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TORONTO ’08 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Veteran Filmmakers Stand Out With “Last Stop” While Newcomers Delive

TORONTO '08 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Veteran Filmmakers Stand Out With "Last Stop" While Newcomers Delive

British director Nigel Cole, best known for the popular art-house comedies “Saving Grace” and “Calendar Girls,” introduced his latest film, the father/son road drama “$5 A Day,” by explaining to the Toronto International Film Festival audiences at its Saturday night premiere its qualifications as a classic independent feature. Cole, also a veteran of television sitcoms and nature documentaries, emphasized the film’s low budget, short shooting schedule and salary sacrifices made by the cast and crew. More importantly, he singled out his lead actor, Christopher Walken, a marquee name of independent features and the standout feature of Cole’s by-the-numbers; surprisingly unfunny film.

When it comes to the Toronto, the most important fall event for generating Oscar momentum and attention, there is strength in cast awareness and a filmmaker’s track record. Audience anticipation is a given for someone like Cole with critical and audience favorites to his name. First-time directors, like Jeffrey Levy-Hinte with the exuberant concert documentary “Soul Power” and co-directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, the visionaries behind the brutally frightening boys-behaving-badly horror “Deadgirl” have to generate their awareness from scratch.

One of the few festival acquisitions so far was “$5 A Day,” which Image Entertainment acquired North American distribution rights from Capitol Films. It’s easy to understand the commercial value of the film with a likable cast including Sharon Stone, Amanda Peet and Alessandro Nivola as son Flynn Parker and Walken as his con artist father, Nat. But with the exception of a sequence where Walken crashes a company party — one in which he displays his much-admired dance skills with another man’s wife — “$5” fails to build consistent laughs or a single surprise. Amanda Road dramas, especially those involving an estranged parent and child who quickly reconnect, are tried and true. Walken fans, the core audience for Cole’s film, will leave disappointed due to the lack of surprises and emotional payoffs from screenwriters Neal H. Dobrofsky and Tippi Dobrofsky. Without a script equal to its high profile cast, “$5 A Day” looks to achieve better success on home video instead of in cinemas.

A perfect companion drama to the 2002 documentary “Bus 174,” about the hijacking of Rio de Janeiro bus and the live TV broadcast of the crime, qualifies “Last Stop 174” as veteran Brazilian filmmaker Bruno Barreto‘s best film since 1974’s “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.” “Last Stop 174’s” greatest payoff comes at the tense climax, when Sandro (Michel Gomes), a teenage thief, hijacks a city bus. Before its emotional finish, Barreto strings together fast-paced suspense and bursts of heart-wrenching human drama. There’s not a false moment in the film. The best surprise of “Last Stop 174” is how writer Braulio Mantovini builds compelling back-stories involving Sandro, his partner-in-crime Alessandro (Marcello Melo Jr.) and his would be girlfriend Soninha (Gabriela Luiz). These characters provide welcome depth and understanding to Sandro’s story. Cameraman Antoine Heberle beautifully captures Rio’s grit and glamour. Michel Gomes turns in a career-making performance as “Last Stop 174’s” complex criminal. For Barreto, who has retained a solid reputation over 18 feature films, “Last Stop 174,” repped by Myriad Pictures, points to the fact that his best work may still lie ahead.

A scene from Bruno Barreto’s “Last Stop 174.” Image courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The bold sign that Nik Fackler is a first-time filmmaker with much to learn; one incapable of matching the lofty talents of his veteran leads Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn; occurs in the second half of his seniors romance “Lovely, Still.” Up until that time, the overly sweet romance between Robert Malone (Landau) and a new neighbor named Mary (Burstyn), works thanks to the skill and chemistry between the film’s talented leads. Near the film’s end, after audiences have grown attached to the elderly lovers, Fackler turns matters dark and solemn. It’s a clumsy transition; one that’s not the least surprising. Audiences who seek out “Lovely, Still,” repped by Parts and Labor & North Sea Films, as a film in the vein of the recent elderly romance “Elsa & Fred” will leave disappointed by the film’s solemn payoff. Still not all is lost for Fackler. “Lovely, Still” shows strong technical skills and an ability to generate strong performances from his cast. Consider “Lovely, Still” as the first step to another directing project and a chance to hone his storytelling skills.

Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, a longtime producer on art-house fare directing his first feature film, delivers on all fronts with his perfectly constructed, audience-pleasing concert documentary “Soul Power.” Using archival footage left over from director Leon Gast‘s acclaimed documentary “When We Were Kings,” Levy-Hinte recreates a high-energy look at “Zaire ’74,” the three-day music festival accompanying the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, featuring James Brown, BB King and other musical legends. Levy-Hinte worked on “When We Were Kings” as an editor and his knowledge of the footage shows throughout the film. Companies who make documentary films a staple of the release schedule would be wise to acquire “Soul Power,” from Antidote International Films. “Soul Power” is fun and beautiful to watch thanks to the amazing footage shot by “King’s” incredible cameramen including Albert Maysles. The best numbers belong to James Brown but every musical artist delivers throughout the concert. If there is one fault with Levy-Hinte’s film, it’s that his musical footage far outshines anything else in the movie, including great scenes with Ali. During the brief moments when the music stops, you crave Levy-Hinte to return quickly to the music.

Two new faces at Toronto who show more artistic verve and bravery than many of the festival’s masters are co-directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, the filmmakers behind the clever, scary, unsettlingly sexual teenage bondage thriller “Deadgirl.” In the pulse-pounding story, high-school friends Rickie and JT skip school and break into an abandoned mental hospital for usual male mischief. Once inside, they discover the body of naked girl tied to a table. Once they decide to keep the woman imprisoned, matters turn bloody very quickly. “Deadgirl” is one the smartest teen horrors I’ve watched in some time, a nervy twist on “Saw“-inspired victim movies. Companies that do not shy away from controversy and are willing to take risks in order to grasp a youthful audience would be wise to get in business with Sarmiento and Harel. “Deadgirl,” from HollywoodMade, invites gory comparisons to recent thrillers like “Hostel” and “Teeth” and delivers all the shocks horror fans demand. Any controversy that the film would generate due to the brutal treatment of its core female victim may help build interest from non-horror fans inclined to watch controversial art-house fare. Screened in the early hours of Sunday, the Toronto Festival audience who watched “Deadgirl” appeared shocked and awed. For newcomers Sarmiento and Harel, that’s the type of festival debut even veterans dream about having.

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