Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Toronto After Dark 2010 - "Alien vs Ninja"

Among the Toronto After Dark Film Festival recently announced are numerous smaller awards dedicated to special fan voted categories. Alien vs Ninja won (deservedly so) the "Best Fight" award for its rather epic 10-minute fight sequence near the end of the film. Using old school monster costumes and slime effects, a good sense of humour and some spiffy ninja moves, the whole fight is a bucket full of fun and goo and drew a great crowd response. The film's opening sword fight in the woods is also well choreographed and wastes no time jumping right into the thick of things. So why do these terrific bookends have to keep afloat a rather dull, cheesy and rather pointless centre?

Granted, I was pretty tired the night of the screening, but shouldn't a movie called "Alien vs Ninja" be able to entertain me enough to keep my eyes open? Especially when the title was exactly what I expected and exactly what I wanted from the film? Instead, there are long stretches of, well, nothing. Characters say and do things with little rhyme or reason, provide exposition that is relatively irrelevant and try to be funny. To be fair, there are little bits of humour sprinkled throughout that showed the filmmakers weren't taking themselves too seriously, but we also had to deal with the "comic relief" ninja going about his business by being a complete failure as a ninja. I suppose this might come down to personal taste in finding what's funny and what isn't, but I can almost objectively say that this guy was NOT funny. He pretty much diluted the whole idea of how powerful ninjas are supposed to be.

But what about plot? Well, it's all right there in the title of the film. As a matter of fact, you can't actually expand on the plot beyond the title of the film - there's really not much more to say about it. There are ninjas. Most of them are pretty awesome fighters. An alien comes to earth. They fight it. I hope that clarifies everything...That's not a knock on the movie by the way - I was perfectly fine with the idea that a movie would simply be a set of battle scenes between sword-wielding stealth fighters and a monster from space. Given the right amount of creativity and sense of fun, why wouldn't that be a blast?

Why indeed...Anything between those great beginning and ending fights simply laid there on the screen. No punch, no pow, no zing. Moments of chuckles perhaps, but anything remotely creative was dispensed with quick in order to get back to the bumbling ninja. Or maybe I just kept waking up when he was on screen and it felt that way...I genuinely wanted to embrace this movie and its campy, old school approach to a monster film. Many others at the fest seemed to get much more out of it, but I just couldn't.

Toronto After Dark 2010 - "High School"

The stoner comedy High School wanders in a haze between well-executed smart comedy and stupid humour. Sometimes awkward, sometimes hilarious and sometimes just a little bit slow on the uptake, the movie itself acts as stoned as the entirety of the student body (and most of the teachers) during the one particular day on which most of the movie is set.

Henry is a star pupil all set to wrap up his high school phase and move on to what lies ahead at M.I.T. Aside from a last minute battle for the top G.P.A. score of the school, his life seems pretty much on track. So he decides to throw caution to the wind and try, for the first time, getting high with his old elementary school buddy. After several years of divergent paths, they reconnect one day and Henry accepts his stoner buddy Travis' offer to take a few tokes. Unfortunately, he does this the day before militant school principal Gordon decides to test the entire school for drug use - with anyone showing positive signs getting expelled. Worried that he's ruined his life, he begs Travis to help him. They come up with a bold plan: get the entire school high before the drug test and the results will have to be thrown out.

To kickstart the plan, though, they need a massive amount of weed. They raid the stash of crazy local dealer Psycho Ed (a relatively unhinged Adrien Brody) and mix it into brownies for the next day's bake sale. As the kids and teachers who have sampled their wares begin to feel the effects of the drug, the day starts to get more and more bizarre - especially when Psycho Ed shows up looking for his potent pot. The premise may sound a bit, like, out there, but the build up to it manages to stay afloat on the strength of numerous cameos (Yeardley Smith, Curtis Armstrong, etc.) and a willingness to try just about anyting for a laugh. It's not always successful since it sometimes feels like you're a passenger riding with a student who is learning how to drive a stick shift for the first time, but it hits certain sweet spots often enough to earn audience good will.

The film's trailer doesn't do it justice of course. Brody plays Psycho Ed at about the fever pitch level you might expect from a character named that, but he also brings some subtlety and comedic timing to the role. The funniest scenes in the movie are riffs on the typical stoner response of "What?" to conversations aimed at them - to keep that gag running for minutes at a time may seem like a joke stretched too thin, but Brody and the cast manage it. Other jokes and situations don't fare as well (and there's a lack of consistency with the tone and pace of the humour) and it feels like there are some missing plot elements that could have solidified everything. Perhaps the crew on set should have left the catered brownies alone...

Overall though, it was enjoyable fare that walked that fine line between smart and stupid - even if it occasionally forgot why it was walking on it.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Toronto After Dark 2010 - "Heartless"

Among the calvacade of British films at this year's Toronto After Dark film festival was Philip Ridley's first feature in 15 years, the brooding Heartless. It was the one film in the lineup for which I had absolutely no preconceptions gping in - the trailer was sketchy and I knew nothing of his previous work (in film or otherwise - he's quite the renaissance man even writing children's literature). So I was a blank sheet walking in. I should've brought a couple of empty notebooks to capture all the ideas and imagery this terrific film brought forth.

Jamie is 25 years old, lives with his mother and just can't seem to get his life going. Of course, he isn't realy trying. His hunched walk complete with a head-covering hoodie shows his unwillingness to engage with the rest of humanity and life in general. Humanity hasn't exactly been banging on his door, though, as most people tend to recoil when they encounter Jamie and the large heart-shaped birthmark on his face. His confidence in himself and his opinion of the world in general is rock bottom. He wishes he could return to, if only for a brief moment, that wonderful day he spent with his father years ago looking up at the stars and talking about the beautiful things that life had to offer. That would be heavenly. Since his father passed away though, Jamie can't really find anything to ignite a passion and simply lets life happen to him. His photography is the one saving grace and through it he encounters a lovely young woman that stirs him. Of course, he doesn't act on his feelings. His photography leads him to another discovery of sorts as one night while wandering through a demolished building site with his camera, he stumbles across the gang of similar hoodie wearing thugs that have been causing local havoc. There seems to be something a bit off, though, as the sounds they make are positively demonic in nature.

Jamie certainly feels they are demons, but they aren't the only ones in the film. Inner demons and a person's capacity to let go of the things that torment them are at the heart of the story. Jamie's own inability to get past his father's death as well as his own surface appearance has completely shut down his relationship to the external world. Unfortunately, Jamie sees more opportunity at re-entering society by concerning himself with his outward appearance rather than his inner health - so when the chance to meet a wish-giver by the name of Papa B affords itself, Jamie takes it and agrees to pay the "price" for the removal of his birthmark at some later date. For a time, after the heart-shaped patch on his face has disappeared, Jamie is ecstatic: the girl is his, he looks beautiful and he has a strong sense of self. Before long, though, Papa B's "weapons man" (played with perfect "zing!" by Eddie Marsan) comes to tell him what he needs to do (and how he needs to do it) and Jamie is no longer sure that ridding himself of his heart was the right thing to do.

If that sounds like there's some heavy imagery and moral messages going on, well, there might be a bit. However, it's all done so wonderfully, with subtlety and without being maudlin that it pulls you along. There are signs of demons, angels and hearts a-plenty on walls, shirts, posters, etc. Within this great framework, Jim Sturgess skulks around so effortlessly inside the role of Jamie that when he transforms, it really feels like a major change has taken place. There's not a false note played by any member of the cast as far as I could tell and it all comes together in a movie-going experience that I fully expect to reward many repeat viewings. The scares and chills that the "demons" provide can be unsettling, but what really grabs you is Jamie's personal journey. I can only hope this receives a wider release and audience.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Toronto After Dark 2010 - "The Human Centipede"

I'll be honest...I wasn't really looking forward to The Human Centipede. At least, I certainly wasn't looking forward to it as much as the young woman sitting in front of me who, before the show, was alternately bouncing in her seat giggling and making out with her boyfriend. That's the kind of festival Toronto After Dark is though - it's never tried to appeal to all tastes. So I certainly couldn't blame the festival for booking "The Human Centipede" as their final offering after 8 days, especially since it had yet to play Toronto after an almost year long run through various festivals causing much love and hate. In the end, the most surprising thing about the film for me is how ambivalent I felt about it afterwards.

There's certainly several disgusting sections of the film, but nowhere near what I had envisioned (many of those things are left to your own imagination). I had also heard that much of it was played as camp, but there was never any sustained comedic tone to really build up any ongoing enjoyment (Dieter Laser's performance as Dr. Heiter does provide some pretty funny stand alone moments though). It is sickening at times and certainly has disturbing moments (in particular the final situation), but I'm frankly not sure why its notoriety has continued to climb.

For those that know little about the film, its title gives you a pretty good idea. Mad Dr. Heiter has a dream...He wants to create a centipede out of humans with each section being a different person and the entire entity having a single food tract (so when food is expelled from one section it enters the mouth of the one behind it). He started with dogs and has now moved on to find the right specimens for his medical miracle. He finds two of them by luck - Lindsay and Jenny are two American young ladies travelling through Europe when they get lost on their way to a club. They stumble across Heiter's secluded house to ask for help and, after he determines that no one knows where they are, are drugged by him. Of note in the pre-screening comments was that the two actresses were essentially the final two people they had left on their casting sheet. None of the others wanted the roles. Once you see what they are put through (in particular because neither of them have any dialogue after a certain point in the movie), it's easy to understand why this was the case. Since it obviously wasn't easy to find 3 actors willing to play this particular centipede (a Japanese man who speaks neither English nor German is brought in later to complete the experiment), one wonders how they will handle the sequel (to be subtitled "The Full Sequence" as opposed to this film's "The First Sequence") which apparently will contain 12 sections.

Another surprise was the look of the film which was much brighter than I was led to believe from the posters and other comments. Not that it was all cheery looking, but it was sharper and more colourful than expected. Though the story plods considerably, director Tom Six does manage to keep some visual interest by having his camera move during many of the setup shots. That helps to build some early tension, but at some point things just dissolve into wincing. Genre cinema doesn't have to always provoke you or have a greater truth at its core or speak to societal issues, but it should engage you on some level and pull you into its world. "The Human Centipede" flirts with this, but never to the point that you really care. Certainly not anything for which I would expect people to get overly excited.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Toronto After Dark 2010 - "Rubber"

There was a certain bounce in everyone's step walking into the first film of the one-two closing night punch of Toronto After Dark and it could be directly attributed to Quentin Dupieux's widely hailed Rubber. More than Eli Roth's appearance with "The Last Exorcism", more than genre-fest hot picture of the year "The Human Centipede" and more than the controversy of "I Spit On Your Grave", this little 75 minute movie about a tire that gains consciousness and begins a killing spree caused probably the most buzz of the entire festival. Even those who had recently seen it at Montreal's Fantasia film festival were queueing up to view it yet again.

The word was that it was a must see. People who made these recommendations would just shake their heads, smile and say "just go see it". When it's people whose opinions I respect, I don't need too much more convincing than that. Let's face it, though, I was already sold on the high concept: "sentient killer tire". In addition, there was always a bit of a gleeful cackle from those who had experienced it and a slight twinkle in their eyes that seemed to say "Yeah, you may think you know why this will be fun, but it's all the things you don't even know that you don't know that will get you." It was very Rumsfeld-ian. Now that I know what I didn't know, I'm not talking. As for the killer tire sections themselves, they are indeed fun and quite well realized as per the short teaser below:

After the tire "awakens", it begins to explore its world and realizes it can crush small objects and insects. As it discovers bigger obstacles and species, though, it needs to use its psychic ability to make them explode. Why? Well, there's some indication that there's a purpose behind its rampage, but we mostly just know it's pretty peeved - it seems to seethe with rage and quiver with anger as it uses its forces to blow things up. There's more to the film than the tire's next victim, though, and it can be found mostly in how the story is constructed and how it's told to its audience. It allows you to question not just what you see and certain motivations, but also how film actually engages with its audience. It's not a simple matter of being meta or self-reflexive, but it really does force you to consider how movies are viewed. Dupieux (also known as Mr. Oizo - an artist and music producer) has found a very clever way of doing this.

The After Dark crowd ate it up. It exceeded my own expectations too, but it's not like I could have expected what I got. That's not a statement hyping completely insane, random events occurring for no reason, but simply to say that I had to completely readjust how I was watching the film. So don't let anyone spoil the nature of "Rubber". If it plays near you at a festival or in a one week engagement (there was some talk that it would get a limited release) or when it comes out on DVD, just make an effort to support something different, funny, absurd and very smart. Then you'll know what you didn't know and be happier for it.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Toronto After Dark 2010 - "Robogeisha"

Considering the lineage of Robogeisha (the filmmakers were responsible at least in part for "Machine Girl" and two previous After Dark screenings: 2008's Tokyo Gore Police and 2009's Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl), one wonders what went wrong. It's not that I loved either of the team's previous efforts that bowed at After Dark - I had problems with both - but at least each had moments of truly unique creativity and even beauty amongst all the strange and grotesque gore. "Robogeisha", however, contains only concepts, weird ideas and a few moments of self-reflexive humour. Otherwise it was mostly a pretty big bore.

I suppose that's an odd reaction to a Japanese splatter-gore, sexual-organs-as-weapons, nothing-is-out-of-bounds film seemingly tailor-made for genre festivals. And yet that was my reaction. It's not that there isn't anything of interest here, it's just that it isn't handled with any deft, is bogged down with a pretty uninteresting story and uses CGI effects that sometimes feel 20 years late. It's only saving grace is through some humour that plays against and acknowledges some of the silliness at play here and in previous films. Well, that and the huge robot that makes buildings bleed.

To give the film some credit, it does contain more of a story than its predecessors (which really only contained rough templates) - two sisters become geishas in an anti-government group that trains them to assassinate corrupt politicians. On top of this, and the strange continued mechanization of the women as they become more weaponized, the sisters are at odds with each other and a strong love/hate relationship builds as they drift to opposite sides of the battle. I was actually surprised at the increased effort to bring about more characterization and even, dare I say it, emotion to the film, but it just never engages the viewer in any of those story-related scenes nor does it build any kind of investment in either of the women. They are truly simply vessels through which the imagined weapons (circular saw blades in mouths, swords protruding from rear ends, etc.) manifest themselves. It's all there in the trailer - as a matter of fact, if you watch the trailer, you've mostly seen the movie.

True, you would miss some funny moments such as the three women battling each other with their "ass swords" and mumbling "this is really embarrassing" as they waddle at each other. Or the politician faced with the spinning circular saw cringing and whining "I think this is going to hurt!". There's just far too few moments like this and far too many special effects that are rendered in rather dull fashion. For all the flaws the other films have, the physical special effects with real oozing liquids and protuberances a-plenty were highly creative and somewhat entertaining. Cheap looking computerized graphics (it's possible the film is a test run using different technology for their creations) leaves everything flat and loses the sense of absurdity and wonder. Not to mention the fun.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Toronto After Dark 2010 - "Evil In The Time Of Heroes"

Expectations are a funny thing when it comes to movies...Unreasonably high ones (based on hype, a director's history or a much-loved book as the source) can totally ruin your experience. It could still be a quality film, but if it doesn't meet the lofty heights you had in mind it becomes a failure. The flip side to this is that really low expectations can turn a movie-going experience - even for a complete mess of a film - into an enjoyable and surprisingly entertaining one.

And so it was for the Greek zombie film Evil In The Time Of Heroes. A few negative reports from its screening at Fantasia combined with a not-so-great trailer, disappointment with After Dark's previous zombie film Doghouse and the prospect of random Billy Zane sightings throughout the film left me rather underwhelmed as the screeningm began. The story is mostly set in present day Athens where a typical zombie outbreak has occurred (the "fast zombie" variety) and the remaining unaffected citizens try to survive. Through intercutting with a similar outbreak from 2000 years previous, the movie implies that this evil will continue to reappear in cyclical fashion - each time requiring a "chosen one" to help defeat it. The film bounces between not only these timelines, but also the many, many characters in the present day situation and shifts tones, style and pace constantly. Tack on the seemingly invincible Billy Zane sage who appears in both timelines, the sudden super powers that one of the characters exerts and inconsistencies across the board and the entire thing is a large mess. So how come I rather enjoyed it all?

The humour in the film is all over the place with many jokes falling flat and beats getting missed, but I had no expectation of any of it working. There are a couple of gags that work like gangbusters though (including an early scene where four characters escape from inside a stadium where they are surrounded by zombies) and a few subtle and well-timed lines from some of the survivors. It proves frustrating that they couldn't keep that up for the whole film or continue with more of the absurd situations, but since everything moves at a fast enough pace, if I hit disappointment during one scene, something else was just looming over the horizon. The zombie attacks aren't staged overly well (and the usage of that quick, choppy action filming is getting increasingly aggravating to me), but there are several zombie "kills" that are very well realized. Then we get Billy Zane...His appearances do indeed seem randomly dropped throughout the film and he serves no real purpose other than to bring a recognized name to the credits, but you couldn't help but look forward to his next on screen moment and the audience got into the Zane-zone after awhile. It all culminates in an early highlight of the festival for me, a moment of - I have to say it - sheer in-Zane-ity as about 15 disembodied Billy heads rotate across the screen. I didn't see it coming (I mean, how could you?), laughed long and hard and settled back to just let the rest of the movie spool out.

The same filmmakers have a prequel of sorts entitled Evil with many of the same characters. From a story perspective, there's no need to have seen it in order to be able to keep up with this film. You don't really require prior knowledge of characters or events when your current story is relatively non-existent. There's plenty more to pick on if you want - the acting is uneven, character motivations sometimes don't make any sense and the ending takes way too long to resolve itself (at least, I think it resolved itself) - but I simply can't say that it didn't hold my attention and, for the most part, keep me entertained. Let's hear it for low expectations!

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Toronto After Dark 2010 - "The Last Exorcism"

The Last Exorcism, the Eli Roth produced independent horror film which made its Toronto debut at the After Dark film festival last night, is a gem in the rocky ground of recent American studio genre pictures. It's a slow-building, character-based story filled with atmosphere, spookiness and actual dread. Building on the concept of a documentary team following a preacher on "one last exorcism", it adds music and sound effects to increase tension to move towards an ending that is both unexpected and foreshadowed. If it didn't quite go where I wanted it to after the halfway mark and even if it occasionally pulls you out of the movie by breaking its single camera rules, this is certainly one of the best of the American horrors released in the last few years.

Preacher Cotton Marcus is a charismatic man who has been preaching to the converted since he was a young boy. He has easy charm and an even easier smile that helps win his audience over while he sermonizes, prays, heals and exorcises. He's quite charming and the viewing audience is also easily won over to him - particularly since he has invited the documentary crew on this final exorcism (chosen randomly from the stacks of requests he gets) to show everyone the falseness of the tactic and the tricks he has employed to convince people he has rid them of the devil. He still sees that he has done some good since these people still believe that he has helped them and manage to get on with their lives, but his own faith has been shaken due to events in his life and he simply can't go through with the charades anymore. The film really allows us to spend a good chunk of time with Cotton and his family before they hit the road to a small Louisiana town to find poor possessed young Nell.

The film continues with its strengths here. Nell (Ashley Bell), her father (Louis Herthum), her brother (Caled Landry Jones) and Cotton (Patrick Fabian) are all given space to create real characters with motivations and personalities before things start to go all haywire. Cotton initially goes through with his regular schtick with Nell and as far as they can all see, everything works, everybody is happy and Cotton's confession to the camera is done (the film is clever in how it shows his tricks of the trade). However, Cotton's got more work ahead of him - both in relation to helping Nell as well as with his own confessions. That's yet another strength of the film's script as it lays out Cotton's own story, his crisis of faith and a possible chance for him to regain it.

If I had one issue with the film it's that it didn't continue to do what it was doing best - provide spooky moments. Don't get me wrong - it's a fully satisfying film, but since it handled some early eerie scenes so well, I had really wanted more. They were there for sure, but since I've been a bit starved of that kind of quality spookiness of late, I was feeling greedy. In essence, my one complaint against the film is actually a compliment. Nell's transformations, her sudden appearances in shadowed hallways and behind windows, and the variety of noises emanating from her room all meshed together to form an extremely unsettling experience. It was an interesting choice to add a soundtrack to the film as it then implies that the footage was constructed and edited together later on - which goes a bit against several scenes where we see the camera turn off and on - but it adds a great deal to the uneasiness the audience feels. Even the fact that there would have to have been two cameras filming several of these scenes can't take away from the film (though it does pull you out for a few seconds when you notice it) since the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to create a story and characters you care about, so that you really feel the effects of what slowly happens around them. And that's scary.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Toronto After Dark 2010 - "Doghouse"

A fine premise. Moments of promise. Disappointment. More disappointment. Occasional good scene followed by missed opportunity after missed opportunity. Insulting ending.

That's Jake West's recent entry into the zombie genre in a nutshell. As it kicked off the traditional "zombie" day at Toronto After Dark, I was hoping it might live up to its interesting premise: a group of boorish "lads" are stranded in the town of Moodley which has, unbeknownst to them, been turned into a government experiment that has reduced all the women in the village to be zombies. Given that it was a comedy and had numerous angles with which to work its battle of the sexes theme, it was just such a shame to see it squander it all to come to the conclusion that 1) all women want is to emasculate men and 2) "guys" ought to be proud to be "guys" and should never apologize for being complete assholes. The big revelation for the main character of Vince (actually played quite well by Stephen Graham) is that his ex-wife had indeed sucked the life out of him and that he should go back to being a crude buffoon since she had stolen his manhood by objecting to philandering. Wonderful.

Vince's continued depression over the divorce is the initial reason for the trip to Moodley since his buddies think a weekend of debauchery is just the ticket to get him back in the game. They rent a bus (driven by a woman whom they dub "Candy") and plunge into the woods to get to the isolated little village. As they explore the apparently deserted town, Candy succumbs to the zombie virus (pedantic interlude: since the change of state of the women is caused by a virus, they aren't technically "the walking dead" form of zombies - I know this, and yet I'm going to use the term "zombie" anyway). Since she has control of the bus, they hole up in various shops and so forth in the town once they realize what has happened. These female zombies are reasonably interesting in and of themselves - one carries a stop sign, another two pairs of scissors, etc. - and they typically end up fighting with themselves when they go after the same man. It's that type of humour that could have gone a long way in the film if they had played it up further and bounced back and forth between the different cliches that represent men and women (there's a few at the expense of the men as well), but they come too few and far between to have any major impact. Aside from a few others gags (e.g. the Macgyver-ing of a flame thrower from kids' toys), the humour is mostly obvious and, well, not that funny.

The opening of the film was the warning bell - each character has a small scene of introduction to show you who they are which then freezes on them as their name appears on screen. The movie wants to jump out as some slick pop-pop-pop Guy Ritchie guys' movie, but there's not a single thing interesting about any of these guys. They aren't even boorish enough to make you really want to hate them. You just get annoyed. And to come back to the ending again, who among these guys actually gets killed? The least masculine, the new-agey one and the slightly dim-bulb chubby one.

Thanks "Doghouse"...Thanks for clearing up what a real "guy" is supposed to be.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World

I can completely understand how someone may not enjoy, and even completely dislike, Scott Pilgrim vs The World. It flashes by the eyes, sometimes pulling them in four or five directions at once, overloads the auditory senses and in its quieter moments has characters that aren't really that interesting or sympathetic. It's a video game inside a comic book inside a movie. Subtlety is not its aim.

So I understand that. However, I had great heaps of candy-coated fun with this movie. I laughed out loud numerous times, found that the pacing between scenes pulled me along effortlessly (though it felt a bit long towards the end) and came away completely satisfied. To be clear up front, I have no knowledge of the graphic novel on which the film is based. I've never even seen a hardcopy issue. Nor am I biased due to living in the city of Toronto where the film was shot and where it is set. Sure it was occasionally great to recognize many of the locations, but it never took precedence over the story or action. Admittedly, having at least a passing knowledge of video games helps a great deal in enjoying the battles between Scott and the "Seven Evil Exes", but there's no requirement to be a full on "geek" that some of the hype for the film has indicated. My recent knowledge of video games comes strictly through my 10-year old and it gave me ample background to get immersed in the hybrid world of Scott Pilgrim and all of his duels to the death.

When we meet Pilgrim at the beginning of the film, he's a 22-year old out of work schlub who plays bass in a band and can't get over a devastating break-up. He doesn't seem to think of anyone but himself, isn't very interesting and is dating a 17-year old high school girl simply because it's easy. So how does a guy like this get involved in head-to-head battles against villains with super human type powers? And why should the audience care? The first question is much easier to answer...Scott meets the fabulous Romona (played with extreme cool by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), acts like a total dweeb in front of her and hounds her for a date. When she accepts, mostly to shut him up, the die has been cast - Pilgrim soon finds out that he must do battle with every one of her previous romantic liaisons going all the way back to middle school. It's not a simple matter of simply throwing some punches or outwitting each one of them since his opponents have force fields, can hover in the air, read his thoughts, etc. Pilgrim finds that he too can do many of the acrobatic moves that comprise these boss-type battles, but always needs to rely on some additional smarts and information about his foes to defeat them (at which point they explode into a pile of coins). If the battles sound like they might get repetitive, each one brings in some new aspect that allows additional video game references and tactics to be used. As each battle started, I found myself settling a bit more in my seat and widening my grin. With points tallying up on the screen, 1-Ups occurring and new powers being won, it does feel a bit like you're watching your friend have a really long turn on the Nintendo Wii, but in the context of the film and the way that director Edgar Wright puts it all up on the screen it feels like a game that you just can't wait to take a crack at.

Given Pilgrim's unlikeable personality, though, that second question looms large - should we root for him? Early on, I was wondering the same thing, but Wright and his co-screenwriter Michael Bacall (who base their story on Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel) manage to keep you on Pilgrim's side using several different methods. One is by placing Pilgrim in this colourful comic book world that allows for additional information to come through in titles, helpful labels, frames within frames and other little pop-ups throughout. There's also the humour which zips in and out via visual cues, quick edits and character based moments (which all echo Wright's previous films). And finally there's Michael Cera's performance. If you're tired of Cera by now, this won't help change your mind, but if you can appreciate his skill at timing his verbal and facial reactions, you'll likely be able to give his character all sorts of leeway. Given how the story plays out and Romona's own reasons for going out with Pilgrim in the first place, I ended up being perfectly fine with the decision not to make him a typical sympathetic protagonist (I'm not sure how the original source depicts him). It's a tricky line to walk though.

The rest of the cast are marvellous as well: Kieran Culkin is a latter day Robert Downey Jr. (circa Back To School), but even better; Alison Pill plays the band's perpetually pissed off drummer; Ellen Wong channels a 17 year-old in serious crush mode; and so on and so on. Winstead is terrific as Romona, the slightly mysterious, gorgeous and obviously smarter than everyone else American girl trying to get away from her past. A raised eyebrow or small curl of her lip is about as much emotion as she shows for most of the film, but it's effective and makes you keenly aware why Scott has suddenly fallen for her (I'll admit it, so did I). The music is an additional driving factor for the movie. You don't really have to even watch the credits to know that Beck and Frank Black had ample influence on the music written for the film. It simply moves, moves, moves the action forward.

So if you were ever curious what a video game inside a comic book inside a movie feels like and you want to have a hugely entertaining time at the movies, Edgar Wright has the perfect Combo for you.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Mad Monkey Kung Fu Saves The Day

Until last night, it had been 2 weeks since I'd seen a movie. A full fourteen days and not a flicker of a film. Not in a theatre, not on DVD and not in any streaming way, shape or form. No stunning cinematography, no twisting plots and not even a probing analysis of the human condition. I pulled through though...

It's not like I was suffering - we took a little family vacation out to California and drove up the coast, so I had a few other things to look at (to any and all blogger friends I have in the region, my profound apologies for not getting in touch - we just didn't have much time in any of the bigger cities). Of course, like any other vacation, I had my laptop along and had brought some DVDs - but somehow I just never got around to watching anything. It's probably my longest "drought" since my son became a sentient being in his first year and began sleeping through nights. Since he just turned 10, it's been awhile since I had that big a break and so I've had a rather solid streak of regular movie watching. The break ended up not bothering me that much really, but once we left the Golden State, I was very much looking forward to getting back home and returning to my regular hobby time. The plan was to jump back in right away with the opening night of Toronto After Dark (which I may have mentioned once or twice...).

The little Friday the 13th demons wouldn't hear of it though. Just as I checked in to my flight back home early Friday morning, they cancelled it. No reason given, just a sudden "I'm sorry sir, I have some bad news...". Now that I'm in a better mood, I'll be charitable and assume that the plane had some major malfunction that would have killed us all and so they decided to pull the plug on it instead of getting bad PR. Earlier on Friday, however, I was severely bummed - OK, it's no big deal, but the festival is one of my fave times of year. It has entertaining genre films and I get to hang out with some truly great people I've met over the years (with each year adding new folks to the list).

So while I wiled away the time waiting for the next flight (a solid 4 hours later) and moping about missing the festivities, I made the decision to catch a later movie with a few of the After Dark crowd at the recently opened Toronto Underground Cinema). The film in question was kicking off the Son Of Kung Fu Fridays series that the venue was looking to install as a regular event. It was an old Shaw Brothers production entitled "Mad Monkey Kung Fu".

The title alone made me feel better (though not quite as much as this did). So a quick stop by the house to drop the luggage, re-engage the A/C and verify that the fish weren't ex-fish and off I went to view one of the Kung Fu classics. I met up with a few co-horts from RowThree and bumped into a friend from J-Film Pow-Wow, so immediately I was shaking off those little Friday the 13th varmints and settled in for some solid martial arts fare. Let's just say I received my money's worth.

Curator of the series Colin Geddes (who also runs the Midnight Madness portion of TIFF) treated the crowd to four (count 'em, 4) trailers of other Shaw Brothers films before the main picture started and he could have turned up the lights afterwards and cleared the house out with nary a complaint - worth three times the price of admission for these gems. Of course, each was a good 4-5 minutes, so there was plenty of wicked kicks, punches, wooden poles, swords, fast zooms, contorted faces and laser beams. Yeah, that last one surprised me too, but it was a beautiful thing to see.

Imagine this trailer about three times as long:

With the Friday the 13th trolls firmly beaten down now, the feature began. Like many martial arts films of the time (at least what I've seen - I'm woefully under-educated in the genre), there is a fairly large chunk of setup time, some overly broad humour and a story that isn't exactly fresh. However, and you had to see this coming, when they really start the fights (one-on-one, one-on-two, one-on-many, two-on-many, etc.), it's pure ear-to-ear grinning entertainment. The sound effects are amped way high, but even that can't take away from the obvious incredible athleticism of many of the moves that showed up on screen in the form of flips, training sequences, different postures and the interplay between the fighters. What was really impressive were the times when you would get a wide slo-mo shot of an acrobatic somersault of some variety - the control these guys had of their bodies was remarkable and truly a thing of beauty to witness. Many of the sequences during the fights were done in long takes as well. There were plenty of edits to mask certain hits, but plenty more instances of entire choreographed battles going on for minutes at a time. There was also lots of laughter and not only the "I can't believe he just did that" variety, but also because of several humourous situations and dubbing that provided additional layers of absurdity and silliness in the context of the story. One always wonders if there is some poor translation at work or if the script was meant to be rather simplistic and halting at times.

Nevertheless, it was heaps and heaps of fun. Thank you Shaw Brothers. You've reinvigorated me.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Toronto After Dark 2010

This year's Toronto After Dark Film Festival kicks off its fifth year on August 13th and, as I've mentioned time and time again, it's one of the highlights of my year. The entire festival plays at a single theatre - the city's legendary Bloor Cinema remaining the headquarters for the fest - so it becomes a mini-community for a week and the late night pub conversations typically get rowdier (and slightly stranger) as the closing gala approaches. Every year I meet more people at the festival, so the lineups outside the theatre can be just as fun as the films sometimes.

Speaking of the films, the full schedule was just released a few days ago. There's some definite "I can't wait!" films on the list along with the usual set that typically don't look phenomenal from the trailers, but at least inspire some confidence that they'll be worth the trip. One difference this year is that there's one film I'm going to purposely avoid. See if you can spot it in the round-up of films below. The full list is here and all trailers should be considered extraordinarily NSFW.

The Last Lovecraft
Henry Saine, USA

The festival's opening night film asks the question "What do you do when you are the only surviving relative of H.P. Lovecraft and need to save the world from invading sea monsters?" You find your old comic book loving friends and put your heads together of course! With a mixture of animation and "old school" monster effects, this sounds like it could be an extremely fun way to begin the proceedings.

Jake West, UK

Zombie Day at After Dark begins. In the first part of the double feature, we travel to the British town of Moodley which seems to be part of a government experiment and has an abundance of women. So it's obviously the perfect place for a group of lads to get away for the weekend (particularly since one of them has just been dumped by his wife). A major flaw in the plan: all the women have become man-eating zombies. My hope is that it doesn't devolve into juvenile humour and stays with a Shaun Of The Dead vibe.

Evil In The Time Of Heroes
Yorgos Noussias, Greece

If you're thinking that this must be the only Greek zombie film ever made, you'd be wrong. It's actually a sequel (of sorts) to the director's own earlier zombie film entitled Evil. At the very least, though, it's likely the only Greek zombie film with Billy Zane in it.

Ivan Engler, Switzerland

To Switzerland next and what appears to be the sci-fi entry for the year. A very Alien-esque look and feel to the story gives one pause - derivative and dull or suspenseful homage? Needless to say I'm hoping for the latter.

Noburu Iguchi, Japan

I actually predicted this film would be in the lineup this year, but with the same special effects crew gracing films from the last 2 fests (Tokyo Gore Police in 2008 and Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl last year), I suppose it wasn't a stretch...Though TGP had moments of amazing creativity and very warped imagination, it actually became rather dull in its last half. VGvsFG was also a mixed bag, but fared better due a stronger sense of humour and a shorter running time. The trailer for Robogeisha is, to say the least, odd...CGI (and rather old CGI at that) seems to be creeping in even more. I haven't quite figured out if the style is intended or not, but I'm hopeful that the sense of humour here is high.

High School
John Stalberg, USA

A stoner comedy that might (I said might...) actually work for people who aren't stoned. Adrien Brody looks to be way over the top in his role as Psycho Ed, but that could be a good thing for him. The rest is a crap shoot, but I'm going to stick with my optimistic outlook and assume that with an audience wanting to enjoy it, the film may provide a good rollicking time. An observation: there sure is a rather large chunk of comedy in the festival this year...

The Last Exorcism
Daniel Stamm, USA

Just when I note the rather long list of comedies, we get to what appears to be a straight up supernatural horror film. Now that he's giving up the game, an exorcist wants to document his final case to show what a sham he's been all these years. In yet another entry into the "point of view" horror genre, things don't quite go the way he thinks they will...

Alien vs Ninja
Seiji Chiba, Japan

This could be complete and utter silly fun. It reminds me a great deal of Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus - a film I quite liked, but which picked up numerous detractors - but much more self-aware. Chiba's film seems to approach things with less of a serious mind to it and that may be the difference. I can see a cultish audience developing over this (yes, I know that's a bit of a leap from just a trailer).

Phobia 2
Poolvoralaks, Pisanthanakun, Purikitpanya, Sugmakanan & Wongpoom, Thailand

One of my most looked forward to films of the week. Its predecessor, 2008's 4bia, also used 4 different short stories by different directors and completely won over the audience with its humour, jump scares and creative "kills". It's possible that they are returning to the well too soon, but since 3 of the 5 directors listed were involved previously, I'm going in pretty confident they will pull out another crowd-pleaser.

All About Evil
Joshua Grannell, USA

Though listed as campy fun, the trailer warns of possible forced comedy. The premise sounds reasonable: young woman inherits movie theatre, accidentally kills evil step-mother on security camera, footage is mistaken for a gory film and a career as a horror director is born. I've always thought Natasha Lyonne had good comedic skill and timing, so it's nice to see her making films again and this could have potential as a decent black comedy. It could also be a train wreck.

Neal Marshall, UK

I wasn't much of a fan of Doomsday, but Neal Marshall deserves a few second chances. I'm not much of a "swords and sandals" genre fan either, but again Marshall could make it of interest. Unfortunately, the action scenes look to be shot in the quick-edit, low frame rate style of Gladiator. The movie will be all over the multiplexes pretty soon anyway, but a festival crowd could add some additional incentive to see this early.

Philip Ridley, UK

Philip Ridley's first film in 14 years tells the story of a young disfigured man who stumbles across a group of thugs that may be something other than human. Because of his outsider status, he enters into a pact with them and becomes part of the group. I expect it's downhill from there...This looks really solid.

Black Death
Christopher Smith, UK

The UK is certainly holding down the fort this year...Christopher Smith is another name that automatically raises at least curiosity from me (not particularly because of Creep, but moreso due to Severance). His latest is set in Medieval England and finds a young monk tasked with finding out why a particular village remains untouched by the disease spreading throughout the country. Plague-porn? Maybe, but with accusations of witchcraft levied at the town and a call to bring them back to God, the film could end up being more than just that.

I Spit On Your Grave
Steven R. Munroe, USA

A remake of the 70s rape-revenge exploitation film that pushes the boundaries further and is actively marketing its extreme and graphic violence? Nope. Not for me. I'm curious to hear director Munroe's rationalizations about the film, but I have no interest in actually experiencing it myself. I'll get an earlier start at the bar that night...

Quentin Dupieux, France

One of the most talked about films coming out of Fantasia. A tire gains consciousness and the ability to blow things up with its "mind". The tire also has a name (Robert) and is really, really peeved at the human race. How could that possibly be bad?

The Human Centipede
Tom Six, Holland

I figured this would enter my viewing sphere at some point...I can't say I've been looking forward to it, but there have been several schools of thought on the movie so I'm curious to see where it falls. I think I'll skip dinner beforehand though.

And don't forget the short films! Each screening is prefaced by a Canadian short (on average the quality of these in previous years has been quite outstanding) and there's an entire set of After Dark Shorts on Saturday afternoon.

Commence festivities!