September 12, 2010

Day 3 of John Foote's Toronto Film Festival Diary!

A few years ago a film entitled Stranger Than Fiction (2006) was here at TIFF which displayed an entirely different side to Will Ferrell, best known as a comedic actor, here tackling a dramatic role for the first time. Ferrell was very good in the film, and impressed more than a few film critics (myself included) with his acting chops. Of course his recent performance as President George W. Bush on HBO makes it clear that when he puts his mind to it, he is a gifted actor capable of doing great comedic work. One of the joys of TIFF is finding out something new about an actor or a director, when they tackle something outside their comfort zone, and incredibly, make it work. Just a few days ago Chris Cooper said to me that the industry often pigeon holes actors into doing the same sort of performance and film over and over and over, and that since winning his Oscar for Adaptation (2002) has never been offered anything remotely like that part again. Ferrell is often in danger of getting stuck in that rut, doing the same sort of character over and over, when clearly there is a character actor waiting to break out.
Ferrell has done it again, in a film not as good as Stranger Than Fiction, though his performance may be better, darker, and more complex than that one.
In his new film film, Everything Must Go, directed by Dan Rush, comedian Will Ferrell gives a strong performance as an alcoholic, fired from his job, kicked out of his home by his wife, and left with only his possessions scattered on his front lawn. The entire premise of the film is how he deals with this, how he comes to recognize that his life is not over and he has the strength to carry on. Ferrell handles the angry man portrayal quite well, proving that his work in Stranger Than Fiction (2006) was no fluke. In fact, I dare say this is his best work onscreen...period. This is Ferrell's first foray into the independent filmmaking scene, the actor offered a role that goes against the grain of just about everything he has done.
His character could be a dislikable sort, and indeed Ferrell goes in that direction, capturing the anger of a man who has allowed, through drink and foolish acts, his life to spiral out of control. I cannot remember Ferrell ever portraying such self loathing so brilliantly before, as deep down he knows he is his own worst enemy, but lacks the courage to do anything about it, perhaps because it is his very own misery. People on such a downward dive often have nothing more than their misery, and they covet and protect it, because they somehow understand it is the one thing they do control. Their anger grows, they lash out at anyone around them, and are cruel because they feel they do not deserve any decent treatment or kindness. However there is something so inherently likable within Ferrell it is impossible to completely dislike the character. We see him do some very stupid things, we see him at his very worst, but we also know what he is going through and what he is up against. He's not a bad guy, not at all, he's just in a bad way.
The film itself suffers from being rather one note, though. Once his character is established on the front lawn, the other characters are introduced, it all becomes a tad redundant, despite some strong performances from Ferrell and Rebecca Hall. She brings a lovely winsome presence to the film as a pregnant neighbor, having just moved in, getting a rather shocking introduction to Ferrell. He hits the nail right on the head when he states that she could be looking at her future, but she sees something more in him, and will not let his defeatist attitude get to her. In the moment of the darkest despair of his life, betrayed by someone he truly admired and trusted, he manages to find hope and go on.
Based on a short story by Raymond Chandler, "Why Don't You Dance?", the director-writer Rush knew at once upon reading the story that this would be his first feature. Knowing he needed a strong actor for the part of Nick, who is in virtually every scene in the film, Rush thought of no one else but Ferrell. Knowing that the character had some irredeemable qualities about him, he believed that Ferrell's likability would help with the impact of the film and allow the audience to care about the character.
Rush was right in his casting, no question. Where he fails, I think is in the execution of the story, which lacks urgency and desperation. This guy is out of his home, fired, his car taken away...he is at rock bottom, and yet the film moves casually along. Rush is very fortunate to have Ferrell in the film, an actor interesting enough to keep the audience watching and caring about the character.
The one piece of casting I struggled with was Christopher "CJ" Wallace, who is a thirteen year old kid who becomes over a few days Ferrell's best friend and business partner. There is a lack of chemistry between the pair, and though it does not impact the performance of Ferrell, it does cause the scenes with the youngster to lack a degree of realism. There is just something inauthentic about his work that stands out among the other actors, who live and breathe the characters.
The press audience enjoyed the film, though they seemed to enjoy Ferrell much more. He is the driving force of the film.

The American remake of the brilliant Danish horror film Let the Right One in (2007) is Let Me In, directed by Matt Reeves who gave us the horror flick Cloverfield (2009). With strong buzz floating around this picture, many in the audience were openly discussing the original, wondering if the director of the remake could match that first one. Suffice to say he does, though I cannot say I agree with other critics stating that this new film surpasses the original. Certainly more money was spent in the making, and the production values are stronger, but that first picture had a stark and cold horror that this new one does not have. It's very scary, don't get me wrong, but there is an under current of sadness to this one that I did not find in the first.
Almost a shot for shot remake of the film, the picture is an unsettling, chilling tale of a young American boy and the twelve (more or less she says) year old vampire girl he befriends when she moves into his apartment complex. He is struggling with the nasty divorce of his parents, seeking to belong in a school where he is the target of a relentless bully, and looking for something to happen in his life that might interest him. The girl, Abby, tells him from the beginning, "we can't be friends" yet their friendship nonetheless evolves, slowly, as a trust builds between the two of them. We see glimpses into each of their lives and, in their own very different way, each is an outsider. She for her need for human blood, he because he is different than the other kids and targeted by a particular group of boys who openly despise him.
When her protector dies she is forced to reveal more and more of herself to the boy, who though initially horrified, still understands Abby is the girl underneath it all, and cannot help what she is any more than his mother can help what she is. As a police detective, nicely portrayed by Elias Koteas gets closer and closer to discovering Abby's secret, the boy learns just how far he will go to protect his friend, monster or not.
In the original film, there were no glowing eyes, no changes to the girl throughout the film, which I admired. I have always admired Stephen King's book Salem's Lot in which the vampires' facial features never change, they remain the same and their eyes of pools of darkness. Sadly, the director Reeves has chosen to allow Abby's features to become more and more monster like as she feeds, which to me lessened the impact of the horror. How much more terrifying would it be to see that sweet faced girl feasting on blood, than the green eyed beast we see? It is the wrong move from a director who obviously has great regard for the original and does virtually everything right until that moment. Not that it ruins the film, the picture is too strong for that to happen, and the performances far too outstanding.
Richard Jenkins is the child's protector, her father she calls him, and her connection to food. He kills people and drains their blood so the girl may feed. When one of his killings goes terribly wrong, he pours acid over his face so he is unrecognizable and will not be caught. Abby comes to him in the hospital, and he offers her his blood, before he falls to the ground dead. Without a protector, she is left to find blood for herself, and when the boy tries to make them blood "friends" she goes berserk, lapping up his blood from the ground, before attacking a woman in the apartment complex. This brings the police, and Abby is forced to move on. Or so the boy believes. She is watching him from afar, and is finally his protector from the bullies who terrorize him, leaving a swimming pool awash in blood and body parts. Knowing they cannot escape this series of murders, the boy makes a life altering decision that will impact them both, but keep them together.
When a film is placed on the shoulders of actors so young it is a huge risk for the director, and must weigh on his mind during the making of the film. However when the child actors are as strong as they are in this film, the director has no worries. Initially when I heard Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road (2009) was going to portray the boy in the film I was concerned as I did not care for his work in that apocalyptic work, believing it to be forced and immature. Yet he has grown as an actor, and grounds this film with a fine and strong piece of acting. His beautiful liquid eyes are so utterly soulful, and his feelings for Abby worn on his sleeve.
As Abby, young Chloe Grace Mortez, is otherworldly. His wise eyes seems ancient, and yet there is a childlike quality to her, "I like puzzles", she tells his friend, not realizing, (or perhaps knowing) he is trying to solve the puzzle that is Abby. She knows what she is, she knows she could kill the boy in a heartbeat, but does not, because despite her belief she cannot have a friend, she knows he is hers.
The attacks are quite startling, as she suddenly moves with extraordinary speed, leaping around like a vicious lynx attacking her prey, and there is no shortage of blood. Yet this is also a film about an evolving friendship, and a deep love between two children.
Though many doubted Matt Reeves, he more than pulled this off, giving us a film that will do very well at the box office and provide audiences with some genuine thrills this fall. Hopefully, the success of this new picture will not cause audiences to forget the original, because it remains a chilling exercise in terror, and that young girls' face haunts the landscape of my mind.



  1. I've never been a big fan of Will Ferrell. I thought his shtick was overdone in just about every film of his I did manage to see. But I did enjoy him in Stranger Than Fiction, so I think I'll track down Everything Must Go and give it a shot.

    Kinda stumbled in here by hitting the "Next Blog" link a few times, just nosing around. I notice this latest post is dated Sept. I'll bookmark it an drop back in now and again, for what it's worth. Your posts are well-written and well thought out - though the formatting could be a bit better, to make it easier to read! Those big blocks of text are daunting!

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