I distinctly recall the melody of that legendary folk ditty filtering through my head as I first staggered out of a cinema that had been showing Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature film Carré blanc, a chilling, dystopian science-fiction thriller unveiled in the Vanguard series during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. It seemed, at the time, and now even in retrospect, a perfectly reasonable piece of music to dance across my cerebellum – on loop, no less.
The classic song, first written in 1955 and slightly rewritten about 10 years later to include additional lyrics to comment specifically on the Vietnam War, is a piece imbued with both sentiment and the sadness of longing. It laments the loss of flowers; young girls, young boys, soldiers and graveyards – with the latter, of course, giving way to the flowers that appeared to have gone missing in the first place.
With apologies to Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson, the writers of the much-covered/adapted folk song, I recall my own added verse that asked the following question:
‘Where have all the people gone?’
It seemed something worth lamenting after seeing Léonetti’s film, which conjures up a world as bereft of people in a literal sense, as in the figurative, since ‘the people’ are either being interrogated or desperately going about their business in the fervent hope that they will not be interrogated.
Such is the world of Carré blanc, the tale of Philippe (Sami Bouajila) and Marie (Julie Gayet), a couple who grew up together in a state orphanage and who eventually married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Muzak constantly lulls the masses and is only punctuated by announcements occasionally calling for state-controlled procreation and, most curiously, promoting the game of croquet – the one and only state-sanctioned sport.
Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state. He is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator and he’s very good at his job. In fact, with each passing day, he is getting better and better at it. Marie, on the other hand, is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe transforms into indifference. In this world, hatred, sadness or any manner of bitterness are luxuries. They’re tangible feelings that the rulers would never tolerate, and are punished with death.
The goal of the Brave New World that Léonetti presents appears to be little more than indifference, and as such it’s especially important to make note of the astounding score by Evgueni Galperine – one that has none of the sentiment of songs like the aforementioned Seeger folk song, nor is it like the horrendously bombastic ‘action’ scores so prevalent in contemporary science fiction films, with Michael Giacchino’s pounding notes in the J. J. Abrams reboots of Star Trek, or the wham-bam-in-your-face styling of Ryan Amon’s Elysium score and, lest we forget, any of John Williams’s sweeping orchestral noodlings in George Lucas’s Star Wars space operas.
Watch the trailer for Carré blanc:
If anything, Galperine successfully roots his music in a spare blend of electronic soundscape, eerie source music and very light orchestral background. In fact, it’s sometimes impossible to distinguish between score and sound design – something that was so integral to dystopian science fiction films of the 1970s, most notably, the creepy crawly work of Denny Zeitlin in Philip Kaufman’s immortal remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Both the Galperine score and the movie itself hark back to great 1970s’ science-fiction film classics, like The Terminal Man (Mike Hodges), Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent), A Boy and His Dog (L. Q. Jones) and THX 1138 (George Lucas), in addition to Kaufman’s terrific picture – when the genre was thankfully bereft of light sabres, Wookies and Jabba the Hut – when it was actually about something.
Galperine’s score, however, does not – in any way, shape or form – contribute to a retro quality. If anything, the film feels rooted firmly in a future not all that removed from our current existence. Every so often, Galperine will hit in an extended synth note, which will subtly blend into another and yet another and symbiotically blend with both the narrative and visuals to etch the emotional lives of the characters. This use of music to reflect emotion on screen rather than as a tool to yank emotion from the audience is completely and wholly modern. If there’s a connection between the scores of yore and Galperine’s work, it’s that it creates under- and overtones that are as universal as the 70s pictures.
The aforementioned Hodges, Sargent, Jones, Lucas and Kaufman pictures have not actually dated – certainly not in terms of the sophistication of the filmmaking and the fact that any single one of them feels as ‘modern’ as Carré blanc. In that sense, Léonetti’s film could easily have been made – as is – in the 1970s. Carré blanc shares a specific approach with past work to a genre that can, perhaps more than any other, effect true analysis and possibly even change, though there is nothing at all retro about the picture – no obvious post-modernist nods here. It is completely unto itself. Carré blanc is fresh, hip, vibrant and vital – certainly as much as the pictures noted above were and most importantly are.
A great deal of the picture’s success is, I think, owing to Galperine’s score. The electronic score proper, the pieces of music that feel like soundscape and, most evocatively, the horrendously, sickeningly and mind alteringly vapid Muzak that is constantly piped in through loudspeakers (reminiscent of the very thing that keeps A Boy and His Dog so universal) contribute to the all-important timeless quality of great science fiction in the cinema. I’m reminded of how Stanley Kubrick and Norman Jewison kept 2001 and Rollerball universal by using classical music. They used an aural underscore from the past to create timelessness. Galperine and the various composers of the 1970s sci-fi classics create electronic beds that are as contemporary as they are ‘futuristic’.
Galperine creates two important and subtle beds of music that recur throughout the film. One is a two-note hit (one low, one high – and occasionally, one high and one low) which, amid the other sounds and music layered underneath (or on top), creates a portent that reflects the emotional states of the characters. Even more evocative is the use of three notes signalling a lullaby either cut short or gone wrong, to reflect a long-lost childhood innocence, which, most importantly reflects long-lost innocence – period.
It’s this subtle and intelligent use of music that goes so far in assisting Léonetti in making what is easily the finest dystopian vision of the future to be etched upon celluloid since the 1970s. I’d go so far as to suggest that one could programme a film series entitled ‘Science Fiction of the 70s’ and just slip in Carré blanc, or, for that matter, a series entitled ‘Science Fiction: Contemporary Visions of Dystopia’ with the 1970s titles slipped in with Carré blanc, and audiences (most of them, frankly, and perhaps even sadly) would swallow it hook, line and sinker.
Thematically and/or emotionally, the thing that ties all of these films together is the notion of love being threatened by the state and/or a New World Order. God knows, in the case of Carré blanc, there can be little doubt that a romantic mood would indeed be at peril from the Muzak, along with monotone appeals from an announcer reminding the couples of the world that procreation is a privilege, not a right, but that some have indeed earned the right to procreate and as such, have a duty to do so.
Where, oh where, have all the flowers gone, indeed. Or, in the words of another timeless folk song from Zager and Evans: ‘In the year 2525, if Man is still alive…’
Phase IV opens up somewhere between a 1970s educational nature programme and the ‘book’ sections of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy played straight, so it is apt that its music would initially recall the darker moments from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: the shimmering waves of Delia Derbyshire’s ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’; Malcolm Clarke’s blocks of ring-modulated dissonances for the Dr Who episode ‘The Sea Devils’; and Workshop manager Desmond Briscoe’s spectral driftworks for the soundtrack to the BBC’s original Quatermass and the Pit. So it comes as little surprise that Briscoe himself is credited as having provided ‘additional electronic music’, and much of the electronic realisation has been done by EMS synthesizers enthusiast David Vorhaus, who had worked with Delia Derbyshire on the first White Noise album.
Amid the almost constant bed of electronic drones provided by Vorhaus and Briscoe, the brief fragments of instrumental music are like floating islands of humanity in an increasingly alien world. With its mordant strings, chiming bells and distant brass doubled by distorted guitar, the score could almost be mistaken for a new version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, as completed by Scott Walker. Ten years later, the film’s composer, Brian Gascoigne, would provide orchestral arrangements and play keyboards on Walker’s album Climate of Hunter (Gascoigne is an ARP 2600 man), thus beginning a relationship that would continue up to his recent role, crafting sound treatments on Walker’s last studio album, The Drift.
As the film progresses, this latter music becomes ever more a means to encourage the audience to identify, not with the human protagonists, but with the rapidly evolving ants. One scene in particular in which a solitary ant walks solemnly down neat lines of fallen comrades is rendered especially tragic by Gascoigne’s arrangements. If at the start of the film the ants are a symbol for the Soviets, the invading utopian hive mind, by the end, as they struggle heroically to adapt and survive, it is the ants that represent America, one nation under God. For the humans, sound soon becomes itself a weapon, a filtered attack of white noise, not just upon the ant colony, but used equally offensively against the audience.
Electric Sheep and Strange Attractor are excited to present Phase IV as part of Scalarama. For more Information check our Events & Media section.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
Toronto International Film Festival: It’s All about the Stars, but There Are Good Movies Too
Although a major city in Our Fair Dominion, Toronto bears the distinction of being the biggest, most pathetic provincial backwater to blight the massive landmass that is Canada – a country in which the majority of the population resides along a 100-kilometre strip just above the Canada-U.S. border, from, to borrow a line from ‘America the Beautiful’, ‘sea to shining sea’. That said, together with Montreal, Toronto is home to some of the more culturally significant events and organizations in the country.
This is the eternal dichotomy and a truly salient example of the two solitudes that have been an endless trademark of life here in the colonies. In La Belle Province, the divide between French and English is more obvious, but Ontario is quite another thing, as the real base of power remains rooted in the most repressive, pole-up-the-ass Presbyterianism – the reigning capital of which was and still is the city of Toronto.
This, of course, is what makes Toronto such an unlikely centre of culture in the Dominion. One of Canada’s true literary giants, Scott Symons, devoted his life and writings to exposing this dichotomy – railing against the country’s old-money establishment residing in Toronto’s leafy, affluent and decidedly ramrod-up-the-rectum enclave known as Rosedale.
Symons referred to these power brokers as the ‘Bland Men’ of Toronto. I, however, prefer Symons’s more colourful description of what rules Toronto. In his great novel Civic Square, Symons coined the indelible phrase The Smugly Fucklings. (Symons always regretted adhering to his publisher’s advice and NOT sticking to The Smugly Fucklings for the novel’s title.)
Symons, without a doubt, hit the nail on the head. Toronto, and by extension much of English Canada, is in the hands of the Bland Men, the Smugly Fucklings. What distinguishes them from the usual dyed-in-the-wool new conservatives of Canada (our own version of America’s woeful Tea Party) is that they are educated, erudite, purportedly liberal and imbued with a desperate need to be cooler than cool. Parading through the city with haughty, smile-bereft faces, their buttocks clenched within an inch of their lives and adorned in the fashion ‘styles’ of Hugo Boss – these are the gatekeepers of all culture for the Great Unwashed of Our Fair Dominion.
Is it any wonder then that the question I am asked most by ‘normal people’ about my experience at the Toronto International Film Festival is not, ‘Have you seen any good movies?’ but rather, ‘What movie stars did you see?’
Toronto is a city so desperate for acknowledgment that it is the centre of the universe that it will do anything to ensure this status. The residual effect is that culture of the highest order is on display in this city ruled by the Bland Men. It exists because of those who merely purport to be on the cutting edge. In fact, I suspect they desperately want to be the thing they’re most afraid of and it is precisely this lip service to alternative culture that inadvertently offers world-class events. The Smuglies have no idea how truly un-hip they are, but it is their desire to be seen as NOT what they are that gives so many of us a reason to hate Toronto, but at the same time, to not completely abandon it because we’d otherwise be bereft of culture.
And so it was, and so it remains, that the Toronto International Film Festival is one of the premier cultural events in the world. On one hand, it is a glorified junket for the American studios, while on the other, it offers hundreds of movies you might never see anywhere else. It is at once a film festival where the Great Unwashed of Toronto pathetically crowd around the police-patrolled barricades protecting the various red carpets – hoping that they might possibly snatch a glimpse of Brad Pitt or Madonna – and where the rest of us, thanks to the wide variety of motion pictures assembled by The Men Who Would Be Kings of Cool, are kept hidden for days on end in the dark, our eyes glued to the screens and dining at the trough of great cinema.
* * *
TIFF 2011 proved to be a pretty banner year for me. Between North American and world premieres of a wide variety of pictures, I was one happy fella.
Of course, there were many dubious inclusions that seemed to be on display for their star-appearance quotient, but thankfully, the accent was on the pictures themselves.
Here then, are a few highlights and lowlights of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.
* * *
A Dangerous Method (2011) *
When David Cronenberg is good, he is very, very good. When he is bad, he’s cerebral. A Dangerous Method is dour, dull and decidedly humourless, though the first few minutes do suggest we’re in for a hootenanny of the highest order. The score, oozing with portent over a twitching, howling, clearly bonkers Keira Knightley, thrashing about in a horse-drawn carriage as it hurtles towards Carl Jung’s Swiss nuthouse, initially suggested a belly flop into the maw first pried open by such Cold War wacko-fests like The Snake Pit or Shock Corridor. Alas, Cronenberg seems to have abandoned his pulp sensibilities and instead appears to be making an Atom Egoyan movie. Sorry David, Atom Egoyan makes the best Atom Egoyan movies. Cronenberg’s unwelcome return to the cold and clinical approach from his pre-Eastern Promises and A History of Violence oeuvres quashes all hope for a rollicking good wallow in lunacy. Come on, David, we’re dealing with psychoanalysis and sex here. A little oomph might have been in order.
Lord knows Cronenberg’s dealt deliciously with both before – most notably in The Brood. It starred a visibly inebriated Oliver Reed, crazily cooing about ‘the Shape of Rage’ amid spurts of horrific violence laced with a riveting creepy tone. Most notably the movie provided us with the indelible image of a semi-nude, utterly barmy Samantha Eggar adorned with monstrous pus sacks dangling from her flesh, licking globs of gooey, chunky afterbirth from a glistening mutant baby expunged from one of the aforementioned pus sacks.
No similar shenanigans are on view in A Dangerous Method. It’s pretty much a Masterpiece Theatre-styled period chamber drama with Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) jousting with his mentor-rival Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung spanking Keira Knightley, a daft want-to-be-psychiatrist with Daddy issues. Sadly, no proper views of open palms connecting with buttocks or slap imprints on said buttocks are afforded to us.
We do, however, get an abundance of yammering.
* * *
The Deep Blue Sea (2011) ****
Keira Knightley is used much better here than in Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Oops, wait a second, I mean Rachel Weisz. OK, well, if Keira Knightley HAD been in this movie, I suspect she WOULD have been put to rather better use here, but she’s not, so she isn’t. I am indeed referring to the Knightley doppelgä;nger, or rather, the doppelgä;nger of Rachel Weisz, or rather, I mean…
OK, fuck it! In the parlance of Monty Python: ‘Start Again!!!’
Terence Davies coaxes an astonishing performance from Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea, a heartbreaking, sumptuous and tremendously moving adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s great play of the same name. Rattigan’s theatrical explorations of class and sex have made for rich film adaptations, most notably The Browning Version, Separate Tables, The Winslow Boy and The Prince and the Showgirl. Rattigan, given the discriminatory criminalisation of homosexuality in England (his frequent collaborator, the closeted director Anthony Asquith, was the progeny of the man who signed Oscar Wilde’s arrest warrant) chose to primarily reflect on gay issues and culture by utilizing a critical dramatic look at the often troubled lives of straight couples.
Nowhere is this more powerfully rendered than in The Deep Blue Sea, which Davies has adapted with considerable homage to the play’s tone and themes while using the source as a springboard for his own unique approach to affairs of the heart. (While Davies oddly reduces the role and importance of the play’s one clearly gay character, one suspects he did this to focus more prominently on the trinity of its central characters.)
Davies might well be one of the most important living British filmmakers. Working in a classical style with indelible compositions, creating a rhythm through little, no or very slow camera moves and infusing his work with a humanity seldom rivalled, Davies recognizes the importance of cinema as poetry – or rather, using the poetry of cinema to create narrative that is truly experiential. (I doubt any audience member will forget the haunting underground tracking shot during the Blitz – as evocative to the eye, ear and mind as anything I’ve seen.) I’d go so far as saying that Davies might well be the heir apparent to film artists like Alexander Dovzhenko and Sergei Paradjanov – exploiting the poetic properties of cinema in all the best ways.
Here we feel and experience the tragic tale of Hester (Weisz), who leaves her much older, though loving husband, the respected judge Sir William (Simon Russell) when she meets the handsome, charming Freddie (Tom Hiddlestone), a former RAF pilot who allows her the joys of sex for the first time in her life. Alas, Freddie’s a bit of a rake and soon tires of domesticity, and Hester is driven to seriously contemplating suicide. Sir William wishes desperately to have her back. The eternal dilemma is that Freddie doesn’t love Hester as much as she’d like, nor does Hester feel as much love for Sir William as he does for her.
The triangle is played out with Davies’s trademark style and a welcome return to pubs thick with smoke and filled with songs sung by its inebriated denizens. Harking back to Distant Voices, Still Lives, the songs here are not so much a counterpoint to the drudgery of the characters’ lives as something indicative of an overwhelming malaise born out of repression and class.
Davies dazzles and moves us with his humanity and artistry. It doesn’t take much to give over to his stately pace, and when we do, we’re drawn into a world that can only exist on a big screen, while at the same time providing a window on the concerns of days gone by that are more prevalent in our contemporary world than most of us would care to admit.
* * *
Keyhole (2011) ****
Full disclosure: I produced Guy Maddin’s first three feature films, lived with him as a roommate (I was Oscar Madison to his Felix Unger – Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple sprang miraculously to life on the top two floors of a ramshackle old house near Winnipeg’s Little Italy district), continue to love him as one of my dearest friends and consider his brilliant screenwriting partner George E. Toles to be nothing less than my surrogate big brother.
Most importantly, I am one of Maddin’s biggest fans and refuse to believe I am not able to objectively review his work. Objectively, then, allow me to declare that I loved Keyhole. What’s not to love? Blending Warner Brothers gangster styling of the 30s, film noir of the 40s and 50s, Greek tragedy, Sirk-like melodrama and odd dapplings of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, it is, like all Maddin’s work, best designed to experience as a dream on film. Like Terence Davies, Maddin is one of the few living filmmakers who understands the poetic properties of cinema, and this, frankly, is to be cherished as much as any perfectly wrought narrative.
This is not to say narrative does NOT exist in Maddin’s work. If you really must, dig deep and you will find it. That, however, wouldn’t be very much fun. One has a better time with Maddin’s pictures just letting them HAPPEN to you.
The elements concocted in Keyhole to allow for full experiential mind-fucking involve the insanely named gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric as you’ve never seen him before – playing straight, yet feeling like he belongs to another cinematic era), who drags his kids (one dead, but miraculously sprung to life, the other seemingly alive, but not remembered by his Dad) into a haunted house surrounded by guns-a-blazing.
Populated with a variety of tough guys and babe-o-licious molls, Ulysses is faced with ghosts of both the living and the dead, including his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini – gorgeous as always and imbued with all the necessary qualities to render melodrama with joy and humanity), her frequently nude father (the brilliant Louis Negin – perhaps one of the world’s greatest living character actors, who frankly should be cast in every movie ever made), chained to his bed, uttering the richly ripe George Toles dialogue and Udo Kier (the greatest fucking actor in the world), whose appearance in this movie is so inspired I’ll let you discover for yourself the greatness of both the role and Udo himself.
Keyhole is, without a doubt, one of the most perversely funny movies I’ve seen in ages and includes Maddin’s trademark visual tapestry of the most alternately gorgeous and insanely inspired kind. For movie geeks, literary freaks and Greek tragedy-o-philes, the movie is blessed with added treats to gobble down voraciously.
Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s not all fun and games. Beneath the surface of its mad inspiration lurks a melancholy and thematic richness. For me, what’s so important and moving about the film is its literal and thematic exploration of a space. Strongly evoking that sense of how our lives are inextricably linked to so many places (or a place) and how they in turn are populated with things – inanimate objects that become more animate once we project our memories upon them – or how said places inspire reminiscence of said objects which, in turn, inspire further memories, Keyhole is as profound and sad as it’s a crazed laugh riot.
Of all the pieces about the movie that I bothered to read, I was shocked that NOBODY – NOT ONE FUCKING CRITIC – picked up on the overwhelming theme of PLACE and the SPIRIT of all those THINGS that live and breathe in our minds. It was the first thing to weigh heavily upon me when I first saw the movie. It has seldom been approached in the movies – and, for my money – NO MORE POIGNANTLY AND BRILLIANTLY than rendered by Maddin, Toles and their visionary young producer Jody Shapiro.
All the ghosts of the living and the dead (to paraphrase Joyce), the animate and inanimate, the real and the imagined, these are the things that haunt us to our graves, and perhaps beyond. And they all populate the strange, magical and haunting world of Keyhole – a world most of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, live in. We are all ghosts and are, in turn, haunted by them.
* * *
i am a good person/i am a bad person (2011) ***1/2
A dervish derives inspiration from God and does so with complete and total devotion, honouring the Creator with continuous, strenuous forms of physical manipulations, such as exercise or dance that involve literal whirling at breakneck speeds. Influenced by both John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, Canadian filmmaker Ingrid Veninger is also developing an approach to her humanist form of dramatic cinema that is clearly all hers.
In fact, Veninger might well be cinema’s only living equivalent to a whirling dervish. Like a dervish, she honours her Creator (cinema), her prophets (Cassavetes, Leigh and others), then whips her creative concoction into a frenzy – literally living and breathing cinema – producing film from within herself, her devotion and life itself.
With her previous work and second feature as a director (she’s written, produced and acted in so many more), Modra, a personal dramatic exploration of her Slovakian roots, Veninger was on the cusp of embarking upon the film festival circuit. This got the dervish whirling. She wrote a script about a filmmaker taking a trip to Europe to present her film on the film festival circuit. She cast herself as the filmmaker Ruby, and her own real-life daughter, talented young actress Hallie Switzer (female lead of Modra) as Ruby’s daughter Sara. With ace cinematographer Ben Lichty and sound recordist/boom operator Braden Sauder, Veninger and Switzer blasted across the pond from Canada to Europe and made a movie. The screenplay, already workshopped and in final draft, accompanied the group who knew that as long as the structure of the story was adhered to, there would potentially be room for rewriting depending upon the exigencies of production.
The movie, i am a good person/i am a bad person, is funny and heartbreakingly moving, and while full of ‘realistic’ touches, it never descends into Canadian Cinema Dreariness 101 and is, in fact, imbued with a sense of scope to allow its tenderness and intimacy to shine in all the ways they should in movies.
The world is, of course, replete with father-son pictures, but mother-daughter relationships – in terms of numbers and quality – pale in comparison. This is a film that contributes admirably to this relatively rare tradition.
Ruby is a loveable scatterbrain. Her film, a crazed, seemingly political avant-garde celebration of – ahem – the penis, is set to premiere overseas at the – ahem – Bradford International Film Festival in dear Old Blighty. Eighteen-year-old Sara is dragged along on the trip to be her mother’s assistant, though one gets the feeling that deep down, Mom craves some one-on-one quality time with her burgeoning daughter.
Sara is decidedly serious – in general, but especially on this trip – and Mom’s carefree spirit is driving her up the wall. Mom, not totally oblivious to this, is still intent on having a good time. Things in Bradford reach a bit of a head and it’s decided that Sara will go to Paris on her own to visit with relatives and Ruby will forge on to a screening at the Arsenal Cinema in Berlin. As mother and daughter each face personal challenges, it also becomes glaringly apparent how much they need and love each other.
I suspect it might not be too much of a spoiler to suggest that hard decisions are wrought and events inspire more than a few tears from even the most hardened viewers. Those who stick with the seemingly freewheeling spirit of the picture are rewarded a thousandfold during the extremely moving finale.
Filmmakers of all stripes will, I think, get a kick out of the sequences shot in Bradford and Berlin. How many times have filmmakers heard the rather embarrassed words from festival directors – as Ruby does in the film – ‘It’s a much smaller house than expected, but they’ll no doubt be a spirited bunch.’
It’s also worth mentioning that i am a good person/i am a bad person is full of humour – gentle bits of human comedy and full-on Bridesmaids-style blowjob and scatological humour. Strangely, this doesn’t temper any of the sentiment, but in fact, enhances it. And unlike Bridesmaids, i am a good person/i am a bad person NEVER overstays its welcome. The picture is taut, trim, hypnotic and passionate.
Kind of like a whirling dervish.
* * *
Drive (2011) *1/2
This is exactly the kind of movie I hate seeing at major international film festivals – especially at TIFF. It clearly feels like a glorified press junket screening with its star trotted out every which way and the picture opening theatrically on thousands of screens one week after its festival screening, while the festival is still on at that. That said, I don’t usually mind if the movie is any good, but Drive most certainly isn’t.
Fast cars and existential male angst make for great bedfellows – or rather, they MADE for great bedfellows. The 1970s were full of them, the tent posts being Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, Walter Hill’s The Driver and Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point. Drive comes closest to Hill’s nutty car chase thriller, but lacks that picture’s drive (as it were) and pulp sensibilities blended with art-house-style chic. Nicholas Winding Refn, who delivered up a compelling one-man-show with Bronson, falls too in love with his good taste. Besides, how could Refn even hope to compete with The Driver when it features cop Bruce Dern referring to the title character played by Ryan O’Neal and uttering in full-on noir-speak: ‘I’m gonna catch me the cowboy that’s never been caught. Cowboy desperado!’
Aside from choice scumbaggery from Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as the gangster villains in Drive, we get too many eyefuls of Ryan Gosling staring soulfully at pretty much everything and everyone – adorned, no less, in a ridiculous Scorpion jacket.
Gosling plays a movie stunt driver who doubles as a heist getaway driver and who falls in love with his dewy-eyed, perpetually open-mouthed and equally soulful neighbour. He agrees to help out her recently released jailbird husband to pull a heist that goes horribly wrong and predictably leads to the aforementioned bad guys, who coincidentally are backing a stock car Gosling will be racing. It’s fine when a genre picture keeps it simple and stupid, but the plot of Drive is, well, just plain stupid.
The car chases are proficiently handled, but have none of the urgency of the true greats; some of the violence is satisfactorily shocking, but the movie – loaded with pretension and fake portent – seems even more disingenuous than, say, a Michael Bay movie.
At least, we all know Bay is a knothead. Refn clearly has more going on upstairs, but he’d have been far better off playing things with the same kind of relentless pulpiness he brought to Bronson instead of a preciousness that just drags the movie down to Dullsville.
* * *
Here are a few capsule rewrites of some of the films I covered daily during TIFF 2011 on The Daily Film Dose website.
50/50 (2011) ****
50/50 is a comedy about cancer. The incongruity of this might seem off-putting, but the fact remains that rendering cancer dramatically with humour seems to be the best medicine (artistically speaking and otherwise). 50/50 does so with utter perfection. It’s the laughs, the human comedy, the on-screen knee-slappers that are the very elements which render the drama with so much poignancy and yes, pain. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) is a public radio reporter with talent, commitment and a bright future. When he is diagnosed with cancer his life quickly unravels and everything he holds dear begins to dissipate – including his chances of survival. Before you get the impression this is a total downer, allow me to say two words: SETH ROGEN!!!!! One of the best young actors in the business, he plays Adam’s mega-pot-ingesting (‘natch) best buddy and offers friendship, company, support, endless laughs (for Adam, but by extension, the audience) and dope (a most convenient painkiller for cancer victims). Director Jonathan (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) Levine’s exquisite direction covers the excellent screenplay by Will Reiser with the assured hand of an old pro. That said, Levine’s only in his 30s and this is his third feature film. One can only wonder what the ‘kid’ is going to generate when he actually IS ‘old’.
You’re Next (2011) **1/2
You’re Next is an energetic home invasion horror thriller crisply directed by filmmaker Adam Wingard, who delivers up the scares and gore with considerable panache. The picture is chock-full of babes including a mega-kick-ass heroine – an Aussie chick whose character, it is revealed, was raised in a survivalist compound Down Under. (I kid you not! An Aussie Survivalist Babe!!!) The killers wear ultra-creepy animal masks (like those really cute lifelike ones you can buy for your kids at Zoo gift shops) and dispatch their victims with considerable aplomb.
The first two-thirds of the movie proceed like a rabid bat out of hell. An affluent couple (the female half played by the still delectable Re-Animator babe Barbara Crampton) are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary in a country mansion and have invited their kids and assorted significant others to join them. The characters share bloodlines straight out of some lower-drawer Albee or O’Neill play and the conversation round the dinner table plays out with plenty of funny, nasty sniping. Great stuff! Then the killing starts! Even greater! And then, a boneheaded plot twist one sees coming from miles away. Uh, this is not great! Not good! Not even passable! Thankfully, the carnage continues, but for this genre geek, the movie never quite recovers from a twist that was probably meant to be clever, but instead feels like a red herring that isn’t one at all, but the real thing that we’re supposed to be knocked on our butts by – NOT! Never fear, though, there’s still that Aussie survivalist babe. Now THAT is original!
Carré blanc (2011) ****
Harking back to great 70s science-fiction film classics like The Terminal Man, Colossus: The Forbin Project, A Boy and His Dog, Silent Running and THX 1138 – when the genre was thankfully bereft of light sabres, Wookies and Jabba the Hut, when it was actually ABOUT something – Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature film Carré blanc is easily one of the finest dystopian visions of the future to be etched upon celluloid since that time. The tale rendered is, on its surface and as in many great movies, a simple one. Philippe (Sami Bouajila) and Marie (Julie Gayet) grew up together in a state orphanage and are now married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Muzak constantly lulls the masses and is only punctuated by announcements occasionally calling for limited procreation and, most curiously, promoting the game of croquet – the one and only state-sanctioned sport. Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state – he is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator – and he’s very good at his job. In fact, with each passing day, he is getting better and better at it. Marie, on the other hand, is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe is transforming into indifference.
In this world, though, hatred is as much a luxury as love. Tangible feelings and simple foibles are punished with torture and death. Indifference, it would seem, is the goal. It ensures complete subservience to the dominant forces. Love, however, is ultimately the force the New World Order is helpless to fight and it is at the core of this story. If Philippe and Marie can somehow rediscover that bond, there might yet be hope – for them, and the world. It is this aspect of the story that always keeps the movie floating above a mere exercise in style (which it is in large part). Love becomes the ultimate goal of Léonetti’s narrative and thanks to that, he delivers an instant classic of science fiction. The best works in this genre ARE about individuality and the fight to maintain the incommutability of the human spirit, which might, after all, be the only thing we have left – not just in future times, but now.
God Bless America (2011) ***1/2
Frank is a very kind person. He kills people. But they deserve it. Played with pathos and deadpan humour by Joel Murray, Frank is a hard-working American. He’s been diagnosed with a fatal disease. His wife has left him. His daughter is a shrill brat who won’t visit him on custody days because he ‘forces’ her to do arts and crafts, visit the zoo and play in the park (instead of being glued to video games). After work he stays home. Alone.
Home is a man’s castle, but not this man, not this home. His neighbours are poster children for strangulation at birth. Night after night, Frank cranks the volume on his TV to drown out their Neanderthal conversation, a cacophony of verbal and physical abuse, wham-bam sexual activities and constant caterwauling from their genetically stupid infant. What he endures on TV is precisely what indoctrinates the feeble minds of America. Channel-hopping to reality TV, a white trash ‘hose’ digs a blood-soaked tampon from her vagina and flings it at another. An endless parade of wags dump on the disenfranchised and insist: ‘God hates fags’ while images of Barack Obama as Adolph Hitler and news reports of homeless people burned alive buttress ‘Bowling on Steroids’ or the reality TV star Chloe, a nasty teenage girl who treats everyone like dirt. On his drive to work, the car radio is an aural assault from Tea Party types.
At the office he has to listen to his simpleton colleagues moronically regurgitating everything he endured on TV the night before. A tiny bright spot turns dark when the receptionist openly flirts and files a sexual harassment complaint. He loses his job, returns home and turns on his TV to drown out his Jello-brained neighbours.
There is, however, a solution. Frank, you see, is a Liberal – a Liberal with a handgun. He does what all Liberals must do when civilization is on the brink, This is a mere 15 minutes into God Bless America and at this point I laughed so hard I ruptured myself. From here, the movie doesn’t let up for a second – especially once Frank begins a spree of violence against intolerance with a gorgeous, sexy teenage girl. They’re a veritable Bonnie and Clyde – fighting for the rights of Liberals who are tired of the mess America is in.
Director Bobcat Goldthwait makes movies with a sledgehammer, but it’s a mighty trusty sledgehammer. He has developed a distinctive voice that began with the magnificently vile Shakes the Clown, and with this new film he hits his stride with crazed assuredness. Some might take issue with the way he lets his central characters rant hilariously – well, beyond the acceptability of dramatic necessity – but I have to admit it’s what makes his work as a filmmaker so unique. He creates a world that exists within his own frame of reference, which, at the same time, reflects aspects, and perspectives that hang from contemporary society like exposed, jangled nerves. God Bless America fights fire with fire. It’s the American Way! Even for Liberals.
The Eye of the Storm (2011) **
I have no doubt that Nobel Prize-winner Patrick White’s novel – which this dreary movie is based on – is not without merit, but if your idea of a good time is watching a harridan spewing vitriol, then by all means feel free to partake of Fred (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) Schepisi’s rendering of The Eye of the Storm. For close to two hours we get to watch Charlotte Rampling chastise her spoiled adult children (the ubiquitous Geoffrey Rush and the wonderful, but wasted Judy Davis). With Mom close to horking out her final globs of life, the kids have made the trek to Australia from Blighty and Gay Paree respectively to ensure their inheritance will rightfully fall into their laps. We watch as this trio trudge through the turgid drama and seldom feel anything but contempt for all of them and wonder why it is we’re being dragged through this sludge at all.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker for screen harridans. Mind you, I usually prefer them when they’re slugging it out with each other in melodramas like Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane – not dour British-Australian co-ventures we’re supposed to take seriously. One of the more sickening subplots in The Eye of the Storm involves Geoffrey Rush having his knob plunged and polished by one of Rampling’s caregivers – a comely young thing that (for God knows whatever reason) is genuinely charmed by him. We are also afforded endless flashbacks via Rampling’s dementia. In one of them, she seduces the buff young stud sniffing around Judy Davis. I know how this must sound ever so – ahem – appetizing, but I can assure you it is more than enough to induce major chunk-blowing.
Every year, it seems we get more and more movies like this – dull chamber dramas full of rich, old people with Commonwealth accents who crap on each other (and by extension, us) for two fucking hours, and we’re supposed to actually feel something for these miserable, privileged twits. I suppose they keep getting made because there’s always money available for such pictures. They’re relatively cheap to make, attract major actors, carry a veneer of respectability, are often based on acclaimed literary properties and can be directed for a song by filmmakers well past their prime. And, of course, they get programmed into major international film festivals.
Killer Elite (2011) *
What this lame duck action thriller is doing in a major international film festival like TIFF is beyond me. It’s the sort of movie that suggests festivals are little more than a junket opportunity for bad movies that need all the help they can get and/or an excuse to parade a bunch of stars into town. Though inspired by a not-so-manly-titled book called The Feather Men, it has chosen to rip off its title (sans the word ‘The’) from a solid Peckinpah action picture from the 70s starring James Caan and Robert Duvall. The Killer Elite is far from Sam’s best work, but I’d argue one frame of it beats this noisy, jack-hammering and ultimately leaden, meandering macho-man movie.
What will keep Bloody Sam from rolling in his grave is that this is, at least, not a remake of his movie. Basically we’ve got two old buddies – Jason Statham and Robert De Niro – who work as soldier-for-hire assassins. After a dull, contrived opening action set-piece, Statham’s character decides it’s time to retire. De Niro doesn’t. He’s kidnapped and used as ransom for Statham to take another job. The target is Clive Owen (sporting a stupid-looking moustache) as a rogue British operative. Cat and mouse ensues. The idea of an action movie starring these three thrills me to bits. Unfortunately, they’re wasted in an action movie directed by someone who clearly has no idea how to direct action – another contemporary genre picture with lots of bluster, far too many close-ups and/or boneheaded herky-jerky camera moves and attention-span-challenged editing.
W.E. (2011) ***
The King’s Speech gave me pathological haemorrhoids. Thankfully my piles receded after seeing Madonna’s W.E. This vaguely feminist fairy tale crossed with fashion porn is a wildly stylish, dazzlingly entertaining and sumptuously melodramatic flipside to the aforementioned horrendous Oscar-baiting nonsense. Instead of Colin Firth spluttering with nobility as King George VI in television director Tom Hooper’s painfully earnest snooze-fest we get an exuberantly acted reverie into the life of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the snappily dressed American divorcee who wooed King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) into her boudoir, forcing him to abdicate for the woman he loved and thus allowing his stuttering, half-wit brother to mincingly don the Crown of Jolly Old England, hoist Blighty’s sceptre and eventually provide inspiration for the aforementioned haemorrhoid-inducer of a movie.
The love story in W.E. is told rather goofily through the eyes of Wally (Abbie Cornish) – named thus by her Wallis Simpson-obsessed mother. Wally is married to a philandering, alcoholic, abusive psychiatrist (Richard Coyle) and spends her days wandering through Sotheby’s public viewing of Wallis and Edward’s soon-to-be-auctioned worldly goods. There she meets the dreamy Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant Russian musician moonlighting as a security guard. He’s an olive-skinned, high-cheekboned Fabio with a Slavic accent and a great Jason Statham dome. He tinkles the ivories with passion and reads Rainer Maria Rilke. He’s a catch! Instead of immediately plunging herself onto Evgeni’s schwancen, she mopes about wondering why her hubby dinks around on her while sticking herself with hypodermics full of progesterone – hoping that she’ll get herself a bun in the oven. And then there’s Sotheby’s. There, she ogles Wallis and Edward’s finery and slips into dollops of their passionate love story – even occasionally getting visits from the ghost of Wallis, who dispenses Miss Lonelyheart’s advice.
OK, I bet you’re thinking this all sounds kind of stupid. Well, it probably would be, but Madonna’s insane, passionate direction yields a movie experience that is pure romance. Via cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, Madame Ciccone allows the camera to glide and whirl its way through the dress and décor of the filthy rich with such abandon that she creates a magical world that we’re very happy to be a part of. Many critics are pouncing on Madonna for this movie. In this day and age, when it’s harder and harder to finance a movie and next to impossible to get a movie directed by a woman off the ground, an easy target is someone who is as rich, famous and powerful as she is. There’s a reason she’s rich, famous and powerful. She has exceptional style, savvy and talent. Most of all, making a movie about Wallis and Edward and focusing on Wallis is – dare I say – something we’d ONLY see from a female director. So it’s Madonna. Why the fuck not? W.E. is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen all year. I feel like a virgin all over again.
Killer Joe (2011) ****
At one point during William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, an unexpected roundhouse to the face turns its recipient’s visage into a pulpy, swollen, glistening, blood-caked skillet of corned beef hash. Said recipient is then forced at gunpoint to fellate a grease-drenched KFC drumstick and moan in ecstasy while family members have little choice but to witness this horrendous act of violence and humiliation. William Friedkin, it seems, has his mojo back. We’re in Jim Thompson territory here as we delight in a tale of a white trash family living in a trailer park, who hire the services of a hitman to knock off a relative for insurance money. It’s nasty, sleazy and insanely, darkly hilarious. This celluloid bucket of glorious untreated sewage is directed with Friedkin’s indelible command of the medium and shot with a terrible beauty by ace cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Friedkin, the legendary director of The French Connection, The Exorcist and Cruising, dives face first into the slop with the exuberance of a starving hog at the trough, and his cast delivers the goods with all the relish needed to guarantee a heapin’ helpin’ of Southern inbred Gothic. This, my friends, is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. Trust William Friedkin to bring us back so profoundly and entertainingly to those halcyon days. Oh, and if you’ve ever desired to see a drumstick adorned with Colonel Sanders’s batter, fellated with Linda Lovelace gusto, allow me to reiterate that you’ll see it here. It is, I believe, a first.
* * *
My capsule reviews above were all published in longer-form at Daily Film Dose along with several pieces by my colleague Alan Bacchus.
All in all, this proved to be a most satisfying edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. In addition to all of the above I managed to squeeze in over 20 movies in 10 days. Other titles I saw included Jonathan Demme’s final trilogy of Neil Young concert movies (Neil Young Life), a satisfying picture with All Neil All the Time and a stunning set-piece in honour of the victims of the Kent State Massacre; a moving and entertaining documentary on one of our great songwriters (Paul Williams Still Alive); Lars von Trier’s staggering Melancholia; Steve McQueen’s well-directed, but overrated Shame, a dramatic exploration of sex addiction that’s high on style, but lacks humour; a great Willem Defoe performance as a man tracking the Tasmanian tiger in the not-so-great The Hunter and a wretched low-budget post-apocalyptic thriller taking one slice out of the lives of non-cannibalistic survivors called The Day.
The city of Toronto and its major international film festival may well be too smug for their own good, but all is well in the colonies when so many great movies are on view.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you: Bon Cinema!
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews