Midway through the Toronto International Film Festival, I find myself catching a lot of the Midnight Madness movies, thankfully not all at midnight. There are some press screenings, but I have been out past my bedtime too. And also some noteworthy entries with A-list Hollywood casts. We may be hearing about these again before the end of the year.
The ABCs of Death
All anthology movies are hit and miss, and I find the longer anthologies don’t increase the odds of good segments (I’m not a Paris Je t’aime or New York, I Love You fan). So The ABCs gives us 26. I liked A, N, Q and W, appreciated the genuine discomfort of I, R and X and the ambition of D, T, and V. Of course the Japanese directors made the most bizarre and vile shorts. I mean, god damn, what’s wrong with those guys? I’d be inclined to be more forgiving for the experiment of short low budget movies, but something about it felt sloppy enough not to give them a total pass. Many of the segments had poor editing, the kind that’s familiar in a lot of low budget horror, but really no matter how low your budget, you can at least cut it together. Mismatched edits aren’t scary, they’re just ugly. But not Q, W, N, A, V or D, those were well done.
Hellbenders earns a lot of good will for committing to outrageousness. It doesn’t all land but it never lets up. A group of priests fights demons by committing so many sins that they can take a demon from its host and kill themselves dragging the demon to hell with them. The team is kind of a Reservoir Dogs group of badass antiheroes, in a comical way. They watch porn, drink, smoke, do drugs and fornicate, so that’s automatically funny when the collar is involved. They have good banter, a good rhythm. Even if everything isn’t a memorable line, it’s delivered as if it is. It’s a great subversive concept, it’s fun, joyfully trashy, and not quite brilliant. At least it’s a great role for Clancy Brown as the leader of this group. The visual effects are good and the 3D is generally not annoying. There’s one nice effect where a demon speaks in tongues and the subtitles play in the foreground and background.
A Late Quartet
My biggest surprise of the festival is this beautiful character drama about a string quartet. Christopher Walken plays the leader, the cellist who must quit when he’s diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The Parkinson’s isn’t the story. The story is how one single change provokes changes within every player and leads to long brewing confrontations. Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) wants to take this chance to alternate with first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir). Issues in Daniel’s marriage to viola player Jules (Catherine Keener) and between Jules and their daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) really get to the heart of matters. It’s a gentle drama with juicy and emotional scenes. You get to see some of our favorite actors with great roles. Walken as a sensitive musician is still quintessentially Walken, at his most powerful yet infinitely more sympathetic.
The Lords of Salem
If you’re not a fan of Rob Zombie films yet, The Lords of Salem won’t be the one to win you over. Even if you like The Devil’s Rejects, this is a bore. Heidi LaRoc (Sherri Moon-Zombie) is a Salem radio DJ who becomes plagued by visions of witchcraft. As an attempt to take witchcraft seriously, the mythology and imagery are both ridiculous. From Jonathan Hawthorne writing an overwrought letter in a 1600s flashback to the ugly dudes in cloths and aborted fetuses popping up from the dark, it’s the worst kind of silly because it takes itself seriously. Zombie does give us a naked coven of witches dancing in front of fire, but you’ve got to take the bad with the good. They’re all different ages and body types. On the plus side, Bruce Davison totally brings it as a witchcraft expert who actually tries to uncover what’s happening to poor Heidi.
What Maisie Knew
This is a solid drama with powerhouse acting, as you’d expect. Based on the Henry James novel, Maisie (Onata Aprile) is a child of divorce. Her parents, Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan) fight over custody but neither of them are entirely present in Maisie’s life. It’s well done and the material is made for drama, if a bit obvious. No surprise that Moore is captivating in a volatile performance. Coogan is a complicated one too because he won’t let you know if he’s the wronged party or a passive aggressive monster. Aprile is an adorable discovery. She manages to be active in a way that’s realistic for a child. Nothing not to like about it really, except that it feels like obvious end of year Academy Screener fodder (and doesn’t really try to shake that), but it’s a good one.