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Toronto Film Festival Recap 2009
by Erik Childress

So many movies. A week's worth of time. Filling one's schedule at the Toronto International Film Festival is one of the easiest and hardest things a movie lover will ever have to do. With a combination of press screenings, public events and trips to the screener office, here's just a little taste of what I saw this year.

(Star ratings out of 4)

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS
There were two ways this head-scratcher of a remake or reimagining could succeed. Werner Herzog could have offered his standard fascination with men and their obsessions. Or Nicolas Cage could have just let loose with the Vampire's Kiss days and had a blast going crazy in the footsteps of the more brooding and weepy Harvey Keitel. The result, as it turns out, is not enough of either and the final product becomes just an overlong affair that is like watching your favorite drinking buddy after rehab have the occasional relapse that you can't decide is funny or just pathetic. "The Lieutenant" has a name this time around in Terence McDonagh who, in the opening scene, is deciding whether or not it's worth getting his shoes wet in Katrina water to rescue a trapped prisoner. His eventual decision is the first clue that he or the film may not be earning that "Bad" adjective. Sure he hustles people for drugs, sleeps with a gold-hearted hooker (Eva Mendes) and tries to fix games he's gambling on, but nothing to top Keitel's idea of getting off a traffic ticket. Instead of a raped nun and vengeance, we get Xzibit as the local druggie Terence is trying to bust which exhibits none of the temporary moral redemption sought in the original. Herzog may as well have just gone and remade The Big Easy since this supposed character story hardly demands a straightforward plot device as this. Cage is entertaining to watch when he's let off the chain, but when he's sober so is the film and in-between you will have plenty of time to wonder, "wait, wasn't Val Kilmer in this film?"


BEAUTIFUL KATE
Aside from being of the great beauties of 20th century cinema and the longtime wife of actor Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward can now add writer and director to her resume. Adapting Newton Thornburg's 1984 novel, the Australian story involves the return of a son, Ned (Ben Mendelsohn), to say goodbye to his dying father (Bryan Brown). They haven't been on good terms, partially for the blame he puts upon dad for his brother's suicide. That's just a drop in the bucket of family secrets though which somehow revolve around his twin sister, the beautiful Kate (Sophie Lowe) of the title. His younger sister (Rachel Griffiths) just wants everyone to get along which isn't easy with Ned's much younger girlfriend (Maeve Darmody), a wannabe actress in tow. Hint, hint. Ward handles the flashback structure well and never lets her actors bleed into extreme melodrama, something Brown comes close to as the grouchy pa. Much like The Burning Plain from last year's festival, the big reveals are pretty obvious early on and we quickly lose sympathy for all the players who either deflect their own blame or attempt to manipulate others into further icky behavior. I suppose what happens in the Australian outback stays in the Australian outback. Unless you make another tragi-family-secrets-drama about it.


BITCH SLAP
The testosterone-fueled world of comic book superhotties have never quite been able to translate into film. Since the days of Russ Meyer, they've tried everything from solo avengers Barb Wire, Black Scorpion and Vampirella to group efforts like DOA: Dead or Alive and Ninja Cheerleaders. No knock on the ladies, of course, but even the high camp proved to be less entertaining than the variety of fetish gear protecting our virgin eyes from the full monty. There was hope that Rick Jacobson (who directed episodes of Xena, Baywatch and She Spies) would find a way along with stunt coordinator Zoe Bell to pump some Kill Bill-like life into a frigid genre. Hiring Julia Voth, Erin Cummings and America Olivo to be his trio of ass-kickin', gun-totin' megababes was a good start. Unfortunately the movie is an absolute chore to sit through with almost no reward for the audience. Bell's fight choreography is better than the average direct-to-video fist-a-cuffs we're used to, but the flashback-laden story involving stolen mob loot, doublecrosses and a Keyser Soze-like supervillain is flat-out just never fun. How is that even possible? Maybe because Olivo is stunningly bad as the crazy chick or that Jacobson steers clear of complete excess and plays things too safe. He actually manages to make cleavage boring. Clothed lesbian trysts and one too many knowing winks to slo-mo posing does not a knowledgeable exploitation parody make. Maybe Tarantino will someday get around to making Fox Force Five, because Bitch Slap deserves its title instead of earning it.


BROKEN EMBRACES
Pedro Almodovar has been a filmmaker that I've gone back and forth on. Of his more recent efforts, Talk To Her is wonderful, Bad Education not so much and I was on the fence not joining in on the love for Volver. His latest, Broken Embraces, embodies everything that's great and everything what's flawed about him as a storyteller. The first half is a love letter to the creation of movies - particularly where they begin - on the page. The second half is the usual jumbled bit of revelatory melodrama with big, yet unsurprising character revelations. It begins with a blind screenwriter (Lluis Homar) discovering the death of a renown businessman (Jose Luis Gomez) who once produced one of his films. Years ago the same businessman had a crush on his secretary (Penelope Cruz) and did whatever he could to have her, including requesting her with the knowledge that she moonlights as a prostitute. Present and the past collide as the rich man's estranged son plots to have the writer pen his father's story; the same son who once shot a fake documentary about his stepmother's day-to-day interaction with the writer when she was cast in his movie. The dizzying connections between the characters and the filmmaking in the first hour is a lot of fun, particularly a scene where a lip reader provides voiceover to the son's silent film. The second half is far more drab though as the affair begins to breakdown and a further tragedy begin sucking the life and the playful ironies between the tales. It's a very close call, but the downward spiral of the final hour makes this a mixed affair at best.


CHLOE
Based on Anne Fontaine's 2004 French domestic drama, Nathalie, Atom Egoyan moves the participants to Canada for a little roll in the hay. Julianne Moore plays a doctor who suspects as much of her husband, Liam Neeson, at least when he misses his surprise birthday party. To prove her theory, she hires the gorgeous escort (Amanda Seyfried) she's been noticing from her office window to seduce the chap and report back to her. Turns out she's full of details, intimate and graphic, to the wife's equal chagrin and satisfaction. Revenge can be a dish best served hot as well when Moore becomes drawn into Seyfried's expression of passion and big love indeed is what we get. For two-thirds of Chloe, Egoyan and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary, Fur) keep things in perspective and offer an interesting portrait of a crumbling marriage. Those paying attention will be a few moves ahead of the plot until its A-list stars and their bare bodies become part of the kind of tawdry, ridiculous Cinemax tale it was avoiding with class in its final act. Very disappointing to see a reasonably intelligent adult film about infidelity reduced into the Fatal Attraction cliches we've bemoaned since that ending was changed 22 years ago. All the actors are good, especially Neeson who is always entertaining when he gets his blood boiling and Seyfried who continues to prove she's one of the most interesting actresses working today. Everyone disappointed with how little was offered between her and Megan Fox in Jennifer's Body most definitely won't be here. As a remake though, the changes by Egoyan prove that American filmmakers aren't exclusive to cheapening things.


CLEANFLIX
As censorship is an issue I hold very near and dear to my heart, this new documentary by Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi didn't have to reach out far to incite my anger reflex. But it's one that should also tickle movie fans or anyone who believes that certain religious factions go a bit too far. This isn't Fred Phelps and his Klan of wackos. It's just the Mormons. But they were front and center at the movement for editing down Hollywood films for consumption by their no sex, no drink, know nothing club. Video stores known as Clean Flicks would do just that. Purchase copies of DVDs for their store, load them up to the ol' editing bay and take out all the naughty bits so customers can share films like Braveheart and Schindler's List with the kids. Frankly, anyone over the age of 15 who says they don't want to see or hear sex or cuss words is suspect. Enter Daniel Thompson, one of the most profitable suppliers/editors of Clean Flicks products. After Hollywood fought back and successfully shut down the businesses, he pressed on using loopholes in the system to show those corruptors of innocence that the path of the righteous man is beset on all sides. Especially in the backroom of his store. You may have read about Thompson's story in the papers but there's something far more satisfying about seeing it all laid out here culminating in a Clockwork Orange-like punishment that couldn't have been planned better by King Solomon. Cleanflix is a film that works best as a brand of "eye for an eye" hypocrisy against holier-than-thou types while some of the more challenging questions of the argument are missing from both sides. What are the real implications about editing art that may offend a single person's sensibilities? If television can edit down films to FCC standards, why can't such "approved" versions be made available to those who believe in magic underwear? Full screen DVD editions have been offered for years too distorting the visions of directors everywhere. James and Ligairi have still made a terrific "in-the-now" documentary and were blessed with the ironic turns the story took, getting the dirt while not getting entirely dirty.


CRACKS
Hey guys, would you be upset if Eva Green was your teacher? Unlikely. Of course in Jordan Scott's film you wouldn't have the opportunity since it's an all-girls school. Rats, huh? One that includes Juno Temple, Maria Valverde and Imogen Poots amongst others. Seems Temple's Di is upset that her favorite diving instructor is doting on Valverde's new girl in school. Perhaps even a bit too much. Sure, there's a skinny dipping scene and Eva Green has an exuberance and aura of intrigue to her performance, this is a story that takes you precisely where you expect it to go from the first disapproving scowl to the last. It promises dangerous trysts and scandal but can't decide whether it wants to be Doubt or The Dreamers. Closer to the former with the usual clique issues for the newbie, Cracks never fulfills the atmosphere as a cautionary tale or one detailing the various ruling classes.


CREATION
In one of the more disastrous attempts at a biopic in recent memory (Amelia included) is this take on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Paul Bettany stars as Darwin and his story early on shows promise with the potential to launch one of the greatest debates the world has ever known. His wife (Jennifer Connelly) professes to believe in their religion of choice, but he doesn't care for the local priest publicly chiding their daughter over her bigger thoughts on the food chain. The link between the premature death of that child and Charles' parting from the ways of the Church is one approach that could have been explored as a potent impetus for his writing of The Origin of Species. Instead it basically becomes the entire film. When you have two of the stars of A Beautiful Mind on hand, it may not be the best idea to continually utilize (and occasionally confuse) audiences with Darwin's conversations to an invisible entity. Another potentially good idea though. Screenwriter John Collee never evokes anything nearly as grand and the internal conflict in first writing then publishing this work on how his family might be thought of in the aftermath is bargain basement drama when the opportunity to "kill God" is sitting right in front of him. Director Jon Amiel has not exactly set the world of cinematic drama on fire with Sommersby, Entrapment and The Core, but this is a new low in both aridity and wasted potential. You will learn more about Darwin from the back of the DVD cover for Inherit The Wind then you will with this failure.


DAYBREAKERS
Moving from zombies to vampires may have worked once for George Romero, but how much faith do you have in the Spierig Brothers, Michael and Peter, when their last film was the lackluster (though cultish) Undead? No matter where you stand on their previous collaboration, their follow-up is a significant improvement. In the future, a bizarre plague has turned the vast population into vampires. We haven't devolved into bad special effects from I Am Legend though. Miraculously the human race have learned to live with it. While some like Ethan Hawke's Edward search for a cure, others like Sam Neill's Charles Bromley have profited off the need for blood. Business is bad lately however. The blood supply is running out. Bad news for Edward who has refused to partake in anything that comes from man and has been unsuccessful in reversing the condition. Help comes in the form of some underground guerillas though represented by Claudia Karvan and Willem Dafoe, who has risen from the ranks of the undead to enjoy the sunlight again. There are so many ways that Daybreakers could have traveled to become just another lame vampires vs. crossbows wannabe action piece. Instead the Spierigs have some actual ideas along the way, playing with the vampire conventions not as humorists but with actual curiosity, starting like Gattaca and finding creative ways to fold in the gore and fighting. This was a really nice surprise that holds our attention, has the ability to surprise and doesn't withhold when it comes to the elements that genre followers demand. Finally, a mainstream vampire flick worth your time (and worth a series) as it beats the hell out of anything named Twilight or Underworld.


AN EDUCATION
One of the most acclaimed films from Sundance this year is also one of the few from this year's Chicago fest that you may be hearing a bit about during awards season. Based on the memoir from Lynn Barber and adapted by acclaimed novelist, Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy) the film tells the story of 17 year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) on the cusp of a bright Oxford future in the 1960s when she's charmed by a man twice her age (Peter Sarsgaard). Getting a taste for life outside of all the societal and socio-political tangents of her closeted life, Jenny's story is not all that different from most teenage tales of rebellion and growing up except within the performances (Alfred Molina is also very good as her disapproving father) and the classy treatment by Hornby. The first two acts are the best with the radiance of Mulligan's performance putting all eyes on her and subsequently seducing us into her discoveries just as she is. The story goes to familiar territory as barriers are broken down around Sarsgaard's intentions, but there's no doubting Mulligan as a face to watch and an almost certain Best Actress candidate.


FISH TANK
While “An Education” has been earning its share of accolades, allow me to make a counteroffer to that fine, if a bit oversold coming-of-age drama. Andrea Arnold, who won an Oscar for her short film, “Wasp,” and proved it was no fluke with the thriller, “Red Road,” has outdone even Nick Hornby with this tale of a young girl living day-to-day in the housing projects of England. The debuting Katie Jarvis deserves every bit of praise as Carey Mulligan in her portrayal of Mia who secretly dreams of being a professional dancer (none of that “Fame” remake B.S. here) but has little way of support from her boozing mother. When mom brings home a hunky new boyfriend (“Hunger” and “Inglourious Basterds'“ Michael Fassbender, excellent again here) Mia finally may have someone she can let her guard down with. Perhaps even a little too much. Both “Fish Tank” and “An Education” are about teenage girls with aspirations to break free of their all-too-familiar home lives. While Mulligan's Jenny had it pretty good, if a little boring, with mum and dad, Jarvis' Mia has the surroundings where glitz doesn't offer a holiday and most roads seem to be abandoned territory. Jarvis' performance alone is worth your attention and although it may seem like a grim journey, it's never a stale one and we're so with Mia's desires that it provides a glimmer of hope through to its emotional finale.


HARRY BROWN
Who wants to see Michael Caine shoot some people? Like back in the Jack Carter days? Well, patience, folks, patience. Harry Brown's not quite there yet. He's just a widower trying to live out the rest of his days in the pub playing chess with his best friend. As witnessed in the horrific opening scene (a random murder of a helpless mother), this is a pretty bad neighborhood and Harry's pal isn't going to take it anymore. Until he's dead. Slaughtered by the very street toughs he promised to stand up to. Now Harry wants a gun. And the set piece where he acquires it is precisely what everyone walking into this supposed revenge thriller is waiting for. Fabulously graphic and well-executed, it's Caine reenacting the Gary Oldman confrontation in True Romance to glorious precision. Unfortunately we're already halfway through Harry's story and it never quite gets that good again. We keep being interrupted by the cops (led by Emily Mortimer) who has to come to the slow realization that this grieving old man has become a hardcore killing machine. Just once it would be nice to see a straight-up revenge flick focused entirely on a protagonist unburdened with the law acting as the moral conscience? And does the hero always have to have military training? While Caine is excellent in the title role, the film isn't as visceral and exciting as James Wan's Death Sentence nor as quietly effective as Brian Cox in the overlooked Jack Ketchum adaptation, Red. At just over 90 minutes, director Daniel Barber never gets very introspective on Harry's vengeance and there's a lot of waiting for those looking for a good comeuppance.


THE HOLE
As one of the arbiters of my childhood cinema, Joe Dante will always have a fond place in my heart. It's sad that aside from a couple of the better Masters of Horror episodes, he has only released a single film in the new century. That it was such an underappreciated bit of mayhem (Looney Tunes: Back In Action) only further dampens the spirit. So here he was, his first feature in six years and in 3-D no less in the wake of his Piranha getting the same treatment in 2010 and my anticipation for even just a good Dante film was reason enough to be excited. But it is with a heavy heart that I have to admit my first letdown with the filmmaker. While not a remake by name, The Hole owes much of its setup to the cult '80s horror film, The Gate, where a group of kids discover a portal to something dark and nasty on their own property. Instead of ugly little claymation monsters though, it's a reawakening of the Flatliners/Sphere mold where their worst fears are manifested for them all to confront. In the case of the three youngsters it's nothing fantastical of the Dante id, but of the typical clowns, accidents and abusive fathers. Dante maintains a few interesting flourishes early on and during the climax, but in-between is just a lot of creepy little girls and evil dolls that never amount to anything truly frightening. Not even a cameo by Bruce Dern as the house's eccentric previous owner can liven up the scenario. Writer Mark L. Smith (Vacancy) offers a lazy horror script that frequently ignores its own rules. The 3-D offers nothing to the experience other than a few gimmicky moments that seem forced in. It's the least fun Dante has ever had with an idea and while I'm happy to see him working, I hope we don't have to wait another six years for a true disappointment like this.


THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS
The last time Gilliam premiered a film in Toronto, it turned out to be the disastrous Tideland. This year he's back with a return to form and you can read the full review here.


THE INVENTION OF LYING
My favorite film at the festival this year also received its own review. Read it here


JENNIFER'S BODY
To discover what's so disappointing about a Megan Fox/Amanda Seyfried lesbian kiss scripted by Diablo Cody, click here.


THE LAST DAYS OF EMMA BLANK
Larry David might have had the right idea when he managed to get his Cancer-stricken girlfriend out of the house before things got worse on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Who knows how he would have handled Emma Blank, the terminally ill center of Alex von Warmerdam's dark comedy. To call her servants put-upon is an understatement. How many out there would be willing to play the part of the family dog (other than von Warmerdam himself) and go method with it, humping anything he can? Slowly the staff, which includes her daughter (the ever fetching Eva van de Wijdeven), ex-husband, sister and nephew begin to rebel against Emma's off-beat demands and an environment already rife with affairs and unrequited love is about to guarantee Emma doesn't shuffle off easily into that good night. Quietly seditious and brimming with dark turns, von Warmerdam's film is a sick delight.


LESLIE, MY NAME IS EVIL
In what can be classified as not the worst retelling of the Manson Family slaughter to be seen in 2009 (that distinction belongs to Damian Chapa's horrendous Polanski Unauthorized), it's not much of an improvement. Dealing more exclusively with the events surrounding the massacre, Reginald Harkema's film splits its action between two characters. The first and most important is Leslie Van Houten (Kristen Hager), a suburban girl so disenchanted by her parents' divorce that she fell into a life of experimental drugs and the first father figure she could find - namely Charlie Manson. The second is a juror (Gregory Smith) from her trial that decides to pull a Henry Fonda over the disbelief that this sweet-faced ingenue could have had anything to do with the murders. Plus, he's got a little crush on her. If this second half to the story (which really takes over the film's latter half) had found a way to genuniely counter his deep religious views to the satanic ones offered by Leslie's anti-christ, Harkema could have at least justified pulling away from the potentially more fascinating arc of this girl seduced by the dark side. Alas, her story isn't very interesting either since the film never wants to put the focus on any one aspect and it becomes a bigger mess the longer it goes on. Cutaways to actual political protests of the time (in B&W) only further cheapen the film and it never comes close to achieving the level of satire possibly intended.


LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS
After several screenplays involving either female bonding or a direct manipulation between the dominant and passive personalities, Don Roos made his directorial debut with the biting The Opposite of Sex, about another manipulative single white female. His follow-up efforts, Bounce and Happy Endings, didn't have quite the zing of his darker screenplays and it's a shame he's continued that trend with his latest. Natalie Portman stars as Emilia Greenleaf, a homewrecker, but a really cute and nice one, snatching away her boss (Scott Cohen) from his aggressively bitchy socialite wife (Lisa Kudrow). But that's the backstory. The current one is the loss of the child she had with the husband who is now her own and the trouble she's having trying to win over her mouthy stepson (Charlie Tahan). Before the film becomes just another deviation on Stepmom, there are all sorts of additional plot developments including where she may have picked up her cheating gene and precisely how responsible she was in the infant's death. Just as we're settling into the dramatics of one, another comes along to butt its way in. While the film is nicely acted, especially by Portman along with Kudrow's super-ability to wring laughs from such an unpleasant character, that's part of the problem. Most of the characters, even at their most sympathetic, have an aura of karmic justice suffocating their happiness. Emilia puts things in motion with her immature crushing on a total drip of a guy. Tahan's William is an instant candidate for a good smothering - with a pillow, not affection - for the way he casually runs his mouth about the memory of the dead baby. Two hours of watching Emilia feeling sorry for herself becomes plodding after a while and the did-she-or-didn't-she aspect of it is shamelessly manipulative and isn't enough for us to absolve her of anything.


THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS
That may not be Stephen Lack staring directly into our eyes in the film's first shot, but it is Stephen Lang. This may be about a collection of men under a military experiment, but its most definitely not Scanners. Instead this is Grant Heslov's version of Jon Ronson's book of the same name about the Army's attempts at psychic warfare. It stars his frequent producing partner, George Clooney, as a former soldier in the program who claims to have been reactivated (by thought) after the 9/11 attacks. Under the tutelage of an ex-hippie played by Jeff Bridges, these men (some, anyway) could give Jennifer Runyon from Ghostbusters a run for her money. Investigated by a journalist (Ewan McGregor) desperate for an angle on the Iraq conflict, "Jedi" Clooney brings him along on his so-called mission and tells him the unbelievable and frequently hilarious tale. Where screenwriter Peter Straughan failed in adapting the bizarre exploits of Toby Young's memoir, How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, he succeeds here in making the loony likable. Where the applications for such concepts are frightening and any failed experimentation with it is a further waste of tax dollars, it's a story we want to believe in if only for the fantastical potential for its success, administered humorously in the film's final shot. It's hard to consider anyone better than Clooney these days with this brand of comedy. Bridges may be doing a kinder, gentler version of The Dude goes to the Army, but his welcome presence along with Clooney's complement the type of work the Coens have done so successfully over the years and that spirit manifests throughout here to greater appeal than in Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass. Nice to see Kevin Spacey doing comedy again and this film helps break the Star Wars curse off of McGregor who has appeared in a string of creative duds since the release of Episode III.


SOLITARY MAN
Michael Douglas has made a career out of a couple prototypical roles. There's the greedy, rich archetype, the everyman caught up in some form of dangerous sexual scandal and the occasional turn of quirk in supporting roles for a lark or in leading roles that often get him the most acclaim. The last such role where he earned such praise was for 2000's Wonder Boys (yes, I'm dutifully ignoring King of California) and his work in Brian Koppelman and David Levien's latest effort may be his best since. He stars as Ben, a successful car dealer, who gets some bad news at the doctor. At least the promise of such. He leaves before getting the diagnosis. Nearly seven years later his ailment hasn't caught up to him, but his freewheeling lifestyle has. Divorced to Nancy (Susan Sarandon) and a questionable grandfather to his daughter's (Jenna Fischer) kid, Ben has also run afoul of the very business he excelled in and is dating a woman (Mary-Louise Parker) whose family influences might be able to get him back on his feet. While accompanying her sharp-tongued daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots) on a college visit, he gets to revisit a bit of his past, including offering relationship advice to both Allyson and the nerdy sophomore (Jesse Eisenberg) who gives them a tour. What happens next spins things in both expected and unexpected directions as Ben must start over on the cusp of turning 60 if he's able to suppress his selfishly slick double-speak. Douglas is right at home in this role and despite the scenes with Eisenberg playing a bit too close to Roger Dodger's vest, events don't play out quite as smoothly. The early scenes with the stunning Imogen Poots have a notable crackle and maturity to them and the film misses her in the second half. Casting agents should be snatching her up regularly after seeing this. Parker's role is also a bit underwritten, but there are nice scenes for Sarandon, Fischer and Douglas' recurring pal, Danny DeVito as an old college buddy. Koppelman and Levien's skills at writing capers have produced solid fare such as Rounders, Runaway Jury and Ocean's Thirteen. Solitary Man is a significant step up from their directing debut of Knockaround Guys back in 2001 and with their script contribution for this year's The Girlfriend Experience, they are moving into more mature territory that suggest they are also going to age gracefully.


TANNER HALL
The second of the all-girls boarding school films on the list didn't benefit from being the first that I saw. Rooney Mara, soon to be seen being chased by Freddy Krueger in the Elm St. redux, stars as a good girl who still remembers the time a childhood acquaintance let out her grandmother's bird for it to fly away. The trauma of it all. And now she's BACK! Georgia King plays the naughty girl who shows up at the boarding school filled with apparently one teacher, a budding lesbian and a hottie who takes pleasure in teasing Chris Kattan. Trouble ensues, though of the curfew variety, and Mara explores her sexuality with Spartacus from The Oneders, but this is an purposeless waste of time with characters not worth caring about, derivative plotlines and a performance by King that is groaningly dreadful. When the highlight of the film is Amy Sedaris trying to have sex with Kattan, you know you're in trouble. (NOTE: I had to leave my initial screening of the film - thanks to it starting more than 20 minutes late - to catch another screening. Having missed the final 15 minutes I went back the next day and caught the second half all over again. It did not improve.)


UP IN THE AIR
Saving one of the best for last at this year's festival (the scheduling just worked out that way for me) is Jason Reitman's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated, Juno. Everyone was searching for this year's Slumdog Millionaire to take the lead in the Oscar race coming out of this year's lineup and they may have just found out with this. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a guy whose job isn't all that different from "the Bobs" in Office Space. When a company would rather not get their hands dirty internally, they bring in a guy like him to layoff the unwanted. On the road, or in the air, some 300 days out of the year, Ryan has very little time for family or to spruce up his apartment. He does find pleasure with a fellow traveler though (Vera Farmiga) who appears to share the same love of hotel rooms and airport upgrades. When Ryan is in danger of being downsized himself though, thanks to the suggestion of an impersonal touch (firing through internet conferencing) he's accompanied on his latest trip by the young turk (Anna Kendrick) who proposed the idea. Along with showing her the ropes, he is commissioned to a favor by his little sister (who is getting married) to bring back with him a few mementos from the world she never gets to experience. Anchored by a tight script by Reitman and Sheldon Turner (toning down Walter Kim's novel) and great work from Clooney, it's easy to see why this is quickly becoming a favorite amongst critics and likely soon the public. The writing is sharp, characters are well-established and the acting is strong up and down. Basically the film is this year's About A Boy, another story of a loner who comes to learn the positives in having regular interaction with people who like to have him around. There's a feel-good element to it but also some real sadness. It doesn't preach against the single lifestyle nor embrace any one personal theory on happiness. Clooney is a certain nominee as are likely the screenplay and the film for the top prize. Will a slew of nominations turn people against it as this year's "it's not THAT good" film? Things like that shouldn't matter because after The Invention of Lying this was the best film I saw at the fest this year and will remain so whether the film gets three nominations or ten.


THE VINTNER'S LUCK
While a great admirer of her debut feature, Whale Rider, and even a supporter of her follow-up, North Country, it's hard to think of another film in recent memory that I was so zoned out of by minute seven than Niki Caro's latest work. An adaptation of Elizabeth Knox's novel, the 19th century story of a peasant with aspirations to be the greatest wine producer of his time, couldn't be less engrossing just on the story front. Sideways pretty much took wine connoisseurs for all they're worth and even they recognized an inherent pretension within them. Try a whole film about a guy (Jeremie Renier) trying to grow the best grapes. Add into that some metaphysical help in the form of a bi-curious angel (Gaspard Ulliel) who visits him once a year. Dramatically dead right from the beginning, with no hope in the form of a love triangle between Renier, Vera Farmiga and Keisha Castle-Hughes, the only reason anyone might be willing to stick around past the first hour is to see the Whale Rider/Virgin Mary's breasts. Certainly wouldn't be to see Farmiga go through some unfortunate surgery on hers or to see these lifeless characters age less than the fruit. Meaning the grapes.


WHIP IT
You can click here for a full review of Drew Barrymore's directorial debut.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2035
originally posted: 12/22/06 05:29:04
last updated: 11/24/09 03:50:24
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