Friday, September 26, 2014

Disciplinarian vigilante gets baggy injustice

The first fifth or so of The Equalizer is an exhaustive introduction to a mysterious protagonist. Bob (Denzel Washington) is a middle-aged widower who works at a Boston big box building supply store. Though he volunteers to coach a co-worker through a weight-loss regimen, Bob has no close friends. No one knows much about him or his past, though Bob claims to have once been one of Gladys Knight’s Pips. Bob seems like a square, lives like a monk, and, while his public persona seems laid back, he takes an almost autistic approach to discipline, timing everything he does with a stopwatch, scrubbing his sneakers daily, and carefully wrapping his own teabag in a pristine napkin before going to the local diner where he spends his sleepless nights reading Hemingway, Cervantes and Ellison or exchanging friendly banter with a young sex worker (Chloë Grace Moretz) who, one quickly surmises, is in a lot of trouble. It’s trouble that animates the hidden Bob, the Bob we came to see, the Bob who takes out a quintet of very scary Russian heavies in half a minute with a corkscrew and a paperweight and whatever else is at hand.

Written by Richard Wenk (The Mechanic, The Expendables 2), The Equalizer, inspired by the eponymous 1980s television series about a former CIA operative, reunites Washington with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua. Fuqua knows we came to see Bob kick ass but wants us to wait for it, approaching The Equalizer as equal parts character study and exploitive vigilante actioner. My problem with this approach is that there’s only so much character to study and the action sequences are even more belaboured than the quiet ones. Fuqua chooses, for example, to gives us an awkward prelude to Bob’s first act of violence that’s a bit like Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Googlemap street scan in Premium Rush, shooting the camera into Washington’s eyeball before showing his analysis of his adversaries, the room and its contents. Fuqua shoots actions from four angles when one would suffice. He lingers over things when swiftness seems called for.

It needn’t be thus. One elegantly edited sequence elides an act of violence altogether, moving from a scene in which Bob witnesses a robbery and memorizes the perpetrator’s licence plate, to a scene in which he calmly borrows a sledgehammer from the store’s supply, to one in which a cashier discovers that one of the stolen items has inexplicably reappeared to one in which Bob calmly cleans and replaces the sledgehammer to its original place. This sequence is a fine example of narrative economy very much in keeping with the central character’s sensibility. It also drew great laughs from the audience with whom I watched the film. We understood exactly what transpired and took perverse satisfaction in the compact way it was implied. This sequence is, unfortunately, an exception in The Equalizer, a 132-minute film that ends four times but could have been a sleek, say, 93 minutes and ended at its peak of inevitable vengeance.

What irony. Washington is well cast as Bob, and Bob, though his murderous, pre-emptive ethics are exceedingly dubious, appeals to us because he’s obsessed with making everything clean, mean, efficient, no bullshit. I would much rather have seen his cut of the movie.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Some cinema cannot be erased from your head

This is the story of Henry Spenser (Jack Nance), a factory printer, so wary of yet helplessly drawn to women. His orb-like eyes seem fixed on some unseen abyss, their shape echoed by that of the lumpy unnamed planet inside of which a scaly man (legendary production designer Jack Fisk) pulls levers and apparently sends some spermatozoon-like worm-thing down to earth. The worm-thing reappears in the guise of Henry’s unexpected progeny; the excitable mother of his very nervous girlfriend Mary (Little House’s Charlotte Stewart) informs Henry of his paternity during a family dinner of man-made chickens. Henry assumes his responsibilities and has Mary and the baby move into his tiny apartment where a framed photograph of an atomic explosion serves as the sole decoration. But baby gets sick, Mary disappears, and Henry seems prone to fantasy. He dreams of a lady in his radiator, who has facial abscesses, sings Fats Waller and does a dance that seems to give Henry permission to kill the ailing creature said to be his child.

Inspired by Kafka and the Surrealists, David Lynch’s feature debut is a masterpiece of painstaking craft and unfettered imagination. Ordinary anxieties manifest as hallucinatory strangeness throughout Eraserhead (1977): fear of commitment and family, fear of death and decay, fear of sex and women—Henry is seduced by the beguiling older woman who lives across the hall, a character who will return in the form of Dorothy Valens in Blue Velvet (1986). They make love in a steaming vat.

With its sound design industrial drones and distant roller rink music, its gorgeous black and white photography by Herbert Caldwell and Frederick Elmes—who would later shoot Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart (1990)—and its desolate landscapes of dirt mounds, monolithic buildings and dank puddles, the film offers an unusually immersive experience. Lynch initially studied visual art, and Eraserhead is as much sculptural object as it is movie. 

I first saw Eraserhead when I was 17. I took someone—a beguiling older woman, in fact—to a midnight screening. When the lights came up she asked me if I actually liked her. She was offended that I took her to this thing, which admittedly may not be an ideal date movie. I stuttered some apology—while secretly revelling in what I’d just beheld—but she was inconsolable. I don’t know what happened to her—I hope she recovered—but Eraserhead has remained imprinted upon my murkiest grey matter ever since. And I can now render its damage even more permanently!: Criterion has just released a gorgeous, generously supplemented DVD and BD Eraserhead package. 

Lynch: the multiple tie years

On one of those generous Criterion supplements, David Lynch tells a story about how one day, as a young art student in Philadelphia, he was working on this painting. Green plants were slowly emerging from a blackened canvas. Then he heard wind and, somehow, he saw the canvas move. He realized that this was just what he wanted, to make a painting that has a sound and that moves. It’s as eloquent a description as I’ve heard of how an artist transitions from one medium to another, how discoveries made in one medium feed the other. The amazing collection of short films included in Criterion’s package, illustrate, along with Eraserhead Lynch’s transition from canvas to celluloid, tearing the lid off one of the most fecund imaginations in modern cinema.

Nowhere is the nature of this transition more apparent than in Lynch’s first 4-minute animated film, ‘Six Men Getting Sick’ (1967), a fusion of Francis Bacon and Jean-Luc Godard. The title is a synopsis: there are indeed six sick men. Soil keeps rising up to their necks, internal organs keep haemorrhaging, a siren keeps surging and fading, mouths keep spilling blood. Life is reduced to an emergency loop. The grotesque is rendered as beautiful trauma. Stunning.

Based on a dream had by his wife’s niece, ‘The Alphabet’ (1968) features a girl in a bed with problems. Red lips are licked in an iris. Letters give off ectoplasm. There’s a profound unease with language at the base of this, or it not language per se then with signifiers or meaning, which makes sense: Lynch would have to give himself permission to elide overt meanings in order to make narrative films.

At 33 minutes, ‘The Grandmother’ (1970) is Lynch’s first sustained exercise in merging the aesthetics of painting and sculpture with those of live-action cinema—not to mention theatre, as there are potent references to kabuki and the absurd in this tale of an abused boy who grows a grandmother for consolation by literally soiling his sheets and wetting his bed. Patricidal fantasies are acted out on a proscenium stage, birthing imagery is accompanied by the sound of protracted diarrhoea. Dark wonder and secret liberation underline ‘The Grandmother,’ which is largely silent and seems most indebted to the two Jeans: Vigo and Cocteau.

A nurse, played by Lynch himself, gives a sort of pedicure to a woman’s leaky stump as she writes a letter in ‘The Amputee’ (1974), a film that came about mainly because Frederick Elmes, who would shoot most of Eraserhead, was asked to test a pair of black and white video stocks. By Lynch standards it is a work of very limited visual allure, but it is characteristically strange and intriguing. 

The final short included in Criterion’s set was produced decades after Eraserhead yet feels of a piece with the other works here on account of its inky-fuzzy chiaroscuro painterliness and extreme compaction. Commissioned as part of the Lumière and Company project, which supplied 41 filmmakers with the Lumière brothers’ very first wood, metal and glass camera and acetate film stock, ‘Premonitions Following an Evil Deed’ (1995) features police, a scary room, and flames: an excellent set of basic ingredients for a Lynch film, something that bubbles up from the unconscious to beguile, trouble, arouse and amuse. 

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.