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Day Seven, our last at TIFF, brings horror from Rob Zombie and Barry Levinson and a second take on To The Wonder

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The Lords Of Salem
Director/Country/Time: Rob Zombie/USA/101 min.
Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Dee Wallace
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Get Behind Me Satan
Scott’s Take: As spotty as his track record has been to this point—one spectacular sequence in the otherwise middling House Of 1,000 Corpses, twoHalloween movies of some distinction but questionable necessity, and only a single sleazoid horror gem in The Devil’s Rejects—director Rob Zombie is one of our few true horror auteurs, someone with a distinct sensibility who works persistently in the genre. That sensibility, steeped in ‘70s horror texture and astonishingly detailed production design, is on full display in The Lords Of Salem, a silly piece of witchy hokum that’s redeemed by the Zombie touch. It opens in 1692 Salem, where a coven of Satan-worshipping witches are executed—with cause!—by a religious persecutor. Cut to the present day (which is pretty much 1972 with Internet connectivity), where Salem DJ Sheri Moon Zombie receives a mysterious record in a wooden box by a band calling itself The Lords. After playing the record, its mesmeric powers unleash all manner of Satanic hallucination that link back to those events in Salem 300 years earlier. With nods to The ShiningThe ExorcistThe FogRosemary’s Baby, and early Dario Argento—and the casting of character actors like Dee Wallace, Meg Foster, Maria Conchita Alonso, and others—Zombie has constructed a cinematic time machine akin to Ti West’s The House Of The Devil, only more gorgeously baroque and with all the devil worship upfront. On the latter point, it’s less frightening than gorily ritualistic/fetishistic and it ends inconclusively and unsatisfactorily. But Zombie auteurists will find much to cherish, including a use of Velvet Underground songs that’s nearly worthy of “Freebird” in The Devil’s Rejects.
Grade: B

The Bay
Director/Country/Time: Barry Levinson, USA, 84 min.
Cast: Will Rogers, Kristen Connolly, Kether Donohue
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Just when you thought it was safe, whatnot
Noel’s Take: The prospect of Oscar-winning writer-director Barry Levinson making a found-footage eco-horror film is a smidgen dismaying, as though he couldn’t get a better gig at this stage of his career. But maybe it takes an old pro like Levinson to show how an increasingly played-out genre can be improved. As a horror film, Levinson’s The Bay (written by Michael Wallach) is just okay. Set on July 4th in a sleepy waterfront Baltimore town, the movie follows the rapid progression of a mysterious flesh-eating ailment that affects residents who’ve been in contact with the local water supply; but only occasionally does Levinson deliver good, jolting scares. Instead, he focuses on constructing a full-scale narrative, using these new, caught-on-the-fly techniques—re-imagining Jaws for the YouTube/Skype/nannycam era. There’s a surprisingly large cast of characters in The Bay, who each get their stories told via snippets of footage that are woven together into a good approximation of a ‘70s-style disaster movie. Ultimately, the kind of movie The Bay is (both in content and approach) is too familiar, no matter how impressively realized. But without laying on too heavy a hand, Levinson does have strong points to make with The Bay, not just about the extremest outcome of environmental neglect—but also about how the past decade-plus of “starve the beast” anti-government policies have left us unprepared for the inevitable. That’s some real horror right there.
Grade: B+

Beyond The Hills
Director/Country/Time: Cristian Mungiu/Romania/155 min.
Cast: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta
Program: Masters
Headline: Sister Act, Too
Scott’s Take: Cristian Mungiu’s follow-up the brilliant Palme D’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days draws a similar gnawing tension from two female friends who struggle under institutional dictates. But where 4 Months tracked two university seeking a black-market abortion in Nicolae Ceausescu era, Beyond The Hills takes place in an isolated Orthodox monastery where God’s law applies, even if it’s ultimately destructive. Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes for their fine turns as childhood friends (with benefits) from the orphanage who split up as young adults, with Flutur heading off to Germany for work and Stratan settling at the monastery—in part, it’s suggested, because she had nowhere else to go. The film opens with Flutur reuniting with Stratan, but when Stratan takes her friend back to the monastery, it’s clear that Flutur’s mental instability is going to become a problem. After failed attempts to get Flutur in line and some increasingly violent episodes, “Papa,” the monastery head, concludes that she has the devil inside her and takes drastic steps to exorcise the beast. With each new development, Mungiu ratchets up the tension, bit by bit, until Stratan and Flutur’s situation reaches white-knuckle territory almost imperceptibly. (The famous dinner scene in 4 Months, where our heroine is pinned helplessly within the frame, is done with a few minor variations here.) Mungiu strongly condemns the religious laws that fail Flutur so utterly, but not to the point where “Papa” and the nuns are cast as villains or sadists—they’ve simply walled themselves into a belief system that can’t adequately address Flutur’s volatile emotional state. It’s not only great drama, but a vivid window into another world.
Grade: A-

Come Out And Play
Director/Country/Time: Makinov, Mexico, 95 min.
Cast: Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Vinessa Shaw
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Caution, children at murder!
Noel’s Take: At the start of the moody horror movie Come Out And Play, an American tourist and his pregnant girlfriend rent a boat and motor out to a remote Mexican island noted for its beautiful beaches and wild carnival celebrations, but when they arrive, the resort seems empty, aside from some kids playing in the street. Then the kids pick up blunt objects and make the new visitors the target of what appears to be an ongoing adult-hunt. According to the credits, Come Out And Play was “made” (meaning written, shot, directed and edited) by the masked, anonymous Belarusian filmmaker “Makinov,” who based it on the 1976 Spanish film Who Can Kill A Child? The title of the original pretty well sums up what’s interesting about Come Out And Play. When the heroes finally do encounter a living grown-up, he admits that when the children went feral, the parents didn’t know what to do, because they couldn’t bring themselves to fight back against their progeny. Can this couple do any better, when these scruffy, smiling tots come at them bearing hammers and knives? But while Makinov brings an effectively gritty and atmospheric feel to Come  Out And Play, he never solves the common “creepy mystery” problem of how to sustain suspense without over-explaining what’s happening. He pulls back way too much, such that the movie is 45 minutes of the Americans roaming the island, going, “Where is everybody?” followed by 45 minutes of them running for their lives (all capped off by five more minutes for an ironic twist ending). It’s very good in pieces; but on the whole, Come Out And Play feels like it’s missing a few necessary twists.
Grade: C+

The End Of Time
Director/Country/Time: Peter Mettler, Canada, 114 min.
Program: Masters
Headline: It’s about time
Noel’s Take: Continuing the free-associative approach to non-fiction filmmaking that he explored in his 2002 epic Gambling, Gods And LSD, noted director/cinematographer Petter Mettler’s The End Of Time is an essay-film that combines interviews, images and narration in ways intended to get the audience to meditate on some general ideas and concepts. Specifically, Mettler is interested in how we perceive time. Traveling all over the world, from active volcanoes to an enormous particle accelerator, Mettler considers our relationship to what is, essentially, an abstract concept—and one that not everyone sees the same way. What is “a long time” versus “a blip,” relatively? How fast do we need to move to get out of the way of danger, or to stay ahead of the curve? How well can we perceive the changes all around us, some caused by the slow process of natural decay and some caused by man’s inability to leave well-enough alone? Mettler himself is in no hurry to raise these questions, and has no intention of resolving them. The End Of Time jumps slowly from subject to subject—spending a little time with a techno musician, for example, and then examining how the spread of the automobile in the 20th century made work and leisure life much faster—and asks the audience to make its own connections. The contemplative, free-ranging approach can be a little too elusive at times, but Mettler does succeed in creating a calming space, where the viewer can scrutinize aged wood, or people dancing, or ants tugging at a dead grasshopper, and think about how in some ways time zips by, and in other ways, it creeps.
Grade: B

Director/Country/Time: Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Véréna Paravel, France/UK/USA, 87 min.
Program: Wavelengths
Headline: Spoiler alert: The fish dies.
Noel’s Take: As someone who likes both cinematic sensation and watching people do a job, I was predisposed to dig Leviathan, an avant-garde documentary about a typical night aboard a commercial fishing vessel. Make no mistake though: This is an immersive experience, designed to plunge the viewer into darkness, chaos, and a rush of color and movement—not to be informative in any conventional sense. There are no voiceovers, or interviews, or on-screen titles (beyond a citation from The Book Of Job at the start of the film). Instead, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel have strapped cameras all over a ship and on some of the crew, showing the process of catching, sorting, and gutting fish as a noisy, roiling thing, involving speed, muck, and hard physical labor. Oftentimes, films about work and/or nature tend to be lulling. Not Leviathan; it intends to leave viewers feeling unmoored. It’s a little like Workingman’s Death, as reinterpreted by Gaspar Noé. Not everything in the movie is a knockout. Whenever Castaing-Taylor and Paravel focus on the faces of the crew-members, Leviathan is less engaging than it is when it shows heaping piles of fish writhing on a swaying deck. But the “you are there” approach—at times extending to actual first-person shots—means that Leviathan is filled with stunning, cockeyed images. My favorite: A shot from the side of the ship, where the discarded fish entrails slop through an opening, as though the boat itself were retching.
Grade: A-

Much Ado About Nothing
Director/Country/Time: Joss Whedon/USA/107 min.
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Fran Kranz
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Bardhouse
Noel’s Take: See Day Four.
Scott’s Take: The Whedon Company's grip-it-and-rip-it Shakespeare was shot very quickly on a modest property, in black-and-white video (which: yuck), and given a contemporary update that's seem more a matter of necessity than a source of creative invention. Seeing actors in contemporary dress referring to each other as princes and maidens fair is mildly distracting, and guns in place of sabers are a crude substitute, though casting Nathan Fillion as the cop who gets to the bottom of all this scheming pays enormous comic dividends. Really, it's just a joy to see the Whedon players—Acker! Denisof! Kranz!—deliver Shakespeare's endearing comedy of love and misunderstanding with their usual élan. Whedon keeps the staging simple, but directs with great energy, ace timing, and a good feel for when some embellishing gesture might carry a scene across. A minor pleasure—I found myself pining for a fuller production from the same team—but like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog, it’s an unexpected and welcome blessing from the Whedonverse. More please.
Grade: B+


Storm Surfers 3D
Director/Country/Time: Christopher Nelius/Justin McMillan, Australia, 95 min.
Program: TIFF Docs
Headline: Endless winter
Noel’s Take: God bless Bruce Brown for making the surfing documentary a thing. Storm Surfers 3D is no Endless Summer—and isn’t as good as the similar Riding Giants—but its story of two aging Australian surf legends chasing massive swells during the winter storm season is still engaging, and the footage is frequently breathtaking. Frankly, the 3D doesn’t add much; it’s the sheer number of helmetcams, boardcams and jetskicams that really do the job here, providing some amazing angles of Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones as they work their way up, down and through giant walls of water well off the coast. It’s fascinating to see how this whole operation moves, with weather forecasters and teams of support staff helping Carroll and Clarke-Jones find the spots where the waves will be the biggest (without becoming too dangerous). Directors Christopher Nelius and Justin McMilan try too hard to shape all this into a fairly simplistic narrative: making every mission seem dodgy, while showing how the men have to overcome their doubts and fear before they hit the water. But none of that is bogus, necessarily. Carroll and Clarke-Jones are both near 50, with kids to consider, and so every time they let go of the towrope and surf into a wave that’s breaking into a jagged reef, they know what they’re risking. Yet they risk anyway, to satisfy their own primal needs (and to give us surf-voyeurs something to thrill to).
Grade: B


The Suicide Shop
Director/Country/Time: Patrice Leconte, France/Belgium, 79 min.
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Guns aren’t lawful, Nooses give, gas smells awful, et cetera
Noel’s Take: This seems to be the day of veteran directors stepping outside their comfort zone. First Barry Levinson takes a crack at low-budget horror, and now classy French filmmaker Patrice Leconte makes a 3D animated musical adaptation of Jean Teulé’s macabre novel The Suicide Shop, about a Charles Addams-esque family of poison-purveyors who have their lives upended by their relentlessly cheerful youngest son. Leconte’s The Suicide Shop really has one repeated joke, contrasting the sunny little kid with his siblings and parents, who pleasantly and professionally help depressed people find the right implement for self-destruction. Also, the songs are unmemorable, and the 3D adds little. But Leconte—a lifelong cartoonist—comes up with charming and original character designs, and the movie has an infectious sweetness. Surrounded by death since birth, this family has rarely considered what it means to make a conscious choice to live, until one of their own forces the issue, shaking them—and the audience—out of a dreary, cynical stupor. Nice work, that.
Grade: B

To The Wonder
Director/Country/Time: Terrence Malick/USA/112 min.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Talk About The Passion
Noel’s Take: See Day Six.
Scott’s Take: I don't want to waste time reacting to the reaction to Terrence Malick's To The Wonder—suffice to say, it's been unkind in some circles, drawing boos at Venice (which means nothing), mixed notices, and glib dismissals on social media. To a degree, I understand (and share) the frustration of those who prefer it have 30% less frolicking and wheat-caressing. Malick's subject here—as with all his films—is man's relationship to God and the natural world, only this time, that spiritual commune isn't anchored as firmly by stories of war (The Thin Red Line), conquest (The New World), or growing up in '50s Texas (The Tree Of Life). It's mostly outline and abstraction, tracing the on-again/off-again relationship between a Frenchwoman (Olga Kurylenko) and the remote Oklahoman (Ben Affleck) to whom she gives her heart and gets little in return. (In terms of their connection to nature, they’re basically analogs to Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in The Tree Of Life.) There's also Javier Bardem as a priest who's trying to overcome his estrangement from God, whose invisible hand cannot always be felt. Bardem's dilemma is the central one in To The Wonder, and Malick does his best to make it ours, too. The film cannot be judged by the usual metrics—it has figures rather than characters, movements rather than acts—because what it's really attempting to do is give expression to the ineffable and show us something beautiful, reminding us that we live in a world that's larger than ourselves and crafted by that invisible hand. Pitt resists it in The Tree Of Life, Affleck resists it here, and mankind carves up the Earth and violates it. (Affleck's profession has him presiding over the slicing-and-dicing.) But Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski keep supplying breath-catching moments of beauty in every locale, from water sluicing through mud as the tide rises to something as improbably gorgeous as a Sonic joint in Nowheresville, Oklahoma framed against the setting sun. No one is calling To The Wonder Malick's best film—I think it's his worst, in fact, due to a little too much wheel-spinning—but if you're looking for a thesis statement on Malick's career, Bardem's narration at the end will do. It left me a blubbering mess, and was as close as a godless wretch like me gets to a religious experience.
Grade: A- 


Next: TIFF 2013.