Sunday, December 11, 2011

Margin Call


Someone really missed an opportunity by not calling this film Capitalism Killed My Dog. When Sam (Kevin Spacey), a senior executive at an investment bank, reveals his dog is dying, it at first registers as an oddball character touch, no different than a limp or fake British accent. But by the time he’s digging a hole for the poor pooch in his ex-wife’s front yard after selling off toxic assets and almost single-handedly decimating the global economy, the metaphorical intentions are all too clear—it was greed that done it, officer, greed and hubris and subprime lending. Arrest that credit default swap, sir. CAPITALISM KILLED MY DOG.

So first-time writer/director J.C. Chandor occasionally lays it on a bit thick in Margin Call, a flawed but often engaging drama set during the 2008 economic collapse. Chandor has a knack for the telling detail, and he nails the disorientation and shock of those first few chaotic hours, when only the canniest robber barons would make it out unscathed. But he also has the tendency to pummel his point into the ground with leaden seriousness (looking off a rooftop, a cocky young analyst unknowingly on the verge of losing his job helpfully foreshadows, “It’s a long way down”). Look, I hate the greedy bastards as much as the next middle-class schlub, but even I could stand to do with a bit less tongue clucking from the director. Whenever someone gives a speech, they seem to have one eye on posterity the whole time. They’re not talking to the people in the room, but rather the audience, who knows where all this is going and really just wants to see a terse, well-acted financial thriller, please and thank you.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Final Flesh


Perhaps the only way to capture the distinct madness of Final Flesh is to describe a single moment. Any moment will do. None is any more important—or lucid, for that matter—than another. So, if you would be so kind, try to conjure up this conjugal scene in your mind’s moist eye:

A man sits on a bed, entirely naked, groping himself, while a woman twists and sways before him in a listless dance. The man, bespectacled with graying hair, has the slumping posture of someone waiting to have his teeth cleaned. The woman thrusts her chest out, her mouth agape in an expression that is meant to convey uninhibited carnality but rather suggests nasal congestion. Blankly, the man says—and I cannot overemphasize the nullity in his voice, a void so deep it’s a wonder the whole room doesn’t collapse into it—“Sugarfoot, I’m going to cum so fast the babies we’re about to make are already in this morning’s obituaries.”

And then, to verify his point, he picks up the newspaper and begins to read.

This is not pornography, although the confusion is understandable, given the creepily sexual tone and erect penises and whatnot. In actual fact, it is an inquiry into the nature of death, a raised fist shaken in anger at the injustice of an absent god, a pipe bomb floating through the sewers of capitalism, a Punch-and-Judy performance where the puppets are carved from flesh. And it just happens to be acted out by a group of semi-professional porn stars, like some awkward, oversexed community theatre production of a long-lost Dadaist play.

The writer/puppetmaster—director doesn’t really apply here—is Vernon Chatman, a former comedian turned professional weirdo. The living puppets are supplied by various online pornographers who, for a nominal fee, will realize your wildest dreams, assuming said dreams conform to the limitations of bargain-basement pornography filmed in someone’s cluttered mid-market bungalow (seriously, you can see a kayak in the background at one point). But rather than the expected script of fantasies and fetishes, Chatman instead constructed four interconnected scenarios, each a pileup of absurdities, non-sequiturs and whatever other strange droppings he could scoop out of his imagination. He then sent the scripts to four different companies, each of which performed his bizarre mini-plays under the assumption that everything contained within were merely idiosyncratic sexual kinks.

Some sort of summation is in order, if only to give a taste of the curious, queasy mood of the film. Each segment begins with a man and two women asleep at a kitchen table—two parents and a child, although there is typically no age difference in the performers (one group helpfully uses pigtails to indicate who is playing the youth). As a result, each segment begins to feel like a dream within another dream, while the occasionally repeated image or line helps further unify the segments (see, for instance, the recurring line, “I’m a kangaroo star!”). The threat of atomic annihilation is introduced early on, and these “bewildered sexmaritans” (Chatman’s words, not mine) grapple with the constant presence of death throughout. Beyond that, I can only offer highlights:

  • First section: The trio wakes up at their kitchen table and discuss their imminent death. A woman bathes herself in several jars, containing the tears of neglected children, angel blood, and finally the tears of corrupt politicians, which take the form of a mouse, which she inhales lustfully. Someone reads the Koran while sitting on a toilet (no indication if it is number one or two). The women give birth to various edible objects, including a slab of meat named Mr. Peterson. “It looks like Gregor Samsa will get the last laugh after all.” The man stumbles on the word fascist (fass-ist), and then, as if to make this failure literal, falls on his face. His compatriots convince him he is a baby. He tries, unsuccessfully, to return to the womb. “My dream was to murder the president.” A woman mispronounces the word capitalism (cap-lism). Everyone dies.
  • Second section: We are now in “hot, hard heaven.” “It’s Dr. Bedsore.” God communicates by sliding messages under the door. The trio is convinced they are in god’s womb, and plot escape. A woman excretes her brain into a toilet. The toilet seat is covered with the words, “Local sparrow licks slave lip.” The phrase “Stop manipulating me” is repeated several times. Scripts within scripts within scripts. Bad actors attempt to act badly. Someone stands on a table in bloody underwear. It will not be the last time. “Yes, it’s working—I’m turning British” (spoken in vaguely British tones). The man dies. “He’s coming back to life, symbolically.” They plot to spit acid in god’s face and escape through the wounds. “We’re going back to nature.” A woman eats cheese. Everyone escapes, symbolically.
  • Third section: The table is covered in leaves. “Shuttup and let’s mash backs.” A woman suggests she is not a human being, but rather a bird with birth defects. A tantalizing existential dilemma indeed. The director is heard saying, “Action!” Very little happens. The universe, it is revealed, has been killed in a Spanish boating accident, or rather, a French lying accident (ha?). Two naked people shake a jar. Words written on a mirror: “The metaphor has.” “My hand has a mind of its own. I call it Miss Pearl.” Nits are picked. “Last night during sex, you called out the bible word for word.” Miss Pearl dies and becomes a ghost. The trio spies on themselves in the bathroom. A woman who does not know how to fake a slap fakes a slap. A conch seeping blood is probed with a turkey baster and pencil. Everyone dies.
  • Fourth section: The table is covered in leaves. The lighting is somewhat notable here, in that there is some. “That was yummy voodoo fruit.” The man breaks an egg on a clock. “Watch, fascist” (pronounced correctly). A block of cheese instead of a penis. A cheese grater instead of a mouth. The man seems happy. The actors appear to be trying to convey emotions. “What are you thinking, human?” Cue screams. “Oh yeah, proxy.” A woman appears in blackface with a white cross on her forehead. The man has a swastika on his head. “You are going to die alone, like everyone else in the world.” Two corpses are married so that their dead baby will not be born in sin. The baby is a chicken. The chicken gives birth to an apple. “We’re ghosts in fetal form.” Someone stands on a table in bloody underwear (see, I warned you). “The existence of the universe is the third-greatest coincidence to ever happen. Here is the second.” A woman opens the fridge. Everyone—oh, never mind.

Anyone familiar with Chatman’s other work—particularly the corrupted kids’ show Wonder Showzen—will find Final Flesh oddly familiar, despite its novelty as the first work-for-hire exquisite-corpse avant-porn movie. One of Wonder Showzen’s favourite tricks was to use children as mouthpieces for taboo subjects, from capitalist exploitation to racism and religion. The porn stars used here seem equally oblivious about the meaning of the words they recite. Still, they play along as best they can. Mundane actions are performed with exaggerated sensuality, no matter how inappropriate—one woman moans with orgasmic pleasure as she shakes a jar of milk, while her bored male partner looks off screen, perhaps to a clock or mystified fluffer. Yet for all their evident confusion and boredom the performers are eager to please. There’s a sense of duty behind their actions that can only come from the conviction that someone, somewhere is watching you and masturbating furiously. I can’t quite fathom what a belief like that must do to a person’s behaviour (to say nothing of their mental well-being), but this film hints at the answer.

This all sounds a little creepy and exploitative, I’m sure, and there’s no denying the twinge of discomfort that comes from watching these endlessly pliable human puppets. One can only wonder at what strange fetishes they must regularly be called upon to satisfy, because they do Chatman’s bidding with nary a hint of surprise or even emotion (aside from the flicker of a laugh from one woman as she describes the camera as “a portal to pure love” and then breathes on the lens). But the final result is funny, fascinating, and more provocative than any of the puerile jokes being recited. These people are meat puppets without an inkling of who pulls the strings or why. They’re utterly powerless, and the only defense against that horror is to laugh at what you see.

Make no mistake: this film is out to hurt you. Bold and dumb, it is both avant-garde experiment and brainless crowd-pleaser. It’s a rock through a window, but instead of asking why it threw the rock in the first place, it asks why you didn’t move the house. In other words, Final Flesh is a question so foolish, so utterly ridiculous and incredible that everyone who hears it is rendered dumb, in every sense of the word. It is the heir to Un chien andalou, Pink Flamingos and the perverts on Chatroulette. It is a film equally irrelevant and necessary, completely disconnected from reality and as such invaluable in its perversion of everything normal and decent within the world. Never mind Lars von Trier—this is the real Antichrist.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hugo


Poised somewhere between PSA and love letter, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is at least one or two steps above those tedious hurray-for-film montages that pad out the Oscar broadcast each year. Granted, it still succumbs to many of the traps of latter-day Scorsese (bloated running time, art direction as crutch, a general mawkishness), even as it avoids others (Leonardo Dicaprio). But unlike those pious Oscar montages—and the dreary potboilers Scorsese has been churning out lately—there is some genuine passion to be found here in the exuberant homages to classic cinema. Now if only Scorsese could direct some of that fervour for cinematic history into the films he churns out today with such dutiful, mechanical efficiency.

Ostensibly about an orphan living in a Parisian train station in the 1930s, Hugo actually spends much of its time constructing a loving fantasy around film pioneer George Melies. Scorsese seems energized by the chance to share his enthusiasm for film history with modern audiences, and the summaries of Melies’ life and the early days of cinema are buoyant and breathless, complete with wondrous scenes of the old director at work. One can only imagine Scorsese’s glee at introducing countless children (and a few adults as well, no doubt) to such canonical cinematic images as Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock, or the man in the moon with a rocket stuck in his eye. The handicraft world of Melies remains beguiling to this day, a merging of theatre, magic and cinema so vibrant and unique it still dazzles from its bygone era. Unfortunately, the comparison does little to flatter Scorsese’s film, which for all its charm, feels finally drab and limited—3-D effects and CGI tricks are poor substitutes for a bit of cardboard and some homespun magic.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Anonymous


I cannot prove that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. I have no documents, no signed affidavits, no DNA evidence, not even a legally notarized etching. By that same token, I cannot prove that Edward de Vere was Edward de Vere, nor that Ben Jonson was Ben Jonson. For that matter, I have no conclusive evidence that Queen Elizabeth was indeed Queen Elizabeth, and not two stacked dwarfs in a dress and red wig.

And so the doubters shall doubt, and there isn’t much we can do about it. Maybe Shakespeare wrote his own plays or maybe he didn’t. Perhaps Edward de Vere did write the works of Shakespeare. Or perhaps Ben Jonson wrote the works of Shakespeare, and perhaps Shakespeare wrote the works of Ben Jonson (perhaps there was a mix-up at the printers). And perhaps we shall construct a time machine one day and put this inane debate to rest, and then pop over to Germany in 1920 to kill Hitler (priorities, you know).

In fairness to the doubters, there is something vaguely appealing in these theories that Shakespeare’s work was the product of a frustrated nobleman like de Vere, or some other random talent of the day. After all, if you already love Shakespeare’s work, you’ve clearly built up immunity to absurd plot twists and implausible narrative leaps. Add an extra dash of credulity and all of a sudden Christopher Marlowe is writing Hamlet after faking his own death in a bar brawl. Is this any less believable than the plot of Twelfth Night?

Besides, it’s not like there is any way to conclusively resolve this debate, short of a sudden rash of good sense amongst all parties involved. Given that Shakespeare—excuse me, “Shakespeare”—has been dead nearly 400 years, you’re unlikely to prove much beyond his brute existence, never mind what he was doing the night King Lear was written. You would think that would temper the argument, but arrogance all too often prevails among these conspiracy-minded Oxfordians and their brothers-in-paranoia (the Marlowe mob, the Bacon backers). If you hold to the belief that Shakespeare was the author of his own work, the doubters will regard you as nothing more than a pitiable dupe, a naïve fool to be classed with grown men and women who still believe in Santa Claus, Big Bird, and Barack Obama’s birth certificate. The paranoiacs are the only ones in the know, of course. The rest of us are a pathetic miscellany of rubes, suckers, dreamers, ninnies and the just plain dumb.

That brings us to Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, which likewise assumes us to be suckers, although for different reasons than the Oxfordians. With its theatrical bookends meant to mimic one of Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play structures, the film exudes glib reverence for art while not quite comprehending what “art” actually entails. The film adores the idea of Shakespeare, yet has little use for dull plays (too wordy) and obnoxious writers (too smelly). But if you’re sitting in the movie theatre watching this farce unfold, the reason you’re there is because of an abiding fascination with (or at least mild fondness for) the works of Shakespeare. Feeling like a dupe yet?

Concluding a historical trilogy that began with The Patriot and 10,000 BC (well, why not?), Emmerich’s film is a dull, lumpy mess of half-baked Elizabethan conspiracy theories and courtly intrigue. The film’s twist on the Oxfordian theory is that de Vere approached Ben Jonson to provide a front for his plays, only for a semi-literate, pompous actor by the name of William Shakespeare—perhaps you’ve heard of him—to sneak in and take credit for himself. The only people worse than writers—pardon me, that’s common writers, the nobility is okay—are actors.

All of this literary conspiracy talk is itself something of a front for the film’s true purpose. Anonymous delves deeply—oh lord, how deeply—into the political machinations behind who will succeed Queen Elizabeth. The plays are de Vere’s tool to manipulate public opinion while also reaching out to the queen, who long ago banished him from court in the aftermath of a botched love affair. What follows is somewhere between political drama and bedroom farce, loaded with incest, intrigue, and the popular aristocratic game of hide-the-bastard. It’s a very serious movie about very silly things. You can expect thunder rolling on the soundtrack as people bellow stirring dialogue like, “My poems are my soul!”

None of that reverence for poetry translates into much fondness for the poets themselves, however. Christopher Marlowe is so devilish he all but sprouts horns and a tail, while Thomas Nashe and Thomas Dekker are little more than a Laurel and Hardy routine. However, the most abused is Ben Jonson, who spends much of the film drunk and depressed, helplessly watching his life fall apart, only occasionally waking up to wave around a play of his own (considering how much time he spends sniffling in the gutter, it’s a wonder he found the time to write at all). Strangely, a single line in the epilogue notes that he was widely considered the greatest playwright of his day—a rather unexpected nod towards the historical record this late in the film, especially considering we’ve already been told Queen Elizabeth was impregnated by her son and the Earl of Oxford wrote A Midsummer’s Night Dream when he was 12 years old.

But the film’s greatest sin is its failure of nerve. I’m not necessarily opposed to constructing elaborately ridiculous theories around historical figures if there is some point to be made or fun to be had. Sadly, neither is to be found here. This mealy-mouthed movie lacks even the conviction of its own nonsense. Emmerich treats the plays with dull piety, raising them to the heavens on cardboard wings and a cloud made of cotton. The overall tone is one of fealty, which fits quite naturally with this idea that only a nobleman could write such noble works. (I notice the rather ignoble Titus Andronicus is conspicuously absent from the film.) Indeed, it’s hard to imagine these sainted plays containing something as low and common as a fart joke or crude double-entendre, even though that is just as much a part of them as Hamlet’s soliloquy or Mark Antony’s oration. It’s a curious kind of reverence that destroys the thing it loves, but Anonymous manages to do it. The film scrubs Shakespeare clean before dragging him through the gutter.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Thing From Another World


Is The Thing From Another World a paranoid Cold War nightmare or snide mockery of same? Consider the evidence: the desperate warning to watch the skies, the sense of betrayal from within and threatening aliens without, the treacherous crypto-Communist scientist berating the valiant army with un-American concepts like peace and knowledge. It certainly sounds like a lovely McCarthyite fantasy, yet this relentlessly chatty, easy-going film—directed by Christian Nyby, with a helping hand from producer Howard Hawks—makes a hash of its own paranoia. The anonymous chorus of wise-cracking GIs give the film a collegial atmosphere more suited to a weekend outing than a white-knuckled survival story, and whenever the alien beast mows down another one, three more smart-asses take his place (they seem to reproduce faster than the alien menace itself, growing its blood-fed podlings in the greenhouse). The film is defined by this casual attitude towards death, destruction, and the supposed threat of alien forces. While the journalist broadcasts history over the wireless, his pals knowingly smirk at the phony solemnity of every word, and the heroic captain canoodles with his girlfriend as the bodies cool in the hallway. Cold War? What Cold War?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part Five


Dreileben 

Easily one of the highlights of the festival, this mammoth omnibus out of Germany combines three 90-minute features, each one exploring the escape of a convicted killer from different angles. The first part, Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, focuses on the hospital orderly whose carelessness allows the killer to escape. The murderer is barely a presence in this part of the trilogy—he’s less a tangible villain and more a phantom, haunting the orderly’s intense relationship with a troubled hotel maid. It’s a marvelously compact film, as powerful as anything else Petzold has done, and it captures young love with a potent mixture of sensuality and violence. The two lovers regularly traverse the forest where the killer supposedly hides, and that walk becomes laced with a dread and uncertainty that stands in for all the terrors and traps of their doomed relationship.

Dominik Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around is comparatively lighter on its feet, and may well be the highlight of the trio for me (it’s a toss-up between this and Petzold’s offering). While the first and third films maintain an icy style built around control and stillness, Graf’s contribution is loose and lively, a quick sketch drawn on 16mm. Our focal point this time around is Johanna, a police psychologist brought in from outside of town to help the investigation. Fascinatingly, Graf smuggles several different genre stories into the mix, including the manhunt and even some business about police corruption. But these all occur in the margins, similar to the police sirens that periodically roar through Petzold’s earlier film before disappearing into the forest. Graf’s real interest is the relationship between Johanna and her old friend, Vera. The pair discovers that they once dated the same man, years before they ever met, and the implications of that one coincidence play out in increasingly surprising ways in the lives of both women. The film turns out to have been a mystery all along, just not the one we were expecting.

The final part, One Minute of Darkness by Christoph Hochhausler, is a comparative let-down after the strength of the first two films, but that may be simply because the director takes on the greatest challenge of all three films. While Petzold and Graf benefit from having easily identifiable protagonists, Hochhausler splits his film between two equally inscrutable, reserved characters: Frank Molesch, the escaped killer, and Marcus Kreil, the police officer hunting him down. Between the man in the woods trying to hide and the cop brooding on how to find him, the film spends much of its time watching men in isolation. It’s a static film, in other words, but not without its own merits. Hochhausler plays on our prejudices against the killer—built up by two films where he was essentially a bogeyman under the bed—and twists around our expectations of who he should be. The film takes on an unreal quality and becomes a fable in which our own contempt for the man turns him into a monster. Hochhausler skews our perspective of everything that came before, provoking the viewer to return to the beginning and delve deeper into this complex and strange world. Any film that can do that after nearly five hours is a success by any measure.


Life Without Principle 

Johnnie To turns Hong Kong’s recent financial turmoil into a high-energy crime farce in Life Without Principle, an often funny film about economic corruption and greed on every level of society. Everything is set in motion by the murder of a loan shark—seemingly the only character not fretting about money in the wake of global financial chaos—with the killing examined through multiple, increasingly amusing angles. The plot is densely woven and rich in character and incident, and To keeps everything moving briskly, pausing only for the occasional oddball detail. The film works as a derisive response to the stock market and all its attendant greed: smart people fail, while fools flourish. But I’m not entirely sold on the ending, which essentially rewards the greed of the sympathetic characters, while ensuring that the expected villains get what they deserve. If the system is truly as random and senseless as the film makes it out to be, surely To’s favoured characters need to suffer as much as the rest? The director backs away from the harsher implications of his story, and the film’s satiric edge dulls noticeably in its final moments.


Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

The best parts of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia lie in the first half of the film. A man has confessed to murder, and the police, town prosecutor and a doctor now drive through the countryside in the dead of night, trying to find the body in the featureless grasslands. These scenes border on Beckett-like absurdity, with all the village authority figures forced to wander the desolate night roads while the self-professed killer tries to remember where he hid the body in his drunken rage. The black comedy continues even when they discover the body: while making his official statement, the prosecutor inexplicably describes the victim as looking like Clark Gable, leading to much teasing all around. But the tone twists in the daylight, and while the film remains worthwhile, it also seems to shed some of its more intriguing idiosyncrasies. Ceylan moves away from deadpan existential comedy to a more earnest, at times even sentimental drama about the nature of justice and the truth. It’s still a compelling film, shot and performed with great skill, but be wary of what you wake to find in the harsh morning light.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part Four


Happy People: A Year in the Taiga 

Has Werner Herzog become a brand? I fear so, because a film like Happy People seems designed almost solely to bank on his credibility as the going master-eccentric of the documentary form. Herzog co-directs with Dmitry Vasyukov and narrates, but he didn't have a hand in filming and it shows in every frame. This documentary about the isolated trappers of the Taiga region of Siberia is prime Herzog material—lonely men facing the majesty and mystery of nature—but it lacks the meditative qualities of his more personal documentaries, to say nothing of his unpredictable questions and endlessly wandering camera eye. The film is by no means terrible, but it is hardly any more distinguished than what you might find on the Discovery Channel on a Sunday afternoon. If anything, the film only proves the unique value of Herzog as a presence in the field. We may learn about the lifestyle and working methods of the trappers, but that’s about it. One imagines that the first question on Herzog’s tongue in this frigid wasteland would not have been how they live there, but rather why. The absence of that particular line of questioning is sorely felt in this mundane, uninspiring effort.


Here There 

Here There, Lu Sheng’s debut feature, weaves together three wayward threads, ranging from a Chinese student in Paris to a reindeer farmer in Mongolia and a young noodle restaurant employee in Shanghai. Lu subtly hints at the links between the three worlds, but he never stresses these ties—this is, after all, a film less about connection than separation. Still, the film’s reluctance to clarify its characters is not always the wisest strategy, especially when trying to cram so much into a slender 90-minute frame. The most notable casualty of this structure is the brief love affair between the restaurant employee and an insurance agent, which ends so suddenly that the tragedy barely even registers. But the cast—consisting of both professional and non-professional actors—acquits itself well with the material, and the final result is a thoughtful, if sometimes underwhelming work.

  
The Day He Arrives 

--> If you’ve ever seen a Hong Sang-soo film, you’ll already know the contents of The Day He Arrives. All the usual elements are here: lonely men, frustrated women, awkward romantic entanglements, and a great deal of social drinking. (At one point during the screening, the woman sitting next to me leaned over and exclaimed, “They must have spent their entire budget on beer!”) Yet Hong continues to refine his world in this latest effort, creating a witty, melancholy film that feels small without ever seeming slight. This time around, we’ve got a director visiting an old friend in Seoul, where he encounters an old flame, an aspiring actress, some film students, a lot of booze, and a perpetually late bar proprietress. In its repetitions, The Day He Arrives suggests a film trying to rewrite itself, struggling to find a combination that somehow breaks its characters free from the monotony of their lonely, blinkered lives. The scenes blur together, revealing a group of compulsive people beholden to their own bad habits, always finding new ways to fall into old traps. It’s life reduced to a series of running gags—hilarious, and pitiless.


It’s the Earth Not the Moon 

Goncalo Tocha begins It’s the Earth Not the Moon with a promise to film each of Corvo’s 440 residents (or 450, estimates vary), and even more—every cow, every pig, every single living thing on this tiny, rustic island off the coast of Portugal. By the time he gets around to filming the village dump with its attendant bird life, you may begin to suspect this is no idle boast. Over three hours and 14 chapters, Tocha explores every conceivable facet of the island—the scenic vistas, the local history (whale hunting used to be a major industry), colourful characters (a dancer performs in a mossy glen), and yes, even the local livestock. As a documentary, the film is almost naively generous, endlessly curious and beautifully expansive. Tocha may lack the ruthless analytical instincts of an editor, but he possesses the fine eye of a painter, and he fills the film with striking images plucked from the endless churn of his many days on the island.

One of the few storylines—if you could even call it that—found in the entire film involves an elderly island resident knitting Tocha a beret similar to those worn by the whale fishermen of old. The beret will allow him to be a genuine Corvo man, the woman explains. Tocha’s obsessive desire to capture the island in its entirety is bound up with his desire to become a part of it, even if local residents seem bemused by the strange presence of this film crew (one woman enters a friend’s house, laughing about these fools following her around). Shots featuring the shadow of the director abound; Tocha exists like a shade on the margins on the film, part of the world and yet not quite within it. The tension is finally resolved in a breathtakingly simple and moving shot of a cloud crossing the sun and swallowing up Tocha’s shadow in a wave of darkness. At last, if only for a flickering moment, he merges with the landscape. Don’t think of this as a documentary—think of it as a documentary maker’s dream.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part Three

Cinema Komunisto 

What happens to a nation’s cinema when the nation itself disappears? That’s the question that haunts Cinema Komunisto, Mila Turajlic’s mournful tour through the history of Yugoslavia’s national cinema. Aside from the occasional musical ode to Tito and the odd scene of bright young communists talking about how wonderful it is to do manual labour, the film largely avoids the obvious kitschy value of old propaganda. Indeed, Turajlic has little interest in exploring the tricky intersection of propaganda and reality. She also lacks the formal gusto or analytical insight to reinvigorate these films for a new time, which means all Cinema Komunisto offers is a lot of white-haired directors and actors standing in dusty warehouses reminiscing about the good old days. I came hoping for a raucous wake, but all I got was a polite eulogy.


A Simple Life 

When Ah Tao, a film producer’s maid, suffers a stroke, her employer offers to pay for her residency at an old age home—it seems the only decent thing to do, considering she has served his family for 60 years. Based on the real relationship between producer Roger Lee and his maid, Ann Hui’s A Simple Life is richly rewarding and quietly moving. It’s a potentially grim subject, but Hui approaches the story with resolve and warm humour, even as she refuses to shy away from the loneliness and fear that come with aging. Shot largely under the harsh fluorescent light of a Hong Kong retirement home, the film evokes the intimacy and unvarnished look of a documentary. But this is no sweeping exploration of what it means to be elderly in modern Hong Kong, nor does Hui care to offer any thesis on the bond between Roger and Ah Tao. No, the film is nothing more or less than a gesture of respect from one human being to another, a final duty and a kindness. Simple, not simplistic.


Quattro Hong Kong 2 

A short film package commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and as varied and confounding as the city itself. The only stipulation the four directors apparently received was that they should try to film in Hong Kong, and each approached the task from strikingly different angles. However, the package kicks off with its weakest effort, an unimaginative, clumsy short from Brillante Mendoza depicting two emigrants to the city buying flowers—an older man buying for his dead wife on their anniversary, and a younger man for his girlfriend after a fight. But Ho Yuhang’s oddball black-and-white crime comedy marks a considerable improvement. Featuring python smuggling and other assorted curios, the film invests even its throwaway characters with personality and wit, creating the sense of a fully developed world in just 20 minutes. It’s charming and frequently funny, if a bit scattered.

Apichatpong Weersethakul’s contribution, on the other hand, is narrowly focused on two men sitting by the window of a single hotel room—aside from a couple of enigmatic shots of the courtyard below, we don’t see anything else. The trick is that the image is grainy and washed out, while the sound is muffled and buried beneath the burbling of water (is this life in the fishbowl?). A voyeuristic film in which there’s nothing to see, Weersethakul’s film is formally playful and even a little beautiful, but it’s also a minor effort from a major talent. The last film, from Stanely Kwan, is possibly the strongest of the bunch. Set on a bus ride into Hong Kong, it captures the divide between the city and mainland China through the overheard conversations of passengers. It’s a thoughtful, affecting work, almost as finely tuned and elegant as the music from Bach that closes out the film.


Low Life 

A gloomy, doomy, dull work from Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval, the best I can say for Low Life is that it ends better than it began. The film charts the collision between a group of undergrads and illegal immigrants, and the results are unsurprisingly sophomoric. Early scenes with the pseudo-poetic, self-absorbed Charles drain the air out of the film, and it never really comes back, although things improve considerably once focus shifts to the love affair between a young student named Carmen and Hussein, an Afghani asylum-seeker. When the French government rejects his application for asylum, the relationship between the pair becomes a kind of crime against the state, and the film becomes suddenly urgent. Chilling signs of police surveillance and oppression abound, giving the film a nightmarish quality that at last justifies the numbing dread that has been there from the get-go. But I’m really only speaking about the last half-hour or so—the rest of the film is grimly aimless and wrapped up in a punishing score that sounds vaguely like Joy Division on barbiturates. What little fire the film stirs up with its political rage is snuffed out by its flat tone and stifling moodiness.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part Two



Bullhead 

If you’ve been waiting for a searing drama about cattle hormone gangsters in Belgium, you’re in luck, because Michael Roskam has answered your prayers with Bullhead, his debut feature about a farming family drawn into the criminal hormone trade. The film is about as sturdy as Jacky, its beefy protagonist, but there’s little behind its critique of overcompensating machismo, beyond perhaps the idea that manliness is a dubious concept and best kept far away from blunt weapons. Jacky—castrated in a horrible incident as a child—gorges himself on testosterone supplements, while at the same time helping his cattle bulk up with illegal hormones. I know there’s something to be said for thematic unity, but Roskam lays it on pretty thick here. By the time we reach the end, Jacky is reduced to snorting like a bull and head-butting his enemies. What gives? Is subtlety not macho enough?


Tatsumi 

Over the course of his decades-long career in manga, Yoshihiro Tatsumi has helped forge a new genre—gekiga, the dark, mature stories that he specializes in—and earned a flood of late-career plaudits as North American audiences now discover his work. But does he have to be so damned happy about it? Tatsumi’s stories are grubby and depraved, acidic and angry. His scabrous critiques of post-war Japanese masculinity and sexual mores would feels like close kin to Shohei Imamura's films (The Pornographers seems like it could have been adapted from a Tatsumi story, for instance). But despite the bleakness of much of his work, Tatsumi himself is a contented old man, grateful for a long and successful career. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it certainly makes for an awkward juxtaposition with the dark, hopeless world of his art.

Unfortunately, Eric Khoo’s otherwise enjoyable Tatsumi fails to navigate that divide between the artist’s life and work. Combining biographical reflections with adaptations of five Tatsumi stories, the film reveals some striking connections between life and art, but the stories really carry the show here. Consider “Belove Monkey,” a prime bit of Tatsumi weirdness about a factory worker who loses his arm in an industrial accident and as a result must give up his pet monkey. When the man releases it into the monkey pen at the zoo, the other animals do not recognize the intruder as one of their own and viciously turn on the helpless beast. No less an outsider now because of his deformity, the man cannot even cross the street now after witnessing the slaughter of his pet. The oncoming rush of people merges in his mind with the animals in the zoo, and he is reduced to simpering terror as the monkey shrieks on the soundtrack. The whole thing borders on the ludicrous, but remains so deeply felt that it’s hard not to be affected by the revulsion expressed. Next to such violent emotion, the benign biographical sections feel out of place—cheery small talk occasionally interrupted by a scream.


Sleeping Sickness 

Ulrich Kohler’s Sleeping Sickness begins as a fairly straightforward story about a German doctor working in Africa, but it soon transforms into something far stranger—a fable about the complicated, damning relationship between Europe and Africa in the post-colonial era. The early sections focus on Ebbo Velten, a German doctor running a medical program fighting sleeping sickness in Cameroon. The doctor intends to leave and return to Germany to be with his wife and daughter, but flash-forward three years and the good doctor has now gone Kurtz and disappeared into the continent. A young French doctor from the World Health Organization heads out to find Velten, who eventually reappears married to one of the locals, proud father of a newborn child. He’s become deeply entangled with the place, loving it and yet hating it, desperate to leave but unable to find a way out. This is a smart, fascinating film, and Kohler provocatively alludes to the potential damage done by Western aid. Even more provocatively, he suggests that the West may be as transformed by this codependent relationship as Africa itself. That, or else the hippos will get us all in the end.


The Sandman 

Whimsical comedy-fantasies are a lot harder to pull off than they look, which makes The Sandman that much more impressive, because this film looks absolutely effortless. The premise is pleasantly weird, too: Benno, a failed composer turned haughty philatelist (is there any other kind?) discovers that his body dribbles sand whenever he tells a lie, and furthermore, said sand has the added benefit of knocking out anyone who smells it. To make matters worse, he can’t stop dreaming about Sandra, the aspiring singer who runs the café below his apartment. Every morning, he heads down to buy a cup of coffee and insult her intelligence, looks, and talent; every night, he is beset by nightmarish visions of romantic bliss with her. Writer-director Peter Luisi keeps the film quick on its feet, and the story maintains a charming vein of dry absurdity. A few scenes mocking a phony television psychic veer a little too close to cheap sketch comedy, but otherwise this is a finely balanced and well-realized fantasy. More than a dressed-up romantic comedy, The Sandman is a surreal but keenly observant depiction of the often fraught relationship between artists.


Headshot

He’s a lover and a fighter, a cop and a killer, a Buddhist monk and streetwise punk. He’s Tul, and he’s the hero of Headshot, an elliptical hit-man saga from Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Every few scenes Tul seems to be playing a different role, which could be a nod towards Buddhist notions of rebirth, or perhaps just questionable screenwriting. All of this would certainly be more palatable if the different incarnations of Tul weren’t seemingly ripped from some handbook on how to construct a generic crime thriller. The film’s non-linear structure and meditative mood spur a bit of curiosity early on, but the story wraps up in a flurry of contrivance and cliché that essentially kills whatever good will the film had earned up to that point. Oh, and it should be noted that Tul sees everything upside down because of the titular shot to the head, and also that this detail is largely superfluous to the film, short of making it really difficult for the guy to drive. But sure, go ahead, toss another idea into the mix. What’s the harm in one more dead-end concept? It’s not like the film is going anywhere anyway. Wake me when this is reborn as a story I can give a damn about.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part One


Guilt 

Set in the small Quebec city of Saint-Hyacinthe, Marc Bisaillon’s Guilt is a quiet story of violence and its aftermath. Two young friends—Yves, a high-school football star, and Gabriel, a bright underachiever—accidentally kill a man during a druggy, drunken night out on the town. You can guess where it goes from there: Yves doesn’t want to tell anyone, Gabriel goes along with the cover-up and is consumed by guilt, arguments are had, confessions are made, and so on. Bisaillon employs admirable restraint, but there’s no shaking the sense that there’s nothing new here. It’s a familiar tale told well, but with little imagination.


Almayer’s Folly 

Liberally adapted from a Joseph Conrad novel—no, really, that’s what the credits say—Almayer’s Folly plays on the conflict between East and West, transposed to the relationship between a father and his daughter. Almayer, a European trader living in the Cambodian jungle, forces a “white education” upon his only daughter, in the process destroying his whole family. It’s a harsh portrait of patriarchal arrogance and pride, but surprisingly humane and tender as well—Almayer is both villain and victim, as worthy of pity as contempt. Employing delicately balanced compositions and fluid camerawork, director Chantal Akerman is in fine form here, turning the jungle into a kind of shape-shifting prison that refuses to give up its inhabitants. A flashback early on comes with the note that what we are seeing occurred “Before, somewhere else.” Likewise, the film refuses easy definitions and clear categories. A sometimes maddening, but strikingly beautiful work.


Kill List 

Beginning as a claustrophobic portrait of a family under financial strain, Ben Wheatley’s powerful Kill List soon twists into crime thriller and finally nerve-rattling horror. When an unemployed hit man gets back into the business in order to provide for his wife and son, he discovers himself in the midst of an occult nightmare, complete with pagan rituals in which the rich and powerful hide behind straw masks and sacrifice people. From there, everything falls apart so quickly the queasy feeling in your gut won’t be able to keep up. Wheatley never loses sight of that initial family picture, however, which immediately puts the film head and shoulders above other contemporary horrors. When the going gets gory, there’s actually something at stake. These are human beings, not just sacks of meat being tossed into the grinder. Angry, righteous, horrifying and unrelenting, this is not only an ingenious genre mashup but also one of the best films to come out of the recent financial crisis. So this is what it’s like to survive in cutthroat times? Best get used to the sight of blood.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams



Seriously, is there anything more ridiculous than a 3-D movie? Oh, brave new world, with such headaches in it—or to borrow an apt line from the Gang of Four, referring to a different coercion of the senses, “This heaven gives me migraine.” Yes, 3-D is impressive, it’s spectacular, it’s astounding, and I don’t give a shit. As a sensory assault, movies like Transformers are already a metaphorical punch to the face. Must we make it literal as well?

Being a devout technophobe and burgeoning curmudgeon, I’ve avoided 3-D filmmaking for as long as possible. In my imagination, it is not some fantastic spectacle, but rather something more like an oversized shoebox diorama where the drawings move. Too bad the bastards have discovered my weakness for Werner Herzog’s ecstatic, pseudo-mystic documentary reveries. Michael Bay better stay the hell away from my eyeballs, but I’ll at least let that Teutonic weirdo take a crack at them.

This is my way of offering a disclaimer. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog’s much-heralded documentary excursion into 3-D, is my first experience with the technology. Does it compare to Avatar, the supposed benchmark of the form? Does it even matter? Herzog is such a sui generis filmmaker that comparing him to others is futile. He’s always existed somewhere on his own personal plane of reality. What’s one more dimension at this point?

The endearing eccentricity that has turned him into a cult figurehead of late is still on display here, albeit muted. Perhaps that is due to the constraints of the filming. Given a rare opportunity to film Chauvet Cave in France, Herzog was working under tight restrictions: a small crew (himself and three others), a few battery-powered lights, jury-rigged cameras, and only a few hours a day to film, spread out over six days. Herzog narrates and interviews, throwing in the usual mystical ruminations and digressions, but he gives much of the film over to the cave’s most stunning feature: the breathtaking 32,000-year-old paintings that cover the walls.

Depicting numerous animals—from horses to rhinos and extinct creatures like cave lions and mammoths—the paintings offer a tantalizing glimpse into the Paleolithic past. Only one human figure appears, that being the bottom half of a fertility goddess. But it is the animals that rule this cave, with their calcified skeletons lying beneath the vivid portraits that depict them in full vigour. Their mouths are open, braying and howling and panting, while the ancient painters draw multiple legs to suggest movement. The walls are scraped white, resembling the bones of some giant beast. Someone says it feels like the cave watches you. No kidding.

Now 3-D might sound like a perverse choice for a documentary dedicated to filming cave paintings, but it proves to be an inspired touch. The cave walls do not offer a level canvas. They are sheets of stone billowed by time, sometimes sharp and sometimes round but never even. The 3-D captures that fluid surface, offering a distinct and subtle sense of the way the paintings occupy space. These are not flat drawings, and cannot be filmed as such.

Who would have thought there could be subtlety to 3-D? If ever there was a film technology built in defiance of nuance, this is it. Even Herzog cannot avoid all the expected gaudiness of 3-D, what with the occasional spear or stalactite jabbing the viewer in the eye. He even has a bit of fun with the technology at one point, staging a first-person shot so that it appears hands are taking off our glasses (ha ha, good one, Werner). But the cave drawings, thankfully, do not jump off the screen. They seem to writhe on the cave walls, riding the contours of the cave as they would the hills of a landscape. If this technology lets us feel as if we could reach out and touch the screen, then these paintings remain hauntingly beyond our grasp.

Amusingly, 3-D may not even be enough for Herzog. In one of those touches that could only be called Herzogian, he pauses to film the silence of the cave, allowing us to take in the drips of water, that ominous slight whooshing noise—in short, a sense of a place that can, and for centuries did, exist without a human presence. And in another oddball choice, he invites a master perfumer into the cave to smell the air. Was smell-o-vision ever on the table as a possibility?

Never one to pass up an impossible quest, Herzog has found a grand one here: attempting to comprehend human minds some 30,000 years dead. It is, as he notes, much like trying to understand the hopes and dreams of everyone in New York using only the phonebook. Far removed from our ancient ancestors, we’re mutants from the future staring into the past, trying in vain to see a reflection of ourselves. And fittingly enough, we have our own mutant form of cinema to help us along.

One of the greatest absurdities of 3-D is that a technology supposedly meant to take film into the future instead looks constantly to the past. An old novelty made new, we’re supposed to be awed by something that was discarded decades ago. But its goals are noble, if misguided and finally corrupted by the commercial desperation of studios foisting the technology on an audience jaded by decades of familiar mediocrity (at least it offers filmmakers a new way to bore us). It wants to restore some sense of wonder to the audience, and take us back to the origins of cinema, when the spectacle of images on the screen was always enough to delight and amuse.

Consider one of the legends of early cinema: audience members leaping from their seats in shock at the sight of a train coming towards them in the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at a Station. Equally notable, if less known, is the fact that the Lumieres would remake the film in 1935 in 3-D. That train keeps coming at us, and we struggle more and more with every passing decade to feel the initial revelation that first roused us. After a certain point, you just give up and lie down on the tracks. What does it matter? It’s never going to arrive anyway.

Fortunately, Herzog does not give in so easily, and still strives to find new ways to stir us cynical audiences out of our detachment. In the film’s moving climactic sequence, Herzog falls silent and gives the film over to the paintings and Ernst Reijseger’s score. He pans slowly across the animals and lets the lights flicker and fade, evoking the torches that would have lit those images long ago. The combination of the 3-D and the shifting light gives a semblance of motion to the images. The animals prowl again in the half-light, if only for a moment. In these scenes, Herzog succeeds in taking us back to the origin of things—of film, of art, of what he terms the human soul. The cave becomes a primal cinema. The audience’s capacity for wonder, deformed by time and abuse, briefly flutters back to life.

Friday, September 2, 2011

You are Here


Do you suffer under the tyranny of Twitter? Is your life story written in status updates? Are your thoughts search engine optimized? When you picture the future, do you imagine Mark Zuckerberg’s sneaker stomping on a human face—forever? If so, you may find comfort in You are Here, Daniel Cockburn’s playfully puzzling debut feature. Perhaps best described as a droll philosophical sketch comedy, the film is an imaginative, often clever reaction to our crippling dependency on information technologies. Under Cockburn’s laser eye, the high-tech world becomes fodder for low-tech surrealism: an archive that may or may not be alive, a call centre that acts like an analog version of FourSquare, a devious genius that tricks the world into only seeing through his eyes (any similarities to the filmmaker are purely coincidental, I’m sure). Of course, it would be easy for a film about technology to turn cold and inhuman, but Cockburn wisely leaves room for the pathos of characters like the Archivist—a sensitive performance by the late, great Tracy Wright—who discover their individuality and free will slowly sapped away by the very systems meant to help them. The film offers two clear alternatives. Borne aloft by technology, we will either crash into the ground in a mess of hubris and silicon, or be carried further and further away from ourselves by our own devices. The film bets its money on the beyond, and it is not, I believe, an optimistic outlook. When our brains become but fleshy outlets for the app store, this film may be fondly recalled as the manifesto of the human resistance.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Submarine


Submarine begins, as these tales so often do, with a precocious, damaged boy lusting after a moody, damaged girl. You may momentarily confuse this with own your life, but I assure you that is purely an illusion borne out of repeated exposure to the legions of wounded young men who appear to grow on celluloid like some sort of fungus. Was that me or Max Fischer? Or Antoine Doinel? Maybe Leolo Lauzon? It can be so hard to recall where the screen ends and memory begins sometimes. The past is just tawdry details and still photos. Far more preferable to watch your childhood printed to film and projected in the dark, where you can’t see anyone wince at the embarrassing bits and the soundtrack is always better.

Nostalgia is a powerful seducer, and there’s nothing quite as seductive as feeling nostalgia for someone else’s childhood. All the best bits of adolescence are there to be enjoyed, all the worst laughed away—it’s not like they belong to you, after all. How remarkable it is then that Richard Ayoade manages to avoid this trap in Submarine, his able and charming debut. True, he swipes many of his best moves from the French New Wave, right down to the adolescent Anna Karina who sends our hero into a hormonal tizzy (even the typography appears to be borrowed from Godard). The whole film could easily turn into an overly mannered nostalgia trip—for childhood, for old French movies where angry young men hated the world and wanted to get laid, for Wes Anderson before he ditched Owen Wilson as his writing partner—but Ayoade’s dark wit keeps the film lively and surprising. Submarine is often beautiful and sometimes very funny, but no one is likely to wish this were his or her childhood.

For one thing, our precocious, damaged boy is actually something of a dick, as the film takes great pains to point out. Neurotic far beyond his years, 15-year-old Oliver Tate nervously monitors his parents’ marriage for signs of cracks. He even goes so far as to chart their sexual activities, where, it must be said, things look grimly flaccid. While envisioning the demise of his family unit, he throws himself into an adolescent affair with a coy pyromaniac named Jordana, only to abandon the girl as her mother undergoes life-or-death surgery. Even worse, he begins spying on his own mother, convinced she is having an affair with the ninja guru next door (turns out it was just a hand job, thank goodness). He even contemplates poisoning Jordana’s dog, partly to prepare her for the inevitably of death and loss, and partly to open up a chance to comfort her with some sweet, sweet, awkward teenage loving. Clearly, this is a disturbed child.

Does he mature in the end? Has he learned a lesson? I’m not optimistic, but I remain uncertain, which is a credit to Ayoade’s largely non-judgmental tone. He’s less concerned with navigating the rocky seas towards a dubious maturity than he is with blurring the lines between adolescent follies and adult mistakes. The director may grant these characters a kind of happy ending—not like the neighbour’s, I should add—but for a film that seems so soft on first brush there are a surprising number of barbed edges buried here. Chances are these people will go on wounding each other in new and different ways, held together only by the fact that some out there happen to love the things (or people) that hurt them. For all the film’s whimsy, there is a certain dark logic to this conclusion. Adolescence, after all, is a horrible parade of embarrassments and accidental cruelties. I’m not so sure about young love, but young masochism sounds pretty plausible to me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Another Earth


Deliberately—perhaps even desperately—stylish, Mike Cahill’s Another Earth tries in vain to hide a ridiculous plot and poorly conceived characters behind a lot of shaky-cam tomfoolery. Its most successful image is its simplest: a mysterious alternative version of the Earth that has appeared in the sky, lurking in the background like a watchful hero waiting patiently to swoop in and rescue the filmmakers from this mess of their own creation. And what a novel mess it is! Half Dardenne brothers’ moral drama, half Crisis on Infinite Earths, all wrapped up with a surprise! twist! ending! (tell your friends)—how many genres can a film fail in all at once? Brit Marling, who co-scripted with Cahill, stars as Rhoda, a young woman who killed two-thirds of a family in a car accident and now seeks redemption by posing as a maid for the survivor. In between doing the dishes and vacuuming, she daydreams of escaping to that alternate Earth, which remains little more than an underdeveloped distraction, one person’s vague sci-fi concept being another’s lazy plot device, I suppose. (A rocket to another planet means never having to say you’re sorry.) Key supporting characters include the mopey alcoholic crash survivor who seduces Rhoda with Wii boxing and musical saw, and a wisdom-dispensing janitor who pours bleach in his ears and eyes. Sound advice, under the circumstances.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


If you split the difference between the creepy weirdness of the original Planet of the Apes and the hollow slickness of Tim Burton’s remake, you might come up with something like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Rupert Wyatt’s reboot of the apparently venerable series is surprisingly modest, a rare summer epic that is actually human-scale—or ape-scale, perhaps. Usually once a budget hits a certain point, it’s all you can do to prevent a director from blowing up things willy-nilly, but Wyatt actually has a story to tell. A mediocre one, mind you, but still. Beginning as a loose remake of Frankenstein and ending as a catalogue of sci-fi movie clichés—pandemic paranoia abounds, as do sinister corporations with vaguely allusive names like GeneSys—the film throws together all sorts of inert elements in the vain hope of a reaction. Meanwhile, the human presence provided by actors like James Franco and Freida Pinto (speaking of inert elements) is all but nil, leaving all the film’s pathos to reside in Andy Serkis’ justly lauded motion-capture performance as the Ape Who Would Be King. The eerily life-like eyes of the digital apes are certainly impressive, but if the most expressive part of your film comes out of a computer program, something is definitely amiss. I know this is supposed to be a film about the downfall of our species, but is a little more humanity too much to ask?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Detroit Wild City


Detroit Wild City begins with a union leader lamenting that the city’s parking lots are now empty and overrun with grass. An optimist, on the other hand, might say the parking lot is half-full (of grass, that is). Filmmaker Florent Tillon takes just such an approach, pausing only briefly to eulogize the old Detroit before moving on to capture the new. He interviews residents who explore the ruins of the city, others who fight urban blight with house-crushing parties or turn empty lots into neighbourhood gardens. There’s a measured optimism to the film, but it goes beyond any hippie-scavenger utopian thinking about how nice it would be to raise chickens in abandoned tenements. As one speaker cautions, you can’t have an entire city living on the subsistence model—there’s only so much decay to go around, after all. Man does not live by rubble alone. If the film is about nature versus the city, consider the outcome a draw. Detroit, for all the damage done, is not yet some post-apocalyptic ghost town, but neither is it likely to revive to its former might. But then what will become of it? Wild packs of dogs roam the street. Falcons nest in empty towers. Yet people still gather in the park on Sunday to listen to a man sing how the blues makes him happy. Life, weirdly enough, goes on. The city doesn’t die, so much as mutate.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Meek's Cutoff


As desolate and deceptive as the barren Oregon plain where it is set, Meek’s Cutoff is about the perils of living on too much faith and too little water. In 1845, a small group of settlers place their confidence in Stephen Meek, a scraggly frontiersman of dubious merit and questionable hygiene. The water barrels fill with dust and trust turns to fear, leading the group to switch allegiances to a captured native who they hope will lead them to water. The choice facing the settlers is simple, and impossible: the cocky boasts and false promises of Meek, or the inscrutable silence of the Indian. Everything becomes defined by what it is not: Meek as not a guide, the Indian as not Meek. “Hell is full of bears, but there are no bears here,” Meek says, the implication being that this place, no matter how awful it seems, cannot be hell. But if not hell, then what?

Director Kelly Reichardt has made a name for herself as a specialist in small films with big implications, and Meek’s Cutoff is easily the peak of her career so far. There are obvious strains of political allegory (Meek will likely remind viewers of a certain beady-eyed Texan plutocrat), but the film’s strength lies in its terrifying ambiguities: a fleeting smile across the Indian’s face as the pioneers lose a wagon, the tree at the end that appears like a mirage. Is it a symbol of hope, or is that too obvious? Apparently so, because it turns out the tree of life is half dead. But the ending is Reichardt’s best trick. Every gift is a curse here, every promise a potential lie—especially the promise of resolution. (If you’re going in circles, where do you stop?) All we are given is a morose prophecy from Meek and a slow fade-out on oblivion. The trick is that even though we may never find out what happens to these characters, we already know where this trail leads. History picks up where the film leaves off.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Planet of the Apes


Torpid action-adventure, toothless satire, generic science fiction, take your pick—Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes aspires to all manner of mediocrity. Never really a master of the lunk-headed blockbuster, Burton is far from his strengths here, resulting in one of the most flat and hackneyed films this eccentric stylist has yet produced. But it’s hard to imagine any director coming up with much better based on such a slapdash script. Narrative logic has never been the purview of this franchise, but even for a movie with talking apes and time travel this is pretty incoherent stuff. The best you can hope for is some trace of anarchic gusto (see: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), but all you get are the clichés and tepid ironies that killed this series in the first place (see: Battle for the Planet of the Apes). Charleton Heston even appears briefly as a dying ape patriarch, which only reminds viewers of how uninspiring this rehash is compared to the loopy original (and didn’t he blow up the Earth in the second Ape movie just so he could get out of making these things anyway? Damn you! Damn you all, etc.). At least the original films had the Cold War and impending nuclear death to give some shape to their satire; like most modern blockbusters, this film’s vision only comes into focus when its eyes are locked on your wallet.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon


After the ill-advised detour into avant-garde abstraction that was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Michael Bay has decided to return to what he knows: guns, cars, and the poetry of the female form in its more malnourished state. Cobbler, stick to thy last.

The early scenes in Transformers: Dark of the Moon even resemble something almost like entertainment. Bay begins his latest trip to the toy box with a zippy burlesque of the space race, suggesting that America travelled to the moon to explore a crashed Autobot ship containing a wizened robot called Sentinel Prime, as well as some sort of spacebridge that could bring about the end of the world (as per usual). It’s still fairly stupid, mind you, but there’s a certain charm to this children’s matinee version of conspiracy theory paranoia. If nothing else, it’s a welcome break from the more tedious garden-variety stupidity that otherwise characterizes these films. Still, a familiar sinking feeling sets in by the time Optimus Prime, our hero, is saluted by Buzz Aldrin, appearing here in a cameo that suggests the astronaut pension plan must be in a pretty lousy state these days. Yes, it’s time for another two-plus hour epic of explosions interrupted only by broad, failed swipes at comedy and sonorous military speeches from a kid’s toy. Brace yourselves.

The cast is sadly more or less the same as previous films, once again headed up by eternally shrieking man-child Shia LaBeouf as Sam Witwicky. He’s supported by the usual mix of generic second-rate action heroes (Josh Duhammel, Tyrese Gibson) and slumming character actors most likely looking for a bit of street-cred with their teenage offspring (Frances McDormand, Johns Turturro and Malkovich). The one exception is Megan Fox, who was kicked out of the party during one of Herr Bay’s purges and whose career now bears the tragic distinction of having peaked with the second Transformers movie.

However, model Rosie Huntington-Whitely, making her first acting performance here as Fox’s replacement, unfailingly performs the function of an archetypal Michael Bay heroine, which is to say she’s capable of running through a war zone in four-inch heels. To her credit (or perhaps to everyone else’s demerit), she’s no discernibly better or worse than any of the experienced actors that surround her. Presumably, she also did not sass Bay whenever he would film her butt, so I guess we should applaud her professionalism or whatever you want to call it.

So: objectified women? Check. Anthropomorphic objects? Check. Human beings? Um…better start digging, because if there are any, they’re probably buried under several tonnes of CGI rubble and the air is getting thin. One of the more surreal qualities of a Michael Bay film is the way he injects bursts of emotion—explosions of sentimentality as random and jarring as the more traditional pyrotechnics—into an environment completely hostile to all human feeling. Aside from the expected dull inspirational speeches (“You may lose faith in us, but never in yourselves.” Uh, what?), this also means you’ll be routinely baffled by why any of these people should care about each other.

One particularly confusing instance comes with the random reappearance of Epps (Gibson), a minor, undeveloped character from the previous film that apparently has some sort of deep bond with Sam. Did they even talk in the last movie? Was all the male bonding implied? Did I just miss it? Was it somewhere behind the explosions, where we couldn’t see it? I started to wonder if the two actors were maybe confusing off-camera camaraderie with the on-screen relationship between their characters. I’m sure there must have been plenty of bonding time during the last movie while they waited at the craft service table as Bay tried to explain to Megan Fox the correct way to arch her back. Otherwise, I can’t see why the pair should be acting like old friends.

It’s a small sin, I suppose. None of this makes much sense, although the movie is clearly more coherent than its predecessor, even with its disjointed editing and countless useless little scenes that come from—and quickly return to—nowhere. But the core of the film is still pure incomprehensible gibberish, a mass of sci-fi clichés welded together with discarded auto parts. Apparently the Decepticons want to enslave the human race. I see several noteworthy flaws in the logic of the magical evil spacebots. Allow me to elucidate. First, they spend an inordinate amount of time vapourizing their coveted labour resource, which is never good business. Second, why would a race of giant, super-powerful robots with technology advanced far beyond ours need the primitive, puny, comparably weaker human race as slaves? Based purely on a size-ratio comparison alone, this is akin to humans enslaving mice. Now, I imagine with a bit of fortitude and ingenuity and maybe a few decades of work you could train a giant slave army of mice to, say, clean your toilet. Or you could simply do it yourself, which would take about one minute, or a little longer if you need to let it soak. What I’m saying is, just how lazy are these Decepticons? And exactly how credulous do we have to be to enjoy this nonsense?

But perhaps I’m being unfair. For all his notable failings here, Bay has actually shown marked improvement over Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Certainly, this movie is much less racist than its predecessor. The rather unfortunate robotic minstrel sideshow in the previous movie has given way to broader, more socially acceptable—if no less annoying—forms of comic relief. On the other hand, progress is a relative thing, considering this movie still refers to the Middle East as if it were a single country (you know, it’s the one filled with all the swarthy people who hate FREEDOM). And Bay seems to be working towards a clumsy form of narrative economy—perhaps intended to combat the bloated two and a half hour running time—by simply having minor characters say, “We’re dead,” thus sparing us the obligatory slow-motion tornado of junkyard scrap as they actually die.

What can I say? In something as regressive as this movie, you take your signs of progress where you can. Everything that happens feels like a salve for the wounded ego of an entitled post-adolescent male, here represented by Sam. Sure, he’s an unemployed, self-pitying schlub, but he deserves everything and more: the supermodel girlfriend with an inexplicably huge house, the best car, the respect and admiration of the entire world, you name it (see, Sam saved the world twice, and now he has to work an entry-level job right out of college, oh the humanity). When the Decepticons are about to execute Bumblebee, Sam’s Autobot buddy, the film displays what might be its one genuine flicker of emotion. How sad to think it comes when someone is faced with the prospect of losing his first car.

Are we seriously supposed to be moved by the petty insecurities of the privileged and the powerful? Look, I know everyone has their problems, and I don’t want to disparage the emotional suffering of anyone. But it’s hard to feel much empathy when it all comes couched in the crass objectification of women, tinged with homophobia—I didn’t even mention the mincing gay superspy—and filtered through a generally narrow-minded, hateful worldview (see previous paragraphs for the assembled evidence). Still, with a total of over $800 million in worldwide box office so far, Transformers: Dark of the Moon seems to be providing some kind of comfort for countless poor, suffering souls out there. Perhaps all they need is a kind voice to reassure them that they, like Sam, are indeed special and wonderful. And also, apparently, that Arabs are evil, homosexuals are gross, and women are fuck-holes. Sentinel Prime—thoughtful fellow, he—sums up the situation quite well: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” And then he blows up Chicago.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Small Soldiers


In 1998, the movie-going populace could easily be divided with one simple question: Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line? But there was always only one right answer, and that’s Small Soldiers. Joe Dante’s cutting satire shows up the hollow platitudes of its more prestigious war-movie brethren, all while conveying the simple joys of blowing shit up. As always, Dante is such an energetic entertainer that you sometimes forget he’s almost a better media critic than he is filmmaker (and he happens to be a very good filmmaker).

War becomes child’s play when a toy manufacturer unthinkingly installs some high-grade military tech into a new line of don’t-call-it-violence-call-it-action figures. These square-jawed grunts—known as the Commando Elite—are ostensibly heroes bent on hunting down the monstrous Gorgonites, a peaceful group that just wants to return to its homeland. These being little lumps of plastic, none of this should matter, but the military intelligence powering the toys also allows the commandos to learn and adapt. They grow more resourceful and increasingly vicious in their pursuit of the “Gorgonite scum.” When Alan, whose father runs a small toy store, gets his hands on an early shipment, he unwittingly unleashes a war on his own sleepy neighbourhood.

Actually, not just a war—Dante’s weird, wonderful comic imagination also runs amuck over this little suburb, spitting out all manner of wonky delights. Pop-culture references need not be dull, as a film like this proves. Every knowing reference comes wrapped in a layer of sardonic commentary. The score, for instance, cleverly parodies 1980s action movies by reworking the tune of “When Johnny Come Marching Home” with macho guitar-and-synth posturing. One of the film’s most indelible set-pieces is a double-tribute to Bride of Frankenstein and Gulliver’s Travels in which an armada of deranged, deformed dolls are brought to life, spouting cheery quips like “All my makeup is cruelty free” while threatening tied-up teenagers with nail files. Fever dream doesn’t begin to do justice to this stuff—it’s more like what you might dream up after snorting coke off the belly of a Barbie.

For all the goofy pleasures to be found here, there’s also something powerfully unnerving in the way Small Soldiers merges war movies with children’s entertainment. No one here wants to be a fun-killing scold and shield children from anything remotely upsetting—least of all Dante, I’m sure, whose films have always been happy exhibits of cartoon mayhem—but just what does this constant exposure to war iconography do to a child? For that matter, what does it do to the rest of us? Nothing makes the military-industrial complex quite so easy to swallow as a Burger King collectible cup. As we grow up steeped in images of war, the very idea of bloodshed loses something of its fundamental horror. What does the much-vaunted realism of a film like Saving Private Ryan matter in a world where real images of war are always at our fingertips? Only a stylized version of war, such as what Dante offers here, still maintains the power to upset and disturb. When reality ceases to shock, fantasy becomes the only way back into the world.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Tree of Life


The Tree of Life is pompous, self-indulgent, much too fond of its own flakey bullshit mysticism, not fond enough of coherent thought, and quite possibly the best film to be released this year. Terrence Malick gets full marks for ambition, even if he has to take a few deductions for the windy ending and bloated beginning of his cosmic memoir. But the film’s middle section, a tour de force that recounts the childhood of Jack, the eldest of three brothers, is one of the most lyrical evocations of adolescence yet to make it onto the screen. Just look at the montage of Jack’s earliest years, which turns the years to minutes and exemplifies the potent mix of nostalgia and dread that makes this film so hard to shake. Seen largely from the child’s perspective, images rush by: two sets of hands floating in a mirror, a man collapsing into seizure on the front lawn, light refracted through a mobile forming a dancing ghost on the wall. The whole world seems mysterious, terrifying and deeply wonderful. Malick, as ever, makes one very grateful for the simple pleasures of seeing.

Equally true to form, Malick also makes one much more ambivalent about the act of hearing. While the use of classical music is well suited to the material, the voiceovers remain ponderously poetic, pricking holes in the corner of scenes and slowly sucking the air out. Let the moments breathe, please. They’re so fragile they need all the oxygen they can get. Then, when the film finally screams out for some sort of context, the voiceovers fail us, and we are left drifting through Malick's subconscious doodlings with nary a whispered epigram for guidance. Suddenly, this humble family drama is tied to all history, including the birth of the universe, the creation of life, and two dinosaurs attempting to reenact “The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac” on a riverbed in the Mesozoic.

The juxtaposition of the grandness of all time with the smallness of our memories, the unity of all life into one great tapestry of pain and forgiveness: well, that’s just got to be more fun than Green Lantern, but does it actually hold together? Not quite, which makes this film as frustrating as it is pleasurable. Malick has set out to do nothing less than make a film capable of holding the entire universe. Unsurprisingly, he comes up a little short (I think he missed Pluto, understandably considering how tiny it is, all tucked away back there). Still, in these dire movie-going months, when so many big-budget beasts are too bloated and lazy to leap even the lowest hurdle to achieve mere mediocrity, there’s something noble in a film that sets the bar so high it can’t help but fail to ever jump over it. May we all fail so splendidly in our endeavours.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Third Man


Whenever and however I finally pack it in—the smart money’s on decapitation by the side mirror of a passing city bus, by the way—can I have The Third Man played at my funeral in lieu of a eulogy? No, it doesn’t sum up my life in any meaningful way. I never smuggled penicillin in post-war Vienna, wrote dime-store westerns nor, save for several magical weeks one long-lost summer, played female lead in a Germanic powdered-wig farce.

But is there any greater film about the art of saying—or not saying—goodbye? How many tickets out of town do you need before you finally leave? How many times must you bury your best friend before he finally stays dead? Is there really any such thing as a foolproof coffin? Somehow, the dead always find a way to get out and sneak back into our lives. Spiritually, The Third Man is the ancestor of every zombie film ever made.

The dead may rise, but as Orson Welles via Harry Lime says, they were probably happier dead anyway. And looking at the scarred Vienna captured so masterfully by Carol Reed, he might be right. You might not be able to leave once you arrive—as Harry’s friend Holly so comically discovers—but you certainly wouldn’t want to return once you escaped, whether it be by train, plane, or hearse. This city is a broken place, the kind of place where morality is a form of betrayal and even the children are willing to sell you out to the lynch mob. It’s a paranoid place, enlivened only by the occasional black comedy of Graham Greene’s hardboiled dialogue, which is so flinty it strikes sparks (“You were born to be murdered,” one character quips, summing up the general mood quite nicely). Yet somewhere between the canted angles and the zither score—jaunty, romantic and entirely sinister—a strange alchemy takes place. Having your heart crushed by this film again and again is an altogether intoxicating experience.

Just look into those eyes and try to resist. Any pair of eyes will do, for this is a film of faces. There are the famous ones, of course: Holly’s face (Joseph Cotton), weary and stupefied at the discovery of his friend’s crimes; or Anna’s (Valli), buried in her hands, tears rolling down her cheek as she clutches at the ghost in her heart. And when the shadows peel back, Harry’s face, carrying that simple, bemused smile at all of this misery. But there are also the faces of the people of Vienna, wizened and worn by years of war and hunger and terror. Reed returns to these faces repeatedly, punctuating scenes with their accusing eyes—the conscience of the film. Sad faces. Angry faces. Confused, numbed, stricken faces. “Look at yourself,” Anna says to Holly, “They have a name for faces like that.”

Er, is it Harry? At one point, Anna accidentally refers to Holly by his missing friend’s name, excusing her mistake with another insult. “Holly—what a silly name.” Not that Holly fares any better with names, constantly referring to the British officer Halloway as Hallohan (“I’m not Irish,” the man sniffs in reply). Is it a sign of the fundamental dishonesty of the place that no one seems able to master the simple act of direct reference? Or is the fact that no one seems to have bothered to learn any else’s name merely another side effect of the carelessness with which these people treat each other? If I don’t care whether you live or die, do I really care however the hell you pronounce “Winkel”?

That callousness informs the film from Harry’s rationalization of his crimes right down to that immortal final shot where Anna refuses to grant Holly the small comfort of acknowledgement, never mind forgiveness. She just walks down a lane that seemingly stretches into infinity, finally stepping out of sight behind the camera, where a better—if surely less beautiful—world must exist. She says not a word, allowing the headless trees and falling leaves to speak for her. But what use is goodbye? That’s why this film would serve as such a fine eulogy. When the time comes to truly part, irrevocably and eternally separate, the word means nothing. So no goodbyes, please. Give me a good movie and that’ll be enough. Just don’t forget to seal that coffin tight.