TIFF Day 6: Todd Solondz, Michael Cera and the first 3-D flick of the fest

Life During Wartime (dir. Todd Solondz)

While it’s not quite as fucked up as his most unsettling work (I’m looking at you, Happiness), Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’s first film in five years, is still pretty fucked. The director has a set of themes that he loves returning to, including pedophilia and other forms of perversion. In this film, there’s an ex-con who can’t stop making lurid phone calls, a woman who’s been uncomfortable with men since discovering her (now ex) husband was a child rapist and a social worker haunted by the (occasionally horny) ghosts of her past.

It’s a dark comedy with the emphasis on darkness, but it’s also surprisingly accessible, at least for Solondz. Many of the characters are sympathetic, even verging on normal, which makes the constant unease easier to take. The script is also more explicit than usual in explaining Solondz’s goal, which is to explore the ideas of guilt, forgiveness and redemption.

The cinematography is astounding throughout, capturing a sense of wholesome ’50s suburbia. It’s entirely ironic, of course, given that dark obsessions are always just beneath the surface, but it’s gorgeous either way.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (dir. J. Blakeson)

An intense and compellingly original kidnapping flick from first-time writer-director J. Blakeson. The film starts with two characters kidnapping Alice Creed off the streets and locking her in an apartment they’ve fortified for the purpose. The overall dynamic is familiar — crooks in a battle of wits with an abductee — but the details make all the difference, and the dynamic shifts rapidly with each new revelation.

Unlike fellow crime-obsessed Brit Guy Ritchie, Blakeson doesn’t go in for the glamour of illegal activities. The characters are more than just stock crime-flick archetypes, and every twist and double-cross stems naturally from their interactions. Even when things get a bit brutal, it’s impossible to look away. Great genre filmmaking and a very promising debut.

Get Low (dir. Aaron Schneider)

Up until this point, the Coen Brothers had hands-down the single best line of dialogue at TIFF in “Embrace the mystery” (you really need the context to appreciate it). Get Low comes close when Robert Duvall’s character is asked what it was like to be a self-imposed hermit for 40 years: “The first 38 years are the hardest.”

That dry sense of humour is all over Get Low, a period dramedy set in 1930s Tennessee and starring Duvall and a perfectly cast Bill Murray as a hermit and a funeral director, respectively. Like Life During Wartime, Get Low is all about redemption and forgiveness. Unlike Solondz’s movie, you certainly won’t need a shower after watching it. Despite some fairly heady subject matter, the film is always kept light, and strong performances from Duvall, Murray and Sissy Spacek make for an easy film to enjoy. Schneider’s direction doesn’t do much to enhance the film (it gets a bit too Little House in places) and Duvall’s dark secret is hyped to an almost impossible degree, but it’s nice to see Murray working his smarm in something other than a Wes Anderson film.

The Hole (dir. Joe Dante)

Considering Dante’s Gremlins 2 is one of my all-time favourites, I’ve been looking forward to the director’s return to teen horror. First things first — like all the 3-D movies that’ve been coming out lately, there’s really no reason to see The Hole on anything but a regular screen. It doesn’t add anything to the atmosphere and the presence of objects in the foreground can be distracting.

That said, The Hole is a lot of fun. The premise is simple but great: kids move into a new house, find a padlocked bottomless pit in their basement. Terror ensues. Dante handles it all masterfully, balancing effortlessly between jump scares, laughs and truly creepy moments. Make no mistake, it’s made for kids, but Dante’s good enough to make even a theatre full of jaded industry vets jump.

The ending gets a little hokey (if Dr. Parnassus proved anything, it’s that ending your film with a climactic CGI battle is never a good idea), but that’s a small price to pay for a genuinely enjoyable PG horror flick.

Youth in Revolt (dir. Miguel Arteta)

Full disclosure: I went into this one fully expecting to hate it. I loved Michael Cera on Arrested Development and still liked him up through Superbad, but you can only see him play the same character so many times before you shake your head and give up. So the idea of him playing another awkward teenager hoping to find a girlfriend and lose his virginity, well, alarm bells went off.

And yet, I ended up liking Youth in Revolt. It’s not a great movie by any stretch, but it’s cute and charming almost despite itself. The incredibly mannered dialogue is a barrier, for sure — it probably reads well in C.D. Payne’s novel, but on screen it’s altogether too precious. The supporting cast, which includes Fred Willard, Steve Buscemi and Zach Galifianakis, is grossly underused. The chemistry between Cera and Portia Doubleday is almost nonexistent, and it even indulges in that hoary old trope involving secretly getting authority figures high.

So, what makes it work? Oddly enough, it’s Cera. He’s coasting in his main role as Nick Twisp, but as Twisp’s bad-ass, moustachio’d alter ego (created Tyler Durden-style to help Twisp woo Doubleday), he’s positively endearing. Smoking cigarettes, torching cars, seducing women — it’s a chance for Cera to play against type even if he’s only doing it with a wink and a healthy dose of irony. It’s hard to give it a hearty recommendation, but it’s certainly better than I was expecting.

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