I Saw It So You Don’t Have To: Just Go With It

Although I have never been an Adam Sandler fan, his latest forays in celluloid have been unbearable. The best thing I can say about Just Go With It is that it’s slightly better than Grown Ups, the worst movie of 2010.

The highly improbable premise of Just Go With Itinvolves Sandler as a successful plastic surgeon falling for a stunning primary teacher (supermodel Brooklyn Decker). Because the Sandler character likes to pretend he is married in order to pick up girls (yeah, it doesn’t make sense), he must convince his much younger love interest he is getting divorced. As the pile of lies grows by the minute, Sandler recruites his assistant (Jennifer Aniston) to  play his harpy, soon-to-be ex-wife.

For as long as Just Go With Itpretends to be a farce, the movie is tolerable. Even certain mean-spiritedness regarding plastic surgery has some comedic potential. But soon enough, Sandler tones down the few elements that are actually working and moves to the lowest-common-denominator sense of humor of his (big noses, erectile dysfunction, poop jokes). Not even Nicole Kidman and Dave Matthews in thankless cameos can save this wreck.

I think I get Adam Sandler’s appeal. It gives the impression charmless schlubs can actually score babes of Victoria’s Secret caliber. Sandler romancing Brooklyn Decker gives a creepy Woody Allen vibe, minus the talent. Decker gets the short shift in more ways than one, as she has to pretend to be the dumbest person in the world to swallow all the lies the Sandler and Aniston feed her.

To add insult to injury, the Sandler character ends up realizing the perfect woman for him has been at his side all along. This leads to some hokey romance, but for some reason perhaps related to Sandler’s image, the audience never gets to see the plastic surgeon’s comeuppance, or at least come clean to the impossibly naive teacher. Just as in Grown Ups, there is no climax, just a sequence of unfunny gags with a romantic afterthought shoehorned in the last third. I could nitpick about a dozen equally irritating issues with this so-called film, but you get the idea. (Why all of Sandler movies must be shoot in paradisaical locations? Can Sandler’s favorite director Dennis Dugan look himself in the mirror in the mornings?)

I could predict that a good chunk of the Just Go With It audience may watch this flick because of the many sights of Brooklyn Decker in a bikini. Here is a thought: Buy last year’s Sports Illustrated’ swimsuit edition. It will last longer.

Black Swan, The Second Time Around

Natalie Portman in Black Swan

An excellent movie the first time around, I thought Black Swan wouldn’t endure a second look. The twist wouldn’t be surprising anymore and the ongoing reminder of “white swan: good, black swan: bad” may ruin the experience. (SNL was right on the money making fun of the tireless repetition of this plot point.)
Surprisingly, Black Swan holds on very well. Through tight framing and effectual visual cues (nails, self-mutilation), director Darren Aronofsky does a brilliant job creating suspense. His job is actually superior to Oscar favorites David Fincher (The Social Network) and Tom Hopper (The King’s Speech), whose approach to directing is more straighforward.
Natalie Portman, however, doesn’t fare as well. Her virginal ballerina is a bit one-note. It makes the contrast with the darker version of herself more evident, but it comes out as flat. Not that her shot to an Academy Award is any less certain, but Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) may be more deserving.

She & Him, the best band you know nothing about

Feeling down about Toronto’s awful, awful taste in local authorities? The lovely Zooey Deschanel is not only charming on screen. She has some serious pipes, which she puts to good use as one half of She & Him (the other half, singer-songwriter M. Ward). Relentlessly peppy, She & Him could lift the spirits of, uh, socially aware Torontonians facing four years of Rob Ford.

Short film: Life Expectancy

In an effort to demonstrate film critics are not necesarily just frustrated filmmakers, I introduce you my first dramatic short, Life Expectancy. The lead actor, Charlie Gallant, had a minor role in “Percy Jackson: The Lightening Thief” and has a bright future in front of him. He is a  regular at the Vancouver Shakespeare festival “Bard on the Beach”.

I was also lucky to have Bonnie Hay, who was a featured player in “The X-Files”. Hay gives the mother role a priceless ferocity. The short also introduces the promising Jade Yargeau, who pulls the nearly impossible role. Hope you enjoy it.

Toronto International Film Festival – Day Nine: Back to the Minors

As the TIFF winds down, smaller films take over. Most of them are vying for distribution or at the very least, lock video release. It’s a mixed bag in which quality doesn’t necessarily equal success.

Sensation: This bucolic Irish comedy has a fundamental flaw: It’s a bucolic comedy. Donal, the underachiever son of a deceased farmer discovers he has an affinity for business, but not the education or any social skills. Easy to predict, he becomes a pimp and falls in love with his only working girl (it’s like Napoleon Dynamite, only Irish and rated R). There is a sweetness to the procedures, which goes to the dogs as the business unexpectedly begins to prosper. If there is anything to rescue from Sensation is the protagonist, Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan), soon to bring his amazing blank-piece-of-paper charisma to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Two Prairie Dogs. Distribution? Not a chance.

Conviction: Hilary Swank, who despite winning two Oscars before hitting 40, still has serious problems to land worthy roles. In Conviction, Swank turns stubborness into a virtue, like in every other movie she has been. The movie is a completely average courtroom drama saved by the acting. Based on a real-life travesty of justice, Betty Ann Walters had to put herself through law school and beat the legal system in order to reverse her brother’s conviction for murder in the first degree. Swank and the always watchable Sam Rockwell make the close ties between the Walters kids believable, but there is nothing remarkable about this flick. Two and a half Prairie Dogs. Distribution? Mainstream release, but I would wait until premieres in cable.

Dirty Girl: This day would be a write-off if it wasn’t because of this teenage comedy set in the Eighties. Danielle (Juno Temple, Atonement), the most “popular” girl in school, ends in the special-ed class because of her promiscuous behavior. She is matched with overweight, nerdy Clarke (promising newcomer Jeremy Dozier) for one of those “maternity” projects that are supposed to teach kids responsibility. A predictable Hollywood sex romp would have them fall in love despite appearance and reputation. But Dirty Girl throws a curve ball by making Clarke gay and turning the parents into villains. With solid supporting performances by Milla Jovovich (finally!) and the reliably scummy Dwight Yoakam, Dirty Girl is a complete blast. Three and a half Prairie Dogs. Distribution? Just locked, thankfully.

Repeaters: Canadian filmmaker Carl Bessai brought to Toronto the least “Carl Bessai” movie ever (i.e. character-heavy, pretentious). Repeaters is a cheap thriller that borrows heavily from Bill Murray masterpiece Groundhog Day. Up-and-commers Dustin Milligan, Richard De Klerk and the very cute Amanda Crew (Charlie St. Cloud) are three drug addicts in rehab who find themselves reliving the same day, over and over (Groundhog Day!) The threesome goes through the same stages than Phil Connors: fear, wonder, abuse, despair, redemption (Groundhog Day!), but one of them gets stuck in the hedonistic part of the process. Only when the group splinters Repeaters develops its own identity. Too little, too late. Even the moral of the story is identical: Only good deeds will set you free. I have another one: Cheaters never win. Two Prairie Dogs. Distribution: In Canada.

That’s it from me at TIFF. For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while. See you at the movies.

Toronto International Film Festival – Day Eight: The Mavericks

Two of the most interesting filmmakers currently at work premiered new films at TIFF. Even though one is considerably older than the other, they share the same mischievous strain.

Werner Herzog and Danny Boyle both started as outsiders. Herzog early days were marred to notorious madman Klaus Kinski. Their five films together (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Nosferatu…) were grueling shouting matches that got so bad, weapons became involved. And yet, the outcome was every single time, breathtaking (Kinski had to die in order to end this sadomasochistic relationship.) More than Herzog finding a way into the industry, Hollywood opened up to the German filmmaker: Off-kilter films like Rescue Down and the remake of Bad Lieutenant were at least released in North America, which is more than can be said about his earlier movies. His documentary Encounters at the End of the World even provided him with an Oscar nomination.

Danny Boyle’s relation with the film industry is a bit more tortuous. His morally ambiguous Trainspotting opened Hollywood doors for him, but after two massive bombs (The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary), Boyle had to head back to Britain. While he maintained a relative notoriety in cult circles, his rehabilitation didn’t kick in until the improbable success the Slumdog Millionarie.

Now, you would think these two would be playing it safe now. According to the films they brought to TIFF, not even close.

In the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the irrepressible Herzog uses 3D technology to bring the audience into the Chauvet Cave. The grotto, located in the south of France, features the oldest paintings known to man, at least 32,000 years old (just so you have an idea, creationists believe the world is not even ten thousand). Because of the delicate nature of the drawings, the access is restricted. Herzog being Herzog manages to obtain gorgeous shots of the heavily calcified cave, and leads us through this journey with a childish wonder. The filmmaker’s main concern in this stage of his career is to find what makes us human, a quest that at times becomes abstract and tiresome. But, who can question the validity of his pursuit? Fit to form, Herzog closing sequence features an albino crocodile. Three and a half prehistoric prairie dogs.

Boyle’s transgression is within the margins of a Hollywood production, but I’ll be damn if he doesn’t tests those boundaries. 127 Hours tells the true story of extreme adventurer Aron Ralston (a never better James Franco). While hiking down a canyon in Utah, a massive rock dislodged and pinned Ralston’s arm against a wall. Ralston struggled to stay sane and alive for five days. The outcome of his struggle is not for the faint of heart -really gruesome stuff- but the end is just exhilarating.

More than telling a survival story, Boyle main interest is in the choices people make that lead them to predicaments like Ralston’s. The Oscar winning filmmaker allegedly finished the movie fifteen hours before its premiere in Toronto. I saw him pacing nervously as the projection copy was late for the screening (he defused the tension of the wait by apologizing profusely to press and industry types. Class act). There wasn’t anything to worry about. The film is spectacular. Four prairie slumdogs.

Tomorrow, the end.

Toronto International Film Festival – Day Seven: The Lightning Round

TIFF is winding down: The last day for press and industry (and yours truly) is this Friday. So many movies, so little sleep. These are the movies currently making noise in Toronto (and not for the best reasons.)

The Last Circus: Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia has mostly failed to conquer the North American market, despite being a marquee name in Europe (he just won the best director prize in Venice, but probably because he was friends with Tarantino). His pitch black comedy The Last Circus probably won’t open the doors of the Canadian market for him, but you would have to look hard for a more insane flick. Two psychopathic clowns battle to death for the love of an unbalanced circus acrobat with the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship as background. De la Iglesia inserts his characters into some of the most traumatic events the country endured, and while it lacks coherence, The Last Circus is so gleefully violent and demented, it’s hard to hold it against it. Three dumbfounded prairie dogs (out of five).

Black Swan: Thanks to the skillful direction of Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), Natalie Portman is now the frontrunner in the Oscar race. Portman is sensational as Nina, the ballerina succumbing to the pressure of being the lead of the New York Ballet production of “Swan Lake”. (As somebody who has seen “Swan Lake” way too many times, I never realized the same girl regularly plays the Swan Queen and the Black Swan.) It’s the need to tap in her dark side that consumes Nina, but somebody could be exploiting her unraveling for personal gain. Unseemly special effects, mundane but disturbing images and superb performances by Portman, Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis (!) put the Black Swan in the same league than The Shining. Aronofsky not only keeps a potentially absurd premise from derailing, but turns it into a thrilling experience. Four and a half prairie dogs or ten swans (in swan scale).

Stone: So far, the festival biggest bomb. Truth is, the name of Robert De Niro in the credits doesn’t mean much anymore, but now he is dragging Edward Norton down with him. As the unlikable parole officer of a state prison, De Niro gets conned by a convict claiming a religious conversion and his smoking hot wife (Milla Jovovich) who seduces him. I kept waiting for a twist that would make Stone remotely interesting, but it never came. Considering this is the second horrible movie De Niro and Norton do together (the first one was The Score), somebody should request a restriction order to keep them away from each other. One prairie dog bored out of its mind.

13 Assassins: Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike works too much for his own good. He pops one or two movies a year that seem half-baked compared to his most notorious efforts, Audition and Ichi, The Killer. For most of its length, 13 Assassins seems just as mediocre, even cheap, but the exhilarating final half hour is among the best Miike has ever directed. In the tradition of the American western, twelve samurais and a savage agree to confront the sadistic Lord Naritsugu, who gets a kick from killing and maiming his people and may push feudal Japan into a civil war. The final act pitches the samurais against Narigatsu and 200 of his men. Believe it or not, Miike shows restrain, making the looming carnage all the more effective. The kicker: Fire bulls (grab a bull, set it on fire, and send it in the enemy’s direction). First 90 minutes: Two prairie dogs. Last half hour: Four dogs.

Tabloid: Once upon a time, there was a beauty queen called Joyce McKinney. In the early Seventies, Joyce fell in love with a Mormon guy and she thought it was reciprocal. The Mormon disappeared and Joyce sunk in despair. Years later, the love of her life reappeared in England, but he didn’t seem to share the same feelings anymore. What’s a girl to do? Kidnap the guy, chain him, jump his bones and hope he’ll come around. That’s just the beginning of a story that gave British tabloids material for years. From outside, the film seems a minor piece in Errol Morris acclaimed career (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War), but Tabloid it’s actually brilliant, simultaneously compassionate and critical. The malaise of celebrity obsession and the symbiotic relation between paparazzi and their subjects are deftly deal with. Morris doesn’t pontificate and acknowledges the best way to tell Joyce McKinney story is to point and shoot. One prairie dog cloned four and a half times.

Tomorrow, Danny Boyle and James Franco go spelunking.

Toronto International Film Festival – Day Six: So sad

Sometimes, it happens this way: You have scheduled four solid but terribly depressing films back-to-back. In the last twelve hours I endured — as a spectator– parental grief, institutionalized human trafficking, a marriage dissolution and, the capper, a Holocaust story.

The excellent “Rabbit Hole” is easily Nicole Kidman’s best movie since “The Hours”. Eight months after their only child’s death, Becca and Howie Corbett (Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) are having problems coping. While Howie has found some solace in a supporting group, Becca would have none of it. Her survival mechanism consists of walling up and attempting to erase the existence of her son. Her strategy is bound to collapse, but is Howie’s that much better?

The most interesting aspect of Rabbit Hole is that the entire film is about grief. Furthermore, the movie believes that pain and how we deal with it is a private matter. Rabbit Hole has little patience for religion or people with the best intentions who are perceived as intruders.

The film is directed by — of all people — by John Cameron Mitchell, whose previous efforts (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) didn’t quite indicate he had the light touch displayed in Rabbit Hole.

It’s also a wonderful showcase for Kidman and Eckhart. One of their blow-outs is so uncomfortable, you feel like you’re prying.

Four mournful prairie dogs (out of five). Continue reading “Toronto International Film Festival – Day Six: So sad”

Toronto International Film Festival – Day Five: Tales from beyond

One of the joys of TIFF is unlimited access to foreign films, a liberty discerning audiences don’t have the rest of the year as multiplexes around the world would rather dedicate most screens to Hollywood churn du jour. But I digress.

Other than originality and pace, the narrative is usually different. There is no need to fill in the characters’ past, or explain their behavior, or even give them closure. The three act structure is frequently dismissed, and this lack of consistency from one movie to the other keeps the audience on their toes.

Even terrible movies like the German engineered “Three” can’t be called average. Directed by former wunderkind Tom Twyker (“The International”, “Perfume”), “Three” is his first film shot by Twyker in the motherland since “Run Lola Run” (1998). In fact, it deals with matters European cinema started handling more than ten years ago, such as bisexuality and infidelity as practices accepted within a marriage.

Hanna and Simon, a couple very much settled in their ways, fall in love separately -but at the same time- with Adam. The comedic potential of this premise is squandered by focusing Simon mourning the loss of one of his testicles to cancer, and Hanna contemplating maternity at forty-something.

“Three” drags for over two hours and it becomes redundant. The film main contribution to the discussion about marriage is “sure, go for it, but don’t expect much. Actually, keep your options open in case of boredom.” Wow, groundbreaking.

One bi-curious prairie dog. Continue reading “Toronto International Film Festival – Day Five: Tales from beyond”

Toronto International Film Festival – Day Four: The rookie and the pro

Hell of a thing to interview Ben Affleck and Stephen Frears back to back. Affleck is in Toronto to present his second film as director, “The Town”. Frears is (reluctantly) doing the same, except that his movie “Tamara Drewe” is his thirtieth effort.

While Affleck is clearly exhausted as he promotes “The Town” (in which he is also the lead), Frears is an affable grouch who doesn’t allow himself to get tired doing press rounds. In fact, the journalists are the ones who must put the extra effort to extract some words from Frears beyond a “yes” or a “no”.

The effort pays off, as Frears has some interesting things to say. For starters, he doesn’t believe in the idea of directors as “authors”. He defines himself as a craftsman who happens to have good taste and a lot of luck. The man behind “Dangerous Liaisons”, “High Fidelity” and “The Grifters” assures he got away with murder with “The Queen” and states that he only watches his films if they are on TV some lazy afternoon. Even then, the first thing that he notices is whatever he did wrong at the time.

Frears honesty is refreshing as a man who has nothing to prove or pretend. Affleck, on the other hand, is trying to change the public perception of his persona. To a degree, he has been successful (Beniffer is now just a faint memory), but the acclaim that followed “Good Will Hunting” has eluded him since then.

For “The Town”, Affleck talked with other actor/directors, did massive amounts of research in to fleshen up the screenplay, and nearly had the entire town of Boston at his mercy. The outcome is strong, although too similar to modern classics like “Heat” and “The Departed”. Frears film, “Tamara Drewe” is in the top tier of his filmography and, by his own confession, didn’t break a sweat while making it.

Both approaches are perfectly valid, but Frears is more sustainable in time. He could use some of Affleck sense of duty to move from ‘solid’ to ‘sublime’. As for Ben, he is on the right track, but he needs to stop taking himself so seriously.

Toronto International Film Festival – Day Three: I’ve seen nothin’

For Day Three, I only have one movie to comment. It’s not laziness, but the Mongrel party lasted longer than expected (plus, open bar). Also, I had the chance to interview Josh Brolin, star of the upcoming “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps” and “You’ll Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”.

I’ll go into more detail when we publish the interview in Prairie Dog, but it has to be said Brolin is extremely easy going, unlike others (other journalist have complained of one particular actor whose first foray into directing debuts at TIFF. The thespian is apparently standoffish and monosyllabic in his answers. A clue? He is an Oscar winner.) Brolin is mesmerized by the US Open semifinals (he is a Rafael Nadal fan) and even though is evident he would rather watch the game, he is engaging and disarmingly honest. He knows how to work a crowd.

Celebrity sightings have increased tenfold. Colin Firth cruises by the Metropolitan Hotel lobby, followed by his co-star in the Bridget Jones saga, Gemma Jones (could a reunion be in the works? God, I hope not). Emma Stone’s hair is supernaturally red. Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”, “Slumdog Millionaire”) wants to make sure the projection of his spelunking drama “127 hours” will be flawless.

As for the one movie I’ve seen today (after I finish here, I’ll be attending a screening of “The Town” with Ben Affleck and Jon Hamm), “Tamara Drewe” is a charming dramatic comedy, with a gallery of satirical characters most of whom are actually more interesting than the aforementioned Tamara.

In a small town in the British countryside, the biggest celebrity is crime novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam, the villain in “Speed Racer”). Hardiment and his long-suffering wife host a “writers retreat” every summer. The visitors are not only treated with Hardiment haughtiness and frequent escapades, but with the idiosyncratic village people (not to be mistaken with the Village People.) The latest addition to the group is the stunning Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton, “Prince of Persia”), a knock-out beauty who nevertheless is as insecure as a teenager with a big nose. In fact, Tamara used to be one until she got a nose job.

More than the flimsy plot (based in the graphic novel of the same name), director Stephen Frears focuses in this collection of lovely characters and their interactions. As the drummer of an EMO band, Dominic Cooper steals the show thanks to a precise dissection of the self-absorbed rocker. “Tamara Drewe” leaves you with this thought: Jerks always get the girls, but they don’t know how to keep them. Three and a half entitled Prairie Dogs.

Tomorrow “The Town” and meeting Don Draper, face to face.

Toronto International Film Festival – Day Two: Attack of the Clones

I’m dispatching a little earlier than usual as I’m heading to the Mongrel TIFF party. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you stuff you are not supposed to know.

Day Two was considerably superior to the opening. Three strong American films made their debut, two of which are likely to be Oscar nominated. The third is likely to sit in the middle of Woody Allen’s filmography: Not bad, not amazing.

Charles Ferguson, the filmmaker who did such a superior job explaining the Iraq quagmire in “No End in Sight”, attempts to do the same with the financial collapse of 2008. “Inside Job” is a tough pill to swallow. Despite Ferguson commendable efforts to make sense of it, the subprime mortgage crisis demands a lot from the public. It doesn’t escape Ferguson that Wall Street is actually counting on this widespread ignorance to get away with murder.

I won’t go into details about the chain of events that caused the recession we are still enduring, but the info is likely to trigger your righteous anger. The incestuous relationship between the investment banks and the White House –no matter the administration- is seriously disturbing. Even more disgusting, it seems everybody -starting with Alan Greenspan- was aware the economic model exploited by Wall Street was not sustainable.

“Inside Job” logic is incontestable. Charles Ferguson goes further than Michael Moore in “Capitalism: A Love Story” because he doesn’t need bombastic statements to make his point. This allows him access to sources that would never speak to the director of “Fahrenheit 9/11”. “Inside Job” also investigates the most prestigious university faculties to discover ethics is not high in the curriculum. I’ll meet Ferguson on Sunday. I hope I won’t come out as a rube. Four bankrupt Prairie Dogs.

“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”, Woody Allen’s latest flick is bound to be polarizing. As in the underrated “Whatever Works”, Allen’s theme is the pursuit of happiness. Two deeply unhappy couples go on separate ways in order to satisfy their extremely selfish cravings. Anthony Hopkins marries a much younger former escort, his ex (Gemma Jones) finds solace in a clairvoyant who is more of a people pleaser than a true psychic. Their daughter (Naomi Watts) entertains the possibility of an affair with a married man (Antonio Banderas), while her husband (Josh Brolin) amuses himself ogling the hot number across the street.

It takes a while for “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” to get going. In fact, such meandering pace makes you wonder if this is a point somewhere. But midway through, the movie hits a stride and eventually leaves the audience with the following message: The happiest people on Earth are also the most delusional. Even for Woody Allen parameters, the ending is extremely open. Then again, so it’s life. Three Prairie Dogs.

Based on the best seller by Kazuo Ishiguro, “Never Let Me Go” seems designed to become Oscar bait. With a cast full of British up and comers (Carey Mulligan, the new Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, Sally Hawkins), the film does a nice job synthesizing Ishiguro’s novel, although its emotional charge gets lost in translation

There is a big spoiler that’s unavoidable, so if you want to remain in the dark, stop reading now. Tommy, Kathy and Ruth attend Hailsham, a charming boarding school that encourages their artistic inclinations and protect their innocence.

Before you start thinking “Oh, like Hogwarts”, it must be said all the students at Hailsham are clones, whose sole purpose in life is to serve as donors shortly into adulthood. At school, they are indoctrinated into believing whatever they are told to prevent them from fighting their destiny. To make the bleak subject more palatable, there is a love triangle: The evident affection Kathy (Mulligan) and Tommy (Garfield) feel for each other is thwarted by Ruth (Keira Knightley) not one to be outdone by a wallflower like Kathy. The conflict begins during childhood and makes it all the way into the bitter end.

It sounds sci-fi, but it’s anything but. The big themes the film touches -what does it mean to be human? Is art a window to the soul? Is life without hope worth living? – are extremely compelling ideas, but “Never Let Me Go” comes short in its effort to translate such abstract concerns into relatable drama. Something that still bothers me is why escaping is not a possibility. Maybe the answer is in the book. Three and a half cloned Prairie Dogs.

Tomorrow, the latest of Stephen Frears, Ben Affleck sophomore effort as director, and meeting Josh Brolin.

Toronto International Film Festival – Day One: Hockey and musicals don’t mix

One of the problems of facing 300 movies is that you are bound to miss some good ones. Also, you are likely to come across a few lemons.

My score today: One (depressing) triumph, three duds.

The TIFF kicked off with a complete rarity, a film from Kyrgyzstan, “The Light Thief”. With any luck, Kyrgyzstan produces one movie a year, and they normally involve actor-director Aktan Abdykalykov. The film begins promisingly, following the escapades of Svet-Ake, a Robin Hood of sorts who steals electricity for the homes that can’t afford it. Soon enough, “The Light Thief” abandons the charming, low-key adventures of Svet-Ake and his neighbours and becomes political. The endearing protagonist becomes a pawn in a struggle between the town elders and a hotshot politico who wants to sell the land to the Chinese.

The intrigue is poorly managed and leads towards an abrupt, unwieldy ending that left many people at the theatre scratching their heads. That being said, Abdykalykov has the potential to become the Kiarostami from Kyrgyzstan. Two Prairie Dogs.

“Score: A Hockey Musical” was the main course in this first day of TIFF. This well intentioned, ballsy effort from director Michael McGowan (“One Week”) wasn’t successful in its quest. “Score” is a film so earnest, so open in its intention to please, it becomes clingy. A home-schooled, pampered kid becomes Brampton hockey sensation, much to the chagrin of his granola-eating, NDP-voting intellectual parents. The gravy train comes to an end once is discover the kid can’t fight for the life of him. His pacifism puts him at odds with his teammates and the blood-thirsty fans.

McGowan, who seems to have the matter of Canadian identity pat down, dump too much sugar in this puppy: While the music is delectably pop, the lyrics are forced, needlessly peculiar. Even bringing Olivia Newton-John back to musicals after “Xanadu” can’t get “Score” a passing grade. With time, it could become a camp classic (plus, newcomer Allie McDonald is super cute.) Two Prairie Dogs.

If somebody invites you to see a movie by the director of “Babel” and “21 Grams”, you know already it won’t be a comedy. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu latest “Biutiful” (sic) is relentlessly grim. When you think nothing worse can possibly happen to the main character, all you have to do is wait a couple of minutes and BOOM!

Javier Bardem is totally game as Uxbal, a peddler who makes a living as a middle man between illegal immigrants and potential employers. Luck has it, Uxbal discovers vey late he suffers of prostate cancer, and only has a few more months to live. The protagonist main concerns are to accumulate enough money for his two kids and find somebody to take care of them. His manic depressive ex-wife is not an option, let alone his unscrupulous brother.

In a major departure from his previous films, Gonzalez Inarritu tells the story straightforwardly, as opposed to the jigsaw puzzles he used to craft. He is one of the very few filmmakers able to portrait poverty on screen in a believable manner. Bardem is brilliant balancing morally questionable behavior with likeability. My only beef with “Biutiful” is the pile of tragedies that fall upon Uxbal. One begins to wonder if the director is just doing it for sport. No matter. Gonzalez Inarritu knows gritty. Four Prairie Dogs.

The biggest lemon of the day was the Swedish movie “Bad Faith”, which in all likelihood won’t be coming to a multiplex near you ever. Think of a procedural in which nobody knows what’s happening, nobody is willing to communicate or explain their behavior, and all the characters are jerks. The painfully slow hunt of a serial killer at hands of a self-absorbed woman is so boring, the only moment of true tension is the murder of a cat. Many people walked out of this flick, not because the feline untimely demise, but the unbearable boredom surrounding it. Half a Prairie Dog. Or a full dead cat.

Tomorrow, Woody Allen latest, clones with feelings, and another look to the financial meltdown.

Toronto International Film Festival – Day zero: Buried in movies

From today and for the entire length of the TIFF, I’ll be blogging about the most interesting aspects of the most popular film festival out there. It’s not Cannes, but then again, can you name the latest winner of the Palm D’Or? I’ll give you a hand: “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

This year is TIFF biggest year ever, to the point Clint Eastwood and Bruce Springsteen will be in Toronto presenting movies. A total of 300 films will be concentrated in eleven days, not to mention innumerable press conferences, public appearances, free activities, and dozens of filmmakers hoping their flicks will be picked up by a distributor.

I had the chance to see two movies that will be premiering at TIFF in advance. “Buried” is a tour de force for its star, Ryan Reynolds. A comedy specialist whose acting chops are rarely on display, Reynolds plays a man locked in a coffin and buried. His story slowly comes out: He is a trucker working in Iraq whose convoy was attacked. The trucker’s only tools to somehow prevent his death are a lighter and a semi charged cell phone.

Despite the fact we never see anything else but Ryan Reynolds and the coffin, “Buried” is gripping. Turns out, a lot things can happen inside a wooden box six feet under (the least I say, the better). Reynolds does a fine job embodying the anger, horror and anxiety that come with the situation. It’s not a transcendental piece, but darn if you won’t be entertained.

“Made in Dagenham” is one of those social-oriented flicks the British do so well. Tells the story of the hundred or so women employed by Ford Dagenham who went on strike in an effort to be paid as much as the men. “Made in Dagenham” is hardly groundbreaking, but the female cast does an amazing job with Sally Hawkins (“Happy Go Lucky”) and Miranda Richardson as the standouts. More than anti-establishment, the film is pro-working class. The only problem is that the story has been embellished in order to make it more palatable. Check Wikipedia after watching the film and find out the real outcome of the strike.

Tomorrow, the latest of Javier Bardem and the intrinsically Canadian “Score: A Hockey Musical”. And perhaps some more of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

“The Last Airbender” is THAT bad

Because of the brilliancy of a couple of his films (“The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable”), I’ve always been willing to give M. Night Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt.

That ends now.

“The Last Airbender” is about as bad as other Summer fiascos such as “Jonah Hex”, “SATC2” and “Grown Ups”, only considerably more expensive (it reportedly cost over 250 million dollars.) “Airbender” crams a full season of the TV show that inspired the movie in two hours by having the actors spitting chunks of the plot in between action set pieces. This is done with such little concern for the plot denuenment, “Airbender” frequently doesn’t make any sense, and you don’t see Shyamalan losing any sleep on it.

Even by conceding that audiences are not looking for stories, but special effects, “Airbender” comes short. Don’t bother wasting three extra dollars for barely-there 3-D. Because of the extra layer between you and the screen, you’ll perceive the movie as extra dark, for no good reason.

Perhaps the most obscene aspect of “The Last Airbender” is the shameless set up for a sequel. Will it happen? Actually, there is a chance, as Shyamalan latest has made over 32 million dollars since opening day. Can film critics compete against the hype? Because  of dishonest movies like “Airbender”, it’s worth the try.

World Cup 2010: South American joyride

Up to South Africa 2010, the ongoing battle between Latin American and European teams for World Cup glory was very much even. This time around, however, the five squads from down the Ecuador are demonstrating a level of strength only Germany can match somewhat (the least we talk about France and Italy, the better.)

Europe brought this near debacle onto itself. Instead of developing homegrown talent, the biggest European clubs prefer to pay insane amounts of money for skillful players from across the Atlantic. The fact Cristiano Ronaldo is from Portugal is almost an accident (plus CR9 hasn’t quite set the World Cup on fire.)

It also helped the Latin American teams had to play a grueling total of 18 games for five spots in the World Cup. There is an style behind Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina’s game that comes from playing as a team regularly.

Among the fab five, I particularly like Chile’s strategy. Call me bias, but coach Marcelo Bielsa offensive set-up makes for a great show. No other team has three forward players, it’s far more likely to find five defenders.

While the effectiveness is missing (Chile has only scored twice this far), it’s a joy to watch a team aiming forward as opposed to preventing the other from scoring. Despite winning two matches out of two, a defeat against Spain on Friday may keep the Chileans from the knock-out phase. Here is hoping fortune favors the brave.