Thursday, 30 October 2014

Canada After Dark 2014


In addition to feature films, Toronto After Dark showcases short films from all over. Preceding each feature is a Canadian short, selected for its thematic similarities (the festival includes Shorts After Dark, a screening of international short films). Admittedly, I don't always go out of my way to see shorts so I'm always pleased with the opportunity TAD provides for interested but lazy filmgoer to catch some short genre films.

This year's crop of shorts ran the gamut from brilliant to not-really-my-taste. Because I had to miss out on a handful of features I also missed a few of the short films as well. But anyway.

Foxed (played with Housebound)

I loved it! A young girl has been kidnapped by foxes and forced to work in a mine. She escapes and discovers, to her horror, that a fox has replaced her at home. Foxed is four wonderful minutes of claymation and reminded me of a song on a Cabbage Patch Kids cassette tape I had as a kid.

Young Blood (played with Suburban Gothic)

A boy is forced to spend a few hours with his deadbeat uncle on is birthday. During his visit, thugs break into his uncle's apartment and the kid witnesses the violence that takes place. This one didn't really speak to me. It's a bit slow to start, but the kid grows up fast when the thugs turn up.

Lumberjacked (played with ABCs of Death 2)

An animated music video with a story to tell. A lumberjack living happily in the woods, at one with nature, watches in horror as his beautiful forest transforms into an urban wasteland. Really liked this one. Watch it here.

Day 40 (played with Zombeavers)

Another one that wasn't really me. In this animated short, we're privy to the terrible things that went down on Noah's ark once it became clear to the animals they were in for a long ride. I did appreciate the end, which I won't spoil.

Period Piece (played with Dead Snow 2)

I'm torn on this one. I liked it, although I wasn't surprised by the turn it takes toward the end. A film crew is madly racing to finish shooting their movie before it gets dark. There's some disagreement about how it should end but after a brief skirmish the director is encouraged to shoot the ending she wants because it's "what the world needs." Why? Check out the preview. The filmmakers are hoping to turn it into a feature.

Rose in Bloom (played with Wolves)

Told by her mom to play outside, Rose peeks in on her sister and father in the garage then hides in the van, hoping to surprise them. Instead, she's the one in for a surprise when she finds out where they're going. Also, it's her birthday. While I can appreciate the story here, I couldn't tell if the film's awkwardness was intentional.

Dead Hearts (played with Late Phases)

This was delightful. So good! A kind of love story between a boy and a girl. Quirky in a Wes Anderson sort of way. Funny and heartfelt. Also, zombies.

The Monitor (played with Open Windows)

Based on a weird story about a hacked baby monitor, a woman is woken up by a phone call from a man claiming to be the nursery. It reminded me, in a good way, of a similar short film by Fewdio, which I also really liked.

Migration (played with Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter)

This was absolutely wonderful, if maybe a touch sad. But sad in a good way. A creature drops to earth and journeys across the country, where it finds other creatures like it falling from the sky. The whole thing looks like it was shot on 8mm and the creature animation is brilliant.

Lazy Boyz (played with Wyrmwood)

True story; I have a script I was going to produce about a killer couch. And now I can't because someone beat me to it. Lazy Boyz is about two hosers who bring home a couch that eats people. It's hilarious.

Satan's Dolls (played with The Town that Dreaded Sundown)

This was great. A sleazy, seventies-era nun movie about a criminal who escapes the cops by hiding in a convent. Lots of over-the-top drama and intrigue with just the right balance of seriousness and humour.

Intruders (played with The Babadook)

Watching this I thought it was too disconnected, like the two stories being told had nothing to do with one another. Turns out, the short was inspired by two different indie comics. The film's well made and looks great and all, but there's no reason the two storylines should occupy the same space. One is about a boy who lives alone in a house with the desiccated corpse of his caregiver. The other, which I really enjoyed is only a couple minutes long and is about a guy who spies on his neighbours and sees something awful.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Open Windows


I have a fondness for cyber thrillers. 1990s cyber thrillers in particular. Back then, connectivity and the Internet were still fresh and new, ready to be explored and exploited. A new frontier, as it were. We imagined the web as a kind of megalopolis, a giant city that lived inside a network of computers and phone lines. It's not a bad analogy and it allowed for some interesting and creative visuals.

Twenty years later, the Internetropolis seems dated and quaint. Our ideas about the Internet haven't changed any, but how the Internet is represented in film has. This is due in part to the fact that everyone knows about it, knows what it is and how it works. No sense wasting valuable story time on a lesson in network connections. Instead, contemporary cyber thrillers use that time to mine our fears about surveillance and privacy.

Open Windows brings a new dimension to the paranoia that permeates most contemporary cyber thrillers: control. Nick is a normal, nice guy who's just a touch obsessive about Jill Goddard, a popular actress. Nick manages a Jill fan site where he posts pictures and articles about his favourite star. After winning a contest, Nick flies to Austin where he'll have dinner with Jill. While he settles into his hotel room, he's contacted by someone from Jill's entourage telling him the dinner's been cancelled. Nick's understandably upset about it, and his disappointment makes him easy to manipulate. First he's guided to surreptitiously film Jill and things progress from there.

Voyeurism has always been an important aspect of any good cyber thriller, and Open Windows takes the idea of constant surveillance to another, creepier level. By hacking her devices, Chord is able to activate the cameras on Jill's phone and computer, thereby allowing Nick to always see her. But this potential benefit for Nick is just another way for Chord to leverage his control. Nick can watch Jill, but Chord is watching them both.

Open Windows wouldn't be a true Nacho Vigolando movie if it didn't toe the line between contemporary thriller and scifi, and for some members of the audience this is where the film falls apart. Chord's almost super-powered hacker ability is made possible by next-gen equipment. He's also in possession of special video cameras that can be networked to visualize their environment. For a movie that gently pushes the limits of believability, the introduction of science fiction-y elements late in the story can cause some viewers to disconnect from the movie. And that can be a bit of a problem for a film that's all about being connected.

In Open Windows that connectedness is displayed visually through the open windows on Nick's computer. The entire story is told through the different points-of-view displayed on his screen: Jill's cell phone, Nick's own webcam, CCTV feeds, ect. The movie cycles through these different windows as the story unfolds, sometimes getting two or three generations removed from the action. It's no wonder the film took a year to edit so that it all seamlessly fits together.


With its themes of voyeurism, control, and connectedness all relayed through a first-person POV, Open Windows is a cyber thriller for the 21st century. In the 90s, Hackers told us to “hack the world,” and it would appear that Open Windows has done just that.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Wolves


I'm generally not one for werewolf movies. I think it has something to do with the monster being human some of the time. I like my monsters monstrous and my humans monstrous without changing into a different creature altogether. Maybe I just find the whole werewolf metaphor a bit too on-the-nose.

There are exceptions of course. An American Werewolf in London, obviously. Gingersnaps. Dogsoldiers. I like these movies because their stories deal with the change and what it represents in interesting ways. David doesn't understand what's happening to him and has trouble dealing with his guilt; Gingersnaps is as much about sexual maturity as it is about subverting conformity; and Dogsoldiers is a cautionary tale about trusting women, I guess.

Wolves, David Hayter explained at the North American premier, is a kind of homage to the monster movies he grew up with. He must mean Teen Wolf because I didn't see a lot of American Werewolf or The Howling in Wolves (I've yet to watch In the Company of Wolves because I'm scared of the box art). And even though he's too old to have grown up reading young adult fiction, Wolves reads more YA than it does straight-up monster movie.

Looking back over his writing career, it's easy to see Hayter's influences for Wolves. X-Men and Watchmen are about special, outstanding individuals, supermen who are different from the rest of us and who sometimes have trouble with human ethics and morality. In Wolves, Cayden first struggles with being a “monster” then find peace and meaning in a new home with people who are just like him.

Star quarterback in a small town, Cayden's got everything going for him until a make-out session with his girlfriend triggers his first transformation and he turns violent. Further violence that same night prompts him to run away from home and he drifts aimlessly, not sure about himself of what he's doing. He tries to use his powers for good, but he can't control them. A chance encounter with another werewolf leads him to Lupine Ridge where he hopes to find answers. There, he finds standoffish townsfolk and more trouble, until a farmer takes him in.

Cayden's peaceful sojourn on the Tollerman farm is short-lived. Not long after his arrival he's tempted again to transform and although the experience is a positive one, it results to him learning more about his past and where he fits in with the rest of the wolves of Lupine Ridge. Cayden is even more special and important than he ever imagined and he believes he's the only one who can bring a lasting peace to the wolves of Lupine Ridge.

Wolves (much like Chronicle) is cinematic YA, which is just a way of saying the movie is best enjoyed and understood as a mature teen melodrama. Granted, there are only two young people in the movie, but that only serves to highlight Cayden's struggles; Cayden is fighting against a power greater than himself, meaning the wolfpack that lives in the hills and his own lycanthropy.

Speaking to the After Dark audience, Hayter talked about how, as a writer-director, no one other than himself is making changes to his script. One the one hand, I can understand how great that must feel, to be able to see your script made the way you imagined. On the other hand, this kind of auteurship can blind you to the problems in your story. And Wolves is not without its problems.

A big exposition dump late in the movie reveals story developments that should have been teased out over the course of the film. Nothing is gained by holding back this information from the characters. In fact, had Cayden known Connor's side of things, it would have added more depth to their relationship. Moreover, a great deal of the film's backstory involves Cayden's grandfather, who isn't present in the movie. He, in addition to Connor, seems to be the root cause of all the conflict in the story but he's not around to sway opinions one way or another. Rather, someone else in the present has gone to great lengths to manipulate Cayden but this character is so marginalized that when he makes his motivations known, it just feels tacked-on.

Everything else about the movie is well done and Hayter made of point of having his werewolves look and fight like human animals. “I wasn't going to put a snout on an actor,” he said, preferring instead a creature design that allowed his actors to emote through the makeup. Jason Momoa does such a fabulous job being powerful and overbearing in human form, the werewolf seems almost unnecessary, which is the point, but everyone else does a good job balancing their human-shaped civility with their werewolf-shaped brutality.


As a YA genre tale, Wolves checks all the boxes and will certainly delight young horror fans. Whether the film will resonate with the old school monster crowd remains to be seen. The film opens in the US and Canada on November 14.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Dead Snow 2


This movie made me want to watch Frankenstein's Army again. And I'm not just saying that because of the Nazi zombies. I freaking love Frankenstein's Army and any film that positively reflects all inventiveness and fun of FA deserves high praise indeed.

Picking up shortly (one might say immediately) after the events of Dead Snow, Martin finds himself a hunted man. He's wanted by the police for the murders of everyone who died in the first movie as well as a few other people who get offed at the start of the sequel. He's also wanted by the Zombie Squad, a trio of nerds from the US who've taken an interest in his case. The only folks who're fine with just letting him go are the zombies, but that's because they have more important business to take care of.

When the Zombie Squad arrives in Norway and hooks up with Martin, they set about trying to defeat the platoon of Nazi zombies that are marching across the country. In order to do so, they quickly realize they need an army of their own, and through some clever borrowing from other genres, Martin and his new friends reinvent the zombie movie.

If I was worried Dead Snow 2 would suffer the same weird tonal problems that plagued the first movie, I needn't have. The film never lets up being hilarious while still managing to take itself seriously enough for everyone to connect with the story. The gore is on par with the original, which is to say it's outrageous. I've never seen intestines used in such an interesting and creative way.


A message from the director, Tommy Wirkola, that played before the film warned the audience about the film's potential to offend. Talking with my friends afterwards, we agreed the movie pushed the limits a bit but all the violence was contextually appropriate. You would expect a rampaging hoard of undead Nazis to slaughter everyone in their path unconditionally; you'd be upset if they didn't.

Dead Snow 2 is painted in broad strokes. There's very little subtlety or nuance here but still the film manages to tug at your guts. Witness Martin's pet zombie who's repeatedly maimed—you can't help but feel sorry for him, he's so pathetic. Or Glenn, the poor schmuck who gets pulled into the mayhem. Even though the movie plays with your emotions, waffling between amused and appalled, it stops short of being overly sentimental. It also shies away from too much self-referential humour, with just one good meta-joke.

Dead Snow 2's carnage is nearly unrelenting. The film is wall-to-wall zombies, violence, and gore. And it never gets tired. Unlike other zombie attack/survival movies in which everything grinds to a halt when the zombies show up and the majority of the film is spent defending or running away from zombies, Dead Snow 2 keeps the story going by putting the humans on the offensive. Moreover, its zombies have a purpose which gives the film structure.

Everything comes to a head in the final confrontation, the ultimate zombie throwdown between the Nazis and Martin's army. There's nothing particularly unexpected about how the fight goes, but the scene is filled with inventive kills and some first-class ass-kicking. Not satisfied to just sit back and let the fight play out, the movie briefly cuts away to a zombie triage unit where we get to experience zombie battlefield medicine. This kind of care and attention to detail is present throughout the film and speaks to a genuine love for the genre.


Working in the US studio system takes its toll, and upon returning home to Norway Wirkola was looking to just relax with good zombie flick. As he explained in his address, Dead Snow 2 was meant to be fun. Fun for him and fun for all of us. And it is. So. Much. Fun.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The ABCs of Death 2


Initially, the concept for The ABCs of Death was equal parts interesting and worrisome. Horror anthologies were enjoying a renaissance and what better way to celebrate new and emerging horror auteurs than by bringing twenty-six of them together to produce one monster anthology. But who in their right mind is going to sit through twenty-six short films in a row? (I did. I found the experience to be a bit tiresome and generally unrewarding. On the whole, the first ABCs was hit-and-miss.)

Much in the same way that learning the alphabet takes a great deal of time and effort, watching all of The ABCs of Death requires, from most people, a few sittings. And, for a lot of viewers, it didn't prove to be worth the effort. A brief chat with one of the directors echoed this sentiment: for some of the filmmakers, committing to the sequel was a bit of a gamble because the first one wasn't great. Another director admitted that he expressly used the opportunity to remake and improve upon a segment from the first film that he (and I) didn't like.

So it was with no small amount of anxiousness that the Toronto After Dark crowd settled in to watch a second go-round of alphebetized horror. And you know what? Everyone pretty much nailed it. (I was pleased to see more word-play this time with K is for Knell and S is for P-P-P-Scary.)

Where some of the segments in the first film had a kind of phoned-in quality to them, all of the shorts that make up ABC2 meet or exceed a higher standard of quality. While there's still some variance in terms of production values and storytelling, ABC2 is overall more enjoyable and more accessible than the first one.

It may seem overly revisionist to suggest the first ABCs laid the groundwork for the sequel, but the first film's relative failure prepared everyone for ABC2. Having already sat through one long and middling anthology, the audience was better prepared to watch a second one, and ABCs' luke-warm reception set a benchmark for the sequel's filmmakers. (Standouts from the first movie include D is for Dogfight and Q is for Quack).

Admittedly, I'm not familiar with all the names that appear in ABC2, but, like last time, the movie has encouraged me to look up the filmmakers whose shorts I really liked. The only problem is trying to remember them all.

It's been proven elsewhere that people are more likely to remember the first and last items in a sequence or list over the ones in the middle. Herein lies the issue with high-volume anthologies; you forget about half of them almost immediately (think about the trailers that precede a film, you remember a couple and forget the rest). Standing around with my friends afterwards, we spent some time trying to recall all our favourites that weren't A is for Amateur and Z is for Zygote. If we couldn't remember the letter, we might get the details of the story, or vice versa. (I really liked B is for Badger and W is for Wish, and the one about bath salts was great.)

On the whole, ABC2 is a much better film than the first but I'm still not sure if anyone outside a film festival audience will sit through twenty-six short films in a row. Regardless, the format lends itself well to short bursts of indulgence and this time round there's more to keep the viewer interested and watching.

Housebound


With the addition of Housebound, I've now seen exactly three-and-a-half New Zealander horror movies (Dead Alive and Black Sheep count as one each, The Frighteners as .5).

After being charged with robbery, Kylie is placed under house arrest and must return home to live with her estranged mother and stepfather. It's a horrible fate for Kylie, made worse by the possibility that the house may be haunted. With nothing better to do, she launches an investigation which only causes further agony for her and her family.

I remember seeing the trailer for Housebound some months ago. I thought it looked good but I was frustrated by something: to me it seemed like whoever cut the trailer didn't know it was supposed to be a comedy. It was the music that did it—too loud and too serious. When the movie began I was again struck by the same feeling of dissonance. It got me worried. Would the whole movie be slightly “off” to me?

Nope.

I'm not sure what happened. Possibly, I pulled my head out of my ass and accepted the director's vision. Normally, black comedies and horror comedies offset the dark subject matter through look and feel. Comedies tend to be bright and noisy, and horror comedies follow this aesthetic. Housebound doesn't always adhere to this “rule,” so I initially had a hard time connecting with the film. And then I got over it and gave over to a movie that proved to be funny and surprising in the best way. It's also gross, upsetting, and gut-wrenching.

Although the movie is full of surprises, it's also a bit predictable. Normally, I'd find fault with predictability, but not here. Knowing what was going to happen didn't lessen the impact of some scenes or diminish my enjoyment of the film overall. Rather, because the story is engaging and the characters are likeable, I was worried for their well being and upset by the outcome of certain (predictable) events.

It's hard to discuss Housebound without ruining what it is that makes the movie so great. Suffice it to say, the mystery that surrounds the haunting is less straightforward than is usually the case with these kinds of films. Housebound isn't just a haunted house movie, it's a family drama, a murder mystery, and a cautionary tale couched within a haunted house movie.

Housebound opened this year's Toronto After Dark Film Festival, setting a high bar for all the films to follow. The film was introduced by TAD's founder, Adam Lopez, who explained to the audience how all the festival programmers unanimously agreed on Housebound, something that almost never happens when trying to decide on which films to screen. Echoing the programmers' enthusiasm for Housebound, distributors were also looking to bring the movie to a wider audience—a deal that almost killed TAD's chances of screening it.

It all worked out in the end, as does the story in the film. It's refreshing to watch a movie that finishes well, that has the ending it deserves. And in much the same way that Kylie enjoys a feeling of closure and accomplishment, so do I in knowing that Housebound will reach a wider audience.  

Monday, 13 October 2014

Toronto After Dark: Top 5 Picks


Something to be thankful for this year (and every year) is Toronto After Dark, the city's premiere genre film festival. A fan-based film fest, TAD offers nine nights of outstanding horror, action, and scifi cinematic entertainment.

This year I'm tasked with having to pick a top five prior to seeing all the films. Will my list hold up or will an underdog outshine them all? Last year's bright star was Found, an as-low-budget-and-indie-as-it-gets horror movie from first-time director Scott Schirmer. What delightful gem will we find this year?

My picks, in no particular order:

Why Horror?

Horror nerd and general dork-at-large that I am, I make a hobby of reading academic horror lit. I also dig a good documentary so I'm looking forward to this Canadian-made doc about horror's appeal.

Open Windows

This is on my list for no other reason than the fact that I really like Elijah Wood. Honestly.

Suburban Gothic

I also really like Matthew Grey Gubler. And ridiculous horror comedies about ghost hunting that also feature Jeffery Coombs (I have a signed The Frighteners DVD, thankyouverymuch).

Hellmouth

I've been waiting over a year to see this movie. I first heard about it at a Fan Expo panel and have been looking forward to it ever since. (Find me at the festival to hear a funny story about Tony Burgess.)

The Babadook

It's supposed to be scary and I haven't had a good scare in a while, so... Yeah. I just hope all the hype hasn't raised expectations too high.