TIFF ’14 – Day 9: A Taste of Madness

Dan Stevens uses his good looks for evil in The Guest.
Dan Stevens uses his good looks for evil in The Guest.

Early on, my favorite section at TIFF was Midnight Madness. A collection of horror films or gonzo documentaries, it was the place to be if you were a genre fan.

In the last couple of years, the quality of the selection hasn’t been all that solid (Die Cheerleader Die comes to mind). Or could it be the mild thrills of a scary flick couldn’t match the complexity of other TIFF selections.

This year the tide has turned once again. The group is an effective collection of homages (The Editor), new horror (It Follows) and docs about geeky obsessions (Electric Boogaloo, The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films). Here are a couple of more titles for your consideration.

The Guest (USA, 2014): Of all the new generation horror filmmakers (aka “Splatpackers”), Adam Wingard is by far the most interesting. Unlike his peers (Joe Swanberg, Ti West), Wingard movies are thoroughly plotted (courtesy of frequent collaborator Simon Barrett), tremendously amusing riffs on the genre tropes. You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die are bright spots in a particularly bad decade for terror.

The Guest follows the same trend, with an Eighties-heavy soundtrack to boot. Frequently described as a scary Bourne movie, The Guest take place in a sleepy American town. A family who has recent lost a son in Afghanistan is visited by David (Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey), a soldier who claims to have fought alongside the boy. The grieving mother wastes no time in taking the veteran in and soon David charms everybody in the household… except the sulky teenage daughter (up-and-comer Maika Monroe), who believes something is off.

There is nothing groundbreaking about The Guest, but the material is elevated by a clever script and Stevens and Monroe’s committed performances. Thanks to her work in this flick and It Follows, Maika Monroe is set to become the next Scream Queen, but The Guest’s MVP is Stevens. The former Downton dweller uses his good looks to great effect and has the capacity to go from hilarious to terrifying in the span of seconds. He may have a career outside period pieces after all. Three enhanced prairie dogs.

What We Do in the Shadows (New Zealand, 2014): Jemaine Clement, one half of Flight of the Conchords, co-wrote, co-directed and co-stars in this horror parody that gets a lot of mileage of a premise a thousand times visited. Clement plays one of three vampires who share a flat. Like the polar opposite of Only Lovers Left Alive, the bloodsuckers in Shadows are petty, painfully uninteresting and not all that deep, despite the hundreds of years of experience (they have a chore wheel, for Pete’s sake!)

Clement and frequent collaborator Taika Waititi do a terrific job spoofing the genre without falling in obvious jokes. In fact, the film’s MVP is some guy named Stu, originally little more than an extra, whose character grows to become the silent straight man to a pile of wacky vampires and werewolves. In case you’re wondering, no Bret McKenzie, but Rhys Darby is around for the kicks. Three prairie bats.

That’s it for me folks, I must catch some sleep. Nine days of late nights and early mornings take a toll. See you at the movies.

TIFF ’14 – Day 8: Imitation of Life

Stop the presses! Adam Sandler made a watchable movie!
Stop the presses! Adam Sandler made a watchable movie!

Other than a couple of curio media junkets (somehow I’ll participate in both), TIFF is coming to an end. It wasn’t a fantastic year. No title generated so much interest you couldn’t get a ticket. On the other hand, I haven’t run into anything downright horrible, like 2013’s La Ultima Película. Pasolini comes close, but Willem Dafoe redeems the film a bit. Let’s talk movies.

The Cobbler (USA, 2014): Director Tom McCarthy and Adam Sandler have found each other at a crossroads: McCarthy is coming from a (critically, at least) hot streak with titles like Win Win and The Visitor. Audiences seem to have grown tired of Sandler’s schtick and have abandoned him in droves. Predictably, their first venture together is the comedian’s best film in a decade and for McCarthy, a career worst.

The movie revolves around Max (Sandler), a cobbler by trade if not by vocation. He hopes to be liberated of his burden -the repair shop he inherited from his dad- but does nothing to make it happen. His prayers are answered in the form of an old sewing machine: Whenever he fixes someone’s footwear with the antique, Max can adopt the person’s identity. Mildly amusing mishaps ensue. Continue reading “TIFF ’14 – Day 8: Imitation of Life”

TIFF ’14 – Day 7: Winnipeg Red

Zoe Saldana's legs and the Ruffaluffalo in a scene of Infinitely Polar Bear.
Zoe Saldana’s legs and the Ruffaluffalo in a scene of Infinitely Polar Bear.

As the herd of journalists and industry people starts to thin a bit, I have now the chance to catch up with some of the festival’s oddest titles. None more strange than The Editor, an hilarious Winnipeg production that’s easily the best Canadian title I’ve seen this year at TIFF. The Editor is an homage to the giallo films Mario Bava and Dario Argento made popular three decades ago. This is not your average parody: Directors (and protagonists) Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy know the original material upside down and are savvy enough to mock it the great effect: The terrible ADR, the questionable acting, the hardboiled yet painfully earnest dialogue. The Editor provided me with one of the best times I had at TIFF, and this is a movie starring Paz de la Huerta.

Infinitely Polar Bear (USA, 2014): Mistreated at the last Sundance Film Festival, Infinitely Polar Bear is one of those quirky family indies that once were all the rage and now aren’t cool enough for the Park City crowd. Mark Ruffalo -who is having a very good year- shakes off his trademark lethargy to plays Cameron, a manic-depressive father of two girls. Cam is unable to maintain a job, so his wife (Zoe Saldana) is forced to pursue higher education in another city in order to become the sole provider. Suddenly turned the sole caregiver of two precocious daughters, things don’t completely fall apart, and that could be considered a triumph.

Set in the 70’s, Infinitely Polar Bear has several things going for it. Ruffalo and Saldana are very strong in it, and their struggle for normality feels real. Also, kudos for treating mental illness as something that can’t fully be managed by ingesting handfuls of pills, and favoring character over cuteness when casting the girls. It’s a bit of a stretch to believe someone with Saldana’s looks could fall for a manic outsider, but once you have accepted that, the film can be compelling, if not touching. Infinitely Polar Bear will be distributed by Mongrel, so it’s likely to hit the province. Three bipolar dogs (two happy, one sad).

Teen Lust (Canada, 2014): Movies that don’t live up to their premise are a dime a dozen, but this phenomenon is all too palpable in the Winnipeg-made Teen Lust. In a twist on the traditional storyline “horny teenager wants to get laid”, the subject in question is the son of satanists who is about to be sacrificed to prevent the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. He must be a virgin for the ritual to work.

Motivated by his impending demise, Neil (Jesse Carere, Skins) goes in urgent pursuit of a mate, with the assistance of his ne’er-do-well best friend (former Spy Kid Daryl Sabara) and the girl who is obviously in love with him but he doesn’t notice (seriously, Neil has it coming). Meanwhile, Beelzebub’s entire church is trying to cockblock him.

None of the madcap action that ensues is as amusing as it should. For a swear-happy, Satan-inspired flick, Teen Lust is remarkably tame: This is one of those movies where people have sex with their clothes on. The portrait of women is questionable at best: They exist in two categories: Harpies and sex objects. The Winnipeg-set flick wastes a game Cary Elwes and Kristin Bauer (fresh from the True Blood trainwreck) as head satanists on behalf of decidedly less interesting characters like, uh, Neil. If you settle for mildly amusing while doing the dishes, this movie is for you. One prairie dog volunteering to be sacrificed.

It occurred to me that…

…Elvis Mitchell, curator of the Film Independent series at LACMA and the host of “The Treatment” podcast, is possibly one of the nicest film critics I have ever come across, alongside the lovely Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice. After a quick chat about our favorite movies this TIFF, he asked for my card to read some of my stuff. It may just be politeness, but it beats every other critic around.

…unlike with Michael Moore, I had no chance to mention to Ethan Hawke the ridiculous influence of his movies in my life: The Before series, Dead Poets Society and Reality Bites may not be perfect, but I saw them at the right moment and the right circumstances.

Tomorrow, adventures of a gay codebreaker in World War II.

TIFF ’14 – Day 6: Big Guns

Give me stamina to survive this festival...
Give me stamina to survive this festival…

Star-studded Tuesday: Had interviews with Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carell for Foxcatcher, and J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller for Whiplash. Tatum and Simmons were the highlights (Carell, surprisingly low key). I asked Tatum about what was on his mind while smashing his head against a mirror (the scene is in the Foxcatcher trailer, look it up).
Tatum: Have you ever been in a fight.
Me: Um… yes? (I have, against a 12 year-old Christian Lara. I kicked his ass, but I don’t see how that was relevant. I was also 12, by the way.)
Tatum: Do you remember any of it?
Me: No.
Tatum: It was just like that.
Tatum is cut. He would probably knock me out by breathing on me.

J.K. Simmons was brilliant. The actor -better known for his work as Vern Schillinger in Oz and J. Jonah Jameson in the good Spider-Man movies- is far more easygoing than the characters he plays. An early frontrunner to next year’s Academy Awards, Simmons said he had no problem with musicians recognizing themselves in his character, a tough-as-nails jazz conductor. “The problem is when Oz fans do. That’s more unsettling.”

Enough name dropping. Let’s talk movies.

Maps to the Stars (Canada/Germany, 2014): Even at his most inaccessible (*cough* Cosmopolis *cough*), there is always something interesting in David Cronenberg movies. In the case of Maps to the Stars, it would be the opening fifteen minutes. Cronenberg’s biting satire of Hollywood leaves no room for mercy and the environment he creates is so poisonous, it makes the audience feel uneasy yet curious. Then… nothing. A bunch of recognizable actors (John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Julianne Moore) behave badly and make poor life decisions, but it’s nothing Bret Easton Ellis hasn’t done two or three times before.

At the center of Maps to the Stars is the Weiss family. The father (Cusack) is a self-help guru who can’t forge a personal connection with anybody, let alone his children. The mother (Olivia Williams) is a cutthroat agent (is there another kind?). Yet the real moneymaker at the Weiss household is son Benjie, a child star with more bad habits than Lindsay Lohan. Their barely stable relationship is shaken by the arrival of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a physically scarred girl who finds a job as the personal assistant of an aging movie star (Julianne Moore).

The plot itself is ridden with Hollywood clichés (struggling to get a part, kids behaving inappropriately, actors’ rampant insecurity), but Cronenberg knows that. His interest lies in the empty souls of the characters. There is no moral here: The filmmaker just want to watch them squirm while pursuing some kind of personal fulfillment they fail to even enjoy. Maps to the Stars is surreal, but not particularly insightful or funny. Doesn’t help much of the film hinges on the Benjie character. The actor, Evan Bird, is too young and too inexperienced to seem jaded and there are scenes he struggles to bring home. Definitely a faux pas for Cronenberg, but a forgivable one. Two coyotes (the prairie dogs are stalling for more money).

Merchants of Doubt (USA, 2014): Remember that conservative argument according to which thousands of American scientists question the existence of global warming? Predictably, turns out to be bollocks (one of the signatures belongs to a “Geri Halliwell”), yet the lie has endured. Merchants of Doubt takes a look at the playbook of professional skeptics, people whose services are bought by corporations in the public eye, once the tobacco pushers, now those looking to prevent public and governmental action on climate change (namely big coal and oil).

Director Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) puts together an ironclad case against these characters, think tanks and supposedly specialized groups who sell expertise without having any scientific background to back it up. It’s an obscene and aggravating phenomenon that should have your blood boiling. Even though the doc can be a bit dry, makes for necessary viewing. Three and a half Prairie Dogs for Clean Air.

It occurred to me that…

…Toronto is selling the festival as a celebrity bazaar, while the movies don’t have the protagonism of other editions.

The Theory of Everything is getting the most Oscar buzz of all English-speaking films. It’s somewhat surprising, since outside Eddie Redmayne’s performance, there wasn’t anything impressive about it.

…the musical is back! The heart-wrenching The Last Five Years and the Canadian curiosity Bang Bang Baby are leading the charge.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back hanging out with non-famous people.

TIFF ’14 – Day 5: Men Behaving BadlyTI

William Turner paints happy boats.
William Turner paints happy boats.

Today was a day full of interviews, some of which you should be able to read in Prairie Dog and Planet S in the near future. It’s the case of the one I had with Robert Kenner. Kenner, an Oscar nominee for Food Inc. has another potential nominee in the cutting Merchants of Doubt. An outgoing fellow, the documentary filmmaker is as merciless as Michael Moore, but not as antagonizing.

This abundance has made difficult to play roulette at TIFF. One of the joys of a film festival is to find yourself watching a movie otherwise you wouldn’t never be exposed to. Besides a lean, mean Belgian police thriller (The Intruder), a Spielbergian portrait of Dutch kids during Nazi occupation (Secrets of War) and a meaty German drama about assisted-death  (Tour de Force), I have leaned towards traditional fare.

Mr. Turner (United Kingdom, 2014): The always interesting British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky) gave the impression of mellowing out in recent years. His movies had become accessible, succinct, even funny. In a way, Mr. Turner is a return to form: A lengthy, nearly plotless character study of a somewhat unsavory character starring regular collaborator Timothy Spall.

A phenomenal Spall plays William Turner, a landscapes painter who had his heyday in the early-1800. Widely beloved by the art establishment at the time, Turner pushed the boundaries of naturalism: His marinas had an intensity seldom seen before. Turner wasn’t beyond putting himself in harm’s way to find some form of inspiration and paid dearly for it. His private life was considerably less palatable: A notorious misanthrope, the artist barely dedicated any time to his family and had a maid willing to satisfy every whimsy. Continue reading “TIFF ’14 – Day 5: Men Behaving BadlyTI”

TIFF ’14 – Day 4: Uncomfortably Numb

Simon Pegg has a cold one.
Hector and the Search for Happiness: Simon Pegg has a cold one.

On Saturday night I attended the premiere of Roger Waters The Wall, a concert movie with the latest iteration of the musical masterpiece (less Pink, more war). Besides dozens of Waters’ fans , a small but loud group of Israel supporters  stood at the opposite side of the street and complained about the presence of the musician at TIFF (their signs were somewhat clever: “Hey, Waters, leave those Yids alone”). The former leader of Pink Floyd -a renown pacifist- previously condemned the bombing of Gaza, and the lyrics of “In the Flesh” have rubbed a portion of the Jewish population the wrong way for a while now. All of us going into the theatre were shamed for attending the show. Waters shrugged off the situation. He said he wasn’t going to start apologizing now. He turned 71 that night.

My Sunday wasn’t nearly as eventful. Not movie-wise at least.

Hector and the Search for Happiness (United Kingdom, 2014): Simon Pegg’s efforts to succeed outside the Edgar Wright canon and the Mission: Impossible saga continue. As the title character in Hector and the Search of Happiness, Pegg is a therapist with a serious case of ennui. How can he provide any relief to his patients if he is deeply unhappy himself? (this, despite being rich and dating the lovely Rosamund Pike). In an effort to escape his funk, Hector sets up to go around the world, discover what makes people happy and apply the proper corrections to his life.

As likeable as this male-equivalent to Eat Pray Love is, Hector has its fair share of problems. The protagonist’s observations are between obvious and inane. That would be forgivable next to the questionable portrait of the African continent. An army of cliches and absolute lack of subtlety make an entire segment of the movie hard to palate, a faux pas that reverberates for the rest of the film. It would have helped to identify the country Hector is visiting and not just identify it as “Africa”. Two prairie dogs way into self-help movies.

It Follows (USA, 2014): Just when you think there is nothing new under the darkness, the horror genre delivers a surprise free of zombies, vampires and cutlery-wielding serial killers. It Follows is an STD allegory that also applies to the lingering effects of sexual assault trauma. Jay (Maika Monroe, Short Term 12) is a comely 18 year-old who becomes stuck with a sexually transmitted haunting. The ghost in question is a relentless force that can adopt any shape and it’s out to get her. The only thing going for her is speed (the spirit moves slowly) and the possibility of passing the disease along, and it may not be enough to get rid of the spook.

The compelling premise is executed deftly. It even lands the ending which is where most of this clever flicks fail. While sex is a major element in the film, the teenagers featured in It Follows are fairly normal, adding another layer of realism to the proceedings. It Follows has distribution locked up for Canada, so get ready. Four prairie dogs keeping their distance.

It occurred to me that…

…Kevin Smith can only make one kind of movie: The talkie, low-budget comedy. His new foray in horror, Tusk, is clever in theory (man is turned into a walrus), but the execution is undisciplined and the make-up (the movie’s lynchpin), not up to par.

…Director Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky) is a very matter-of-fact filmmaker. He is also very relaxed. I said “Mr. Leigh…” and he corrected me immediately: “Call me Mike.”

TIFF ’14 – Day 3: Bad Mothers

Hipster Amsterdam? No, Nova Scotia.
Heartbeat: Hipster Amsterdam? No, Nova Scotia.

If there is a sticking topic in this edition of TIFF is bad mothers. You can find them everywhere: In American dramas about the dangers of the internet, Danish tragedies, indie flicks, British comedies, Xavier Dolan movies, you name it. Mommy issues galore.

Men, Women and Children (USA, 2014): Director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) has managed to make six films in ten years (Woody Allen levels of proficiency). Not only that: All his movies are original material. There are no superheroes or sequels in his filmography. Also, the mood in his work has grown increasingly downbeat. In fact, his latest –Men, Women and Children– is downright depressing. This is an ensemble piece of teenagers and adults dealing with sex and social media, more often than not, simultaneously.

Set in Austin, Texas (although could be Anywhere, USA), Men, Women and Children follows a group of teens and their parents as they navigate uncharted waters. Some, like Jennifer Garner, have transformed their home into a veritable police-state to prevent the dangers of the internet to reach them. Others, like Adam Sandler (who seems desperate to reinvent himself), are so permissive, their fifteen year-olds already have a serious sexual dysfunction going on.

Some of the storylines are somewhat trite (also, a middle ground is sorely missed), but Men, Women and Children gets the point across. Raising kids is a minefield, particularly if they have access to a computer (did you know there is a support group for anorexic girls named thinspiration?) The drama provides no answers, but strongly suggest the only remotely successful way to rear teens is to show them the healthy way to deal with sexuality and hope they make the right choices. Three prairie dogs with no kids, high-fiving each other.

Shelter (USA, 2014): The perennially underused actor Paul Bettany has changed gears and now brings his first film as a director to TIFF. It’s called Shelter and stars his wife, the lovely Jennifer Connelly. All fairly normal up to here, no? Well, turns out Bettany is a blonder version of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, misery-porn tendencies included.

The poor Connelly must put up with all sorts of indignities (worse than that scene in Requiem for a Dream) as Hannah, the prettiest panhandler in Manhattan. A serious heroin habit render Hannah homeless and now she must adopt extreme measures to survive. Hannah befriends and falls in love with Tahir (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain), an illegal immigrant from Nigeria with a super-sad story of his own. Together they face Hannah’s drug dependency, social services, hospital policies, winter and a business-savvy doorman.

Shelter is one of those films in which if something can go wrong, it does. Bettany puts Connelly through the wringer and yet it’s hard to believe someone as smart and attractive as the actress couldn’t find any other way to survive (her beauty is a plot point, at least). Kudos for taking the do-it-yourself route, but the Bettany-Connelly household needs a new hobby. I heard pottery is fun. Two sad, cold, flea-infested prairie dogs with perfect eyebrows.

Heartbeat (Canada, 2014): This movie should come with a warning: “DANGER: High levels of whimsy and hipsterism”. A bit of affectation can be a wonderful thing (see Wes Anderson movies), but without substance to back it up it becomes annoying. For about 3/4 of its lenght, Heartbeat thrives on that: Interchangeable ballads of high sucrose content, overly cute animation underlining pretty obvious emotional beats, hipster lifestyle concentrated… It’s all too much.

The story doesn’t help: Justine (singer/songwriter Tanya Davis), a classic wallflower, has been just dumped by her boyfriend, an artiste. It dawns on Justine she hates her job, has nothing in common with her best friends (who just had a baby, pushing her aside further) and can’t even sing her cute songs in public, so change is dire. Luck has it, a cute girl and a group of people right up her alley are right around the corner waiting for her.

Justine’s efforts to take control of her own life are properly depicted. Alas, her homosexuality-a major character development- is barely established. It’s a “oh, I think I’m gay now” kind of discovery. Towards the end, Heartbeat remembers to breathe and becomes more bearable, but there is barely a drop of spontaneity in the entire piece. Two prairie dogs… wait, one just moved to Portland. One prairie dog.

It occurred to me that…

… tensions are running high at the press room. I actually heard one journalist tell another “you were rude to my friend.” Not sure if they “took it outside”.

Tomorrow: Roger Waters, still milking that Wall.

TIFF ’14 – Day 2: Blood, Sweat and Sweat

The New Adventures of Tight Pants and V-Neck.
The New Adventures of Tight Pants and V-Neck.

Summer arrived late to Toronto, to the point two heat warnings have taken place just last week. This also means misery to me, carrying a massive computer across Hogtown in my equally oversized black backpack. This wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t had to interview Jennifer Garner. My only consolation: Everybody is sweaty in this town. Except Jennifer Garner, who is too pretty to sweat.

Ill-planning had me running around downtown looking for a voice recorder. Apparently tape recorders are a thing of the past (as the Best Buy employee looked at me quizzically) and digital ones are not particularly a best seller.What about the built-in iPhone mic, you ask? Looks unprofessional. It’s like doing an interview without preparing questions, like half of the press here. Anyway. You want to hear about movies.

Cut Snake (Australia, 2014): Unless it’s Crocodile Dundee, if you’re watching an Australian film, odds are it’s a downbeat affair. Cut Snake is not the exception, but provides some interesting twist and turns and a live-wire performance by Sullivan Stapleton, better known as the muscle in Strike Back and 300: Rise of an Empire. Sparra, a young man with boy-band looks is trying to build a home alongside his gorgeous and supporting girlfriend, Paula. The lad once upon a time had problems with the law, but now he is going straight. Along comes Pommie (Stapleton), an ill-tempered macho man who once shared his cell with the kid. For a long time, it seems Pommie wants some kind of retribution over something (money? protection?), but when the other shoe drops, audiences are in for a surprise. Continue reading “TIFF ’14 – Day 2: Blood, Sweat and Sweat”

TIFF ’14 – Day 1: Two Bangs, One Whimper

Juliette Binoche starts the festivities with a bang.
Clouds of Sils Maria: Juliette Binoche starts the festivities with a bang.

This is my fifth year covering TIFF and I must confess, it’s getting a bit old: The four hours of sleep, the rejections (few of my interview requests can ever be accommodated), the persistent hunger, the beyond-the-pale washrooms, the snobby journalists who eat all the food at catering before you can get a crack at it… It’s hard. But then you come across two superb films before the rest of the muggles and you forget the indignities. A few at least.

Whiplash (USA, 2014): The well-deserved winner of last Sundance Film Festival, Whiplash is a kick-ass film: Provocative, intelligent, so intense it could provoke anxiety by proxy. A never better Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is Andrew, an eager music student at the best conservatory in New York. Andrew has drive and talent, so he is quickly scooped by Mr. Fletcher, the toughest instructor in the academy, for his jazz camera band. Tough is an understatement: In order for his students to achieve greatness, he’ll push his pupils beyond what’s proper, and even further than that.  Andrew is receptive to this methodology, thus ensuring his descent into hell. Private Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket had it easier. Continue reading “TIFF ’14 – Day 1: Two Bangs, One Whimper”