Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011 – A Lonely Place to Die, The Divide, VS, The Innkeepers

A Lonely Place to Die

Melissa George stars in this fast-paced action thriller about a group of mountaineers who discover a girl locked in an underground cell and uncover a kidnapping plot. After securing the child and planning to get her off the mountain into the safety of the city, the group is set upon by the cold and calculating kidnappers who see no reason to keep anybody but the child alive. Picked off, one by one, they scramble to save not only the child but themselves.

The film sets this all up and kicks up a swift pace early on, and while I was worried that the quality of the film would decline once they left the mountain (pun somewhat intended) I was pleasantly surprised, stakes were raised higher as the kidnappers moved closer and closer to regaining their charge. Visually this movie is the tops, the mountain shots and scenes in the gorge are powerful, gripping and intimidating, while a street parade in the city uses fire and crowd scenes to induce a kind of claustrophobia in the audience after the first half of the film includes so much open space. But tight spots are just as hard to hide in as giant forests, our protagonists unfortunately find out.

On the other side, we have a group of negotiators/counter kidnappers headed to the city to hand over the ransom and assess the situation. With three interested parties, the mission is certain to get a bit messy. Director Julian Gilbey has a real crowd-pleaser with this film, my lack of nails after the screening can prove it.


The Divide

For so many reasons, I wanted to like The Divide. For Michael Biehn, the original heart-throb Kyle Reese from The Terminator, for post-apocalyptic horror cinema and as the most sci-fi horror film of the festival.

But I should have known better.

Michael Eklund was the hilariously bad ‘Father’ in The Day which I saw at a TIFF and almost walked out on, Milo Ventimiglia was my least favourite Heroes character, Rosanna Arquette hasn’t been relevant in over a decade and Lauren German is the Michelle Monaghan of horror films. All in all, none of the cast inspire and director Xavier Gens settles for watching them implode in a gross and offensively unoriginal manner rather than give us something interesting to watch.

The idea that a nuclear weapon of some sort has devastated the Earth is always interesting, the idea that there are survivors who are safe and clean abandoning and test-tubing infected survivors is creepy, locking sociopaths in a room with each other for months is less so. The film may have been better if they had seemingly NORMAL people locked together, but when two characters are hateful from the beginning, their descent into madness and horror isn’t shocking, it’s when the nicer characters snap that we pay attention. Gens forgot this and in turn, lost me entirely. Nobody is strong, nobody is interesting and when the filmmaker decides he wants the film to fall into chaos, he neuters Biehn and shoves him off to the side for almost 30 minutes while we wait for him to come back, desperately. The Divide is all style and no substance, a slick shadow of the movie it could be.
More – Indiewire has a great write-up about The Divide as well, I’m not alone!

VS

I really and truly wanted to like VS. It showcases the dark side of super powers, the feeling of invulnerability wrapped in the all-familiar ball of insecurity. Unfortunately VS is bursting to the seams with ideas but has neither the writing chops, talent nor the subtlety to make it work.

Jason Trost may have bit off more than he can chew, deciding to go the director/writer/lead actor route which rarely runs smooth. While he’s not the actor he seems to think he is, he’s not even the worst cast member. While he portrays John/Charge, the apparent leader in the group, the team is rounded out by his potential ex-girlfriend Jill/Shadow, Ben/Cutthroat (Lucas Till of X-Men: First Class) and Charlie/The Wall. All four superhero leads stumble into each other during the film, without realizing that their delivery has me (and others) unintentionally in stitches. “Vitamin C isn’t going to remove his 12-inch stab wounds,” is such a funny line, but said completely seriously, which is sad. So back to the plot, tension exists between the bunch, as it’s made clear very early that Jill has slept with Charlie but before we even know that she was with John. But really, this relationship becomes very important for the rest of the movie and WE.JUST.DON’T.CARE.

For a film about superheroes, they really do a great job of appearing to be pathetic without their powers. I understand the point is to humble them and show that superheroes are really just poorly adjusted teenagers under it all, but we should have seen some flashbacks or scenes of them BEING bad ass to realize what a shock it is for them to be depowered. Also? Forced romantic connections are so lame, Sophie Merkley can’t act her way out of this bad script and is clad in the sexist superhero standards of heels, tight leather pants and no identity coverage while all the men don the most ridiculous masks I’ve seen since Green Lantern. She looks like she’s going to a punk show and they, Halloween.

Meanwhile poor James Remar is acting inside a box as the jovial and terrifying Rickshaw, the arch nemesis of the teens. While not his most memorable role, he does his best with the script and almost seems pained at times to recite some of his lines. What has he done to deserve this?

What it comes down to, I disliked VS for almost the opposite reason that I hated The Divide. While it’s true they both lose me while they pit uninteresting characters against each other, VS actually has interesting ideas while The Divide just regurgitates them. Give VS the budget and script supervision of The Divide, while giving the latter a unique angle, completely revamp the cast and both movies could be so many times better.

The Innkeepers

While I had some disappointments for the latter half of the festival, all was forgiven thanks to the closing night gala The Innkeepers. A ghost thriller that doesn’t sacrifice character development for cheap and gory scares, director Ti West knows that a true ghost story needs scares that are more psychological than visual. The film really comes together due to the lead Sara Paxton, as Claire, a clumsy twenty-something slowly coming to the realization that working at the dilapidated hotel she’s been at for a few years may not be conducive to a successful future.

The film takes place in the last few days of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a hotel creepy enough to put the Overlook Hotel of The Shining to shame. With just two staff left to man the desk for the last weekend, and only 3 rooms occupied, the two get some ghost hunting under their belt before all the hotel’s spooky history is torn down. Ghost hunter Luke has been analyzing the hotel for months trying to find proof that the dusty corridors are full of ghosts. For their last weekend of fun, unbeliever Claire helps out with his research and experiences situations that force her to reevaluate her opinion. A spooky piano, a cluttered basement, a drafty room, are they simply pieces of a broken-down hotel or has something spooky checked in and never checked out?

West knows how to pull a fast one, while the first half of the movie features Claire as a charming, bratty and spirited desk clerk, the latter half cements her as a fearless ghost hunter. Her lack of inhibitions and curiousity about the potential ghosts in the hotel terrifies the audience more than any scare can. As the humour ebbs away and the scares REALLY begin, you will crave the carefree girl we met earlier in the film. While some were disappointed by this shift in direction for West, as this film is not nearly as scare-filled as his previous works, the lightheartedness in the beginning creates a perpetual and unshakeable feeling of dread in the final half of the film, a sinking feeling I won’t soon forget.

Previously: Deadheads and Love
Monster Brawl

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