Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in To the Wonder

In this somewhat flat version of TIFF, oddities are attracting much more attention than usual (the Midnight Madness program is far the most satisfying of the bunch). Most of them can’t overcome the gimmick that makes them special, but if successful, these flicks land among the best of the festival.

To the Wonder (United States): The Tree of Life raised a number of questions regarding Terrence Malick capacity to engage an audience. To the Wonder should put the matter to rest: He can’t. The unbearable romantic drama is as lyric as all of Malick recent films, without the consistency or remarkable cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki is not to blame, the subject just doesn’t generate decent imagery).

The loosely plotted film revolves around Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a lovely Parisian girl who follows her American paramour Neil (Ben Affleck) back to Oklahoma. Since Neil refuses to commit, Marina flies back to Europe. In her absence, Neil gets involved with Rachel McAdams. For no discernible reason, Marina comes back, only instead of the charming girl from the beginning, she has turned into your stereotypical crazy French chick. Hysterics ensue. Barely connected to the main storyline, a priest (Javier Bardem) endures a crisis of faith.

As if the movie wasn’t dull enough, the proceedings are peppered with bad poetry. There is no character development, just a premise: All love leads to disenchantment. Affleck is so bad, it seems like he had no direction (very likely). Last time I give Terrence Malick the benefit of the doubt. One lonely prairie dog looking gloomily at the infinite flatness that is Saskatchewan.

The ABCs of Death (United States): On paper, the idea was great. Noted horror auteurs make a short film inspired by a letter of the alphabet. The outcome, however, turned out to be an uneven collection of 26 tales, some downright amateurish. No big names responded to the calling, plunging the experiment further into mediocrity.

You would think people responsible for feature-length movies would have a notion of storytelling. At least half of the shorts barely qualify as skits. Three, in fact, revolve around toilettes (and these are some of the best ones). The three Japanese ones are so wrong (killer farts, masturbation competition, Nazi dominatrix with a massive penis) they make the guy from A Serbian Film look well adjusted.

The only one to rise to the occasion is Xavier Gens (Frontiers, Hitman). The French filmmaker crafts a poignant tale about beauty standards that’s far superior to all the other ones in every aspect (production values, plot, payoff). At the other end of the spectrum, Ti West (House of the Devil) manages to be lazy and tasteless in less than a minute of footage. One prairie dog split in 26 fleshy cubes.

I Declare War (Canada): The only reason I watched this low budget Canadian feature was because the screening of Seven Psychopaths was full. I’m glad I did. This unique film gets a lot of mileage of a limited concept: Two gangs face off in a dead serious version of Capture the Flag, a game that allows the kids’ personalities and hang-ups to emerge.

Besides reproducing most of war clichés (the hothead, the rookie, the cold-as-ice commander), I Declare War captures the modern childhood milieu brilliantly: A teenage girl tests the limits of her femininity on her unsuspecting playmates; a bully turns the game into a vehicle for his revenge against the kid who ditched him. At no point the film becomes a Canadian version of The Hunger Games, but there is a fair dose of suspense regarding the kids’ safety. The acting is a bit inconsistent, but the balance is vastly positive. Three and a half maggots.

Random notes:

* Had a brief chat with Christopher Walken, mainly me babbling about liking his job and him nodding politely. Walken voice is so unmistakable, to have him speaking to you is almost surreal.

* Out of context quote from Francois Ozon (In the House, Swimming Pool): “Emmanuelle Seigner is… how you say… a MILF.”