Monday, December 29, 2014

Best of 2014: Jonathan Glazer on Under the Skin

Under the Skin begins in some kind of deeper blackness, less cinema space than outer space. Perhaps it’s the same unfriendly blackness to which our protagonist will deposit her victims. A projector’s beam cuts through, and we’re looking at what appears to be the formation of an eye, listening to what sounds like the uploading of verbal nuance in infinite variety, some ultra-fast-tracked language lessons. Sound and vision—it’s alive! Alive! Or nearly so.

The “it” in question is a femme fatale of the third kind, and it’s taken control of the luscious exterior of some sacrificial lass who looks just like Scarlett Johansson. It, now she, is a long cool black widow who’s come to Scotland from another galaxy to go cruising in a big black van for hapless lusty louts, luring them to some anonymous flat where they’ll sink into some fatal ink, their bodies bloating and bursting and their flesh harvested for unspecified purposes. She hasn’t been bred or programmed for pity or compassion, but as this mysterious, singularly arresting work of science fiction-meets-quasi-anthropological experiment makes its way, she will develop something called curiosity, one of the finer but also more precarious human attributes. It can lead to discovery and empathy, but also vulnerability and danger.

The sound of a baby’s cry on some rocky beach seems to be the tipping point in our story. From here on our anti-heroine goes native begins to wonder about the world, its culture, and, in one of the film’s most humorous moments, her own body. As Mica Levi’s music—one of the best scores I’ve heard in years, its strings like agitated bees—shape the film’s sound-world into an increasingly sensitive, tenser, almost febrile place, we come to see earthly life through extraterrestrial eyes: the utter weirdness of a space heater or a television or a discotheque or kissing, or this whole eating and drinking business. I can think of few films so alienating and yet so exquisitely alert to hypothetical first impressions of what for the rest of us is just drearily ordinary life.

Jonathan Glazer

Jonathan Glazer has spent his filmmaking career loving the alien. Both of his previous features, Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004), turn on the arrival of a strange and threatening visitor. In the case of Under the Skin, inspired by the less cryptic Michel Faber novel of the same name, Glazer’s visitor moves from the role of antagonist to that of protagonist in what is nearly a first-person narrative. It’s a bold, creepy notion and, it would seem, an irresistible challenge. I met with Glazer during Under the Skin’s Canadian premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and asked him about his interest in assuming the quintessential Other’s point of view.

“Making choices about what it is that she sees never stopped being exciting to me, even as years of starts and stops passed,” Glazer explains. “What does she get to experience of this world and what will it mean to her as it accumulates? Our idea in shaping the story was always that if you could understand what she saw and, latterly, how she felt, then you would find your place in this unusual story. To find that osmotic growth for her was always the bottom line.”

The project was indeed a labour of long-term love, nearly nine years in the making, yet Glazer’s perfectionism regarding filmmaking craft—those comparisons to Stanley Kubrick are not merely decorative—and the development of the script, co-written by Glazer and Walter Campbell, is shrewdly thwarted by a modus operandi designed to dismantle directorial control. The scenes which find our anti-heroine looking for men were produced by having a wigged Johansson—who’s perfect in this role, by the way—actually drive around in a van outfitted with hidden cameras and actually try to pick up random dudes off the street. The surprise and arousal of these men are real. Repurposing techniques employed by Abbas Kiarostami in Ten (2002), directorial control during these sequences was limited to what Glazer could see remotely and what he could say to Johansson via a tiny earpiece. It may sound like a gimmick, but this approach gives the film a texture that it would have otherwise lacked.

“The writing was very rigorous,” Glazer explained. “We spent a lot of time turning over ideas until they felt absolutely essential. We needed sturdy planning to allow the improvisation to flourish. Without a plan, when you go off-course you can just get lost. I wanted the film to have a clear structure but also to just find itself sometimes—and it did. Scarlett turns left and the film’s going to down that street, she turns right and it’s going down that one. It was an extremely liberating way to work, driving around in that van with all the cameras shooting simultaneously, knowing that the scene hinged on her going over to someone and making a choice in the instant. Exhilarating. I loved it. I would still be in that van, given the choice.”

The influence of Kubrick on Glazer is obvious, but Under the Skin contains more distinctive and intriguing echoes of the films of Nicolas Roeg, not only because Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) works from a similar premise, but because the radical approach to editing and perspective in Roeg’s best films invite a balance of precision and spontaneity into storytelling that Glazer seems to be aspiring to. Of course, after spending so many years conceiving of and giving birth to Under the Skin, Glazer’s eyes glaze over when the subject of precedents or influences arise. So much goes into making a movie, the countless choices and compromises, it’s hardly like Glazer spent the whole time thinking, “What would Nic do?”

“Film is a language,” Glazer says with a calm objectivity that kind of mirrors that of his film’s protagonist. “You start with the letters, working through the alphabet, and then one by one you write a sentence, then a paragraph, and then you get to the point where you’re fluent enough to write poetry.”

Glazer’s particular poetry is layered in a way that’s native to cinema, austere on the surface but dense with sensations arrived at by the collision of artifice and reality, direction and observation, fruitful collaboration and auteurist vision, exposition and mystery. There is a long, dreamlike dissolve near the film’s unforgettable ending that matches nothing else in the rest of the film, yet it is haunting, and it feels absolutely critical to the protagonist’s journey. It is perhaps the strongest evidence in favour of Glazer’s unique creative gifts—other directors would not have found it. Under the Skin will surely frustrate some. It does have a way of getting under your skin. And it is a work of eerie and cruel beauty.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Best of 2014: The Immigrant

Melodrama and mood piece, character(s) study and historical, James Gray’s The Immigrant presents us with types that turn into richly complex individuals and narrative tropes that transform into peculiar tales possessing both the broad strokes of myth and miniature movements of lived experience.

Set in New York in the early 1920s, the film introduces us to Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) just as she and her sister Magda arrive at Ellis Island after a gruelling journey from their Polish homeland. Magda is diagnosed with tuberculosis, Ewa is labeled a “woman of low morals” for unspecified events rumoured to have taken place en route from Europe, and the sisters are unceremoniously separated. Magda cannot escape mandatory quarantine, but Ewa evades deportation thanks to a shady saviour by the name of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). Bruno tells Ewa he works with an immigrant assistance organization; he actually manages a basement burlesque show and pimps out his performers, whom he houses in cramped apartments filled with yellowing lace and dappled mirrors. Ewa and Bruno’s relationship is driven by exploitation and childish ardour, desperation and stubborn optimism, or mere stubbornness, or the stubbornness that emerges out of a need to survive and to negotiate what exactly is survival.

The Immigrant’s third central character, an illusionist dubbed Orlando (Jeremy Renner), doesn’t enter the picture until its midpoint. In a film refreshingly devoid of irony, there’s something fascinating about the fact that the only man in the movie who doesn’t seem full of shit is the one who fools people for a living. Orlando is Bruno’s cousin, both sons of immigrants. They are old rivals, which feeds into what promises to become a love triangle, though this plot twist too is subverted.

Written by Gray and Richard Menello, The Immigrant is heavy on incident but grounded in character and performance. Cotillard has never been better, using languages and cadences to convey varying levels of deceit and desire. Renner, moustachioed and magnetic, echoes the grace and charismatic duplicity of James Cagney. Phoenix, in his fourth collaboration with Gray (following The Yards, Two Lovers and We Own the Night), is tremendously vulnerable without being ingratiating. His Bruno is a scoundrel, but he’s also struggling to make sense of the nagging compassion swelling in him. As the film moves toward its conclusion he somehow emerges as the most transformed and even tragic figure. This is one of the film’s masterstrokes, the way glimmers of moral fortitude are passed from one character to another.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014: The year in film

The best films of 2014 were merciless on marriage (unless you’re a vampire), often obsessed with things of the past (most especially if you’re a vampire) and enveloped in profoundly evocative, inventive, hypnotic, ingeniously deployed music from the likes of Trent Reznor, Mica Levi, Jozef van Wissem, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood—music of the sort that rarely gets noticed by the awards people yet raises the atmospheres of their respective films to dizzying heights.

I’m alarmed by the dominance of US or UK films on this list of mine, which says something not about the quality of foreign language films in 2014 but, rather, their increasingly neglectful distribution in Canada—I’ve made a list elsewhere of the year’s best films waiting for distribution and all of them are from other, non-English-speaking countries.

I hope you’ve seen some if not several of the films below (I kick things off with a no-brainer—don’t be calling me no contrarian!), and that you feel compelled to seek out those you haven’t seen, or perhaps haven’t even heard of. As always, there’s no ranking, and in fact I urge you to pay equal attention to the titles listed in that final paragraph—sometimes those “honourable mentions” have a funny way of sticking with you longer than some of the titles that leap immediately to the final cut.

That Richard Linklater’s 165-minue, 12-years-in-the-making chronicle of one reasonably ordinary kid coming of age in Texas turned out to be a major crowd-pleaser serves as a welcome antidote to the token cynicism that to draw an audience you need baroque mythologies and shit blowing up every ten minutes—why not someone growing up every ten minutes? At once epic and intimate, sweeping and absorbed with minutia and achingly fleeting moments, Boyhood broadens our notion of what movies can do—and Patricia Arquette’s turn here has stayed with me as one of 2014’s most moving supporting performances.

Winter Sleep
It is the accumulation of several smaller events—a rock hurled at a car window, the reading of a letter, a meeting interrupted—that imbues Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s most recent film with its gravity. The story of a hotel proprietor unable to recognize how his condescension and arrogance has distanced him from those he loves and wants to be loved by—including his younger, resentful wife—Winter Sleep is roughly based on Chekhov but the way it unfolds over its three hours-plus, largely through protracted yet tense and riveting conversations in gloomy rooms, recalls Bergman.

Inherent Vice
Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is a comic narcotic noir about love, drugs, corruption and real estate in 1970 Los Angeles, with each of its key characters—Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Joaquin Phoenix—representing a different aspect of that moment’s cultural sea change.

The Immigrant
Speaking of Phoenix, the consistently under-loved American auteur James Gray’s latest features another truly remarkable performance from the actor, in a role that incrementally, fascinatingly migrates from the film’s fairly despicable villain to a figure of tremendous pathos. Of course, the star of this gorgeous, Cimino-esque melodrama is the magnificent Marion Cotillard, in another of the year’s best performances, playing a Polish woman attempting to forge a life in 1920s New York. 

Two Days, One Night
And speaking of Marion Cotillard, she knocked it out of the park again this year as the first movie star to feature in a Dardennes Brothers film. She plays an emotionally troubled woman trying to convince her fellow factory workers to help save her job—by declining a pay raise.

Gone Girl, Force Majeure
Marriage is examined and diagnosed malignant in these two blackly comic, elegantly crafted but otherwise very different films, one a sprawling noir procedural about a missing woman from novelist Gillian Flynn and director David Fincher, the other a chilly chamber drama from Swedish director Ruben Östlund about a family ski vacation run horrendously off-track by a cowardly gesture made in a moment of panic.

Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive
Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel follows Scarlett Johansson as an alien hunter harvesting horny Scottish hunks before going perilously native. Deeply creepy in its tonal precision, with echoes of Kubrick and Roeg, and anthropological in its outsider view of life on Earth, this is science fiction without the token exposition. Jim Jarmusch’s latest, about non-violent vampires, is also a fantastical genre film, albeit one that forgoes most of its genre’s tropes in favour of the director’s trademark deadpan humour, nocturnal tours of Detroit and Tangiers, scenes of musical bliss, and, in contrast to the preceding marriage-stinks narratives, a tender and insightful tribute to long-term love. (I mean, really, really long-term.)

20,000 Days on Earth
Nick Cave could be a cousin to Tom Hiddleston’s pale, raven-haired, brooding rocker in Only Lovers, but Cave is a living, breathing, touring, eating (more or less), aging, hard-working family man residing in Brighton. Which is to say he isn’t fictional—or is he? Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s enormously inventive, insightful feature debut is a documentary profile of the Australian-born singer-songwriter on his 20,000th day of existence, which involves car-bound conversations with ghosts, an aborted lunch with Warren Ellis, visits to his archive and his Foucault-lookalike shrink, and a recording session. ‘Higgs-Boson Blues’ gives me chills.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inspired by the fictions of Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson’s frenetic, nostalgic, melancholy comedy is set in the 1930s, much of it in the titular alpine hotel nested in a fictional central European republic gradually falling prey to a thuggish foreign power. Dark times loom, yet at the Grand Budapest all efforts are made to stall time and maintain a rarified air. Ralph Fiennes gives one of his most dynamic and appealing performances as the dandyish proprietor and mentor to a young bellhop.

Stranger By the Lake
Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By the Lake is a starkly seductive, all-male, Hitchcockian thriller set entirely at a secluded nude beach and the surrounding woods used for cruising. One evening, after everyone else has left the beach, a man witnesses a murder—but this doesn’t keep him from coming back the next day and flirting with the killer. Death and eros are tangled up, yet the motives are as mysterious as the sex is explicit.

Some other films I’d be remiss to exclude from any look back on 2014: the great Paulina García gave my single-most favourite performance in Sebastián Lelio’s brilliant character study Gloria; Mark Ruffalo was for me the stand-out in a trio of remarkable performances in Bennett Miller’s bracingly bleak Foxcatcher; Agata Kulesza is wonderful, fierce, sad and ornery in Pawel Pawlokowski’s exquisite Ida; Kelly Reichardt makes a couple of tonal fumbles but still comes off as one of the US’s best filmmakers with Night Moves; Nicolas Cage gave a fearsome yet heartfelt performance in David Gordon Green’s Joe; and Petra Costa made one of the year’s most haunting and lovely doc feature debuts with her grief memoir Elena.    

Friday, December 5, 2014

A haunting book

Was it only a dream? Six-year-old Sam (Noah Wiseman) wakes up in the middle of the night and scurries to his mother’s bed. He was having a nightmare, but so was Amelia (Essie Davis), or so it seems during The Babadook’s arresting, morbidly beautiful opening, in which we see Amelia, head and shoulders fixed in the frame, surrounded by void, jostled as through in an accident, then buoyed, eyes wide, as though suddenly submerged. Amelia’s dream, we’ll eventually learn, is an echo of past experience, while Sam’s bogeyman may just be something all too real.

What’s real and what’s dream? In Australian director Jennifer Kent’s terrifyingly confident debut the daylight drapes everything in a patina of realism, yet those interiors, especially in Amelia’s house, with its blue walls, doors and mouldings, possess an otherworldly dollhouse drabness, a little like Aki Kaurismaki’s colour-noir lighting, except in this case the décors seem more in keeping with the aesthetic of a sinister, austere children’s book. In The Babadook, just such a book is the trigger for nightmares and waking life to merge into a single stream.

The best horror films for adults, I mean the ones that lodge themselves in some corner of your psyche where rational thinking helplessly dissolves, are the ones where the scariest things are the real things. In the first, best third of The Babadook, nothing is scarier than the notion of being a widowed single mother with a potentially monstrous child—in certain ways, The Babadook is the crisper, leaner version of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. (It’s also strikingly similar in its themes to the recent Austrian film Goodnight Mommy, which I hope someone will screen here sometime soon.) Sam is turning into a menace in his first grade classroom, and he’s just as unruly when Amelia takes him to visit his relatives. What’s more, his nightmares have become nightly, driving both he and Amelia batty with sleep deprivation. (Which I can tell you, speaking as lifelong insomniac, is one of the ways that dreams and reality can get troublingly blurred.) And when Amelia’s not struggling to control Sam’s erratic, sometimes violent behaviour, she’s working in the dementia ward of a nursing home, which isn’t going to help anyone’s grip on reality. 

And here’s one more turn of the screw: Sam’s birthday is also the anniversary of his father’s death, and Amelia’s reluctance to celebrate it is one sign of her protracted, debilitating grief—and such levels of grief, in the realm of The Babadook, can manifest as something like demonic possession. Which is where Kent started to lose me a little. The film’s title comes from a mysterious children’s book that might be stalking the characters. A marvellous tension thrives in the film’s initial ambiguities. Again: what’s dream?, what’s real?, what’s madness, anxiety, grief, trauma? This is the sort of ambiguity that Roman Polanski excels at in films such as Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. The Babadook thankfully never completely succumbs to horror-trope autopilot, but in the over-extended hysteria of its climax it does start to feel a little too much like The Ring 2. Anyway, I won’t quibble too much. There’s enough here that gets under your skin and past the guards of your unconscious, and Kent’s use of space, light, sound and performance is very impressive. Whether you like spooky movies or not, watch out for this name.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In a lonely, wide-open place

Both are westerns, a highly cinematic genre, but their stories unfold far from even the most makeshift signs of civilization, in deserts of burnt gold, blood orange, aged mustard and glistening amber, places so desolate and nearly abstract and so little inhabited that we could just as easily be in the theatre—the theatre of Beckett, Sartre or Ionesco, say—as the cinema. Except that these two westerns, made simultaneously in 1965, with a combined budget of $150,000 for B-movie king Roger Corman, were helmed by Monte Hellman, who’s never made anything like a normal movie but whose every movie—1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop most famously—is shot-through with a heightened awareness of its movieness. The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind, both released to zero fanfare in 1966, are distinguished by Hellman’s quiet insistence on disorientation as a method of pulling us deeper into mystery. Hard, clean cuts are all that separate extreme close-ups from wide vistas, the present from flashbacks, what’s happening in one place from what’s happening in another. Space and time are compressed in these compact, unpretentious yet very weird genre pieces as indebted to Antonioni as they are to John Ford. Both are films are now available in a single package from the Criterion Collection.

“Something’s coming,” Gashade (Warren Oates) whispers to Coley (Will Hutchins) in The Shooting. Something’s always coming. The West is an agoraphobic landscape, its every horizon waiting for some potentially perilous emergence. Richard Markowitz’s score sounds more in keeping with Japanese horror than American westerns. Gashade’s a former bounty hunter now tending an unprofitable mine. An unknown gunman has killed one of his partners and his brother has run off. A woman (Millie Perkins) turns up, offering Gashade good money to lead her to the town of Kingsley. She won’t say what she wants there, but Gashade—played with a humble, weary stoicism singular to Oates but echoing Bogart—has a bad feeling. The dread is ever-present, like a strange weather pattern that won’t let up. The film also stars Jack Nicholson and was written by Carole Eastman (as Adrien Joyce), who would soon write Nicholson one of his most iconic roles in Five Easy Pieces (1970). Eastman’s iconoclastic Woman With No Name imbues this western with a refreshingly feminine sensibility that would not be lost on future filmmakers—The Shooting is most certainly somewhere in the DNA of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010).

Ride the Whirlwind was written by Nicholson and is somewhat more conventional, though its atmosphere is equally eerie and still. It opens with a small gang, headed by one Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton), holding up a stagecoach somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Utah. This motley crew cross paths with a trio of cowpokes (Nicholson among them) on their way to Waco. A drama of mistaken identity and frontier justice ensues, but what lingers most in my mind isn’t story but detail, like the lynching victim stumbled upon by the heroes early in the film. What lingers too, for any cinephile at least, is the incredible array of soon-to-be famous, or at least cult-famous, faces assembled here. Hellman had a special genius for casting: he understood that Oates could be so much more than a character actor, that Nicholson could be captivating when doing as little as possible, and that Stanton could be fascinating by playing against a character’s primary attributes. These are both very special, spectral films, artefacts from a transitional moment in American movies, and Criterion’s two-for makes for an excellent double-feature and off-Hollywood history lesson.