Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Serious Man

Aren’t the serious questions such a drag sometimes? I’m talking of those lofty concerns that have spurred on great minds and dullards alike to pontification throughout the ages. Does god exist? Why do we suffer? And finally—exude a soul-weary sigh here, if you like—just what’s the point of it all?

Yes, just what is the point of it all? That’s a question that could easily be asked of A Serious Man, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen. As they often have in the past, the brothers tempt seriousness while simultaneously belittling that same sobriety. This is a caricaturist’s version of existential agony, a cartoon rendition of the calamities visited upon a hapless humanity. Viewers might suspect the Coens are hiding some sort of profound truth somewhere beneath the elegantly designed chaos of this film, but I remain skeptical—strip away the mask, and all you will find is a bemused smirk.

Diverging from their usual meat-grinder approach (toss a bag of money in and watch a gaggle of dimwits leap headlong into the blades trying to catch it), the Coen brothers look to an anonymous Minnesota suburb in the late 1960s for this tale of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor whose life has suddenly collapsed into a series of increasingly cruel and ridiculous indignities. He discovers that Judith, his wife, wishes to get a divorce and marry Sy Ableman, a bald, liver-spotted man at least twenty years older who comforts the distraught and confused Larry, thwarting the cuckolded husband’s urges to rage and self-pity. Larry obligingly moves into a motel, taking with him his deadbeat brother, who is constantly draining the cyst on his neck while working on an incomprehensible mathematical opus called “The Mentaculus.”

Marital crisis is but one aspect of the shit-storm tornado that upends every aspect of Larry’s routine existence. A Korean student attempts to bribe Larry into giving him a passing grade; when the student is rebuffed, the boy’s father threatens to sue for defamation in retaliation for Larry’s accusations of bribery. As things get worse and worse, Larry frets over money and whether or not the university will grant him tenure—anxieties not helped by the fact that the tenure committee is receiving unsigned letters accusing Larry of “moral turpitude.” And this doesn’t even touch on Larry’s intimidating redneck neighbour, or the angst-ridden spawn of the Gopnik clan, which includes pot-smoking Danny preparing for his bar mitzvah and bratty Sarah stealing money from dad to pay for a nose job.

Many more incidental or minor humiliations beset Larry as he wanders through the film stunned and harried by his transformation into the punch line of some cosmic joke. Even when he goes to three different rabbis seeking solace and wisdom, he receives little comfort. The youngest (the “junior rabbi”) merely rhapsodizes about how the hand of god is apparent even in a parking lot, while a middle-aged rabbi recites a stock story he apparently tells everyone and then offers a few platitudes about being good and helpful. The oldest declines to speak to Larry, but after Danny’s bar mitzvah, he offers the boy a few words of appreciation for Jefferson Airplane and that’s it—apparently, the only wisdom that age brings is brevity.

Of course, in the world of the Coen brothers, brevity is a mighty high source of wisdom indeed. Their characters often pollute the air with all sorts of incessant, nonsensical chatter, and that is especially true in this film, which is filled with blissfully absurd, frequently hilarious exchanges in which people talk in circles around an empty centre. More than any of their previous films, the Coens have created a kind of music out of this noise. Phrases and words repeat—Santana Abraxas, “Out in a minute!”, “I didn’t do anything!”, Dick Dutton—until they become meaningless, just more of the empty noise of Larry’s world. The best way to come out of a Coen brothers film looking smart is to keep your mouth shut.

Still, just as the Coens seem to be laughing at Larry’s crisis and dismissing his quest for higher answers, so too might viewers look at this film and shrug it off as pointless and snide—just another typical shooting gallery from the Coens, they might say, just another film about stupid people doing stupid things, albeit with less bloodshed than usual. So what?

The film boils down to this: life is cruel and unfair and will just screw you over in the end, so just try to be good, okay? And then, keep boiling, let the pot start to smoke and you will find this: life is cruel and unfair and will just screw you over in the end, so why bother doing good, right? And then, fuck the pot, leave it on the stove until it’s just a black metal lump, and you’ll realize this: I just wrecked a perfectly good pot, and I haven’t learned a damn thing. That's what you get for taking a lesson in life philosophy from two terminal wise-asses. Granted, there's a kind of wisdom here, but if you take it too seriously you may find yourself the only one not laughing—and isn't that really the definition of a serious man?

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Incubus feels like a film from a foreign country that doesn’t exist, a fantasy land somewhere beyond the borders of reason and good taste. In this strange place, everyone speaks Esperanto, sex demons plague the countryside like mosquitoes, and William Shatner is the biggest leading man in Hollywood. Also, everyone walks backwards and wears pitas on their heads like hats and instead of shaking hands and saying hello they all just rub bottoms and fart on each other.

Well, it’s just one theory. Take it or leave it.

In reality, Incubus is simply a rare Esperanto-language film, a daffy art-horror oddity starring a pre–Star Trek Shatner. I have to give credit to writer/director Leslie Stevens for the outrageousness of the Esperanto gambit, although it’s debatable whether or not the language is ultimately a liability here. The actors certainly struggle with speaking this strange tongue, resulting in some fairly clumsy line readings and distracted performances. You can almost see the beads of sweat on their foreheads as they enter another dialogue scene, all of them no doubt thinking, “Oh shit, how do I say this again…?”

But Stevens obviously wasn’t just trying to torture his actors, and there are benefits to this initially baffling choice. Even though it was filmed around Big Sur in California, Incubus really does come across as the product of a foreign culture, the use of Esperanto giving the story an alien quality that makes it much more palatable. This sort of simplistic supernatural allegory wouldn’t fly if it was played on familiar ground, but in an exotic language, it comes across as an obscure foreign folk-tale, the mythology of a lost culture. Plus, I am quite certain the only way the actors could keep a straight face while spouting this ridiculously baroque dialogue was to translate the words into a language they wouldn’t understand. Lines like “My hands tremble with desire!” at least make for a kind of overwrought poetry when appearing as text at the bottom of the screen, but spoken in English they would probably only prompt laughter.

Objectively speaking, this actually isn’t a particularly good film, even though it does have some assets to draw upon. Most notably, the famed Conrad Hall provides some gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, moving between sun-dappled pastoral idylls and hellish nighttime murk with great facility. Dutch angles, underwater shots, and distorted close-ups abound. The film is riotously stylish.

But the story is overly simple, even a touch silly—and definitely too thin to really hold together a worthy feature film. A demon named Kia stalks the countryside, luring men to the sea and drowning the poor schmucks in order to claim their tainted souls (one of the more memorable images in the film is Kia building a sandcastle on the corpse of one of her victims). In a moment of arrogance, Kia decides to corrupt a pure soul and deliver it to her master, the Incubus, otherwise known as the God of Darkness. That pure soul happens to be Marc, a wounded soldier played by Shatner.

Stevens twists around the corruption angle so that the demons are appalled to find Marc’s love has defiled Kia’s evil (“holy rape” is the charming phrase they use). In retaliation, they unleash the Incubus on Marc’s sister, and after a bit of rape and general mayhem, the love between Kia and Marc vanquishes the God of Darkness, appearing in the climactic scenes as a goat-headed beast that squeals like a pig. Incidental weirdness aside, this is basically the old song about love triumphing over evil, which you would expect to make for a great yawn of a movie, even with all the sex demons and goat monsters running around.

And yet, the stupid thing is so damnably watchable. Sure, I rolled my eyes and chuckled derisively from time to time, but the sheer strangeness of the whole enterprise justifies the experience. Even the weirdly archaic values behind the story—an evil, loose woman redeemed by the love of a good man and the promise of a holy union—only lend to the sense that we’re watching an ancient foreign fable.

As an object exiled from a time that never was and a place that does not exist, Incubus prompts fascination, if nothing else. Look at it as a kind of anthropology experiment, and try to deduce what sort of society could birth such a curious mythology. It’s a trick question, of course—as is almost always the case in these exercises in cinematic exoticism, the foreigners are us.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

EIFF: Day Nine

Okay, so I've blinked away the scum that coated my eyes after watching Pirate for the Sea, and I've cleared my head and thought only positive thoughts all day. Now I'm ready to write up the last two films I saw at the film fest.

Dammit, I don't want to hate any more movies. I'm so tired of hating movies, and I feel my prose growing gnarled and hunchbacked as I scowl through another review of more EIFF mediocrity. Just give me a bright spot to go out on, that's all I ask. Not just for me, I ask, but for the suffering few who might read this blog. Oh lord, please, spare the innocent.

Passenger Side

And yet, here I am tempting my own wrath by going to see a quirky Canadian comedy-drama that seems aimed straight down the middle-road of independent filmmaking. Perhaps I bring this on myself.

A sometimes charming but clearly flawed film, Matt Bissonnette's Passenger Side follows a pair of brothers as they drive across Los Angeles in a day. Various eccentric characters are encountered along the way, their chief reason for being apparently to help the film reach feature length. Some moments are funny, to be fair—an encounter with a hermaphrodite hooker is downright surreal, actually—but mostly these digressions just add to a sense of a film lost and struggling to find its bearings.

But let it not be said that Passenger Side is not without its virtues as well. I found myself enjoying the fraternal interplay of Joel Bissonnette and Adam Scott, even as they were saddled with sometimes overwritten, unnatural dialogue (call it a case of DCD, or Diablo Cody's Disease). And Matt Bissonnette finds some surprising emotional depths in these two characters as we move from glib, jokey exchanges to more complicated family dynamics. There's some meat to this rather slender premise.

Unfortunately, the film stumbles in the final moments, and not just a minor, slip-on-the-wet-grass kind of fall—this is a full-on, tumble-face-first-into-a-brick-wall-because-your-pants-fall-down kind of wipe-out. It's as if the film is afraid to follow through with its modest ramble of a tale and has to somehow instill a sense of narrative payoff at the end of the journey. Inexplicably, we end with a plot twist, which feels somewhat incongruous considering the film's general lack of a plot in the first place. Sensitive little dramedies just shouldn't have big "gotcha" moments.

Love at the Twilight Motel

Ah, final film of the fest. At last we reach the end. Tell me, little film, what will you offer me? Pleasure, or pain?

Perhaps both? A compelling documentary about the pain of pleasure, Alison Rose's Love at the Twilight Motel offers a glimpse into the lives of the clientele at a shady Miami motel that charges $25 for the first two hours. Rose interviews seven different people, ranging from Cadillac (a recovering junkie) to Gigi (a 46-year-old overweight escort) to Richard (a Cuban rafter who works as a massage therapist and claims he was destined to have lots of affairs with married women).

The use of the word "love" in the title might be misleading, as this motel is not really in the business of love, but rather sex. The interviewees muse on what it means to be faithful and the distinction between sex and love, in the process offering insight into the torturous ways we rationalize and compartmentalize our lives. It is to the director's credit that she doesn't try to force an artificial argument on the film, but rather allows each interview to provoke its own conclusions.

Mr. B, for instance, is a happily married man who professes to adore his wife, even as he admits that she can't satisfy him sexually. However, his use of the motel goes beyond mere infidelity, as he elaborates on his use of heroin and shoots up for the benefit of the documentary crew. In one remarkable moment, he even receives a text message from his wife asking where he is. He sighs—"I hate lying," he explains—and then decides to pretend that his phone has died. The problem isn't that he's bad at lying, according to him, but rather that his wife seems to believe whatever he says, suggesting a certain contempt for her gullibility even as he emphasizes his love for her. Near the end of his interview, he concludes that he is a functional junkie. Considering the vast schism between his family life and motel behaviour, functional schizophrenic might be more accurate.

And this is just one of the twisted personal stories we discover. All of the interviewees offer some startling personal revelations—so many, in fact, that the film might start to feel like a bit of a gratuitous exercise in revelling in the sordid underbelly, a walk on the wild side for us all-too-boring gawkers in the audience.

But the film is too thought-provoking (and beautifully composed, incidentally) to be dismissed. Issues of how and why people isolate sex from emotion arise, as do questions of how repression affects our personal lives. We meet prostitutes struggling with past sexual abuses and self-justifying philanderers who seem blind to their own contempt for women. We see people filled with self-loathing and, surprisingly, others serene and content. All people struggling to find a measure of peace, but none quite sure of the route.

It's a fine film, and certainly an excellent way to conclude my festival-going for another year. Thankfully.

Friday, October 2, 2009

EIFF: Days Seven and Eight

Fair warning: this is a pretty dire post. Three films, only one keeper, and that by Michael Haneke no less, which is a bit like saying the best part of your vacation to Singapore was the caning.

Enter if you dare. I'll try to remember to go see some good films tomorrow.

Those Three

I'm struggling with how to summarize this one. Maybe try to imagine a version of Andrei Tarkovksy's Stalker that is somehow half the running time and yet feels twice as long—that captures some of the stultifying power of this film, which often does feel like a clumsier version of Tarkovsky's mystical wonders. Better yet—how about a humourless version of Waiting For Godot in which everyone dies and then a pregnant woman walks on stage and delivers a baby.

No, wait, that actually sounds kind of fun.

Or at the very least, more fun than this monotonous little Iranian film about three military deserters who wander a snowy plain where they meet a pregnant woman and then die of exposure. Along the way, there are a few other incidents of note—a few squabbles, a random encounter or two, but nothing of great significance. Essentially, we watch three figures wandering an endless white landscape, blotted out by the environment. Aside from the occasional tree, there are no landmarks, just a seemingly eternal, numbing haze.

I suppose writer/director Naghi Nemati is going for a spectral anti-military film in which our three protagonists head off in dangerous terrain rather than stay in the army. They face the inclement world, suffer at its hands and die, while a baby comes into this same cruel environment at the end as a symbol of future hope or continued suffering or—who cares, really? I get bored just writing about this earnest, thoroughly unimaginative attempt to convey so many banal concepts. Never before have I been so conscious of the fact that going to the theatre is nothing more than staring at a white sheet for an hour and a half.

The White Ribbon

I'm a little ambivalent about the films of Michael Haneke. He's undeniably a brilliant director, but his depictions of middle-class alienation often have the feeling of an expert marksman with a barrel of fish. Sometimes I just wish he would apply all that formal rigour of his to something completely outside of his comfort zone instead of gunning down the same easy targets each time.

As it stands, The White Ribbon does seem like a bit of a broadening of Haneke's usual world, however slight that expansion might be. True, this depiction of an Austrian village set just before the First World War is in many ways a typical Haneke excursion into cinematic water-boarding, but there are also surprising moments of tenderness and humour. The narrator, Lehrer, is a schoolteacher who behaves honourably and kindly, without even a trace of the wanton cruelty that defines so many Haneke characters, including a great many of those who populate this film. And I never would have believed people might laugh at a Haneke film unless I heard it myself, but the scenes revolving around a pastor's son discovering the joys of masturbation are surprisingly quite funny.

Of course, this being a Haneke film, the innate cruelty of human society is always lurking around the corner. The little village is rife with inexplicable crimes, including, most gruesomely, the torture and blinding of a young mentally handicapped boy. The mystery unfurls with Haneke's typical commanding grace, and ultimately implicates the entire society (of course), suggesting the seeds of Nazism that lurk in the younger generation will come to bloom because of the willful blindness and cruelty of the older.

Also typical of Haneke are the instances of button-pushing horror, including the aforementioned child mutilation, as well as some gratuitous incest and even a bit of nasty animal violence (the guy just can't give up on his usual cinema of shocks, I suppose, although he does show some admirable self-restraint for most of the film). Still, the black-and-white cinematography is excellent, and Haneke's command over his material is as sure as ever. Even if Haneke's conclusions are pretty much predictable from the start, the unfolding of this plot is still a thing of terrible beauty, and worth beholding.

Pirate for the Sea

Ugh. Now we're really hitting the dregs of the fest. This tedious piece of agit-prop focuses on Paul Watson, a co-founder of Greenpeace who went on to form the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization dedicated to defending marine life. With their own ship—named for Farley Mowat, who also appears in interviews in the film—the Sea Shepherds attempt to block the Canadian seal hunt and illegal Japanese whalers near Antarctic.

Director Ron Colby gets some suspense from these tense, often violent confrontations, but make no mistake—this is a ham-handed, dull, at times even downright dim-witted documentary. The film takes a fair cause—outside of Ottawa and the Maritimes, who even supports the seal hunt anymore?—and makes it seem almost unlikeable. Watson is surely a charismatic fellow with a powerful sense of conviction, but I like some ambiguity and nuance in my documentaries (or at least a bit of originality or insight), and Colby really has little to offer viewers looking for anything other than a confirmation of their own rightness.

Instead, we get a fawning, uncritical portrait of a controversial figure who could surely provoke more interesting work than this. Pirate for the Sea is a film so unthinking that it can show the crew on the Farley Mowat being warned that if the hull is breached they could easily die, and then later capture that same crew ramming a Japanese whaling ship with a device called "the can-opener" intended to rip open the enemy ship's hull. Yet still Colby allows Watson to claim the moral high ground of having never harmed anyone in his actions, even as the man engages in activities that could result in the deaths of people on both ships. And this doesn't even touch on the disturbing fact that Watson supplied AK-47s to a ranger station on an island conservation area, supposedly for the purpose of warding off illegal fishing. I hate to be a nag, but whatcha gonna do with those Kalashnikovs, Paul? Shoot the fishing nets?

The detail flashes by so quickly you have to wonder if Colby is embarrassed to mention it, or simply doesn't give the matter a second thought. Sadly, the film isn't interested in such contradictions. Instead, Colby settles for broad gestures toward easy sentiments that reveals a failure to employ any rigorous critical attention to his subject, or, for that matter, his craft (the general blandness of the film's style suggest nothing more than a corporate recruitment video). Good intentions don't excuse bad art.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

EIFF: Day Six

A Prophet

Here I am, reaching the end of the week, and I'm starting to feel my resolve sapped by one too many mediocre films (I think Getting Home might have pushed me too far). But then I see a film like Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, and I'm a little embarrassed by my lack of endurance. First, because this is a quality piece of work and it shouldn't feel like a chore to drag my lazy ass out the door to see it, and second, because Audiard manages to sustain a remarkable level of tension for two and a half hours without relenting—a rather impressive feat of endurance in itself.

One could take this tale as a sly commentary on the immigrant experience, but A Prophet offers a great deal of satisfaction simply in the twists of its tight narrative. Malik El Djebena enters a French prison with nothing, slowly working his way up in this world of rival factions. A group of Corsican gangsters strong-arm Malik into assassinating one of their enemies in prison, and the young man finds himself playing the role of their lackey, sneered at for being an Arab and yet increasingly essentially to the operations of the gang. As Cesar Luciani, the group's leader, finds his partners whittled away through paroles and murders, he increasingly relies on Malik. And yet still the young man has to jump when his boss calls, doing errands and making coffee.

All the while, Malik is quietly gathering power, creating a drug-running operation outside of prison and forging alliances with other gangs both inside and outside the prison. This is a difficult character to capture, and Tahar Rahim does an excellent job, depicting Malik's transformation from helpless to powerful in a way that feels plausible and natural. After the initial shock of being forced to murder a man, Malik effaces himself, gives himself over to the role of servant, only to find that his dutifulness and loyalty is a kind of power in itself. And Cesar, as portrayed by Niels Arestrup (in a performance that nicely complements his work in Audiard's last film, The Beat My Heart Skipped), inspires some pathos as he travels an opposite trajectory, transforming from a fearsome, domineering figure into an isolated, helpless old man.

Audiard's direction is often tactile and vivid. He casts his eye on little viscous details that make for some striking images. Yes, it's an engrossing, intense story, but much of the film's power lies in those small touches that make the most sensational moments feel tangible. I'm struck by the sight of Malik washing the blood from his hair after a particularly grisly hit, which makes a surreal bit of movie violence suddenly seem horrifically real. Or what of that string of blood and spittle that arcs between his hand and mouth before that first assassination? The blood comes from a razor hidden in Malik's mouth—the only way to get a weapon this close to the intended victim—and it drives the weight of the moment straight into my gut. Aside from a few ill-conceived excursions into the supernatural, this is a film that remains firmly rooted in a queasy, inescapable present.