*½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras B+ starring Kelli Maroney, Tony O'Dell, John Terlesky, Dick Miller written by Jim Wynorski & Steve Mitchell directed by Jim Wynorski
by Bryant FrazerChopping Mall is not the shopping-centre slasher-movie its title suggests. Here's what you really need to know: It includes a scene where a woman clad in light-blue Playboy panties runs screaming through the spacious halls of the Sherman Oaks Galleria in a hail of laser fire, chased by a killer robot resembling a cross between a Dalek from "Doctor Who" and Number Five from Short Circuit. The opening sequence features Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in a cameo as their Paul and Mary Bland characters from the cult classic Eating Raoul. The always-game Barbara Crampton, who had just shot Re-Animator, takes her top off. And, like the maraschino cherry on top of a soft-serve strawberry sundae, the great character actor Dick Miller plays a crusty janitor who trash-talks one of the malevolent tin-can tyrants like a Jet giving the finger to Officer Krupke.
***½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan
by Walter Chaw Bridging the gap between Charlie Kaufman movies, the Daniels' Swiss Army Man is one high-concept conceit carried through to every possible ontological end. It veers, dizzily, between slapstick scatalogical comedy and poignant existential philosophy, doing so with the sort of invention generally credited to silent-film clowns. Open with Hank (Paul Dano), shipwrecked, about to hang himself when he notices the corpse of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washed ashore. He looks for signs of life. There aren't any, save the rapid decomposition that's causing Manny to fart. A lot. Manny's farts carry Hank back to civilization, in fact, in a trailer-spoiled motorboat sequence that would be indescribable were it not right there. Like so many things in the film, it's not clear that this is "actually" happening or just a fantasy of Hank's before dying. By the middle of the picture, it's apparent that challenging the border between the cinema real and the cinema imagined is the point. If it destroys that conversation, it allows for a better one about the nature of friendship and honesty, whether it's possible to ever truly be open with another human being and, if it is, whether it would be something welcomed or rejected. Unconditional acceptance is a charming romantic fantasy, but that's all it is.
***½/**** starring Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas written by Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard directed by Mike Flanagan
by Walter Chaw Because distribution is the ridiculous trash fire it is sometimes, Mike Flanagan, through circumstance, misadventure, and good old-fashioned industriousness, had three films ready for release in 2016: Hush, Before I Wake, and Ouija: Origin of Evil (hereafter Ouija 2). I've only seen Hush and Ouija 2 thus far--it looks like Before I Wake has been delayed yet again--but I can say that when taken with his first two films, the moody Absentia and the excellent Oculus, Flanagan is already at the forefront of the new American horror revolution. His movies are drum-tight. He isn't afraid of the high-concept. He makes smart use of minimal exposition and narrative ellipsis, and he embraces the inexplicable and the uncanny. Better, there is at work in Flanagan's pictures this undercurrent of grief, tied together with the thought that perhaps these intimations of immortality are bound snug with the dementing tortures of unimaginable loss. The supernatural is mainly considered, after all, upon the death of loved ones, and so it is that Ouija 2's Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) makes a living with her two young daughters, Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), as a fake spirit medium giving succour to the recently bereaved.
*/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras D starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Morgan Freeman screenplay by Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt and Christian Gudegast and Chad St. John directed by Babak Najafi
by Walter Chaw It's a corker. Playing exactly like another instalment in the "Call of Duty" FPS videogame franchise, Iranian-born Babak Najafi's London Has Fallen is a gobsmacking, jingoistic, political exploitation horror-thriller that traffics in contemporary paranoia with unusually exuberant brutality. It loves killing people. Loves it. The picture's packed full of xenophobia and all the other insidious forms of fear infecting our modern apocalypse: hatred of the Other, terror of invasion, terror of the self. It fashions what is essentially another 28 Days Later sequel by recasting the rage zombies as Islamic Fundamentalists, simultaneously creating in the process a recruitment video for bellicose young men in the West wanting to kill Arabs--and one for bellicose young men in the Middle-East wanting to kill Americans. Tidy. London Has Fallen is propaganda with a budget, a few recognizable faces, and some directing chops to boot. I'm equally glad and appalled it exists. I wish I were more surprised that it does.
Histoire immortelle ***/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B+ starring Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio, Norman Eshley, Orson Welles written by Orson Welles, from a short story by Karen Blixen directed by Orson Welles
by Bryant Frazer It's one of those salutary coincidences of movie history that the final narrative film completed by Orson Welles would turn out to be this rumination on an old man's obsession with storytelling. It's not that Welles was exactly elderly at the time (he was 51 when he made it), but there's a matter-of-fact finality to the work that becomes just a touch spooky in retrospect. Commissioned by the French national television agency as a Jeanne Moreau vehicle to commemorate the transition to colour television, The Immortal Story required that Welles work in colour for the first time, catalyzing a fairly dramatic evolution of his style. But it gave him the opportunity to adapt a short story by Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen), one of his favourite writers, and to work again with Moreau, one of his favourite actors. Less than an hour long, it has remained an obscure film for a variety of reasons, but it's intermittently remarkable despite its modesty.
*/**** Image A- Sound B Extras A+ starring Ted Vernon, Michael Simms, Victoria Christian, Richard Vidan written by Richard Jefferies and William Wesley directed by William Wesley
by Walter Chaw Terrible in that plucky way that earnest shoestring products can be terrible, William Wesley's Scarecrows has a few memorable gore moments and a lot of bad dialogue, execrable performances, and senseless exposition. I saw this movie on VHS in high school as part of my weekend ritual of renting a shelf and staying up all night shotgunning the dregs. This led to a few remarkable discoveries, of course--and it led to discoveries like this as well. The hook of Scarecrows is a strong one, taking the somehow-underutilized image of the scarecrow in the horror genre and making a grand bogey of it, but the result is essentially a zombie-cum-spam-in-a-cabin flick featuring a paramilitary group fresh off a heist engaged in a supernatural backcountry rigmarole. Still, the film's greatest crime isn't a bad premise but that it's boring. Really boring. Mainly it's boring because every character acts like an idiot at all times, making it hard to muster much in the way of stakes. That's also why Scarecrows isn't scary or tense, and because I think it wasn't long enough and they ran out of money, there are tons of filler close-ups of scarecrows just sort of, you know, hanging there. Kuleshov or something.
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras F starring Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively written and directed by Woody Allen
by Angelo Muredda Woody Allen can't seem to make two consecutive films worth thinking about. Despite an abysmal trailer, pre-emptively dismantled online as insensitive or worse amidst revelations about his personal crimes, 2015's Irrational Man proved a surprisingly gritty respite from Allen's nostalgic euro-tourist cinema of the Aughts. True to its maker's aversion to progress, though, its follow-up Café Society is practically a jukebox-musical treatment of Allen's old (which is to say tired) hits, from the ennui L.A. inspires in native (which is to say white) New Yorkers to the beauty of other periods that aren't the present to romances strained under the weight of vast age discrepancies. Beautifully-lensed and defiantly dumb, it's another testament to Allen's surprisingly incremental growth as a filmmaker in his seventies, at the same time as he continues to atrophy as a writer.
Givertaker **½/**** (d. Paul Gandersman) A nice, compact cautionary tale featuring a novice witch who takes vengeance on her buddies only to find there are Shadowmen living under other people's beds. I wish the lore were better developed, but it's paced beautifully and the young cast is game and lively. I wanted more, and I don't often feel that way.
THE BAD BATCH **½/**** starring Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
COLOSSAL **/**** starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Tim Blake Nelson written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo
JACKIE ***½/**** starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt screenplay by Noah Oppenheim directed by Pablo Larrain
by Bill Chambers Three very different #TIFF16 films--a postapocalyptic cannibal western (The Bad Batch), a modestly-scaled kaiju eiga (Colossal), and a period docudrama (Jackie)--form a trilogy in my mind thematically linked by crestfallen female protagonists who discover reserves of strength in dire situations. The Bad Batch is the only one of these movies directed by a woman, though, and dare I say you can tell, not only in how the camera softly caresses Jason Momoa's Olympian contours, but also in the way the framing and blocking of the heroine imply the constant peril of being a woman. Working through the neophyte filmmaker's genre playbook, director Ana Lily Amirpour follows up her vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night with this dystopian flick most reminiscent of the Australian strain in terms of vibe/aesthetics, what with its shantytown sets, symbolic names, and obligatory feral child. (The only thing missing is a car fetish.) Winsome Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is exiled to the other side of some Trumpian fence in Texas with only the clothes on her back and a tattoo that identifies her as an undesirable (or bad batch). Almost immediately she's dragged away to a cannibal camp, where they chop off her right arm. Missing a leg, too, by the time she escapes, she finds refuge--and prosthetic limbs--in the village of Comfort, whose denizens mostly give her space. Time and body-image issues stoke her desire for revenge, however, putting her on a collision course with Momoa's Miami Man, a brilliant sketch artist who's also a fearsome, unsympathetic consumer of human flesh.
Ah-ga-ssi ****/**** starring Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Moon So-ri screenplay by Chung Seo-Kyung, Park Chan-wook, based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters directed by Park Chan-wook
by Walter Chaw I love Stoker, Korean master Park Chan-wook's updating of Shadow of a Doubt that centres on "young Charlie's" sexual awakening and all the perverse tensions attending that moment in a brittle upper-middle-class Nashville. Married to the swooning, hypnotic camerawork that has been the hallmark of Park's collaboration with DP Chung Chung since Oldboy, it has about it the perversity of a Victorian chamber drama squeezed through the filter of a very Korean take on class and sex--attitudes partly shaped by living in the shadow of one of the two or three most unstable regimes in the world. Stoker is a haunted-house movie without ghosts; a vampire movie without vampires. Its hero is a young woman who dons the raiment of the patriarchy at the end, lets blood on a field of flowers (one of a series of literal and metaphorical deflowerings), and stalks into the world fully-formed and dangerous. Park is best known for his "Vengeance Trilogy," of course, but it's the last film of that cycle, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, that finds itself faced with the kind of moral dilemma that has marked Park's work since. It's arguable that before it, Park was an exploitation filmmaker. A conversant, brilliant exploitation filmmaker, but an exploitation filmmaker just the same. Lady Vengeance, however, deals with the ethics of violence and the toll of retribution on the avengers. It's smart as hell, beautiful to look at, nigh unwatchable. I mean that as praise, for it should be.
by Walter Chaw Emilio D'Alessandro was the only delivery driver courageous enough to brave a rare London blizzard to deliver a giant phallus to the set of A Clockwork Orange sometime in the last half of 1970. An aspiring Formula 1 racer and jack of all trades, Emilio caught the eye that day of one Stanley Kubrick, American expat and obsessive-compulsive who happens to be one of the handful of undisputed geniuses in the auteur conversation. Moved to London at this point and destined to die there in 1999 after the first industry screening of his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick hired Emilio essentially by writing him notes on index cards and Post-Its and steadily, some would say monstrously, dominating his life to the extent that it strained Emilio's marriage and caused him to miss the moment of his father's death. It would be easy to make a documentary like Alex Infascelli's S is for Stanley from that perspective: the madman in his laboratory, unwitting Igor fettered to his noisome wake. Harder is what Infascelli actually does, which is understand that the story here isn't about one odd duck, but two...and of a feather to boot. I love the moment where Emilio remembers his wife (they're still together) complaining that Stanley calls day and night: When he told Kubrick about it, Stanley proposed that the solution was to install a separate line in Emilio's house so that they could leave Emilio's wife out of it altogether. Emilio went for it.
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B starring Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves screenplay by Nicolas Winding Refn and Mary Laws & Polly Stenham directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
by Walter Chaw There's a quote from The Right Stuff I love that I thought about constantly during Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon: "There was a demon that lived in the air." I found in it something of an explanation for, or at least a corollary to, the picture's title, in that the demon in The Right Stuff refers to the sound barrier while the demon in Refn's film refers to, perhaps, soft obstructions of other kinds. Artificially lit. Poisonous. The quote continues with "whoever challenged [the demon] would die...where the air could no longer get out of the way." The first film I saw by Refn was Valhalla Rising, an expressionistic telling of the Odin myth--the part where he spent time on Earth (went missing, basically) before returning--that touches on the scourge of Christianity and how that relates to feeling lost, or losing what you believe in. Valhalla Rising led me to Bronson and to Pusher and then I followed Refn through Drive, which talks about the difficulties of being male, and Only God Forgives, which talks about the difficulties of being a son. Now there's The Neon Demon, completing a trilogy of sorts by talking about the difficulties of being a girl becoming a woman and an object for men, eviscerated in certain tabernacles where women are worshiped as ideals and sacrificed to the same. It's astonishing.
Grave ****/**** starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella, Marion Vernoux written and directed by Julia Ducournau
by Walter Chaw A spiritual blood sister of Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day, Julia Ducournau's feature debut Raw is a crystallization of the last couple years' steady creep towards unabashedly gyno-centric fare. Kimberly Peirce's unfairly derided Carrie, which Raw references in one of its canniest, funniest moments, gathers monstrously in the rearview as a film doomed to have been just ahead of its time--literally hours away from being justly hailed as harbinger of a period of Furiosas and Reys, of It Follows and The Witch and The Green Room and more. As genre fare, Raw is as raw as it could be, the tale of a vegan first-year veterinary school student named Justine (Garance Marillier) who is submitted to a series of cruel hazing rituals that introduce her to body-image issues, existential crises, eating disorders, and the taste of sweet, sweet animal protein. You know, freshman year. Ducournau captures it all beautifully: the horror of being away, of surrendering to the higher university mind, of experimenting with drugs and drink and sex and becoming a full inhabitant of the desires and fears that will fuel the rest of your life. There's a scene early on where Justine visits a doctor (French writer and director Marion Vernoux) that reminds of the sequences in Jacob's Ladder where Jacob visits his angelic chiropractor. It's shot differently from the rest of the film. It's brighter. The film will never be this bright again.
**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+ starring Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford screenplay by Peter Smalley, from a story by Peter Carey directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith
by Bryant Frazer Australia's signature entry in the cinematic encyclopedia of dystopian hellscapes will always be the Mad Max series, and rightly so. But if you dig just a little deeper into the corpus of down-and-dirty genre movies from Down Under, you'll discover this B-grade entry from Aussie action impresario Brian Trenchard-Smith, which daydreams about confining rebellious youth culture to a dusty prison camp way out on the edge of town. Trenchard-Smith is best-known abroad for 1983's BMX Bandits, an early Nicole Kidman feature widely available for home viewing in the U.S., and his corpus comes with the Quentin Tarantino seal of approval. Dead-End Drive-In isn't great cinema, but it has some well-executed stuntwork that bolsters a speculative premise just goofy enough to catch the imagination.
BELIEF: THE POSSESSION OF JANET MOSES **½/**** directed by David Stubbs
by Walter Chaw The line between documentary and fiction filmmaking is blurry. Better--more accurate--to say there's no difference at all: that documentary is just a genre in and of itself. Documentaries are products of points of view, of editing, of premise. You could film someone reading a phone book, but even that's a choice. Where to put the camera; why do it in the first place? Consider the Heisenberg Principle as well, this notion that the nature of anything changes once it's observed. Documentary as "truth" is an interesting philosophical question. It's sold as such, used politically, manipulated to serve purposes contrary to the idea of objective reality, but documentaries are never objective. Indeed, they challenge the very idea that the product of any endeavour could be truly objective. It's an interesting phenomenon in our technological wasteland that video "evidence" of malfeasance has proven inconclusive in courts of law. Replays in professional sports have only muddied the playing field. Everything is subject to interpretation and the product of someone's decision made somewhere along the way.
SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL *½/**** starring Quinn Shephard, Susan Kellermann, Erin Wilhelmi, Frances Eve written and directed by A.D. Calvo
A DARK SONG **/** starring Catherine Walker, Steve Oram, Mark Huberman, Susan Loughnane written and directed by Liam Gavin
by Walter Chaw Self-consciously a throwback to supernatural softcore lesbian exploitation as indicated by the films of Jean Rollin and, specifically, James Kenelm Clarke's The House on Straw Hill (with bits of Pawel Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love in there), A.D Calvo's Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl has a pretty good feel for time and place, but not much more than that. It's the definition of slight. Adele (Erin Wilhelmi) is a bit of an outcast. Gangly and awkward, she's sent away to be the helper for her mysterious shut-in of an aunt, Dora (Susan Kellermann), at Dora's decaying Victorian manse. One day Adele sees a beautiful girl at the market, Beth (Quinn Shephard), strikes up a friendship with her that evolves into a love affair of sorts, and discovers herself at the same pace that everything begins to fall apart with Dora. It's a recognizable tale of feminine agency told better, directly and indirectly, as recently as Osgood Perkins's February (now The Blackcoat's Daughter) and Robert Eggers's The Witch. Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl begs comparisons because it begs them explicitly. Its soundtrack is AM Gold featuring choice cuts from Rod Stewart and Crystal Gayle as well as a few nice slices from Starbuck, and the film itself is a mix-tape in every way.
I was five minutes late because I'm a chronic screw-up but Pete Travis couldn't have been more patient or forgiving. I'm doubly impressed by his zen calm when he tells me he starts shooting another feature in four days. I assume out loud that doing press at a film festival is the last thing he needs, but he says he's grateful for the respite from a constantly-ringing phone. Later Travis, who gives off a major Ben Mendelsohn vibe in person, will compare big-budget filmmaking to lying on the beach; if we'd ordered drinks, I would've had what he's having.
Travis came to this year's TIFF with his follow-up to the sensational Dredd, the London-set City of Tiny Lights, in tow. Starring the charming, ubiquitous Riz Ahmed, it's about a detective (Brits, including Travis, favour the term "gumshoe") whose search for a missing prostitute brings him in touch with his own tragic past. It's a conventional hard-boiled whodunit--the genre has survived by being incorruptibly formulaic, allowing it to comment on modern times by throwing into relief our changing mores and values--with one glaring exception: only one of the main characters is white. It's fascinating how deceptively fresh this makes it feel. My major complaint after the movie was over was that it retreats from those Chinatown places that would give it resonance beyond its enlightened casting (screenwriter Patrick Neale, adapting his own novel, scaled back on his book's doom and gloom considerably), but upon spending some time with Travis, I came to see the optimism of City of Tiny Lights as deeply personal to a serene and hopeful man.
We spoke on September 15, 2016 at the Azure Restaurant & Bar in the InterContinental Toronto Centre.
*/**** starring Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O'Dowd, Samuel L. Jackson screenplay by Jane Goldman, based upon the novel by Ransom Riggs directed by Tim Burton
by Walter Chaw The right material and collaborator can bring out the best in Tim Burton, but it's mostly a one-way street. Before it soured, his work with Johnny Depp compelled because of the pathos Depp imported into projects like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. When Burton lands the right material, as he did with Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, he's capable of masterpieces. I would argue that his most personal picture by far, the only one that plumbs the exquisite gulfs of loneliness and disconnection suggested by his other pieces, is Batman Returns. There's a scene in it where Bruce Wayne drinks soup, recoils that it's cold, then digs in again without hesitation when told by his long-term keeper that it's supposed to be. Bruce is a broken clockwork and wholly dependent; it's a fascinating read of the Batman character. Burton's Catwoman is the purest representation of the gender injustice that results in her mania and rise to power. The film is a spiritual predecessor to Burton's poetry collection The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories, the contents of which speak of misbegotten births, misunderstood childhoods, and unimaginable betrayals that lead to lonesome deaths. These themes are always on the periphery of Burton's films. I wonder if as he's gotten more monolithic whether they don't become commensurately more difficult to tease out.
½*/**** starring Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, Gael Garcia Bernal, Volker Zack Michalowski written by Werner Herzog, based on the story "Aral" by Tom Bissell directed by Werner Herzog
by Walter Chaw There's an early moment in Werner Herzog's misbegotten Salt and Fire where three scientists wander through an abandoned terminal in a Bolivian airport, scored by a cacophonous, disturbing Ernst Reijseger composition, that finds Herzog on comfortable, familiar ground. His films are at their best when they combine this kind of displacing, disquieting music against scenes of the mundane. Later, as his DP Peter Zeitlinger pans across the flaking spines of an ancient book collection, and again when Zeitlinger takes in the staggering scope of Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Flat, Herzog finds his rhythm as chronicler of unknowable mysteries and philosopher of intimations of immortality. The film would have been better without dialogue. A scene right around the mid-point where scientist Laura (Veronica Ferres) and mad industrialist Matt Riley (Michael Shannon) have a conversation about children in front of a crackling fire would have been transcendent silent. The planes of Shannon's and Ferres's faces, lit by flickers of orange, are suggestive of extraordinary depths and tensions. When they're forced to say things like "the tragedy is when men are afraid of the light," it tends to make it all gravid and unintentionally hilarious. When Michael Shannon is incapable of landing a weird line, imagine how the others fare.