Hamsters and writers and demons, oh my.

To the best of my knowledge, Ellen Page has yet to give a performance that isn’t utterly committed. That’s what I was thinking while watching Bruce MacDonald’s The Tracey Fragments. In the picture she plays Tracey Berkowitz, a 15-year-old who has a miserable relationship with her parents, narrating the movie while on a bus wering a shower curtain, looking for her lost little brother who believes he’s a dog. MacDonald uses a multi-panel, music-video approach to tell the story, like Timecode on speed, flashing back and forth chronologically. I won’t say too much more about it (oooooh, embargo!), but I will say it was more fun than his last work to get a screening at the AFF, something called The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess, which I could barely sit through.

The Atlantic Shorts program is an amazing time for anyone who has never been to one and is curious about the work local filmmakers are spending their year on. And you’ll never see a more enthusiastic audience for film, it feels like a big party. Tonight, Wednesday, there are two programs, Atlantic Shorts III and Atlantic Shorts IV, the latter screening showing more of the longer form work, including Jeff Wheaton’s The Lullabye of Mike Bossy, a film for hockey fans everywhere.

Tuesday night I attended the Atlantic Shorts Gala, a collection of very charming and often hilarious short films. Highlights includes the third part of Jacob Owens’s trilogy about a French Hamster, Copain de Memoires, Andrew Bush’s very short, very funny Forgotten, and Cayman Grant’s fable of the suspicious mother, called Soup Ladle.

I’ve said in this space that my favourite film of the 27th Annual AFF was Fugitive Pieces. It now has some serious competition. Starting Out in the Evening is a wonderful New York drama from director Andrew Wagner, based on the novel by Brian Morton. It stars veteran character actor Frank Langella in what must be his best role… I saw him play Dracula in a TV movie in the late 70s, he was the first Dracula I ever saw, and I guess that’s what he’ll always be in my head. Here he is Leonard Schiller, a literary writer whose four novels are out of print, but he keeps on pursuing the craft, “the madness of art.” He has a close relationship with his daughter, Ariel, played by Lili Taylor but otherwise leads a fairly secluded life, until a precocious masters student named Heather, played by Lauren Ambrose (Clare from Six Feet Under) approaches him... she’s doing her thesis on his work. Meanwhile, Ariel has her own issues around a relationship with an old boyfriend that starts up again… she wants to have a child and he doesn’t, which is what broke them up the first time.

A more thoughtful and heartfelt story of a writer’s life I haven’t seen in ages, and the performances are wonderful. A couple of times I thought it might cheap out, get maudlin or obvious, but it never takes a wrong turn. I knew I was in for a stellar drama when in an early scene, Leonard and Heather meet in Leonard’s amazing, book-filled apartment. Just before leaving, trying to convince him to let her interview him, Heather kisses his hands, he drops her coat, and he puts a large hand over her eyes… one of those shockingly real, unpredictable moments of inscrutable intimacy made almost tangible by a talented filmmaker and performers. It’s called Starting Out in the Evening, see it when it opens in theatres (which, with some luck or award attention, it will).

Tuesday evening was the first time my colleague Sue Carter Flinn and I found ourselves at the same movie… I’ll not be surprised if she sings the praises of Starting Out in the Evening too.

Almost, but not quite exhausted, I went to one more, the Late Shift screening of End of the Line, a shot-in-the-Toronto-subway horror from Maurice Deveraux, whose name is all over the credits of this thing… I think he did almost everything in the movie from craft service to visual effects. Though it is recognizably Toronto, it's not identified as such, and film fans will recognize the unused subway platform beneath Bay Station, the one Del Toro used in Mimic. Funny, though. the interior of the subway trains don’t look anything like the TTC, though the exteriors do. Anyway, a nurse goes down into the subway after a really tough shift at her psychiatric hospital… she hooks up with a group of like-minded survivors just as the apocalypse starts to happen, and the rabid followers of a TV evangelist begin killing people. The question comes in pretty early on… are the demons people are seeing real, or just a product of hallucinogenic muffins? And why are we spending so much screen time with the End-of-Days crazed cult members? And how many people can be literally stabbed in the back in one movie before someone turns around? Starting as a very promising low-budget horror inspired by everything from George Romero’s work to The Wicker Man, The Shining, Aliens and The Warriors, it unfortunately gets a little too silly towards the end… or maybe just unconvincing in the demonic effects. Still, as I shuffled out of the theatre after 1am, a bit of a zombie myself, I overheard a lot of “that was awesome” from the clearly impressed audience of hardcore horrorites. So, what do I know?

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