TAD 2016 Reviews: ‘As the Gods Will,’ ‘Creepy,’ ‘Antibirth,’ ‘Blood Father,’ and Shorts After Dark

by Andrew Parker

For our third dispatch from the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, we take a look at three films yet to come, a screening of a big name film that has come and gone, and give a shout out to some of the more notable short films to play at this year’s festival.

There’s still plenty more to come with the festival running until Friday October 21 at the Scotiabank Theatre. For a full list of films playing this year, directions, tickets, showtimes, and more information, check out the Toronto After Dark website!

 

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As the Gods Will

Based on a manga by Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Akeji Fujimura, As the Gods Will is a young adult aimed gore-fest and mind-screw that would be better off in the deranged hands of someone like Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono instead of equally prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins). Although Miike has successfully made films for a younger crowd before, his teen aiming efforts have never been this frustrating, annoying, or half-assed.

A high school sophomore (Sôta Fukushi) tries to stay alive and protect his childhood best friend (Hirona Yamazaki) after an unknown force has turned their school into a bloody playground, literally. Somehow controlled by mysterious floating cubes orbiting over major cities around the world, students are forced into competing in childish schoolyard games like red light/green light, hide and seek, and kick the can in a fight for their lives emceed by various monstrous figures designed to look totally innocuous. The penalty for losing is an instant and gruesome death, but the players have little idea how to win since most games revolve around puzzle and problem solving abilities, and the true point or outcome of the game sometimes relies on luck, active participation, or teamwork.

While it’s admirable that Miike has unequivocally made the bleakest and most depressing young adult film in creation – something that most adaptations of North American bestselling novels fail to do – As the Gods Will plays like an annoying, repetitive draft of a good film instead of anything worth filming. Every game has an unsatisfying conclusion where the audience watches every countdown clock tick down as close to zero as possible before the game ends. There’s underwhelming and little developed subtext about the point where religion and terrorism coincide. At some points, things show up conveniently to help the teens, and at others seemingly important plot points that have had lots of energy and time expended on them are jettisoned without a care.

That’s fine in a movie that isn’t nearly as repetitive in its desire to blend whimsy and shock as this film is. No matter what’s happening in Miike’s film, it all drags out longer than it needs to and feels the exact same. A film that revolves around a game this intricate (the finale is something I would need two hours and a whiteboard to explain the dynamics of) needs a unified logic, and As the Gods Will has none of that. It cheats with the audience and thinks it’s all rather cute and clever, but that repetitive streak just makes one wish Miike would stop f**king around and just go somewhere with this material. The only thing that really works is the inclusion of a villainous teen who’s a gleeful sadist that gets pleasure out of killing or watching others die. If I were in this world, I’d want to get away from him. If I had to put up with these annoying games, I would just let the games kill me to be done with them.

The teen stuff is too fatalist for me to recommend it to teens, basically telling the audience “screw it, we’re all dead inside, anyway.” It’s clearly not made for adults because Miike explains every detail to the audience like they’re idiots who can’t pay attention, and it builds to a conclusion as satisfying as running a marathon only to have someone run at you to kick you in the crotch with cleats on at the finish line. As the Gods Will is a needlessly exhausting, scattershot, and ultimately hollow film.

Rating (out of five stars): 1.5 stars

As the Gods Will screens on Tuesday, October 18 at 7:00 pm

 

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Creepy

Welcome back, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (although there are a fair amount of defenders who’ll say the Japanese auteur never left). Creepy finds genre veteran Kurosawa (Pulse, Tokyo Sonata) returning to his more suspenseful and horrific filmmaking roots after spending some time away from genre filmmaking to make more prestigious, proper arthouse fare. But to call Creepy a throwback would be disingenuous. Part psychological crime procedural and part domestic drama, Creepy marks another reinvention for Kurosawa as a filmmaker, delivering his best film in years.

Semi-retired police psychologist Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) doesn’t know what to do with his downtime – now working as a university professor –and agrees to help a colleague do some digging on a cold case involving an entire family that mysteriously vanished into thin air six years prior. He has also moved with his loving and supportive wife, Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi), to a new home in the suburbs. Their neighbours aren’t the friendliest, trying their best to keep to themselves, especially Mr. Nishino (a wonderfully unnerving Teruyuki Kagawa), who lives with his ill wife and teenage daughter. It’s not long before Yasuko realizes that something’s not quite right with their socially awkward neighbour and Takakura notices that there might be a connection between their neighbours and the case he’s currently investigating.

The storytelling concept of being paranoid that one’s neighbours are somehow evil has been done to death, but in the hands of Kurosawa, this adaptation of a novel by Yukata Maekawa feels fresh and nuanced. A slowly building, but remarkably well paced thriller, Creepy never leaves the audience in the dark for too long about what’s happening or that something might be amiss, but for each revelation the film offers up a few more questions arise as a result. It’s a testament to Kurosawa as a filmmaker that he has the patience in faith in his audience that they’ll pay close attention and take everything in, building to an intelligent and deeply terrifying climax that’s one of the best denouements of his career. It’s not the most openly terrifying or bloody film at this year’s festival, but it might be the best, and one that smart and thoughtful viewers won’t be able to shake for quite some time.

Rating (out of five stars): 4.8 stars

Creepy screens on Tuesday, October 18 at 9:30 pm.

Check out the trailer for Creepy:

 

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Antibirth

For better or worse and depending on your own personal tastes, filmmaker Danny Perez has created a film that practically dares the viewer to keep watching it with the laudably batshit gross-out horror-comedy Antibirth. I know this isn’t a film for everyone, and I’m not even sure it’s a film for me, but I knew that when I got to the gore, slime, and viscera soaked ending that I had seen something truly original and singular.

Natasha Lyonne (who also serves as a producer here) kills it as Lou, a perpetually drunk and stoned hotel maid from a Northern hamlet populated mostly by current and former soldiers who might be pregnant following a drunken bacchanal where she blacked out. Lou’s quest for answers as to whatever “immaculately conceived” young’un she’s carrying involves a potentially traitorous best friend (Chloë Sevigny), a pair of drug dealers (Green Room’s Mark Webber and Torontonian actor/writer/director Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) trying to concoct the perfect cut rate high, a soft-spoken drifter (Meg Tilley, also great), and maybe some aliens or military conspiracy or something. Lou doesn’t so much care what’s inside her or how it got there as long as someone tells her how to get it out so she can once again party unencumbered.

In the vein of extreme body horror flicks like Body Melt and Street Trash – but admittedly much better looking – the grimy Antibirth is the closest thing that audiences have seen to an accomplished splatter-punk movie in ages. Perez makes every frame of his film look quite elegantly like a bad trip through a hell hole. It’s misanthropic in the extreme, especially Lyonne’s thoroughly unlikable and unreliable heroine.  Sure, there’s some subtext here about the depths of drug addiction, something vague to be said about unwanted pregnancy, and not everything will add up neatly, but the joy (or potential unease) of watching Antibirth comes from wondering just what crazed direction it will go in next. In that respect, Antibirth is a filthy success. But really this is the dictionary definition of the phrase “your mileage may vary.”

Rating (out of five stars): 3.1 stars

Antibirth screens on Wednesday, October 19 at 7:00 pm

Check out the trailer for Antibirth:

 

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Blood Father

The first step in yet another comeback attempt for somewhat disgraced actor and filmmaker Mel Gibson comes in the form of Blood Father, French filmmaker Jean-François Richet’s Taken-ish thriller where an aging badass who has attempted to go straight has been brought back into his checkered past to try and help his daughter out of a jam.

Richet (Mesrine, the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13) directs from a script by Straight Outta Compton writer Andrea Berloff and The Town author Peter Craig (the latter adapting his own novel) and casts the craggy faced Gibson as John Link, a recovering alcoholic and one time biker gang foot soldier living a solitary existence in the California desert as a legitimate tattoo artist. When the daughter he hasn’t seen in years (since she ran away from his ex-wife’s house when she was 14) resurfaces, she’s in a bad way. Lydia (Erin Moriarty) needs money so she can disappear in a hurry after accidentally killing her well connected drug dealer boyfriend (Diego Luna) in a hit gone wrong. More interested in helping Lydia get clean, sober, and straightened out before she runs off, Link doesn’t want to do anything that would make him a target of the police or the parole board. That all goes out the window when hit squads start gunning for the father-daughter duo, forcing them to go on the lam and stay one step ahead of the law and the cartel.

It’s material almost custom made for Gibson at this point in his career. Many scenes where Link talks about his past with dirty deeds and drinking feel like less than subtle mea culpas. That’s fine considering that Gibson (regardless of what one thinks of him on a personal level) gives the role a great deal of gravitas, wit, and nuance. It’s just a shame that he’s put opposite of Moriarty, whose character is written as an over-the-top hysterical type for poorly drawn out reasons. It’s easy to feel sympathy for Link and not so easy to side with Lydia, which is a bit of a problem when the film centres around one protecting the other with everything they have at their disposal. Gibson does get some great assists here, however, from a subtly evil Luna, Michael Parks as a former shot caller turned Nazi and Confederate memorabilia salesman, and the always reliable William H. Macy as Link’s AA sponsor and helpful next door neighbour.

Still, it’s an effective and entertaining bit of blood, bullets, and octane, and Richet gradually makes the film escalate instead of having Link immediately snap back into his old ways. Blood Father earns its action beats quite earnestly and naturally for the first two thirds, before a highly illogical and somewhat cheesy twist lurches the film into its final bloody act. It’s still highly entertaining, and the best action is contained in the back half of the film, but it revolves around the villains making ludicrously stupid and out of character choices for the sake of having a gorgeously shot cinematic showdown in the desert.

Still, it’s brief, unpretentious fun for what it is. It likely won’t change your opinions of Gibson one way or the other, but as a piece of entertainment that never takes itself more seriously than absolutely necessary, it’s fine.

Rating (out of five stars): 3.4 stars

Blood Father screened earlier this week. It hits home entertainment on Tuesday, October 25th.

Check out the trailer for Blood Father:

 

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Shorts After Dark

This past Saturday, the Toronto After Dark Festival screened it’s Shorts After Dark programme. Ten shorts from around the world were screened back to back for festival audiences, with a handful of wide ranging standouts and something for nearly every taste, all of which audiences should keep an eye out for if they turn up again somewhere else down the road.

Dianne Bellno’s discomforting, but touching claymation film The Itching finds a lonely wolf dealing with an increasingly itchy rash on her thigh, and efforts from her bunny best friend to try and make things better. At once a literal bit of body horror, a clever flipping of expected wolf/bunny dynamics, and a crushing metaphor for social anxiety, The Itching never goes where one expects it to, but where it leads is completely unexpected.

Ditto the wildly unpredictable, hilarious, and perfectly surreal comedy Greener Grass from American filmmaker Paul Briganti. A skewering of soccer mom culture and suburban vapidity, this tale of two brace faced middle aged besties with perky attitudes and few real social skills quite improbably involves baby swapping, peeping toms, a kid that turns into a dog, sandwich vomiting, and giving birth to a soccer ball. It sounds like it could be gross, but Briganti prefers to keep it weird instead of offensively off-putting, lending the film a decidedly surreal feeling.

The other straight up comedy short in the programme is Grier Dill’s brief, but suitably goofy Vitamins for Life, where viewers watch an old school filmstrip about lesser known vitamins that people take for granted. It’s not much, but it gets some big laughs in only two minutes.

Those who like their weirdness a bit more on the horrific side and suspenseful would enjoy French filmmaker Alban Ravassard’s The Call, about an aging police detective who finds the unconscious body of a past lover washed up on the beach. Starting off as a tale of infidelity and the unknown, Ravassard’s film slowly becomes a subtle creature feature and body horror film with seamless ease and an admirably obtuse approach to what could have been a more straightforward procedural or melodrama.

A bit grosser and far less subtle on the body horror scale is When Susuruss Stirs, the grotesque, but admittedly funny tale of an upper middle class everyman who becomes a fat slob after inhaling a bug on a jog that happens to be the last remaining member of an ancient race. Director Anthony Johnson employs some top notch make-up and effects work for the ickiest look possible, but there are distinct echoes of early Cronenberg here that suggest he learned his cues from the best.

Those who prefer their horror stories to be slow building and sparse in their suspense instead of “in your face” exercises would like Australian filmmaker Tim Egan’s Curve, about a woman who awakens to find herself precariously placed atop a curved concrete slab above a bottomless pit with few chances for rescue or escape, and American filmmaker Oliver Park’s Still, which concerns a woman at home alone who’s being stalked by what appears to be a mannequin with a sack on its head. Both are brief, but go to great lengths to draw out sustained tension from minimalist settings and set ups.

Will Blank’s Limbo and Amanda Kramer’s Bark both defy any sort of categorization, but both involved dogs of sorts. In Limbo, an adaptation of a graphic novel from Marian Churchland, a regretful man on a solitary trip through the desert helps a dying, mystical dog (voiced by none other than Sam Elliott) who can grant the man a single wish of anything he wants in the world. Bark is a lot more obtuse, starting with an argument between two sisters (written brilliantly with dialogue that sounds like Ibsen or Tennessee Williams) surrounding a suspicious noise that may or may not have been a dog or a prank of some sort. Both films are well outside the horror genre, but offer intelligent viewers plenty to think about and puzzle over.

Really, the only old school sort of horror offering during Shorts After Dark comes in the form of UK filmmaker Robert Savage’s Dawn of the Deaf, a zombie story that starts off subtly and boasts gorgeous and inventive cinematography. For the most part, it’s a tale of several deaf or hard of hearing characters dealing with hardship, personal demons, success, or ridicule because of their affliction. The big reveal sort of gets given away by the title, and it almost ends in the best possible part, but Savage’s story deserves a commendation for first and foremost being a mournful story of how society treats deaf people unfairly. That’s more horrific than any sort of zombie outbreak.

Overall, the programming team at After Dark whittled down over 800 short film entries this year to these ten selections, and the results showcase some of the finest up and coming and established filmmaking talents, many with loads of promise for future projects.

As a somewhat related side note, many attendees of the festival know that prior to the screening of every feature, Toronto After Dark screens a short film. For the first time in the festival’s eleven year history, Telefilm Canada has partnered up with Toronto After Dark to sponsor the Canada After Dark pre-feature screening programme. Recognizing the festival’s commitment to supporting Canadian film, Telefilm has put their seal of approval on the short film programming that showcases some of the best genre shorts from Canadian talent, so remember to show up to your film early or on time to catch some homegrown filmmaking.

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