Toronto 2013: Child Of God, Bad Words, Life Of Crime, All Cheerleaders Die, The Dog
Posted on Friday September 13, 2013, 11:23 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Here we start coming to the square pegs of the festival, the films that don't quite fit into any of the usual sections. I'll briefly skim over James Franco's Child Of God, partly because it was in Venice too but mostly because it's really not very good. Like his Cannes entry As I Lay Dying, it is a literary property, adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, that tells the story of a gibbering hillbilly (Scott Haze) who is dispossessed of his father's estate and later finds some kind of comfort in the company of not-very-living ladies, one found in a natural state, the rest made not-alive to order. It must be said that the most enjoyable thing about this dingy misery-fest was watching people at the film's press and industry screening leave the cinema in droves, but Franco's film isn't an actual misfire, just an unsuccessful attempt to translate the writings of a sage and superior talent without the equivalent visual vocabulary with which to do so. Haze, given too loose a leash here, clearly has talent, while Christina Voros's cinematography is suitably atmospheric and wintry. But quite what Franco wishes to articulate, other than “I've read a book”, is anyone's guess.
Something I ducked into during a gap and didn't expect to like was Justin Bateman's Bad Words. Variety's review was encouraging, and I liked Bateman as Pepper in Dodgeball. It's a slight film, with the looming shadow of Bad Santa hanging over it, but Bad Words is one of those odd-duck comedies that improves with hindsight rather than blustering to an overdone climax that undoes all the good work. Bateman himself stars as Guy Trilby, who, in his forties, decides to enter a children's spelling bee contest. Quite why this should be is the film's enigma, and for most right-thinking people his reason had better be a good one, since Trilby is a rude and even quite repellent character, especially when he meets his nine-year-old nemesis, the precocious Chaitanya (Rohan Chand).
It takes a little while to get going, but there's an oddly joyous quality to this mismatched-buddy caper, especially when a subtle twist takes the self-satisfied, mission-pursuing Trilby out of the driving seat. The results are predictable for this kind of movie, but, without spoiling things, there's an unexpected emotional residue, not simply because Chaitanya is really quite adorable but because the story does pan out in a way that these kinds of movies generally don't.
In a similar vein was Life Of Crime by Daniel Schechter. Based on the novel The Switch by Elmore Leonard, it taps the sun-bleached, underworld world of Jackie Brown – as well it might, being a prequel of sorts to that film's source: Rum Punch, also by Leonard. The cast is just as impressive – here we have Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly know as Mos Def) – and the sunny mise-en-scene is just as toasty and light, but this, by comparison is really more of a stretched-out anecdote. Hawkes and Bey start the film, hatching a plan to kidnap well-to-do housewife Mickey Dawson (Aniston) and extort money from her husband (Robbins). That it doesn't go to plan is a given, but though it doesn't quite match the best adaptations of Leonard's breezy pulp-crime stories (Jackie Brown and Get Shorty), it really does share both those films' humidity and atmosphere, juxtaposing crime and real life to reach a very funny punchline.
Opening Colin Geddes' now infamous Midnight Madness strand was All Cheerleaders Die by Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson. I didn't stay up late to get the full flavour of its Ryerson cinema premiere, which would have added a lot of much-needed atmosphere, and that's perhaps why I didn't enjoy it as much as many others seemed to. Beginning as it means to go on, it appears at first to be a found footage film, with an airheaded cheerleader as the subject of an amateur documentary. After a fatal accident, however, her place in the team is taken by the filmmaker, Maddy (Caitlin Stasey), who has a secret agenda: to infiltrate and divide the team. Just as we're expecting a slasher flick, however, the film takes another turn, involving a car crash, magic runes and witchcraft. At this point, all hell breaks loose, and though I enjoyed such genre-bending insanity in Don Coscarelli's psychedelic horror John Dies At The End, it didn't really work for me here, feeling more like an Exquisite Corpse exercise made up of genre tropes. It's been described as Bring It On meets The Craft, which is fair enough. But that doesn't quite account for the zombieism and vampirism.
Something I did enjoy very, very much was The Dog (pictured), a documentary by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren about John Wojtowicz, the real-life inspiration for the character played by Al Pacino in the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. Wojtowicz rose to notoriety in 1972 when he and an accomplice robbed a bank in Brooklyn so that his lover Ernie could have a sex-change operation. As this candid and frequently unbelievable movie proves, Hollywood did not – for once – embellish the situation, and as the archival footage shows, what began as a simple in-and-out job soon degenerated into a three-ring circus, with Wojtowicz playing to the cameras, ordering pizza and throwing wads of cash into the street, much to the delight of the massive crowd that gathered outside.
Why Wojtowicz was not simply shot and killed is a sign of simpler times, but Wojtowicz never seems to question his clement fortune. Instead he relishes his outlaw status, becoming more frank and more complex as the film progresses (it was made over a period of some 11 years). His lack of self-awareness is amply revealed in scenes where he returns to the scene of his crime to sign dollar bills, wearing a T-shirt that states “I Robbed This Bank”, but, annoying as he is, there is a certain larger-than-life quality that makes him a magnetic presence. Even so, he is upstaged by his mother Terry, a bird-like Jewish momma who indulges her boy in everything. Terry gets the best line of the film and possibly the festival; speaking of her son's transsexual lover, she turns to the camera and rolls her eyes. “She ain't a woman,” she drawls. She's a fuckin' man.”