Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Time Lapse

 

Opening with a shot of swirling red paint, which then has tiny flecks of white thrown into the mixture to disturb the surface and complicate the image, Bradley King and B.P. Cooper’s Time Lapse shows just how bloody far you can go with a tiny budget, a great prop and two locations. The script here is a beauty, that finds new ways to look at time travel causality (or rather the dangers of perceived causality) along with the good old genre standby of the ‘big bag of money’ landing in your lap. To prove they are the real deal, the film also diligently delves into trust-issues that develop amongst friends when a morally questionable opportunity in life presents itself.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Predestination

 

Never do yesterday what you should do tomorrow, reads a sign in the early minutes of The Spierig Brothers’ delightfully loopy new film. Another reads, If at last you don’t succeed never try again. There are many of these twisted bon-mots lifted verbatim from Robert Heinlein’s short story, “All You Zombies” and scattered throughout its film adaptation, Predestination. Here is the thing about time travel movies: much time is in fact spent waiting around for things to catch up, even if it is only for that moment when Doc Brown sends his dog Einstein 60 seconds into the future. It leaves plenty of time to read the signs.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Zombeavers

 

The best thing about Zombeavers is that it isn’t much more than its title implies. It creates a toxic spill in a remote area then plops a bunch of college kids in a cabin right next to it. Voila – zombie beavers attacking young co-eds. It also stays true to its 80s horror antecedents by making most of the gore and effects practical. CGI beavers would have ruined the film entirely, whereas these stuffed critters with partial animatronic characteristics and clunky tails do the trick nicely. When they come crashing through floor boards, they almost feel like they could chew your foot off. Of course, they are also just slightly ridiculous enough to laugh at when they suddenly show up in a bathtub or at the front door. Especially with their light blue glowing eyes…

The worst thing about Zombeavers is, well, that it isn’t much more than its title implies. Now that shouldn’t be taken necessarily as a criticism…It’s just that when the film works, it works so very well. So when it doesn’t, it’s somewhat disappointing. The film handles its action sequences very well and has moments of pretty inspired humour & gore, but then there are several scenes of bland, lengthy or even pointless chatter between the characters. Given the funny outtakes at the end of the film (some of which felt a bit like those line-o-rama special features many comedies have these days) and considering Judd Apatow, David Wain and others are thanked, I couldn’t help but want a bit more ooomph to the script. In fairness, my complaints are along the lines of wanting more than I’m really entitled to or should in any way expect. But it’s to the film’s credit that at some point – I did expect more.

Another thing about Zombeavers is that it sometimes is actually a bit more than its title implies. Think you know who’s going to get it next? Think the kills will all be based on levels of morality? Think you know how the beaver bite transforms its victim? Probably not…Not that the movie rolls out loads of surprises, but just enough so you aren’t completely sure of what the next scene may bring. One might even say that there’s just enough subversion of this type of genre to raise the eyebrows of those looking for simply a genre-throwback. On top of that, the cast does quite well with the material and only falter during some of those slower spots (though those moments could easily be “blamed” on pacing issues or editing). All three of the leading ladies (Cortney Palm, Rachel Melvin & Lexi Atkins) acquit themselves quite nicely through tears, screams, laughs and loads of prosthetics.

In the end, it’s a movie about beavers who become zombies. That alone should be enough, but you get more (including a great final “stinger”). So go enjoy Zombeavers.

Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Hellmouth

 

Ubiquitous character actor Stephen McHattie is always a pleasure to see up on the big screen. From supporting roles in Hollywood films like The Fountain, Watchmen and A History of Violence, to central performances in indie Canadian productions like the criminally underrated Pontypool, and now John Geddes’ Hellmouth. At 67, there are entire lifetimes written on his face, even as the rest of him remains lean and spry. McHattie is a conundrum, seemingly young and ancient at the same time, and is perfect here as the reluctant Charlie Baker, caretaker of his own personal abyss. Given more than three quarters of the script to himself in the film, his quivering yet authoritative gravelly voice is beyond reproach. If all of the artifice in the green screen CGI around him, is not entirely as engrossing as the man standing in front of it, it mostly is in service of the lead character, and that is miracle enough these days.

“Keep this box within 10 feet of you, at all times.” An instruction that several characters keep giving Charlie Baker, but it is more of a state of mind than a direct order. Having worked all of his life as a grave digger and maintenance man in a remote (and digital-backlot stylized) cemetery, Baker is minutes from retirement and still worried about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s regarding the local vandals might be moving around the tombstones in the cemetery. The ensuing countdown is wrought with both humiliation and diffidence that the film might be also called “About Soavi” (that is, for fans of Dellamorte Dellamore). The box is given to him by his overbearing employer, as he browbeats Baker into ‘one more job.’ As much as it is a literal object, the box is his lonely trapped career, his spent life and impending death.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: ABCs Of Death 2

 

A Better Compilation? Definitely!

Appreciate Being Chilled, Distressed & Entertained?

A Barrel Containing Demonic Enticing Fun.

 

However you want to say it, ABCs Of Death 2 easily outpaces its predecessor in pulling together 26 stories (from 26 different directors/director teams) marked with mishaps and killings. When I saw the first in this series (let’s assume right now that number 3 will be in the works soon if not already), it was easy enough to count the solid segments on one hand. With their follow-up, the producers have gathered a completely new group of directors (many of whom have had films at previous After Dark festivals) and reversed the trend. I can only think of 4-5 stories that didn’t work for me or had major issues. If your 125 minute anthology film is firing on all cylinders for 80% of its runtime, that’s a damn good ratio.

The lesser stories certainly stand out…P is for P-P-P-P Scary may have been trying for something different, but seemed out of place, unfocused and intentionally somewhat annoying. L is for Legacy suffered hugely from easily the worst acting and special effects of the entire omnibus. A shame since you don’t see a great deal of genre fare from Africa (at least not in any potentially wide released film). There was an attempt to try things from a different angle as the story uses an African myth of the supernatural avenging the wrongly accused, but its execution is simply poor. And I is for Invincible failed to do anything interesting with its tale of a family trying to get rid of their rich matriarch.

These lesser segments impact the flow of the film somewhat, but even so, they are spread out and never drag things down. At 4-5 minutes a segment, this enables the 2 hour film to move at a pretty brisk pace. It all starts well with an amateur assassinator’s idealized view of himself and a pompous British personality getting bested by mutated badgers. It’s at this point that the audience started to settle into their seats and realize that talk of the sequel being an improvement was bearing itself out. The mix of styles starts to show here too – while ‘B’ is a stripped down “single shot” from a TV cameraman, both ‘A’ and ‘C’ have top notch production values and special effects. D is for Deloused is a grotesque, but fascinating stop-motion animation (very similar to a Tool video) and Bill Plympton uses the letter ‘H’ to contribute a manic wordless hand-drawn view of the deleterious effects that can arise from the head games couples play. A high point of the film is its actual centre: a slo-mo mountain of a man terrorizing a sidewalk in M is for Mastigate and Larry Fessenden’s marvelous convergence of events in N is for Nexus.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Housebound

 

As horror comedies go, I cannot think of a better one in the past 5 years than Kiwi directed Housebound. Not only is the film impressively shot and written, but the overall attention to production design and geography is a marvel. The film’s primary location, an old suburban mansion (evocative of the manor-home in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive) we get to explore from the inside out as characters are often crawling through the walls and ceilings, as well as snooping around the property outside. It is a safe bet that somewhere director Gerard Johnstone has a sheaf of graph papers with all the measurements. For a first time filmmaker, to direct with this kind of confidence in both the film language, twisty plotting, well timed character reveals, and a love of call-backs, is a sure sign of a major up and coming talent. He even nails some tricky emotional beats late in the film which give the otherwise manic film, a bit of heart.

Bad girl, Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is first seen knocking off an ATM vestibule with her less than competent partner and some home made explosives. The botched job (and lengthy petty crime rap-sheet) lands her in a prolonged house arrest with her busy-body prattling mother and her spacey step-father. After the security company straps the electronic bracelet to her ankle, she cannot leave the house for any reason without risking landing in prison. Kylie is used to running away from her problems, but here she is stuck, with only a couple TV channels, and god-forbid, dial-up internet, so this is flat out torture, which she is more than happy to take out her pain on everyone around her.

A great set up, both for a haunted house movie and a riff on Rear Window. Admittedly the latter was done before with the mildly shitty Shia LaBeouf vehicle Disturbia, but Housebound is playing far more on the plate of character-based territory of Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs, with a dollop of Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs and a soupçon of The Innkeepers. That Johnstone is well versed in the cues and beats of these types of films, and is willing to exploit them for laughs and legit horror makes things also run in the same ultra-fun circles as Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. The difference is that Raimi was a master-craftsman when he made that 2009 film as kind of a lark executed with precise editing skill, where this is Johnstone busting right out of the gate fully formed. To wit: the tension and comedy mileage he gets out of a character simply taking a piss (or holding a tape recorder) and you will know what I mean.

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VIFF 2014 Review: Force Majeure

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Relationships can survive through a lot but there are some things that are just too difficult, if not impossible, to get over. In Force Majeure, writer/director Ruben Östlund tackles one of those issues with laser fire accuracy and a cense of humour that comes as a welcome, if unexpected, surprise.

Tomas, Ebba and their two kids are on a family vacation in France. The trip is going well and everyone is having a good time skiing, eating and relaxing. While having breakfast one morning, the family watches as a controlled avalanche quickly approaches the patio where their food has just arrived and rather than slowing down, it looks as though the avalanche is gaining speed and power and that it will take out the patio.

Chaos.

Everyone runs.

Tomas pushes someone out of the way to get to safety while Ebba’s first concern is to protect her children. And then the snow fog settles and everything is all right. People laugh off their near death experiences and Ebba and the kids go back to their breakfast and are soon joined by Tomas.

The event starts to recede from memory until, over dinner later than night, Tomas and Ebba retell the adventure to a friend. Ebba calls Tomas a coward for running off. He claims to remember the events differently. What follows in Force Majeure is nearly 90 minutes of Tomas and Ebba trying to talk their way out of this impasse that has clouded their relationship. They’re constantly arguing, they can’t see eye to eye on anything and their kids are convinced that mom and dad are going to get a divorce. There’s nothing like a near death experience to highlight who we are at our core but also to force us to reconsider and re-examine our relationships.

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VIFF 2014 Review: Welcome to Me

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It doesn’t happen often but once in a while, I come across a movie that makes me uncomfortable to watch. Usually they’re horror movies about people physically falling apart (I have an issue with decomposing bodies) but rarely does that feeling of discomfort weed its way into dramas and never mind comedies, but in the case of Welcome to Me, that’s exactly what happened and I loved every single uncomfortable second of it.

Directed by Shira Piven from a script from first time feature film writer Eliot Laurence, Welcome to Me stars Kristen Wiig as Alice Klieg, a borderline personality disorder suffering woman who spends all of her time at home accompanied by the droning sound of her television and endless VHS recordings of Oprah. Alice loves Oprah and when she wins $87 million dollars in the state lottery, she convinces herself that the thing to do is to buy herself a TV show aptly titled “Welcome to Me.” What’s it about? Well, it’s about Alice and all the people she hates and the things that make her tick which turn out to be a wide ranging and often wildly inappropriate. She hires women to play herself in skits from her youth, she records and airs session with her shrink and perhaps most stomach turning, she neuters dogs on television. Yeah, she’s crazy and the network owners who put her on the air only care about the fact that they’re getting paid. A lot.

Welcome to Me is really funny but it’s feel bad funny. Alice is a sad individual and I felt kind of creepy laughing at her antics but they’re just so ridiculous the laughter escapes. More often than not its nervous laughter – how else does one respond to watching a woman with little training perform surgery on her pet on national TV? – but it’s laughter none the less and truth is that Wiig earns that laughter. She’s been working in the fringes of dark comedy for some time but none of her roles have come close to her performance here which is nothing short of spectacular.

Welcome to Me is really funny but don’t be fooled because it also goes to some very, very dark places and provides a fascinating insight into a woman suffering from mental illness and how that affects the people around her.

Yes, it is an occasionally uncomfortable watch and I felt a little dirty laughing at some of Alice’s antics but truth is that I left Welcome to Me with a new appreciation of mental illness and that right there is as good enough a reason to see the movie as any. Lucky for you it’s also super entertaining.

VIFF 2014 Review: Highway

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I’ve always been one to enjoy a good dose of Bollywood fare but it’s been some time, read years, since I’ve liked a Bollywood movie quite as much as I love Highway.

It could be that Imtiaz Ali’s new movie feels like a hybrid of typical Bollywood fare and a more western approach to filmmaking, largely leaving behind musical dance numbers and replacing them with long winded musical montages which work just as well if not better, or it could just be that this is great fun (it’s a bit of both).

Up and comer Alia Bhatt stars as Veera, a soon to be married young woman from a well to do family who is inadvertently kidnapped for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. At first she does everything she can to escape but after a particularly bad attempt, she gives into the fact that she’s been taken and that her captors will let her go when they’re ready and so she befriends them: Mahabir (Randeep Hooda), the handsome leader who takes time to warm up to the young woman, and Aadoo (Durgesh Kumar) the sidekick who is easily befriends Veera.

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