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TIFF 2017: Midnight Madness, Part One

The Midnight Madness (MM) program at the Toronto International Film Festival can be notoriously hit and miss. For every “Raw” or “It Follows,” there a half-dozen films that most people outside of TIFF will never see. It has always been an admirably diverse program, offering films from around the world of varying definitions of the word “midnight.” They’re typically horror, but thrillers and black comedies can fit the bill as well. And the 2017 iteration of Midnight Madness was promising enough that I saw most of it—8 out of 10 to be precise, missing only the soon-to-be-VOD “Brawl in Cell Block 99” and something called “Vampire Clay.” So I’ll break up the 8 I saw into two chunks in the order they premiered. This first quartet is shockingly strong, featuring three films that I suspect will make notable waves when they make their way south from Toronto.

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Let’s start with the best, the harrowing and thrilling Revenge,” a debut from French director Coralie Fargeat, who offers a fascinating female perspective on the typically male-directed genre of the rape revenge movie. And she does so with ample style, remarkable tension, decidedly French black humor, and more blood than I believe the human body actually contains. There’s one every year but this is the 2017 MM during which someone actually fainted from the intensity.

Jen (Matilda Lutz) is a gorgeous young woman who has come to a stylish, modern house in the middle of nowhere with her married boyfriend (Kevin Jannsens). They’re going to have some fun in a place where privacy isn’t really a concern because there are no other human beings for miles. Jen is going to leave in a couple days and her boy toy is going to go hunting, but his big game buddies show up early. They can’t stop staring at Jen, but things seem relatively safe and playful until the next morning when her boyfriend is off getting the hunting permits. Jen is raped and eventually left in the middle of nowhere for dead. The title should give away pretty much what happens next.

“Revenge” is a remarkably gory and bloody film, but it’s not merely an exercise in revulsion. It’s also blackly humorous and unexpected in its twists and turns. These men are evil and weak, and Jen realizes she’s stronger than she probably thought she was. There’s also an interesting subtext about the kinds of men that make this horror possible given that one of the trio is the actual rapist, the other is the slob who looks the other way, and the final man is the enabler, the guy who betrays the women in his life and makes a violent world safer for those who would commit violence. It's a much smarter, braver movie than most films like this. 

Of course, all vengeance movies have a thrilling undercurrent of justice served in as bloody a fashion as possible, but Corgeat’s eye for composition and tension is also remarkable for a debut director. The color palette of sun-drenched hunting plains balanced with the sharp lines of a millionaire’s villa make for a film that’s never less than visually fascinating. And then there’s the blood. SO much blood. There’s one particular scene that had my audience literally screaming, and that kind of communal response to a horror movie is still such a unique joy. This is the 2017 Midnight Madness horror film most likely to take genre nuts by surprise.

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It's not a horror film, but Joseph Kahn’s “Bodied” may be an even bigger surprise overall when it comes to expectations. Kahn’s best film to date is, believe it or not, a satire of PC culture as seen through the world of battle rap, produced by Eminem. Written by Alex Larsen (aka Kid Twist), a member of the Toronto battle rap scene himself, “Bodied” offers an entertaining window into a culture that most people probably know very little about, but it’s also a clever take on a generation more aware of what’s offensive and what’s not than any before. It pushes through most tone-deaf satires of wokeness by taking the concept of being “problematic” to, well, extremes. It’s tempting to say it’s the kind of film that could offend literally everyone—and all-purpose “-ism” is certainly a subtext—but the material is so smartly handled that Larsen and Kahn get away with it. They almost reach a level of equality in the battle raps in that if everyone is insulted, if nothing is off limits, if people own their culture’s greatest stereotypes, then they are all on equal footing.

A great turn from Calum Worthy (who really looks like a lost Gleeson brother) anchors “Bodied”—and some people will already be turned off by the “white eyes on a minority culture” perspective, but that’s kind of the point here. Worthy’s Adam is a progressive grad student who is fascinated by battle rap culture. He considers it the closest thing we have to modern poetry, even if his girlfriend can’t stand the rampant homophobia, racism, and misogyny. When Adam gets asked to participate in a battle rap himself, he reveals how much all this observation has given him the skills to compete himself. He befriends a battle rap star named Ben Grym, and a few other luminaries of the field, and works to navigate the thin ice of being a white battle rapper, learning that he only wins when he takes the PC gloves off, but that doesn’t leave a lot of room for friendship.

I like how much “Bodied” allows us to dislike Adam. Especially in some key climactic moments, he’s kind of an asshole. And he doesn’t understand a lot of the world around him—thinking that observing minority cultures gives him a knowledge that it just doesn’t. There are messages on top of messages in “Bodied,” and there will be many a thinkpiece about it, but it’s also just wildly entertaining. Few movies can name-check Tilda Swinton, Biggie, Super Mario Bros. and Hermione Granger, along with many more. You know those incredibly entertaining battle raps in “8 Mile”? Imagine like 100 minutes of those. “Bodied” is way too long, but it’s a movie that’s going to get people talking. Someone like Netflix would be smart to pick it up yesterday.

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Already picked up, trailered, and ready to blow your mind is James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist,” a hysterical comedy about the making of the notorious cult classic “The Room.” There’s something deeply meta about the fact that Franco’s best film as a director is a movie about making films with your best friends given how often he does just that, including casting people like Seth Rogen and his brother Dave Franco in this one. James Franco clearly relates to Tommy Wiseau on one level in that both are passionate creators who often make instinctual decisions instead of logical ones. It just happens that one of them was deeply untalented.

James Franco also plays Wiseau, but the film is mostly told through the eyes of Dave Franco’s Greg Sestero, a young actor in San Francisco who meets Tommy in an acting class. The two move to Los Angeles together, where Wiseau has an apartment. How Wiseau has enough money to have apartments in multiple cities is a mystery—as is his actual age and country of origin and maybe if he's a vampire (kidding, but only a little). He tells people he’s in his twenties and from New Orleans. Obviously, neither are true. After hitting a bunch of Hollywood roadblocks, Greg suggests they make their own movie. The rest is history.

The production of “The Room” as portrayed in “The Disaster Artist” was an absolute nightmare. Much of it is hysterical, but it’s also interesting how much Franco and company are willing to let Tommy be a total asshole. This is not some sort of hero worship—the guy is a maniac, who clearly had no idea what he was doing, something that only dawns on most of the people making the film, including Greg, over time. However, the throughline for “The Disaster Artist” is the friendship between Greg and Tommy, and how often they were willing to support each other, even when logic dictated they probably shouldn’t.

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Most of all, “The Disaster Artist” is just really funny. Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some of the movie feels poorly made. Why did it have to be shot so much on handheld? Franco is also a much better actor than he is director. His performance here is phenomenal, and not just as an act of mimickry, but the film feels a bit too loose and shapeless, and then surprisingly pat when it comes to its messages of friendship and creative passion. Now, one could argue that a poorly-made movie deserves a poorly-made movie, but that feels more coincidental than intentional. Again, Franco rules and the movie is really, really funny, and that’s all that truly matters. Franco remains one of the most fascinating performers of his generation, even if his directing ability needs a little work. Tommy and Greg should be proud.

Finally, we get to David Brucker’s disappointing “The Ritual,” a film that starts with an effective inciting incident but devolves into something that feels overly familiar. The director of a great segment from “Southbound” and co-director of “The Signal” is undeniably talented, but this project feels half-baked, like someone had a great idea but then never developed it to a place where it would carry its own movie.

Rafe Spall’s performance is the best thing about “The Ritual.” The actor plays Luke, a vocal leader of a quintet of male friends out one night trying to plan a “lads’ trip.” Vegas? Amsterdam? Hiking? Luke doesn’t like the last idea, but their lives change forever when one of the members of this group dies in a horrifying robbery. Luke is in a position where he possibly could have saved his friend, but he chooses not to. If you’re thinking that will come back to haunt him, you’ve seen a horror movie before.

Luke and his remaining three buddies take the hiking trip to honor their friend, and one of them twists an ankle. Rather than take the safe road back to the lodge, they try to take a shortcut. As horror fans know, never take a shortcut. They start seeing etchings in trees, and come upon a decrepit cabin in the woods. That night, they have horrific nightmares, and then things get even stranger. Sadly, “The Ritual” is one of those movies in which as things get stranger they get less interesting. The movie lost me about halfway through. I’m still eager to see what Bruckner does next, but this one was a trip he probably shouldn’t have taken.


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