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TORONTO ’08 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | “Hurt Locker” Explodes, “Zack and Miri,” “Lymelife” and “Nowhere” Fin

TORONTO '08 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | "Hurt Locker" Explodes, "Zack and Miri," "Lymelife" and "Nowhere" Fin

Thanks to pulse pounding action involving Iraq War soldiers responsible for disarming bombs; a cast of compelling young male leads and a gritty visual style that syncs perfectly with its desert wartime setting – “The Hurt Locker” reintroduces veteran director Kathryn Bigelow to audiences as a filmmaker at the top of her game and offers the first Iraq War movie with strong box office potential. Pairing Mark Boal‘s (co-writer on “In the Valley of Elah“) pitch-perfect script and Bigelow’s expertise at crafting action and suspense, “The Hurt Locker” shows strong chances at crossover business, drawing young teens with its action and art-house moviegoers with its likely word-of-mouth, critical acclaim. “Hurt Locker” looks to be one of a handful of films exiting Toronto on a wave of enthusiastic praise and Bigelow’s first major release since 2002’s “K-19: The Widowmaker.”

Despite its bold look, in some ways, “Hurt Locker” is a simply told tale, young soldiers, led by a new sergeant, James (Jeremy Renner), face daily risks and challenges as member of a U.S. bomb disposal team; classic war movie storytelling. But Boal, a longtime journalist and emerging scriptwriter, adds welcome complexity to these young soldiers, especially in the character of James, as young heroes in a complex war that continues to generate more controversy than patriotism. Jeremy Renner, known for roles in “28 Days Later” and “North Country,” receives the best character in his acting career in James, and he gives a career-making performance. Troubled by his passion for his job and the constant stresses of his duties, Renner makes James into one of the most compelling, complex, unforgettable screen heroes in recent memory.

Reaching a terrifying climax involving the race to disarm bombs forced upon an innocent Iraqi father, “Hurt Locker” is youthful and audience friendly in all the best ways. Yet, its intelligence and great lead performances provide a good chance at crossover appeal.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” the latest from indie film veteran Kevin Smith and a Weinstein Company release, also leaves Toronto with signs of solid box office potential, although its crossover prospects are different from “Hurt Locker.” Less daring than Smith’s best film, 1999’s “Dogma,” and unlikely to match the critical love for his debut comedy, 1994’s “Clerks,” “Zack and Miri” will likely unite Smith’s cultish fan base with mainstream moviegoers thanks to the proven track record of gross-out comedies and popular leads Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks. Gags involving sex and every bodily discharge imaginable revolve around lifelong friends Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Banks), two blue-collar Pittsburghers in serious debt. The popularity of a YouTube video featuring Miri in “granny” underpants inspires the couple to make porno for profit. Of course, along the way, comical obstacles unfold.

When it comes to generating laughs, Banks out-performs the more popular Rogen, confirming her status as one of film’s best comediennes. While “Zack and Miri” may leave comedy fans wanting more; more belly laughs, better gross-out slapstick, Smith’s script offers just enough to keep longtime fans content. More importantly, new fans, those who see “Zack and Miri” as the new Seth Rogen movie and not a Kevin Smith movie will enjoy their favorite Hollywood comedy star diving into new levels of crudeness. The film’s strongest setback involves its haphazard pacing, further proof that Smith should employ someone else to handle editing duties. Still, poor editing is unlikely to stop audience reaction to what may turn out to be Smith’s top box-office performer.

Like “Zack and Miri,” director Derick Martini benefits from strong performances and the audience friendliness of his two young leads, Rory Culkin and Emma Roberts, the standout stars of his period family drama “Lymelife.” The film is the story of fifteen-year-old Scott Bartlett (Culkin) who watches his family break apart in 1970s Long Island. Luckily for Scott, his neighbor and would-be girlfriend Adrianna (Roberts) is there to help him sort through the mess. Cinematographer Frank Godwin and production designer Kelly McGehee give “Lymelife” professional luster and perfect period details. The film’s most glaring flaw is its lack of originality; an embrace of formula with too little risks. Arguably, the film’s best moment comes at its finale, in a scene where Derek Martini and brother, co-writer Steve Martini find the perfect, pessimistic tone for the story. More scenes like the finale an “Lymelife” would be exceptional instead of just enjoyable.

A scene from John Stockwell’s “Middle of Nowhere.” Image courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

While not in the same league as director Ang Lee‘s “The Ice Storm,” arguably the best American film about troubled families in seventies suburbia; “Lymelife’s” high-profile cast and proven formula should appeal to buyers who envision the film as an American art-house release. More importantly, a film outfit would be wise to promote the film as star-making turns for Culkin and Roberts.

The likable mix of a tried-and-true, coming-of-age tale about two teens, one wealthy, the other not, matched with plush production values and attractive leads brings strong box office potential to director John Stockwell‘s “Middle of Nowhere,” the veteran Hollywood director’s first independent film and best effort since his popular surfer girl movie “Blue Crush.”

Bad behavior by seventeen-year-old Dorian (Anton Yelchin) results in his wealthy parents sending him off to his uncle’s to work and get his act together. His summer takes a turn for the better when his co-worker at the local water park where he works, the slightly older Grace (Eva Amurri), catches his eye. She’s pretty and everything he’s not: focused on the future, responsible and doing whatever she can to save enough money for college. Eva’s desperate need for money, her father is dead and her mother (Susan Sarandon) is financially irresponsible, gives Dorian an entry. He has a business proposal for Eva; one that’s too good to pass.

“Middle of Nowhere” sparks to life every time Yelchin, best known for the indie comedy “Charlie Bartlett,” and newcomer Amurri appear together, which to Stockwell’s advantage is throughout the film. Thanks to dead-on dialogue from actress-turned-screenwriter Michelle Morgan, Yelchin and Amurri sparkle together. Theirs is more friendship tale than teen romance. Sarandon, playing the type of firecracker mom that’s quickly becoming her trademark, brings “Middle of Nowhere” added box office prospects.

Still, “Middle of Nowhere’s” greatest surprises originate from the director’s chair. Aided by cameraman Byron Shah, Stockwell accentuates his film with tranquil moments of visual beauty featuring lingering shots of kids at play at the water park. While teen audiences will respond to the film’s young leads, art-house devotees will find pleasure in the film’s visual beauty and smart storytelling. For the first time, Stockwell has the chance for critical acclaim in addition to commercial success.

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