The Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival has a certain reputation among fans of midnight movies (or “genre films,” or whatever else you call them -- cultish horror and foreign actioners mostly). Basically, it’s considered one of the finest film festival programs of its kind in the world.
Heading into my first experience of TIFF, that reputation meant very little to me, as I’m not exactly of that particular audience. So for me to now wholeheartedly affirm that it is one of the finest film festival programs I’ve ever encountered, and not just of its kind, this should not only preserve the deserved reputation it holds but also hopefully encourage other typical midnight-forgoers to sever the ‘for’ prefix (remove that head like it’s a zombie) and just go.
I guess I was lucky to be introduced to the fest in a year when regulars are saying that Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes really outdid himself. This was apparently his best slate yet. Also I’m hearing that the regular TIFF titles were generally weaker than usual.
All I know was that a few days into TIFF I was disappointed with nearly everything I’d seen outside of the Midnight titles I’d watched. From then on it was my priority to catch the whole shebang. And for me to put genre films before documentaries especially is a big deal.
But, you know, if I’m going to watch something likely to make me fear for the future of my unborn children anyway (Surviving Progress, I’m looking at you), it might as well be as fun as Bobcat Goldthwaite’s God Bless America. In the latest darkly hilarious effort from the comedian-turned-filmmaker, we get another culture caricature (don’t call it satire) seemingly (intentionally?) owing as much to Heathers as Goldthwaite’s World’s Greatest Dad does, only this time the body count is much higher and more cartoonish. It’s a riot, and although it kind of cancels out its own saliency with a highly frivolous tone, I think it’s a very necessary fantasy film for our time. (See my full review here.)
If you want an even higher body count and not one iota of substance, whether political relevancy or social commentary or any sort of story, really, the Midnight Madness audience award winner, The Raid, is for you. This enormously kinetic Indonesian standout from director Gareth Evans and martial arts star Iko Uwais is literally 100 minutes of non-stop action as we watch a swat team storm a kingpin’s apartment complex headquarters and, from among the ranks, a cyclonic rookie charges up through the many levels of goons like, well, gangbusters. (See my full review here.)
That movie has been likened to Die Hard (which plays like Warhol’s Empire by comparison), and so has Frederic Jardin’s Sleepless Night, a French action flick that also mostly sticks to a single location (albeit one with so many rooms) and similarly follows a cop through a crime lord’s base of operations, here a labyrinthine nightclub. There’s more story (I mean, there is one), as the protagonist is out to rescue his teenage son from the big boss’s clutches following a fumbled drug heist. There’s also less fighting, but what action there is, Jardin handles it with finesse.
Anyway the real fun of Sleepless Night is keeping up with the antihero dad as he moves about the club. I love comparing and contrasting this film with The Raid and consider them to be excellent counterparts. They’re both full of energy (a necessity for late night screenings, I believe) and feature resilient yet vincible leads, but where The Raid steadily pushes forward, forward, forward, up, up, up, Sleepless Night works with a movement consisting of forward, back, turn, forward, forward, up, down, left, back, back, up, forward, etc. Very different sorts of rides, but each exhilarating in its own way.
Sharing a bit in common with the double-back maneuverability of Sleepless Night is the single-location thriller The Incident. Alexandre Courtes’s horror movie traps a quartet of hipster band-mate caterers in the mental asylum they work in, typically without physical interaction with the criminally insane inmates on the other side of a secure barrier. Storm comes, power goes out, you know the rest.
I assume there’s some intended joke at the center of a plot involving a rock band literally feeding crazy people and/or the idea of the insane playing with the minds of the musicians. But these themes, if deliberate, aren’t too well thought out, and for the most part a few great instances of gore can’t save this film from being the least interesting and least entertaining of the bunch.
In case you aren’t noticing a trend, a majority of these Midnight Madness titles take place over a 24-hour period, if not shorter. The Day follows suit, of course, though as appropriate as its bland title is, I prefer to call it “The Real Hunger Games.” Directed by longtime Robert Rodriguez collaborator Douglas Aarniokoski, this minimal-exposition post-apocalyptic thriller pits a band of starving survivors (including Dominic Monaghan, Shawn Ashmore and Shannyn Sossamon) who won’t stoop to the level of cannibalism against a majority of ruthless humans who will, and do.
I think the movie misses a HUGE opportunity that I unfortunately can’t specify without spoiling the ending, and I’d like to pretend I never read the press notes stating that it’s meant to be some kind of post-Holocaust, reformed-Nazis allegory. But when it works it really works, with The Last Exorcism’s Ashley Bell standing out as a very cool and mysterious kick-ass anti-heroine. At the very least this should be a calling card for the actress to get her own action franchise.
Another impressive and magnetic female powerhouse is at the center of Adam Wingard’s intensely entertaining You’re Next, which is probably my favorite of the Midnight Madness program. It starts out like a dysfunctional family holiday movie and dives quickly into a home invasion thriller, one with the sort of one-by-one body count reserved for certain murder mysteries, or slasher films. In a way it’s Miss Marple versus Jason. With a dash of Doing Time on Maple Drive.
There is even that female survivor -- here more like survivalist -- role we get with the slasher genre, and Keira Knightley lookalike Sharni Vinson is terrific as the invited girlfriend who takes charge to protect the large clan of potential in-laws. Among these are indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg as the amusingly arrogant eldest brother, who suffers awesome injury throughout the movie, and scream queen legend Barabara Crampton as the family matriarch. Scary, funny, action-heavy and altogether a huge blast, You’re Next better be a big hit for these guys.
Horror tends to be the genre that primarily keeps me from being a midnight movie aficionado, but an oddity like Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Livid has the power to transfix me with its creepy, bewildering spectacle of taxidermy and vampiric ballerinas. I don’t love it, I’m not sure I really get it, but its visuals and plotting are like nothing I’m familiar with.
And it helps that it blows Francis Ford Coppola’s latest, Twixt, out of the water with its somewhat similar story and far more inspired (albeit no less baffling) direction. This is already being remade by Hollywood, which I’m surprised wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of a vampire-based body-swap movie. That would only be a spoiler, by the way, if Livid’s plot made any sense.
Also of the scary movie classification is Lovely Molly, from one of the co-directors of The Blair Witch Project, Eduardo Sanchez. I didn’t find it too frightening but I appreciate the way the film piles on the potential causes of the title character’s madness, for a packed psychological character study with hints of macabre. (See my full review here.)
Two Midnight Madness titles escaped me during my week in Toronto. I had already attempted Ben Wheatley’s hugely popular Kill List at South by Southwest’s midnight movie program, but in spite of my liking the first half, I fell asleep and then hated the ending. This is why I can’t do midnights at their intended time of day, because I’m old and always tired. A shame, because I hear the late night Madness screenings at TIFF are a must, part of the experience that keeps Geddes’ section so celebrated.
I didn’t see any of Katsuhito Ishii’s Smuggler, but I’ll go out on a limb and guess it’s at least entertaining or interesting or stunning, or all of the above. I like to think I made up for my incomplete undertaking of the Midnight Madness selection by seeing the lovable documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive, which Geddes discovered apart from his duties in this program. But praise for that film shall come with another roundup. For now let me thank Geddes for a terrific slate and all my friends assuring me this program would be more worth my time than the tons of other film choices to be had in Toronto.
I already can’t wait for next year’s Midnight Madness crop.