Friday, September 19, 2014

Recovery and detection in twelve uneasy steps

When we first meet Scudder (Liam Neeson) it’s 1991. Back then he was NYPD, with dyed moustache and goatee. He drinks a breakfast of coffee and two shots of whiskey in a bar that gets robbed. The robbers ice the barkeep. Scudder chases them down and disposes of them one at a time with a remarkably steady hand. There’s more to this part of the story but we don’t learn about it until later, when it’s 1999, Scudder’s handed in his badge, started up as an un-licenced private detective, given up booze and shaved off the ’stache and goatee, that combo having migrated to the faces of several heavies, among them millionaire criminal Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) and sadistic sociopathic serial killer Albert (Adam David Thompson). The 90s were difficult years for facial hair legitimacy. 

Yet, if A Walk Among the Tombstones is anything to go by, they were good years for literacy rates. This film, based on a 1992 novel by Lawrence Block, features a drug lord who chills on the sofa with some Nabokov, a homeless boy who hangs out in libraries and is well versed in his Dashiell Hammett, a cemetery groundskeeper toiling away at a novel, and another drug lord who names his dog Watson, no doubt in honour of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved narrator. I’m poking fun, but the truth is that it’s a perfectly pleasant conceit in a perfectly watchable, if gruesome, detective yarn, whose narrative style, for the record, is modelled most closely after Raymond Chandler: like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Scudder is usually one step ahead of us and rarely stops to explain what he’s doing. Like Marlowe, Scudder is also something of a romantic. Though evidence of the internet’s usefulness in detection is made obvious to him, Scudder, perhaps buying into the Y2K hype creeping into every third scene, is a devout technophobe, preferring old school methods. Besides, early on in Tombstones Scudder befriends and quasi-deputizes TJ (Astro), the aforementioned homeless child bookworm who knows his way around a search engine and helps save the day, not to mention his own skin, by dint of his early adoption of the mobile phone. 

The plot is about as complicated as gruesome detective yarn plots tend to be, but, in short, it involves a series of kidnappings of the loved ones of affluent criminal kingpins who, for the usual reasons, don’t want to go to the cops—so they go to Scudder, who doggedly tracks down the culprits between AA meetings, which come to assume a curiously ominous tone during the film’s protracted climax, which employs a liturgical reading of the 12 steps as a sort of underscoring for much bloodletting and comeuppance. This is veteran screenwriter Scott Frank’s second feature as director and he plays it fairly straight, though you get the impression he wishes the setting was 1979 instead of 1999, or that he was actually making the film in 1974 instead of 2014. Shades of William Friedkin loom. There are worse shadows you could huddle under for two hours.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

TIFF '14: Emotional weather report

Clouds of Sils Maria

Breaking from its customary early September chill, Toronto finally took revenge on the polar vortex. The highs were in the 30s. I would have under any normal circumstance savoured the pristine skies and hot sun, but I spent those days happily lost in the clouds. Clouds of Sils Maria, to be precise. My best consecutive three hours in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival included a relaxed, extensive interview over good coffee with the ever-engaged and engaging Olivier Assayas, Clouds’ writer and director, followed by a live, on-stage, career-surveying conversation between TIFF CEO and programmer Piers Handling and the luminous, fiercely intelligent Juliette Binoche, Clouds’ star and, to some extent, its subject. Clouds follows a successful French actress in middle age who accepts a role in a remount of the play that made her career. Except that where once she played the ingénue she’s now in the role of the older woman with whom the ingénue tumbles into a fiery erotic entanglement. Most of Clouds is set in a remote Alpine cottage where Binoche runs lines and runs into some eerily parallel relationship with her assistant, played a remarkably good Kristin Stewart. Elements of Persona hover over Clouds, but Assayas infuses the film with a strangeness and resonance entirely native to this particular story, its ghostly location, its lead actress and chief collaborator, and its sense of what it means to immerse oneself, at risk of losing oneself, in the liminal space between play and reality.

above: Foxcatcher 
below: Maps to the Stars

It is not lost on me that that last bit also summarizes the experience of attending a major festival like TIFF. Movies-movies-movies, interviews, prepping interviews, movies-movies, the hunt for free drinks, the remoteness of sleep or a balanced meal. Head in the clouds. No complaints. I’ve seen a number of good bigger films coming soon to a theatre near you. Foxcatcher fuses keyword elements from director Bennett Miller’s earlier features, Capote and Moneyball. Depicting the fateful convergence of multi-millionaire John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carrel, with prosthetics) and Olympic wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schwartz (Mark Ruffalo), it’s a true-crime sports movie, a critique of American entitlement blanketed from frame one in absolute inescapable dread. Speaking of dread, I’ve also seen pabulum disguised as humanist social study: Men, Women & Children, Jason Reitman’s ensemble drama about suburban white people sex lives in something dressed like the digital age, is not good, and unfortunately it is not not-good in the sort of hypnotically appalling way that Labor Day was not-good, or, rather, bad. Alas. The title suggests that it’s “for everybody.” I’ve also beheld the weirdness that is David Cronenberg helming a Hollywood satire. Julianne Moore gives a truly gutsy performance as a popular actress panicking in middle age (yes, there’s a few this year, and why not?) and Cronenberg makes this odd choice of project fascinatingly his own, but the script feels out-dated and unfocused. Of course, I’m probably still going to watch it several times. It’s Cronenberg. He’s never not-interesting.

above: The Princess of France
below: Jauja

But a perfect day at TIFF still speaks to me in Spanish. Or whatever that shushy variation of castellano is that Argentines speak. And man, can they speak. Most especially if they’re in a Matías Piñeiro movie. This charismatic, prolific and rather ingenious young porteño crafts taut, fluidly photographed films packed with incredible aural and visual density. The Princess of France is his third film to deposit fragmented Shakespearean comedies into a contemporary Buenoes Aires full of young people talking about love and reading and art-making. There is a tremendous amount of kissing in this dizzyingly cryptic but utterly delightful spin on Love’s Labour’s Lost. There’s also soccer, Schumann, and dancing in the dark. No such mirthful activities are to be found in Jauja, Liverpool director Lisandro Alonso’s wonderfully creepy and visually stunning chronicle of a doomed Patagonian exploration undertaken by a 19th century Danish engineer---played by Viggo Mortensen! He gets lost in the wilds searching for his errant teenaged daughter and speaks excellent broken Spanish with a Danish accent.

The Duke of Burgundy

But lets get back to the monarchy. If The Princess is easily one of this festival’s best films, The Duke of Burgundy is not too far behind in the ranking. Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland’s third feature is set in a world without men, a sly conceit that allows him to tell this tale of love-term love heightened then hampered by sadomasochism without the distraction of having to represent gender or homosexuality in a story that’s really about something else. Like Clouds, the film’s women interact with the mediating device of a kind of theatre, a script that dictates the narrative of their elaborate erotic fantasy life. The film generates suspense through the ambiguity of what’s scripted and what is, for lack of a better word, genuine. But to reduce The Duke of Burgundy to a story synopsis is to ignore what really animates Strickland’s fecund imagination. The film is rife with beguiling flurries of images of forests, lingerie and butterflies, with sounds of clocks, sighs, heavy heels on wood floors. It’s intoxicating, funny, bizarre, yet totally relatable. Yes, a love story, that evergreen of film types. 

Two Days, One Night

And then the weather turned. Midway through this year’s Toronto International Film Festival the rain came, the movie-interview-bad diet-scheduling nightmare-late party-general hustling regimen led to inevitable exhaustion and, in my case, a head cold. The temperature dropped 20 degrees in two days, but the cold that descended on Toronto and its thousands of cocktail dress-clad women was not enough to freeze out the big, bruised-heartedness of the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night, which finds Marion Cotillard, the Dardennes’ first movie star, marching doggedly under summer sun across Seraing, Belgium to convince her co-workers at a solar panel factory to give up their bonuses so she can keep her job. Brimming with sentiment yet fundamentally unsentimental, Two Days calls for but does not expect solidarity as it hurtles toward its inspired climax. 

above: Time Out of Mind
below: Heaven Knows What

Some of the underdogs represented at TIFF 2014 trumped Cotillard’s protagonist, who fears her family will be relegated to public housing, by not having housing at all! But while Cotillard-as-working class caused me not a momentary ripple of disbelief, it isn’t easy to get over the notion of Richard Gere as an alcoholic homeless man in Oren Moverman’s Critics’ Prize-winning Time Out of Mind. The hurdle is somewhat mitigated by Moverman’s choice to make virtually every cramped frame of his film a palimpsest of fences, bars, passing cars and other blurred foreground objects obscuring Gere. This shrewdly saturated mise en scène serves to remind of the invisibility of its central character, a non-entity with a hand out. I have all kinds of reservations, but the accrued loneliness of Time Out of Mind clung to me. The Safdie brothers’ Heaven Knows What is Time’s opposite: made with zero stars and little money, it follows a young homeless addict as she traipses New York, attempts suicide, gets high, screams and says “fuck” a lot. Its lead is, or was, a genuine homeless addict and author of the film’s source material. It’s an arresting film that goes nowhere. It feels fully derived from the real, though I’m not sure it gives the real anything back in return.

The Look of Silence

While we’re getting real, let me tell you about the greatest nonfiction film at TIFF, which may be the greatest nonfiction film of 2014, and is certainly part of one of the greatest nonfiction cinema projects of this century. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is a companion piece to last year’s The Act of Killing, but where that film explored Indonesia’s legacy of violence by getting intimate with those who did the killing in the anti-communist purges of the 1960s, this new film, an immersive study in reconciliation, fear and forgiveness, focuses on the victims, in particular one man, Adi, whose brother was mutilated and murdered. Adi is an optometrist and pays visits on his neighbours, some of them directly involved in the killing. He tests their eyes as well as their willingness to recognize their own heinous acts. Adi was at the screening I attended. I think the gravity of what he’s done with Oppenheimer must have hit him in a new way while watching the film with an audience of stunned foreigners. He was unable to even speak during the Q&A. This man’s courage is unbelievable moving to me. Oppenheimer’s achievement with these films will be discussed for many years to come.

above: Pasolini
below: Manglehorn

A very different sort of true story gets a curious workout in Abel Ferrera’s gorgeously photographed Pasolini, which stars Willem Dafoe as the late Italian polymath and cinematic provocateur. The film follows Pasolini on the final days of his life, which ended in brutal murder. The film also realizes fragments of two projects Pasolini would have made had he lived, and this aspect of Pasolini is a lot goofier. Maybe not as goofy as the streetdancers or the mime or the Harmony Korine-run massage parlour in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, but Manglehorn is supposed to be kinda goofy. Let’s call it a work of goofy beauty, a tale of longing and confusion in old age, featuring a brilliant, endlessly inventive central performance from Al Pacino as a Texan locksmith slipping into dementia. Pacino also slips into dementia and is also brilliant and inventive in Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, but that movie is a goddamned mess and a gross misreading of the Philip Roth source novel.

above: Sand Dollards
below: Goodbye to Language

The Japanese protagonist of Korean comic maestro Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom spends much of the film reading a book about the nature of time, probably not aware that as he waits to meet an elusive Korean woman he is himself in a strange, wonderful, chronology-defying little movie about the nature of time. Time weights heavily on Geraldine Chaplin in Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas’ excellent Sand Dollars, which finds Chaplin’s wealthy sextagenarian tourist falling perilously in love with a very young and lovely woman in the Dominican Republic. Time can be read and revered in the centuries-old architecture visited and pondered in La Sapienza, French director Eugène Green’s stirring story of remarriage. Lastly, time is chopped up, toyed with, stacked and elongated in Goodbye to Language, the enduringly iconoclastic Jean-Luc Godard’s clipped, playful 3D extravaganza. It was my last screening of TIFF 2014. To my surprise, it seemed every other person I know in Toronto was there and eager to discuss and laugh and decompress afterward, a reminder that for all the pomp, red carpets and tiresome Oscar buzz, film festivals are at their best when they serve to create communities of people who cherish cinema as a shared experience.   

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

From him to eternity

There’s a scene in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s remarkable feature debut in which the hero, a songwriter and musician reflecting on his life and work as he goes about his business on his 20,000th day (that makes him 54, for those accustomed to measuring in years), explains to a friend (or maybe a ghost), a popular character actor close to him in age, that, for a rock star, the idea of artistic self-reinvention isn’t an option. A rock star needs to appear as unchangeable as a god, the hero says, a cartoon you can sketch with a single line. The music itself can be fearsome in its scope and complexity (something that the hero articulates beautifully throughout the film), but the rock star needs to be simple, an icon, a conduit.

One of the things I loved about 20,000 Days on Earth is the way the film’s very existence belies its hero’s philosophy. With its highly creative approach to biography, this film, which we might erroneously call a music documentary, uses artifice to generate a domestic intimacy that starkly contrasts the hero’s carefully sculpted persona. That hero, of course, is Nick Cave (or Nick Cave offering us some version of Nick Cave), in my estimation one of the greatest living songwriters. (Some of those songs: ‘Tupelo,’ ‘The Mercy Seat,’ ‘From Her to Eternity,’ ‘Do You Love Me?,’ ‘Red Right Hand,’ ‘Straight To You,’ ‘Into My Arms,’ ‘Far From Me,’ ‘Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow,’ ‘Higgs-Boson Blues.’) Along with his band, the Bad Seeds, Cave is also of the most electrifying performers I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness. I’ve been going to Cave concerts all my adult life and he’s never been anything less than godlike, or devil-like, while his songs speak of love and death, fury and fear, desire and madness in ways that are strewn with details taken from lived experience. The best ones feel unmistakably mortal. That frisson between myth and reality is exhilarating and moving and supplies the current that runs through this film.

Once an apparent antisocial maniac with a fiendish double-focus on his career and drug habit (the latter somehow never overwhelming the former), Cave has aged into a studious craftsman with a life regimented by work and family. “At the end of the 20th century I ceased to be a human being,” he states in the film’s deadpan voice-over, by which he means that his every day is a routine: wake, write, eat, write, watch TV. We see Cave traverse Brighton, UK, where he now lives, by car, to go to his office to write; to go the studio to record; to visit his archives; to not-eat with his friend, band-mate and fellow Australian Warren Ellis; to attend sessions with a psychotherapist who looks like a caricature of Michel Foucault. As Cave drives old friends appear and then disappear in the passage seat: actor Ray Winstone, ex-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, and singer Kylie Minogue, who once did a duet with Cave (‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’) that briefly inched him and the Seeds into the mainstream. Cave converses candidly with these apparitions—and he often smiles! He wears a suit, resembling a sort of gangster, though with sunglasses on he can look like an emaciated Neil Diamond. He eats pizza and watches Scarface with his boys. He tells an amazing story about sharing a bill with Nina Simone, whose used chewing gum Ellis still owns. He lays down tracks for his most recent record, the hauntingly stripped-down, smoke-like-spooky Push the Sky Away.

Some of this will hold a special appeal for those of us who’ve long been under the spell of Cave and the Seeds, but 20,000 Days on Earth will engage any viewer with an interest in what it means to be an artist with enduring ambitions and a long career. Cave speaks eloquently and humbly about collaboration, memory, fame, formative experience, the essential not-knowingness of creativity, geography-as-destiny, how experience is transformed into art, how things we can’t believe in in our everyday lives become integral to our storytelling. Perhaps out of a desire to match the drama of a great Cave tune, Forsyth and Pollard end the film on a somewhat corny note, but I find this forgivable, because in getting there they’ve done something few films do: they get at truths by telling the right lies, and they peer behind the artist’s mask to examine the lines in his face, without ever losing sight of the fact that neither mask nor face exists without the other’s secret adherence.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Two kinds of love

We meet Robert (John Cassavetes) first, a novelist living in a spacious Hollywood Hills manor. He has many women around him, most of whom we won’t come to know, all of whom were pulled into Robert’s orbit by way of his stated determination to be granted women’s secrets, though whether this mission is for the sake of his art, a pick-up line, or both, is hazy. He’s middle-aged going on dead, divorced and estranged from his children, a hard-living, alternately charming and terrifying figure closing in on the final stages of some slow collapse. 

Sarah (Gena Rowlands) is Robert’s sunnier, manic counterpart, a woman resisting divorce from a man who, like her daughter, cannot endure her aggressive affections. Sarah doesn’t believe that love ebbs, ends or gets stopped up—love, once born, flows helplessly. Her psychiatrist tells her to get laid, maybe go on a trip; she does both, but really just wants to get back to the people who don’t want her. More than halfway into Love Streams (1984), Sarah and her copious luggage wind up at Robert’s, and their reunion is wonderfully moving. At some point we realize that Robert and Sarah are brother and sister, which feels odd, even disconcerting, since we might already know that Cassavetes and Rowlands were not only one of the movies’ great director-actress pairings, but also husband and wife. Jon Voigt was to play Robert, and when he dropped out at the last minute Cassavetes, already very ill from cirrhosis of the liver, stepped in. He’s falling apart and absolutely brilliant, on par with Rowlands, which is a huge compliment. 

Love Steams was Cassavetes penultimate and last truly personal work—he died in 1989. Now available in a gorgeously transferred, generously supplemented DVD/BD package from Criterion, the film is a masterpiece of finely managed chaos; hilarious, seemingly haphazard, yet fascinatingly structured, it feels more alive with love and loneliness and mystery than any three-hundred other films. Among the extras are Michael Ventura’s making-of documentary I’m Almost Not Crazy and interviews with producer/cinematographer Al Ruban and actors Seymour Cassel and Diahnne Abbott, all of which offer tremendous insight into Cassavetes’ process. There’s also a very good visual essay on Rowlands by critic Sheila O’Malley. 

Meticulously stylized and colour-coordinated, Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) would seem about as far from Cassavetes’ rough and tumble maundering as can be, yet these films share a remarkably similar theme: once touched by love, crazy people will do anything to be together. Upon his release from a psychiatric hospital, Ricki (Antonio Banderas) immediately seeks out Marina (Victoria Abril), a recovering addict and actress transitioning from porn to B-movies. Ricki escaped the hospital and had fleeting sex with Marina some years back. She doesn’t remember it, but it changed his life. Ricki was cured by his love for Marina, or rather, by his obsession. Or not cured exactly, but saved. Or not saved but liberated. And so he breaks into her home, knocks her unconscious and sequesters her until she realizes that they’re meant to be together. And, in a perverse twist that only Almodóvar could conceive of, much less pull off, she does realize it. 

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is about half-screwball comedy and half-post-Hitchcockian romance. It careens between masterfully crafted artifice and moments of arresting intimacy. Banderas and Abril exude a frenetic chemistry and an innate understanding of the essential absurdity and dictatorial nature of high desire. The film was enormously controversial and also happens to be one of Almodóvar’s masterpieces. It too is newly available from Criterion.