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Film Festival Follies: Toronto International Film Festival – Day 2

While I personally only cover the horror films that play at the Toronto International Film Festival, there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of other films playing at my favorite fest. This year Simon Barrett joined Bloody Disgusting for several days of no sleep, drinks, train rides and MOVIES! Below you’ll find “Film Festival Follies: Toronto International Film Festival – Day 2,” the third of his ongoing travel journal covering The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Dorian Gray, Deliver Us from Evil, Up in the Air and Survival of the Dead.

Film Festival Follies: Toronto International Film Festival – Day 2

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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Dorian Gray, Deliver Us from Evil, Up in the Air and Survival of the Dead

Boy, I really wanted to like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. I mean, who doesn’t? Not only is it Heath Ledger’s final performance, but it’s been promoted as a comeback film for the once-great Terry Gilliam, whose last two films, The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, were disappointments on every level.

Unfortunately, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, much like The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, is a deeply frustrating film, so firmly rooted in its own nonsense universe that any real efforts to describe it would be futile. In essence, Christopher Plummer plays Doctor Parnassus, a mumbling, drunken former mystic who made a gamble with the devil over how many souls they could acquire (or liberate – I’m not too clear on that one). You see, Doctor Parnassus, who now travels with a theater troupe comprised of his daughter, Mini-Me, and the kid from Boy A, has a magic fake mirror that leads people into worlds of their own imagination, which then accomplishes… well, something, I guess. If they make the wrong choice at a crossroads in their imagination, the devil gets them, and if they don’t, well, then, they’re happy. I think. However, because he’s a drunk and his troupe are all idiots, Doctor Parnassus never actually achieves anything, and he’s about to lose his bet when the troupe runs into an amnesiac Heath Ledger, whose mysterious gift for marketing begins to bring in their first ever customers.

It’s no fun to pick on a film with a lead actor who died less than halfway through production. Obviously, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is not what it could have been under better circumstances. However, given the finished product, it’s difficult to imagine that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus could have ever been an entertaining or coherent film. The basic premise is so pointlessly contrived and convoluted that the film seems handicapped by its very inception.

Highlights, however, include depressingly great work by Heath Ledger, as well as nice turns by Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Ferrell, who all play “Imaginarium” versions of the Heath Ledger character. Ferrell in particular seems to be having a blast. And Lily Cole, the model who plays Doctor Parnassus’ daughter, is super hot. That kept me awake for a good portion of the movie.

Next up, I made a terrible choice and went to see Dorian Gray instead of Accident, reasoning that I would be able to catch Accident, a hyped Hong Kong thriller, later in the week. That plan eventually failed, and I was left cursing the 107 minutes I spent watching Dorian Gray, a movie that is neither good nor bad enough to really comment on. A horror movie made by a director, Oliver Parker, who appears to have never seen a horror movie before, Dorian Gray is a big budget, quality production that adds absolutely nothing new to its take on the classic source material. Everything about it is more or less okay, but you know exactly where it’s going and it takes forever to get there. Furthermore, the film’s efforts to be shocking or scary fall woefully flat; it would have been best adapted as a cynical costume drama, but Parker seems determined to add overtly horrific elements that are frankly kind of funny, such as the covered portrait groaning occasionally like a ghost with indigestion. Horror movie fans looking for a take on the novel are advised to instead seek out Dan Curtis’ 1973 television movie The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is both classier and funnier than this latest version.

After lunch, it was then time for a film I was eager to see, Ole Bornedal’s home invasion thriller Deliver Us from Evil (aka Fri Os fra det Onde), which opened in Denmark back in April. I have a complicated respect for director Ole Bornedal. To put it simply, his films are so well made that I always want them to be better than they actually are. Even his best film, the witty neo-noir Just Another Love Story, feels like it could have been improved by a quick script polish, in my humble opinion. His latest is no exception, a superbly crafted film with terrific performances that ultimately builds to very little.

The plot of Deliver Us from Evil is basically a Danish remake of Straw Dogs, in which a mild-mannered man is forced to defend his home and family against a group of local thugs after he gives shelter to a mentally disabled accused killer, who in this update happens to be a Muslim immigrant. Unlike Straw Dogs, however, Deliver Us from Evil has no consistent tone, with its themes of racial prejudice and sexual violence balanced uneasily with sequences of slapstick comedy and an overall breezy approach to its narrative. Ultimately, despite its ambitions, the film feels very slight.

Straw Dogs itself is apparently receiving an American remake shortly, but whereas Peckinpah’s original is a unique classic that would be difficult to improve upon, Deliver Us from Evil is a less-inspired take on very similar material that could benefit from a glossy Hollywood remake process along the lines of The Last House on the Left. As the remake rights to Bornedal’s films are generally snatched up by studios (the director remade his own Nightwatch in 1997 with Ewan McGregor, and a remake of his goofy 2007 sci-fi film The Substitute is reportedly underway), we probably won’t have to wait long to see this happen.

A friend hooked me up with a ticket to the premiere of Up in the Air, the new Jason Reitman film. I arrived sleep-deprived and in that special mental state that can only come from watching three disappointing films in a row, and was nearly trampled outside the theater when George Clooney suddenly appeared behind me to sign autographs. I think it’s terrific that Clooney, one of the few true stars of modern cinema, is the kind of nice guy who will hang around outside a premiere until everyone who wants an autograph or handshake has got one. That said, celebrities, like wolf spiders, make me nervous, so I got the hell out of there with my pal Josh, in a perfectly timed move that led us to be the first people seated in the giant Ryerson theater.

Critics are already labeling Up in the Air as an Academy Awards “Best Picture” contender, and I will not rock the boat in that regard. I’d be shocked if the film wasn’t nominated in several fields (I’ll add actor, supporting actress, production design, and adapted screenplay to my list of predictions). With Up in the Air, Jason Reitman has created a curiously depressing romantic comedy for the current American economy that will resonate with most viewers. George Clooney plays a “corporate downsizing expert” who is brought in by business clients to fire their employees, but finds himself potentially facing irrelevance at his own company when a young female executive (Rocket Science‘s Anna Kendrick, an absolute revelation here) introduces the notion of firing employees via webcam. In the meantime, Clooney has met and fallen for a woman (Vera Farmiga, good as always) who shares his transient lifestyle and aversion to commitment.

Up in the Air isn’t a masterpiece, but it also isn’t trying to be. It’s just a nicely paced, funny, quietly sad story of a basically good person facing an existential crisis during the current economic depression. It’s probably going to be an enormous hit, in which case everyone will start hating it (see also: Juno), so I’m glad I got to see it before the inevitable surge of critical acclaim and accompanying backlash.

After Up in the Air, I crashed the Survival of the Dead party by identifying myself as Brad “Mr. Disgusting” Miska despite prominently wearing a festival badge showing a picture of my face above the name Simon Barrett. Mr. Disgusting, you see, had arrived at the party so early that he wasn’t even asked if he was on the list, and was busy drinking by himself in a dark corner of the club. In a sad portent of things to come, as I had failed to eat that day, I drank three glasses of wine and then began ravenously consuming the free sandwiches the club provided for the party until an exasperated waitress eventually gave up and just left the entire tray of sandwiches at our table. We then decided to attempt a dignified exit so that Brad could order a real dinner at a nearby bar, a bacon cheeseburger that he hastily devoured in a manner that helped to clarify the origins of his “Mr. Disgusting” moniker.

By the time I got to the theater where Survival of the Dead was to have its North American premiere, I was more than a little bit drunk and feeling the cumulative effects of the last three days’ travel and sleep loss. Still, I was tremendously excited for the film. I’d put the original Night of the Living Dead on any respectable short list of the best films of all time, and George Romero proceeded to give us an extraordinary, nearly four decade run in which he did not make a bad film. His work was sporadic, to be sure, but it was also ambitious and consistently successful. Up to, well, a point.

The evening started off great with Colin Geddes bringing Romero out on stage to a spontaneous standing ovation. Over a thousand people on their feet and cheering one of cinema’s true legends was a pretty powerful moment for me. Then I looked to my right and saw that the guys sitting next to me, three long-haired Canadians, weren’t standing or clapping.

I sat down and, as a result of my gift for subtlety, they somehow noticed me glaring venomously at them. “You can’t show these guys love up front,” the one nearest to me hastily explained. “You have to wait until after the movie to applaud.”

“It’s George Romero!” I replied.

“Yeah,” he said, “but I stood up for Diary of the Dead.”

That was a very good point, and I acknowledged it. Then the movie began.

About two minutes in, I realized we were in trouble. All the wretched characterization, histrionic acting and abysmal cinematography that had plagued Diary was here in force, and this time there was no awkward mockumentary conceit to justify it. Then, about an hour in, I realized I was in trouble. I literally could not stay awake during this film. There was absolutely nothing in it that was holding my interest, except a couple of unintentionally silly bits that caused me chortle before my eyelids would again begin to lower.

In my life, I have only fallen asleep during two movies. No matter how bad a film is, or how dull, I am usually engaged enough by it on some level that I can’t fall asleep even if I want to. The first time I fell asleep during a film was a screening of the silent Nosferatu, which I had already seen, in my high school film studies class. The second was Survival of the Dead.

Were alcohol and exhaustion both factors? Undoubtedly. Was the quality of the film also a factor?

Oh my yes.

I’m told that I didn’t miss much of it, only about ten minutes or so, and I was elbowed and woken up for the ending, but trying so hard to stay awake made the entire movie feel like a strange dream. After we stumbled out of the theater, I had a few questions:

“Was there really a scene in that movie where a female zombie rides by on a horse, and one character says, ‘She’s beautiful,’ or did I dream that?”

“That really happened,” my friends muttered.

“Did one of the main characters in the movie, who we’d thought to be dead, suddenly reveal that she was alive and that the dead version of herself is actually a previously unmentioned twin sister?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I pretty sure I dreamed the plot of that movie. Was it really about an American island mysteriously populated by two feuding Irish families, one of whom posts a YouTube video to bring strangers to the island during the zombie outbreak so that he can rob them? Which in turn attracts a team of rogue soldiers, leading to a weirdly unmotivated civil war on the island, during which a handful of zombies stand around and basically do nothing?”

“Yes!”

“So…” I paused to gather my thoughts. “Was Survival of the Dead an awesome movie?”

“No!” everyone screamed.

Then we all went back to our respective hotels and passed out.

Ratings:
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – 1/10
Dorian Gray – 4/10
Deliver Us from Evil – 6/10
Up in the Air – 8/10
Survival of the Dead – 1/10 (fell asleep)

(Full disclosure: I am friends with multiple people who worked on Up in the Air in various capacities.)