There is no better place than Cannes to be reminded of the differences in taste and perspective between oneself and the rest of the critics’ world. But this year, the fierce reviews that Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s first foray into directing, received after its premiere in the Un Certain Regard section, made me wonder what was actually at stake here. Judging from the 10-minute-long standing ovations for one of Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs before and after the screening it was clear that it didn’t have anything to do with a waning of his celebrity power – in fact, it didn’t really matter to the majority of the audience what film was on show that night as long as Gosling was in the room. Looking at it more closely, his fairly impressive directing debut seems to have fallen victim to the same fate as Nicholas Winding Refn’s brilliant Only God Forgives (starring Gosling in the lead role and clearly serving as an inspiration for his own surrealist end-time tale) the year before: most critics didn’t know (or didn’t care) what to make of its alluring blend of affecting visual beauty and sparse (if, in Gosling’s case, slightly messy) narrative, and the few who loved it at first sight were instantly stared at with incredulity.
Watch the trailer for Lost River:
All in all though, there weren’t as many exciting films on offer as last year, despite some terrific surprises. In particular, Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (his fifth feature film since his 2009 directorial debut I Killed My Mother) yielded beautifully raw emotions, caustic humour and moments of cinematic brilliance. And outlandish Argentine competition entry Wild Tales, by Damián Szifró;n, was a popular, hard-hitting and often hilarious portmanteau comedy featuring a bunch of diverse and increasingly hysterical characters who spectacularly lose control and go off the deep end.
Resembling last year’s mad dash for the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, the biggest buzz this time revolved around David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. A highly charged, cynical ghost story about today’s fucked-up Hollywood society, it stars Mia Wasikowska as the troubled daughter of a self-help guru who is battling her internal demons while working as a PA to a fading yet feisty actress (Julianne Moore).
Atom Egoyan’s cliché-ridden The Captive was the weakest competition entry for me, It faced strong competition from Olivier Assayas’s pretentious The Clouds of Sils Maria and from The Search, Michel Hazanavicius’s clumsy follow-up to The Artist, a muddled and sentimental war drama about a human rights worker who takes in a young Chechen refugee during the war in 1999. I also didn’t enjoy Asia Argento’s Un Certain Regard entry Incompresa for all its cockeyed quirkiness, although nothing could have topped the critics’ complete and unanimous disapproval of Olivier Dahan’s opening film Grace of Monaco.
But there was some noteworthy (if unsurprisingly rather heavyweight) art-house fare on show in the Competition this year. Nuri Bilge Ceylan impressed jury and critics alike with his three-hour-plus Chekhovian drama Winter Sleep about a wealthy, retired actor who runs a mountaintop hotel and fills his days with writing and dealing with his failing marriage. Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev draws more decisively on Tarkovsky’s inheritance in the poetic imagery and the gravity of his slow-paced, powerful and elusive thriller-drama Leviathan.
The usually slightly neglected midnight screenings were strong this year with David Michôd’s The Rover, his superb follow-up to Animal Kingdom (2010), and Kristian Levring’s conventionally plotted but deftly crafted Danish Western The Salvation. The third film screening at midnight was Chang’s rather predictable and slightly dull thriller The Target, which fell short of expectations but still managed to deliver the fun, big-screen action spectacle it was intended to be. In comparison, and more convincing in its mission to prove that the crafty and clever Korean crime thriller is not dead, was Kim Seong-hun’s A Hard Day.
Watch the trailer for The Rover:
Apart fom Lost River, the other standouts in the Un Certain Regard selection included Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s unwieldy and progressively surreal drama Jauja and the only German festival entry, Amour Fou, Jessica Hausner’s rigidly stylised but original and witty portrait of the troubled Romantic writer and poet Heinrich von Kleist and his accomplice Henriette Vogel in the lead-up to their joint suicide in 1811. Typically, this year’s crowd-pleasing Un Certain Regard winner, Kornél Mundruczó;’s White God , split the critics once again: some saw it as clumsy and misguided social commentary, while others reacted warmly to the remarkable acting range of the dogs starring in the film.
On the whole, even with (or perhaps because of) the wide diversity in the reception of the films and a little less hype about the programme, these highlights prove once more that Cannes remains a great hunting ground for the weird, wild and unexpected.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Miscellany
Miscellany is the theme of this final colonial report on the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, for this is ultimately the fest’s greatest stock in trade. One of the truly delightful activities during the Dominion of Canada’s greatest cultural event (bar none) is watching a variety of motion pictures from EVERYWHERE. So here, dearest scavenger of all things cinematic, is a grab bag of product I snuffled up during 10 days of movie gluttony. No better place to experience a whack of movies than in the colonies.
Tracks (John Curran, 2013) **1/2
Robyn Davidson (played by Mia Wasikowska) was an Aussie hippie chick who abandoned a formal post-secondary education and instead lived with a bunch of radical animal-science types in Adelaide (where she learned a whole ton about God’s creatures). She subsequently joined a left-wing organisation of wanker egghead fruitcakes in Sydney (that included the likes of Germaine Greer) where she grooved the Bohemia Electric. In the 70s she settled in the middle of nowhere and learned everything she always wanted to know about camels (and was, decidedly, not afraid to ask). Her first experience was with a brutal camel farmer who exploited her until, finally, she met and worked for a kindly camel expert who taught her a great deal and partially bankrolled what was to become her biggest challenge – a 1700-mile trek alone across the deserts of Western Oz from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Well, she wasn’t completely alone – she had her faithful mutt and a handful of ornery, but loyal camels. Since the National Geographic Society financed the sojourn, she was occasionally in the company of Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), a photographer who would add the pictorial materials to Robyn’s eventual story in the famous wildlife magazine. The two enjoyed an on-again-off-again love affair and eventually Robyn wrote a memoir that this film is based upon.
This is by no means a dreadful film. Wasikowska is a pleasing screen presence and very easy on the eyes. The camels, being insanely cute, are even easier on one’s ocular orbs. Unfortunately, the movie feels like a Walt Disney True Life Nature Adventure crossed with a Harlequin Romance in the wilds of Australia, with occasionally chaste boinking twixt the human lovebirds, and sadly none involving the camels.
Watch the trailer for Tracks:
Le démantèlement (Sébastien Pilote, 2013) *****
Who is Sébastien Pilote? Seriously, who the hell is this guy, anyway? These were questions I asked myself upon seeing his extraordinary first feature film Le vendeur. This stunning Quebecois kitchen-sink drama was so raw, real and infused with a seldom-paralleled acute pain that the film’s quiet power instantly revealed its creator’s cinematic genius. Starring the great Gilbert Sicotte as an ace car salesman in a small factory town in Quebec on the brink of total financial collapse, this staggeringly powerful, exquisitely-acted and beautifully written motion picture was, for me, the first genuine Quebecois heir apparent to the beautiful-yet-not-so-beautiful-loser genre of English-Canadian cinema (best exemplified by films like Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road, Peter Pearson’s Paperback Hero and Zale Dalen’s Skip Tracer). As if making a modern masterpiece of Quebec cinema as a first feature wasn’t enough, I eventually caught up with Pilote’s earlier short film Dust Bowl Ha! Ha! , which featured André Bouchard as a hard-working family man in small-town Quebec who stoically maintains his dignity in a world where nothing and nobody escapes the crushing weight of the financial crisis. This turned out to be one of the best short films I had ever seen – period – a phenomenal portrait of humanity, so graceful and so simple, that upon first seeing it I felt about as winded as I did after I first saw Le vendeur.
So now I have even more reason to ask: Who the fuck is Sébastien Pilote? His second feature Le démantèlement completely and utterly knocked me on my ass. Starring the legendary Gabriel Arcand as a Quebec sheep farmer, the film extraordinarily blends a neo-realist sensibility with the sort of pace one takes while appreciating a work of visual art. As such, it is not only thought-provoking drama, but visually astonishing, gorgeously lit and composed by cinematographer Michel La Veaux in a classical tradition not unlike that of Haskell Wexler’s heartbreakingly beautiful work in Bound for Glory.
Gaby Gagnon (Arcand) has worked the family farm his whole life – long after his brothers abandoned rural life, long after his wife left him to say farewell to a suffocating existence and now he continues to painstakingly toil away, often missing, but seldom seeing, the daughters he loves so dearly and who live far away in Montreal. He has friends: his loyal pal and accountant (Gilles Renaud) who brings good humour, fellowship and counsel into his life (along with an unwanted clunker of a computer); a neighbouring widow (Dominique Leduc) who endows him with warmth and commiseration; and he has a sweet-eyed, 10-year-old dog who sticks to his side faithfully. They all offer some solace to Gaby’s isolation, but when his accountant pal speaks disapprovingly about how the family seems to have all but abandoned him, Gaby shrugs it all off as being an inevitability. Thanks to Arcand’s extraordinary performance, we don’t really buy his expectations of abandonment and disappointment. If there is anything that provides Gaby with genuine solace, it is the work itself. During the first third of the film, Pilote painstakingly details the drudgery of Gaby’s daily chores, almost to the point where one feels like the movie could be a sumptuously photographed documentary about sheep farming in rural Quebec (instilling avid interest in the rearing of mutton to the unlikeliest candidates for such tutelage). I might be insane, but I could have watched Gabriel Arcand tending to this farm in Frederick Wiseman-like breadth and girth for hours.
It is in this section of the film that we get an acute sense that Gaby’s heart and soul is farming, so much so that when we eventually get to the action of the film’s title we’re devastated in extremis. This is where another aspect of Pilote’s brilliant storytelling approach sneaks stealthily upon us – we not only understand why Gaby would never imagine another life, but it seems like there isn’t a single shot or story beat employed in which we don’t fall in love with the world of the farm either. There’s nothing overtly sentimental about this approach – Pilote never tempers his gaze upon the hardships and/or challenges of farm life, but in fact creates a sense of life’s infinite give and take. To put too fine a point on it: climbing Mt. Everest is full of pain, hardship and requires a meticulous attention to every detail, but Good Goddamn (!) it’s worth it.
Watch the trailer for Le démantèlement:
When Gaby gets a visit from his oldest daughter Marie (Lucie Laurier), he’s informed that her marriage is over and she needs a $200,000 loan to buy out her debt-ridden husband’s share of her home. For both her sake and her kids, he agrees to look into finding the money by using his farm as collateral. His youngest daughter Frédérique (an exquisitely radiant Sophie Desmarais), a carefree Montreal stage actress, actually seems to have more sense than her older sister and points out to Gaby that he’s being taken advantage of if he risks the farm. And like all good fathers, he shrugs and admits he knows this.
Almost as painstaking in its detail as the recreation of farm life is the ‘dismantlement’ (the English title is The Auction), and it is here where the elements of tragedy kick into high gear. There are several subtle allusions in the film to Shakespeare’s King Lear, and as in that immortal work, I defy any audience member to not be moved to tears on several occasions throughout this emotionally devastating series of events. There are sequences of almost unbearable pain. A visit to an animal shelter to ‘take care’ of the dog nobody wants rivals the old man’s visit to the dog-pound gas chambers in Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D, while a scene where Gaby tours a decrepit, low-income housing unit is equally fraught with the same grim, stark power generated by the Italian neo-realists. The final half of the film is thoroughly heart-wrenching, but most astoundingly, it is here where Pilote demonstrates such world-wise maturity that we come to recognise and accept with both sadness and joy that it is indeed death that yields regeneration. And what soaring, truthful and deeply moving regeneration the film offers.
Who is Sébastien Pilote?
One of the greatest filmmakers of Quebec, and that means something.
A lot, actually.
Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975) *****
A delivery boy strolls down the hall of a new luxury high rise just as a grotesquely corpulent old woman pokes her head out of a doorway and moans lasciviously: ‘I’m hungry.’ She waits for a response, then parrots petulantly: ‘I’m hungry!’ Lunging violently at the lad, her teeth bared, she screams, ‘I’m hungry for love!’ As she sates her unholy desires, a gelatinous blood-parasite is deposited down his throat as she sucks face with him. This is one of many vomit-tempting moments in David Cronenberg’s first commercial feature film, Shivers, which happily inspired incredulous Canuck pundits to demand government accountability, as the picture represented an early investment from the Dominion’s federal cultural funding agency. The 1973 horror classic has been restored by the Toronto International Film Festival, and premiered during the 2013 edition. It’s not only a scare-fest, but is also replete with all manner of nasty laughs, all of them wrenched naturally out of an utterly unnatural situation. Pre-dating the AIDS crisis, Cronenberg links sex with death. The delightfully simple tale involves a new form of parasitical venereal disease spreading like wildfire within a Montreal luxury community, gated by its island borders on the mighty St Lawrence. The disease turns its victims into homicidal sex maniacs.
Allow me to repeat that:
HOMICIDAL SEX MANIACS!!!
And what a frothy concoction Shivers truly is with all manner of viscous emissions:
• Blood parasites being vomited from a balcony onto an old lady’s clear plastic umbrella;
• Parasites roiling and bubbling just under the surface of Alan Migicovsky’s sexy, hairy belly;
• A lithe, nude body of a lassie formerly adorned in a school uniform has her midriff sliced open, her insides then drenched in acid.
Add to this frothy concoction a whole whack o’ babes, from pretty Susan Petrie as a weepy wifey, Lynn Lowry as a drop-dead gorgeous nurse, to the heart-stopping British scream queen Barbara Steele.
Stunningly, Cronenberg manages, in one salient area, to match the great Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hitch, of course, infused utter terror in the minds of millions who dared to take a shower. In Shivers, Cronenberg delivers one of the most horrendous bathtub violations ever committed to celluloid. Best of all, the sequence involves Barbara Steele. ‘God bless you, Mr Cronenberg, God bless you!’
Watch the trailer for Shivers:
L’intrepido (Gianni Amelio, 2013) *
When someone annoys you, tell me you don’t want to just deck him, right? I mean, really fuckin’ deck him – just coldcock the sonofabitch with a solid roundhouse to the face. It’s perfectly understandable, yes? Alas, life and art are the great divide. In life, you deck the fucker. Art’s another story. If you put your fist through the movie screen, you’re guaranteed a trip to the hoosegow. Here I was, then, at TIFF 2013, watching Gianni Amelio’s latest movie – bad enough, I know – and I’m staring up at the BIG screen and forced to stomach a character I want to punch in the face.
Let me then introduce you to Antonio (Antonio Albanese). The guy’s a real piece of work. His eyes are always sparkling and he’s usually got a stupid half-smile plastered on his face. Life has dealt the loser with more than his fair share of crummy cards, but he’s so gosh-darn kind and cheerful all the time that your first impulse is to, well, you know – smash the fucker square in the face. He’s a great intellect, yet Italy is in such a financial mess that there’s no decent place for a middle-aged man like him to ply any reasonable sort of craft. He toils mule-like as a replacement worker in a myriad of menial jobs, and to add insult to injury, his wife has left him. (Any guesses why?) In spite of this, he’s such a happy fellow that when some scumbags steal pizzas out of his delivery container, he shrugs it off, goes back to the pizza joint, barters for more pizzas, delivers them to a bunch of old ladies in a sewing factory and, upon realizing that he might have a problem getting the dough he’s owed from these ravenous pizza-slurping harpies, he dazzles them with his prowess at the sewing machine. Adding to his coldcock potential, Antonio ‘meets cute’ with a gorgeous young babe. Obviously, it’s only in Italy (or in a Gianni Amelio movie) where grinning, balding, middle-aged losers with no secure employment have no problem charming the pants off young fillies. This, however, being a Gianni Amelio movie, he of the ‘I believe in the indomitable spirit of the EVERYMAN’ school of proletarian-boosting, the sickly sweetness of the tale will be tempered with bitterness, but goddamnit, we’re going to learn a good lesson.
Frankly, the only lesson I want to learn is how to coldcock a movie character living on-screen and/or in the mind of the insufferable director who’s foisted him upon me. Until then, I’ll find some dweeb in a film festival line-up, whacking me with his goddamn knapsack, shovelling granola down his throat and talking loudly with his detestable mouth open whilst his barefoot, granny-glasses-adorned, hippie-chick girlfriend who smells like she hasn’t seen a bathtub in weeks hangs on his every word. I’ll coldcock him and his girlfriend to avoid hoosegow-incarceration for vandalising a screen in a movie theatre by punching a huge hole or two in it.
Border (Alessio Cremonini, 2013) ***1/2
Fatima is a new bride. Her husband has gone to war and she lives a quiet life with her sister Aya in the conjugal flat. The sisters are extremely devout and spend a great deal of their time devoted to practising their faith. When news comes that Fatima’s husband has left the Syrian Army to join the Free Army of ‘rebels’, they have very little time to react. Aya is already a survivor of gang rape, torture and incarceration, and while she understands what could well await them, she’s also wary of the complete stranger sent by Fatima’s husband to whisk them out of Syria to safety and freedom in Turkey. Still, there’s really no choice for either woman. The actions of a totalitarian government and, to an extent, Fatima’s husband, have pretty much removed any vestige of self-determination in the matter.
After hurriedly throwing together a few essentials, they are plunged into following a man they do not know through ‘enemy’ territory. The only real choice the two women make, and it’s at great risk to their safety, is that they both refuse to remove their religious headgear which, while on the road, could well give them away. The trip is fraught with several unexpected turns that keep them from moving as quickly as had been hoped. Deception, double-crosses and danger lie around each corner.
When they discover a recently tortured and slaughtered family deep in a Syrian forest, the stark, brutal reality truly hits home, but upon discovering a lone survivor of the massacre, the women both realise that this might well be the symbolic hope they need to find safety. In so doing, however, they will also have to protect this person.
There are no false notes in Border. The superb performances, the exquisitely structured screenplay (by director Cremonini and Susan Dabbous) and finally, Cremonini’s terse helmsmanship of the action, create a tension that, at times, becomes far more unbearable than if the story had been presented in some overtly overwrought manner (as might have been the case if directed by an American). Border is, in its own way, a kind of celebration of self-determination in a world where so much is awry due to the warmongering of men, and where every step these women must take might be one step closer to the most unimaginable horrors.
Watch the trailer for Border:
Child of God (James Franco, 2013) ***** ‘Everybody knows you never go full retard…Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man, looks retarded, acts retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic yes, but not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump . Slow, yes. Retarded, no… Peter Sellers, Being There. Infantile yes. Retarded, no… Never go full retard… Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed…’ Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder
Scott Haze as Lester Ballard, the inbred, slow-witted Tennessee cracker-barrel hero of James Franco’s stunning film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Child of God, takes a crap on-screen, wipes his poopy-butt with a stick, delivers plenty of buttock flashes (replete with ass-crack) and dolls himself up in the most hideous drag ever wrought on the silver screen, but he most surely, undoubtedly and definitely does not serve up the aforementioned ‘full retard’. Haze’s genuinely affecting and bravely brilliant performance does, however, offer something a tad more egregious than ‘full retardation’ to keep him from his date with Oscar.
The family farm has been auctioned off and our hero, shotgun in hand, takes to an old hunting shack in the deep woods where he lives out his life. Sheriff Fate (Tim Blake Nelson) and Deputy Cotton (Jim Parrack) keep a healthy watch on Lester, since the boy occasionally flies off the handle and needs to be given some quality rest time in a padded cell. They seem oddly sympathetic to Lester, but ultimately, what can they really do when naughty shenanigans occur in the county? They’ve got to target someone. After all, our boy Lester is just plumb crazy.
Lester is also a full-bodied young lad, and when he discovers a lovers’ lane area in the backwoods, he develops a healthy penchant for peeping through the back seat windows of parked cars. As the vehicles bob up and down to the strokes of amore, the dulcet tones of moans wafting through the air, Lester handily (so to speak) beats his meat to the proceedings. One morning, he spies a vehicle still running. In the back seat are the bodies of a young couple locked in a lovers’ embrace, and they are stone cold from carbon monoxide poisoning. With keen interest, Lester notices that the young lady is awful purty. Hmmm. What’s an ornery country boy with a hard-on supposed to do in a situation like this? Well, he does what no Oscar-winning performance will ever be acknowledged for. And he does it repeatedly. Subsequent recipients of his man-juice are not quite stupid enough to die of carbon monoxide poisoning and leave their bodies lying around for pubic penetration from randy Lester. Luckily for our boy, he’s mighty handy with a shotgun.
Franco has managed to do the near impossible, in rendering a character (especially via Haze’s performance) who gains our empathy to a point where we even get the ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, Lester, ya’ shouldn’t oughtta be doin’ that’ feeling.
Watch the trailer for Child of God:
Child of God is a genuine triumph. Franco handles the picture with verve and style. He even manages to utilise chunks of McCarthy’s prose in a series of odd ‘conversational’ voice-overs and literal title cards splashing across the screen. This technique cleverly roots the film in the glorious American literary tradition of Southern Gothic. Franco elicits a wide range of great performances and his actual coverage and composition of the dramatic action feels like the work of someone who’s been directing movies his whole career. The picture is grotesque, at times sickening and often shocking, but it is rooted in genuine humanity and is easily one of the best films of the year. (It also prompted more walkouts at the screening I attended than anything I’ve experienced at TIFF in quite some time. This alone says EVERYTHING).
James Smythe was born in 1980 in London, and now lives in West Sussex. After gaining a PhD from Cardiff University, he’s gone on to teach creative writing and work as a writer and narrator on video games. He’s the author of The Machine (Blue Door/Harper Collins, £12.99) and The Explorer (Harper Voyager, £7.99) and his novels have been described as ‘an episode of Star Trek written by J. M. Coetze’. He is also re-reading Stephen King for The Guardian website. Eithne Farry
I am Brundlefly/Seth Brundle from Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). Bzzzt.
David Cronenberg is a genius. I don’t use that word lightly, either. He’s been responsible for some of the greatest pieces of cinema ever made, and he’s done it all while carrying themes and ideas from film to film, always moving forward while constantly nodding backwards. The Fly is maybe my favourite of his (fighting it out with Dead Ringers). It’s based on a story of the same name by George Langelaan, and it’s… Bzzzzt.
Sorry. It’s one of those great sci-fi stories where the main character reaches too far, hubristically heading too deeply into a thing that they don’t understand, and the repercussions are enormous. In The Fly, that character is Dr. Seth Brundle. He’s got a teleportation device that he’s invented, meant to transfer the molecules of something from one portal to another.
There’s a rush of invention for him: as soon as it works on inanimate objects, he wants more. He tries animals, and he loses track of his own safety measures. And, all the while, he’s entering a relationship with Veronica, a journalist. He gets distracted, and drunk, and then… Bzzzzzzt.
Then he decides to teleport himself across the room, despite not knowing if it’ll be safe. A fly gets caught in the device with him, and he starts to change. He becomes Brundlefly. And so, welcome to me as a writer. I get caught up. I find things that are shiny and I try to explore those, and I probably dive in before I’m ready. (Some writers are methodical and take their time. Not me. Blast out a first draft, then worry about making it work. I’m eager, probably over-eager. I write too much, and I throw away and start again.) Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzt.
I’m pretty sure that a fly got trapped inside my keyboard at some point, and he’s what’s helping me write now. Typing words when I’m not looking. I’m not changing physically, maybe – grey hair? Do flies have grey hair? – but still. Sometimes I feel like I know what I’m doing when I write something. But sometimes? Sometimes I’m clinging to the walls, and I do not feel like myself at all.
More information on James Smythe can be found here.
To mark the UK Blu-ray release of Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, Daniel Bird looks at the genre implications which stem from the film.
In 1996, I met the writer and musician Stephen Thrower at a programme of Jess Franco films at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, London. Thrower was the editor of Eyeball, a fanzine celebrating art and exploitation in European cinema (although in the last few issues Thrower expanded his horizon globally). Eyeball was designed to mimic the layout of the defunct Monthly Film Bulletin. With wit and intelligence, Thrower (along with the likes of Pete Tombs) mapped out a zone of convergence between European high art and more low-brow tastes (genre film, comic books, pornography, etc.). In Eyeball, a review of Godard’s Pierrot le fou would rub shoulders with a reappraisal of Franco’s Virgin among the Living Dead – and why not? Ado Kyrou flagged up the ‘sublime’ moments to be found in ‘bad’ films. Franco made lots of bad films (so has Godard). Thrower was particularly keen on Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) – a film that was, at the time, pretty much loathed all round. In short, its ‘artiness’ pissed off the horror crowd, while the monster and copious blood-letting excluded it from the prissy gaze of the ‘art house’ set. Thrower, however, loved it, and had no qualms about dedicating the last issue of Eyeball to Żuławski.
In spring 1997, Thrower and I travelled to Paris to interview Żuławski. Szamanka had opened in France and was about to close. It was only playing in one cinema in Saint Michel, and the reviews plastered outside the foyer made for an entertaining read. Libération urged anyone who saw ?u?awski approaching a movie camera to shoot him with a tranquilizer gun. Szamanka did not disappoint: it offered an unhinged performance by a beautiful unknown, and bruising social comment (not to mention cannibalism and nuclear war). Żuławski was admirably intransigent during the interview, rubbishing Terry Gilliam’s Fisher King, Ken Loach’s social realist camera set-ups while proposing that if Martians land on earth then they should be made to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ‘because they might learn something about what it is to be human’. That is not, however, to suggest ?u?awski was a ‘fan’ of genre cinema – on the contrary. Anything that adhered to a ‘formula’ (ironic or otherwise) clearly bored him senseless. It reminded me of an interview Thrower conducted with Alejandro Jodorowsky around the time of the UK release of Santa Sangre. Jodorowsky said that, for him, the horror film was the only genre in which film poetry could still exist. Similarly, David Cronenberg asserted that he was not interested in gore, but rather imagery that could only be shown in the horror genre – like the tumour firing ‘cancer gun’ in Videodrome (Cronenberg, it seems, has gone back on this stance in favour of middle-class respectability). One of the things that impressed me the most about Possession was how Żuławski did not ‘suggest’ the monster (as Polanski did in Rosemary’s Baby), but rather showed it in its slimy, tentacled glory.
Towards the end of the 1990s, the French magazine Starfix asked a number of directors to list their films of the 1980s. Żuławski’s list included:
All That Jazz
Fanny and Alexander
Two trends can be discerned: first, take The Shining, The Thing and Blade Runner – three films that were marketed as genre films, but whose beauty, initial commercial failure and current ‘classic’ status rest in the fact that they are – like Possession – anything but formulaic; second, All That Jazz, Fanny and Alexander and Platoon are rooted in personal experience – but in each case Fosse, Bergman and Stone take what could have been mere memoir material to the realm of cinema. All That Jazz and Fanny and Alexander are not just honest and painful – they are also fantastic and, in the case of Platoon, hallucinatory. Żuławski’s list is of films that, like his own, all in some way ‘pierce reality’.
I have no problem with the word ‘genre’. Genre just means category. The novel is a genre, as distinct from poetry. The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about how the ‘novel genre’ was rooted in banter, gossip and jokes of the market place as opposed to the sombre, authority of, say, a church sermon. By the same logic, a feature film is a genre in itself, period. However, when the ‘tropes’ that define that category become prescriptive, then the result is familiarity, boredom and apathy. Another Russian, the critic Viktor Shklovsky, wrote about how the job of the artist was to come up with a device that made the familiar seem strange. The ‘strangeness’ sets our brain a challenge, and the process of dealing with it is engaging – not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one too (see Ben Wheatley’s ‘horror’ films – Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England). Take The Thing – the Howard Hawks original is a respected, but ultimately hokey ‘man in a suit’ affair. In Carpenter’s version, however, all bets were off: anything could be the thing; we, as viewers, had to readjust to this – the result was something very disturbing indeed. In Possession, Żuławski made a marital breakdown ‘strange’ by showing ‘the horror’ – this was not Scenes from a Marriage – it was something else. Let us not forget that Bergman also turned to the fantastic (The Hour of the Wolf – a film that would make a great double bill with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). The monster in Possession (like the thing in Carpenter’s film) is incredibly poetic in the sense that it conjures up intense emotions through imagery – not unlike Kafka’s cockroach in his short story, ‘The Metamorphosis’.
Kafka frequently wrote stories about animals, but Disney is never going to pick up the rights from the Max Brod estate. The problem, for me, begins with the culture of ‘pitching’ ideas. Frederic Tuten, the co-writer of Possession, once told me an anecdote about a friend who was commissioned to write a script for ‘Jaws in Venice’. Tuten said that while the idea is ridiculous – the juxtaposition of those two elements – a killer shark and urban canals – conjures up an idea that can be, above all else, sold. The problem with such pitches is that they are often reductive and restrictive. Yes, Anna Karenina is ‘about a woman who is unfaithful’ – but it is also so much more. Similarly, Possession is not just ‘about a woman who fucks an octopus’. To pigeonhole Possession as a genre film is to go into the film wearing blinkers. Genre elements are often a disguise, like masks worn during a carnival (see Dostoevsky – whose stories all feature ‘crimes’ but could in no way be confused with episodes of C.S.I. – although it might be interesting to see Crime and Punishment in the style of C.S.I. , just as The Idiot could easily be recast as a love triangle between a geek, a jock and a cheerleader). To only see the mask and not sense what the mask is hiding is to lose out on what makes a film special. The ‘genre mask’ in itself is not interesting. Rather, it is a prop in the game of cinema, which itself is a reflection on life.
Possession is released in the UK on Blu-ray by Second Sight on 29 July 2013.
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