Review Round-Up: Kristen Wiig, creepy kids, and Clancy Brown in ‘Hellbenders’

It seems hard to believe that I’ve got to wrap up my Toronto thoughts for this year by Thursday morning, when I switch gears into Fantastic Fest mode, which I’ll be covering for the rest of the month.  That means you’ll get reviews for “Frankenweenie,” “The ABCs Of Death,” “Red Dawn,” “Paranormal Activity 4,” and much, much more.  It also means time’s up, and if I’m going to offer up thoughts on Toronto, I’ll have a few full length reviews, and a few wrap-ups with quick thoughts about everything else I saw.

You’ll hear a lot on this week’s special podcast about J.T. Petty’s film “Hellbenders,”
and I think it’s one of those movies that could easily be oversold to you, but that has a whole lot of charms if you are on its very particular wavelength.  It is truly profane, but in a sweet, puppy dog way.  There’s something so eager to shock about the film that it’s sort of endearing instead of genuinely offensive.  The premise is a pretty novel high-concept twist on the notion of a team of exorcists, unofficially affiliated with the Catholic Church.  Calling themselves the “Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints,” the excommunicated priests must live in a state of constant sin, their souls always tipped over to the dark side, guaranteeing them a trip to Hell as long as no one gives them Last Rites to absolve them.  They do this so that as a last resort, they can invite the demon into their body, then kill themselves so they immediately go to Hell and take the demon along with them.  It’s the metaphysical version of being a suicide bomber.  You’re going down, but you’re taking your enemy with you.

Petty chooses to play the premise for laughs at the start off his film, although the actual possessed Rabbi Weinberg at the beginning of the film is a nice balance, disturbing until the moment he’s funny, something the film depends on repeatedly by the time it wraps up.  It walks that very tricky line between being genuinely funny and genuinely scary, and I think ultimately, it plays for laughs.  It’s the right decision, I think, because the film’s heart lies more fully in the interplay between the characters and the weird lifestyle that the Hellbound Saints have chosen for themselves.  Angus (Clancy Brown) is the leader, the true believer, the man touched by God, and he is a whirlwind of filthy language and bad behavior.  It’s like if Father Merrin was played by The Tasmanian Devil in “The Exorcist.”  Clifton Collins brings something I’ve never really seen from him to his work as Larry, second in command to Angus.  He struggles with his role as a Hellbound Saint because he’s married to Penelope (Samantha Buck), who is doing her best to go to AA and get sober, something that is complicated enormously when Larry spends all day every day getting drunk and high and cursing and sinning as hard as he can.  Collins finds this tender something that drives Larry, that makes him keep trying with his wife, even when he’s screwing it up completely.  The same is true of the work by Macon Blair, Andre Royo, and Dan Fogler. They’re all straining to be rude and crude and blasphemous as possible, but the guys are all marshmallows underneath.  These guys signed up to do God’s work, and this is the way they do it.  There’s an officious church prick determined to shut down the Hellbound Saints, played with a sort of oozing authority by Stephen Gevedon, and Petty makes sure to pay off all of the stress that he causes the Saints in high style.

It’s so different from “S&Man” and “The Burrowers,” earlier films by Petty, that it came as a bit of a surprise.  It’s not the tone I expected from him, and it’s not a cast that I’d expect him to put together, necessarily.  I think that was the theme of this year’s festival for me… directors honing their voices in ways both expected and surprising.  In some cases, the new films were exactly what I expected them to be, like Malick’s new film or “The Impossible” or “Seven Psychopaths,” and in other cases, I was surprised by the voice I encountered, like with “Perks Of Being A Wallflower” or this one.  I think “Hellbenders” played great with a crowd, and I expect a fairly determined cult to spring up around it almost as soon as it’s released.

I think “Come Out And Play” is too calculated to be a cult hit.  It’s a remake of the 1976 film “Who Can Kill A Child?”, although the writer/director/editor/caterer/fluffer/color timer/composer/center of attention of the film, who calls himself simply “Makinov,”  only credits the original book and not the screenplay by Narciso Ibanez Serrador.  I call foul.  I think it’s silly that Makinov is a man of mystery, directing in a mask to hide his identity.  Tell you what, Makinov… either make an original or give me a remake that adds something to the retelling, and then I’ll decide if I care about your secret identity.  The film is competently made, and if you haven’t seen the original, there are a few minor jolts in the way he stages the story of a couple, Francis (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and the very-pregnant Beth (Vinessa Shaw), who head to an island in Mexico because… actually, that’s not clear.  It seems very urgent that they get there for the first fifteen minutes or so, but once they do, it’s not like they seem to have had any particular plan for what to do while they were there.

No matter.  The plan would be out the window anyway.  There’s no one alive on the island.  Or at least, at first it seems that way.  Then they start to catch occasional glimpses of kids, just turning a corner or ducking out of sight.  And when they finally do find an old man, they catch sight of him just before some kids beat him to death with his own cane, laughing as they do it.

Makinov stages everything in a fairly matter of fact way, which is a nice change of pace from how many horror films are shot, and I like that most of the film takes place in bright daylight.  But the original had a really ugly edge that popped up in the various gore gags and scares, and this one feels toothless.  We’ve seen creepy kids.  These kids aren’t particularly creepy.  They’re a threat in numbers, but Makinov never really figures out what mood he’s trying to create.  The two adults struggle to make their roles interesting, but there’s just nothing on the page for them to hold on to.  Shaw in particular seems to be giving a performance that belongs in a much more interesting film, and it’s just sort of disappointing to watch someone struggle to give life to material that just doesn’t justify the effort.  “Come Out And Play” feels to me like someone trying to shock you by telling you a slightly off-color limerick, barely worth the effort.

I’m equally puzzled and frustrated by “Imogene.”

At this point, “American Splendor” seems like the blessed accident in the otherwise fairly ordinary filmography of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.  I would imagine there is a way Michelle Morgan’s script could have worked.  The basic set-up (a social climber in NYC who is also a failed playwright loses her boyfriend and her job, fakes a suicide attempt and ends up back in the court-ordered custody of the New Jersey family she’s been trying to escape) is comedically sound, and I think Kristen Wiig is pretty much as good as it gets, so how does something so fundamentally sound go so terribly wrong?

I would say that part of the problem is that it’s lit like a TV sitcom, but that would genuinely be doing a disservice to the way TV’s overall aesthetic has developed over the last decade or so.  I don’t get how Steve Yedlin shoots “Looper,” which looks amazing, and this, which looks like it was shot on cheese.  There’s this broad, flat, acutely ugly overall color scheme and visual plan, and it hurts the film.  More than that, though, Berman and Pulcini never figure out what the reality of their film is.  There is humor here that’s very small-scale and human and observational, and then there are characters who push way past cartoon, like Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), Imogene’s crab-obsessed brother who designs a metallic human shell, or The Boosh (Matt Dillon), who plays the live-in boyfriend of Zelda (Annette Bening), Imogene’s mother.  The Boosh talks about being a government-employed time-traveling ninja spy, so of course, in a movie that has no idea how real to play things, we’re supposed to invest equally in Imogene’s struggle to understand her overbearing, embarrassing mother and the truth about The Boosh, and they don’t both seem to fit in one film.  I can see why Wiig would think she could take the character and spin gold out of it, but the film just isn’t strong enough.  Cast members like Darren Criss and Natasha Lyonne do big broad overt work, while Annette Bening keeps trying to find the humanity behind Zelda’s obnoxious surface.  My guess is they’ll cut a decent trailer for this one.  Beware.

I’ll have more Toronto tonight and tomorrow for you, as well as a few special treats between the festivals, and then it’s into eight solid days of depravity and lunacy.  I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Our final letter grades for these three films:

“Hellbenders” (B-)

“Come Out And Play” (C-)

“Imogene” (C)