Monday, September 18, 2017

Night of the Demon


A puppy from a hat, a demon from the headlight of a train—illusions both benign and sinister run through Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, where the wise men of science conducting a hypnosis experiment are no less credulous than the children watching a backyard magic trick. Tourneur’s old boss, Val Lewton, might have balked at so bluntly revealing the demon whose appearance bookends the film—an oversized rabbit this mangy is perhaps better left hidden inside the magician’s coat—but the film’s grim power is located in the terror-stricken faces of the true believers, not the monster’s animatronic snarl. The sight of a runic curse reducing the masterful magus to spluttering panic or driving the hypnotized madman into a suicidal frenzy is where Tourneur finds his horror, and the collision between science and the supernatural creates explosions deadlier than any mystery fireballs. In fact, the film functions as the shadow of the director’s earlier exploration of the precarious balance between faith and rationality, Stars in my Crown. But whereas that film conjures goodness through a willingness to believe in the goodness of others, Night of the Demon shows the devout followers of evil similarly rewarded for their own twisted acts of faith. Beware of which gods you enshrine, the film suggests, for they may just answer your prayers.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!


For all the praise lavished upon it, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was overburdened by its need to treat its slight coming-of-age tale as a profound state-of-the-union address. By comparison, Everybody Wants Some!! is the director at his loosest and funniest; he’s working in the plotless, discursive mode that has defined much of his strongest work. The film follows the members of a Texas university baseball team in 1980 through the three days before classes begin—essentially the international waters of adulthood, where all laws seem momentarily suspended, after you have left your parents’ watchful eyes but before the realities of post-secondary education have set in. In these giddy first few days of university life, everyone seems as drunk on possibility as they are on, uh, more mundane substances. But Linklater is not simply taking easy shots at horndog jock culture here. He’s diving deep into the hormone-addled tribal dynamics of campus life, and viewers might very well feel at times like amateur anthropologists along for the ride. The first 15 minutes alone could aptly be titled, “Put ‘er there, champ: A study of the ritualistic purposes of handshaking in post-adolescent American athletic subcultures.”

Linklater treats the hyper-competitive, testosterone-fuelled adventures of the group with a fond, if occasionally mocking touch, although nostalgia does admittedly soften the film’s edges at times. Still, nostalgia is a barbed emotion, and its presence is also a sign of things lost. Small conflicts flare up between the teammates only to be muffled by the endless roundelay of parties, but there is a strong sense of future tensions that will push these people in different directions. (You can almost imagine one of those closing 1980s college comedy where-are-they-now montages running over the credits, outlining each person’s diverging life path in a few pithy lines.) Everyone is in the early days of discovering themselves, and it becomes clear as the film progresses not everyone will like what they find. Some seem destined to drop out or fail, others to remain forever outside of the group, and others to abandon the sport that has defined their lives up until that point. If time feels suspended for these three days, that just makes the looming threat of its resumption all the more potent. Fittingly, the film ends with a pair of our raunchy Rip Van Winkles dozing through history class. One suspects their eyes will remain shut until the final exam—and that they’ll wake up screaming.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Knight of Cups


Transcendental beauty—what a racket, huh? Terrence Malick, bless his soul, seems to have carved out a niche for himself manufacturing ready-made profundities from ecstatic imagery and Hollywood stars desperate for artistic cred. Knight of Cups is his latest lament for our lamentable age, featuring an actor (Christian Bale, stupefied) confronting his hollow world as Malick muses upon a host of generic existential agonies: Are we living the life we were meant to live? Has modernity robbed us of our spirituality? Can we borrow a feeling? I say battle not with banality lest ye become banal. Sure, these themes have served as the foundation of as much good art as bad, but here they succumb to the director’s manifold filmmaking weaknesses, which can only be obscured behind the lens flares for so long. Malick is a sensitive misanthrope, yearning to express the quivering ache of human existence while having little actual use for human beings. His improvisatory methods—set everyone loose, run amuck with the camera, stitch it all together in post with voiceovers—reveal an inability to direct actors or craft narratives. There’s actually an arbitrary and implausible home robbery just to show that the main character doesn’t own anything worth stealing. (Cause his life’s, like, empty, you know?) We are not in the presence of a great dramatist.

That need not be a crippling failure for a talented image-maker, but Malick inexcusably falls back again and again on clichés to prop up his pretty pictures. Mercifully, the voiceovers, while blandly spelling out the emotional states of his empty puppet-people, obscure much of the risible dialogue, but we still have to watch hoary nonsense like a family fight ending with everyone throwing furniture around the dining room. Set adrift, the performers all too often fall back on mannerism and overacting—Natalie Portman’s generic adulteress and Brian Dennehy’s histrionic paterfamilias being the worst offenders here—to pierce the impenetrable fog of art that surrounds. Malick’s overreliance on the familiar translates into the visuals as well. Initially stunning, the imagery is essentially a string of all-purpose poetic signifiers, anointed by the gilded touch of an Oscar-winning cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki): skyscrapers set against piercing blue skies, awe-struck pans of leaves limned by sunlight, hair whipping in the wind as people laugh and love in a convertible. With Knight of Cups, Malick has at last taken his rightful place as our era’s greatest maker of stock footage. Frankly, his talents are wasted on art. He should be making travel commercials.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part Seven


The Lobster 

The dreaded English-language debut has confounded international talents greater than Yorgos Lanthimos, but the Greek director’s mordant absurdity remains well intact in The Lobster. The film is a perverse nesting doll of dictatorships, with one system of control giving way to another as the rules of romance become iron-clad laws, complete with brutal punishments for transgressors: singles are given 45 days at a quasi-resort/prison to find a suitable mate, or else be turned into an animal of their own choosing. The desperate mating game that results—imagine a version of The Bachelor that involves hunting people for sport and ends with the rejects being turned into dogs—centres on the importance of finding common traits between couples, whether constant nosebleeds or icy, emotionless cruelty. David (played with a hilariously stunned deadpan by Colin Farrell) ultimately rebels against this system, escaping into a secret society of loners that adheres to an equally grotesque set of strictures. Bleak humour verges on outright horror as viewers discover that there is no sane world beyond these perversely mirrored systems of control (in Dogtooth, one could at least take comfort in the knowledge that reality was on the other side of the fence). Lifestyle choices become oppressive whenever rendered on such a large scale, and Lanthimos pushes the concept to bizarre, terrifying extremes.


Experimenter

Stanley Milgram’s famed obedience experiment is much abused and easily distorted. Heard second-hand, the set-up—a subject is told by an authority figure to deliver a series of increasingly painful shocks to an unseen victim—suggests a sadistic vision designed to confirms our worst beliefs about human nature. But Milgram was at heart an optimist, and Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter strikes a suitably bright tone in its deft, playful tribute to the man’s life and ideas. Arch artifice defines the film, with Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard, in a comically fake beard) frequently addressing the camera as meta-jokes pass by in the background. There’s even a literal elephant in the room—an eye-rollingly obvious gag that tickles Almereyda so much he does it twice. Clunkers like that aside, the film is typically sharp-witted and engaging, particularly as it moves past the obedience experiment and into Milgram’s later career, when the doctor was encouraging students to engage in goofy social experiments more suited to Candid Camera than a New York classroom. The film smartly contrasts Milgram’s twin experimental modes, the sinister and the benign—suburban housewives convinced they had electrocuted a stranger or students fooling pedestrians into staring up at nothing—and suggests both stem from the same idealistic belief that the invisible social cues shaping our lives could at least be exposed, although perhaps not eradicated.


Jafar Panahi’s Taxi 

Three films into a ban on filmmaking, Jafar Panahi is putting the lie to the Iranian state’s ability to silence its critics with his remarkably prolific post-imprisonment output. Jafar Panahi's Taxi, his latest effort, proves to be a witty and outward-looking follow-up to the often-frustrating solipsism of Closed Curtain. Forbidden from using a camera, Panahi uses a mix of dash-cam and cellphone footage as he plays the part of taxi driver, offering acerbic commentary on matters of gender inequality and the challenges of making art under authoritarian rule with staged episodes, such as a sequence where an injured man makes a video will urging his family not to kick his wife out of their home should he die. No less cutting is Panahi’s debate with his young niece, who in the midst of seeking filmmaking advice lectures her multi-award-winning director uncle on the rules of what can be shown in Iranian cinema (the pieties of the censor rendered ridiculous when coming from the mouth of a child). “Sordid realism” is the great enemy of the theocrats, but in scene after scene, the director constantly asserts reality’s refusal to be censored. He does not so much break free from his shackles as prove their ultimate irrelevance.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part Six


Lost and Beautiful 

Fate forces a left-turn upon Pietro Marcello’s Lost and Beautiful, and if the results don’t entirely hang together, they nonetheless reveal a director possessed of a uniquely adventurous sensibility. Initially, the film follows Italian shepherd Tommaso as he struggles to preserve a crumbling palace against the indifference of the state and the threats of the mafia. After the shepherd is felled by a heart attack midway through production, the film veers into the story of Pulcinella—a Comedia dell’arte clown depicted here as a kind of immortal sprite—who is given charge of Tomasso’s buffalo calf. As the film blends documentary with folk tale, the curious bond between man and beast provides an outlet for the grief over the shepherd’s passing, and the unlikely duo become tragic figures of their own. The clown yearns to renounce his immortality and live a normal life, while a farmer plans to fatten the calf for slaughter, uninterested in the fact that he is caring for a talking animal. The fantastic is set on a collision course with mundane reality, and there is little doubt as to which one will prevail: Pulcinella becomes a man and the calf becomes meat. Myths, the supernatural beast sadly muses, must above all else be true.


The Pearl Button  

In The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzman uses the ultimate free-floating signifier—water—to explore Chile’s history of violence. Following the 1973 military coup, over 1,000 people were dropped into the ocean after being tortured and murdered as the regime settled scores and silenced opponents. Guzman explores the grisly process in frank detail, even using a dummy to show how the victims were wrapped up and tied to a rail—often the only remaining trace of these people, whose bodies have long since dissolved into the sea. But the film reaches back further to consider the country’s mistreatment of its Aboriginal population, who were once hunted for bounty (one pound was the price for a man’s testicle or a woman’s breast). The titular button, either encrusted in a rusted rail or used to lure a native of Tierra del Fuego to the new world, becomes a stand-in for the false promises foisted upon history’s victims. The violent stories, recounted by long-silenced voices, sit uncomfortably alongside stunning footage of glaciers and rivers, gentle rains and moonlit seas, and the profoundly unsettling effect is that these crimes seemingly become written across all of nature. Even the beauty contains echoes of the horrors.


The Assassin 

The rumours of The Assassin’s beauty have not been exaggerated. Coming seven years after his last feature, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s wuxia debut is a marvel of meticulous care and precision, all reflecting the patient labour of a master filmmaker. The film, swathed in veils and lit by candle, is a glory of texture and colour. But visual splendor is thin compensation for the film’s jarring tonal shifts and frustratingly shapeless narrative. Hou’s approach to storytelling is typically elliptical—and usually to good effect—but his style seems ill suited to a sprawling medieval saga of vengeance and political intrigue. The director’s dream-like flow of languid long takes remains, but now interrupted by periodic fight scenes that often end as inexplicably as they begin. The titular assassin defers delivering the fatal blow several times, out of what is derided by her mistress as mere “human sentiment,” yet sentiment is sorely lacking in this bloodless wuxia, which is so weighted down by its portentous beauty that it can scarcely move at all. The failed attempt to synthesize such disparate styles—Hou’s meditative “slow” cinema and a visceral martial-arts epic—results in a film that seems to toggle between entirely different modes. The sumptuous atmosphere beguiles, but there is little to see behind the veils.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part Five


Night Without Distance 

Few films at the festival could match the potency of this 23-minute experimental short by Lois Patino. Filmed in Galicia on the Spanish-Portuguese border, Night Without Distance uses a distinctive combination of negative photography and colour treatments to transform the world into a hauntingly strange landscape. Patino’s human subjects are smugglers (portrayed by actors, it should be noted), but he captures them in abbreviated moments, in mid-conversation or simply standing watch. Motionless, they resemble less human beings than trees transplanted from another world. An opening epigraph speaks of “souls in landscapes,” and the abstract beauty of the film does indeed destroy the distinction between human and environment. Nothing captures this leveling effect quite so forcefully as the image of the distant landscape billowing like a sheet in the wind, whose persistent howl defines the soundtrack more than any of the human voices heard. But look closer, and you see that the movement comes from tiny figures seeming to emerge out of the waving grass. In this strange night, the people flow from one country to another like water. Borders, of course, are nothing but imaginary lines on a map, and Patino’s film is a poetic assertion of their permeability.


Topophilia

The uneasy relationship between industry and the environment forms the foundation of Peter Bo Rappmund’s Topophilia, which follows the Trans-Alaska pipeline—and by extension, the oil moving within—across the continent. Notably, the film actually begins in Long Beach, California, where the oil ends its journey. Focused on the monumental machinery of the coastal port, these early moments are almost entirely devoid of any signs of nature, save for the sea: no trees, no grass, no undeveloped space, and just a handful of humans buried beneath coveralls and safety gear. From there, the film leaps thousands of kilometres to a drill site on the Arctic tundra. Using time-lapse photography, Rappmund follows the line south as it cuts through the seasons; humans and animal appear occasionally, but the focus is always on the pipeline, which carves out abstract compositions on the canvas of the northern landscape. The accompanying field recordings meld the sounds of the pipeline—groaning metal, oil humming as it rushes by—with the crackling of leaves shuddering in the wind. Industrialization disfigures everything around it, until all of nature begins to seem like a massive grinding machine. Even the shimmering surface of the sea takes on the appearance of television static.


Tharlo 

It does not bode well for Pema Tseden’s Tharlo that one of the funniest sequences in the film scarcely even involves the titular character, a rural Tibetan shepherd visiting the city to get his first-ever official identification card. The scene comes as he waits in line at a photographer’s studio, nursing an orphaned lamb while a middle-aged farming couple stiffly poses against painted backdrops depicting everything from Tiananmen Square to New York City. Dressed in ill-fitting western garb, the pair try to make themselves a little more at home by borrowing the animal, resulting in an absurd photo of two Tibetan farmers bottlefeeding a lamb against the iconic outline of the Big Apple. The image aptly conveys the sense that we’re watching the old ways slowly eroded under the pressures of modernity, but it also speaks to Tseden’s conservatism, which ultimately turns this gentle comedy of manners into a sour polemic. Stories of farmers seduced by the big city are certainly not novel, although they surely must resonate more in increasingly industrialized Tibet than the western world. Tseden’s film even adopts the familiar stock villain of the money-grubbing woman exploiting the naïve country boy to carry out Tharlo’s corruption. Between the narrative clichés and dour traditionalist view of women, the film fails to interrogate just what might actually deserve to be left to the past.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part Four


A Flickering Truth

Evidence of the lingering effects of a nation’s massive loss of its own artistic heritage abounds in A Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly’s documentary on efforts to salvage the Afghan film archives from years of abuse and neglect. Hauntingly, a man recalls being ordered by the Taliban to burn reels of film or else face death; he sorrowfully describes the now-lost films “bleeding into the ground,” rendering cultural destruction in terms more fit for a mass killing. Elsewhere, Brettkelly contrasts present-day Afghanistan with the remnants of its once-vibrant film industry. Students dressed in black and covered in head scarves watch old footage of an actress running through a field, her hair flowing freely as the screen bursts with bright colours. Yet as striking as these moments may be, the film often seems overwhelmed with the wealth of material, archival or otherwise, and Brettkelly seems to struggle at times with bringing everything into tight focus. Is the film about efforts to screen long-suppressed films in the rural regions, where the threat of the Taliban still lingers? Is it about how the challenge of restoring the film archives mirrors the nation’s larger struggle to return to normalcy after decades of strife? Or is it a tour through the rich but largely forgotten history of Afghan cinema? There are worse crimes for a documentary than having too much to tell the audience, but one nonetheless yearns for more details that sadly never come.


Right Now, Wrong Then 

An artist of Hong Sang-soo’s caliber might balk at being described as a social scientist, but it’s no diminution of the man’s talents to consider Right Now, Wrong Then as something of a behavioural experiment. Divided into two near-identical scenarios, the film follows the consequences of even minute changes in words or actions in a married filmmaker’s flirtation with a young painter. In the first section, the encounter ends poorly, with the filmmaker showering the woman’s work with phony praise and omitting any mention of his marriage until it comes out awkwardly at a drunken get-together (this being Hong, soju remains the river of life from which all things flow), and a disastrous post-screening Q&A completes his humiliation. Hong tinkers with behaviours in the second half and introduces honesty into the equation: the painting critique is perceptive and sincere, the filmmaker’s revelation of his marriage coupled with a confession of love for the painter. The get-together still ends poorly—the filmmaker drunkenly strips at a party—but the duo part ways with a warmth and friendship far removed from the bad feeling and regret of the first section. The lesson is clear: bare your soul, but perhaps not your ass.


Slackjaw 

Scruffy, endearingly odd, and running just 70 minutes, Slackjaw knows when to quit before its charms are exhausted. Essentially, director Zach Weintraub has welded a low-key buddy comedy to a paranoid anti-corporate dystopia—even the soundtrack evokes John Carpenter at his most sinisterly synthetic. The film’s hero, an aimless 20-something musician named Rob, is torn between loyalty to his absent best friend and an old high school buddy who now works for the blandly menacing EV Corp. Signs supporting or protesting the company’s presence cover seemingly every lawn in the neighbourhood until the town mirrors Rob’s own internal conflict between conformity and rebellion. Meanwhile, strange happenings—mysterious figures covered in white sheets, cryptic symbols scattered about on posters—only add to the creeping sense of alienation that threatens to overtake him. Amusingly, this is made literal by the titular affliction, which renders Rob voiceless and forces him to converse through the robotic voice of a text-to-speech program, as if his flirtation with the machinery of capitalism might deprive him of all humanity. For all its low-stakes drama, this gentle affirmation of friendship over finance serves as a thoughtful consideration of how corporatization corrodes community.