Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wrong man, washerwoman, murderer, archduke, baronette, pin cushion, puppet: Essential Art House Volume IV

A little film festival captured in a starkly handsome black box,
Essential Art House Volume IV contains a diverse selection of titles, some previously available on the Criterion label and some new to DVD, some familiar and some forgotten, nearly all of them absolutely worth the attention of any hungry film lover.

Is there any film more relentlessly entertaining that
The 39 Steps (1935)? I considered not bothering to watch it again for this piece, but I couldn’t resist. Alfred Hitchcock’s breathless adaptation of John Buchan’s novel travels light, with its hero, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), an ordinary tourist turned wanted man with perhaps the cinema’s least convincing Canadian accent, going from a London theatre, where a riot breaks out over some guy’s demands to know the age of Mae West, to his apartment, where he fries up a giant haddock for a soon-to-be-dead lady spy while smoking a cigarette, to a train bound for Scotland, where a brassiere salesman shows his wares, to a Highlands farm, where he evades capture with the aid of a heartbreaking Peggy Ashcroft, to… Oh, just watch it already, whether for the first or fourteenth time.

Adapted from Émile Zola’s 1877 novel
L’Assommoir, Réne Clément’s Gervaise (56) chronicles the titular Parisian washerwoman’s struggles with poverty, physical handicaps, gossipy women, small business management, motherhood, slovenly alcoholic men, the impossibility of class advancement, and burning desire. It’s brilliantly rendered, with exteriors that recall Cartier-Bresson, a series of ordinary tragedies exacerbated by stubborn pride, and several extended sequences, such as a riotous cat fight involving buckets of water, and ending with naked ass-spanking; a noisy, working class wedding party’s impromptu visit to the Louvre in their muddied boots and skirts; and a gloriously carnal dinner party centered around the consummation of an enormous goose that culminates in a most unexpected confrontation between Gervaise’s former and present lovers. The portrait of a busy household teeming with scruffy kids and merrymakers who seem determined to stay together no matter how absurd the circumstances seems to look forward to John Cassavetes’ unruly ensemble works, though Cassavetes would surely have had that goose wind up on the floor. The conclusions the film draws are bleak as can be, but it remains insistently alive throughout, thanks in no small part to Maria Schell’s captivating and heart-rendering performance as Gervaise, teary-eyed over her goose, longing for the blacksmith she can’t possess, or singing ‘Let Me Sleep’ to a mass of friends huddled in silence around a table. Wonderful.

Can’t say the same of Le Jour se lève (39), much as I truly wanted to. It’s ultra fatalistic, was directed by Marcel Carné, stars the effortlessly charming Jean Gabin, is considered a prime example of poetic realism, and the filmmakers were so hardcore—or, you know, stupidly reckless—they used real bullets in one scene. For all that, this flashback film attempting to understand what drove Gabin to murder a guy underwhelmed me with its fairly banal conclusions about human weakness, its quaintness with regards to romantic love, its lack of any real comment on class, and its lapses in logic—is it me or are the trigger-happy, teargas-wielding police who besiege Gabin’s apartment overreacting just a touch?

Anatole Litvak’s
Mayerling (36), based on Claude Anet’s play Idyll’s End, is a heady French romance concerned with the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum, detailing the overpowering attraction between the Archduke Rudolph, heir to the Austrian throne, and the teenage daughter of a Baron. Rudy’s a married playboy shackled to the dictates of his pivotal political position, permitted nearly every indulgence but genuine freedom and the ability to take a bride of his choosing. Embodied by Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux, who would later reunite for Max Ophüls’ masterpiece The Earrings of Madame de… (53), the lovers are nearly drowned by the almost endless parade of opulence and activity, including a puppet show, a game of ring-tossing around the necks of swans, a ballet, a grand ball, and a wild, hedonistic party that finds the Archduke pouring booze over the bosoms of many fetching ladies and finally shooting his mirror reflection. Yet the moments Boyer and Darrieux do share are appropriately fleeting and delirious, all glinting eyes and sudden realizations delivered in long dissolves and fluid montages.

The films in Essential Art House Volume IV would seem to have no special connection save their revered status, but I couldn’t help but note that the majority of them feature a climactic death scene played out in the first rays of dawn. This includes a film that boasts what’s surely one of the great bravura movie deaths ever, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (57), his inspired, deeply eerie, fog-enveloped adaptation of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, which ends with Toshiro Mifune flailing hysterically through his fortress under a hail of arrows that turn him into a human pin cushion. It should be a perfect place to end this series, except that I still haven’t gotten around to Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann (51), their adaptation of the Offenbach opera, which—here’s a weird fact for you—just happens to be George Romero’s favourite film. I still have to watch it, but I’m almost certain there are no zombies anywhere in the movie.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Heavy weather: Three Monkeys

The family lives in an apartment block so tall and emaciated as to look unfinished and precarious. Their dining room boasts a spectacular view of the Bosporus, yet its waters are choppy and forbidding, and between it and the building lie a freeway and railway, whose pedestrian underpass casts jagged shadows on its users. The story begins with an accident caused by a Turkish politician, and the politician persuading his driver Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) to take the rap, a year’s stretch at most, with a substantial reward at the end of it. Such negotiations have a tendency to proliferate, so while Eyüp’s imprisoned his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan), concerned for their son Ismail (Rifat Sungar), who’s seemingly unable to find work or get into university, comes to the politician’s office asking for an advance. The politician names, or rather implies, his price, and perhaps Hacer was hoping for such a discreet agreement all along. But what will happen when Eyüp comes home?

Co-scripted with the director’s wife Ebru Bilge Ceylan and actor Ecran Kesal, who plays the politician, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys (Üç maymun) weds the contemporary image and atmosphere-rich European art film with the fundamentals of film noir. Unlike Christian Petzold’s Jerichow, rooted in James M. Cain, or Béla Tarr’s The Man From London, taken from Georges Simenon’s novel, Three Monkeys does not, so far as I can tell, have a single overt source, though there are intriguing echoes of The Reckless Moment and The Deep End, both adaptations of the same Elisabeth Sanxay Holding story. Unlike most films noir, Three Monkeys doesn’t evoke desperation through taut pacing, neurotic framing, or heated verbal exchange. In keeping with Ceylan’s distinctive style, the film above all broods luxuriously, in sumptuous digital images of looming storms and scenes sodden with unease and suspicion, imbued with an aquatic tinge that renders everyone victims of motion sickness.

Several sequences feel incidental while underway, yet everything counts at the end of Ceylan’s karmic equation, even Hacer’s comical ringtone. Much is destined to remain unresolved however, particularly once the stream of water imagery is completed by visits from the ghost of a drowned child. There are these two turning points for Hacer, wordless, nearly static moments in which a decision is made, one where she comes home, slumps in a chair, and flips off her shoe, another where she lies on her bed having been mauled by her angry husband, wearing lingerie that’s red and transparent, while a gust of wind balloons the curtain. It says a lot about Ceylan’s approach, and about the potency of Aslan’s screen presence, that both moments are pretty riveting. Ceylan, who is also a photographer, could be seen as bearing a kinship with the late Michelangelo Antonioni, in that landscape, weather and architecture play such a central role in his method of storytelling. Yet rather than exclude nuanced performance, this method depends utterly on actors who can deliver heaps of drama with a glance or a gesture. And despite a narrative that can at times teeter on a sort of bleak math, the cast of Three Monkeys delivers in spades.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Soul Power: the other rumble in the jungle

The concert was held in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Congo) back in 1974. It was intended to coincide with the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” that eventually found its way onto the big screen in Leon Gast’s superb 1996 documentary
When We Were Kings. Foreman was injured and the fight was delayed, but the concert went ahead anyway. If you share something of my personal musical inclinations—shit, if you share an interest in great popular music at all—you were probably watching Kings and thinking to yourself how all this Ali and Foreman footage and all this commentary from Norman Mailer and Spike Lee is totally awesome and everything, but where the hell is James Brown, y’all? Jeffrey Levy-Hinte must have been thinking the same thing. He found the footage of that concert and the build-up to it and assembled some dazzling fragments into a parade of musical bliss called Soul Power.

B.B. King

Miriam Makeba

The line-up was conceived, as a celebration of both African and African-American music—and it should be stressed that when we say African-American we’re referring to the Americas, not just to our immediate neighbours to the south. So Miriam Makeba works the same stage as Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars. Manu Dibango sweats it out before the same ecstatic crowd as B.B. King and Bill Withers. And did I mention James Brown? Sure, the integrity of the event’s mandate toward unity within the African diaspora may be somewhat tainted by its having been financed under the auspices of Liberian investors and Zaire’s totalitarian, kleptocratic dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, or by the less-than-honourable interests of money-gobbling fight promoter Don King, but the integrity of the music itself is beyond question. Its overwhelming energy, combined with not uncomplicated messages of personal and political empowerment, its genre-dissolving funk soup and soulful primacy that transcends the disparate lifestyles of those in both the affluent and third world, collude to form a resounding statement about the state of global culture in the mid-70s, which remains a watershed moment in popular music and black power. Compressed as it necessarily is,
Soul Power has a few issues to nitpick over, but none of them have to do with the excitement generated by the musical performances.

Ali, Bill Withers, Don King

Celia Cruz shakes on a plane

Some fascinating early scenes convey a sense of just how difficult it is to organize an event of this magnitude in a developing country, yet the party starts before the musicians even arrive. A terrific sequence finds a bunch of them jamming on the plane during the flight over, with Cruz making a groove just by knocking a plastic cup on the upper luggage rack. Another sequence showcases the excellent local bands setting up their equipment on Kinshasa downtown corners for the best street performances you’ve never seen. Ali turns up a lot, of course, hugging Brown on the tarmac, dumping buckets of sugar into his coffee, and riffing gloriously and vainly on notions of homecoming, cultural repression and personal freedom for the cameras, while Don King makes a grand appearance wearing his electro-shocked ’fro and one ugly motherfucking jacket. There’s a lot of talk about the meaning of the event and the importance of development and financial reform by numerous spokesmen, though it finally Brown cuts to the chase with wry comments like “You can’t get liberated broke.”

Cruz with Fania All Stars band leader Johnny Pacheco

Brown and the JBs

Brown’s climatic performance, so athletic and frenetic, with that big-ass fuzzy moustache and jumpsuit with an acronym for Godfather of Soul etched across the sexiest male potbelly in showbiz history, with an electrifying JBs—featuring ace saxophonist Maceo Parker—backing him up, is magnificent, and ‘Cold Sweat’ a major highlight of the film. Yet the acts leading up to his appearance are often just as sublime. Bill Withers’ supplies a moving, stripped-down rendition of ‘Hope She’ll Be Happier.’ Makeba, sporting a weirdly elegant fauxhawk, performs ‘The Click Song.’ And there’s something positively cruel about our only song from Cruz being a knockout ‘Quimbara’ (as though Cruz knew any other way to do it). To really give a more penetrating sense of just how diverse and dynamic those three days of music really were, Soul Power simply needs a lot more soul music, more than its 93 minute running time can handle. So I’m crossing my fingers in the hopes that Mongrel will cough up a DVD with lots and lots of extra performances. (Hint, hint.) In the meantime, you don’t want to miss any chance you might have at enjoying Soul Power on the big screen, however truncated its musical bits may be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Don't worry, this'll only hurt for about 88 minutes

If you’re dying to know what it might be like to see a movie made entirely by robots you could do worse than
Surrogates. This new Disney product is top to bottom a sleek, smooth and fully deodorized work, completely devoid of such pesky eccentricities as can occasionally spontaneously pop out of the human imagination. There’s an early scene where a boy FBI robot (a wigged and air-brushed Bruce Willis) and a girl FBI robot (Radha Mitchell, looking rather like Rebecca De Mornay) question a robot while another robot looks on. It’s like an interrogation scene played out between cucumbers, except not so lively. Or funny. Once an actual human or two enters the picture, with Willis receiving his requisite ass kicking quickly enough, things only get slightly more animated.

Surrogates is based on a comic book and adapted for the screen by Michael Ferris and John Brancato, both of whom worked on the last couple of Terminator flicks, which surprisingly weren’t enough to dissuade anyone to keep these guys away from more robot movies. Artificial intelligence is a subject that in theory lends itself to any number of provocative, thoughtful stories, yet it so rarely yields anything above a dim-witted extrapolation of Frankenstein or Blade Runner. In imagining a near future where everyone stays home and has their robot surrogate—usually a younger, blander version of themselves—go out and do everything for them, Ferris and Brancato, in league with T3 director Jonathan Mostow, convey a truly astonishing lack of interest in their scenario’s consequences. And if we can agree that science fiction requires a modicum of plausibility to counterbalance the fantastical, these boys are barely showing up to work. The opening flurry of boilerplate newscast exposition informs us that 98% of the global population is using surrogates. That’s right, Tibetan monks, Bangladeshi disaster victims, underpaid Peruvian coffee growers, homeless guys living under bridges, nomadic Kazakh goat herders subsisting without electricity or running water—all of them are plugged in, kicking back and having their robot doubles plow the fields, get laid, breakdance, and take out the trash. This is when ignorance becomes offensive. I don’t think 98% of the world’s population even owns a fucking radio.

Man, I wish I were in La Jetée, or at least 12 Monkeys.
Maybe a tanning bed.

The story as such concerns an investigation into a murder enacted with a secret zap gun that fries a surrogate’s insides so fast that I guess it somehow gives the same jolt to its human counterpart. Or something. Anyway the victim’s the son of the original surrogate inventor (James Cromwell), who now holes up in his mansion and is clearly up to no good. Bruce decides to rough it and try first-hand experience again after his surrogate is blown to bits following a chopper crash into the inner-city fortress of a band of anti-surrogate insurgents, all of whom, for some reason, are unpleasant, overweight, unshaven, and dress like pissed-off hillbillies. They’re led by Ving Rhames, dolled-up like a Rastafarian mystic, but there’s something fishy about him, too. So we sit patiently and wait for all the drearily predictable plot twists to play out, building to a climax that offers the one genuinely nifty sequence in the whole movie, with dozens upon dozes of life-size Kens and Barbies collapsing in the streets like they’re reenacting that Radiohead video where they guy can’t get up. Think how much better the movie could have been had it started there.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Father, son, and holy terror: Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro

Nick Cave, with friend

It begins with a sudden, shuddering, wholly irrational yet undeniable awareness of encroaching doom, Nick Cave’s chronicle of a death foretold letting us in on its ending from the title on down, so we can better appreciate the particular strange, sordid path it takes to get there. The Death of Bunny Munro is Cave’s second novel, his first in the 20 years that have passed since the publication of his debut And the Ass Saw the Angel. This one could be titled And the Asshole Saw the Angel of Death. Bunny’s uncharacteristic vision of oblivion—he’s normally the optimistic type—arrives not in the midst of some serene moment of contemplation but rather in a rented room at the Grenville Hotel, where he lingers in his underwear, drunk, with a prostitute standing by as he tries to placate his wife over the phone, who’s upset because among other things a madman’s running loose somewhere in England, wearing devil’s horns, and savagely attacking women. As his wife airs her fears, Bunny can see CCTV footage of the maniac on the telly. He’s not sure what to make of the guy, but as his story unfolds, we’ll come to see the horned killer as the flamboyant manifestation of Bunny’s Id, his even darker double, deprived of the most basic social skills that even Bunny can boast of, running rampant. The men represent two different kinds of ladykiller. “Some part of Bunny takes all this personally, but he is not sure why.”

Bunny is a salesman of high-end beauty products. His favourite radio program is Woman’s Hour, which he regularly, stupidly quotes when addressing his uniformly female clientele. Virtually everything in Bunny’s life is calibrated to yield more sex. His way with the ladies is perhaps hard for some of us to understand, “but there’s a pull, even in his booze-blasted face, a magnetic drag that has something to do with the pockets of compassion that form at the corners of his eyes when he smiles, a mischievous arch to his eyebrows and the little hymen-popping dimples in his cheeks when he laughs.” In short he is a devoted sexual predator, probably a genuine sex addict—rather unusually for a middle-aged man, he seems to have a hard-on all the time—and he uses whatever tools lay at his disposal to satisfy his need, which creepily enough is not so much for women per se as for their reproductive organs. Some of his buddies describe themselves as tit-men or leg-men, but Bunny is a dyed-in-the-wool vagina man. He fantasizes about vaginas, or even just clitorises, free-floating in space or collected in a little matchbox. He’s especially interested in celebrity vaginas, and has a special thing for Kylie Minogue and Avril Lavigne (who both receive special apologies in the postscript). In waves of inspired perversion and grotesquerie, Cave has accessed the murkiest, most reptilian depths of the male psyche to create this idiot monster. Not as monstrous as, say, the eponymous protagonist of ‘Stagger Lee,’ one of the most irresistibly sick songs in the mighty canon of Cave’s recording career with the Bad Seeds, but you can see how the two might get on together.

Cave, working at his day job

The novel follows Bunny from the discovery of his desperately unhappy and neglected wife’s suicide through his resolution to get right back to work selling and screwing, taking his young, helplessly dad-adoring son, little Bunny Junior, out of school and along for the road trip. What makes The Death of Bunny Munro palatable, even transcendent in its way, is firstly the brilliant, frequently hilarious wit, on par with the best early novels of Martin Amis, who’s crafted a few truly despicable protagonists of his own in his time; secondly its willingness to really sink into an explore Bunny’s sad little soul and seek out the parts of it that eerily reflect something in virtually all men; thirdly, the presence of Bunny Junior, genuinely innocent and wracked with a mixture of wonderment and grief; and fourthly, Cave’s already legendary facility with language. He’s often said that prose, as well as screenplays—he scripted John Hillcoat’s superb 2005 outback western The Proposition—are actually far easier for him to write than song lyrics, which demand a compaction that challenges Cave’s natural inclination toward storytelling, baroque description, and elaboration. His songs are littered with a dizzying array of characters immersed in private worlds of violence, madness and heartache. All three of these feature prominently in his new novel, even the latter, since, while he can hardly make any sense of it, Bunny does seem to miss his dead wife, is literally haunted by her. To say the very least, it’s tough to like Bunny, but it’s tougher not to become engrossed in his tale.

The novel was prompted by Hillcoat’s suggestion that Cave write him a new screenplay. The screenplay quickly became something else, but its origins are detectable in its engaging use of present-tense, and its forward motion. (Oddly enough, there are some fundamental similarities between this story and that of Hillcoat's new film The Road.) It’s also consumed with visuals, Bunny’s attention to minute physical details, even nail polish; Bunny Junior’s attention to all the strange things he encounters on his journey that need interpreting, usually with the aid of his trusty child’s encyclopedia; and Cave’s attention to the spoils of popular culture cluttering contemporary England. It all winds up to a bizarre, entertainingly hallucinatory finish, which also bears a certain cinematic flourish, though it reminded me most readily of the flipped-out ending of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic television series Berlin Alexanderplatz, which Cave is a confessed fan of. (There's even an appearance from a moustahced musician character that could be a Cave stand-in, aligning things even further to Fassbinder's hilarious cameo in the last episode of Alexanderplatz.) Cave has also said he’d like to see The Death of Bunny Munro made into a television series, something that would allow for more expansive character development. But in the meantime the novel has already spread beyond the confines of the page and can also be found as an audiobook, read by Cave, with music by Cave and Bad Seed/Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis, and an iPhone application, in which you’re supposed to be able to actually see Cave read you the book. “Which all sounds like fucking nightmare to me,” Cave quipped at a recent bookstore appearance I managed to catch in Toronto. But that’s hardly a dissuasive sales tactic. Cave’s been serving up his nightmares for public consumption for 30 years now, and there’s a great many of us who still can’t get enough of them.

Monday, September 21, 2009

TIFF '09: "To exist clearly, and to do so without thinking about it..." Two films about beautiful and mysterious women

Okay, beautiful, mysterious, and wearing great shoes!

When Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours began making the rounds a few years ago it was met with a resurgence of interest in the world’s oldest filmmaker. The homage, or rather sequel, to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour, in which Michel Piccoli revisits his role as Henri Husson, worked as an introduction to Oliveira’s work for an uninitiated generation of filmgoers. But its investment in its source material was at times as slight, or even superficial, as it was basically lovely. The appearance of his latest film, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, as well as the Cinematheque Ontario’s upcoming Oliveira program is an encouraging sign that Belle Toujours wasn’t a mere one-off in terms of the 100-year-old auteur’s circulation. This new work, while featuring numerous similarities to Belle—including a framing device that might even be a very subtle homage to Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire—is arguably more indicative of the particularity and breadth of Oliveira’s aesthetic and thematic concerns. It’s also an absolute delight.

A young man begins to recount a tale of personal tumult to a woman on a train, who incidentally may be blind, given that she always seems to be staring blankly off to the side of the young man’s face. He speaks of a beautiful young woman whose figure he first found fondling a flamboyant oriental fan in the upstairs window across the street from his office. There is a seduction, buoyed by a harpist and the recitation of a poem by Pessoa. Somehow the girl responds and encourages him while remaining always distant and mysterious. The young man falls in love, but his uncle and employer won’t give their marriage this blessing, and the young man is without savings of his own. As the story unfolds with Oliveira’s characteristic economy, a great deal of pleasure is to be taken in the simple act of looking, through windows and doorways, through mirrors, at grand vistas of the city under sunlight and shadow. But
Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl distrusts appearances just as it celebrates the undeniable pleasure appearances give. The eccentricities turn out to be perilous. And perhaps the woman on the train makes an ideal audience for the young man’s tale, since, if she is blind, she’s less likely to be seduced by the visible.

Equally mysterious to those around her, virtually all of whom adore her, is the titular character of Rebecca Miller’s
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, though the film makes her somewhat less so for those of us privy to Pippa’s inner world. Swaying between the present and the past, Miller, adapting her own novel, displays her almost singular gift for crafting portraits of women with secrets, with a quiet yet tremendous capacity for change and adventure, and who can act impulsively, even audaciously or cruelly, without apologies.

The present-tense Pippa is brilliantly portrayed by Robin Wright Penn, who does a remarkable job of containing herself around others while also exposing fragments of her true self for the camera alone. The way director and star collaborate here is a wonder in itself, as is the performance Miller gets out of the top-of-his-game Alan Arkin, here playing Pippa’s much older husband. But the film still suffers somewhat from the neglect of supporting characters—Winona Ryder’s part is a comic shambles, Maria Bello’s is gravely overwrought—and a glib finale that promises freedom without complication. It reaffirms that I’ll happily watch anything Miller does, but I’m still holding out for something from her that takes this refreshing approach to character and pushes it to its fullest extent. Watch for an odd little cameo from Princeton philosopher Cornell West.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

TIFF '09: "Without patience you can't be a fisherman..." Two new films from Mexico

My most treasured discovery at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival came from Mexican filmmaker Rigoberto Pérezcano, whose previous film,
XV en Zaachila, was, quite tellingly, a documentary. Northless, co-written by Pérezcano with his producer Edgar San Juan, is imbued with a vivid and intimate sense of place, even if its themes finally have something to do with the difficulty of finding a place where one truly belongs. It follows its protagonist Andrés (Harold Torres, marvelous) from his native Oaxaca to Tijuana, where he makes a series of fumbling attempts to illegally enter the US but unintentionally begins cultivating an attachment to a handful of individuals who give him work, food, and shelter while he comes up with his next scheme to trespass the frontier.

Its interesting to note that the Spanish title of the film is
Norteado, which means to be disoriented, or without a compass, or without a sense of north. The English title, though clearly an inaccurate translation, actually strikes me as the richer one, because it makes the north seem like a paradise, which is to say a place that doesn’t really exist, and it renders Andrés a man who is missing something, who suffers from the absence of some state of being he seems to think is necessary for living. His ostensible destination feels increasingly abstract as the story goes on, and his glimpses of it are delivered in a very amusing sort of shorthand—side-by-side headshots of George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger—whereas the transitory life he establishes along the border—the most northernmost point he seems able to get to—grows only more welcoming.

What makes the film such a refreshing take on the border-crossing genre is above all its tone. About a third of the way through I suddenly became aware of the fact that the film wasn’t a drama but a comedy, albeit of a very subtle, unassuming kind, pitched somewhere between Jim Jarmusch and Charles Burnett in its use of deadpan humour, static images, repetition, seductive music, and situational comedy. There’s a tremendous warmth that emanates from the film once we get to the scene where our hero finds himself sitting in the front seat of a truck, drinking cans of Tecate and eating peanuts with the older woman who’s taken him in, partly out of kindness and partly out of reasons of her own. The film builds to a climatic sequence that’s too inventive and hilarious to spoil here. I hope you’ll have a chance to see it, and since the latest rumours have it that Mantarraya might be coming on as distributors, the chances seem decent.

I was less impressed with
To the Sea, the Mexican film about three generations of men living in a remote fishing community in the Caribbean. I know many people who were deeply impressed by this work, but its beauty struck me as being strictly of the postcard variety, a very conventional perspective on an obviously wildly gorgeous locale. (Young filmmakers should always be leery of locations that offer nothing but spectacular beauty.) The child featured in the film, as well as the egret he befriends, are wonderfully natural presences on screen, but I couldn’t help but feel astonished by how little writer/director Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio brings to the proceedings. His hand as filmmaker is so light it barely seems to exist. It becomes difficult to believe that the characters wouldn’t have more to work out between them. I genuinely believe that Gonzalez-Rubio spent a lot of time with his subjects, got to know them and their lifestyle well. I just can’t believe the dearth of insight into their characters’ experiences he managed to conjure on film. To the Sea feels like a hybrid of a nature documentary and a home movie, but I have to say that I’ve seen better nature documentaries, and I’ve even seen better home movies. Incidentally, this film was in fact produced and will be distributed under the auspices of Mantarraya, though I’m not certain how they plan to get it out to a larger public.

More TIFF notes still to come...

Saturday, September 19, 2009

TIFF '09: "People can't help it if they're monsters..." Two films about weird families

By isolating its family from the rest of the world, Greek writer/director Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (Kynodontas) arguably gets a little closer to the bone with regards to just how deeply our parents impress upon us all an idea of how the world supposedly works, how we might find a reasonably safe place in it, should we ever have the opportunity. Depicting the quotidian routines of three adult children and their mother, the lot of them confined to a fairly luxurious gated country home by their patriarch, the film is essentially a smart, very dark comedy, only gradually yielding its insights and particular heights of strangeness.

The family’s cloistered existence is made replete through the appropriation and nearly surrealist manipulation of language. The sea is a chair. A motorway is a strong wind. A pussy is a big light, which if shut off leaves us engulfed by darkness. The planes that fly overhead are toys, and the children long for one to fall from the sky so they can possess it. Their obedience is ensured through the invention of artificial dangers while their sexual education is provided by anonymous guests procured by their tireless dad. But with time a serpent will enter their garden, bringing with it VHS tapes of
Rocky and Flashdance, and their innocence is doomed to be broken.

Dogtooth creeps up on you, and by its end presents us with a surprisingly resonant equation and an elegant final image. Lanthimos’ style is detached, in keeping with the wryly anthropological nature of the whole premise, leaving the actors to really breathe life into the whole, which they do a truly remarkable job at, one deserving of some special ensemble award. I saw one of them at a festival party and was tempted to say hi, but the mariachi band was very loud, I felt shy, and wasn’t quite sure how to tell her that I really loved the way she liked her sister’s arm.

Another very different, if equally uneasy examination of family,
Life During Wartime (nothing, sadly, to do with the Talking Heads masterpiece of first-person terrorist funk pop) is Todd Solondz’s sequel to Happiness. This leads us of course to more couples crying in restaurants, but also to a continuation of its predecessor’s enquiry into living with despair, uncertainty, and most especially pedophilia. “People can’t help it if they’re monsters,” declares Bill (Ciarán Hinds), himself a convicted pedophile. The statement is hardly a satisfying conclusion in itself, but Solondz seems interested in exploring the theme of forgiveness as much if not more than that of understanding, and forgiveness becomes an unusually fraught topic of conversation here given that a number of the characters are Israel sympathizers.

Life During Wartime ultimately feels less than fully realized, and its plot turns on a few pretty thin conceits, though it does have some superb sequences that could almost stand alone as fragments of some greater study of how emotionally crippled adults negotiate their way through thorny realms of need. I couldn’t help but wonder if it may have been more affecting had it used its original cast, but I can’t complain about the new one assembled, which beside the weirdly fearsome Hinds includes the always wonderful Allison Janney, Charlotte Rampling, Ally Sheedy, and Paul Reubens as a ghost.

More TIFF a-coming...

TIFF '09: "Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing..." Two new films from Werner Herzog

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

The 34th Toronto International Film Festival draws to its close today, and if the end of press and industry screenings, the evacuation of virtually all movie stars, or sheer fucking exhaustion hasn’t sent everyone slouching back home, the sudden, bracing, vertiginous drop in temperatures last night should have done the trick. So here I am, wearing a sweater for the first time in months, goosebumpy, teeth rattling, trying to drink my coffee before it freezes, trying to put the last ten days of movie love and publicist aggravation into some sort of order. Fortunately, every time I think about the interview I was able to do with Werner Herzog, or Herzog and Nicolas Cage’s appearance at the premiere of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, or Herzog’s comments during the film’s press conference, I start laughing so hard as to generate a surge of body heat. Herzog, whether on stage in a grandiose theatre or in the relative intimacy of a Yorkville dining room, is a true showman, proudly discussing his encouragement of Cage to “let the pig loose” (apparently a Bavarian expression), or affectionately calling Woody Allen “a lazy bum.”

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

Herzog had two films at TIFF this year, both with very long names. Besides his batshit, supremely bad-ass Bad Lieutenant—don’t even think of calling it a remake, sequel, or anything that might associate it with Abel Ferrara’s cult classic—there was also My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, “presented” by David Lynch, featuring Willem Defoe, Michael Shannon, Chloe Sevigny, Grace Zabriskie, and Udo Kier, set largely in suburban San Diego, and like its companion work, also a crime film, though one where the investigation is an entirely psychological and essentially irresolvable one that takes us to the wild rapids of Peru and the (fictional) architectural wonders of Alberta. (It says something about the filmmaker, I think, that he journeys deep into South America and apparently Central Asia to shoot fragments of flashback material for this low-budget feature yet doesn’t feel it necessary to visit Calgary.)

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Both films centre around protagonists who perform acts of violent transgression yet are haunted by mystical visions of nature. Both films, need I even bother to mention, feature cameos by dwarves. If the former is quite clearly a compromise between Herzog’s signature preoccupations and his desire to “deliver the goods” and prove he can make a crowd-pleaser (okay, a totally demented and bizarrely digressive crowd-pleaser), it should be said that it reaches delicious heights of audacity, and offers one of Cage’s finest, most tirelessly inventive performances ever. At one point he hides behind an open door, waiting for the arrival of two women he needs to interrogate, shaving. The most quotable line of any movie at TIFF this year? “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing,” Cage demands of a Louisiana gangster as he watches another, much older and fatter gangster's errant spirit bust some serious moves on a marble floor. The latter meanwhile, though equally wobbly with regards to narrative coherence, shows Herzog’s approach to atmosphere at its freshest in years, my favourite moments being ones where all characters onscreen suddenly fall silent and stop moving before the camera while a song by Caetano Veloso or Chavela Vargas plays out on the soundtrack.

More TIFF notes on the way...

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Informant!: Matt Damon spills the beans, then the rice, and just keeps going

The exclamation point decorating the title of
The Informer! gives us a helpful nudge from the get-go that where we’re going is going to be plenty goofy. It’s not a musical, but it is in one sense a hell of a song and dance. As imagined by obscenely productive director Steven Soderbergh and Bourne Ultimatum screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, this filmic realization of investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald’s 2000 nonfiction book of the same name—sans flamboyant punctuation—is less a corporate thriller than it is a punchy comic meditation on greed, compulsion, and manipulation. Mark Whitacre, the agri-business executive who secretly collaborated with the FBI in a campaign against his employers on charges of price fixing back in the mid-1990s, would have made a perfectly fascinating subject for a more conventional sort of white-collar crime movie. But Soderbergh and Burns have gone way out on a limb in terms of tone and narrative focus to render him a figure that’s at once enigmatic and strangely intelligible. They’ve taken some pretty crazy risks, and the risks pay off as terrifically audacious entertainment with a toothy social slant.

A large part of the credit for why this all works so well should go to Matt Damon, who in films like The Departed, The Good Shepherd and the Bourne franchise has nurtured a niche for himself via his remarkable talent for twisting his own boyish charisma into perverse shapes. His Whitacre is a golf-loving, Wal-Mart-clad, mustachioed Midwesterner, an imminently cheerful husband and father of three with a big, ugly suburban house and eight—count ’em—eight cars. Even his tics, such as his habit of constantly adjusting his glasses, feel so utterly normal and trustworthy. He approaches the feds as a guy who just wants to do the right thing, so naïve that he thinks he’ll actually become the company’s new CEO once all the fuss blows over and his current bosses are behind bars. But his innocence is always undercut by his evident intelligence. As he keeps reminding everyone, he is the only guy who knows the science and the business side of things at Archers Daniels Midland. He’s someone capable of big things.

The Informant!’s most winning distinction lies in what we’re able to gather of Whitacre’s private thoughts and obsessions. The use of voice-over is inspired. Rather than function in the past-tense as a way of conveying exposition or foreshadowing, Whitacre’s disembodied voice comes to us as present-tense reportage direct from his easily distracted brain, a series of frequently hilarious digressions into deceitful butterflies, polar bear camouflage, German words, and time-saving techniques, into ideas for TV shows about doubles and story of a man who drops dead upon realizing that the man across from him is wearing a tie with the same pattern—but in reverse. These interruptions are brilliantly timed and only seem like non-sequiturs until you gradually detect a pattern evolve that speaks, however obliquely, to Whitacre’s peculiar pathology, his desire to lead a double life. He’s a strange man, one who needs to talk, and listening to him let loose as the contradictions in his claims accumulate to preposterous degrees is an awful lot of fun.