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TIFF’s Midnight Madness gets bloody, James Franco-fied refresh

Dave Franco, left, and James Franco star in The Disaster Artist.

TIFF/TIFF

Vampires, rap battles, mass hysteria and James Franco's best impression of an awful director are coming to the Toronto International Film Festival, although not (unfortunately) in the same film.

On Tuesday morning, festival organizers revealed the latest in TIFF's summer-long rollout of titles, including details on the Documentary, Short Cuts and Midnight Madness programs. The latter's selections will be under heightened levels of scrutiny this year, as it is the first slate under new Midnight Madness curator Peter Kuplowsky. The former Midnight Madness programming associate takes over TIFF's most eccentric and outre section after Colin Geddes stepped down from the top position this past February. (Geddes, who was with TIFF for two decades, was also responsible for the Vanguard program, which was axed by the festival this year as part of its desire for a leaner lineup. He is now concentrating on producing films alongside partner Katarina Gligorijevic for Ultra 8 Pictures, the pair's production company.)

"It's been rather surreal for the past few months," Kuplowsky said in an interview with The Globe. "I've known Midnight Madness as a fan first and foremost, having attended since 2005. And then I've been working with Colin on it for the past four years, so there's definitely a lot of pressure there. I always saw the program as a state of the union on genre cinema, so I do feel a kind of pressure to deliver that."

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To that end, this year's Midnight Madness features everything from subversive drama to hard core horror to Hollywood meta-satire. The slate opens Sept. 7 at 11:59 p.m. with Bodied, billed as a provocative rap-battle epic from director Joseph Kahn, a wildly subversive music-video talent whose few features (2004's Torque, 2011's Detention) disappeared from theatres but went on to find new, much-analyzed life in the home entertainment market.

"I describe Kahn as a post-Verhoeven filmmaker, in that his work criticizes cultural ideas while also indulging in them," saidKuplowsky, who programmed the slasher-meets-teen-sex-comedy Detention for Toronto's After Dark film festival in 2012. "With Bodied, it's a complete celebration of battle-rap culture, but it's also critical of the complexities and problematic issues that occur in such a culture, especially in regards to race. It's a challenging and transgressive film, but one that's productive. And like Detention, it's packaged in a very commercial sensibility."

Other highlights include Downrange, a return to horror for Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus, The Midnight Meat Train); Brian Taylor's Mom and Dad, in which suburban parents played by Selma Blair and Nicolas Cage go on an unexplained killing spree; Canadian musician and director Seth A. Smith's supernatural thriller The Crescent; and James Franco's The Disaster Artist, which chronicles the making of Tommy Wiseau's so-awful-it's-really-awful film The Room, with Franco both directing the film and playing Wiseau. Familiar Franco friends Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow, Hannibal Buress and brother Dave Franco also star as does, naturally, Wiseau himself. The film-about-a-film, which is garnering legitimate awards chatter, is billed as a world premiere for Toronto, even though a "working cut" played to a rapturous reception at the SXSW Festival in Austin this past March.

"I was skeptical going into the South by Southwest screening, just because I was worried it would be a mean-spirited affair," Kuplowsky said. "But I was delighted to find that the movie has so much sympathy, and is interested in what drives the desire to make a movie, and why people have that ambition. It's a wonderful character study that I compare to Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Franco really is as good as people have been saying."

Whether The Disaster Artist lives up to its hype or merely to its title, genre fans will be looking closely at how Kuplowsky balances the tricky calculus of programming the entire Midnight Madness slate: Too extreme, and it becomes an exercise in cinematic endurance; too quirky, and it alienates the diehard audience who regularly make the pilgrimage to the Ryerson Theatre so very late in the evening. Geddes's final lineup from 2016 is also an intimidating act to follow, given how it mixed acclaimed dark comedy (The Belko Experiment, Free Fire) with unrelenting horror (the underrated Blair Witch revamp) and stomach-churning controversy (the French cannibal tale Raw).

"We've often described Midnight Madness as a party that happens at the festival every night. So in curating a party, you don't want to have the same one every time. It's not just horror and martial arts and comedy, but a spread of genre sensibilities," saidKuplowsky, who curated this year's section solo, even though he helped Geddes program the selections in previous years.

Away from the bloodshed of Midnight Madness, TIFF on Tuesday also unveiled its Documentary and Short Cuts programming. Highlights of the former include Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami, which will open the section; Brett Morgen's biodoc on Jane Goodall, simply titled Jane; legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman's portrait of the New York Public Library, Ex Libris; and a sequel to Morgan Spurlock's epic battle with the fast-food industry, Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!

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The Short Cuts lineup, meanwhile, looks to champion diversity over name-brand recognition, with 35 films from more than 30 countries, in 16 languages. For an institution that recently launched Share Her Journey, a fundraising campaign highlighting how the industry is male-dominated, gender equity is being taken careful note of here, with 17 of TIFF's shorts directed by women.

TIFF will unveil more of its 2017 festival titles throughout the summer, with its Canadian selections to be revealed Aug. 9.

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