Soulmining at TIFF '09, Day Four - Defendor, Daybreakers, The Disappearance Of Alice Creed, Whip It and The Loved Ones
3rd Oct 09
Another early start for me; this morning I’m up, fed, and in my local internet shop by 8am as it’s my turn to contribute to the ‘Postcards from Toronto‘ feature on the FrightFest website. I know that I’ve got a full day ahead of me so if I don’t get my piece written now then it won’t get done at all…
The first of five scheduled films today is screening at the AMC and it’s a local production. Defendor, filmed on location in Hamilton, is the first film from Vancouver-born Peter Stebbings and stars a number of Canadian luminaries such as Elias Koteas and Sandra Oh. Woody Harrelson takes the lead as Defendor, a self-styled superhero otherwise known as Arthur Poppington, a simple man with a troubled childhood. Defendor wants to avenge the death of his mother when he was a young boy and has vowed to take down Captain Industry, a figure he believes is making deals with corrupt cop Dooney (Koteas). As he gets closer to his enemy Arthur gives shelter to a drug-addled hooker (Kat Dennings)who he rescues from Dooney’s clutches and has to convince psychiatrist Dr. Park (Oh) that he’s mentally sane enough to be roaming the streets.
I have to say that Defendor completely caught me off guard. Anticipating a rough and ragged comedy that satirises comic book films, the film is certainly amusing; one look at Arthur’s costume with his logo made from Duct tape gives you some idea of what to expect, and then there’s his arsenal of weapons including marbles and a jar of angry wasps. But it’s also a film of great emotional depth and you really end up caring for this damaged individual who is standing up and fighting for good in a truly altruistic manner. Kudos to Harrelson then who is perfectly cast and brings so much to the role – I defy you to find a better performance anywhere in the TIFF programme. A real discovery, Defendor is a gem of a film and I’m not ashamed to admit, brought tears to my eyes as the credits rolled.
Dashing across town to the Scotiabank cinema I rendezvous with Paul for the second public screening of Daybreakers, with twin-brother directors Michael and Peter Spierig in attendance. Set ten years in the future the Spierigs’ second feature envisions a bleak world ruled by vampires. Humans are dying out and the vampires (led by a sinister Sam Neill) are trying to come up with a blood substitute as supplies run out. Enter Elvis (Willem Dafoe) a vampire slayer who might just have the cure, and he soon teams up with Edward (Ethan Hawke) a research scientist – and vampire – who is sympathetic to Elvis’s cause.
Five years in the making, Daybreakers arrives fully formed with a wealth of backstory and mythology in place that remains unexplored. Having tackled the zombie genre with Undead, the Spierigs bring their own unique spin to the vampire film, adapting some staples of the genre whilst discarding others as they create a very modern vision of a decaying future. There’s some inspired casting here with Ethan Hawke playing to his strengths in the lead role of Edward, and it’s nice to see Dafoe playing a crossbow-toting badass for once! Probably the most commercial film in the Midnight Madness line up, the film is as much sci-fi as it is horror, but it’s all action all the way. Making the best of its relatively small budget, Daybreakers is a real crowd pleaser and was subsequently voted runner-up by audiences in the Cadillac People’s Choice Awards for Midnight Madness this year.
The Disappearance Of Alice Creed
Grabbing a quick hotdog on the way the pair of us then headed back uptown to the Varsity in time for the P&I screening of The Disappearance Of Alice Creed, hooking up with Ian and Mitch in the process. A three-hander, it starts with a montage of two ex-cons Vic (Eddie Marsan) and the younger Danny (Martin Compston) making the necessary preparations for a kidnapping. Their target is Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton), daughter of a wealthy businessman who they intend to bribe for a huge ransom sum. Of course we all know that abductions on screen rarely go according to plan and this latest example is no exception to that rule; Alice is smart and feisty and not prepared to give in without a fight, and secondly Vic’s no-nonsense approach with his strict set of rules and regulations is at odds with Danny’s nervous, naive attitude. And Danny seems to have an agenda of his own once Vic is out of the house…
Having interviewed the director and cast members the previous day I really wanted to like the film, and I’m relieved to report that I wasn’t disappointed. Written and directed by J Blakeson it almost feels like a stage play with much of the drama unfolding in one location, which just serves to heighten the tension and claustrophobia. With its cast of three the film lives or dies on the strength of its actors and thankfully they’re up to the challenge, Arterton in particular revealing an unseen-until-now depth and range to her performance. It’s not breaking any new ground but The Disappearance Of Alice Creed is done well and there’s a couple of solid plot twists along the way which should help the film find an audience when it gets a release in the UK early next year. Great use of a Cathy Davey track over the end credits too, second only to the use of Metric’s “Help I’m Alive” in Peter Stebbing’s Defendor.
With Julia Voth, Minae Noji, America Olivo and Erin Cummings
Traditionally Colin hosts a Midnight Madness party on the second Thursday of TIFF each year, but this year it’s been brought forward to the Sunday – and we’re all invited. Along with Paul, Ian and Mitch we share a cab out west to The Social and quickly get stuck into the free bar while we survey our surroundings. Peter Kuplowsky (Toronto After Dark) is stood to our right talking to Joe Dante. Sanjay is sat on the terrace area surrounded by the girls from Bitch Slap. Jonathan King is perched at the end of the bar. Everywhere you look there are film people and festival friends.
Ian and I catch up with Thea, back to normal after her zombie activities earlier in the festival. I then get talking to the Spierig brothers about Daybreakers before Colin introduces me to Sean Byrne, director of The Loved Ones which plays later tonight. This being the world premiere he’s understandably nervous but at the same time quietly confident that his film will play well. Now I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t find some beautiful women to talk to, so Ian laughs as I leave him to go and talk to Erin Cummings from Bitch Slap. She soon introduces me to her other co-stars Julia Voth, America Olivo and Minae Noji and I have to say they’re the sweetest bunch, totally down to earth and approachable, no trace of an ego amongst them – and as they lark around taking photos they’ve clearly bonded and become great friends since the shoot. Fingers crossed their film is good too!
As much as I’d love to stay and drink until the bitter end at the Midnight Madness party I have to scoot off early as I’ve another public gala screening to attend, this time the world premiere of Whip It which is taking place at the Ryerson. By the time I arrive I’ve missed all of the press activity which is a shame as there’s a mammoth turn out for this one. Watching as a very proud Drew Barrymore introduces the film I’ve rarely seen such a mass of assembled talent on one stage – those present include Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig, Eve, Juliette Lewis, Zoe Bell, Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern, Andrew Wilson, Alia Shawkat, Landon Pigg, Carlo Alban and writer Shauna Cross. Oh, and I spot Michael Cera sitting in the audience too!
The directorial debut from Barrymore, Whip It brings Cross’s tale set in the world of women’s roller derby to the big screen. Bliss (Page) is a teenage girl forced to compete in local beauty pageants to please her mom, but gradually gets sucked into the underground scene after sneaking off to a roller derby game with her best friend Pash (Shawkat). She ends up trying out for the local team and soon finds herself reinvented as Babe Ruthless, part of a rough ‘n’ tumble squad that includes Maggie Mayhem (Wiig), Smashie Simpson (Barrymore) and Bloody Holly (Bell). Of course her parents know nothing of this new alter-ego and are none too happy when they find out what Bliss has been getting up to.
It’s fair to say that you can pretty much telegraph the story of Whip It from start to finish, as is often the way with coming-of-age / sports movies. That said, why change a winning formula? And there’s a lot to like here, especially in the portrayal of the roller derby community where even Bliss’s bitter rival Iron Maven (Lewis) shows respect for the new recruit. Admittedly the action sequences lack a bit of zip, but otherwise Barrymore takes to the director’s chair with confidence and some sensitivity. The ensemble cast – Wiig especially – are a delight to watch and there are plenty of lighthearted moments along the way too which should make this a sleeper hit with audiences.
The Loved Ones
As I come out from Whip It the horror-hungry crowd are already assembling for The Loved Ones and Sean Byrne is working his magic on the red carpet along with his actors Xavier Samuel, Victoria Thaine and Jessica McNamee. Taking inspiration from The Evil Dead and Carrie, Byrne’s film is part school prom movie, part torture-porn… torture-prom perhaps? Brent (Samuel) is a high school student wracked with guilt after killing his father in a car accident. Still, he has a supportive girlfriend Holly (Thaine) and all seems fine and dandy as prom night approaches… all except for Lola (Robin McLeavy) a girl who he earlier rejected, and who plans to shatter Brent’s one chance of happiness as she reaps her bloody revenge.
Actually to describe The Loved Ones as torture-porn rather does the film a disservice as it’s a lot more intelligent than that label suggests – but it does feature some extremely uncomfortable scenes of torture at the hands of the obsessive Lola, chillingly portrayed by the brilliant McLeavy. The first half of the film really just sets up the characters, it’s not until the second half that it really grabs your attention and then never lets go. Byrne’s talent here is in the editing and knowing exactly when to cut each scene; some takes hold for an unbearable length of time before finally cutting away. These nauseating moments are tempered by some comic relief in the form of Brent’s intoxicated friend (McNamee), a subplot that feels a little detached from the main story but is needed to break the intensity of those scenes all the same. Byrne needn’t have been apprehensive – The Loved Ones proved to be an audience favourite and went on to win the Cadillac People’s Choice Award for Midnight Madness this year. You will be hearing much more about this film and this promising Australian director in the not-too-distant future.
For further information on TIFF 09 visit the festival website: www.tiff.net/.
The Disappearance Of Alice Creed will screen at the BFI 53rd London Film Festival in October and is released in UK cinemas on 12th February 2010.