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TORONTO ’07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Midnight Madness Mixed, With Duds “Sukiyaki,” “Frontier(s),” Standout

TORONTO '07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Midnight Madness Mixed, With Duds "Sukiyaki," "Frontier(s)," Standout

With The Toronto International Film Festival, being as large and prestigious as it is, its no surprise that their Midnight Madness lineup would be one of the more varied and sophisticated programs out there. In a program containing new works for classic cult directors like Dario Argento, George Romero and Takashi Miike, there’s bound to be some high points and some duds along the way. Cops, cowboys, Nazis, zombies and drug-hungry nurses all come out to play, and some of it is not pretty.

On the blander end of things is Takashi Miike‘s “Sukiyaki Western Django,” a misguided cowboy tale with no twist. Miike’s work has fluctuated in quality a great deal over the years and “Django” falls to the lower end of things, which is surprising considering the involvement of co-writer Masa Nakamura, a driving force behind some of Miike’s better films (“Dead or Alive 2“, “Big Bang Love, Juvenile A“). “Western” does contain some of Miike’s pacing mistakes, standard bi-products of the speed which he churns out pictures, but where the film really goes wrong is with the spoken dialog. This is Miike’s first film in English, and it shows. Drawing from a cast of primarily Japanese natives attempting to learn the script phonetically and then perform it back in Miike’s classically stilted style, “Django” fails miserably at keeping the film up to speed.

A scene from Fumihiko Sori’s “Vexille.” Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

On another dry note, the animation selection for the year is Fumihiko Sori‘s innovative cop thriller, “Vexille.” Utilizing a more realistic looking form of digital animation, “Vexille” relies way too much on the visuals to keep the audience’s attention. At its best, it’s a Hollywood summer blockbuster, big loud and dumb. The animators had their fun, but the downtime between cool gadgets and loud chase sequences holds very little weight. The same can be said for the kung fu selection this year, Wilson Yip‘s “Flash Point“. Yip’s latest Donnie Yen vehicle is front loaded with stock plot, fleshed out to resemble a character drama, and then back loaded with a punch of furious action.

In one of the more tedious exercises in the program, French newcomer Xavier Gens assaults the audience with a brutal onslaught of supposed terror that ends up a disjointed, purposeless bloodbath. “Frontier(s)” tells the story of four punks in their mid-twenties, on the lamb after looting during the Paris riots, who seek refuge at a small, rural farm house and get much more than they bargained for. Greeted by a horny, cannibalistic neo-Nazi family with a bloodline to protect, the punks find that the wrong words will get them into heaps of trouble. Touching on a plethora of interesting thematic elements – from the politics of the riots metaphorically being played out in the families sadism or the timely battle of Christians vs. Muslims -, “Frontier(s)” has a lot of fertile ground for a movie who’s moral lesson never goes any further than being careful not to piss someone off while they’re cutting your hair.

None of this really matters because Gens drags things along at a snails pace. The characters are exhaustingly unlikable from minute one and the handheld camera work is enough to make any mumblecore filmmaker cringe. When moments are accented with anything more than silly brutality or perversity, there is a bizarrely stoic overtone as Gens utilizes overly effusive Hollywood battle scoring, proving once and for all the self-conscious nature of his directing that renders all “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” comparisons obsolete. “Frontier(s)” is a violent jolt to the senses, not because of its unpolished grotesque imagery which saves the film in the campy final act that plays like the dying breath of a good premise, but because of its anti-human disconnect. It separates itself from any lineage of the most offensive pieces in horror history (Wes Craven‘s “The Last House on the Left” and Eli Roth‘s “Hostel 2” come to mind) by not making any attempt for the audience to sympathize with the victims.

Suffering from the same flaw – though not nearly to as large a degree – is Stuart Gordon‘s latest, “Stuck.” Ripped from recent hot newspaper headlines, “Stuck” tells the story of a young retirement-home caregiver (played by Mena Suvari) who finds herself with a homeless man lodged in her windshield after an ecstasy induced car accident. Unsure of what to do, she leaves him there for several days to bleed to death while she enlists the help of her drug dealer boyfriend in a plot to dispose of the body. Gordon, most famous for the cult classic “Re-Animator,” has been experimenting recently with more serious drama. His last film, “Edmond,” was an admirable attempt at realizing David Mamet‘s outdated play for the screen, and, though flawed, proved Gordon could direct all the same. So it’s not surprise that where “Stuck” goes wrong is with John Strysik‘s mangled screenplay, ranging in quality from stock dialog to inspired moments of dark comedy. Not even Stephen Rea‘s performance as the ailing hobo can piece together a real character out of this mishmash of structure and the film isn’t funny enough to hold up from a satiric angle – leaving it floating in some dramatic purgatory.

While Gordon may just be realizing his more mature voice, horror masters like Dario Argento and George Romero appear in the program with new films that showcase humorous throwbacks into the world’s that they once built. Romero’s “Diary of the Dead,” the latest in his classic zombie series, make waves with its constant use (and mockery) of modern technology. Toggling between uproariously crowd-pleasing with its cast of characters and range of deaths and painfully heavy handed with lots of meandering on its mock doc style, “Diary” always seems to come out on top, making sure the laughter and cheers outweigh the cringing. And just when you thought he had nothing left to do but make fun of himself, Romero reminds you that he can bring the creepy too, in a handful of well-timed, dark corridor sequences.

A scene from Dario Argento’s “The Mother of Tears.” Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Argento, almost completely shifting genres, comes to TIFF’s Midnight Madness with the third in his mother trilogy, “The Mother of Tears,” a Ed Wood-esque send up of 70’s horror that would make Paul Morrisey proud. In what seems like a conscious effort to poke fun at the b-cinema that was being shot while he was making a name for himself, Argento provides the audience with a nearly incomprehensible plot that is secondary to hilarious tropes of cheap filmmaking. The film suffers a little bit from being all one joke, but it’s hard not see the irony in play here. This style of horror has been influencing Argento all along, no matter how much more serious or mature his earlier masterpieces may have seemed.

But the sad reality is that all this self-reflexive musings and filmmaking experience in action can’t hold a candle to the intelligence protruding from the newcomers responsible for the final two films in this week’s Midnight Madness line-up. Both straight off their Cannes premieres, Hitoshi Matsumoto‘s “Dainipponjin” and Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury‘s “Inside” represent the best midnight fare that TIFF 2007 has to offer. Matsumoto’s mockumentary masterpiece about alienation and heroism is a film so fresh, unique and surprising that it does an audience member a disservice to even read the catalog description. And if you are looking for a good, old classic scare, one need look no further than “Inside,” the “Rear Window” cum “High Tension” splatter flick that is timed so meticulously that one feels their neck will snap at any minute from the anxiety. In the final two nights of the festival, Midnight Madness will display its greatest strength, showcasing great new filmmaking from around the world. Make sure not to miss it.

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