Toronto After Dark 2012 Wrap-Up And Awards
And that’s it! This year’s Toronto After Dark film festival is over, and I can now remove the splatter guard from the monocle until next year.
Toronto After Dark 2012 was a fantastic experience, with a high quality lineup of films and a great moviegoing experience in the beautiful Bloor Hot Docs cinema. Hats off to the both the staff and volunteers who make it a pleasure to be there on a nightly basis. The energy from the presenters and assorted guests (particularly Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the directors of Resolution) is absolutely infectious, and the experience of watching a film like Dead Sushi in a packed theatre of rabid genre fans is not to be missed. If cult and genre films are your thing, there is little excuse not to check out future festivals.
In any case, without further ado, onto the awards!
First up, the GOLDEN MONOCLE for best film:
A Fantastic Fear Of Everything
The SILVER MONOCLE, for achievement in being second best:
The BRONZE MONOCLE, for achievement in almost winning the Silver Monocle:
TIE - Grabbers and In Their Skin
BEST PRE-FILM SHORT:
A Pretty Funny Story
BEST DECAPITATION. This is a hotly contested category, but the winner for creative use of blood sprayage goes to:
BEST ZOMBIE KILL:
Cockneys vs. Zombies, baby zombie.
BEST USE OF TALKING LETTUCE:
BEST PRESENTATION OF NYOTAIMORI:
BEST CANINE. A surprisingly deep category, with a clear winner:
A Game Of Werewolves
Daniel Lutz, My Amityville Horror. Simon Pegg, A Fantastic Fear Of Everything.
Rachel Miner, In Their Skin. If not the best, then the creepiest.
MOST MEMORABLE STYLE:
MOST SHOCKINGLY GOOD SEQUEL TO A 90’S ACTION FRANCHISE:
Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning
And on that note, that’s a wrap! Hope you’ve enjoyed the coverage of Toronto After Dark 2012, and I would love to hear any feedback you might have. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming!
Toronto After Dark, Day 9: A Game Of Werewolves
Old school werewolf cinema is what A Game Of Werewolves promises, and on that it delivers. With creature design and make-up by Arturo Balseiro (Pan’s Labyrinth), these are wolfmen of the prosthetic variety that remind us of the golden days of the creature feature, when lycanthropes were beings of horror and vampires didn’t sparkle.
In this and many other ways it is clear that Game of Werewolves is a passion project from a director who clearly loves the genre and its history. The opening sequence paints the backstory through the use of beautifully rendered panels from a comic book, a nod to the horror collections of old. The story is that of a marchioness at the turn of the century who rapes a gypsy from a travelling troupe, and becomes with child. To protect her secret she has the gypsies killed, but with their dying breath, they place a curse upon the marchioness, as gypsies tend to do. When her child turns ten he becomes a werewolf, and goes about slaughtering a lot of people, as werewolves tend to do.
Not to go too much farther into the details, fast forward a hundred years, and a descendant of the same family is coming back to the village to get some writing done. Unbeknownst to him, but quite beknownst to the elders in the village, he may be the key to undoing the curse, which exists to this day. As you can guess things don’t go as planned and soon much blood is being spilt in copious amounts.
As the director Juan Martinez Mareno informed us before the screening, this is a film that is meant to be a lot of fun, with some action and adventure, and just a bit of horror. It is all of these things, with strong elements of buddy adventure and a good deal more horror than one might expect from that description. For most of its running time is proceeds along amiably enough, a perfectly serviceable werewolf tale with some very creepy old-world villagers and an spectacularly great dog. I’m not going to mention the rest of cast in this review, as they are perfectly average, but that dog steals the show.
Near the end things begin to drag a bit, as I counted at least three points where I actually expected the credits to roll. Moreno very much feels the need to end on a fun note, and there is a bit of completely unnecessary silliness seemingly tacked on to achieve this. This is actually a somewhat pervasive problem, as some misguided attempts at fun actually foil what could’ve been a very satisfying straight horror film.
Minor gripes aside, A Game Of Werewolves mostly achieves what it sets out to do, which is to pay homage to and create some classic werewolf cinema. A treat for fans of the genre, it rarely tries to do much that is new and only occasionally rises above the level of adequate, but never drops too far below it either. 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Toronto After Dark, Day 9: A Fantastic Fear Of Everything
Jack, an author, has developed an acute case of paranoia while researching for a book on Victorian serial killers. He is barely able to leave his house, and every bump in the night fills his mind with delusions of murderers lurking just down the hallway. The only thing more schizophrenic than Jack is the script for A Fantastic Fear Of Everything, a strange and quirky little storybook tale from writer/director Crispian Mills.
Let me be clear in stating that I don’t mean that in a bad way, as I simply adored this film. It is merely an observation on a story that jumps around erratically, shifting between tones and moods with a reckless abandon. From horror to comedy. Gangster rap to classical. Mystical forests to dark basements. It is a film that wants to be a bit of everything, and while this makes for a wild and bumpy ride in parts, the entire tale is infused with a delightful sense of whimsy.
This is a tour-de-force performance by Simon Pegg. He is front and centre in nearly every shot, clearly having a great time as the frantic and really quite mad Jack. I won’t say that this is a role that requires a huge dramatic range, but his brand of wide-eyed energy that we’re familiar with from films such as Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz has been finely focused here, lending every scene a sort of manic glee. This is absolutely his film, every other character merely a foil against which to act, and he carries it beautifully.
It is strange and it is slight, but A Fantastic Fear Of Everything doesn’t ask the viewer to do anything but sit back and have a little fun. If a lot of madness with a side of whimsy sounds like your thing, I would definitely check it out. 4 out of 5 stars.
Toronto After Dark, Day 8: Wrong
A fireman opens up his newspaper in the middle of the street, and squats down to take a dump while a van is consumed by flame mere metres away. His compatriots laze idly by the truck, watching the sunrise. Is this incongruous event a meaningful observation on existence, or simply an excuse for comedic absurdity? That is a question I found myself asking frequently while watching Wrong, the latest feature film from surrealist French director Quentin Dupieux.
Wrong is a zany and often farcical comedy woven together with a number of outlandish threads, each permeated with a unifying sense of wrongness about them. A clock strikes 7:60am, a palm tree is suddenly replaced with a pine tree, and people go to work inside an office where it never stops raining, without complaint.
The main thread of the plot focuses on Dolph, who awakes one morning to find his dog has gone missing. Going outside to look for him, he encounters his neighbour, who berates him for his attire, explains that he is in the midst of an existential crisis, and drives off in his car to go find himself. Desperate to take his mind off of his lost dog, Dolph then rings up the local pizza parlour and has an involved conversation with the girl on the other end regarding the nonsensical nature of the business’ logo. And so it goes, each scene in the film taking a normally mundane interaction with life and turning it into the sublimely odd.
There are two messages that Wrong is trying to convey. The first and most obvious, the motivating force of the main plot, is that of not appreciating what we have until we no longer have it. Whether it is a dog or a palm tree, the things we become accustomed to are dear to us, and cannot simply be replaced by similar things. The other message present throughout is that reality is whatever we accept it to be. Everything else seems to amount to simple absurdity for the sake of comedy, such as a cop who lays out his lines of thought in detail regarding his offhandedly mean remarks, or cynical observations on the banality of everyday life.
The force holding this film together is Jack Plotnick as Dolph, who stumbles his way from situation to situation with a sense of bewildered desperation. His life is unwinding around him, and we understand how much he needs the sort of anchor that his palm tree represented. Also delightful is William Fitchner as Master Chang, an author of books on telepathically communicating with your pet, who contacts Dolph with possible information on his missing animal.
The problem with Wrong is not in its approach, but in its lack of focus. By combining the substantial with the extremely silly in equal parts, we are forced to take a careful look at everything that happens, and spend an exhausting amount of effort to find that often nothing is there. While Wrong is often absurdly and deliriously funny, there is also a slightness to it, a lack of substance brought about by one too many bits of randomness.
I enjoyed the trip through Dupieux’s strange and quirky world, full of unexpected delights, but found myself wishing it felt more like a complete meal, and not just dessert. 3 out of 5 stars.
Toronto After Dark, Day 8: In Their Skin
In Their Skin opens at night on a man, dressed down to his underwear and socks, running for his life. Clearly not an athlete of any sort, he stumbles and falls to the ground, his legs giving out on him. From behind him, a man exits a car and casually approaches, shotgun in hand. The ensuing shot is only heard, not seen, as this is a home invasion thriller not focused on the violence, but rather the psychological impact of its events.
Mark and Mary Hughes, played by Joshua Close and Selma Blair, need an escape from their lives for a while. After the tragic accidental death of their daughter, their marriage is fraying, and they travel up to their vacation home in the woods to find some solitude and, hopefully, peace. With them is their remaining child, Brendan, and his dog. On the first morning of their stay they encounter new neighbours Bobby and Jane, and their son Jared, who bear a striking resemblance to their own family.
This is a film split into two fairly distinct parts. The first is a delightful exercise in discomfort. Bobby and Jane seem nice, but their small talk is overly personal, their questions a little too specific and exceeding the social trust that has been built. As social creatures, the audience squirms a little along with the Hughes as they struggle to remain civil. One would assume the viewer has some foreknowledge of the film, and is aware of what is going on as they observe this game of conversational cat and unwitting mouse.
The second part of the film, once their plight becomes clear, dips into more standard home invasion fare, but with a few jolts and twists to keep things fresh.
What really makes In Their Skin stand out is the realism present in the script. The audience is in on it from the start, leaving primarily the dialogue to keep things interesting, and it does not disappoint. Everyone involved acts like rational human beings, allowing us to really become invested in the events as they occur. We wince every time the Hughes reveal another detail about their lives, or notice the neighbours quietly imitating their unconscious movements.
The acting here is superb on all fronts. Close and Blair are downcast and utterly believable as the distressed couple, tragedy still etched on their faces. The real delight are James D’Arcy and Rachel Miner as the neighbours, whose performances are disconcertingly off-kilter and subtly creepy. I was particularly impressed with Miner, who is genuinely terrifying here, her smiles belying a tenuous grip on reality making her every action unpredictable.
Despite a somewhat conventional second half, In Their Skin has enough smarts and some great performances that make it worth checking out. You may never look at your neighbours the same way again. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Toronto After Dark, Day 7: Dead Sushi
Dead Sushi is what I like to refer to as a party movie. As a reviewer of fine cinema it is easy to disregard it as an terrible exercise in filmmaking, but watch it in a theatre surrounded by 400 other people looking to have fun, and it is possibly the greatest movie of all time.
Basically the film is about… well… sushi that comes to life, grows fangs, and starts flying around and eating people. The star of the story is Keiko, played by Rina Takeda of “High-Kick Girl!” fame, a martial artist and sushi chef who is both adorable and hilarious. There is also an axe-wielding man with a fish head, a battleship made of roe, a gardener with a severe phobia of knives, and buckets and buckets (and buckets) of blood.
Really the plot isn’t terribly relevant, as this is purely delirious Japanese madcap comedy, replete with terrible special effects and plenty of overly sexual humour and partial nudity. It’s crude, silly, over the top zany, and just gets progressively more out of control as it goes along. With this number of completely outrageous attempts at being funny, you know that not all of them are going to hit the mark, but far more of it works than doesn’t.
Before the show we were all told to scream “sushi” and “danger” at the screen whenever we saw sushi or danger, and people were all yelling and having a fine time. This isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and I would suggest gathering a crowd before viewing, but if the mood is right, this is ridiculous Japanese absurdity at its finest. And you might just learn something about sushi. 4 out of 5 stars.
Toronto After Dark, Day 7: Sushi Girl
Previous to watching the double header of Sushi Girl and Dead Sushi at the festival, I had never heard of nyotaimori (literally “female body presentation”), more commonly known as body sushi or naked sushi. In a practice that is sure to raise a few questions about food safety, sushi and sashimi is artfully presented upon a woman, who must lie perfectly still throughout the meal. This information I relate mainly for informational purposes, as it pertains very little to the plot of Sushi Girl, aside from explaining why many shots in the film contain a naked girl covered in fish.
Sushi Girl at its heart is a love letter to the films of Quentin Tarantino, and desperately wants to be the next Reservoir Dogs. From the selections of smooth 70s music that punctuates the soundtrack to the dark décor that mixes divey with the Ming Dynasty, the film gives off super-cool grindhouse vibe. Enough blood is spilt to satisfy any gorehound, and a lot of time is spent on a torture scene that is as brutal as I’ve seen in a while, and a far cry from Mr. Blonde dancing and cutting.
The cast is a standard selection of criminal mugs. Noah Hathaway is Fish, who is just getting out after serving six years for his part in a diamond heist gone wrong. Tony Todd is thuggish and menacing as Duke, the leader and organizer of the dinner party. James Duval plays Francis, now out of the biz and wanting nothing to do with what’s going down. The gang is rounded out by the violent and feral Max, played by Andy Mackenzie, and Crow. Crow is played by Mark Hamill, channelling a lot of the same energy he put towards his brilliant portrayals of the Joker in the animated series and video games. He is equally on his game here, effete, sadistic, and clearly somewhat unbalanced as he constantly slings barbed witticisms towards the dangerous Max.
The diamonds from the heist were never recovered, and Duke thinks Fish (as the bagman) knows what happened to them. He’s happy to do whatever it takes get the information from him, and for the most part the others are happy to go along with this plan, if only because it lets them get some quality violence in. With a couple techniques I haven’t seen before, the torture process is cringe-inducing and extremely graphic, sensitive viewers beware.
Despite everything going for it Sushi Girl ends up feeling like a wasted opportunity. Great style, great cast with cameos from cult favorites, pretty naked girl covered in delicious Japanese food, what more can you ask from a movie? Where things really stumble is in the story itself. What happened during the heist is revealed to the audience through flashbacks, and as the story unfolds and finally draws to a conclusion, you don’t have to think very hard to realize that a great deal of what you just saw doesn’t makes sense. As the name would suggest, the sushi girl does eventually factor into the plot, but in a way that I can’t describe as anything but ludicrous.
Reservoir Dogs is my favourite Tarantino film, and I had high hopes for Sushi Girl. And while there are some things to like here, the payoff left my scratching my head and, much like the girl on the table, unmoved. 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Toronto After Dark, Day 6: Resolution
In the days leading up to Resolution, it was impressed upon the audience multiple times that this is a film that somewhat defies categorization. They were not wrong. The premise may sound like the standard set-up for a cabin-in-the-woods horror, but here it has been deftly combined with elements of comedy, buddy adventure, drama, and a number of unconventional tropes.
It would probably be best to file this under the paranormal mystery genre, and as such this review won’t delve very far into the plot for risk of spoiling it. The basic idea is this: a man receives an e-mail from his friend, who is strung out on crack, that includes a video and the directions to get to the cabin where he is currently residing. Determined to get his friend cleaned up, the man heads out and ends up forcibly restraining his friend inside the cabin while he recovers. As the week passes, unexplained events begin to occur, leading the man down a path where every answer leads to more questions.
Intrigued? I hope so. Resolution is a very creepy, very smart film which slowly builds the tension as it messes with your brain. It features stand-out performances from two relatively unknown actors, Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran, who each effortlessly deliver on both the comedy and drama fronts for this conversation-laden screenplay.
Did I understand Resolution? I’m not sure. I think so, but… maybe. Regardless, whether or not you really grok the conclusion shouldn’t much affect your enjoyment of this cool film that provides plenty of weird to pique your interest and keep you guessing. 4 out of 5 stars.
Toronto After Dark, Day 6: My Amityville Horror
In December of 1975, the Lutz family moved into a house at 112 Ocean Avenue, in Amityville, New York. 28 days later they fled the house, never to return, the result of supposed paranormal phenomena that has been endlessly documented and debated, and has been the source of inspiration for an equally endless number of books and films.
My Amityville Horror provides a quick primer on mysteries surrounding the house, such as the mass murder that occurred before the family arrived, but is primarily focused on Daniel Lutz, eight years old at the time of the events. Now a grown man who has struggled with being “the Amityville guy” his entire life, the film itself is a collection of interviews conducted with and about Daniel.
Through his conversations with interviewers, psychologists, and family friends the film paints a picture of a troubled child, now an adult, deeply traumatized from his past. He is angry, possibly unbalanced, and harbours a burning hatred of his step-father, George Lutz. A great deal of time in the film is spent demonizing this man, lingering over his possible connections to the occult, and the role he may have played. The remainder of the time is spent discussing what happened, delving into individual incidents during the 28 days, as he remembers them.
For those looking for new insights into Amityville itself, the film doesn’t shed a lot of new light on the subject. The spotlight here is firmly on Daniel Lutz, which, for most of the running time, makes for a fascinating subject. His utter conviction in recounting the past seems almost beyond question, but are they the distorted memories of a delusional child, or could these things have possibly happened? That is really the central point of discussion here, and My Amityville Horror expends equal effort on both sides of the argument, presenting forth both skeptics and parapsychologists alike.
While it may outstay its welcome a bit by the end, stretching out a bit thin on the available material, My Amityville Horror is a surprisingly engaging documentary that’s not really about the Amityville House at all. 3 out of 5 stars.
Toronto After Dark, Day 5: Citadel
There are two types of film plots that are very hard to get right: anything involving time travel, and horror with rules. Both ask you to submit to a central conceit that should make the rest of the proceedings more plausible. Time travel is naturally by far the more difficult of the two, as the conceit must exist within natural law, and the paradoxes tend to quickly pile up. Horror mostly just takes some attention to detail.
Citadel is rooted in the personal experience of the director, Ciaran Foy, who was attacked by hooded adolescents in the bad part of town. The film opens on a young couple, Tommy and his pregnant wife Joanne, as they are moving out of the condemned building in which they have lived. Trapped in an elevator, he can only watch as she is attacked by hooded thugs and left to die. We race ahead to eight months later, and he is raising his newborn daughter alone, barely able to cope with a newfound case of agoraphobia.
Tommy is played by a young Welsh actor by the name of Aneurin Barnard, who is exceptionally good in the role. He is a broken man, his expressions and body language constantly speaking to his intense fear of the world around him.
The neighbourhood in which he lives is desolate and oppressive, currently scheduled for a restoration that may or may not ever happen. It is the sort of place where the buses no longer come, except for one a day, likely mandated. He is eager to escape, to a better place to raise his child, once he is done burying his dead wife. But before he can do so, the hooded men return.
The conceit of the film is that there are creatures who can see fear. Tommy, in his state, shines like a neon sign to them. However, in actual practice, this requirement seems to come and go as is convenient for the plot to move forward and the actual parameters to be seen varies wildly. A few omissions would be okay, but the scripting is very haphazard in this regard.
Which is a shame, because Citadel gets a lot of things right. The setting of the mood is sublime, the entire film draped in desolation and tension. There were a couple great screams from the audience after some well placed shock horror elements, and as mentioned the acting of the lead character is superb.
I only wish the plot itself made a bit more sense. Why does the priest need him again? Perhaps I should stop overthinking my horror films. Or should I?
2.5 out of 5 stars.