[TIFF 2022] PROJECT WOLF HUNTING -- A Bloody Action-Horror Mashup That Overstays Its Welcome
Review by Alan French
Few countries embrace genre filmmaking like South Korea. Directors hailing from the small nation surprise on the biggest stages. Kim Hongsun becomes the latest prodigy of note, with Project Wolf Hunting placing his work front-and-center for Western audiences. This freight train styles itself after the Bruckheimer/Bay collaborations, with the gore of Resident Evil and Friday the 13th. A bloody but fun experience, Project Wolf Hunting struggles to maintain momentum thanks to overly long exposition that harpoons it from becoming an instant midnight classic.
During a prisoner transfer of convicts from the Philippines to Busan, a bomb goes off at an airport. The government resorts to putting its most dangerous criminals and crime lords on a ship. With the worst of the worst chained up, it would only be a matter of time until the dam breaks. As the convicts take control of the ship, an unexpected evil awakens from the depths.
Much of Project Wolf Hunting thrives on its commitment to practical effects and actual gore. Once the first prisoners escape, Kim’s bloodlust cannot be satiated. The audience gets desensitized within minutes as Project Wolf Hunting establishes itself as one the goriest movies of the last twenty years. Leading the way as Jong-un, Seo In-guk has an absolute ball tearing into the meaty material. Tatted out and disrespectful of everyone he meets, Seo plays the sociopath with a giddiness that strikes a nerve.
However, not all convicts are so quick to violence. Do-il (Jang Dong-yoon) attempts to quell the madness, even when confronted by members of the police and the criminal syndicate. He simply wants to serve his time, making him a perfect reluctant protagonist in the vein of Nic Cage’s Cameron Poe. Jang plays the straight man, providing the audience some stability as Project Wolf Hunting becomes a blood-soaked Under Siege with a monster lurking.
The effects work feels genuinely stunning. Blood spurts hit walls across the room while brain matter spews from the skulls of unfortunate fodder. Few horror flicks have one creative kill, let alone dozens of them. The slasher elements emerge during the film's second half, and once our monster creeps its way into the frame, we have to wonder which characters will make it to the end.
Early in Project Wolf Hunting, Kim spends the time to introduce and differentiate at least two dozen actors. At various points, the survivors and criminals swap allegiances. When you think you’ve found a rooting interest, that character becomes the victim of a throat rip. Kim’s ability to make you care about each character outshines the American slasher trope of introducing characters solely to see them die. Instead, Project Wolf Hunting feels like the kind of simulation that yields different results each time you run it. The characters are that fleshed out.
However, this becomes a double-edged sword. The narrative overstays its welcome by spending so much time on the backstories of so many characters. We do not get into the meat of the story until an hour of its two-hour runtime. Additionally, more twists and turns are left in store for our audience. The amount of narration and exposition bogs us down, undermining the more unique elements of the film. While Kim may direct the heck out of kills and practical effects, he needs to work on his pacing.
Project Wolf Hunting will certainly not be for everyone. Those who love Resident Evil, ship-takeovers, or a gore-fest have found your next screening. Keep an eye on Kim, who is poised to make a full-blown midnight classic. Unfortunately, pacing issues prevent Project Wolf Hunting from becoming that breakthrough.
Project Wolf Hunting screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18.
[TIFF 2022] WILL-O'-THE-WISP -- João Pedro Rodrigues’ Experimental Musical Brings Sexy Back
Review by Alan French
In the fall of 1968, an American musical named Hair became a symbol of the counterculture. After a successful debut off-Broadway, the musical draped (and sometimes undraped) in hippie clothing became a lightning rod for controversy. Nevertheless, Hair’s success left a mark on pop culture for decades. Director João Pedro Rodrigues hopes his new musical, Will-o’-the-Wisp, can make a similar mark. Cloaked in millennial anxiety about climate change, Will-o’-the-Wisp embraces an experimental structure to highlight its unique perspective.
In 2069, the King Alfredo of Portugal (Joel Branco) lies dying. As the world wonders what comes next, we flashback to his younger years in 2017. His father tries to teach him geopolitical ideas that will one day help him rule. Instead, wildfires and Greta Thunberg convinced the young Alfredo (Mauro Costa) to become a firefighter. He soon enters a world that allows his passions and sexuality to define his world.
At only 67 minutes, Rodrigues keeps his film moving like a freight train. From the word go, Will-o’-the-Wisp wastes no time with subtlety. The movie even forgets to drop its title, which eventually comes around the 20-minute mark. While it utilizes performances akin to Spanish melodrama, the Portuguese director plays with form. A character breaks the fourth wall and delivers a monologue in English straight into the camera. The world stops, and as the camera zooms out, the corners of the soundstage become part of the visual storytelling. The film brings meta elements of the medium into the text, and Rodrigues forces the audience to acknowledge the discomfort.
The film also embraces a far more progressive attitude toward sex than expected. Rodrigues inputs an extended showcase of erotic visual gags that become double entendres for sexual positions. Exceptionally sexual ballet routines complement the songs and continue to build on the film's political themes. Some sequences are far more explicit than one is likely to see outside the world of pornography, but the overt visuals are part of the film’s strange optimism. After all, if humanity makes it to a functioning 2069, maybe our lifestyles and actions will save the planet.
The performances throughout the film rarely drew too much attention. Actress Claudia Jardim and actor André Cabral stand out once we reach the fire station. While Cabral casts an alluring spell over the film, Jardim excels as its comic relief. Their performances lift the film's second act, and their absence is palpable once they leave. They are keyed into what Rodrigues and the film require, allowing their commitment to carry us home.
Again, Rodrigues seems focused on relaying his message. Once he shows greater control over the messages of his films, Rodrigues seems destined to make a masterpiece. The visual skill is undeniable. Hopefully, his next feature will not feel the need to hit you with a mallet to get its point across.
Will-o'-the-Wisp screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8 to 18.
[TIFF 2022] FALCON LAKE -- An Uneven Coming-of-Age Tale That Lacks the Intended Mystery
Review by Alan French
Since the release of Stranger Things, the coming-of-age paranormal story has come back into vogue. While the 1980s were filled with Fright Nights, Monster Squads, and Goonies, the 1990s and 2000s were all but barren. The return of the subgenre certainly offers a lot for moviegoers who are looking to feel teen melodrama blended with light horror themes. In the case of Falcon Lake, we are unable to embrace either side fully. With a messy structure and an odd reliance on a paranormal tale, this coming-of-age story does little to satisfy fans of either form.
Directed by Charlotte Le Bon, Falcon Lake follows two teens looking to enjoy their summer. Bastien (Joseph Engel) serves as our gateway into the community. His parents bring him to the titular lake for the summer, and we observe most of the story through his eyes. Shortly after arriving, Bastien meets Chloé (Sara Montpetit). The two may be the same age, but Chloé draws the attention of the older boys on vacation. Bastien and Chloé’s relationship develops in the shadow of the summer, and haunting stories of ghosts on the lake.
The blending of two genres creates natural obstacles to overcome. In Falcon Lake’s case, the teen coming-of-age angst makes it difficult to buy into other aspects of the film. However, there seems to be a lack of commitment from Le Bon and the writing team to bring out the supernatural elements of the narrative. This may stem from the graphic novel Une Soeur, written by Bastien Vives. That story focuses far more on the sexual awakening between its two protagonists, and Falcon Lake follows suit. However, introducing the ghost and metaphysical aspects of the story also requires some payoff. In this version, that story falls short.
Le Bon certainly tries to tie in the paranormal in interesting ways. While much of the film draws its visual language from the graphic novel (including shots and situations straight from the book), there are some departures. Early in the film, we’re introduced to Chloé via silhouette, but as our protagonist sleeps. The image bears more resemblance to The Ring or Satan’s Slave than to a typical teen introduction. When we return to the room in the morning, the silhouette is gone, leading to a temporary sequence where the audience begins to question what it saw. Sadly, there is not enough ambiguity in these scenes to increase the tension.
The teen coming-of-age story offers most of the memorable moments. As Chloé proves more adventurous than Bastien, he attempts to step outside of his comfort zone. These sequences are relatable, especially when he receives comparisons to the other boys in town. Both his age and affection level seem more in line with Chloé’s wishes, yet the other boys circle them both like sharks. There’s an uneasiness in that tension, opening the audience to worry about Chloé even when she’s not on screen. To say she’s a flirt may be an understatement, but she also never promises or owes him anything.
Le Bon intends to make Chloé a manic pixie dream girl with agency. While this helps make Chloé a more realized character, it also invites frustrations with Bastien. It becomes obvious that he is a typical teenage boy, more obsessed with his own reputation for scoring with girls than telling the truth. Whether he means to or not, he puts Chloé in a difficult position with her friends, all because of his own inadequacies. We’ve seen stories like this unfold, and that begins to make Falcon Lake feel less original as a result.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with Falcon Lake, there are few moments of pure entertainment as well. The teen elements do not hit as personally as one would hope, and the paranormal subplot feels more like a bad twist to wrap around the tale. With some additional pacing issues and shallow side characters, we are left with a slightly substandard teen drama.
Falcon Lake screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18.
[TIFF 2022] 752 IS NOT A NUMBER -- A Harrowing Portrait of a Life Consumed by Grief
Review by Alan French
When the United States assassinated Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, much of the world cheered. Infamous for his war crimes, Soleimani’s death struck a blow to extremist efforts in the region. However, Iran promised retaliation for the intrusion against their sovereignty. Many feared this action might begin World War III. However, after Iran launched a missile and shot down a civilian plane, tensions seemed to dissipate for the time being. That flight was Ukrainian Air 752, which carried 176 passengers. For Hamed Esmaeilion, the death of his wife and daughter launched him on a path to find justice. The film 752 Is Not a Number channels that grief into a document of pain and sadness.
Documentarian Babak Payami uses 752 Is Not a Number to follow Esmaeillion to Iran and back. Throughout 752, Payami focuses on a man devastated by loss and searching for purpose. After it becomes apparent that those responsible are still at large, Esmaeillion begins to pursue justice on the international stage. COVID infection rates climb. Esmaeillion’s activities become the focus of the Iranian government. For a small author living in Canada, Esmaeillion approaches his fight with unwavering conviction. Without consistent pressure from those who lost family to the crash, there would be no resolution possible.
The footage from Iran depicts the plane crash in upsetting detail. We observe images of the wreckage and Esmaeillion’s personal photographs, creating an uneasy juxtaposition. Payami never forgets that the victims of this act were not soldiers but innocent men, women, and children. Even as the conspiracy surrounding the event grows in scope, this central truth stands over the story. These are horrifying moments, and Esmaeillion’s actions are heroic.
Payami assembles 752 Is Not a Number from dozens of sources. As he pulls apart the issues, he allows us to acknowledge the scale of coverup. Payami and Esmaeillion lay out the crimes one at a time, which adds tension to the movement for justice. 752 frames itself as a journalistic document. It also serves as a statement of intent, laying out clear lines that the families will not cross.
752 faces two issues throughout the film. First, Payami's choice to utilize voiceover narration almost undermines the entire film. He was present for some of the real moments of tension, which makes his presence important in telling the story. However, the footage speaks for itself. The narration inadvertently undermines the raw power of this footage.
Second, the film’s pacing issues also become a problem. There are moments where 752 plods to a halt while the subjects talk in circles. Then, a grand reveal occurs at a pivotal moment, and we are off to the races. Rather than give the audience context, we are on a plane flying across the world in a matter of minutes. This breakneck pace undermines the slower, more personal moments of the film. We are caught between a portrait of grief and hard journalism, and Payami cannot marry the two stories.
The story of Ukrainian Air 752 should not be forgotten anytime soon. But, thanks to 752 is Not a Number, it will not be. A stunning portrayal of bravery, grief, and the search for truth becomes something more in 2022. The actions here are genuinely heroic, and the resulting film will be hard to forget.
752 Is Not a Number screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18.
[TIFF 2022] DRIVING MADELEINE -- A Heartwarming Journey Remembering Love and Tragedy
Review by Alan French
Oral storytelling rarely feels cinematic, yet filmmakers have mined it as the basis of film for nearly a century. From the earliest films to George Miller’s recent extravaganza, the power of stories has long held a place within cinema. One of our most common depictions of oral storytelling in 2022 has become the car ride, whether via taxi or the hiring of a driver. Given its commonplace nature in our culture, and our need to pass the time without silence, the setups seem apparent. While the “front seat, back seat” storytelling method may be overdone, it remains a fertile ground for elegant stories. Christian Carion returns to the director's chair with Driving Madeleine, a saccharine feature that breathes life into the format.
A middle-aged taxi driver, Charles (Dany Boon), faces another challenging day. He owes money to the wrong people, struggles to hold onto his marriage, and is one violation away from losing his license. Charles jumps at the high-priced fare when a call comes into dispatch to drive an elderly lady across town. On the trip, Madeleine (Line Renaud) recounts her life story. The two develop a bond within hours as Madeleine tells her incredible story.
Much of Driving Madeleine speaks to this moment. As global movements have restricted women's rights, Carion puts a woman suffering from abuse at the center of his tale. As the film evolves through Madeleine’s story, Renaud gets several showcase sequences. Alice Isaaz also shines while portraying a younger, more brutalized Madeleine. The two performers may showcase different aspects of their characters, but each key into commonalities, including a fierce internal strength.
Their combined efforts drive most of the film. They bring the emotional heartbeat to the film that ultimately helps this story stand out. Renaud brings a more nuanced performance as a woman on the other side of tragedy. Meanwhile, Isaaz adds a physicality and sadness one expects from her circumstances yet also channels the internal rage of a woman who pushes back against her abuser. Carion frames the story in a way that walks us through the tragedy, happiness, and resolve of a woman fighting back against unfair laws.
Boon also delivers a heartfelt role, a surprising turn from the angry character introduced to us in the first five minutes. As Charles faces trials and tribulations, Boon opens himself up. The vulnerability on display helps us connect and provides weight to Madeleine’s story. Ultimately, his turn is overly sentimental, as his growth occurs at lightspeed. Still, Boon radiates charisma that will likely win over most doubters.
Carion embraces the sentimental aspects of his story and deserves credit for leaning into that approach. Unfortunately, too many directors and storytellers try to subvert their own stories to make them feel fresh. Wisely, Carion allows Renaud, Isaaz, and Boon to shine. Some intense sequences in the middle of the film show a darker side to this tale, but the conventional tale ultimately holds Driving Madeleine back from excellence.
Driving Madeleine screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18.
[TIFF 2022] CASA SUSANNA -- A Haven for Trans Women Receives the Tribute It Deserves
Review by Alan French
History is often unkind to minority communities, and the LGBTQ+ community is no stranger to being erased. For centuries, little information about queer couples that were allowed to embrace their sexuality has existed. In most areas of the United States, local communities punished those willing to be open about their sexuality through literal and social methods. While the fight for same-sex rights continues today, those transitioning are at the center of a culture war. While many seek to support this choice, others create toxic environments where violence reigns. That makes the discovery of a haven, like the one depicted in Casa Susanna, a miracle worthy of celebration.
Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz, Casa Susanna brings a safe space into the light. During the 1950s and 1960s, a community of cross-dressers and trans women found refuge in the Catskills. Susanna provided safety in two ways. First, she opened a club for performers, which drew in crowds from around the state. Second, Susanna offered to lodge those performers in the Catskills. She would bring family and friends to a house and barn, where they were free to be women. For years, the house brought women from around the globe to the community as each person sought discovery.
Told with a talking head format, much of Casa Susanna involves historical tales and reminiscing. This style sets up the narrative while allowing the film to take on an ethnographic lens. This process, including recovering lost images and stories, becomes an important project for Lifshitz and their team. In that regard, it becomes a reclamation project that opens the door for more stories to share.
Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Casa Susanna is the celebratory attitude. These are individuals who continue to fight for fundamental human rights. The growth we observe paints a picture of hard-fought progress. These women went from hiding in Catskills barns vehemently denying their deepest desires to the women who transitioned and lived the life they deserved. Not every story has a happy ending, but for these women, life became too important to throw away. Each woman deserves credit for their actions and is a pioneer of the movement.
There is a limit to the quality of a talking head documentary, especially one that relishes data collection over style. In this way, the filmmakers emphasized the historical unearthing of new stories. While Casa Susanna contains a different kind of heartbreak than one may associate with hard-hitting documentaries, the stories told burst with pathos and love. Do not ignore this film. It teaches us too many important lessons about the dangers of ignorance.
Casa Susanna screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18.
Review by Alan French
Finding our place in our communities can be difficult. However, finding out how we fit within a family unit can be far more emotionally taxing. For the characters in This Place, the debut feature from V.T. Nayani, the idea of belonging in a specific place remains in flux. Both of the women at the center of the story find themselves torn between forging their own future and respecting the legacies of their family.
Kawenniióhstha (Devery Jacobs) begins her college career far from home. After being raised in a Mohawk community, she wants to meet the Iranian father she has never known. As she attends school and gains confidence as a writer, she meets Malai (Priya Guns), the daughter of a Tamil immigrant. As Malai’s attempts to reconnect with her ailing father, she faces considerable pressure from her professors and brother about her future academic career. As Kawenniióhstha and Malai grow closer, they reckon with the shadow of their family legacies.
Jacobs and Guns’s performances each provide the actresses with material that showcases more subtle performances. While emotion courses through the dialogue, the restraint shown by different characters speaks to a more authentic experience. This also makes the moments where a character displays vulnerability even more impactful.
As their relationship evolves, Nayani evokes dream-like qualities in the visuals and the musical score. The use of blues, reds, and purples helps set an otherworldly feeling as the women begin to fall for each other. The use of bisexual lighting might have been a little on the nose, yet This Place grips the audience during these sequences. With a gorgeous score accompanying the visuals, there seemed to be undeniable homages to Barry Jenkins.
At times, the film suffers from an uneven screenplay. There are sequences that feel extremely overwritten, specifically exposition dumps by Kawenniióhstha and Malai. Meanwhile, their parents feel like cardboard cutouts, simply there to get in the way of their journey. On one hand, this seems intentional. The women do not know much about their parents' struggles, and as a result, we are left in the dark as well. This approach undermines the first sequences of the movie, where we observe the unique anxieties and justified paranoia of the immigrant experience. We later see these anxieties echoed across generations, but by limiting our time with the parents of each woman, we are left with a void of information.
Nayani establishes herself as director to watch with This Place’s essential themes. One of the most diverse features of the year, both in terms of perspective and on-screen talent, This Place forces the audience to question their own experience growing up. However, the small screenplay issues pile up, hurting the film over its runtime. With an essential story, the film sneaks up on you as an emotional and rewarding experience.
This Place screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18.
[TIFF 2022] CHARCOAL -- Questions of Morality and Agency Are Undermined by Pacing Issues
Review by Alan French
How far are you willing to go to change your circumstances? FIlm often allows us to gain empathy for those whose lives are vastly different than our own. Yet there are some stories and desperations that are impossible to simulate. A Brazilian and Argentine film, Charcoal, forces the audience to play one of these upsetting thought exercises. Directed by Caroline Markowicz, Charcoal pushes its characters to the edge of what they can handle.
For Irene (Maeve Jenkins), a better life is just out of reach. Living in rural Brazil, Irene struggles to care for her ailing father. Her son, Jean (Jean Costa), lives with the bedridden man. When a new medical caregiver arrives to check on Irene’s father, the caregiver offers a devious proposal: kill your father and hide a drug kingpin in his place. After taking steps to partake in the offer, Irene wrestles with the difficulties of hiding a drug lord.
Much of Charcoal hinges on the performance of Irene, and Jenkins answers the call. She pours a well of desperation into the character, making the stakes clear to the audience. She commits a vulnerability to the screen, making you feel the anguish of committing cardinal sins leaves on the soul. Yet that desperation hopes to chart a path for her family, specifically her son, to escape this world. Even as others push her around, there’s a grace in Jenkins’ performance. Without her turn, the movie does not work.
She not only forces Irene to face difficulty but also uses the events to examine a loss of power. Miguel (César Bordón), the drug kingpin, once held a position of strength over an entire organization. The loss of authority and agency forces him to assert his control over those in his vicinity. In this case, he applies this pressure to his host family, particularly on the young son. He continues to live his life in a manner he sees fit — doing drugs and sleeping with his partner — but shows no respect for Irene in the process. His blatant disrespect shows a lack of awareness that only deepens the anxiety in the house.
Markowicz uses this dichotomy to create a pressure cooker environment. Each action from Miguel and Irene increases the pressure on someone. As Miguel grows stir-crazy from isolation, Irene must keep the town at arm’s length. Her relationships begin to dissolve, and those around her become suspicious of her father’s health. As Charcoal examines our duty to family and community, it begins to unravel the impact each action has on the family.
The film opens up familial wounds and resentments and questions whether the cancer eating away at their relationships is already present. Markowicz seems to place the blame at the feet of their low economic status but imbues Irene with ambition that manifests in the final scenes. However, the rot created by the film’s inciting incidents may be too far gone to overcome.
Ultimately, the film suffers a few setbacks. While there seemed to be opportunities to heighten the images captured on screen, the cinematography feels rather bland. Additionally, the struggle between Irene and her husband feels out-of-place in the film. While the movie hints at additional issues that may arise, the end result of their fighting does not play out. Instead, this makes the film feel slightly bloated. This bloat hurts the pacing, and blurs the messages that Markowicz seems interested in conveying.
While Charcoal has some slight issues, Markowicz showcases skills worthy of admiration. While the film is strengthened by Jenkins and Bordón’s performances, the moral questions raised by Markowicz become the narrative’s engine. The concepts at play and the visuals blend well enough to make this a feature worthy of examination. However, it seems likely that you will want to watch Charcoal as a primer for Markowicz’s next feature.
Charcoal screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18.