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One of the best films of the year
The year was 2001. I was travelling the festival circuit when I was fortunate enough to screen a small Mexican film named The Devil's Backbone. The director was someone named Guillermo del Toro. He was not a complete unknown. His 1993 film Cronos was a small foreign gem and 1997's Mimic, though flawed, displayed some visual talent that would later be exhibited perfection in 2006's Pan's Labyrinth. But it was 2001 when my eyes were wide in awe and adoration and The Devil's Backbone became 'the' film to which I would bring up in company when spotted to name a hidden gem in the horror genre.
Fast forward to 2018. When the Toronto After Dark Film Festival announced its schedule for its 13th year in existence, many titles were being circled in my personal calendar. Jay Duplass in Prospect, J.J. Abrams' produced Overlord and the musical horror Anna & the Apocalypse were familiar films that immediately shot to the top of my must-watch list. But then there was the opening night gala film - Issa Lopez's Tigers Are Not Afraid. Admittedly (and with great embarrassment), I had not heard of the film prior to TADFF's schedule announcement. And the film's description - albeit interesting - was not getting my Festival juices running at Kentucky Derby speeds. But by the time it was over, I was left in my seat with a feeling of wonderment. A feeling that I hadn't felt since 2001. A feeling that I had my next The Devil's Backbone for watercooler conversation.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven in Spanish) opens with title cards informing the audience that in just over a decade 160,000 Mexicans have either been murdered or are missing as a result of the drug cartels. And it is in the slums of a seemingly adult-less part of town where we meet Estrella (Paola Lara), a 10-year old school-girl who after some violence erupts at her school is given three wishes to use at her discretion. Estrella is quick to make her first wish. Her mother has gone missing and belief is that she may have been taken by the drug cartel. Estrella wishes for her mother to return, but the wishes grant comes with complications. Estrella's mother has been murdered and her mother's return comes in the form of a bloodied rotting corpse that hardly resembles the loving mother who had vanished from the home. Estrella flees the horror of her mother's appearance and seeks refuge with a group of homeless orphan boys that have formed their own gang. Estrella's acceptance with the group of male peers is solidified after she accepts a dare to murder one of the leaders of the drug cartel violence in the city. Estrella uses her second wish to complete the task that has her now in the wavering favor of the group lead by the group's leader Shine (Juan Ramón López).
Estrella and the group's actions result in them being targeted by a rival gang member desperate to retrieve an item stolen by Shine and it is this pursuit and the resulting violence that eventually leads Estrella to her third wish one that will have consequences but may also be the key to salvation for our young heroine.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a film of magical proportions that is able to keenly mix elements of horror and great story-telling into an expertly crafted tale of death and survival in conditions unfathomable to most Western mentalities. It is difficult to express how a film that incorporates ghosts, animated wall art and a stuffed tiger who comes to life to provide necessary guidance can be so skillfully entwined in a story that has as much heartbreak as it does heart pounding. Nary a note is misplayed and it is to no surprise to further read that director Issa Lopez has now caught the eye of Guillermo del Toro who is now producing her next effort.
The resulting path is that Tigers Are Not Afraid is not only one of the best films likely to show at this year's Toronto After Dark Film Festival (if they can beat it, I will eat my All-Access Pass) but it is one of the best films of the year period. And it is clearly a film that has given this writer the inclination to grab his bullhorn and shout the praises of a film effort that has already picked up multiple praise and hardware on the festival circuit this year.
Eat Locals (2017)
Little Hidden Gem
A gathering of a vampire council at a hidden hideaway turns into a bloodbath when the British Army ambushes them in an attempt to put an end to their local reign of terror in the new horror comedy, Eat Locals.
Charlie Cox (Marvel's Daredevil) headlines a group of eight vampires who at their semi-centennial meeting discuss matters such as territory and new members. Their meeting also introduces the fanged ones to the human at the table. Billy Cook plays Sebastian, a warm blooded human who tags along with date Vanessa (Eve Myles) unaware his date is a vampire and she is accompanying him to a flock of bloodsuckers. Sebastian quickly realizes that he is not in friendly quarters but any notion of escape is thwarted when the army erupts in gunfire. Soon, the houseguests are accepting that they are surrounded by a heavily armed force lead by a commander committed to ending the vampire race.
Vampire films have been done to nausea over the past two decades, but thanks to a tongue-in-cheek deviously funny script by Danny King (Wild Bill, 2011), Eat Locals felt like fresh fun covering familiar territory. There may not be laugh out loud moments, but the script is nuanced and seasoned with fresh characters, fun challenges and a satisfying ended that make the viewing worth recommending.
It's hard not to root for the sharp-tooth characters as they struggle to find continued cause in their existence while fighting for their very survival. Added to the comedic mix are two additional human characters (Dexter Fletcher and Ruth Jones) that have a peculiar role in context of the vampires meeting above them in the house. Not all your favorite characters will survive but everyone seems to meet their maker after a spotlight moment which will leave audiences satisfied.
We would categorize Eat Locals as more of a comedy than a horror. So too must have the director Jason Flemying who makes his directorial debut here after over 125 acting credits on IMDb.com. The director's end credits reel reintroduces each character with each actor looking like they are having a ruckus of a good time during the shoot.
But don't think for a second that there isn't a good body count to go with all the yuks. Whether it's elderly vampire Alice (Annette Crosbie who has some of the better comedic moments) standing in the open firing off hundreds of rounds with an automatic weapon likely larger than her own physical frame or a concerned military man who gets rewarded for his kindness with two sharp objects impaling either side of his neck, Eat Locals brings body bags.
By the time the lights again illuminated the theatre at the screening as part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, I was thankful for the experience. What a great treat right before the Halloween season.
Dead Shack (2017)
Fun with Gore
Let's clear the air right now – Dead Shack is neither a B52's hit song nor is it a documentary fictionalizing the death of a famous Los Angeles Lakers center. Or at least it isn't in this iteration. Directed by Peter Ricq, Dead Shack is a horror/comedy about a family who crosses paths with a murderous neighbor who lures others to her home with intention of feeding them to her zombie family. Like I wrote: horror/comedy.
We meet our main characters as they set out on a family vacation. Roger (Donavon Stitson) is the father and adult of the group. Along for the ride is his new girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian) kids Summer (Lizzie Boys) and Colin (Gabriel LaBelle) and neighbor Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood). Roger is a drinker, a joker and father that tries too hard to bond with his teenage children. He wants to be the cool-adult and throws his sarcastic wit aloud both to amuse himself and others.
His children are very independent. Thanks to Roger's buffoonery they have to be. When they find themselves wandering from the vacation cabin they come across a neighbor worthy of their spying eyes. But when they witness the neighbor drug two strangers and then feed them to some zombie-like characters kept liked rabid pets, the kids grow up fast. They rush back to their father who is both drunk and drugged. Their story of the neighbors cannibalism is met with skepticism and drunken wonder by Roger whose alcoholic courage and hazed attempt to be there for his kids gets him motivated to investigate the claims. It's when they enter the neighbor's house that the film sways from being a full on comedy and lands itself dab smack into the horror/thriller genre.
What ensures next is barrage of equal violence and humor that propels Dead Shack to the height of its crowd pleasing wonderfulness. The kids get all Mad-Maxed up in gear and weaponry created with found parts. Their goal it to save the day and leave with the same amount of family members that began the odyssey (well, maybe not Lisa). Axes and sharp objects swing and stick, blood both red and black are spilled, zombies are both killed and created. As an audience our job is to sit back and enjoy the ride and if you don't look too deep into the shallowness of the story, the ride is a fun one. We enjoyed the first half better than last. Stitson's lines land with precision and the dynamic of the group would be something we would have liked to see more.
There are some great lines in Dead Shack ("When the blood goes black there's no going back"), so when the film shifts to more of a zombie tale, it falters a bit to the finish line.
Our criticism is hardly a reason not to recommend Dead Shack. The crowd assembled at the screening during the Toronto After Dark Film Festival laughed and cheered in all the right spots. So even through the few flaws, it was clearly a crowd pleaser. And not a B52's song.
My Friend Dahmer (2017)
A Prequel to Madness
David Berkowitz. John Wayne Gacy. Ted Bundy. Ed Gein. It's fascinating how the names of some of North America's most sensationalized serial killers have their names as familiar through cross-generational age groups as George Washington, Martin Luthur King and Michael Jackson. Pop culture seems equally enamored by rampages of the more infamous multiple murderers and have dedicated innumerable television episodes, podcasts and theatrical releases to their subjects taking dramatic licenses to piece together the anatomy of a killer.
One of the more interesting films to premiere with the weight of factual atrocities associated with the title character is My Friend Dahmer which dramatizes the complex high school life of renowned serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer who was responsible for the butchering of 17 young men between 1978 and the late 1980's.
Based on the book by Derf Backderf and co-written by director Mark Meyers, My Friend Dahmer attempts to show us the events in the life of the protagonist before he began to take human lives. Former Disney alum teen idol Ross Lynch accepts the responsibility of channeling a teenaged Dahmer through the events of his life that would eventually culminate in the carnage associated with the name. Lynch embodies Dahmer as a loner with shrugged shoulders who meanders through his relative non-existence at both school and at home. With no friends and a family engorged on their own turmoil, Dahmer finds exultant refuge in a small shack in the woods by the family home where he experiments with dead animals soaked in acid. Dahmer does not hide his fascination with dead animal bones and his passion for the macabre would eventually lead his father (Dallas Roberts) to destroy his son's secret sanctuary.
Meanwhile, at school, Dahmer becomes a casual teen celebrity among the halls when he begins acting out in relative random outbursts. The outbreaks of mania result in a bonding with three classmates that champion Dahmer's ambition for attention and exploit his mannerisms for childish euphoria.
Being accepted as part of a group does little to slow the progression into madness that eventually ensues. As the marriage between Dahmer's parents dissolves we witness the unhinged neuroses of his mother played wonderfully by Anne Heche. Her manic attention to only herself fuels Dahmer to begin drinking and it's the alcohol fueled mindset that propels Dahmer to progress into darkness.
My Friend Dahmer concludes with the connection to Steven Hicks, a young hitchhiker who would become Dahmer's first victim. We watch as Hicks and Dahmer drive off but only a title card reveals Hicks' ultimate fate.
It is this restraint that separates My Friend Dahmer from its peers. Director Marc Meyers weaves us through a story that doesn't humanize the man who would become Milwaukee's most prolific cannibal. Nor does the film sensationalize the events to which Dahmer is associated. Instead, My Friend Dahmer focuses on what life offered a quiet outcast without any violent behaviors leading up to his first submitted impulse of murder.
And it's this glimpse into a young man's troubled past that propels My Friend Dahmer towards our strong film recommendation. The cast surrounding Dahmer's coming-of-age are exceptional. In particular young Alex Wolff who as Dahmer's best friend becomes a participant in a profile that would eventually result in horrific consequences.
Marc Meyers and his crew are able to flawlessly project the year 1978 around the characters. From the costume designs to the cars and music, the look and feel of 1978 is authentic. The references to the era may be subtle, but they are effective establishing the setting.
The challenge of making a serial killer movie interesting before the killer takes a life must have been daunting. But Mac Meyers maneuvers through the rapids determined to give backdrop to our subject. There are flaws. The film takes only a shallow toe dip into the homosexuality pool we now know Dahmer would eventually bathe. But the film doesn't try to sensationalize anything. It stays the course and easily becomes one of the better serial killer prequels ever made.
I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016)
What a Fantastic Surprise
There are so many things I love about the Toronto After Dark Film Festival (TADFF). The venue. The people. The films. The shorts. The atmosphere. So many things combine to make the TADFF my favorite film festival of the year.
And one of the more surprising things that occur each year is that my favorite film of the festival will come unexpectedly from left field. This year's crop of screenings held many titles to which I was already aware of their existence. Under the Shadow, Antibirth, Train to Busan, Stake Land 2 and Creepy. These were all titles that I was fully conscious of their information including story, director and cast. But there were a few that I had yet to hear anything about, The Void, Master Cleanse, Kill Command and I am not a Serial Killer. It is with these titles that my hopes rested on finding that unexpected gem that I found in previous TADFF entries in Predestination, Eega and Trick 'R Treat.
By Monday night, I had found it. I am not a Serial Killer is not a film that I would expect many to know much about. The film is based on a 2009 novel by Dan Wells that was part of a trilogy of books in what is considered the John Wayne Cleaver series and includes I Am Not a Serial Killer, Mr. Monster and The Devil's Only Friend.
In the film adaptation we get introduced to John Wayne Cleaver played by Max Records from Where the Wild Things Are. John is a high schooler that believes he has serial killer tendencies. Or so he tells his therapist (Karl Geary). John works in a morgue run by his family which gives John access to dead bodies that begin to show up with regularity when a serial killer begins to add to their resume in a small rural town. John is fascinated by the killings and how in each instance a different part of the victim's body has been removed. John is eager to use the killings to harvest his fascination with serial killers and this path will lead him down a plot highway that has plenty of surprises leading to a very unexpected climax.
Director Billy O'Brien worked tirelessly to get the rights to bring the Dan Wells' story to the big screen and he does not waste the energy exerted in pre-production. The film has just the right amount of everything and reveals in its own time a plot that is as smart as it is simple.
Back to the Future's Christopher Lloyd gets top billing and is a welcomed familiar face in sea of newbies and the 79-year-old actor shines as the neighbor next door that catches the eye of young Cleaver.
But the movie hinges on the wonderful performance from Max Records. Hardly recognizable from his role in Where the Wild Things Are, Max is perfectly cast in the lead and has a mix of Johnny Depp and Lukas Haas in him which works flawlessly in the role of the conflicted teenager at odds with his family, friends and, at times, himself.
To enjoy I Am Not a Serial Killer is to go in knowing as little as possible about the plot. Letting it go in directions unseen due to no preconceived notions aides in the overall enjoyment of the reveals. So do yourself a favor and just dive into the deep end and enjoy the water.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is another feather in the cap of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. It is not only one of the better films of this year's fest but it is one of the ten best films the festival has ever screened.
The Rezort (2015)
The idea is brilliant. If Jurassic Park can be such a monumental hit but displaying dinosaurs in a theme park type environment – why not try the same with zombies. Again, brilliant.
The Rezort takes place after a zombie epidemic has killed billions of our population. The humans were able to fight the impending apocalypse and gained control over the zombies where they were shipped to a Zombie Safari of sorts. Here, humans can pay large sums of money for their chance to shoot the undead for sport.
The Zombie Safari (Zafari) is a controlled environment. There are countless cameras and fail-safes in place all monitored from a central control room. And the zombies, for the most part, are put on display, like being chained to posts at a safe distance in an attempt at giving the vacationers what they crave while ensuring their utmost safety.
Always wanted to shoot a zombie? Welcome to the Zafari. Wanted to seek some kind of twisted revenge for the loss of a loved one? Welcome to Zafari. Just want to kill something? Welcome to Zafari.
But if we learned anything from the Jurassic Park movies it's that the best laid plans might always end up in chaos. Disorder in this instance comes when a computer virus is uploaded into the central control system which brings the systems offline. Zombies by the hundreds are now able to stroll right up the visitor's camps and, of course, mayhem ensues.
A small group of vacationers are in the middle of the bedlam and look to a veteran sharp shooter named Archer (Dougray Scott) to help them get off the island before a self-destruct order is enacted which will wipe out the entire Zafari.
This is where The Rezort slightly misses the mark. The idea that is at the apex of the setting is inspired. But once the systems go down, The Rezort morphs into a zombies run just a bit slower than the humans but manage to pick one off every few minutes for dramatic effect film. There is a reveal as to what happens to refugees that does add a touch of flavor, but for the most part, The Rezort loses the momentum sustained in the opening sequences.
To be fair, The Rezort is still an above average zombie film. There wasn't one particular kill that stood out from the rest. But there are enough kills to keep the audience engaged. And we would be remiss if we did not comment on the production values which exceeded all expectations.
But we can't leave Zafari without thinking of what could have been. If the film spend more time on the exploration of the park and not so much on a forced story about amokness (yes, I made that word up) then I think we could have encountered one of the most brilliantly conceived zombie films of the past 25 years. As the film ends up a bit of a cliff-hanger, let's hope they get a second chance.
Great Thrill Ride
No genre has suffered from volume overload as the zombie genre. Zombie television shows, zombie movies both theatrical and straight to video, city zombie walks
.zombies are everywhere. Because of the glut of flesh eating walking dead, no genre has suffered so much with overkill. Zombies themselves are not particularly interesting beasts. They don't have any character. They just run (or slow walk) bite and run (or slow walk) again. You won't find many reviews on the thousands of zombie films that will go into detail about the complex layers of the zombie's inner mind.
With what seems like an endless parade of zombie films each week being offered across various platforms it's a nice surprise when a film such as Train to Busan offers what feels like a fresh take on an exhausted premise.
Train to Busan is a South Korean zombie film brought to us from writer/director Sang-ho Yeon. The idea is commonplace – a zombie apocalypse is underway – but the setting adds to the drama. The movie takes place almost exclusively on a train where the passengers are stuck in in a speeding bullet. And when an infected individual boards the train, the group's only safety will be in the various train cars free of the blood hungry hordes.
The group of characters that face life and death to zombie situations are an eclectic band of heroes and villains including a father and daughter team, a pregnant woman and her husband, a young teenage baseball team and various train attendants. Their survival is hanging on the notion that if the train full of zombies can reach the Busan station where the military is lying in wait.
Although there are plenty of been there/seen that moments in Train to Busan, the film still offers a fresh feel largely due to the claustrophobic setting. There are some fresh ideas – such as what happens to the zombies when the train enters into a tunnel – and these ideas coupled with zombies that run like Olympic qualifiers and above average special effects lead to a heart pounding rollicking good time.
One could not fully review Train to Busan without discussing the ending. Starting with an unexpected train crash the final few reels are filled with one surprise after another. And the ending is almost heart-wrenching in its execution.
Train to Busan is a thrill ride. A thrill ride that was a rousing crowd pleaser when it screened at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. But it is more than just a genre festival favorite. It is one of best zombie films every produced and might just be one of the best movies of any genre in 2016.
There are many things to love about the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. The films, the crowds, the electricity in the air. But one thing that I look forward to more than most are the Canadian short films that are shown before each feature.
The appeal to me about the shorts is that you generally have no information about the shorts prior to their illumination on the screen. There are no online trailers months in advance, no big red carpet ceremonies to roll them out. We can simply sit back in our theatre chair and await the creativity juices to flow from the projector lens.
Up first at this year's Festival is Kookie, a short that is worthy of our attention. Written, directed and conceived in just a few weeks by Justin Harding, Kookie stars Ava Jamieson as Bree, a 9-year-old child with a penchant for eating cookies from the cookie jar then lying about her involvement.
But Bree's attraction to the cookie jar is put to the test when her mother replaces the usual cutesy bear ceramic with a terrifying clown face jar. Bree must then approach a devilishly evil looking jar if she is to keep her insatiable urge for the sweets in order.
What transpires over the full 13-minutes of the short we will leave to your viewing pleasure but we will report that if you have a fear of clowns – something that is ever present in today's news headlines – then Kookie might be the short of nightmares.
There is so much to enjoy in Hastings vision. The cookie jar itself is as downright frightening as any live killer we've seen a horror film this year. But it was the camera work in this short effort that really got our attention. The lighting, framing and focus points were all the work of a master. We are not accustomed to such professional looking imagery on the screen when a filmmaker utilizes a budget likely less than the average person's credit card limit.
All this makes Kookie one of our favorite shorts to even show at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. And that is high praise.
War on Everyone (2016)
Before we even get to our review of War on Everyone, we urge those who have yet to see writer/director John Michael McDonagh's previous works – Calvary, The Guard – to take the time to seek, relish and savor two of the best hidden gems of films that have sneaked in and out of our playlists for the past few years.
McDonagh's latest, War on Everyone, is a cop/buddy comedy that pairs actors Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood) and Michael Peña (End of Watch, The Martian) in a story about two corrupt officers who eventually meet their evil match in present day New Mexico.
Terry (Skarsgård) and Bobby (Peña) seem to have come from the Alonzo Harris School of Policing. That is if Alonzo Harris worked for Police Squad! Terry and Bobby run rampant through the city they are sworn to protect with reckless abandon. They drink and drive, do drugs, threaten criminals and generally just break all the rules in the police handbook between reprimands from their commanding officer played by Paul Rieser (Aliens).
Terry is the heavy drinking womanizer that has the intellect of a Joey Barone. Bobby is the (supposed) smart one who has a family consisting of a wife and two boys that he throws verbal barbs at like he was auditioning for Bad Santa 2. But while on the job, the two are more alike than different in that their goal is to survive each day with civilian disregard.
So the two sniff, drink, shoot, smash, punch, kick and speed through daily challenges all of which seem stitched together without any true cohesive narrative. Whereas this year's The Nice Guys had a dense story coupling two unlikely characters in a plot that develops and builds on each new character introduction, War on Everyone instead treats each new scene and character like a disposable Saturday Night Live skit. Even the two leads don't look like they are having much fun as they plod through the shallow script pages. Only Malcolm Barrett, who plays informant Reggie, shines with scenes that have any appreciative value.
The film ends up being a convoluted mess. John Michael McDonagh can write. His previous efforts confirm that statement. And War on Everyone should have been something that would fit his style. We had hoped to see how a foreigner would write a movie about American violence and policing. Instead, we got War on Everyone, a movie that is so awkward and contains so many scenes that seem so distant from the one just before that it takes McDonagh down a long snake in the Snakes and Ladders Hollywood game.
Remarkable Story Unremarkably Told
The story of Christine Chubbuck is as fascinating as it is tragic. A contributing news reporter for WTOG and WXLT-TV in Florida in the 1970's, Chubbuck was a tormented soul who was the only person ever to commit suicide on live television when she put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. Rumored to the inspiration for Peter Finch's suicide in Sidney Lumet's Network, Chubbuck's suicide sent ripples through the industry and the footage of the event has either been lost, destroyed or sealed in a safety deposit box depending on the urban legend you are prone to believe.
Director Antonio Campos (Simon Killer, After School) takes on the task of telling Christine's story to audiences unfamiliar with the tragedy. Actress Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3) throws herself into the title role. Allowing her to stretch her acting chops beyond smaller roles in The Town and Frost/Nixon, Hall is generally convincing as an adult who has inner demons always working against her better interests in her head.
The story picks up the last year of Christine's life. Christine is a news reporter who strives for better television. She marvels in human interest stories and fantasizes about interviewing President Nixon. Christine is in constant conflict with those around her. Whether it's her live-in mother and new boyfriend to whom Christine disapproves, her station manager who believes in the 'if it bleeds, it leads' mentality, or with her own better judgment, Christine seems to be fighting small battles every day of her life.
Christine is thrown a lifeline by news anchor George Peter Ryan (played by Dexter's Michael C. Hall). Ryan believes in Christine's efforts even if her methods might be disapproving. A recovering addict himself, Ryan might be Christine's best ally in his understanding of her challenges. Christine has an underdeveloped crush on the young anchor and is enamored when he eventually asks her out for a date.
Further conflict comes into play when the owner of the station announces his intention to open a sister station in Baltimore and is looking to leverage some of the talent from Florida. This puts the station staff in mini-competition with each other in hopes of catching the owner's eye. But when George Ryan and the female sportscaster are picked for the new station, Christine loses her last thread of hope for acceptance which leads her to request a lead in the next broadcast. The broadcast will be her last.
The final moments of Christine Chubbuck's life stays true to the facts of the evening. After a filmed reel segment jams and cannot be shown, Chubbuck looks into the camera and says "In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in 'blood and guts', and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide." She then took the revolver from her purse and shot herself in the head. She later died in hospital.
Unfortunately, the story is more fascinating than the events that play out in Christine. It's difficult to show inner demons and although Rebecca Hall's dark eyes portray a woman in conflict, the progression from a balanced individual to someone who would commit suicide on live television is not pitched in a way that audiences can follow the downward spiral. Although Christine is portrayed as unstable the breaking point is not presented in plausible fashion.
Rebecca Hall alone is reason to watch Christine and she is in every scene carrying the movie to its inevitable conclusion. But an underwhelming script by writer Craig Shilowich does little but have audiences hope for something – anything – to happen to keep us interested in the character development on screen.
Christine is one of two films about Christine Chubbuck that premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival the other being the Kate Plays Christine which has actress Kate Lyn Sheil preparing to portray the role of Christine. Let's hope that film gives us more insight into what is still an unbelievable story yet to be properly told.
Safe Non-Offensive Look at the 36th President
Few things are as comfortable as a Rob Reiner film. The director who is still commonly referred to lovingly as Meathead by fans of the iconic All in the Family television series has been directing films since the early 80's and his films are consistently entertaining inoffensive fair marketed to mass audiences. The Princess Bride, A Few Good Men, The American President and The Bucket List are just a sampling of the director's filmography that audiences will be familiar.
Those that watch Rob Reiner on the talk show circuit would know that the outside of being an actor and director, he is very political activist who uses his celebrity status to bring attention to equal rights and to social issues such as violence and tobacco use.
So it is a bit of surprise that Rob Reiner has never made a film that might leverage his strong activist lifestyle. Until now, that is.
LBJ is Rob Reiner's film about the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was thrust from the Vice-President's chair to the Oval Office desk after the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on that fateful November day in 1963.
Woody Harrelson plays LBJ and the film takes us backwards and forwards in time from LBJ's unsuccessful run for the Democratic Party nomination through JFK's assassination and ultimately through the President's fight for an Equal Rights Bill.
The heart of the film comes from LBJ's battle within his own party. Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) is hardly a fan of the foul-mouthed Texan who was hand-picked by brother John for the Vice-President position. The two will battle wills and disagree on almost all political talking points throughout their tenures. Also providing resistance to LBJ's forward thinking is Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) from the state of Georgia. Russell is portrayed as a racist that does not believe that individuals of color deserve the same rights and freedoms as all other Americans. LBJ does his best to try and win the trust of Russell and LBJ walks the thin line of keeping Russell in the fold before he abandons his friendship with the Senator in his attempt to fulfill the inroads JFK had made in his equal rights efforts prior to his assassination.
Harrelson is barely recognizable as the title character. The make-up is thick to ensure he resembles the former President. At times, the make-up is brilliant. The big ears and receding hairline of LBJ is captured expertly. But at other times – particularly in close-ups – the make-up looks like Harrelson was an extra in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy film.
LBJ is obviously the focus, but there is ample time given to JFK. And the assassination in Texas is captured with valuable attention to detail. The assassination is a key point in the life of LBJ and Rob Reiner takes the time to film it correctly (it was filmed in Texas exactly where the shooting took place). Jeffrey Donovan (televisions Burn Notice) plays Kennedy and brings subtle touch to the role not attempting to overdo the Boston drawl.
As with all other Reiner films, LBJ plays it safe. Audiences may learn a few things about the complicated man along the way. His foul mouth, how he would have meetings while sitting on the toilet, and his insecurity always believing that he was not loved by either his inner circle or his country (he did win re-election by the widest margin in American history). To my embarrassment, I didn't know that LBJ was in a procession car with JFK the day he was killed. But LBJ is no Lincoln. Where the Spielberg film was brilliantly written and a character study of both a political family and the process to which they battled, LBJ skims the surface like a rock skipping along calmer waters. Gritty, LBJ is not.
But safe entertainment can still be good entertainment and Reiner is surely a master at that craft. There is plenty of humor in the film to keep the characters interesting and keeping the story non-linear works to valued effect. LBJ will not be considered Rob Reiner's best work, but it is exactly what you can come to expect from the director. And slipping into a comfortable shoe can be so so comfortable.
Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Good, just not emotionally draining
We all remember the images of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Millions of gallons of oil spewed from the ocean floor for 87 days all captured and broadcast with a live internet feed. It was the worst oil spill in US history and BP oil has paid over $70 billion in fines and clean-up efforts.
But what you might not remember is that the spill occurred when the floating oil rig Deepwater Horizon suffered a catastrophic explosion which resulted in the loss of 11 crew lives. Director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) again teams up with actor Mark Wahlberg in an attempt to bring the fascinating and heroic story to audiences in the action-biopic Deepwater Horizon.
Wahlberg plays Mike Williams who was the chief electronics technician for Transocean on the Deepwater Horizon. Scheduled to work upon the oil rig for just a few weeks, Williams along with Transocean offshore installation manager Jimmy Harrell (played by Kurt Russell) quickly identify that BP has cut corners with safety measures in an attempt to hit production targets. "Money, money, money" one of the operators sings as his conclusion to BP's negligence.
Concerns represented by Williams and Harrell do little to convince on-site BP officials to radically change course and slow operations until all safety precautions have been taken. Their disregard resulted in a high pressure methane gas explosion that engulfed the rig platform. One hundred and five crew members were on board when the explosion took place at approximately 9:45PM CMT. Ninety-Four were rescued. Eleven crew were never found.
Wahlberg and Russell are both convincing in their respective roles. It might be difficult in theory to rationalize Wahlberg as an electronics technician, but the versatile actor convincingly plays a smart family-oriented blue-collar worker and the ultimate hero of the film.
Much of the first reel deals with BP's neglect and the conflict with the experienced workers aboard the rig. The unflattering digs are not discreet and we imagine that BP in no way will be exultant to see how Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand's screenplay shines the light on corporate greed. Berg does his best to try and describe the safety tests that took place aboard the vessel, but it's not until the first explosion that audiences will become engaged in the horrific ordeal.
Berg is no stranger to blowing things up. We all want to forget 2010's Battleship, but it likely did expose Berg to A-Level special effects and they are on full display here. The Deepwater Horizon replica is considered the largest set ever built and Berg most have took delight in completely devastating the platform with pyro techniques and theatre rattling explosions. Kurt Russell ran through fires and explosions in 1991's Backdraft, but things are turned up a notch here.
As an action film, Deepwater Horizon works wonderful well. For certain, audiences will not bored through the blasts and heroics of our protagonists. Where the film does falter is in its emotional appeal. Although we get a small glimpse into the home life of Mike Williams (his wife is played by Kate Hudson who acts with father Kurt Russell for the first time), the film doesn't pull at the heartstrings for the eleven souls lost that fateful April evening. They are memorialized before the end credits role, but they are lost in the shuffle of action packed sequences that consume the 107-minute running time of Deepwater Horizon.
The film is still important. It is important that we learn from our mistakes and that we remember the fallen. It's just unfortunate that Berg was unable to take a gallant story and turn it into something that acted as historical reference, casual entertainment and emotional groundwork that would evoke change in big industry standards.
Oliver Stone has not been relevant for some time. The three time Oscar winner owned the 80's. Salvador, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Talk Radio and Wall Street were some of the best the decade had to offer and cemented his name in film history. But by 1997's U-Turn., Stone had lost his magic. His next few films, Any Given Sunday, World Trade Center, Alexander and W. were critical bombs where overlong running times seemed to only further pat the directors own back with self-indulgence. And his last two films, Savage and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps were hardly anchors in what will eventually be a career DVD boxset.
Yet, when word began circulating that Stone was circling Snowden as his next film, many couldn't think of a director who would be better for the job. Based on the true events of former NSA/CIA employee Edward Snowden who became the center of equal praise and angst when he leaked thousands of classified documents to the press detailing the illegal surveillance tactics of the agencies, Stone attempts to tell the story of how Snowden eventually came to the crossroads in his life that lead him to be labelled as one of the biggest traitors in US history.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden and his voice and mannerisms seem to capture the real life character to a tee. Stone based the biopic espionage thriller on books by Luke Harding and Anatoly Kucherena and switches back and forth in time between his revealing interview with Guardian reporters in 2013 to Snowden's attempts to join the military which was thwarted due to a degenerative leg injury. Snowden quickly goes from the hospital bed to the CIA and uses his cockiness and his innate ability to write code and interpret data.
Under the wing of protégé Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans), Snowden quickly gets fast tracked through the ranks and travels the world in efforts of National Security. Along the way, Snowdwn meets Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) who will become his female companion traveling the globe to stand by her man even as she is kept in the dark as to exactly the job description to which Snowden is fulfilling.
The film's pulse pounding moment comes when Snowden attempts to copy and extract from the secure intelligence facility, the files that when published showed to the world how surveillance works outside the confines of both US and International Law for benefits that could never be accounted. Even with the result never in doubt, Stone is able to lay the groundwork for some tense moments leading to Snowden's escape.
This marks the second film in as many years where actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a real life character following his role as Phillippe Petit in Robert Zemeckis' under-appreciated The Walk. But this also marks the second time Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a real life character in movie that is inferior to the documentaries that threw both stories into the spotlight. Both Man on a Wire and last year's Oscar winner for documentary best picture, Citizenfour, were superior films than their dramatized big budget adaptations.
Yet neither is the fault of the young former 3rd Rock from the Sun actor. Snowden collapses on the shoulders of director Stone who doesn't seem to care how long his films run on. Snowden clocks in at 134 minutes and it feels every bit as long as the time suggests. Watching Snowden switch from job to job/country to country is downright hard on the tushy as it is neither interesting enough to keep audiences on the edge of the seats nor important enough to keep us comfortable in the effort. Instead, the film runs out of gas long before Snowden finally determines that the information to which he is responsible must be revealed for the world to judge on merit.
It is an opportunity lost. Laura Poitras' Citizenfour was far superior and clearer in its description of the facts. Stone's Snowden seems muddled in the director's inability to cut entire scenes in the editing room.
And while most of the cast does a comparable job with little to actually do (including Melissa Leo, Zachery Quinto and Tom Wilkinson), Ifans and a role given to straight-to-video artist Nicholas Cage seem miscast. Woodley is good as the love interest and life partner, but is overused and we can't but think her continued screen time was Stone's attempt at giving the female audience members something in which to relate.
So Snowden doesn't exactly make Oliver Stone relevant again. Nor do we think the film will ignite another firestorm over the merits of Snowden's efforts. Instead, it is a mildly interesting film that bores audiences lulling them into a hopeless want for the dates on the screen to catch up with real time.
Perfectly Cast Complex Character Study
From the late 1980's into the 1990's, Paul Veerhoven was one of the biggest names working behind the camera in Hollywood. Starting with 1987's Robocop and continuing through Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, Veerhoven mastered the sex and violence ties that brought audiences out to his films in droves.
But 1995's Showgirls ended his run of good fortune. Considered by most to be one of the worst films of the 90's (it's not), Showgirls all but put Veerhoven in Guantanamo Hollywood prison. And since 2000, Veerhoven has directed but three films – Hollow Man, Black Book and Tricked.
With any fortune, Veerhoven will no longer take such a long sabbatical after his latest effort, Elle which was nominated for the Palme D'Or at Cannes and had its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past Friday.
Elle stars Isabelle Huppert as Michele, a corporate CEO of a small video-game design company who deals with the emotional effects of a rape that occurs before the screen even fades in with the open scene. When audiences do get more than the horrifying audio of the assault, we view Michele as she fights with a masked intruder on the floor of her home. Beaten and raped, Michele cleans up and continues with her life. A prior bad history with the police leaves her not wanting to report the crime and stoically she marches on with the rape but a blip on life's resume.
But as time slowly separates her from the initial attack, it is clear that the attacker is not yet finished with is prey. Michele begins to find her house violated again by the unknown assailant and text messages from the rapist only further the intrigue. But Michele is no victim. She fantasizes about another return visit from the attacker with a more favorable result. And through her emotions she remains consistent in behavior which comes to a shock to others when she reveals the details of the attack.
Making things more complex for Michelle is her circle of family and friends. A father doing time for being a serial murder, a mother who pays young studs for sex, a son who can't hold either a job or a girlfriend and her co-workers, some of which she is sexually active with, only complicate her delicate situation.
Although Elle might seem like a mystery thriller, it is more of a character driven drama than a 'can-you-guess-who's-behind-the-mask'. So much so that Veerhoven reveals the face behind the ski mask early in the second half of the film. The reveal is to both the audience and to Michelle and how she continues to explore events on her own terms is as fascinating as it is head-scratching.
Although Veerhoven has routinely had strong women roles in his films, nothing is on par with Huppert's Michelle. The film is carried by her strong and intoxicating performance and Huppert is remarkably able to keep us involved and rooting for a woman who is mean and calculating to all those associated with her path.
Events don't exactly zig and zag towards an ending but I doubt audiences will be able to stay ahead of the smart script in determining what might occur next to our protagonist.
Elle isn't perfect, but it is perfectly cast and executed. The story will leave most in the cold and it isn't a feel-good film even if everything does eventually work itself into a nicely bowed present before the end title card.
Miles Ahead (2015)
The life and music of Miles Dewey Davis, better known as Miles Davis, is on display in the new bio-pic, Miles Ahead. Don Cheadle wears as many hats as afforded to him playing the title character as well as appearing in the credits as producer and director in a film that showcases Cheadle's talent and offers a strong case in ensuring the Oscar's have some color on the stage at next year's telecast.
The film opens in the later years of Miles' life. He has already reached fame and fortune. But his drug addiction has turned him into a Howard Hughes recluse. And he has temporarily turned his back on music. The story opens with Miles alone in his home when he is aggressively approached by Rolling Stone magazine writer Dave Brill (Ewan McGreggor) who is interested in writing about Miles' new project. The opportunistic Brill gets swept into a fantastical series of events that include following Miles as he confronts his record label, procures cocaine and is chased through the streets in a hail of gunfire by unscrupulous folk looking to advance their worldly standing through the theft of Miles' still-in-progress demo tape.
The events that unfold are not based on historical fact. But it doesn't matter. Miles Ahead is more a movie about the attitude and persona of legend Miles Davis than it is a straight up account of a fraction of the musician's life.
By way of flashbacks, we get a glimpse into the more serene life of Miles Davis before drugs off-tracked his career. A clean cut Davis is seen rising in ranks through the Jazz clubs of America and eventually falling for Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who would eventually become his wife of 10-years.
The film doesn't dive too deeply into the domestic violence between the two lovers that became headlines back in the early 60's nor does it touch too intensively the racial tensions in America at the time. There is a scene where Davis is unprovokingly harassed by police officers and taken to jail for simply showing kindness to a woman of white skin, but the film has no message to present in terms of Miles' involvement with racial divides at the time. Instead, Cheadle keeps the camera focused on a single day in the broken down icon's history. This works largely to the films advantage but sacrifices giving us a glimpse into the life of the historic character.
Don Cheadle is a revelation as Miles. The raspy voice, the trumpet playing, the belligerence. All are played exactly on key. The supporting cast does amply in tow but there is little to look at outside of Cheadle's performance.
For this particularly story, things do work out well in the end. Relatively. We had hoped for end credit title cards that would have told us more about the man. Those unfamiliar with Miles Davis might have wanted to know if he was still alive or what became of Frances Taylor after their split. Even a short blurb unveiling Miles' nine Grammy Awards would have been refreshingly educational at film's end.
Miles Ahead is not the be-all of musician movies. But I would categorize Cheadle's performance of the late trumpet player as one of the better performances of a real-life musician on screen. It's good enough to recommend the film to anyone. Jazz fan or not.
A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
All Four Stories Deliver
It's the most wonderful time of the year. To die.
Directors Grant Harvey, Steve Hoban and Brett Sullivan all lend their talents in an attempt to turn the happiest day of the year into a horrifying movie experience in A Christmas Horror Story.
Best described as an anthology, A Christmas story interweaves multiple stories with Christmas being the anchor theme. The stories are diverse and in no way repeating. Santa takes on a horde of zombie elves. A family goes Christmas tree hunting where their son gets possessed by a demon. A group of teenagers return to the scene of a grizzly crime to film a documentary where the evil still lurks. And a family is terrorized by Krampus, the anti-Santa Claus.
William Shatner plays a radio DJ host that helps intertwine the stories and provides some spots of levity along the snowy roads to where the film journeys. The stories themselves do not play out in their entirety before moving to the next segment a la say Tales of Halloween or the ABC's of Death. Instead, the filmmakers jump between the stories which allow them to keep audiences on their toes and ensure that the lesser terrorizing / more dramatic scenes are broken up with the moments horror fans relish.
What makes A Christmas Horror Story so different from its peers is that there is not a dull story in the mix. Sure, not all stories share the same enthusiasm, gore or humor, but there wasn't any particular segment I wished would just mercifully end so that we could get to a more interesting one. That is great praise to say the least. I could not say that about Tales of Halloween and that makes A Christmas Horror Story more in line with say Trick 'R Treat than Creepshow.
Yes, Yes, Yes, we still had our favorite. That would be Santa's story on combating zombie infected elves and his eventual showdown with Krampus. The effects, make-up and overall execution of this segment are worth the price of admission alone. Santa comes across as an 80's action hero. His eyes didn't twinkle. His dimples weren't merry. His cheeks weren't like roses. My god was he scary! The Santa/Krampus showdown might be the highlight of the film but one can't ignore the other segments that lead to the climax. Each provide a fun sleigh ride of horror and all three could have been their own movie if the stories were expanded.
A Christmas Horror Story played at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival on Saturday night and the audience clearly got in on the fun laughing at the right moments and offering applause for some of the more gruesome scenes.
There are not a plethora of good Christmas horror films out there. In fact, after Black Christmas you would be hard pressed to name another outside of a Silent Night, Deadly Night. But A Christmas Horror Story brings enough presents in its Santa sack to make this a rather fun film that might just become a 'go-to' film for many horror fans every December.
A Bullet Ballet
"Hey, I know you!" is a phrase you are likely to say to yourself with each new character introduction while watching the new action/thriller Gridlocked. It is stuffed with familiar faces such as Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon), Stephen Lang (Avatar), Dominic Purcell (Prison Break), Saul Rubineck (Unforgiven), Vinnie Jones (Snatch) and Trish Stratus (WWE). It is a gaggle of competent bodies that lend their extensive talents to a film in the vein of John Woo's action adventures where bullets outnumber words on the script page.
Dominic Purcell plays former SWAT leader David Hendrix. David is a no nonsense bag 'em and tag 'em kinda guy. His job is his life and his life is put on the line in the daily pursuit of justice. David's rogue actions require muting when he is paired with movie action Brody Walker (Cody Hackman) who is court ordered to participate in police ride-alongs after his hard partying behavior jeopardizes his career.
The newly formed reluctant couple of David and Brody could not be further apart in their views on life in general but are thrust together mirroring Michael J. Fox and James Woods in 1991's The Hard Way. Brody attempts to win favor of the hardened Hendrix but the bonding lacks reciprocation. Hendrix does however take Brody to secret training lair where his fellow badass do-gooders practice their search and shoot skills.
The evening of fun and guns gets interrupted when a group of mercenaries infiltrate the training complex. Their objective is not immediately clear but their violent resolve is. Little is known of their purpose but they do share a connection with another handful of mercenaries lead by Korver (Lang) who has secured a nearby rural farmhouse much to the shigrinning death of its two inhabitants.
What ensues is a shootout. A shootout between the mercenaries that have breached the perimeter and the police, Hendrix and Brody inside. And then a shootout between more mercenaries and the police, Hendrix and Brody inside. And when Korver reveals his intentions, objectives become clear and bullets become commonplace.
Gridlocked transforms into a full blown shootout on par with a John Woo film. There is a stretch of bullet firing through the films third act that, had I had a counter, might just have set the record for the total number of shots fired within a 10-minute film span. Director Allan Ungar piles up a body count while unleashing an arsenal of unfathomable abandon.
Gridlocked is an action film true and through. There is a story to help jettison the firepower, but the story is worn and used with plot points used more admirably in better films. For what little original story is presented, Gridlocked takes its sweet ass time. Nearly an hour into the almost two hour adventure we still had no clue what the mercenaries were after. Luckily, the two main characters – particularly Purcell's Hendrix are interesting and compelling enough to help us wade through the urgency of the villain's purpose.
If you are the kind of individual who enjoy an all-out barrage of bullets then Gridlocked is the chicken soup to your flu like symptoms. Reminding us a lot of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 is a relentless rat-a-tat-tat echoing through a theatres sound system. An assault of the senses, Gridlocked is the no-holds-barred action film that effectively uses its confined setting to provide a highlight reels worth of bullet ballet.
Great Twist on a Classic Story
A simple trip to a local bar for three women turns into a nightmarish scenario for three young women in the new Frankenstein-esque new film Patchwork.
Jennifer, Ellie and Madeleine couldn't be more different from each other. Jennifer is the straight laced business woman who wears pantsuits. Ellie is the blonde bombshell whose naivety often gets her in trouble. And Madeleine is a quiet freakish kind of girl. But on one night the three find themselves in the same drinking establishment and before morning they will be hacked, sewn and strung together to make a single character out of the best body parts each subject had to offer.
Upon awakening on the operating table the creature that has been Frankensteined attempts to gain control of their individual joints and body parts allowing them movement. The process is harder than can be expected as each personality of each girl controls parts of the new body. But escape it does and alone with the three voices in its head, the creature attempts to put the pieces together as to how, why and most importantly, who is responsible for their horrid creation.
Directed by Tyler MacIntyre based on a script by MacIntyre and Chris Lee Hill, Patchwork is a wonderfully deviant film that is rooted in Frankenstein mythology but tips its hat to cult classics such as Re-Animator and Darkman. Actresses Tory Stolper (Jennifer), Tracey Fairaway (Ellie) and Marie Blasucci (Madeleine) are perfectly cast with spellbinding chemistry resulting in many of the film's laugh out loud moments. Stolper particularly shines and is able to transform into the patchwork creature with B-movie exuberance twitching like Vincent D'Onofrio's Edgar in Men in Black as she learns how to work her new body.
The film is equally dark and humorous. The violence is almost cartoon-like but detailed enough to ensure an R-rating. And the humor is spot on as the three girls struggle to learn about each other and work together in the same consciousness. Think of Patchwork as the horror version of Pixar's Inside Out.
Cut into various chapters which take a non-linear approach to the story the film flips back and forward in time as they introduce the characters while progressing the narrative. It's a perfect device for a film whose main character is a cut and paste creation itself.
And we could not conclude any review without commenting on the stellar make-up effects in the film. The patched female creation looked as good as any make-up effect on an Oscar winning film and should be applauded to its attention to detail.
Patchwork in playing this week and the Toronto After Dark Film Festival and I can't imagine how it will not be a fan favorite at the conclusion of its screening. It was a smart, snarky funny film and should be screened by anyone who appreciates the genre.
The Program (2015)
Cyclist Lance Armstrong is a liar. An egomaniac. A delusional celebrity. A jerk. But he's also a cancer survivor and was an inspiration to thousands before the house of cards eventually came tumbling down. In The Program, director Stephen Fears (The Queen, Philomena) explores Armstrong's rise to fame through his historic seven Tour de France victories and the investigation into doping that eventually lead to his downfall. Ben Foster (Lone Survivor, The Mechanic) plays Armstrong. The likeness is a bit uncanny. We watch as a young Armstrong heads to France for the first time as a young cycler who couldn't keep up with the European teams that were eventually caught doping. Armstrong is so determined to become the best in the sport that he solicits the help of known dope doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet). But when Armstrong is diagnosed with testicular cancer, the career takes a small backstep during his recovery. The sidelines made Armstrong even more determined and within a year he and Ferrari were testing new drugs and new methods of cheating which including blood doping the injection of oxygenated blood into an athlete before an event in an attempt to enhance athletic performance. The results were outstanding and Armstrong was not only beating the competition but destroying them. This catches the eye of sports reporter David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) who is convinced that Armstrong is less the Superman that people make him out to be and more the product of good chemistry and science. But Walsh is alone in his pursuit of the truth. His publisher is skeptical and his peers alienate Walsh after Armstrong uses his celebrity power to sue and alienate all those associated with a reveal of the truth. Enter one, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad fame). Floyd is a wide-eyed teammate of Armstrong who immediately tows the line and dopes in an effort to maintain his place within the team. But when Floyd is revealed to have doped after a failed drug test, the wheels begin to come off the Armstrong entourage. Floyd is conflicted with his past and eventually comes clean with the media which only further drops Armstrong's star. The film ends with Armstrong's famous Oprah Winfrey interview where he reveals that he lied and cheated during all 7 Tour wins. The Program is a showcase for Foster who is spectacular in the lead role. O'Dowd too is impressive as the hounding reporter. But the film as a whole fails to do much else than skim the surface. The documentary The Armstrong Lie goes into detail on just how big of an asshole Armstrong was. He threatened wives of teammates calling them 'whores' and 'drunks' on record. He threatened and sued newspapers, lied while being a guest speaker at many black tie events and misrepresented his own charity. The Program only slightly details these facts. It casually brings them up or has quick scenes showing the depth of Armstrong's depravity. But Fears throws too much into the film without focusing on one story. He could have focused on Armstrong's deplorable character. Or made the film a reporters pursuit of the truth. Instead the kitchen sink of a very detailed story is thrown at viewers and it fails to resonate in a way that it should. Armstrong was a fraud. The entire world was duped and we should be angry and reminded of that anger during this biopic. Instead we get more of a movie-of-the-week style of film that fails to dive deep into the conspiracy and show all the scars left in its wake. Still, for those not fully up-to-date in the Armstrong story, The Program is a well-acted entry into the rise and fall. It's just a very involving one.
Terrible Script = Bad Film
Roland Emmerich will always be known for his work in big budget films. The director has such iconic titles as Independence Day, Stargate and The Day After Tomorrow on his resume and usually his name on a film poster means 'big' and 'loud'. But that doesn't mean a director can't stretch its legs every once and a while and that is exactly what Emmerich has done with Stonewall his new film that chronicles actual events in 1969 New York. Stonewall follows the experience of Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine) who is forced out of his small mid-American town after he is discovered to be a homosexual. This is 1969. Homosexuals in America were not allowed to hold government jobs. They were not allowed to congregate. They were not allowed alcohol. Danny's unaccepting parents and his lack of understanding from his peers lead force him to travel to New York City where he finds refuge in Greenwich Village with other homeless homosexual, lesbian and transgender individuals in what is known as the Stonewall Inn. The area to which the Inn is located is anything but safe. Crime, drugs and the mafia have an ever presence in the community and the residents are continually harassed by the over anxious and homophobic police. The police continually raid the bars to which the group congregate until one such day when the community rises up to their oppressor and fight back in what is considered a landmark of the LGBT movement. Danny and his new found friends are at the heart of the rebellion and it is their 'we're not gonna take it anymore' attitude that leads to violence and a dramatic shift in the movement. Emmerich has never been known for his strong characters and intelligent dialogue. But he outdoes himself here with stupid verbal exchanges from his characters that is so bad you would think it was a foreign non-English speaking director who doesn't have a grasp of the English language allowing such dead dialogue. The incomprehensible dialogue only makes for worse acting among the cast. Not a single character in the film is likable or relatable. With the exception of Danny they come across as thugs, thieves and drug addicts. Hard to lean to their side of the conflict when its routine for them to steal from local stores and throw bricks through storefront windows for trivial fashion accessories. Still, even if we were to overlook their flaws the acting is trite and hollow with not a single character rising above the script pages. Only recognizable face Ron Perlman is able to escape without wrath, but he has such little work to do in the film that it is clear he was only added to the feature to at least have one familiar name on the marquee. The filmmakers likely believed that the final reel of their film would bring an audience to its feet. To have people inspired and applauding in the victory the legacy of the real life event. Instead, it brought snores. It brought the painful realization that you just spent 129 minutes watching something that you hoped would give you better insight into a piece of our history but instead was a painful experience where the checking of our wrists for the latest time was our utmost importance as we counted down the minutes. This is easily Emmerich's biggest pratfall. Not only is it his worst film of his filmography but it is also a front runner for the worst film of the year. Side note: There were protesters outside the cinema to where Stonewall had its screening protesting the inaccurate portrayal of the events. The protesters likely had not seen the film. If they had they would know that the inaccuracies are the least of the films concerns.
Mississippi Grind (2015)
So So Character Study/Road Film
What a year actor Ben Mendelsohn is having. The Australian actor with 70 credits on his IMDb resume was hardly a known name in North America even though he had parts in such recognizable films such as The Dark Knight Rises, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Killing Them Softly. But in 2015, Mendelsohn's star rose to award nomination heights with his role as Danny Rayburn on Netflix's Bloodline. As the troubled brother of a southern family, Mendelsohn was brilliant and now has an Emmy nomination for the role.
In Mississippi Grind, Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a gambler who is unquestionably down on his luck. Facing personal and financial ruin, Gerry meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) a young poker player who also craves the adrenaline of a quick financial gain. Curtis is confident to a fault. And the two card players, dice rollers, chip throwers bond together and find advantage in a relationship that will take them from Iowa to New Orleans in search of the big win.
Their journey turns Mississippi Grind into a road movie. Curtis claims "The journey's the destination" but with the fallen luck of the two leads both the journey and the destination could have devastating results for the duo who don't know when to stop when they're behind.
Directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, Mississippi Grind seems to have taken pieces of Altman's California Split and Karel Reisz's The Gambler and polishes the settings, characters and tension in an effort to bring a stylish film about addiction to the masses.
Both leads are perfectly cast. Mendelsohn is at times mesmerizing and Reynolds shows us that he has acute acting chops if given some meat on the script pages on which to chew. Together they make a formidable pair of losers. Two men who would appear to be fun to be around but are reckless and therefore dangerous to be associated.
And therein lies the beauty and intricacy of Mississippi Grind. The characters are so well written and so interesting to the core that we get angered when they refrain from pulling out of a losers game yet we immediately forgive them and cheer for them to right the wrongs of their previous roll or flip.
Shot on film, Mississippi Grind almost has that 1970's film feel. It's methodical in its pace and is not afraid to rely on the charm of its leads to propel the quiet story. And it's so engrossed with the culture of gambling and addiction that the ending – whether Curtis and Gerry win or lose – is irrelevant. After all the journey's the destination.
The Devil's Candy (2015)
Better Than Average Horror
Back in 2009, director Sean Byrne brought The Lovely Ones to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The film won the Midnight Madness People's Choice Award, but it somehow never really caught on amongst horror film enthusiasts. I myself must admit that I missed it. I missed screening it at the 2009 Festival and I made the mistake of overlooking the feature for a few more years. When I eventually did screen the film in 2011 I was shocked at how such a fun, violent and well shot horror film escaped my screen habits. I began to champion the film amongst my tiny circle of friends and even though the film has a release date in 2009, I listed The Lovely Ones as the best horror film of 2011. So it is with incredible anticipation that I screen The Devil's Candy, Byrne's latest film which will again compete for the People's Choice Award at this year's Midnight Madness.
Unrecognizable Ethan Embry plays Jesse – husband of Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and father to teenage Zooey (Kiara Glasco). Jesse is an artist without a muse who uses heavy metal music to both propel his adrenaline and inspire his paintings. Looking for a change, Jessie and Astrid put a bid on a remote Texas home. The house is ample for the family of three but the real selling point is the large barn on the property that Jesse foresees as his art studio. The home has a selling price that is ridiculous for the market. But there is a catch. The realtor is obligated to reveal the history of the home. And the history is death. Jesse and Astrid seem unfazed when they learn that a mother fell down the stairs and the husband killed himself in his grief of the loss. But an early scene shows us a different story. One of murder and maniacal behavior. The house may be haunted with supernatural forces tormenting its residents to freakish behavior. And Jesse and his family might just be in situational danger that could cost them their lives.
It doesn't take long for the things to start going awry when the family moves into their new home. Jesse is particularly affected and he begins to paint on canvas pictures that represent the dark and the macabre. His involvement with his work draws a rift between him and his daughter. But these fractured feelings are put aside when Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the large homicidal son of the former owners of the home begins to lurk around Jesse's family.
Ray is unstable. He hears voices in his head that can only be muted by the loud obstruction of noise generated from his electrical guitar and amp. He rocks and rolls with intensity while further slipping from sanity. Ray is a killer. The worst kind of killer. A killer of children. His weapon is his massive frame (well, that and any large rock he can get his giants palms around). Ray's rampage is exhibited in a shallow grave not too far from his childhood home. It's here luggage containing the remains of children he has killed and cut up are buried. Ray's next target is Zooey but the young lass will not go quietly or without a fight. Fueled by satanic forces, Ray is persistent in his pursuit of Zooey. And his objective will leave a trail of bodies in his wake.
The Devil's Candy is the brainchild of Sean Byrne who catapulted himself onto the horror scene with 2009's The Loved Ones. Byrne both wrote and directed The Devil's Candy and although it is not as refreshing as The Loved Ones, it is a competent and crowd pleasing horror film that has the look and feel of a Rob Zombie film but with much better results. Pruitt Taylor Vince is perfectly cast as the tormented Ray and Byrne keeps the film simple with a trickled down call sheet and a story that never fails to move forward.
Although The Devil's Candy may be considered horror, it is more psychological thriller. There are some elements of gore but the crux of the film is on the individual characters all of which are interesting and authentic. With a heavy helping of heavy guitar riffs, The Devil's Candy is a surprising hard rock pleaser filled with atmosphere and sweat. It was given a world premiere as part of the Midnight Madness series at this year's Toronto International Film Festival and it will surely find an audience upon release.
The Martian (2015)
Sir Ridley at his best
Ridley Scott knows science fiction. The director of iconic and cult crowned sci-fi flicks Blade Runner and Alien, Scott is no slouch when it comes to futuristic or outerspaceish type scenarios played out through his keen direction.
Scott last dipped his toe into the sci-fi waters in 2012 with the love it or hate it Alien prequel, Prometheus. The film was met with varying degrees of acceptance and disapproval but no one could deny the film was visually spectacular. In 2015, Scott brings Andy Weir's novel of the same name to audiences in the inspiring, The Martian due to hit theatres early October.
Matt Damon plays NASA botanist Mark Watney. Watney along with a small group of other scientists are stationed on Mars when a storm prompts their evacuation. Through a series of events, his colleagues believe Watney dead as they execute their evacuation. But Watney is very much alive. Alive and alone on Mars. With little resources and materials, Watney sciences the poop out of his working assets in an effort to survive. He manages to relay a message back to earth but he is very much aware of the realization that any rescue effort or further mission to Mars is years away from actualization. Watney must live on his wits and faith in hopes that he may one day be reunited with species.
The focus is clearly on Damon's character but maybe more interesting are the team of humans back on earth lead by Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels that attempt to science the poop out of things themselves in an attempt to orchestrate a spectacular rescue. Their pooling of minds will draw reference to NASA's brain trusts in Ron Howard's Apollo 13 and is riveting the exciting to watch unfold though the emotion of the colleagues.
We'll leave the final chapters of the film to your viewing pleasure but make no mistake about it, The Martain is Ridley Scott's best film in years. Damon excels in the lonely character left abandoned. He carries the film with remarkable poise and the intelligence of the script by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, World War Z) is a marvel as to what man has and can accomplish when faced an unfathomable situation.
The 3D imagery is spectacular and the special effects are sometimes toned and other times on the scale of a blockbuster big-budget extravaganza. But the film is rooted in the triumph of the human spirit. It's hard not to cheer or cry when we see a balls-out effort to what it takes, to use what it takes, to work tirelessly in what it takes to save one human life.
The Martian is destined to be box office hit. Smart, funny, tense and drawing on emotion, it is easily one of the best films of the year and it is the type of film that might just have children once again naming 'astronaut' as the profession that they most aspire to. Yes, it's that good.
Green Room (2015)
Evil Patrick Stewart Shines
I'll admit it – Green Room wasn't so much on my list of movies to screen at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as it was just a film that fit my schedule. Searching for a film to fill a gap in my schedule after Sicario and before Black Mass, I swept up tickets to the screening more due to convenience than interest.
But that was before I did a little research. Director Jeremy Saulnier would hardly have been a name to which I would have recognized in conversation even though I had both seen and enjoyed his two feature films Murder Party and Blue Ruin. Couple his involvement with a facially recognizable cast that included Patrick Stewart (X-Men), Anton Yelchin (Fright Night) and Imogen Poots (Need for Speed) and I found myself more drawn to a film that I had no knowledge of prior to the delivery of the TIFF Program Guide.
Green Room is not as complicated as Saulnier's Blue Ruin, but it surely is more fun. A punk quartet from Virginia are touring the country when they take a gig at a dive where their booker warns them to not "talk politics" during the set. This warning is held in just as much regard as the three rules to owning a Magwai as the band stands in front of an audience of skinheads and neo-Nazi's while belting out the tune "Nazi Punks F Off" by the Dead Kennedys.
Miraculously, the group gets through their set with their arms and legs still attached, but it is when one of the members heads backstage to the green room to retrieve a cell phone. A startling revelation turns gig-night into a nightmarish where the group barricades themselves in the green room much to the violent chagrin of the bald and tattooed bar patrons that could care less about the group's survival.
The film quickly takes a grab-a-weapon-and-try-and-survive turn and although this takes Green Room from accepting the final award of the night at this year's Oscars, it makes for some grand entertainment which is surprisingly cut among some smart and snappy dialogue. There are plenty of good kills and surprise jolts and the concluding scenes had our TIFF audience vocal in their glorified acceptance.
Patrick Stewart doesn't get to play a bad guy all that often, but much like Ben Kinsley showed us in Sexy Beast, the Brit can turn on the bad when given an out-of-type role and Stewart was a marvel to watch leaving his Captain Picard nice guy persona at the door. He's not 'pure evil' but he is the wheel that turns the gears as the situation bottoms out for our poor survivors.
There is so much to enjoy in Green Room that we don't want to let the dead white supremacist cat out of the bag, but let' just say that the unique use of a confined dingy setting, believable performances and a menacing cast made for a wild ride and puts Green Room squarely in the sights for the Midnight Madness Audience Award at the festival.
Exceptional Movie About Reporters Reporting
The awards season may just have found its first forerunner. In a 2015 movie year that has been average at best without any standout films initiating awards conversation, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight rising above the heap to assert itself as one of 2015's best.
With an all-star cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup, Spotlight shines a light on a 2001 investigation by The Boston Globe's on the sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
Michael Keaton plays Walter Robinson who leads the Globe's investigative unit with Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha (McAdams) and Matt Carrol (Brian d'Arcy James). Under a new editor Marty Baron (Schreiber), the team begins to unfold a horrific pattern of child sexual abuse by the church that was muted and covered up by high priced lawyers and payoffs to victim's families. As Walter probes further and further into the events (the setting is after the events the 9/11) the investigation reveals layers and layers of injustice of Catholic Priests that were aided by the highest powers of the church in an effort to keep the story muted.
It all starts with a featured column about Catholic priest John Geoghan who was accused of abusing over 100 boys. A civil suit is filed but the details of the abuse were ordered sealed by the courts. Schrieber's Baron puts the team of reporters on the case and within days the evil that lurked with the sacred rooms of local churches begins to reveal is foul and despicable face.
The investigation goes on for months as the team hits roadblock upon roadblock taking one step forward for every two steps back. But the story eventually breaks and the emotionally exhausted team is eventually able to bring to light one of the more depressing and important stories of the early new century.
Michael Keaton was really good in last year's Birdman and named himself many awards and an Academy Award nomination for his part. In Spotlight, he may be even better. Under the direction of Tom McCarthy (Win Win, The Station Agent), Keaton shines and carries a performance of determination, frustration and redemption that is delivered with precision.
Nods to All the President's Men will be inevitable. But that was a different era. A different movie. Spotlight is fresh and invigorating in its painfully frustrating subject matter. Audiences should leave with a renewed belief that investigative reporting is of monumental importance and that stories such as the one originating in 2001 Massachusetts are still out there clouded in red tape secrecy and muffled whispers. It is painful to watch at times. Trusted bonds between people, children, parents and the institution that promotes the opposite to what it sometimes preaches are disgusting revelations that are brought to the screen with sizzling effects.
The entire cast from top to bottom is perfectly cast. And McCarthy doesn't populate his frames with unnecessary spectacular visuals. Spotlight is instead very straight forward. Focused and driven.
Spotlight will be nominated for Best Picture and Keaton should get a nod for Actor. Ruffalo may also sneak his way onto ballot sheets. But whether Spotlight wins any hardware is unimportant as long as we recognize the importance of films such as these. A few years ago I would guess that 99% of the population knew nothing about the Iran hostage rescue highlighted in Ben Affleck's Argo. Spotlight should have the same effect acting as a docudrama that is both highly entertaining and educational at the same time. It is both a very good film and an important one.