing the central character and her less-than-savory day-to-day existence - with the above-average atmosphere certainly heightened by Cash's completely convincing turn as the self-destructive protagonist. The movie does, however, take a turn for the worse once the actual plot kicks in (ie the aforementioned father and half-sister stuff), as most of these scenes suffer from a run-of-the-mill quality that slowly-but-surely drains one's enthusiasm for the material. There's virtually nothing that occurs within these relationships that isn't telegraphed from miles away, which does ensure that the emotional revelations of the movie's disappointingly sentimental third act fall fairly flat. And yet it's impossible to completely dismiss Mary Goes Round, with Cash's undeniably eye-opening work remaining a consistent highlight in the otherwise terminally erratic proceedings (ie the movie succeeds as an actor's showcase and little else, ultimately).

out of

The Carter Effect
Directed by Sean Menard

The Carter Effect is ostensibly a documentary about Vince Carter's successful run in the Toronto Raptors back in the late '90s and early '00s, but the unfocused movie instead concerns itself with a wide variety of basketball-related topics - including the increase in sales of team-related jerseys and the sport's growing esteem among non-fans. Director Sean Menard has infused The Carter Effect with a very slick, very fast-paced sensibility that is, at the outset, quite intoxicating, with the movie offering a good primer on the non-existent Toronto basketball scene prior to the Raptors' arrival. And although the initial emphasis on Carter's importance to the team is interesting, it does become increasingly clear that Menard has not designed the film to appeal to basketball neophytes - as the picture is, to a more and more pronounced extent, stacked with elements and stories that just feel too inside to really make a positive impact. (There is, for example, a long digression involving a slam-dunk contest but it's never made entirely clear who it's for or what it's purpose is.) Menard's decision to gloss over even the most basic explanations grows increasingly frustrating, with a late-movie story about Toronto fans booing and shunning Carter after he was traded robbed of its effectiveness by a lack of context (ie why are the fans so upset?) By the time the completely underwhelming final stretch rolls around - in which various folks talk about their passion for the game - The Carter Effect has undoubtedly confirmed its place as a woefully unfocused sports documentary.

out of

Directed by Paco Plaza

Directed by Paco Plaza, Verónica follows Sandra Escacena's title character as she attempts to get in touch with her dead father during an eclipse-set seance - with the plan backfiring after she instead winds up contacting a malicious demon. There's very little in Verónica one hasn't seen countless times before, and yet the film, for the most part, comes off as an uncommonly superior example of this sort of thing - as Plaza delivers a consistently engaging narrative that only grows more and more compelling as time progresses (ie there's a real sense of momentum and escalation at work here). It doesn't hurt, of course, that Plaza has suffused the proceedings with a number of impressively striking images and sequences, with the creepiness factor at its highest as Verónica slowly begins to realize that something very sinister is afoot. (There is, for example, no denying the effectiveness of the aforementioned demon's initial appearances in the background and reflected in various clear surfaces.) Newcomer Escacena's strong turn as the tortured protagonist surely plays a key role in the movie's success, while the low-key (yet rather thrilling) climactic stretch ensures that Verónica ends on a decidedly (and exceedingly) positive note - with the film ultimately a cut above many of the similarly-themed horror flicks pouring out of Hollywood as of late.

out of

The Journey
Directed by Mohamed Jabarah Al-daradji

A fairly palpable misfire, The Journey follows would-be suicide bomber Sara (Zahraa Ghandour) as she arrives at a busy Iraqi train station hoping to cause massive chaos - with problems ensuing as Sara is forced to take a hostage (Ameer Ali Jabarah's Salam). Filmmaker Mohamed Jabarah Al-daradji delivers a striking opening that's ultimately nowhere near indicative of what's to follow, as The Journey predominately comes off as a muddled, amateurish drama devoid of overtly positive attributes - with the movie's many problems compounded by a pervasive atmosphere of artificiality (ie the picture feels like a particularly stagy filmed play at times). It's never anything other than completely obvious that Al-daradji is attempting to make a point here, and there isn't, as such, really a moment at which the two central characters are able to transcend the heavy-handed material to become wholly convincing human characters. (This is especially true in terms of Salam's mid-movie change of heart towards Sara, with this absurd development nothing less than laughable.) It's a shame, really, given that Al-daradji has peppered the slow-moving narrative with a small handful of above-average sequences (eg Sara's initial arrival at the aforementioned train station), and it's clear, as well, that the filmmaker does have a strong eye for impressive visuals - though such attributes are rendered moot in the face of a storyline that grows less and less interesting as time progresses (and this is to say nothing of the flat-out disastrous closing stretch).

out of

© David Nusair