Courtesy of TIFF

Amy Nicholson At TIFF: A Skyjacking, An Antivirus Renegade, And An Anne Hathaway Monster Movie

Our critic’s last dispatch from Toronto also hits festival entries from James Franco, Selena Gomez, and Hailee Steinfeld

I’m writing my final Toronto International Film Festival dispatch on a plane headed to Los Angeles. At least, I hope so. Thanks to Jamie Kastner’s documentary The Skyjacker’s Tale, I’m aware anything is possible. In 1984, a convict en route from the Virgin Islands to New York, where he was to complete eight consecutive life sentences for murder, diverted the plane to Cuba. Despite two bodyguards and handcuffs on his wrists, Ishmael LaBeet (who has since changed his name to Ishmael Muslim Ali) emerged from the bathroom with a gun. He asked the stewardesses to keep the free booze flowing — “I was the most polite hijacker,” he beams — and after serving a couple years in Havana for the whole plane thing, emerged a free man. Today, Ali’s a swaggering, self-described revolutionary. To the families of the eight mostly white men and women he mowed down on a posh St. Croix golf course, he’s a terrorist.

Justice wasn’t served. Or was it? “I’m not a criminal,” swears Ali. (Though he proudly committed one crime.) He accuses the local police of beating false confessions out of him and his four accomplices, and Kastner proves the defendants were tortured and tased. Ultimately, we believe everything is true: Ali might be both a killer and a victim — and with Cuba inching toward cooperation with the United States, he might yet spend his last years in prison. His accomplices have been locked up for decades, quietly dying in their cells while Ali teaches his grandson to salsa dance. At this, Ali shrugs. And it’s that callousness, more than anything, that convinces us he’s capable of pulling the trigger.

Courtesy of TIFF

Take a puddle jumper to Belize to investigate another tropical slaying that went unpunished. This time, the perp is antivirus mogul John McAfee, reluctant star of Nanette Burstein’s Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee, who spends his $100 million fortune becoming a modern-day Colonel Kurtz. After claiming he lost 90 percent of his fortune in the 2008 recession (which may or may not be a lie), McAfee resettled in rural Belize, where he bought off the police force with six-figure donations and then, for security, created his own by hiring a dozen men with machine guns who imposed martial law on his jungle fiefdom. McAfee is a fascinating contradiction: an isolationist publicity-hound. He was so paranoid of kidnapping that he forbid locals to walk the streets after 8 p.m. But he’s more terrified of being ignored. He tattooed his shoulders with tiger stripes, bleached his hair with leopard spots, and, after he was accused of ordering his neighbor’s killing, fled to Guatemala where he gave an interview to Vice that accidentally revealed his location.

McAfee is scary. When he realizes Burstein’s film doesn't celebrate his brilliance, his emails get wrathful. “You will be my last stand,” he threatens. We shiver. Yet McAfee is at his most terrifying when he comes home to America and reinvents himself a 2016 Libertarian candidate for president. Behind a podium, fearmongering about privacy attacks and cyber warfare, he sounds insane. Yet in this election, he blends.

Courtesy of TIFF

Want more scares? I loved the J-horror smash-up Sadako vs. Kayako, which pits the black-haired lady-wraiths of The Ring and The Grudge against each other in a showdown to see whose curse reigns supreme. Sadako gets the most screen time because, frankly, the Cursed Tape is more fun than a haunted house. In the 14 years since the first film, videocassettes have nearly gone extinct. Part of the clever job of Kôji Shiraishi’s chiller is watching it wrangle with new technology. College students Yuri and Natsumi (Mizuki Yamamoto and Aimi Satsukawa) can barely find a VHS player, and when a dreadlock falls out of the deck, they just figure the machine is old and dirty. Then as the tape rolls, Yuri misses it because she gets a text. Their friendship is the center of the plot. The ghouls sell the film, but the human girls steal it — no small feat when the ensemble expands to include wackier characters, like an 11-year-old demon fighter with zero concern for life. Where can these franchises go from here? Let’s just pray Sadako stays off YouTube.

For a different kind of monster, check out Colossal, by midnight-movie madman Nacho Vigalondo. I sat down knowing nothing about it but scraps of nouns: Anne Hathaway, beer hangovers, and a giant beast crushing Seoul. Hathaway is terrific as a boozehound whose boyfriend (The Guest’s Dan Stevens) kicks her out after too many mornings toddling home drunk from an after-party. How the rest of these pieces fit together is marvelous engineering, and my gift to you is the joy of assembling it yourself. Prepare to give in to a comedy with one Godzilla foot in the supernatural and another planted in Hathaway’s realistic struggle to become less selfish.

Courtesy of TIFF

Elsewhere at TIFF, Hathaway’s Oscar partner James Franco is the director and lead of In Dubious Battle, John Steinbeck’s rabble-rouser about two communists (Franco and Nat Wolff of The Fault in Our Stars) who infiltrate an apple farm during the Great Depression and try to stir up a strike. I admire Franco’s devotion to making English lit books hip. (Two Torontos ago, I suffered through his tribute to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.) But he seems to have so much respect for the original novels that the movies never feel like his own. He recites full speeches like he was presenting them to the class. This genre of Franco films is so impersonal and faithful that it flattens them into cartoons, Serious Works summed up in a comic strip.

I took a chance on Dubious Battle’s hammy accents and giant overalls to see Franco reteam with his Spring Breakers costar Selena Gomez, who here plays a poor apple picker’s daughter. She’s nine months pregnant in her first scene — as ripe as the fruit on the trees — and Franco and Wolff win over her dad’s good graces by pretending they know how to deliver a baby. For much of the movie, Gomez barely gets to speak. Given the clumsy dialogue, that turns out to be a bonus. Gomez is so clear-eyed and firm-footed that she alone feels like a human being who’s actually living in the era Franco can only mimic. As long as they keep making films together, guess I’ll have to keep seeing them.

Will Gomez ever get to direct herself? Absolutely — just look at Nick Cannon. King of the Dancehall is his fourth — yes, fourth — film at the helm, a booty-shaking drama about a Brooklyn ex-con named Tarzan (Cannon) who moves to Jamaica to become the island’s best dancer and weed trafficker. Real rude boys have to be good at both. The braggadocious mob movie plot is frequently (and thankfully) interrupted by documentary-style scenes about the Kingston clubs that “put the nasty in gym-nasty.” Cannon holds nothing back. As Tarzan describes the nightlife vibe as “ass, ass, and ass,” Cannon cuts to close-ups of an ass, an ass, and an ass. He risks looking like one himself. The film isn’t good, but its blast of sunshine heated up the freezing cold theater.

Luckily, the last two TIFF movies I saw were great. The Edge of Seventeen stars Hailee Steinfeld as an angry high school dork and Woody Harrelson as the teacher who calls out her bullshit. When she blames her missing homework on her father’s death three years ago, Harrelson vetoes the excuse and chuckles, “There will be other opportunities. Your grandparents can’t last forever.” You’ll be hearing a longer rave from me when Kelly Freemon Craig’s excellent dramedy comes out at Thanksgiving.

Finally, fly halfway around the world to suburban Australia for Nicholas Verso’s feature debut Boys in the Trees, which follows a wolf pack of high school bullies who tear up the town on Halloween. The flick is a beautiful beast, a Frankenstein made of the best ideas from Heathers and Labyrinth and The Lost Boys that lurches to its own beat. And since it’s set in 1997, that soundtrack is late-period grunge. Early on, the boys skateboard to Bush’s “Glycerine.” By the end, there’s a sing-along to Live’s “Lightning Crashes” that almost had me in tears. Sounds absurd, but it’ll happen to you if you succumb to Verso’s spell. Go for it — that was my favorite scene in the festival.