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Let Us Prey (2014)
Nice Surprise Hit of the Festival
When director Brian O'Malley introduced his new film, Let Us Prey, via a prerecording in front of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival he informed us that his intention was to make a timeless horror classic. To accomplish this, he set on out to deliver a film that could not be dated (watching Let Us Prey ten years from now and there is nothing in the fashion, look or feel of the film that would immediately reference 2014) and that had a synthesizer styled score reminiscent of the great John Carpenter films of the 1970's and 80's. Check and check.
Let Us Prey stars Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) as Six, a mysterious drifter who is hit by a vehicle driven by Caesar (Brian Vernel) on a quiet town road. Casear is immediately taken into custody by first-day-on-the-job Constable Rachel Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh), but Cunningham's Six character cryptically disappears. It is while at the police station we are introduced to the remainder of the cast which includes a Sargent, two Constables that are lustfully engaged, a wife beating prisoner and a doctor who is called to assist when Six suddenly appears at the front door of the station.
The veteran Constables and Sargent do not immediately warm up to the by-the-book newbie in Rachel, but their personal feelings towards her routine are quickly swept to the side once Six begins to instigate mayhem in the prison taking over the minds and souls of all those with a dark past to hide. And this is when the fun really starts.
Each character shows a history of violence in their backstories from the simple (hit and run) to the extreme (mass murderer) and when a prior transgression is revealed, Six is there to ensure their life pays for their wrongdoing.
With a backdrop of a fantastic musical score (as promised) there are fights, shootings, beatings, murders and attempted murders as things at the station escalate quickly and deadly for all those involved.
Cunningham is a standout and plays the mysterious Six with devilish glee. The film hinges on Cunningham's character and the well-trained thespian delivers the goods with a Clint Eastwood cool. Pollyanna McIntosh is equal to the task as the freshman fish-out-of-water new Constable. She is equally beautiful and tough and McIntosh walks this line with the ease of a veteran.
The story goes a bit off the rails towards the end as some of the character's revealed background stories and subsequent actions are a bit 'out there'. But it is a means to an end to heighten the violence and give the audience the good time expected from the action/horror intention.
Let Us Prey was a surprise delight and the perfect way to begin winding down the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. It was violent and fun and the ending opened the door to a multitude of possibilities and, hopefully, sequels.
Brilliant. Thought-provoking mind bending brilliance.
Coming under the radar and screening on Tuesday night as part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival schedule, Predestination stars Ethan Hawke (Sinister) in a film that caught us off guard and sent us home with the reality of just witnessing one of the best films of the year.
Ethan Hawke plays a character without name who is a time-travelling agent for a secret agency that uses their ability to transport to specific dates as an opportunity to stop crime. Hawkes character (known as The Bartender) is on the tail end of his career. And on his final assignment, he is tasked with stopping the "Fizzle Bomber", a terrorist that exploded a bomb in New York City in 1975 that killed over 11,000 citizens. The bartender had a chance to stop the bomber once before but failed and now after a recuperating after his final jump, he jumps from 1960's through the 70's, 80's and 90's to achieve his final objective.
The time travel machine used to jump is basic and brilliant in its simplicity a violin case where the adjustment of the numbered and lettered locking mechanism determines the date to which one will travel. It is during an early jump that Hawkes character finds himself in the 1960's acting as a bartender in a small dive bar. It's here where he meets the character played by Sarah Snook (again, no name is given for the character just the description "The Unmarried Mother"). The two main characters begin a conversation that is part Tarantino part Mamet in its delivery and genius. The Unmarried Mother begins to weave a tale so unbelievable that it's mesmerizing to hear it unravel. The bartender does not seem as overly surprised at the details and at the conclusion of the anguishing story, he offers the Unmarried Mother an opportunity to go back in time to face the person which caused her such grief.
The time jump of the two characters sets the timeline path for a story that goes in directions that will be completely unseen. By the time the Unmarried Mother meets her oppressor and the Bartender confronts the Fizzle Bomber the directing duo of the of Spierig Brothers (Peter and Michael) have laid out a complex plot of intersecting stories best described as a "snake eating its own tail." Ethan Hawke has worked with the Spierig Brothers before with 2009's Daybreakers which this reviewer thought was a well above average tale of vampires in a futuristic world. But with Predestination the collaborative efforts of the brothers and Hawke have created a brilliant time travel science fiction film that betters Rian Johnson's Looper in its vision and execution.
Predestination is a movie where washroom breaks are not recommended. Every detail of the story circles back to the wonderful final reveal. It's a film that commands attention and then rewards the viewer for the courtesy.
When the year finally comes to a close, we will have screened over 200 films released in 2014. Predestination is sure to be on our list of Top 10 when the tallies are constructed.
Open Windows (2014)
Complex and demanding attention
Our little Frodo is becoming quite the horror icon. Actor Elijah Wood might always be first associated with his role as the hobbit in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his dabbles in the horror genre should not be overlooked. After playing a serial killer in 2012's Maniac remake, Wood has also lent his talents to the thriller Grand Piano, the indie horror Cooties and presently as lead in Nacho Vigalondo's Open Windows.
Spanish director Vigalondo is best known for his brilliant Timecrimes (2007) and it has been 6 (too) long years since his last feature. With Open Windows, Vigalondo casts Elijah Wood as Nick Chambers who wins a contest to have dinner with his favorite celebrity, Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey). But when Jill seemingly cancels the date, a mysterious man by the name of Chord (Neil Maskell) contacts Nick and offers promises and ideas on how Nick salvage his trip to Austin and get close to his idol. Nick is too naïve to realize he is being used as a pawn in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game that is seen entirely through technology devices such as computers and camera screens. Nick follows Chord's orders and questions motives in necessary situations. But when Nick gets involved so deep that walking away from Chord's demands would lead to incarceration or worse, Nick has to devise his own plan to save both himself and Jill from the villains maniacal plans.
Open Windows is a complex thriller that demands your attention from start to finish. Answers to questions posed by the enigma of a plot are not spoon fed to the audience and those that go to movies to see talking transformer cars wreak havoc on our cities will be challenged to keep up with the overlapping story developments on display in Open Windows.
With the entire movie having been presented through the eyes of camera lenses and computer screens, Open Windows offers as unique a filmmaking experience you can find this year. With multiple windows opened on a screen there are plenty of things to watch and catch as things unfold and we can't imagine the complexity of post-production putting the pieces together.
Elijah Wood continues to show his versatility and although Sasha Grey does nothing to convince us that she is the next Meryl Streep she isn't a distraction either. Some of the other voice overs are less convincing in their conveyance of stress or urgency but again, the plot is thick enough that hanging on such trivial sidebars is a futile adventure.
Open Windows ends up being a two-viewing necessity. You might not understand everything or follow all plot points on the first go. But upon a repeat viewing, I am sure that Open Windows will serve itself as an adult and taut thriller that zig zags in unexpected directions until the curtains close.
Easy to chew, hard to swallow
Zombies, zombies, zombies. They're everywhere. The Walking Dead is the highest rated television program. My Netflix queue and DVD wait list is saturated with zombie genre features. And as far as I can tell from the parents to which I converse about this year's Halloween, zombies seem to be a costume of choice for the zealous trick-or-treaters.
Excuse the expression, but the genre has been done to death. Walking zombies, running zombies, brain eating zombies, flesh eating zombies doesn't seem to matter what exact type of undead human hunting beings they are anymore. And I am simply bored of the buggers.
Then along comes a title such as Zombeavers. Yes, Zombeavers. Simply put, zombie beavers. The idea had me intrigued. And where I would normally pass on a zombie screening or roll my eyes before the first kill, this comedy/horror had me charmed.
Screening at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, director Jordan Rubin pre-taped an intro giving us a glimpse into the mind that helped write this zombie abortion. Rubin informed the audience that he had previously worked a comedy club in Toronto and that quickly helped set the stage for the feature this was a film that was not going to take itself seriously. Not one bit.
As Zombeavers start, we get the uninspired reason behind the zomification of the semi-aquatic rodent. A steel barrel of a toxic chemical is thrust from truck and lands in the water where it travels down the rapids until it is punctured while washed up on a beaver's dam.
Cut then to our characters. They have names, but who cares. Their job is to provide bits of jibber-jabber dialogue and show some tits and ass until such time as the story can work a coherent way for the zombeavers to attack the homo sapiens whether on land or in the water.
Of course, the zombeaver attacks are of Corman quality. There is some charm in seeing hand puppets and the odd animatronic in place of the all too common CGI effects and it's the Muppet Show simplicity that leads to most of Zombeavers' charisma.
When the zombeavers are not front and centre and the film relies on its character development it struggles to keep things interesting. More of the humor misses the target than hits the bullseye and the characters are largely stereotypical following the footsteps of stereotypical horror film victims. We did like certain visuals such as the Whack-a-Beaver scene and a particular distraction used by the humans to aide in their attempt to rescue themselves from a lake water raft drew some good responses from the audience. Unfortunately most of the humor derived from the dialogue seemed lost on the ripe hip screeners in attendance.
I would suggest that Zombeavers is a film best viewed with a large accepting audience. Much like Monster Brawl, if pitted armrest to armrest with a packed house the overall reactions may help bridge the moments where you just might not happen to click with what is happening on screen. We found ourselves in such a boat a few times during Zombeavers. And although we may not have fully bought in or enjoyed it as much as the tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness of Sharknado, the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Død snø 2 (2014)
Better than the stellar original
Dead Snow (2009) was one of the best no, change that 'is' the best zombie film of the past decade. Sorry World War Z. Move over Zombieland and 28 Whatever Later. For pure fun, entertainment, blood and guts balls to the wall fury, Dead Snow is at the top of the peak.
Yet I was concerned regarding its sequel, Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead. The first film was so original and enthralling that I was afraid a follow-up might dilute the sensation if it didn't live up to the heightened expectations.
I needn't have worried.
Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead is an all-out blast showcasing returning director Tommy Wirkola at the top of his game. In Red vs. Dead, we heard back to where the original film left off. Martin (Vegar Hoel) is the sole survivor of a group of friends that vacationed in a mountain cabin when a troop of Nazi zombies rise from the snowy landscape for some blood soaked fun. Part 2 sees survivor Martin in a hospital where an error has resulted in his arm being replaced with the arm of Nazi leader Coloney Herzog (Ørjan Gamst). The new limb comes with unforeseen powers and strength which will help Martin and the group of American zombie killers he teams up with for round 2 with the SS Undead. The American geeks that answer the call are a welcome addition as Red vs. Dead is filled with plenty of English leaving us to soak in the gore on the screen without a subtitled distraction.
As with most sequels, the action needs to be ramped up a notch and Wirkola ensures that Dead Snow 2 cannot be cut into a PG-13 television event. The script also ensures a higher body count by bringing the action beyond the Norwegian Alps and into town below with ferocious intensity.
The violence in Dead Snow 2 is equally pleasing for gore hounds as it is comical with bodies being ripped and torn in every possible direction to the glee of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival audience that relished every frame.
Vegar Hoel's Martin has become a character full of humor and depth that we love to cheer in his maniacal outbursts of homicidal zombie killing. And the new American cast members play to their country's stereotypes allowing for plenty of comedy that hits in all the right places allowing audiences to laugh heartedly between shout-outs for great kills.
Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead does what I didn't think was possible. It bettered the original in almost every way. And the genre loving audience at TADFF ate it up like zombie at an All-You-Can-Eat-Human-Buffet.
Now let's make this a trilogy!
Suburban Gothic (2014)
Idea Just Doesn't Click On All Cylinders
In 2012, I came across the hidden gem Excision. Directed by Richard Bates Jr., Excision was the type of film that horror fans love to find a title that they knew nothing about starring a bunch of people that we never heard of that, upon screening, was much much better than the throwaway DVD we expected.
Excision didn't have us pacing the halls awaiting the next Richard Bates Jr. effort, but it did have us stand notice when his new project, Suburban Gothic was announced as part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival schedule.
With a successful and fairly well received film in his rearview mirror, Bates Jr. was able to gather together a cast of more familiar faces for his sophomore effort. Enter Matthew Gray Gubler (Criminal Minds), Kate Dennings (Thor), Ray Wise, John Waters and Jeffrey Combs the later three very entrenched in horror history.
Suburban Gothic follows the life of Raymond (Gubler). A bit of a loser and an awkward one at that a "freak" as his counsellor calls him - Raymond lives at home with his parents (Barbara Niven and Ray Wise) as his college degree does little to assist in securing employment.
One thing that Raymond is good at is summoning spirits and interacting with the paranormal. This talent catches the eye of paranormal obsessed goth Becca (Kat Dennings), a bartender that believes Raymond's sightings are a gift and the two will team up to fight an evil that has encroached the town.
Suburban Gothic is a whole bunch of things. It's a comedy, a horror, a supernatural thriller and a wannabe cult classic. The cast is well suited with no actor going outside a true comfort zone. Gubler has played the geek many times before as has Dennings playing the sarcastic muse as has Ray Wise playing an overbearing father with great lines and John Waters playing a gay freak. Been there, done that.
Suburban Gothic wants to be a The Frighteners, a Ghostbusters, an Odd Thomas and a Supernatural all rolled into one. But the effort doesn't reach the potential. It's like a car that runs but doesn't click into the right gear when accelerating. Everyone tries their best and there are some great lines in the film (John Waters' scene with Dennings and Gubler is absolutely fabulous) but everything doesn't click together like Lego blocks and instead of a David Lynchian Gothic Mullholland Drive the result is more of a Brundlefly.
Worthy Mix of Comedy and Thrills
The 9th Annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival opened last evening with a sell-out crowd on hand for the screening of Housebound, a New Zealand horror film that takes on the tried-and-tested genre device of the haunted house.
Morgana O'Reilly plays Kylie Bucknell, a troubled young woman who is sentenced by the local courts to home detention after a failed ATM robbery and is ordered to house arrest under the care of her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata). Miriam is a bit of a nutbag who is convinced that their home is haunted. The rebellious Kylie is less than convinced. That is until she begins to see and hear strange things around the house that prompt Kylie's inner-Nancy Drew as a murder mystery slowly unfolds.
Housebound is a thriller comedy that focuses more on the comedy than it does the intensity. Rima Te Waita's Miriam gets most of the laughs as a mild-mannered everyday mom that channels thoughts of Edith Bunker as she stumbles through the events of the film. Security officer and self-anointed ghost hunter Amos (Glen-Paul Waru) also assists in the deliberate tickling of the audience's funny bone as he teams with Kylie for an unlikely duo that were a Scooby snack eating dog away from being the New Zealand Mystery Inc.
Writer/director Gerard Johnstone makes his feature film debut with Housebound and proves he can deliver the goods on a multiple genre platform to please most audiences.
Housebound may be a bit uneven as it switched from ghost story to violent cat-and-mouse murder solving, but it has just enough of everything to ensure that audiences are provided with valued entertainment. We may not have truly appreciated the plot veering into People Under the Stairs direction, but Johnstone keeps everything from falling under the weight of the ridiculousness of the events and the Toronto After Dark Film Festival crowd laughed and cheered in all the right places.
Walk Down Memory Lane (with plenty of explosions!)
For those of us that grew up in the VHS age of the 1980's, Cannon Films was a studio that provided us with much of our movie watching excitement. New Year's Evil (1980), Enter the Ninja (1981), Invasion U.S.A. (1985) and Cobra (1986) are just a few of the titles that helped propel Cannon Films in its heyday and is the focus of the new documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.
Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus bought Cannon films for $500,000 in 1979 and created a film sausage factory where films were fast tracked to the screen based on high risk concepts or eye-catching movie posters ("At Cannon, 52 pictures a year wasn't enough").
Immediately, the two relatives saw a market for B-movie action films and started to build their empire on the backs of such franchises as Death Wish and various Chuck Norris vehicles such as Delta Force and the Missing in Action series.
Director Mark Hartley is no stranger to documenting film on film. Harley directed Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation in 2008 and Machete Maidens Unleashed! in 2010. Hartley has a formula that works when exploring niche genres in film and stays the course with Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.
Clips of films (everything from American Ninja, Texas Chainsaw Massacre II and Bloodsport are intertwined with interviews from familiar faces such as Molly Ringwald, Alex Winter, Dolph Lundgren and Richard Chamberlain. The doc takes us back to the early 80's and Hartley covers as many bases as possible when docu-reminiscing through such mindless yet wildly entertaining films that shaped many of our youths.
For a walk down memory lane, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is one hell of a fun ride. But it's a safe ride and one that doesn't give us any real deep deep deep insight into anything and just skims the surface of historical reference. When Electric Boogaloo does try and dive beyond an E: True Hollywood Story expose (such as a bit on diva Sharon Stone) it is met with a shrug of the shoulders and a 'Yea, not surprised' reaction from a target audience that was much more appreciative when the film simply highlighted films that we thought were even greater than the invention of sliced bread.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is a tad overlong at 105 minutes but breathes new life into their decaying body with every newly introduced film that sparks memories of an age long gone. We do get educated on how now more popular directors got their start (Jean-Luc Godard with King Lear, Barbet Schroder with Barfly and John Cassavetes with Love Streams) with Cannon much like Roger Corman started the careers of Ron Howard, Martin Scorcese and James Cameron. And it was interesting to see the downfall of the company with big budget backed busts such as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Masters of the Universe.
Menahem Golan (who recently passed away in August 2014) and Yoram Globus did not participate in the documentary so any opinion of their business practices are told by the many interviewed stars and staff that were involved in their pictures including Cassandra Peterson (Elvira), Bo Derek, Michael Dudikoff and Elliot Gould.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films felt formulaic. It went through the motions and tired harder to tap into our memories than it did trying to tap into the backlots and secrets surrounding the studio (after all, it is titled 'The Wild, Untold Story'). Still, for someone who has seen every one of the films that was displayed on screen and some, multiple times - Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films was like putting on your favorite pair of shoes that have long outlived their usage date. It had me reaching into my VHS collection to re-screen films I have not paid attention to in decades. And for that, Mark Hartley deserves credit.
[REC] 4: Apocalipsis (2014)
Stellar Horror Series Comes To An End
It is our belief that about ten years removed from the end of the franchise that the REC films will be considered horror classics that delivered from first entry until last. The first REC was released in 2007 and followed a television reporter and a cameraman as they accompanied emergency workers who were called to an apartment complex where a terrifying outbreak had been reported. Produced and shot in Spain, the film was interesting enough for Hollywood studios to remake the film with Jennifer Carpenter in 2008.
REC2 followed in 2009 and put a whole different slant on things. What we thought was an outbreak of a disease was brought into question. A possibility of demonic possession was introduced as a potential cause for the horror and this twist added multiple layers to an already engrossing story.
REC3 was an all-out blood fest. The setting was moved from the interior of a dark building to what was supposed to be a joyous wedding. As the wedding party fights for their survival, the red messy stuff covers the screen in an absolute gem of a whimsical horror film.
And as all good things come to an end, we have REC4 to close the books on the franchise. The setting is again changed for the third sequel. Our survivors are now fighting within the confines of an ocean liner where the zombie/rage-induced hordes. Manuela Velasco again plays Angela the lone survivor of the REC2. It is her awakening on a high-security facility floating on the ocean that catapults the story.
Angela is able to team up with a small group of survivors and together they use just about every tool or weapon not nailed down on the ship to fight off the apocalypse and ensure their survival. Jaume Balagueró, who co-directed REC and REC 2 with Paco Plaza (Plaza directed REC 3 solo), returns to helm the fourth instalment of the saga and finish the series off with a spectacular and bloody bang.
There is a tremendous amount of fun to be had in REC4. The floating vessel is the perfect setting to induce a claustrophobic and seemingly hopeless feel. The kills in the REC series have gotten more and more flamboyantly violent in cartoonish escalation and REC4 has some kills that had our packed house audience clap and cheer in unison with its execution.
There are some interesting turns in the overall story arch some which are fun and others are almost groan inducing. The characters in REC4 are not as interesting as the other installments and once every character was trotted out, I was dead on in my assumption as to who would make it to the closing credits. Still, this is horror. Fans of the genre and the series are sure to find enough in REC 4 to make the experience enjoyable. The series never really lost steam from its opening in 2007 as it reinvented itself a few times along the journey. This journey is just bloody fun.
Creation from the creative mind of sick Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith is one of the most fascinating men working over multiple platforms today. Whether its movies, podcasts or television, Smith continues to bring his geeky playfulness to mainstream audiences that lap it up like Pavlovian experiments.
If you have every listened to any of Smith's SModcasts you will learn quickly that Smith is open to talking about anything from politics to masturbating into a beer can. Whatever comes to Smith's creative mind is fair game and his ingenious warped brain cells have pulled together to give us his latest theatrical event titled Tusk.
Tusk stars Justin Long (Jeepers Creepers) as podcaster Wallace Bryton who travels from Los Angeles to Manitoba, Canada in search of a story. When his original intentions are met with unexpected results, Wallace answers a barroom washroom ad and finds himself in the company of Howard Howe (Michael Parks) who might just be the 'most interesting man in the world'. A few war stories into their meeting over a cup of tea and Wallace can't hide his excitement of finding such a treasure trove of historical references as seen through the eyes of the elderly Howard.
But things then take a turn to the macabre. Wallace succumbs to the drugs hidden in his tea and when he awakes he is faced with the horror of being a medical experiment to which Howard wishes to transform the young podcaster into the likeness of a creature that provided him friendship and warmth after a shipwreck of his past.
What happens next is a Jackson Pollock of WTF-ness that is weird, funny, repugnant, awkward and downright fascinating sometimes all within the same scene.
Michael Parks is perfectly cast as the sinister Howard Howe. His exact pronunciation gives the perfect delivery to Smith's script that gets as close to the edge as it can without losing his audience down the cliff. Justin Long is terminally committed to his role and his Wallace Bryton and subsequent transformation are likely to become part of cult culture lore.
In an effort to keep audiences engaged with a possible fairy-tale ending, Smith enlists the help of actors Haley Joel Osment (yes, of "I see Walrus People") and the drop dead gorgeous Genesis Rodriguez as two friends who engage the services of one Guy Lapointe (an over-the-top Johnny Depp) to assist in tracking down Wallace's whereabouts in Winnipeg. Say that last bit five times fast. We dare ya.
Tusk is more strange than good. But it's a good strange so that will just muddle things even further. As if Kevin Smith watched The Human Centipede and Boxing Helena in a double feature then dropped some mushrooms and started pounding out a script. If you take the film for what it is it is great fun. Only Depp's overexposure as Lapointe takes any wind from the film's sails. If you are expecting a serious toned horror film, then you must look elsewhere. Do not forget that this is the same mind that didn't think twice of putting a naked dancer and a donkey together in his earlier works so there is no line in the sand that he's afraid of crossing.
The audience at our Toronto International Film Festival screening seemed almost confused as they left the theatre. A mark to which I am sure Smith would take great pride. But we had a ball. An unabashed rollicking time revelling in Smith's creative juices.