This happens a lot at film festivals: You intend on seeing a film (let’s say THE INVENTION OF LYING). But you go to the wrong theater. Then you figure you’ll see CREATION or GET LOW as an alternative. But since it’s too far to walk or the film’s running time is too long and timing-wise you absolutely cannot miss George Romero’s SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD…you wind up ducking in to see a Spanish/Colombian film called RABIA.
And you have no idea what the movie is about.
Because film festivals can be fun when you know how!
So, just as I sit down and settle in to accept my mystery movie fate, I tune in to a conversation about script development straight out of THE PLAYER taking place in the seats behind me. “I loved the first draft. The middle drafts lost the comedy, but it’s so hard to be funny when you’re dealing with character and structure.” “But the book is SO funny. It’s like joke, joke, joke.”
Yes, I’m sure it is. Too bad those damn characters and three act structure prevents your writer from being funny…
Finally, the film starts. Directed by Sebastián Cordero, the film also has Guillermo del Toro as a producer. However, there are so many names of producers and executive producers on this thing that I thought for sure my name was up there too for a moment.
Anyway, the film begins with a little post-coital pillow talk with a Colombian couple, José Maria and Rosa. It’s all afterglow billing and cooing until the “How many girlfriends have you had?” and “How many boyfriends have you had?” question comes up. Because José Maria, uhhh…not so much with the sense of humor. Then as he walks her to work, a couple guys in a repair shop make with the eyes and what have you. So, naturally, on the way back he beats the living crap out of them.
Make that no sense of humor and some hot button issues about “his girl”, capped with a nasty temper. Trifecta! It’s like we’ve got the Colombian version of Mark Wahlberg in FEAR.
Now, Rosa is a maid for a very well off couple living in a house so big there are literally rooms and parts of the house that people forget are there. This comes very much in handy after José Maria punches the construction foreman and accidentally kills him after the man fires him for beating up the first guy. Powder keg angry dude just can’t catch a break.
What are you going to do with a problem like José Maria? In Rosa’s case, you become pregnant and not-so-blissfully unaware that he is hiding in the rich people mansion you live in. Watching you and your charges, ever ready to pounce on a drunken relative making a pass or sexually assaulting you. Like an overprotective, getting hairier by the week and month, ghost.
To its credit, the film delivers a nice balance between the ever-present threat he poses to everyone in the house but Rosa and his own misunderstood, poverty-ridden and isolated situation. While it doesn’t entirely succeed, there is an effort to aim for the tragic versus the full-on thriller aspects of the story. And, there is a legitimate effort to steer away from simple cat and mouse suspense and thrills, in favor of a more real and humane dilemma the two protagonists face. Ultimately, however, I found it somewhat slight.
Time to bring on the zombies!
George A. Romero’s SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD picks up with some rogue military characters from his last outing, DIARY OF THE DEAD. Which is an interesting and cool idea. “Hey, I wonder what happened to those guys?” “Well, let’s make an entirely different movie where we follow THEM!”
And we do. To a place called Plum Island, Delaware dealing with its own private little zombie problem. You see, the island has been home for generations of two feuding Irish families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons. And now the zombies have become caught in the middle of a bizarre custody battle as the O’Flynn patriarch wants to kill each one of them and the Muldoon patriarch wants to pen them up until a cure can be found.
After Muldoon gets the upper hand and kicks O’Flynn off the island (without even a hint of a tribal vote), O’Flynn posts what amounts to a travel brochure ad online to lure the living or anyone that still has Wi-Fi his way. The military group takes the bait and after some zombie aided fighting and mayhem, O’Flynn is back on his way to reclaim his island and take on Muldoon.
So what are we looking for in a Romero “Dead” film? New, fun and innovative ways to kill zombies? Check. At least one case of someone showing poor zombie survival etiquette of getting infected but not telling anyone until it’s practically too late? Check. Tons of dumbass human behavior inspiring you to root for zombie comeuppance? Check. At least one case of someone becoming a human buffet line? Check. Message about the dead being just like us only literally trapped in our daily routine and with an unappealing pallor and/or gaping wound somewhere? Big check. And, of course, it wouldn’t be complete until some disgruntled guy turns a shitload of zombies loose on everyone because he’s dying and what does he care anymore? Right?
Romero hits all of the notes he’s required by zombie law to deliver in SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, but it’s all at the service of so much silliness. First off, if anything was more lethal than the zombie virus, it would be the dinner theater Irish brogues thrown around between the two patriarchs. And, at some point a twin is revealed so we can have the human/zombie mirror effect for reals before the entire thing devolves into a shootout at the It’s Not Okay to be a Zombie Corral.
So, as I weigh all the good versus the bad and the entertaining versus the dubious, I have to think this is a step back from DIARY OF THE DEAD. This film strikes me as being closer to LAND OF THE DEAD in that the sheen of unreality makes it difficult to either get caught up within the dread of the moment or have any connection to the central characters to inspire concern for their well being. Not a total loss as there is clearly still more than a twinkle in Romero’s eye as he maps these things out. Unfortunately, we need a lot more than that by this point.
Toronto Film Festival – Day #2 – A Viggo and Charlize sandwich between crazy-ass Spanish and Australian Horror buns
So, I decide to start my second day at TIFF with the Spanish film, REC 2. Now, for me this is a highly anticipated sequel (as they say in PR land). But there’s no one in the theatre. I mean it is seriously sparse with reviewers in here. I don’t get it, because I really liked the first film. Hunted a PAL DVD of it down at a Fangoria convention and felt like I was buying contraband the way the transaction went down, but it was worth it. Just a solid shot of virus-laden zombie-fied paranoia-filled, claustrophobic, no holds barred horror adrenaline delivered straight to your region-free machine (in my case).
So, I was genuinely curious as to what Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza were going to come up with for their second visit to the quarantined apartment building filled with rabid zombie tenants.
The film picks up immediately where the last film left off, where the television hostess that suffered and struggled through the last film was the “last man dragged off”. Literally.
And then we cut to the SWAT team getting locked and loaded as they race to the scene of the whatever-the-hell-it-is they’ve got sealed up in there.
So it’s the ALIENS treatment, right? The cops are all cocky with their firepower and body armor and ignorance of the horror that lies in store. That always spells a good time. And, of course, the idea is that we are watching recorded footage so they have to tell each other over and over “Record everything!” So we’ll be fine with the fact that they are focusing on the auto focus while trying their best to keep from getting bitten or something – rather than throwing the camera at one of the crazies before running away from it while peeing down their leg.
You almost expect someone to reply, “What about when I getting killed?” Stern answer: “Record everything – ESPECIALLY while you’re getting killed!” But our directing tandem knows you’ve seen this bit before so they’re gonna give you a little extra. And that is…
That’s what I’m talking about! I get to watch one isolated group fight for their life while keeping tabs on the other unfortunates surrounded by gory monsters with the munchies in another part of the building. Fun!
Anyway, the SWAT guys are escorting some Health Official into the building to find out what the source of the plague is so they can stop it, blah, blah, blah. Okay, fine, we’ve got our excuse, let’s go play with the bad things.
And no sooner do the SWAT guys get into the penthouse apartment where the doctor lived that launched this little plague when our health official reveals he is actually a priest and that we don’t have the zombie virus version of the common code – no, this is actually a biological extension of demonic possession.
That’s right, the devil’s virus. What will The Vatican think of next?
But before we can dwell on that silliness, a zombie kid attacks from the ceiling (check your ALIENS’ playbook) for a thrill ride scene to throw you right out of your seat. And that’s the beauty of this film. Is it ridiculous as all get out? Yes, of course, it is. But it’s full of ideas, madly derivative, or not. And it keeps them AND the adrenaline-fueled gore-ified action coming. And coming. And more coming around the corner. Think you’ve seen every way there is to kill a crazed zombie person? How about by bottle rocket?! How about a demon zombie that can do impressions? What’s that you say? Okay, but other that Rich Little? Anyway, REC 2 successfully does that even up to the very last shot. Which, I won’t spoil for you. Just get the popcorn, strap yourself in and enjoy.
Next up is John Hillcoat’s film of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. Your first image of Viggo Mortensen’s ashen, skeletal face of survival basically asks “Would like some cream with your bleak?”
I’m sorry, I meant to say “Would you like some cannibalism with your bleak?” And I hope your answer is yes, because apparently when the neo-cons get done playing nuclear Frisbee with the rest of the world then scorched earth means nothing left to eat.
But each other.
“Are we still the good guys?”
This is a question that Viggo’s character’s son frequently asks throughout the film. In other words, have they still managed to hold on to their humanity despite the fact they are starving. And not just for food. Frequent flashbacks to the time when their nuclear (pun very much I intended) family included Charlize Theron’s mother character – both pre-disaster and post-disaster add to the gut-wrenching heartbreak the father and son endure. But they continue on, painstakingly making their way to the coast, trying to find food and steering clear of other people that might want to eat them along the way. Occasionally, they’ll happen upon a bountiful harvest of canned goods or maybe a can of Coke (which apparently, just like cockroaches, will be one of the few things to survive the apocalypse) or a kindly old coot (an unrecognizable Robert Duvall), but this imagining of what that kind of future holds contains no kindness. At one point Mortensen asks Duvall’s old man character, “Ever wish you would die?” And his reply sums it up: “No. It’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.”
So, we’re left to ponder what would keep us going and clinging desperately to life. And wonder if a father’s love for his son and his stalwart sense of hope for something, anything – would be enough. THE ROAD takes the bleakest, most arduous path to pose that question and it is an endurance test to be sure. But ultimately, I think it’s worth asking.
After the screening, I ran into Joe Leyton, longtime (and I mean, loooong time…) film critic for Daily Variety and as more than a few film legends would attest: THE film critic for the state of Texas. He is a true professor of film, has talked to or interviewed everyone at some time during the last thirty or so years, and can speak at length about the entire package – and do so lovingly and entertainingly. So it was very cool to have a nice long conversation with him with anecdotes abounding. Those meet-ups and subsequent conversations are one of the things that make going to film festivals a constant thrill for me.
The final film of the day was the Australian thriller, THE LOVED ONES. Directed by Sean Byrne it’s your basic awkward girl with a crush on the unattainable cute boy has daddy abduct him for her own private DIY prom…uhmm, story.
Now, the object of her obsessions has his own issues, having caused his father’s death by wrecking the family car while trying to avoid hitting what turns out to be one of our girl’s previous “boyfriends”.
So, now he can work out those feelings while he tries to escape teenage MISERY. And as he tries to mollify her to stay alive and buy time to attempt an escape, daddy is making moony eyes at his lethal little girl while princess makes loony eyes back at papa.
Let’s just say it out loud: Australians know crazy.
And Byrne is not shy about letting his crazies play. A little fried chicken meal with the happy couple, daddy and a lobotomized mommy, a little alternate hardware use with a hammer and a power drill, etc. And, of course – what do-it-yourself prom would be complete without carving your initials surrounded by a heart in your date’s chest and then salting the wound – literally?
Trust me, there’s more. All kinds of dance with a teenage psycho girl more. And under a sparkly disco ball.
Which is exactly as it should be.
“Receive with simplicity, everything that happens to you.”
That’s the quote that the Coen brothers use to introduce you to A SERIOUS MAN. But by the end of the film, I wanted to amend it to say, “Receive with appreciation everything you’re about to see and hear,” because it is A LOT. Not in a sprawling, “Dear God, will this ever end so I can try to figure out what has just uncorked itself in front of me kind of way (see SOUTHLAND TALES), but in a compact but detailed to a fault examination and exploration into a very particular time (the late 60s, suburban-style), culture (Jewish), and man (the central character played by Theatre veteran Michael Stuhlbarg).
Stuhlbarg plays ‘Larry Gopnik”, a physics professor at a small Midwestern school that almost immediately faces a shit-storm of unbelievable, if intimate proportions: A Korean student unhappy with a grade tries to bribe him, his potentially violent neighbor is encroaching on his yard, and his own house is filled with strife thanks to a bickering son (facing his own demons from a school bully/dealer) and daughter, his inept brother torn between his obsession with a possible genius mathematical “map of probability” he has discovered and the daily draining of a cyst that terrorizes him, and best yet – a wife that wants to leave him for an overbearing (and I can’t begin to describe how much that word doesn’t begin to do justice to this guy) family friend.
Gopnik’s life as he knows it is turned upside down from the get-go, and as he says during a lesson plan, “Even though you can’t figure anything out, you’ll be responsible for it on the midterm.” He goes to a succession of rabbis for advice, one more practically inept and unhelpful than the last, as he stumbles through a period of discovery and re-awakening in his life that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. But this isn’t simply a comic Job story, because the Coens would be bored with that. No, this is a comic storm that is both messy and sometimes indiscriminate in who and what it targets. But in the end, regardless of how it all plays out – they’ll be responsible for it. And if you’ve been hoping for the Coens particular brand of humor to return after NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, you’ll be happy for it.
Nice start for a film festival, huh. After that I ran into Spout.com’s always delightfully acerbic film writer and critic Karina Longworth. Love her. In a film world video game, you could pit Karina against George Sanders’ classic character in ALL ABOUT EVE and play for hours. Anyway, she gave me the inside scoop on what she had seen. Which is, of course, the “sport” of a film festival. Compare notes and dish out the thumbs up and thumbs down on everything you’ve seen up to that point.
Next up was Diablo Cody’s JENNIFER’S BODY. “Wait,” you say. “Isn’t that directed by Karyn Kusama?” “Yes,” I reply. Pause. Anyway, it’s Diablo Cody’s JENNIFER’S BODY. Which means depending on your predilection with JUNO–style dialogue and verbal toss-offs, it’s either clever and instantly quotable or irritating and quickly wearing out its welcome. Oh, wait. It also stars Megan Fox. Hmm…my last bid was from wearing out its welcome. Do I have another bid…?
“Hell is a teenage girl.” And “Sandbox love never dies” Those are the watch-quotes to go by for the film. The idea is simple: Megan Fox plays the hottest girl in school, who – after inadvertently being turned into a demon by a small beer indie band looking for a shortcut to fame via a sacrifice to the devil, runs gorily roughshod through the boys in school while her nerdy best friend (Amanda Seyfried) tries to figure it all out.
And it’s not scary. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t succeed in what it’s aiming for. No, my guess is if you’re putting your money down to see this film, then it’s all about Megan Fox. And wisely, Cody and Kusama know that. In fact, it’s so transparent that the boys get a reward practically after every kill. Megan Fox demon eviscerates a boy, Megan Fox hottie is filmed slow-mo skinny dipping. Megan Fox demon has seconds, Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried have a hot girl-on girl make out session. So, it’s like, “one for you and…one for you.”
The fact is, that while I understand the Megan Fox porn star hotness appeal, I am still fascinated over the ability of the hype and marketing machine’s ability to keep that T&A train operating at full speed. And while JENNIFER’S BODY does have some smarts to go with its smart-ass, ultimately it plays a minor key. And not just in horror-land.
Next up was Joe Dante’s THE HOLE. In 3D. That’s right. A film festival movie in 3D! That’s just all kinds a good, right? Here’s the deal about the 3D thing. Either those 3D glasses are the most expensive things ever to produce or there is technology involved that could bring down a nation. Because, I swear there was so much paranoia involved in giving those things back to the people running the screening that it made me long for the comparative lack of concern the airport security displayed as I flew in to Canada in the first place. “You need to leave the theater to go to the bathroom? Fine, hold on to the box cutter, but give me the 3D glasses.”
Anyway, THE HOLE is a story about two brothers that relocate to a new home with their single mom. Upon arriving at the new home, they discover a cute girl living next door and…wait for it….in the basement under their house…wait for it…under an ominously padlocked plank in the floor… A hole.
I’m betting the title gave it a way.
And, of course, the boys, not knowing any better, unlock the padlocks and free the evil force residing inside the seemingly bottomless hole. And since it’s their mess, they – along with that cute girl next door will have to clean it up. Or something bad will happen to them. Which is the appropriate way to describe the stakes because this is a horror film for the kids. A gateway drug, if you will. So scary stuff happens and there are various threats to people. But in a “safe”, un-gory, limited exposure to evil kinda way. The film is so completely aimed at a specific age demographic that Teri Polo (the go-to actress for sexy but safe) is cast as the mom.
And the movie IS amusement park ride fun. The scares come from things like malevolent clown dolls (your kids homework will be a follow up viewing of POLTERGEIST) and those stop-motion walking a crawling spirits (okay, do an assignment on THE RING too), courtesy of your not-so friendly basement dwelling hole.
And then there is the 3-D thing. Which is cool. I’ll just give myself up to that willingly. However, is it just me or – like the perfunctory tricks that gymnasts have to accomplish in their Olympic routines – does every 3D movie have to throw a baseball at you? Or they get 3D points deducted from their overall movie score? Just curious.
So, take the kids to this thing so you can speed along their horror-film development and you can also enjoy yourself as well – as opposed to just napping, like so many of my friends who are parents did during G-FORCE.
That was it for the films. The next order of business was something new for me. The red carpet. Or specifically: being a journalist on a red carpet. This is ironic in that I practically live on red carpets – or to be more direct – running them. I am frequently that guy managing the traffic at the beginning of the filmmakers and movie stars entrances: welcoming them, assigning escorts to them to walk them down the thing, introducing them to the photographers, etc. That is frequently my little show.
And I take care to not just manage the placement of the press on my red carpets but to also pay attention and ensure, as best I can, that everyone gets the photos or interviews they need and want and no one goes home empty handed.
This was different. A first come, first serve policy combined with the fact that I was “print” and didn’t have a video camera joined at my hip meant that I was destined to not only be at the end of the line – I was also going to be relatively inconspicuous.
The entrances were for Steven Soderbergh’s THE INFORMANT! And the potential interview targets on hand would be Soderbergh, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula and Melanie Lynsky. Not a bad group at all. So, I am standing next to a guy writing for a national tabloid that like me has not seen the film yet. However, unlike this guy, I had read reviews and stories and did some background on the film. In addition, I also had a decent knowledge of popular culture pre-Jonas Brothers. Because, for the life of him, he could not think of a question to ask anyone not named Matt Damon. After spying Lynsky at the front of the carpet, he asked me, “Does she kiss Matt Damon in the movie?” To which I replied, “Well, I haven’t see it but she does play his wife. So I’ll hazard a guess – yes.” Next question, “Do their characters have kids together?” Desired response: “I don’t have that much insight into their pretend home life.” Out loud: “I don’t know.”
But now I was feeling the pressure to come up with good questions myself for everyone. Something that wouldn’t have been asked twenty times immediately before me or at the very least, phrased in a creative, yet concise way that would send each of them off to the races with clever, funny, witty and insightful sound bites for the readers. So thinking quickly, I put together my winning question for each of them – knowing that this far down the line I would get one and only one question. Because, by this point in the line, they just want to get in the house and be done with it.
Well, I needn’t have worried, Because each one of them – Soderbergh, Damon, Bakula and Lynsky – passed us by. Didn’t give us a shot at the question or even acknowledge us. Publicists rushed Damon through – typical – that’s routine. “He’s got to get in now. Quick! The movie’s gonna start in a half hour, so he needs to be inside RIGHT NOW! Soderbergh literally stood in front of me – with his back to me – for ten minutes but would not turn around to answer a question. And Bakula and Lynsky even brushed us off. Melanie Lynsky!
But to be fair, this is all on the publicists. The film’s reps and the Toronto Film Festival publicists. It’s their job to regulate the traffic flow and make sure that everyone gets some love. It’s something that I work my ass of to achieve at AFI FEST, DALLAS and each of my other film festivals and agonize as it is happening to ensure that fairness and equal play. And it was great to see first hand, exactly why it’s so important that I do that. Because the personal publicists DON’T WANT TO – bottom line. You should have seen the look Bakula’s sawed-off little guy gave us before he shielded us with his back from being able to get to Scott. (Honest Disclaimer – I have a long ago and far away Hollywood history with that little wiener dude and it’s possible he recognized me. Regardless…) If the film festival’s publicists aren’t on point (at best) or just don’t care (at worst), then the end of the line is exactly that for a journalist at those red carpets.
To paraphrase Diablo from JENNIFER’S BODY, “That’s not just high school evil. That’s actual evil.”