Thursday, 31 October 2013

Toronto After Dark 2013 - Cheap Thrills

A near perfect title (targeting viewers as well as certain characters within the film) for a near perfect exercise in escalation, Cheap Thrills follows two desperate souls as they dive deeper into a game of cruel one-upmanship (for cash and prizes!). There can only be one possible direction for the game to finally take and the film steps you there in believable (and, fortunately, entertaining) fashion. As our contestants Craig and Vince out-do and under-bid each other at each step, the comedy turns darker and an uncomfortable reality sets in to the viewer - are we just as guilty as the two hosts of this private party?

The party in question is for Violet's birthday (played by Sara Paxton and looking far different than her tom-boyish character in The Innkeepers) and it's being hosted by her husband Colin (David Koechner). The party-hardy Colin chats up Vince at a bar (where he and Craig were catching up on old times) and manages to rope the two of them into celebrating the beautiful Violet's special day (even if she seems totally uninterested in just about everything but her phone). Craig hasn't exactly had the best day - he just got fired from a crappy job on the same day he received a final eviction notice on the apartment he shares with his wife and infant child - and he was just considering bailing on home when Colin and Vince convince him to stay for an additional drink or two. He really has no reason to stay (he had only accidentally ran into his old "friend" Vince at the bar anyway), but Colin's ease with flashing money and willingness to make little side bets (e.g. "I'll give you $20 if that girl slaps your face...") has him intrigued. He's in dire straits and currently has no immediate options for making any money. Since his going-nowhere writing career won't provide for his family any time soon, he decides to stay...

Of course, the bets become more valuable, but also a bit more challenging and slightly dangerous ("$500 if you punch the bouncer first!"). They shift venues and finally end up back at David and Violet's house. By now, a rivalry has been set up between Craig and Vince in order to pit them against each other to win individual bets and contests. Only the winner gets money - second place gets nothing. This leads to moments like Vince punching Craig in the stomach during the who-can-hold-their-breath-the-longest challenge when it looks like his clocking may not hold up. In just about any other plot scenario, you might get a bit frustrated that at no point do Craig and Vince consider working together or giving each other a break - to David and Violet's amusement, the game has turned into a complete selfish drive for each player to make as much money as possible. However, the lead up to the events is handled ever so gradually and in a way that completely makes sense given the circumstances and the characters. Vince has been down the loser path before and has seen the inside of prison, so as he eagerly falls into David's keep-the-party-going ethic you can definitely see his how lack of empathy easily morphs into the need to maximize his returns from the game. Craig is much more thoughtful, but his self-esteem, his family and his failure to achieve his goals as a famous writer (or at least as a paid one) allow him to miss the forest for the individual trees. The events force each guy to think that they need to live up to their "manhood". The film acts somewhat as a warning about buying into the cultural framework of masculinity as defined by: Don't take any shit, act tough, suck it up, be the sole provider, don't ask for help, don't look weak, do it all yourself and for God sake dude "Man up!". Pride sure can be a deadly sin...Craig subjects himself to these games (which become somewhat sadistic trials along the way) for his family's well being, but since he hasn't even considered other options or included his wife in any conversation about what they should do next, there's a strong feeling that he is doing it to regain that loss of his hunter/gatherer role. At what cost though?

Even with the view that the film is a commentary about the consequences of following societal conventions, you still can't help but wonder what you might do in the situations presented. At what point would you tap out? Would you not have even joined the party? Do you leave before entering the home of David and Violet? When the previously disinterested Violet suddenly shows interest in you and offers a, uh, win-win activity (with some additional cash for you too), how hard do your scruples push back? In the case of Craig, he puts up a decent enough fight sometimes, but he's sucked in big time to the temptation of immediate money and a solution to his immediate problem. Pat Healy (Paxton's cohort from The Innkeepers) does a great job in selling Craig's desperation and not for one minute did I ever feel that the plot was making those decisions for him - the characters drive the plot. Koechner too is very good - dialing things down a bit from his better known broader comedic characters, he brings just a shade of menace to the role of Colin that always keeps things tense, but can still deliver a funny line at a moment's notice. The film's ability to drop both big and little surprises throughout while still moving towards an inevitable conclusion is a strength that sets it apart from most genre movies. A film that delivers far more than it promises.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Toronto After Dark 2013 - Motivational Growth

If you've ever channel surfed and gone around the horn perhaps a few more times than a rational thinking person really should, you may have some idea how Ian Folivor (the central character of Don Thacker's film Motivational Growth) feels. Only some though...You see, Ian has reached the grandmaster level of couch potato-ness. He hasn't left his apartment in over a year, pizza boxes and various dishes litter the furniture and it's probably a tie between the floor and his beard as to which contains more food scraps. His couch is well worn in and except for the fairly regular bowel movements, he has mostly settled into a slouched zombie position as he flips constantly between stations. The mammoth remote control stays firmly in his hand as he stares at his old relic of a family TV (the old kind with tubes that came in crate sized cabinets). He's lost his way, doesn't know how to find it again and has pretty much given up hope of ever finding the desire to look for it. We know this because after his TV conks out on him, he confides it all straight into the camera to us. Without the TV, he's even lost the will to keep living, so he concocts a poisonous mixture in his bathtub, breathes in the fumes and resigns himself to sweet oblivion. It's around this point that Ian notices mold in the corner of his bathroom - mainly because it speaks to him.

Sorry, I should say "The Mold" (as it likes to be addressed). After Ian crashes down on the bathroom floor trying to seal off that damn bathroom fan that's constantly churning (along with spiffy 8-bit computer game music - also known as chiptune - it's the only other sound on the soundtrack), The Mold informs him that things need to change. The Mold has a plan and Ian is to follow every step. The Mold is here to help him. Ian is resistant, but after a series of encounters with people in his apartment (groceries, TV repair, landlord, etc.), he strikes a deal with the fungus. Ian begins to clean himself and his apartment up, tackles several tasks assigned to him and starts to envision an actual life. Hopefully one with that really cute woman next door that he has been peephole stalking on a daily basis.

At its core, Motivational Growth is a cautionary tale of what can happen if you don't get off the couch. As the rapturous, almost heavenly shots of Leah standing outside show (she looks angelic bathed in bright white light), it's borderline sinful to let your life just slip past you. Based somewhat on Thacker's own experiences after moving to Los Angeles (a reality check that he cashed in 1991 - hence the timeframe for the movie), there's a great deal more to the film than just its moral. There's an abundance of religious iconography, bits of physics, a playfulness with words, the science of spores and plenty of references to film, music and video games (including some great 8-bit video game animation that might have you hoping there's an old NES machine still working under your bed at home) to keep anyone guessing as to where the dialogue may turn next. It's unlikely any single viewer will catch or enjoy every reference, but there's easily enough to go around. Thacker's lengthy Q&A showed where it all comes from - he is simply bursting with things to say, connections to make and ideas to share.

That's the beauty and charm of the movie - it's overall message is straightforward, but there are hundreds of other thoughts at work. Some spill from Ian's own conversations with the camera, others from the visitors to the apartment and still many more from The Mold itself. With a tendency to call people "Jack" and the ability to instantaneously pop up different fungal derivatives throughout Ian's place, The Mold (wonderfully and energetically voiced by Jeffrey Combs) has very firm plans for his protege. Just when you think The Mold is all about helping, though, he throws Ian into disarray or into a potentially awful situation. Does it have an overriding master plan for him or is it just an evil grey growth in the corner of the bathroom messing with his head? The Mold, by the way, is done all via puppetry and its large gaping maw was apparently synched live with voice. Add that to the single location (comprised of just two sets) and some neat interplay with early 90s fake TV show/commercials on the TV, and you have to marvel at the amount of creativity Don Thacker has squeezed out of his relatively mild budget. Better yet though, marvel at how much fun it is to be taken on this ride and how original the film is. If it comes to a theatre or festival near you, just make sure you get up off the couch to go see it.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Toronto After Dark 2013 - Eega

There's always the danger of too much hype affecting the viewing pleasure of a new film - particularly when it's screened at a film festival where the programmers introduce their own choices. You'd think that the sell job would already be done (after all, your butt is already in the seat), but there's a strong desire to reinforce to the audience how much of a treat they're in for...Though I was very much looking forward to the first Indian entry ever to be presented at Toronto After Dark - the revenge thriller Eega - the on stage introduction to it felt perhaps a bit too rapturous in its praise. It was definitely a genuine excitement, but when we were told that the film also contained the greatest Intermission title card EVER, I thought I should scale my own expectations back a bit. After all, could a story of a reincarnated housefly seeking revenge on an underworld boss really provide that much fun? And could a single title card make a crowd spontaneously break into applause?

Turns out the answer is Yes on both counts.

Particularly that title card. Though we didn't actually stop for an intermission (the international cut of the film has been trimmed by 25 minutes or so to about 108 minutes), when our heroic fly strikes a pose in freeze frame after announcing its intention to the big bad boss that it will kill him, our entire theatre burst into cheers and laughs followed by a palpable sense of anticipation for the back half of the film. Those are the moments that the theatrical experience was designed to be. Forget whatever "experience" your megaplex theatre promises you, the best ones are when an entire crowd joyously hand themselves over to what's on screen. Of course, that specific moment wouldn't have happened had the movie not already won us over to it. The story starts out a little slow during its character introductions, but by the time the musical number has graced the screen you should already be sold on the film's rhythms and tone (which is distinctly and very knowingly goofy).

Nani has been chasing Bindhu for a couple of years, but has finally broken through her reserve. Things are just about to blossom when Sudeep (a wealthy criminal who appears to get any woman he wants) enters the picture and feels rebuffed when Bindhu only has eyes for Nani. Without missing a beat, Sudeep kidnaps the young man and dispatches him to clear the way to his latest infatuation. Without any explanation, Nani's soul leaves his body and lands squarely into an unhatched fly egg. The implication is that everyone is reincarnated, but since Nani's feelings for Bindhu are so strong, they spill over to his new physical manifestation. In short order after its birth, the fly has remembered everything and now seeks out Bindhu to protect her and take down Sudeep.

The film works as well as it does because it lays down its foundation early. Within the first 20 minutes or so you've experienced the sparks flying musical number as the two fall in love, the over-the-top smugness and greasiness of Sudeep, many slow zooming close-ups and an almost continuous wall of sound and music. This isn't a subtle drawing room drama. The film knows its CGI isn't suppose to look realistic, plays up many tropes and simply wants you to have fun. For example, when the fly first attempts to communicate with Bindhu, it feels somewhat like Lassie trying to tell someone that Billy fell down the well. Then there's the workout montage as our bug hero gets himself in shape to go after Sudeep in his own house (best use of a light bulb's filaments EVER). There are a few moments that do tend to drag a bit (several sequences of Sudeep trying to swat away the pesky fly tend to be repetitive), but that feels like too much nitpicking after all of the sheer energy and amusement the film has provided.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

October Horror 2013 - Chapter #4

Not watching horror films this October? Bela Lugosi feels sorry for you...

The Night Flier (Mark Pavia - 1997) - Miguel Ferrer runs roughshod all over this film and holds together a story that could easily fall apart, but strangely doesn't. The titular character has been flying into small airports and killing the unsuspecting souls that he encounters. Dubbed the "Night Flier" by a tabloid reporter (due to the black plane only taking flight during the evening hours), this serial killer ends up being a different take on the vampire mythology. Ferrer plays the reporter who gets deeper into the story than he should - simply in order to get back on the front page. But as the Flier seems to know his every move and begins to warn him not to follow, will the grumpy, hard-nosed sensationalist be able to let it go? As an under the radar Stephen King adaptation, I was surprised by how much I actually cared about the answer to that question.

White Zombie (Victor Halperin - 1932) - "But what if they regain their souls!?" "They will tear me to pieces. But that my friend...SHALL NEVER BE!". If you can picture Bela Lugosi saying that second line and it brings a smile to your face, then you will love this progenitor of all the zombie films. There's some expressionistic use of shadows, some creative transitions & screen wipes and a couple of vultures, but its main selling point is Lugosi. His delivery, his emphasis on certain words and his glaring I'm-looking-into-your-soul eyes all make for great classic horror entertainment. The plot has goofy moments and forces a few things just to keep the story going (seriously, if you're stealing a body from a mausoleum, close the freaking door when you leave!), but this is simply 65 minutes of great, creepy fun.

Aswang (Wrye Martin, Barry Poltermann - 1994) - A couple pay a young woman to give up her baby to them in order that he may inherit the entirety of his family's estate. She must also accompany him for a weekend with his mother and pretend to be his wife. After an uncomfortable and slightly creepy initial meal, it's apparent not everything is as it seems - there's a "touched" sister in the cabin out back, a Filipino housekeeper who insists the pregnant girl drink her homemade cider, the stuck up secretive husband, his ailing mother and weird cocoons littered over the grounds with baby-like skeletons inside them. And then things start to get weird. Especially once you hear about the mythic Aswang - a vampiric beast who feeds on unborn children. Shot like it's an old 1970s relic, it has a similar feel to many of those slow paced, yet engaging horrors from that time period - until it picks up its pace substantially. A great find.

The Invisible Man (James Whale - 1933) - "He's mad and he's invisible". I daresay, that's a prickly combination...This classic is best known for its many "invisible man doing things" tricks (which look to be pretty impressive given the 80 year old technology), but it's really all about Claude Rains - at least his voice anyway. At the halfway mark of the film, you still haven't seen his actual face but you know for sure you've met a monstrous being. Whenever he's (so to speak) on screen, the film comes alive. Whenever he isn't, it flags and becomes, well, kind of commonplace. In particular, any scene with the screeching innkeeper's wife is almost unbearable (whether she was meant as comic relief or not). But Rains pulls it together and you totally believe how he suddenly moves from grumpy scientist to master evil criminal in the blink of an unseen eye. A well-deserved, if not always successful, classic.

Toronto After Dark 2013 - Preview

The 8th edition of Toronto After Dark starts in just a few days and will run from October 17-25 in its new home: the Scotiabank Theatre. The programming team have once again scoured the face of the Earth and assembled 19 feature films (with Canadian shorts before each one) and an entire screening of International shorts. This means Horror, Fantasy and Sci-Fi fans will have plenty to feast on during the 9 nights of the fest. The unknown factor this year will be how the festival will work within the confines of a large downtown movieplex. Scotiabank will still be operating its other theatres normally and running its usual fare in them. In years past, TAD had full run of the theatre it inhabited, so we'll see if that great community vibe the festival has always put out can continue. I'm confident it will.

I promised myself last year that I'd skip any of the festival trailers and go into each film with almost zero knowledge (except for the brief synopsis on the web site and anything I may have previously heard). It seemed to work pretty well for me in 2012, so I'm using the same tactic this year. Every film has a trailer at the Toronto After Dark site, so if you want a quick taste of the lineup by all means go there and watch. They've even provided a full playlist of all the trailers, so don't say they never do anything for you.

The site has provided a PDF of the lineup and schedule as well as a longer rundown of it. Here's a quick summary from my point of view (quotes in italics are taken from the After Dark web site):

We Are What We Are - I've been meaning to catch up with the original Spanish film from 3 years ago, but still haven't got 'round to it. Apparently Jim Mickle's (Stakeland) version is something a bit different though, so hopefully the story of a family trying to keep their "tradition of consuming human flesh a secret from their increasingly suspicious small town neighbours" has enough legs to withstand two different views of it.

Bounty Killer - "MAD MAX meets THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY". Yeah, that sounds like marketing overkill to me too, but the concept of rival bounty hunters in the future has its appeal. Also, I've aways liked Alexa Vega (even in crappy films), so we'll see if there's enough here.

Big Ass Spider - I don't even need to quote from the preview - just look at the title! Let's hope they know how to handle the obvious humour at play.

Eega - "...about a murdered man who gets reincarnated as a housefly and sets out to have his revenge...". Yeah, you definitely want to see this now too.

Stalled - "A down on his luck maintenance worker finds himself trapped in the washroom during the Zombie apocalypse". The premise has potential - I mean there's always room for another Shaun Of The Dead in this world - but you better have the chops to avoid easy jokes and keep surprising the audience. I'm oddly optimistic about this one.

The Battery - Let's hope that this "fresh take on a zombie movie" is indeed that. Otherwise, the only distinction it will have from other fight-the-zombies-in-a-post-apocalyptic-world is that the two central characters are former baseball players. At the very least, it should be good fodder for the Zombie Appreciation Night crowd.

Silent Retreat - The first of two World Premieres at this year's festival, this "this frightening tale of a rebellious teenager who gets sent to a strict rehabilitation camp in the woods" promises a scary creature as the guard keeping the campers in line. I'm always on the side of the small film making its world premiere, so let's hope a sizable crowd comes out on a Sunday afternoon (this one has a 4:15 PM start).

Septic Man - "From the twisted mind of celebrated writer Tony Burgess (PONTYPOOL)...". The title may not inspire, but if the writer of Pontypool is on board, who am I to say no?

Motivational Growth - "Then the mold starts talking...". At the very least, that statement has got to get your attention. And with Jeffrey Combs voicing said mold (which has begun to grow inside a depressed man's apartment), you might even pay some attention.

Odd Thomas - With some of the biggest names of the festival (Anton Yelchin, Willem Dafoe, director Stephen Sommers and based on a Dean Koontz novel), this story of a young man's encounter with "a mysterious man with a link to a darkness that threatens to destroy the people around him" could be an early sell out.

Solo - I'm always up for a "suspenseful horror-thriller", so I'm hoping this story of a teenage girl forced (through an initiation) to spend two nights alone on a remote island (where campers have previously disappeared) can bring the tension.

Last Days On Mars - The first of two back-to-back sci-fi films sports a pretty decent cast (Liev Schrieber, Olivia Williams, Elias Koteas) and a decent hook: "a deadly strain of bacteria discovered in the Martian soil that begins to infect a group of astronauts, turning them one by one into blood-thirsty zombies!". There's big potential here.

The Machine - The plot about a "conflicted scientific genius trying to make the perfect female android" doesn't sound overly original, but word is this is a great looking film with a very definite feel to it. I'm just going to assume the word is correct.

Found - "An award-winning coming of age movie about a shy, bullied 12-year old who takes refuge in horror movies, only to see his life turn into a horror story...". So what happens when you realize your older brother is a serial killer? Apparently things get gory.

Evil Feed - The second World Premiere promises it is "a one-of-a-kind horror-action-comedy about a sinister Chinese restaurant that kidnaps martial artists off the streets, forces them to fight to the death, and then serves the loser up for dinner to paying guests!". I'm less excited for this one given the concept, but no less hopeful and committed to supporting a Canadian film making its bow.

Willow Creek - "A scary found footage film from acclaimed filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait...". Even I might have reached my limits of found footage by now, but if Goldthwait can eke out some scares from the crowd, it could be a fun screening.

Banshee Chapter - "A scary horror thriller about a young reporter in search of her missing friend...". Love the title and the screencaps, so it immediately becomes a "most anticipated".

Cheap Thrills - "A recently unemployed dad, tries to pay off his debts by performing an increasingly risky series of dares for a wealthy thrill-seeking couple". I'm not sure I would've been overly excited by this concept except for : 1) it played very well at Fantasia this summer and 2) it stars David Koechner. And so now I'm excited.

Big Bad Wolves - "A brilliantly constructed, award-winning, gripping crime thriller that deftly blends elements of horror and dark comedy". OK, I know that festival blurbs can't be trusted, but when you put that kind of tag line on your closing film, I can't help but be at least a little anxious to see it.

The lineup is an unknown quantity to me, but I have pretty decent faith in the programming team given their past record. A quick top 5 most anticipated would look like this:

Big Bad Wolves
Cheap Thrills
Banshee Chapter
Silent Retreat

And don't forget the Pub After Dark - in its own new home of The Office Pub - after every evening's last screening. The pubs get better as the week goes on and always have some of the filmmakers hanging out. This year's festival has crept up on me, but I'm ready to take it on. Again. For the 8th time.