Monday 31 August 2009

Toronto After Dark 2009 - Wrap up!

The Toronto After Dark Film Festival wrapped up just over a week ago now, so it's probably time that I wrap things up too. First up, the Audience awards (announced last Friday):

Best Feature Film

1. Dead Snow

2. Trick R Treat

3. Black Dynamite

Best Canadian Short Film

1. Captain Coulier

2. Blackheads

3. Dance Macabre

Best International Short Film

1. The Users Guide To Imaginary Friends (Abridged)

2. The Horribly Slow Murderer With The Extremely Inefficient Weapon

3. King Of Power 4 Billion %

Though I didn't see the International Shorts program, they replayed one of them in the pub late one night after screenings. I sat there pretty much transfixed - even without it's mutated video game score, it's the craziest Nintendo DS game you'll ever see. Just when you think it's gone over the top, it has more. It's Paul Robertson's "Kings Of Power 4 Billion %" (below in 2 parts):

Best Independent Feature Film

1. Strigoi

2. The Revenant

3. Grace

I saw several other films that I didn't review - either because they were simply OK and didn't provide a strong enough reaction or I just didn't have much to say (that's not necessarily bad). Here's five other films from the fest:

The Warlords - Longish epic-blood-brothers type film, with superior large scale battle scenes and a really good performance by Jet Li. Yes he can act. Wasted its female character a bit, but it's not about her...It's about the three warlords, their pact and what happens when it all falls apart. This has been hung up in legal battles between producers, so it hasn't screened much outside of China and surrounding areas. I think it would find a solid audience here.

Dead Snow - Nazi zombies in the snow. That's all you need to sell this film. And it pretty much reached all expectations. I'm surprised they didn't go a bit deeper into the Nazi background, but now that I've thought about the film, I'm pretty glad it didn't. It was able to stay fun - as evidenced by the Audience Award it received.

The Revenant - For a totally independent film, this looked really good and had some great ideas. What happens when your best friend dies and comes back as a zombie? Do you still go out drinking and partying? It ran a good 20-30 minutes too long though and let far too many of its scenes extend past their usefulness. It should've ended before the plot went off the rails, but it entertained for the most part and had some great effects.

Must Love Death - Probably my least favourite film of the festival. The tag line is "What happens when a romantic comedy meets a horror film?" Well, not much really - you get neither. The romcom is obviously a take off on all the crappy romcoms you've ever seen, but it unfortunately is even worse than those crappy romcoms you don't want to actually see again. The horror parts are better and they had some good ideas, but messed with the tone of the picture far too much - is it tribute, spoof, subtly comedic, gore-y, etc. Not terrible, but it didn't have a solid foundation.

The Forbidden Door - I quite enjoyed this Indonesian Lynchian tale of a sculptor, his wife and a strange club for members only. The screening was actually delayed by half an hour because of a massive storm that hit the Toronto area and blew out the circuit for the projector (we learned later that tornados touched down North of the city and caused very serious damage). The film was perilously close to being cancelled, but one of the After Dark staff apparently rode his bike back to his house (in seriously torrential rain which managed to completely soak me just in my 1 minute long walk from subway to theatre), picked up his external hard drive where he had a backup of the film and drove it back. It actually looked pretty damn good even from the hard drive to the big screen, but the playback was interrupted a few times and unfortunately the flow of the film was somewhat ruined. But geez, what an amazing effort to avoid the cancellation. All hail the staff of After Dark. On top of that, apparently only 4 or 5 people actually left and asked for their money back from an audience of about 400-450. That's the kind of festival this is - no one wanted to leave the theatre even when there wasn't a film on!

So yeah, it was a great year for Toronto After Dark.

Saturday 29 August 2009

I'm Not Even 2 Minutes In...

...and I already know that I'm going to love "Take Aim At The Police Van", Seijun Suzuki's noirish crime film and my first pick from the recently released Series 17 set by Eclipse - "Nikkatsu Noir".

We start with an establishing shot...

...then cut to a man caressing his shotgun...

...and then to what he sees through his viewfinder...

...followed by a pan to the remaining signs...

As it turns out, I did love the film. Fun, stylish and a harbinger of Suzuki's style down the road. Now I get to plow through the other 4 films in the set.

Yay me.

Toronto After Dark 2009 - Canadian Shorts

The Toronto After Dark Film Festival has been a great believer and supported of short films - in particular Canadian ones. Though I missed the International Shorts program this year, I did catch all the Canadian shorts that screened before each of the feature films I saw. Some of my favourites follow, but unfortunately only one of them is the complete film - the others are just trailers, but hopefully they will whet your appetite.

Captain Coulier (Space Explorer) - Canadian space explorer on a low budget. His to-do list is as follows:

1. Discover planet
2. Find love
3. Quit drugs
4. Stop hating yourself

That should give you an idea of the humour. The trailer below isn't from the actual short film we saw, but the tone is the same.

Hirsute - I love time travel as a construct for stories and this is a great example of finding a fresh way to work with it. What happens when you meet your future self and he's arrogant, smarmy and hairless? The full 13 minute film can be found here. The trailer has a sampling:

Becoming - An amazing look film with an opening tracking shot along a stream that is just stunning. The wordless story is pretty great too, though it's more of a dance/fight. You may think twice before messing with Mother Nature after seeing this. Or even gardening...

Git Gob - One and a half minutes of complete silliness. You can't argue with that. Enjoy the full film below:

Danse Macabre - Equal both in its beauty and disturbing quality, "Danse Macabre" recently won an award at the Worldwide Short Film Festival for its depictions of the last "death dance" that a human body might go through...

Next Floor - Winner of the best short film at Cannes. The trailer doesn't give much away, so I probably shouldn't either. A table full of aristocratic types gorge continuously on all manner of food being rolled in by a dedicated wait staff. Consequences follow...

Toronto After Dark 2009 - "The Children"

Have you ever been at one of those family gatherings where the numerous small children about are perhaps not quite fully rested? You know, the kind that has those kids on the verge and interspersed amongst the adults at the dinner table while everyone is trying to have a conversation? It's analogous to stalling your car on the train tracks - and you can hear that freight train's whistle a-comin'. There's a scene in Tom Shankland's "The Children" that pretty much perfectly realizes that scenario - the slow build of tension, the little snipes between the parents, the amazing ability of children to ratchet things up to the breaking point...

Though "Grace" was the most unsettling and deep down terrifying film of this year's Toronto After Dark Film Festival, "The Children" is definitely the most immediately chilling. With a strong build of tension through its first half, the film hits overdrive in the white knuckle department as it pretty much sprints toward the finish. Minimal use of false scares was welcomed as it concentrated more on increasing the cringe and wince factor - not by grossing you out, but by using a great deal of foreshadowing and stretching out of each of its scenes.

It starts out innocently enough (don't they all?) as two couples and their children get together for Christmas at a remote house. The women are sisters and get along, but are very different. Chloe awards stars for her kids' good behaviour, wants to home school them and has very definite ideas about child rearing whereas Elaine still has a bit of the party girl left in her and is with her new husband. Elaine has a teenage daughter and a young boy and her husband Jonah brings his own daughter into the mix. Chloe and husband Robbie have a young daughter and a son, so it's a full and boisterous house. The men bring contrary styles to things as well. Whereas Jonah is self-centered, doesn't have a whole lot of time for any of the kids (except his own daughter) and flips between calm recitations of rules to physical outbursts, Robbie is always mediating, wants to be all the kids' friend and even shares a joint with teenage Casey.

During these initial stages of the film, the story does a great job in slowly bringing out these different parenting characteristics. These people love their kids, but through all their different techniques might not be listening or paying attention to what the kids really need. While we're getting the lay of the land with the adults, something's happening with the children...The youngest is the first to exhibit some strange symptoms - along with strangely pale features and other signs of sickness, he has become not just unruly but violent. The youngest girl is next to be "infected", followed by the oldest boy and then eventually by Jonah's daughter. She tries gamely to resist the sickness and the urges, but simply can't. Teenage Casey is the first one to clue into the fact that the kids are NOT alright. Sometime after the first "accident", the kids begin actively trying to "off" their parents, but the parents just can't believe Casey's warnings. It unravels from there.

The cause of the behaviour is mostly irrelevant, though it is hinted at in some initial shots as well as several cuts to an ominous forest and its rustling branches. The cinematography is gorgeous - the exterior shots showing bright beautiful winter days that turn suddenly grey and cold while the interior shots are all golden hued and warm until things aren't so sunny anymore. The foreshadowing mentioned earlier is done in various ways, but mostly by framing scenes carefully and placing objects just within sight that will come into play later. The final half hour or so is mostly straight horror film conventions in many ways, but they are executed extremely well and it makes for one of the more entertaining of recent horror films. It's also been imbued by much food for thought. Can a parent really believe that their little precious offspring could ever be a monster? Can what you do as a parent (no matter what your parenting style) really affect your child or are they bound to follow the crowd and get more influence from their peers? As a parent, that last thought is pretty terrifying all on its own.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Toronto After Dark 2009 - "Black"

Similar to "Rough Cut", Pierre Laffargue's "Black" is not your typical action movie. Oh, it's got action alright - shootouts, car chases, one-on-one fights, one-on-many fights, etc. - it's just that it zigs and zags when you think the plot is about to go in the expected straight line direction. It starts with Black (played by MC Jean Gab'1) being involved in an armed robbery in Paris, snakes its way to Dakar, meets up with a crazy Russian general, flirts with magical powers, crashes head long into an arms dealer, deals with diamond smuggling bankers and dances around a rather stunning, yet tough, Interpol agent. And wrestlers with machetes - how could I forget them?

All this bouncing around from one strand to another and back again is laid on a foundation of Afrobeat music (supervised by Fela Kuti's drummer Tony Allen) that matches the skittering nature of the plot and is just as much fun. If there's one soundtrack I'm buying in the not too distant future, it's going to be the one for this film. The music matches the shift of locations to Black's native country of Senegal - after a failed armored truck hold-up, Black decides to go there when he receives a call from a cousin. His relative claims that there is a can't miss opportunity of uncut diamonds just sitting in one of Dakar's biggest, yet extremely unsecure, banks. Unfortunately, just as Black arrives, the inept and corrupt bank president is replaced. Things will now be run by Pamela (Carole Karemera), an extremely efficient, no-nonsense, statuesque and cat-like foil to Black's grinning, confident trickster. The winding plot kicks into gear at this point and Laffargue (who also co-wrote the screenplay) lets go of the brakes to take everyone on a memorable ride.

The Toronto After Dark Film Festival crowd loved it and appreciated not only the "where is this going next?" feeling it provided, but also the bits of humour thrown in - mostly via Black himself. MC Jean Gab'1 (how great a name is that?) seems just as confident in the role of Black as Black is of himself. It's a great and very entertaining performance that will hopefully allow him to break out to a bigger scope of roles. He carries a certain amount of glee with him throughout the story and you can't help but be caught up in it. Karemera is also good and intense when she needs to be. The rest of the cast pales a bit in comparison, but it doesn't really affect the film.

One of the more interesting and odd subplots is the rather mystical animal like qualities some of the characters take on - in an early foreshadowing sequence, Black is told by an old shaman that he has the mark of the lion on his face and he is destined to battle the snake. He will, however, require the help of the panther. In a beautiful shot somewhere in the middle of the film, the camera rotates on a certain character and leaves you no doubt as to who that panther is. The look and feel of the whole film is actually quite lovely (particularly in those latter shots when these mystical qualities come out) and is best suited for the large screen. "Black" is actually getting a limited theatrical run, so if you live in Toronto you'll be lucky enough to be able to catch it starting August 28th at the Yonge-Dundas AMC. If you live elsewhere (particularly in Canada), keep an eye out for it. Evokative Films is distributing and they also have "Rough Cut" lined up for early next year. I'm looking forward to seeing both those films again in the theatre.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Toronto After Dark 2009 - "Trick R Treat"

Back to expectations...What happens when you go into a film with very high hopes? Say a film that's an anthology of stories all based on Halloween legends (and you're already a big fan of anthology films - in particular those old Amicus horror ones)? And it just happens to have a 9.2 rating on IMDB and easily sold out its advanced tickets early on? Sure sounds like a good time at the theatre, doesn't it? Now what happens when you realize that the film not only has pre-built-in fans (none of whom have seen it) who not only dress as characters from the movie, but also know all sorts of trivia about them? And then mix in a smarmy director who kicks things off by making fun of other movies? Well the buzz starts to wear off pretty quick. Even worse is when you're about 10 minutes into the movie and you realize you're just not having very much fun...

I'm actually quite glad that the 2009 Toronto After Dark Film Festival snagged "Trick R Treat" for its lineup this year. This is a film that has been kinda lying in distribution purgatory for about a year and a half (or even longer) and managed to generate some pretty big excitement leading up to its Thursday evening Toronto premiere. At the very least, it pulled in fans who may not have attended After Dark and now may consider coming back again next year (you could tell by the crowd response that there were many who had not been at previous screenings during the week). To give it credit, there are some fine moments in the film - some story elements, a couple of performances (Dylan Baker continues to play questionable parental role models), several clever lines of dialog and an effect or two were standouts. The colours and lighting were vibrant and the image looked quite fantastic on the screen. And Sam - the character who simply wants something good to eat and people to follow Halloween traditions - is a pretty damn solid creation. So the film is not terrible...

But I just don't get it...The glowing praise I've read in articles and comments not to mention what I heard during the Q&A after the film just doesn't match what I saw on screen. Scary? Halloween classic? Amazing music? Is that the film everybody saw or was that the film everybody wanted to see? Or did I just psych myself out because of the high expectations?

So what were my problems with the film? Let's see if I can lay them out:

  • It's not scary. Several folks told me afterwards that it isn't really meant to be since it's supposed to be fun or because it is aimed at a younger audience. I don't buy it - they had some quality ideas in their stories that were absolutely set up to be at least creepy if not downright jump-out-of-your-seat frightening. The tempo of the stories and the editing just never worked towards a single scare though. OK, except for a few totally not earned attempts at false jump scares with loud jarring music. Ugh. And scary IS fun. Just not here.
  • The music. Marilyn Manson doing "Sweet Dreams"? Really? That alone is enough to knock it down several notches, but the score and incidental music didn't add much to the proceedings either and never felt like they contributed to building tension or creating anxiety. It felt generic.
  • The script. Character development is not lame put downs of your friends or dull exposition of your state of mind.
  • The characters. Aside from Sam, none of them evoked much feeling at all. The fat, selfish, candy grabbing boy that elicits taunts from the audience was there. So was the supremely bitchy girl who commanded her troops as she tried to play a joke on the mousey-looking girl. Don't forget the sluts, the cranky old man or the dweeb at the cash register. I found the film to actually be more mean-spirited than the Grindhouse inspired Someone's Knocking At The Door.
  • The structure. Many praised the 4 intertwining stories and how everything comes together in the end. There's something to that since each story does take place on the same Halloween evening in the same town and does cross over with the others (director Dougherty even pointed out a few things in the background I missed first time through). But each time it does that it somehow takes the wind out of its own sails. It's messy, doesn't flow and those tie-ins to each other don't actually amount to anything - the characters from one story just happen to bump into or see characters from another.
  • The comic strip framing device. The cool opening titles with the look of an anthology comic book are, except for pointless on screen titles several times during the movie stating "Earlier..." or "Later...", never referred to again as the entire concept is abandoned.

Perhaps it's all due to my unrealistric expectations and that mood change I had just before the film started. That's certainly bound to affect my feelings towards it and I'll admit that. However, the film didn't do a damn thing to help alter that feeling either.

Toronto After Dark 2009 - "Grace"

Paul Solet's "Grace" is not your regular horror movie. It should be though - this is the kind of horror film that gets under your skin, burrows a bit deeper and then settles in...As the closing film of the 2009 Toronto After Dark Film Festival, it had people squirming in their seats, but also praising the structure, pacing, cinematography and wonderful build up of tension. Though "Black Dynamite" remains my favourite film of the festival, "Grace" may indeed be the best film I saw there.

Director Solet told the audience that they should ignore some of the news that came out of Sundance regarding the film. There was much publicity at the time of a few people actually fainting at screenings. "It's just hype" says Solet. Of course it is, but considering the nerves the storyline hits and the close-to-home nature of watching a parent struggle to help their baby, it's perfectly understandable to me how the film could create a very visceral reaction. Mostly known around the festival as the "zombie baby" movie, it takes that idea so much further than what you might think. Sure it would be fun to see babies leaping out of cribs for people's throats, but that's not the direction "Grace" took.

For Madeline, sex has become simply the mechanism for getting pregnant. She's had two miscarriages and is fiercely determined to have a child. Once she becomes pregnant via her husband Michael, we begin to learn more about her other obsessions - being a vegan, her environmentalist concerns and her absolute determination not to use a doctor for her child's birth. She decides to use her old classmate Patricia as a midwife even though her mother-in-law strongly objects. Michael and his father-in-law are almost peripheral to these discussions about what is best for the baby - they try to support their partners, but they really have no say in the matter and there ends up being a great deal of tension as the pregnancy moves forward. In her last month though, Madeline is in a car accident and is told that her baby is dead. She insists, however, on bringing it to term. Never once does she seem to mention or be concerned that her husband Michael is also dead.

The birth scene is a textbook example of how to create unease in your audience. Taking place in a large bathtub in the offices of the midwife, Madeline's screams and the nervous camera truly bring the entire process to a fever pitch. Especially when you know that the baby is still born. Or is it? Can a mother's love actually will a baby to life? Whatever the case, baby Grace has arrived. Having just lost her own son in the crash, Madeline's mother-in-law Vivian now turns her attention to the newborn. She cannot fathom leaving the little one in the hands of her daughter-in-law and begins to try to get the mother deemed unfit to raise it. Considering the state Madeline is in (listless, letting her house go and barely cognizant of the outside world), it seems like it may be a good strategy.

Madeline's condition is caused by Grace's unique needs. She's a breast feeder alright, but isn't looking for milk...As Madeline realizes what her child requires, she takes actions beyond what she would normally do. Barely being able to occasionally cook meat for her husband, now she buys up half the butcher's counter to try to satiate her baby. Other means are necessary, though, and now both Madeline and Vivian are in positions where they will do anything for "their" child (both have already sacrificed by marrying weak-willed men).

The straight line tension Solet builds throughout the picture is pretty much perfect. The disturbing scenes of the film have less to do with the images then they do with the context of those images. Could you do that? Would you do that? This is an accomplished film where all the pieces work and fit seemlessly together. The cinematography is of special note in bringing yellowish tones to the house scenes and making a doctor's office look like a church, but I really can't fault anything. Except perhaps the audience's reaction at one specific moment: a woman uses a breast pump and as the camera cuts to a close-up of the bottle and the first sploosh of liquid into it, a loud "ewwww" arose from the crowd. You would've thought they were watching some slimy green ooze come from her body instead of simply breast milk, but credit the film for bringing its audience to a point where the two are pretty much equated.

Monday 24 August 2009

Toronto After Dark 2009 - "Rough Cut"

I'll be honest...During last week's Toronto After Dark Film Festival I did not expect to hear the name Kim Ki-duk bandied about a great deal. Especially not in relation to one of the films being screened. Ki-duk is the "arthouse" auteur responsible for such fare as "3-Iron", "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring" and "The Isle" - all films that I greatly enjoy, but simply wouldn't expect to find gaining a foothold at a genre film festival. So I was surprised to see his name attached to the Korean entry "Rough Cut". It was one of 3 films he wrote and helped produce in 2008, though in this case the director's reins were handed over to one of his proteges (Hun Jang). It managed to both retain a bit of that Ki-duk stamp to it and also wow a Wednesday night audience at the festival.

It's not quite the action movie its trailer bills itself as though...It's actually much more:

1) It's a character study of two individuals...Soo-ta is an actor that behaves in real life a bit like the characters he plays in his own movies - in other words he's selfish, considers himself tough and treats people poorly. Kang-pae, on the other hand, is a gangster following the code of his profession, is tougher than nails and treats people how they (in his mind) deserve to be treated. He's always wanted to be in movies, though, and has seen all of Soo-ta's films. These two characters also represent different sides of each other (nicely defined by the contrast of their clothes) and are original, interesting and have complete arcs during the film.

2) It covers its thematic ground extremely well...One of the central themes of the film deals with the consequences of living outside of your reality. Given much of the film takes place on a movie set, who's to say what may or may not be real (an alternate title of the film is "A Movie is a Movie")? Soo-ta has been having a rough time of late in the acting world. Though he is in the middle of shooting a new film, no one wants to co-star with him since his temperament has put him in a bad light with his peers. Concerned about his public image as well, he only meets his girlfriend underneath an overpass in a rented vehicle due to the possibility of gossip leaking out. After meeting Kang-pae one evening, he gets the idea to ask him to be his co-star. Kang-pae is indeed curious about being in a movie, but tells Soo-ta that he never fakes anything - so if he takes the part, all the scenes (particularly the fights) have to be real. In Soo-ta's case, he can only act tough around Kang-pae when he uses dialog taken from a script.

3) It's an action movie...It's not balls to the wall action, but when it does occur, it's bracing. Even the one-on-one conversations between Soo-ta and Kang-pae are filled with enough tension to feel as kinetic as an action scene. And the final battle between the two of them (all muddied up and looking pretty much identical) is one for the ages.

4) It's entertaining as hell...As much as I like Ki-duk's films, I wouldn't necessarily classify them as "entertaining" - at least not in the smile-on-your-face sense of the word. But "Rough Cut" manages to meld the grand themes, the action and the characters into one terrific 113 minute chunk. There's a good deal of humour here as well, not only between the two leads, but from the director of the film within the film. And even though he has some of the funniest scenes, he never once gets too broad with his antics or reactions.

As Soo-ta steps slowly back into the real world, Kang-pae steps a bit out of his (falling for his leading actress, keeping bits of information from his boss). I could easily see Hollywood wanting to recast the movie with their own picks and tweaking a number of the darker elements of the script. That would be a travesty though - this film ought to be seen as it is with its theme and storyline intact as well as with its two tremendous leads playing those characters. It's simply a great film.

Shinsedai Cinema Festival 2009 - "Maledict Car"

I need to write a bit more on the 4 feature films and several shorts I saw at Shinsedai this year (considering the quality of everything I saw, I really regret not packing more in), but I just wanted to quickly post one of my favourite short films: "Maledict Car".

It's actually a music video for the artist Jemapur directed by Kosai Sekine. It reminds me somewhat of some old Michel Gondry videos (in particular "Star Guitar" by The Chemical Brothers), but this stands on its own as a terrific use of slow camera movement and mirroring shots in 2, 4 and more sections. Here's the whole video:

I'll try to post a few more items about the lineup of films I saw over the next few days (I still desperately have to catch up on the After Dark films I saw). I was fortunate enough to meet Jasper Sharp (co-curator and co-director of this first, but certainly not last, Shinsedai festival) during the festival, so when you can end a fest by getting a signed copy of "Behind The Pink Curtain" by the man who is directly responsible for getting you into Japanese film in the first place as well as snagging several drinks of sake, you know it's been worthwhile...

Friday 21 August 2009

Toronto After Dark 2009 - "Someone's Knocking At The Door"

It's funny how expectations can really affect your movie going experience. Going into Tuesday night's screening of "Someone's Knocking At The Door" at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, I was somewhat apprehensive. It was by far my least anticipated film of the entire schedule as the trailer gave me a vague unpleasant feeling that it would be not just violent, but very mean-spirited and vicious. The trailer certainly got across the Grindhouse feel of the movie, but I felt that I would walk out wanting a good shower. Don't get me wrong, I know that I'm attending a "genre" film festival where one sees all sorts of mayhem and horror on screen. This one felt hateful though - I can't put my finger on why, but that was the vibe I received. Meanwhile, one of my friends was greatly anticipating the same film. He too got the Grindhouse feel of the trailer, but not the hateful aspect. He expected it would be a film that had fun with trying to create never-before-seen scenes of depravity.

At some point in the screening, our opinions of the film crossed paths - mine went up and his dropped. It's nowhere near my favourite experience of the festival, but it surprised me by not being completely about the violence. It experiments with sound and editing, depicts hallucinegenic trips and has a few too many overly talky sections - in other words, it really is close to a Grindhouse style film. It's not all entertaining, but it all fits into the context of the story. What about all that promised depravity you say? It's still there and intense (should I mention the "reverse birth" sequence?) and ends up being effectively disturbing since it isn't wall-to-wall.

Lead actor Noah Segan talked after the screening about how he was intrigued with the concept of someone using drugs recreationally, but with the result that they end up "breaking something" - in other words, crossing a particular point from which they can't return whole. The example given was of a person on acid who removed their shoe, thought that their foot had remained in their shoe and began to worry that he was now permanently "broken". The concept is explored via several selfish and rather despicable medical students who one night take an experimental drug called Taldon. They've holed themselves up in a filing room in the basement of their medical school and as the high kicks in, they review the particularly nasty case history of John and William Hopper - two serial murderers who sexually abuse their victims. The drug seems to allow the Hoppers to come back and stalk each student in turn.

Though not the sickening story that I had feared, it isn't really a joyful exprience. Due to my expectations, though, I was able to glean more from the film than many others I spoke with afterwards. I liked seeing how they adopted certain Grindhouse and 70s filmmaking conventions, but also brought other modern aspects to it. The use of sharp, quick edits and a variety of sound effects was an effective way to heighten the confusion and sensory overload of a drug trip's residual effects. It would be wrong to look at the film as simply a "Kids, just say No" warning against drugs. I think it's closer to "It's your choice, but be aware of the possible consequences...". Of course, when one of those consequences is that you may get attacked by a man with a phallus the size of a log, I'd have to say it's probably a pretty good deterrent.

Thursday 20 August 2009

Toronto After Dark 2009 - "Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl"

The makers of last year's carnage-filled, blood-drenched, special effects extravaganza Tokyo Gore Police have returned to the genre festival circuit with a romantic comedy. A carnage-filled, blood-drenched, special effects extravaganza romantic comedy. The film had many in the audience eagerly awaiting the first splatter moment Monday night at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival and they didn't have to wait long. Within 5 minutes, Vampire Girl had dispatched three separate opponents in bloody style (I'm talking geysers of red stuff) and stacked their deep crimson coloured skulls into a tidy little tower. Talk about setting a tone for your movie early on.

Yoshihiro Nishimura and co-director Naoyuki Tomomatsu have put together a story to go with the mayhem this time (Tokyo Gore was really all about the effects) and peppered it with a heaping helping of satire. There's not much point going into a lot of specifics about the plot since the title of the film is pretty self-descriptive, but there is a story behind it: pretty young Monami is the new girl at school, tries to woo one of the boys in her class and gets on the bad side of Keiko who has proclaimed herself as his girlfriend. The first half of the film is the setup (where we find out that Monami is a vampire and how Keiko becomes a Frankensteinian creation) and the second half is the battle. Strangeness ensues.

There's been some debate about Nishimura's films (he was also involved with "Machine Girl") as well as some others that are specifically produced for the North American market. They don't actually do well in their homeland, but get great fan response here due (at least somewhat) to the "crazy Japanese" tag attached to them (though they are also designed to mimic certain manga). I was worried and a bit annoyed when there was some giggling in the audience during the opening credits of the film as the production company names popped on the screen ("Pony Canyon", "Concept Film" and "Excellent Films"). It came across as "Oh, those crazy Japanese and their funny little company names...". The film, as flawed as it is in some spots, stands on its own though. It's honest in what it's going for, captures the spirit of those manga (at least to my eyes) and revels in its cartoonish gore (gooey fluids and dismembered body parts are everywhere).

There's certainly some forced moments of over the top craziness and mugging for the camera, but there also some pretty brilliantly creative moments:

  • A "Singin' In The Rain" style sequence where Monami has just sliced off some appendages from a victim and does a joyful dance in the pouring rain of deep red blood spraying all around her. Her slow motion dancing to a cute little pop song is, strangely enough, quite lovely.
  • The first time we step into the lab of Keiko's father and he shows us that he is really a Dr. Frankenstein type scientist. He's experimenting with creating life and after ripping an entire spine from a body he proceeds to pretend it's a guitar - all while the camera zooms in and out, tilts on all sorts of angles and cuts between him and his over-sexed school nurse helper like it was a Saturday morning kids show.

The problem with the film, though, is that it doesn't seem to quite know when to wrap up a scene or a gag. Both of the above described moments are plagued by excessive editing and an unwillingness to simply end. If "Singin' In The Blood" had been a single take of Monami dancing (without the needless edits to different sections of the same dance), it would've kept it's lovely quality. If the Saturday morning kids show riff had been shortened by half, it would have still got its point across without hammering it in. The entire run time is pretty much like that which makes it a bit frustrating. Two further examples are the girls clubs within the school: the Ganguro Girls (Japanese girls who try to be like African Americans by embracing their speech, clothing and any other forms of their culture) and the Wrist Cutters Club (one of their slogans: "Pay more attention to us!"). Both have funny elements and get in their jabs at the true-life teenage girls who wrap themselves up in odd obsessions, but the purposely offensive creations they've come up with just pummel home the joke to the point that it dilutes the satire. We really don't need the over the top facial contortions to go along with it.

In the end though, the film does achieve the fun sort of lunacy for which it aims. The story element holds things together more, they actually show some restraint in not pummeling you with their special effects too often in the early going and it provides some choice bits of humour and really surprising there's-no-way-I-could've-seen-that-coming moments. Frustrating, but still entertaining.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Toronto After Dark 2009 - "Strigoi"

Strigoi, in old Romanian legends and mythology, are the dead who rise from their graves at night. It's also the name of one of the most interesting and unique tellings on film of the vampire legend that I've seen - certainly one of the best currently out there. The film had its World premiere Monday night at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival and charmed the crowd via its humour and slowly revealing story. The staff of After Dark have been calling it a "gem" and I couldn't agree more.

The story centers around Vlad who is a young and slightly squeamish medical student returning to his small village after being away in Italy for some time. When he stops by the local shop, he finds several of the villagers sitting around the dead body of one of the town's old drunks. As they laugh and drink, they claim to be celebrating his life and are just there to mind the body. The local priest has stated it was an accident and therefore they feel there is no need for an official autopsy before the burial. Vlad's not so sure. After all, those bruises on his neck don't look like they were accidents - no matter how much the villagers say that it must've happened while they moved him after he was dead. "You dragged him by the neck?" Vlad asks.

It starts an investigation by Vlad into not just the specifics of the death, but of some of the local legends. As he winds through land ownership rights, police investigations, wealthy communists and his own health issues (large boils forming on his skin), he starts to better understand not only the customs of his homeland but the history of his own family. He also learns more about the strigoi and how there are two types: those who become strigoi and those born into it. As mentioned, the story reveals itself in measures, but does so very cleverly. There are many little clues and bits of foreshadowing scattered throughout and Vlad has to work out the mystery (along with the audience) while the villagers hinder him whenever possible. As Vlad makes his way through the plot, we're also treated to the look of the film. The trailer doesn't come anywhere near giving it justice - it's downright beautiful. First time feature director Faye Jackson made special note of Director of Photography Kathinka Minthe (also on her first feature film) whenever the creation of all the shadows and colours was discussed.

The story also provides lots of room for humour. This is a genuinely funny film that loves its characters and allows them to react to situations. The matronly Mara, for example, has been cooking up a storm for the guests at the funeral, but has had to kick it into overdrive when one of the Strigoi - the wife of the wealthy communist - begins to visit her nightly to feast on her food. If she doesn't keep her fed, the Strigoi will use Mara herself for sustenance. Vlad's grandfather also provides many funny scenes as he doesn't hesitate to blame everything on the communists. Even the disappearance of his sole remaining cigarette from a jar seems to be their fault. Underneath all of this is a strong sense of the history of the country and a reverence for its culture. I'd be lying if I said I got all the references and knew much about Romania's past, but the film makes me want to dig into it. Music plays an important role in the film as well. Traditional folk, gypsy music, dance music...Call it what you will, it's like a reservoir of happiness for the townspeople. This is especially evident in the spontaneous dancing of Mara.

It's yet another tie back to the importance of the Romanian culture to its people and how it keeps them pushing through all their tribulations. That joy is contagious and I'm so happy the filmmakers decided to share it with us.

Monday 17 August 2009

Counting Down The Zeros - "Ocean's Twelve" (2004)

Ibe Tolis' awesome Film For The Soul has been working through the best films of the past decade via a series of posts entitled "Counting Down The Zeros". After meaning to contribute for some time, I finally managed to put together the following post regarding one of my favourites of the past 10 years: Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Twelve".

The shifting rainbow of colours over the Warners logo signals the intent right away - Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Twelve" is not going to be a simple heist movie follow-up to "Ocean's Eleven". All the players are indeed back from the original, new stars have been added and there's all those heist components and con games that run through the movie, but the style has been augmented past a simple riff on 60s cool. It morphs into and becomes part and parcel of the story itself. Though by no means realistic, it is at least logically consistent within the world of Danny Ocean (George Clooney) - a world where he and his co-leader Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) are smarter than everyone else, know what everyone else is thinking before they think it (including the audience) and can make things happen in incredibly short turnaround times. Accept that and you'll enjoy the twists and turns of the plot while Soderbergh plays with techniques and creates more than a heist picture. He's made a full bore art film.

The story starts some time after the squad of the first film has divvied up their ill-gotten gains from the big heist of the Vegas casinos. They've begun their lives anew and we get reintroduced to each one in turn. In each case though, it happens right at the moment that casino owner Terry Benedict (played again by Andy Garcia) has tracked them down and given them a single ultimatum - pay back the entire amount that was stolen, plus interest, or suffer the consequences. It comes out to roughly $100 million dollars, so Benedict gives them ample time to come up with the cash: 2 whole weeks. This sets off the plot as the gang reconvenes, figures they need a big score to pay him back and decide to go to Europe to begin looking for "jobs". The only thing they can find pays only a fraction of the full amount, but they can't even collect it since they've been beaten to the punch by The Night Fox - a master criminal who is at the root of Ocean's problems. It turns out that he's the one who ratted out the group to Benedict in order to force them into a position where they would have to agree to his own demands: have a competition to see who is the best criminal mastermind in the world. If Ocean can steal the Faberge Egg, The Night Fox (played in fine fashion by Vincent Cassel) will repay their debt in full. If not, he'll steal it, prove that he is the best and leave Ocean's gang to the hands of Benedict. It's patently absurd of course, but if you accept the reality the movie carves out, the pieces actually fit once all the elaborate schemes, ruses and cons have played out.

Many complaints aimed at the film point out that the audience is left out of the loop. There's no way, they claim, that the viewer has a chance of figuring things out before all is revealed towards the end. True enough, but so what? It's not all about the heist. The enjoyment is the ride and the view from your seat along the way. Soderbergh is a master at creating great looking visuals (the film couleur of "The Underneath", the different film stocks of "Traffic", the recreation of a 40s film in "The Good German", etc.) and he reaches deep into his bag of tricks throughout this entire movie. He uses cinematography, editing and music with controlled abandon to experiment with ways to avoid exposition, create mood, introduce new characters and simply tell his story. Freeze frames, chopped timelines, black and white to colour transitions, on screen titles describing time or location changes (e.g. half second shots introducing the city of Amsterdam), tilted camera angles, colour filters and reference points from film history all take their own turns. An example of the latter is from the opening scene when we get some back story on Rusty Ryan. Three years earlier he was living with an up and coming young detective named Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and as he realizes that she may have found clues that would implicate him in a recent theft, he runs out on her as she sleeps. In a steal from a famous sequence in Richard Brooks' "In Cold Blood", the shadows of raindrops are cast over Isabel's face like tears. My favourite visual treat though is Soderbergh's choice to work predominantly with a contrasting colour palette of blues and oranges. It's gorgeous.

Another key element of the film is David Holmes' terrific score. Chock full of wakka-chukka wakka-chukka funky guitars, bongos and other modernized 60s sounds, the music is an essential component linking everything together. Early in the film, there's a great shift from the playful tone of Ocean and his wife (Julia Roberts) chatting on the phone to the desperate on the run situation he finds himself in when Benedict shows up. Holmes' driving rhythm follows him onto a speeding train and it captures the urgency, slight panic and churning thoughts of Ocean as the camera shows him from a variety of angles. It's an "OK, here we go..." moment. The dance through the lasers during The Night Fox's theft of the Faberge Egg is another moment - but this time it's pure art. Orange and blue is the colour scheme of course, but the scene is made by Holmes' accompanying slightly funky tune. It's a great match of the visuals to the music as it truly feels like the master criminal is dancing through those random laser beams while that music plays in his headphones. The scene, of course, is ridiculous if you read the film as a pure heist picture. Physically impossible. And yet it brings a smile to my face every time because it is such a joy to watch.

The characters in the film depend heavily on the performances and the actors themselves. It's hard to separate Ocean from Clooney, Ryan from Pitt and the other team members from their respective famous actors (Carl Reiner, Elliot Gould, Bernie Mac, etc.). Soderbergh's not looking to do that though since much of the humour (and there's a good deal of it) consists of in-jokes, specific acting quirks and well-timed pauses and beats. Many have complained that the entire enterprise is just a bunch of friends making themselves laugh. Perhaps, but at least there's no pandering for broad appeal or attempts to explain everything. As well, it gives them the freedom to be relaxed and confident as they work through getting the rhythms of a scene (Matt Damon in particular is very adept at hitting his beats on the nose). If you don't get the "Kashmir" joke that's OK, maybe you'll love the Topher Grace cameo ("I totally phoned in that Dennis Quaid movie") or the Bruce Willis surprise visit or the left in outtakes (Scott Caan cracking up at a tossed off Elliot Gould line while they wait for the bathroom). It's not smarmy - they genuinely look like they're having fun, so it's easy to ride along with them. Is the Julia Roberts storyline a bit too self-aware? Maybe so, but given the nature of the rest of the story, reading too much more into it then the fact that it's just a clever way of playing up her celebrity would be a mistake.

It doesn't matter though. Soderbergh is using the medium and a fun story to play and create a work of art that can be rewatched and enjoyed time and again for all of its style, techniques and compositions as well as its story, script and characters. It's got it all - style AND substance.

Toronto After Dark 2009 - "Franklyn"

"If you believe in something strongly enough, who's to say if it's real or not?"

It's hard to pinpoint a single theme in a film with 4 separate main storylines set in two different time periods, but I'd judge the above quote from "Franklyn" (which had its North American premiere Saturday at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival) sums it up quite well.

You could even tie it into the film's marketing campaign somewhat...The trailer for the film has a strong "dystopic future" steampunk vibe to it and though that does form the environment for one of the storylines, it's a disservice to the film to market it that way. Perhaps the studio folks wanted so much to have a steampunk film to call their own that they blocked out the reality of what they actually had?

Regardless, the film presents the 4 stories in alternating fashion - usually one or two of the current day London set stories are mixed in between the dark futuristic one. That latter arc occurs in a place called Meanwhile City and follows a masked man who proclaims at the outset that his mission for that night is to kill a man he refers to as The Individual. The intended victim is the leader of a particularly nasty religion that has kidnapped and murdered a young girl. Religion is everywhere in Meanwhile City and since it is illegal not to have one, this creates an environment that allows hundreds and thousands of small religious sects to spring up (including one named the "Seventh Day Manicurists" - there's not a lot of humour in the movie, but that was a nicely placed dose of it). Our masked man is the only person in Meanwhile City who does not have a religion and so he is deemed dangerous by the government.

His story becomes more mysterious as the film moves along. Particularly when it is intercut with the plots of the other 3 characters. It's presented as a puzzle and will absolutely leave you scratching your head at times, but - and this is key in these intertwining story arc films - there's so much care given to everything (words spoken, camera angles, colour, etc.) that you have complete confidence that the director will tie everything together or, at the very least, let his theme come through. There were definitely some confused looks and comments after the screening, but it worked for me. It worked very well. There's minor quibbles here and there likely, but the film kept me engaged and curious by dropping clues along the way and foreshadowing little bits here and there. I never found that there was a grand "Oh my God!" reveal, but several smaller ones along the way. Some I "figured out" and others I didn't see until they were shown.

Each of the 4 characters are wrestling with their own issues in determining reality from fantasy (via their art, their memories, imposing their desires on others, etc.). The trailer does get this part right - each is struggling to make a connection to someone or something and retreat to their own worlds when it doesn't happen. The religion angle is tackled a bit further by having one of the 3 London characters be a deeply religious man searching for his son (a fine performance y Bernard Hill). The other 2 are atheists (Eva Green and Sam Riley), but are searching for their own reasons to fully embrace the real world. It's best not to detail too much about each character's arc as it's the kind of film that works when you don't have any preconceptions. Hence my issue with the marketing - this isn't a sci-fi thriller, this is a damn fine look at why many of us "check out" and it's framed as a puzzle for the viewer in order to better get across the feeling of being disconnected.

The film is director Gerald McMorrow's first feature film, so it's certainly reaching with great ambition. I'd love to see a wider release since McMorrow really has a terrific eye for composition and with cinematographer Ben Davis has created a really beautiful looking film.