#TIFF14 Review: It Follows
There are many traditions in horror films, many rules that have been distilled over time to maximize fear and build excitement. Here’s one which was ignored and unfashionable for a while, until the recent zombie craze brought it back into the limelight: slow is scarier than fast. Trundling, crawling baddies make for much more unnerving nemeses, as your certain doom slowly and inexorably approaches. Writer and director David Robert Mitchell draws upon this time-honoured cliche to create the a fun and tension-filled ride in It Follows.
Playing on another popular horror-film rule that demands having sex signals your imminent demise, here we are dealing with a supernatural curse that is passed as an STD. High school student Jay, played by Maika Monroe, hooks up with her new boyfriend, only to be told that she is now being followed by a creature that can only be seen by those who have been afflicted, constantly walking towards the most recent victim… which, now, is her.
It Follows plays out as a pretty effective traditional horror flick, with a solid amount of tension and employing a few effective old-school sudden scare tactics (ie. loud, sudden noises) to have people jumping out of their seats. There are no rules for this haunting aside from the basic parameters already outlined, and we are as clueless as the characters in the film as to how this can be dealt with. Death can be outrun here, can be left far behind, but it is always coming.
Naturally, the obvious solution is to pass this curse on to someone else, and the topic of teenage sexuality is handled delicately here, something that could easily be dealt with dismissively or humourously in other films. There are no adults in this microcosm, and the kids are forced to make very adult decisions.
Although it drags in parts and contains a few scenes that could have easily been left on the floor, It Follows manages to keep the tension fairly high and everyone guessing. The climactic scene seems to break some of the previously established rules, normally a dealbreaker, but comes out fairly exciting nonetheless.
It’s worth noting my one major gripe with the film, which has to do with the sound design. The sound effects, the bass hits meant to let us know we should be in suspense, range from over-the-top to completely ludicrous, and caused most of the viewing audience to laugh at the film, rather than with it. The background music itself wasn’t much better, a completely strange mix.
It Follows is a good combination of effective creature film scares, solid acting performances by a young cast and some nice cinematography, and despite the need for some additional editing and ridiculous sound design, should satisfy those looking for a horror fix. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
#TIFF14 Review: The Last Five Years
I have a sure-fire recipe for an enjoyable film: put Anna Kendrick in it, and let her sing. I’ll let you figure out the rest of the ingredients, because they’re not really all that important.
The Last Five Years is a film adaptation of a hit off-Broadway musical which chronicles a young couple over the five years of their relationship. From the perspective of Cathy (Anna Kendrick) we take the journey backwards, starting from the end, and as such we see the inevitable doom in their future. Intertwined is the story from the view of Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), told from the beginning, when their life together is fresh and new. The entire film is performed in song, sung by these two characters (usually apart, occasionally together).
Given the narrative format, the obvious first and most important question is, how is the music? And the answer is, it’s pretty good. There are quite a few numbers performed over the respectable 94-minute running time, and while a handful of them are somewhat vanilla and indistinguishable from one another, there are some definite stand-out hits. The Schmuel Song is particularly memorable.
Both singers/actors do a fantastic job in both departments, in what amounts to a two-man show. Kendrick is as adorable and witty as ever, and Jordan channels a bit of his Jimmy Collins character from Smash, singing up a storm and being charmingly handsome in the process. The two have a palpable chemistry together and are a joy to watch, even as things begin to crumble.
I’m not sure if this film would have been quite so memorable if I wasn’t in a packed theatre of cheering fans, but as it was, it made for a great experience. As far as I’m concerned, for both of these actors: just keep singing, and I’ll keep watching. 4 out of 5 stars.
#TIFF14 Review: Kill Me Three Times
I fell a bit behind in writing reviews, and coming back to revisit my thoughts on Kill Me Three Times, I’m left struggling to remember the film in much detail, which I believe sums it up nicely. Simon Pegg plays off-role as a relatively serious hitman-for-hire in this Australian outback noir that attempts to use a handful of directorial tricks to lift a story chock-full of cookie-cutter characters to something above pedestrian.
This is a competently-made film that is suitably acted by the ensemble cast, with Pegg in particular putting in a very enjoyable performance as the happy mercenary killer. It’s nicely shot and nicely paced. The film takes a Pulp Fiction approach to storytelling, showing events out-of-order, in an attempt to spice things up a bit. I suppose this works to a certain degree, but at the end of of the day this is your standard noir formula, with all the expected characters.
Aside from a questionable soundtrack, there is nothing wrong with Kill Me Three Times. It’s harmless, mostly forgettable fun. Don’t think about it too hard and you won’t be disappointed. 2.5 out of 5 stars.
#TIFF14 Review: The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie)
The New Girlfriend opens on a funeral. A eulogy sets the stage, a story of two best friends, Claire and Laura, inseparable until the latter’s tragic demise. Claire (played by Anaïs Demoustier) promises to take care of her widowed husband, David, and their child. She soon discovers that David (played by Romain Duris) has a secret: he enjoys dressing as a woman. Initially revolted by this discovery, both parties begin a journey to question what
Inspired by a short story by Ruth Rendell, keeping the gist of the story if not the ending, this films follows the two characters and how both of their lives are altered. Unlike many films that deal with the topic of transgender issues, this is not an examination of the search for identity, but focuses mainly on the character of Claire, and her transformation as she attempts to understand and accept David’s new lifestyle. Initially revolted, her deathbed promise to Laura forces her to try and accept this new information, and
The film itself is enjoyable enough, despite some gripes about the tone. There was quite a bit of laughter during the screening, and it is hard to tell if this was intentional or nervousness on the part of the audience. Nervous laughter is understandable, given the delicacy of the subject matter, but the bigger issue is how unclear it is whether we’re supposed to be laughing or not.
The real revelation here are the performances by the two lead actors, both of which are outstanding. Duris is absolutely fearless as David/Virginia, spending most of the duration in drag and being utterly convincing with either persona. It would be easy to play up the tragedy or humour of the role, but he gives a balanced performance with pathos. However, despite all of the press about his performance, the real revelation here to me is Anaïs Demoustier. Her transformation as Claire throughout the film is no less complete than David’s, while begin given much less to work with. A relatively quiet character, we are forced to read much into her gestures and expressions, a difficult assignment for any actor and one she pulls off with apparent ease. She is also playing in Bird People in this year’s festival, which I’m now feeling compelled to seek out.
The New Girlfriend may not be Ozon’s strongest work exploring the outskirts of sexuality, but is well worth checking out due to the strong lead performances. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
#TIFF14 Review: Who Am I - No System Is Safe
The joy of the film festival is accidentally stumbling across gems where you least expect them. For me, such was the case with (the unfortunately-named) Who Am I - No System Is Safe.
I caught this flick because the preview trailer I saw intrigued me. Sure, we all know hacker films are going to be terrible — ridiculous uses of technology doing things that are implausible at best — but something about this told me it would be different. And I’m sure glad I listened.
Who Am I (the subtitle appeared to be mercifully dropped in the title roll) is about a young German hacker who desperately wants to be a superhero. His superpower is computers — he’s able to understand machine code, and hack into nearly anything. Although anxious for recognition from his hacker-hero MRX, he’s limited by his own inhibitions until he meets Max, and his crew, a deviant with large-scale ambition. Max teaches him the power of social engineering, the true secret being real hacking, and their exploits together begin taking the notice of powerful enemies.
I won’t delve deeper into the plot, which hums along at a great clip, with some entirely unexpected twists and turns. Although there is some of the expected staples of hacker films — text whizzing by on screens as the protagonists work their magic — the actual commands and text pass muster on visual inspection, which is a nice treat. According to the Q&A they had technical consultants writing the code that appears on the screens and actually power some of hacks in the film, like an amusing sequence with office building lights. The interactions that happen in cyberspace, in chat rooms and on forums, are represented in the physical space as meetings on a darkened subway car, a trick that is surprisingly effective and less cheesy than it sounds.
Who Am I is last year’s The Fifth Estate, sprinkled with aspects of modern pop culture classics like The Social Network, The Matrix, Fight Club, and V For Vendetta. The soundtrack is a great mix between german techno and a homage to Trent Reznor’s work on David Fincher’s films. It’s a cool-as-hell techno-thriller that will keep you guessing until the end. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
#TIFF14 Review: Eden
And the beat goes on. Eden is a celebration of EDM, and those growing up and living their lives to its rhythms. This is the music of the millenial generation, the rock-and-roll of our times. This is music that isn’t about a story or the lyrics, but rather about the feeling of getting lost in the beat and being swept away on a current of sound. There are lulls and rises, and sometimes the song changes to take you on a journey somewhere new, but as always, the unrelenting beat goes on.
This is the feeling evoked by Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, a film not about a story, but rather a journey through the waves of growing up in the 21st century. It’s a love-letter to the music that has guided and influenced the lives of so much of today’s youths and young adults. This meditative approach is what provides both the greatest strength and weakness of this endeavour.
Eden has an amazing soundtrack. Anchored by a number of hits from Daft Punk, a duo which weaves its way through the story mostly in passing, and fleshed out with electronic tracks to fill out a good portion of the 131-minute running-time, the film certainly sounds great. A lot of the proceedings take place inside EDM clubs in Paris and New York, laser-and-drug filled paradises in which to lose yourself.
It needs to be reiterated that this is a not a story. We follow the life of a single young DJ, following the time of his hobbyist interest in garage music, through his rise to modest fame and inevitable decline. However, that isn’t what the film is about. Sure, these things happen, but the individual scenes are focused on fairly random events of his life, a highlight reel of the past fifteen years. This is intentional. After all, Eden is about the music, its constant beat, its relation to life, Paul’s story existing merely to illustrate that neverending forward momentum.
I enjoyed this film, but there were times when I found myself wanting to check my watch. It’s a long affair, in which, as I’ve stated, not much actually happens, making the length somewhat unbearable. There are some strange directorial decisions, such as artificially splitting the film into two parts, which makes things feel even longer (“Wait, was that only the first half of the film?”). I feel like some editing may be required to eliminate a few of the less-relevant-than-usual scenes.
In any case, Eden is meant to be enjoyed as an experience. Crank up the volume and let yourself be swept away into the music, and have a good time. 3 out of 5 stars.
#TIFF14 Review: Big Game
Samuel L. Jackson as the President of the United States being chased by terrorists in the Finnish mountains, with only the help of a young guide armed with a bow to help him. Sounds amazing, right?
Let me assure you, gentle readers, that it is. Big Game is a film that knows exactly what it is, which is exactly what you want it to be. This is old school action-adventure, schlocky and fun, with bigger-than-life villains, unexpected plot twists, and completely implausible action sequences. It plays itself pretty straight most of the time, but isn’t afraid to leave reality aside in favour of entertainment when needbe.
Mr. Jackson actually puts more heart and effort into this role than we’ve seen out of him in a while, as the lame duck leader of the most powerful military force in the world (a fact he’s quick to remind anyone listening of). Taken out of his element, this president is worried and unsure, a far cry from Jackson’s usual fare. He does a great job, but not to worry, by the end he’s a little less POTUS and a little more Nick Fury, and eliciting the cheers.
The supporting cast, including a great collection of Hollywood character actors, adds to the fun, and the young Finnish actor playing the guide does an admirable job in his leading role. The film is beautifully shot (in the Alps, as opposed to near Finland), and really well put together.
As Colin Geddes said to open the Q&A, they just don’t make them like this any more, and that’s a shame. You’d be hard pressed to find a better bit of guilty fun at this year’s fest that Big Game. 4 out of 5 stars.
#TIFF14 Review: Guidance
David Gold is happy with himself. Sure, he’s a former child star alcoholic who can’t pay his rent and just got fired from his job making positive affirmation recordings, but that’s because he simply doesn’t fit into an imperfect world. After all, he’s a good person, who just wants to help people, particularly the youth of the future. And today. So when his sister refuses to bail him out with his landlady, he decides he must put his life experience to work and gets a job as a high school guidance counsellor.
Of course, he has no experience, but an actor can do anything, right? And this sets the stage for Guidance, a reprobate-comedy about a man dispensing terrible advice, among other things, to teenagers.
Filmed in Toronto, this is a fun Canadian comedy that has some genuinely laugh out loud moments, along with some very cringeworthy awkwardness. Make no mistake, there is no hero here. While he quickly becomes the most popular adult at school, most of his advice is downright awful. It’s clear his heart is in the right place, but he’s far more messed up than the kids he’s trying to help. A few of the kids catch on this this and he must establish that his office is a bully-free zone, to protect himself. Of course, however misguided, his advice does lead to some good outcomes for those under his care. Herein lies my main problem with the film: I honestly cannot tell you if we’re supposed to be cheering for or against Gold, or possibly, and I suspect, just for the kids.
There are other quibbles, of course. The rest of the staff at the school are established early on as his foils, yet are subsequently lightly used, aside from one seriously creepy gym teacher. By the end things take a pretty dark turn, and veer into the realm of disbelief. The inevitable redemption, a mainstay of this type of film, is not earned so much as railroaded by one particularly strange conversation about the male anatomy.
For all of that, however, I come out of Guidance remembering the laughs more than anything. His interactions with the students are cute and occasionally heartwarming. It may be an imperfect film, but then again, this is an imperfect world. 2.5 out of 5 stars.
#TIFF14 Review: Tokyo Tribe
Last year’s Why Don’t You Play In Hell? by director Shion Sono was one of my top picks of the festival, so naturally this year I was incredibly excited to check out his new film, Tokyo Tribe, headlining the Midnight Madness programme. Described as a yakuza/street-gang/hip-hop musical epic, it sounded like it could be one of the greatest film ever made. So was it?
Well, no, but it sure is something. It is a neon-drenched, hypersexualized, absurdist West Side Story set over twelve hours in the ghettos of Tokyo. There is very little talking done in the film that isn’t performed while rapping to a pounding beat, or in the case of a beatboxing serving girl, while performing a beat. A hooded rapper serves as narrator, drifting through the commotion, busting out rhymes to guide us through (what passes for) the plot, backed up by an old Japanese lady turntabling and prophesizing doom.
Quite simply, Tokyo Tribe has to be seen to be understood. I could try to explain the plot of the film, but there aren’t the words. The first fifteen minutes of the film are spent describing the various tribes, each singing their own personal rap, while a gangster draws of a map of Tokyo on a woman’s naked torso. One of the gangs are badass thugs. One of the gangs is all about peace and love. One of the gangs resides in Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant, complete with neon lighted tank and gang of scantily clad girls. The list goes on. Then we’re introduced to the top kingpin of the area, the villain of the film, who looks something like a large Japanese Elvis Presley, has his motto “Fuck Da World” splashed all over his fortress, and kidnaps girls for dinner. As the main course, that is.
And then things get weird.
I’ll stop trying to explain at this point. The plot is pretty paper-thin and is mostly comprised of fighting, rapping, and random acts of absurd sadistic violence. There is a team of two young martial arts experts, one of whom never wears anything but short skirts (or less). The villains are, naturally, an entire family of sadistic cannibals. There is a super-strong foreigner who wants to go to a sauna. There is a rapping priest. Sort of.
Most of the parts in the film are played by actual Japanese hip-hop artists, so the singing itself is spot on and sounds great. The subtitling was done in such a way as to make the lyrics of the songs rhyme in a proper hip-hop style, with mixed effect. On the one hand, it mostly works and helps with the flow, but on the other hand, I feel like some of the nuance may have been lost in translation.
If you’re looking for some off-the-wall bit of pure entertainment, this may be right up your alley. There are plenty of fight scenes, involving baseball bats, guns, swords, and feet. There is a truly prodigious amount of nudity.
On the other hand, the plot is completely non-sensical and the special effects are… special. If you’re the type of person who is concerned with the objectification of women in film, then I’m sure you already know not to watch Japanese cinema, but what’s on display here is particularly over-the-top.
You can decide for yourself whether this sounds like your jam. Personally I’m glad I saw it, but past a certain point the exercise in strange grows tired. Your senses can only be assaulted for so long before your brain wants something to chew on. I’m giving it 3 out of 5 stars. Caveat lector.
#TIFF14 Review: The Dead Lands
Take a traditional action-drama film, set it in pre-colonial New Zealand, feature the brutal Maori martial art of Mau rakau, sprinkle in some picturesque views of outback hills and forests, and you have the recipe for The Dead Lands.
As was generally agreed upon by everyone who I spoke to after the film, it was “You know, fine. A solid 6.5.”, and I couldn’t agree more. Every individual aspect of the film suffers in some way. The fight camera, with quick cuts and frantic movement which reminded me of Batman Begins or the Bourne Supremacy, removes some of the joy of seeing this martial art for the first time. We are asked to care about two protagonists which are utterly without pathos. There are attempts at being a character drama without any real time for development between the characters. The long gaps between action sequences, riddled with soliloquies about glory and conversations with dead ancestors, tend to drag on.
It may sound like I’m being harsh, but despite it all, the film comes together to be more than the sum of its parts. It is beautifully shot, and the action sequences are still very satisfying affairs. Think of it as watching a graphic novel on the screen: there are strange gaps, the plot doesn’t always make sense, but it looks really nice. Go in with the proper expectations of seeing a pretty typical action film and you’ll probably have a good trip through The Dead Lands. 3 out of 5 stars.