TIFF 2013 Recap: Days 3-5

I have a bunch of reviews I want to finish, but my schedule is so packed with screenings and interviews I have a lot of half finished documents open. Just to show you I’m still out here discovering movies, I put a new recap on the fast track. Seems like I’m seeing a lot of 7’s, some with great elements in them, but not a “blow me away” great film yet.



This Midnight Madness movie takes found footage to the next level: coherent and non douchey. Well, it’s douchey at first because found footage is ruled by douchebags. Why else would they be so self-involved that they film everything? But Clif (Clif Prowse) wants to document his friend Derek (Derek Lee)’s last year after a terminal medical diagnosis. Then when things get serious, the characters stop goofing the fuck off.

Derek meets a Eurogirl in a club and after a night with her, wakes up starting to get better. Not just better, stronger than any normal human. So Clif continues documenting and Derek invents a camera rig that mounts to his midsection for the other angle. Testing Derek’s new powers is fun at first, but the fun soon turns deadly.

The body cam is a surprisingly innovative addition to found footage, surprising because it’s such a simple concept and yet a quantum leap in first person cameras. Despite Derek’s antic movements, the long takes from his camera’s point of view are clear and allow action to unfold without jerking the camera away. I know they’re hiding cuts in some spots but it feels like a true single take. That also makes Afflicted distinct from Chronicle since it’s on Derek the whole time.

Afflicted also continues after most found footage movies end. You know, when there’s a big shock and then you cut to black and that’s it. That’s where Afflicted takes off. It’s exciting, expertly done and I don’t want to tell you any more because half the fun is in the surprise. The other half is in the execution so don’t worry, even if you hear stuff you’ll still marvel at how Prose and Lee pulled it off.


Canopy is my kind of movie: Survival in hostile territory, told with minimal dialogue because the on screen action speaks for itself. A downed Australian pilot (Khan Chittenden) lands in a tree and has to survive, and hide from enemy forces. He meets a Singaporean-Chinese resistance fighter (Tzu-yi Mo), but they don’t speak the same language and they’re both in trouble if either of them gets caught.

The movie unfolds in long, lingering sequences fraught with suspense as the two soldiers must hide, progress through the jungle and avoid capture. The film is gorgeous and almost looks three-dimensional without wearing glasses. In fact it looks more 3D than most 3D movies we see. It’s a lean 80 minutes when the credits role, 84 being the official running time, but it feels epic. We’ve been through a long journey in that time.

I don’t have much else to say about Canopy because it’s just the simplicity that works. We hang on these men in Hitchcockian suspense as events unfold around them, or they propel the action in other moments. It is an aspect of WWII that I’m not familiar with, but it wasn’t really about the specifics of the war, just the human experience of survival.


Horns is a fun fantasy mystery with a lot of gory Alexandre Aja touches. Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) is on trial for the murder of his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). One day he sprouts a pair of horns that give him the power to make people reveal their darkest truths, and the power to influence them. They have a lot of fun with this.

People start to reveal secret thoughts to Ig with brutally childish honesty. They may reveal the insecurity under their bravado, their infidelity cum racism, even parental disappointments. Only they come out as obsessively eating donuts or romanticizing an affair like a giddy child talking about something way more innocent than extramarital sex. When under the spell, it seems like people speak with words they don’t even understand, like another force is flowing through them. It gets pretty relentless when Ig goes into a bar and unleashes everyone’s secrets all at once.

I wish they had a bit more fun with Ig’s power and less emphasis on the mystery plot, but we do get several scenes of Ig figuring out how his powers work and a few where he uses them for personal gain, not just to find clues. He even uses his power for good to help one character. There’s more to the mystery than just who killed Merrin, but it does necessitate monologuing from the villains and accomplices. This is how the book went, right? I mean, if the film is slavish to a plot, it must be because they have to do the book and can’t lose any of the required pieces.

Even within the plot though, I think there is a good message for young audiences (who will see this R-rated movie anyway) about causality. Ig learns that no matter what he does and no matter what he learns, some things are going to happen. Some people are going to make certain decisions, right or wrong. If this crazy magic mystery teaches viewers that it’s healthier to respect people’s wishes than to try to “fix” them, I’m down with that.


This was my number one most anticipated movie to see at TIFF. Not that I expected it to be my favorite film of the fest, but I love me some Nicolas Cage. Joe is part of Cage’s effort to return to more realistic characters, and he’s as fascinating to watch as ever.

Joe (Cage) is a grizzled, badass manual laborer, running a tree clearing team in the south. He gets shot and lights a cigarette before driving home to pick out the bullets. He won’t even put his cigarette down when he’s with a girl. He’s a bit scary again, like Wild at Heart, and there are some moments of intensity I appreciated, but Joe is the good guy.

It wouldn’t be a film festival if someone didn’t get their head brutally bashed in, and David Gordon Green’s latest drama has the violence. Gary (Tye Sheridan) comes to work for Joe and Joe takes him under his wing. Particularly teaching him behaviors like cool brooding and making hooker faces… that’s classic Cage. Gary’s violent father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a dangerous and sympathetic character.

Joe is pretty self-destructive, for no real reason but it’s a portrait of a character. It gets like a dark fever dream at points, and some of the non-actors in the cast are hard to understand but so colorful they work. This may not be Cage’s next Oscar nomination but it could lead to the next role that is. It’s really rewarding to see actors go for it and filmmakers not hold back.


Oculus shows how you can imbue any object with threatening powers as long as you effectively build up the world and the rules. In Oculus it’s a mirror, but the mirror itself isn’t scary. It’s what the mirror can do that’s scary, and it’s not in a gory shock kind of way like Mirrors, although it has that. It’s about the uncertainty it creates.

Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and Kaylie (Karen Gillan) grew up with the story of a mirror called the Lasser Glass that drove their father (Rory Cochrane) to kill their mother  (Katee Sackhoff). Tim was committed and got help, but when he gets out, Kaylie has obtained the Lasser Glass with a plan to destroy it. Her plan is a mouthful and Gillan’s breathless delivery goes a long way to establish a deep mythology and intricate plan for combating it.

The film spends a long time selling us on the Lasser Glass, including a lot of flashbacks to when Tim and Kaylie were kids. When it delivers, Oculus achieves a world where you don’t know what to believe. It’s the horror of what you cannot trust, including who you are, what you see and what you’ve just done. You walk outside but you may have just stayed here the whole time. It could all be a trick of the Lasser Glass. Phone calls are totally uncertain and Kaylie’s resignation on that front gives it more weight.

Tim and Kaylie end up playing a deadly poker game with the Glass. Is what they’re experiencing a glamour created by the mirror, or is the mirror bluffing? It sounds crazy and abstract but when you’re in it after midnight your reaction is, “Nooooo!” I think it may be a metaphor for cinema itself. We take for granted what we watch on a screen is happening, even when we know how films work behind the scenes. Nothing is real though. If the rules of cause and effect and physics no longer apply, that’s scary, man.


Parkland is a compelling exploration of how everyday people and professionals come together to deal with a crisis, in this case the real assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. The Parkland hospital is the central location, as ER doctors (Zac Efron and Colin Hanks) try to save JFK’s life, while nearby Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) works with the Secret Service to develop his film and Lee Harvey Oswald is arrested, and shot.

There are a lot of interesting scenes of the nuts and bolts we don’t really hear about when people start talking JFK conspiracies. Developing film in 1963 was not a reliable process, let alone in a rush. Getting the coffin onto Air Force One was a hassle. The Texas Medical examiner fought over his jurisdiction. The decisions made in the ensuing days are really interesting and create some scenes of compelling drama.

There are a number of scenes that feel too much like actors telling each other how important these moments are. Forrest Sorrells (Billy Bob Thornton) yells “You blew it!” to an underling. An agent is given the Oswald file to handle, because, sigh, there’s a cover-up. The score also tells you when to feel somber in mourning.

A major highlight is the story of the Oswald family. His mother Marguerite (Jacki Weaver) seems crazier than he was, but more fascinating is that his brother, Robert Oswald is totally convinced of Lee Harvey’s guilt. That’s a character witness if I’ve ever seen one.

The “documentary” handheld style goes really overboard with the shaking and the focus pulling in the middle of a take, but it is effective when we only get fleeting glimpses of Jackie O, LBJ and JFK himself on the operating table. I feel like I’m really glad I saw Parkland and I am more informed about our history, while being engaged by it dramatically. I had some stylistic issues and some nitpicks but it shakes out favorably.

Under the Skin 

I guess I’ll just come right out and say it. Scarlett Johansson is naked in Under the Skin. It’s not free though. You really have to work for it, because this is art, man, it’s art. Under the Skin is a hardcore art film, which is its own kind of thrill to see in the atmosphere of the Toronto International Film Festival, but it doesn’t make any sense to me and it’s not interesting enough to try to figure out.

Laura (Johansson) is an alien visiting earth, but God bless the plot synopsis for saying so because I don’t think the opening shots of an eye forming with voiceover words really tell you that. I guess she’s practicing for speaking human? The film is artfully made by Jonathan Glazer, with a shadowy ScarJo against an all white screen, or more often ScarJo and various men as the figures of light against a black background.

Under the Skin is about watching stillness, watching behavior and it’s interesting because it’s at a festival and because it’s a big star experimenting. That face is captivating. There is one scene with a man in her van that is confrontational and kind of wonderful. Then there’s a scene of a guy washing dishes. Really?

Some people gave up but the walkouts were not too dramatic. It wasn’t an I Melt With You situation. I could handle staying, but I’m not inclined to interpret this. I’ll just watch. I’m too wiped out to bother. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.