The offerings at the 23rd annual Toronto International Film Festival may have lacked star power, but a select few illuminated the darkness.
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During the next year, it’s likely you’re going to get very tired of hearing a certain word used to describe cutting-edge contemporary cinema. The word is dark. I mean dark as in subject matter (perversion, addiction, homicide — need I go further?). Dark as in attitude (cruel, mocking, nihilistic). Dark as in…how much naughtiness and transgression will an audience take? How low, how dark, can you go?

At the 23rd annual Toronto International Film Festival, the fixation on depravity, soul sickness, and cheap thrills might have been written off as the latest fetish in trendy indie fashion. That is, until you consider that movies have traced a slow slide into kinky/bloody/druggie hell ever since the sublime madness of Blue Velvet (1986). That film, more than any other, ignited a lineage of taboo-shattering passion — from sex, lies, and videotape to Drugstore Cowboy to Pulp Fiction to Trainspotting to Boogie Nights (you can fill in the favorites I left out). This year’s Toronto fest offered no premieres on quite that level of achievement. Yet it was the nonchalant acceptance of bad behavior in a variety of small inspired efforts that all but defined where the movies are headed today. Darkness is no longer novel. It’s even getting ready to invade the multiplex. Brace yourself.

The title of Very Bad Things invites you to expect a black comedy, but even so, the fun of the movie lies in how brazenly it shocks you into laughter. It’s the story of a bachelor party gone spectacularly wrong, with Jon Favreau, from Swingers, as a nervous groom-to-be (he’s engaged to a mercenary princess played by Cameron Diaz) who journeys to Vegas, baby, Vegas with four buddies for a night of booze, drugs, and — of course — bought-and-paid-for sex. Substances are ingested, aggressions are unleashed, and the five land in a predicament so outlandish, yet so gruesomely believable, that we’re seduced into going with every step of their grotesque plan of action, even as our moral centers are crying ”Foul!” First-time writer-director Peter Berg has fashioned a kind of Grand Guignol Diner, in which the elaborate paranoid twists underlie a scalding satire of suburban marital discontent. Christian Slater plays the amoral ringleader with a wide-awake psycho zest he hasn’t displayed in years (or maybe ever).

Very Bad Things is soon to be released by PolyGram. So if a major corporation can get behind a happy atrocity like this one, why were so many distributors scared off by Scott Ziehl’s Broken Vessels, an adrenal outlaw comedy that was one of the festival’s highlights? Ziehl unfurls the tale of a couple of paramedics who race around Los Angeles in a privately operated ambulance, rescuing accident victims, doing drugs, picking up babes, ripping off patients, and doing more drugs. They’re lifesavers who, paradoxically, don’t give a damn about anyone. Jason London, from Dazed and Confused, is the novice from Pennsylvania inducted into the ways of Jimmy, the master hell-bent paramedic played with take-no-prisoners savoir faire by Todd Field (who costars in Stanley Kubrick’s upcoming Eyes Wide Shut). Broken Vessels is Repo Man meets Trainspotting, and Ziehl proves a searingly witty and imaginative filmmaker, mercilessly chronicling his heroes’ descent into hedonistic self-destruction.

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