22 October 2014

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: EL CORDERO (JUAN FRANCISCO OLEA, CHILE)

Screens at CIFF: 10/10 & 10/12 & 10/22
Work-in-progress premiere: 2012, Viña del Mar International Film Festival

Oh, Catholic guilt! What would cinema be without you? The Italian and Latin American film industries would hardly be able to exist, Martin Scorsese wouldn’t have a career, and there’d be no The Godfather, Part II. And here, from Chile, we find a film that has the meat to be a particularly cutting and funny treatment of that evergreen topic, El Cordero - “the Lamb”, in English, and golly Moses, is it ever unlikely that you could forget that fact while watching.

Nicolás Wellmann’s screenplay lays out the scenario with pleasing simplicity and efficiency: Domingo (Daniel Muñoz) is passionately religious, filling his life with missionary work when he’s not at a thoroughly meaningless job running a warehouse with his father-in-law Patricio (Julio Jung), or spending empty time with his wife Lorena (Trinidad González) and teenage son, Roque (Alfonso David). One night he thinks he hears burglars in the warehouse, and in a panic fires a gun at them; unfortunately, it was merely his secretary and her boyfriend having sex. After a few months, Domingo is ready to re-enter society, but something deeply bothers him: he has no feelings of guilt. Not in a sociopathic way; he regards the death as a sad tragedy and does not deny his part in making it happen at first. He simply doesn’t feel the anguish that his upbringing tells him he should, the horror at the thought of hellfire creeping up behind him for his mortal sin.

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: NABAT (ELCIN MUSAOGLU, AZERBAIJAN)

Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/12 & 10/22
World premiere: 5 September, 2014, Venice International Film Festival

If you like your stories of life in Islamic ex-Soviet states to be full of long takes with very little dialogue, a very literal concept of the link between the landscape and the people inhabiting it, and proud women whose weathered faces betray no emotion other than grand, world-defying taciturnity, then Nabat sure has a treat for you. If you don’t, you probably don’t watch all that many stories of life in Islamic ex-Soviet states to begin with.

That’s certainly more flippant than Nabat deserves: it is a lovely, minor-key fable about life during wartime with a solid if in some ways generic central performance by Fatemeh Motamed Arya as Nabat herself. The only real issue with it that I can see is that it feels profoundly overfamiliar, and I think even a viewer who has never seen a single film from the broadly-defined Eurasian region that tends to produce movies with similar themes and similar aesthetics to this one probably has picked up enough by osmosis that the things Nabat is up to and does undeniably well have the definite feel of art film clichés. For that’s exactly what they are; and while the film is strong despite them, and director Elchin Musaoglu does his level best to hunt for emotional reality beneath the stock images and concepts, ultimately Nabat is only willing to engage with its concepts down to a certain depth, and it is not a very deep depth. It leaves itself feeling vague and concept-driven, a little too openly eager about making its titular character an emblem of The Women of Azerbaijan In Their Nobility, and these things certainly do leave it feeling a bit puffed-up on artistry without necessarily having much to back it up.

2014 CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: DAY-BY-DAY GUIDE

The 50th Chicago International Film Festival is upon us, and that means its time for me to break out another edition of my day-by-day guide of everything I've seen. Reviews, when possible, will be linked after each capsule on the day after the film's first screening at the festival, or as soon as possible thereafter. I'll keep this post updated so that the current day is always at the top


Wednesday, 22 October, 2014

12:15 PM-
Nabat (Elcin Musaoglu, Azerbaijan)
If I refer to something as "Central Eurasian art film shtick", even I'm not entirely sure what I mean, but it just feels so right. It is a fine and gorgeously made film, understand, with its repeated compositions and implacable long takes unfolding like glaciers receding, depicting a decaying village with terrible visual splendor. Its evocation of one steel-eyed old woman as the embodiment of All People, Everywhere who refuse to give in to the march of time and soulless modernisation works pretty well too, though Nabat herself never quite manages to feel like an actual woman instead of a placeholder for concepts. So it is an greatly impressive and accomplished film all around, just a film that it's very easy to get out in front of; and there's absolutely nothing good to be said about the final act, which brings in metaphorical wolves and even worse, metaphorical wolf pups, and just goes straight off the rails into arthouse inanity. 7/10 (Reviewed here)

1:00 PM-
El cordero (Juan Francisco Olea, Chile)
This black comedy about a devout Catholic who accidentally murders his office assistant and then is horrified to realise that he doesn't feel guilty about it has all the ingredients to be a sharp if perhaps overly nasty satire on that longstanding hobbyhorse of South American and Italian filmmakers, Catholic Guilt. And for well over half of the movie, it feels like that's exactly where it's headed, with the killer's priest putting him in touch with an amoral prisoner who encourages him to commit ever greater crimes in the hope of awakening his dormant sense of self-loathing. It starts to sag as it goes on, though, and the inconsistency of all the characters beyond our protagonist starts to assert itself as more and more of a problem. It also suffers a bit from some unmistakable first-time director hiccups: transitions on the soundtrack that are much too proud of how clever they are, oddly-chosen camera angles conflicting uncomfortably with generic two-shots; that kind of thing. But when it works, it's real damn funny, and Daniel Muñoz is perfectly cast as a pathetic, boring-looking sad sack. 6/10 (Reviewed here)

2:00 PM, Best of the Fest-
The President (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Georgia / France / UK / Germany)
An unexpectedly snappy, funny, tense, and all-round entertaining film: unexpected first because its director and co-writer (with his wife Marzieh Meshkini - and by the way, when is she going to make another film, anyway?) is not remotely noted for his crowd-pleasers, and second because the content of the film, in which a murderous dictator and his little grandson flee through his country's wild areas in the wake of a revolution, encountering firsthand the results of his cruel reign, sounds like it should be a ghastly downer in anybody's hands. The angrily satiric tone trains its eyes first on the dictator's outrageously selfish behavior before expanding to indict the revolutionaries themselves, avenging violent thuggery by behaving as violent thugs; cynicism and worldliness thus sit alongside the haunting, even moving spectacle of the dictator reduced to rags and and filth, like a holy beggar in the wild. Some slow patches, but it's overall a very welcome shout from a filmmaker who's been much too quiet for a good while now. 8/10 (Reviewed here)

2:30 PM-
1001 Grams (Bent Hamer, Norway)
If not for its consistent, reliably droll sense of mordant Scandinavian humor, I'd feel fine with tossing this one out altogether. Aggressively and drearily shapeless in its first half, unless you count the choking precision of the color scheme, the story of a scientist traveling to the international "calibrating each nation's Official Kilogram" seminar on behalf of her ailing father sets up one half-hearted metaphor after another on its way to a gloppy ending that tries to sell us on the idea that the whole thing was a romantic comedy, while unconsciously stealing from 21 Grams, of all blessed things. Some fine performances and laugh-out-loud compositions are a compensation for a script that doesn't earn its scattered emotional journeys, but hardly enough to make for anything more than a forgettable, pleasant time-waster. 5/10 (Reviewed here)

5:45 PM-
Fair Play (Andrea Sedláčková, Czech Republic / Slovakia / Germany)
The CIFF guide breathlessly suggests that the official Czech submission to the Academy Awards "exposes the dangerous entanglement of ideology and sports in times of oppression", which, jerk that I am, sounds like a topic that surely isn't begging to be explored, nor is the link between sports and ideology as transparent and obvious as the blurb makes it sound. And yet, here we are, and it's a pretty solid, nervy little peek at life in the constant panicked hell of late-period Soviet socialism, where every moment of one's waking life is a self-aware political act, whether of submitting to or resisting the government. If it's the most shocking and insightful entry in what's something of a stock subgenre in modern Eastern European filmmaking, it's nonetheless a cleanly-told character drama with some impressive performances and a good slow build of its thrills, from a simple sports drama (what are the consequences of using steroids?) to a story in which, yes, ideology and sports get tangled (what are the consequences of not using steroids, if the overclass wants you to?). Straightforward but exciting. 7/10

6:00 PM-
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA)
The fear of STDs brilliantly literalised in the form of an unexplained malevolent force that adopts human form to stalk a young woman who picked up a curse from a sexual encounter with an older boy. Some clunky early plotting and frequently dodgy sound recording aren't nearly enough of a problem to derail the film's insightful, sweet look at late teenage friendships (though the film seems curiously unaware of social media or even cellular phones), nor its wonderful, slowly cranked-up tension punctuated by some great jump scares (it has a false scare so excellently timed, and with the characters themselves so awkwardly aware of the ridiculousness of the situation, that it works better than the legitimate scares in most lesser horror pictures), and its rewarding, not-at-all out of place jabs of humor in both the "nasty irony" and "casual hang-out banter" modes. And just when it shouldn't be able to get better, it absolutely nails the ending, avoiding the traditional horror pitfall of too much explanation and stop-the-monster contrivance by... but I shouldn't. If he keeps working in the genre, Mitchell clearly has the chops to become a generation-defining master. 8/10

6:15 PM-
A Few Cubic Meters of Love (Jamshid Mahmoudi, Afghanistan / Iran)
Romeo & Juliet in Tehran, with illegal Afghan refugees as the Capulets. So no, not original at all, and it comes as no surprise to find out that it's a first film, more concerned with existing at all than with cleverness or aesthetic boldness. But it's effective: the social realist style showcases the hardscrabble life of the refugees with bluntness and a gratifying lack of speechifying, while Hasiba Ebrahimi and Saed Soheili's performances as the star-crossed lovers have a lovely, casual coziness that evoke the shyness and excitement and silliness of young love in a deeply pleasing way. It's not surprising in the slightest, from its slice-of-life depiction of the refugees, the the shaky handheld camera, to the mordant poetry of the ending. But it works anyway, and the unexpected context lends freshness to its overfamiliar story. Nothing close to essential, but a satisfying watch. 7/10


21 October 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1986: In which hot new teenybopper superstars make impressively canny choices, while legendary cineastes do not

The Tom Cruise intro

I have spent a larger portion of my life thinking of Tom Cruise as a bobble-headed pretty boy than otherwise, but like all false beliefs, once you realise it's not true, it's hard to remember why you ever thought that way in the first place. I mean, yes, Top Gun, and the whole thing where was career was made because of the movie where he danced in his underwear, but throughout his career, Cruise has proven to be a smart manager of his image while also pursuing projects with genius artists from the whole gamut of established masters to hot young turks, and using his clout to get films made that would surely have gotten no traction otherwise, but aren't we all glad they did? The one-two punch of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia in 1999 is proof enough that beneath the magazine model looks, the loopy ebullience about Scientology, and the refusal to look or act remotely close to his age ever since he crossed the 40-year mark, Cruise knows shit. Much more than he's given credit for.

The earliest clear-cut evidence I can find for this comes a mere three years into his career, when Cruise co-starred in The Color of Money. It is maybe difficult to appreciate this as a cunning artistic move on the actor's part, since it's not terribly good and he's not especially distinguished in it, and the plot has a lot of similarities to his other "hotshot pisses off the mentor he's trying to learn from" movies of the 1980s. But here is a film directed by noted genius Martin Scorsese and starring movie star icon Paul Newman, patron saint of all gorgeous male actors who are also terrific, surprising, and complex actors. Think of what 24-year-old Cruise must have learned on that set! And it shows, on the edges; he'd have to wait a couple more years for the first performance where he'd actually upstage a more legendary actor (and I know that Dustin Hoffman got the Oscar and all for Rain Man, but I honestly don't see any argument that Cruise isn't doing more interesting stuff with a less showy role), but his performance here is easily the best thing he'd done by the end of 1986, and it's enormously tempting to read into the film's plot of an old master wearily forcing his knowledge onto a glossy, shallow newcomer who needs some humility knocked into him echoes of Cruise absorbing Newman's process from watching him and interacting with him on and off set. There is more than a little of Newman in Cruise's Vincent Lauria, to be certain.

* * * * *

The Martin Scorsese intro

No member of the New Hollywood generation transitioned to the 1980s with his talent and dignity more intact than Martin Scorsese, though Steven Spielberg comes close (but then, he was on the outskirts of the New Hollywood Cinema to begin with, and becoming an outright mainstream populist doesn't seem to have required a compromise of his principles). The decade began for Scorsese with his broadly acknowledged masterpiece, the stylised and daunting Raging Bull; he immediately followed that with The King of Comedy, his most criminally underappreciated film (I'd rank it second to only Raging Bull itself in his career). From there, it was on to After Hours, a weird and fitfully brilliant comedy that only an intelligent, thoughtful artist deliberately pushing himself could have possibly created, even if it occupies the place in his canon that Measure for Measure or the other "problem plays" occupy for Shakespeare.

And then came The Color of Money. The appeal is obvious: no cinephile of Scorsese's standing could conceivably pass up a chance to work with Paul Newman, and having the chance to make the 25-years-later sequel to Robert Rossen's The Hustler - a film and filmmaker cultishly adored by a particular breed of film lover, and Scorsese absolutely was of that breed - could only have sweetened the deal. But it was here, for no clear reason, that the full brunt of the 1980s finally seems to have caught up with Scorsese. He had made arguable or obvious failures before - After Hours and New York, New York chief among them - but the artistic ambition behind them is absolutely unmistakable. With The Color of Money, though, Scorsese just bottomed out completely; even looking ahead to the wildly erratic career he'd have in later decades, there's nothing he made so achingly generic and impersonal as this - Gangs of New York may be a fucking awful movie, but it is a Scorsese movie through and through. The Color of Money is a boring character drama that that doesn't even do a good job of cashing in on nostalgia; for all the quiet references to "25 years ago" and the career that Newman's "Fast Eddie" Felson had to give up, there's not a frame of the film that meaningfully benefits from the viewer's knowledge of The Hustler, a better drama and a better pool movie both.

It is no accident that the first, loudest, and most enthusiastic of all Scorsese boosters, Roger Ebert, publicly called him to account for wasting his talents like this; and no accident either that Scorsese took Ebert's criticism to heart and followed this with one of the most urgently personal, to the point of being alienating, films in his career, The Last Temptation of Christ. Anyone could have made The Color of Money; probably no-one should have, but Martin Scorsese least of all.

* * * * *

The Paul Newman intro

I mean, I'm completely, honestly glad that Paul Newman won an acting Oscar. It would have been an indescribable lapse if he hadn't. But really, couldn't it have been for any of his other eight nominations?

* * * * *

If The Color of Money works at all, it is because Thelma Schoonmaker is a genius. There is surprisingly little else that recommends itself in a movie that pairs two generations of iconic sexy male actors for the only time, gathers them under the guiding hand of one of the best handful of American film directors at the time of its production, and puts it all under the eye of the impossibly gifted cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. The Robbie Robertson score is kind of playfully dated, with its reliance on erotic thriller synthesisers, and there is of course always a great deal of pleasure to be had in watching movies about The Urban Underbelly that shoot that underbelly with relatively non-romantic clarity. But Scorsese's underbelly was New York, and the various underbellies depicted here lack the organic familiarity of the director's movies shot in his beloved hometown. Even the director's legendary gift for employing pop music in his filmmaking fails him: while there's a documentarylike precision to how The Color of Money fills itself to the brim with the kind of radio rock music that would have been heard in all the pool halls of America in 1985 and 1986, an extensive reliance on '80s corporate rock is miles and miles and miles away from the auditory brio of a Goodfellas, for example.

But the editing! That Schoonmaker, she had (and has, though I have grave misgivings about the cutting in The Wolf of Wall Street) some kind of impossible magic to her. The editing in The Color of Money is neither her best nor her worst (though it is impressive, I am sure, that she was able to get so much out of the footage without relying so heavily on the continuity cheating that has always marked her collaborations with Scorsese), but it's certainly shown off a lot more given how little life the movie would have without it. And please note, I'm not talking about the big, splashy "look at me!" editing that shows up in the pool-playing sequences, which like the boxing matches in Raging Bull, have each been designed from a completely different perspective in terms of camera movement, angles, cutting, and pacing (they're the only thing in the movie where Scorsese seems to be alive and excited to be making this movie out of all movies. In particular, the gliding camera movement in the pool scene set to Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" - the only inspired song choice in the movie - feels like top-notch Scorsese, as nothing else anywhere in the film does, though a depiction of a tournament site as something like a church comes close). The pool scenes are marvels of editing, but there's no particular triumph in any film professional - editor, cinematographer, actor, production designer, whatever - doing effective work in a sequence that has been specifically designed to showcase how amazing they are.

What's extraordinary about Schoonmaker here is in all the scenes that the film isn't foregrounding style, the character moments that nobody else involved seems to care about at all. The film opens with one of these, the first meeting between Eddie and Vincent, in which the old man observes with impressed clinical detachment the raw pool-playing skills of this young wannabe hustler and the unhand instincts of his girlfriend-manager Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). It's simple enough material: Eddie still and watching, Vincent energetic and wild, cut between them. Schoonmaker elevates this above its basic storytelling elements, by cutting in a remarkably quick, almost choppy way for a 1986 film, but having all of that choppiness centered around Eddie, not Vincent, as we might expect; the editing makes it impossible for him to have his quiet and his reflection, by forcibly dragging him into the more kinetic film where Vincent lives. It provides the film with liveliness that it simply would not otherwise possess, and this is, in a nutshell the thing that Schoonmaker does throughout: take scenes that are, as played and shot, about people talking, and make them into scenes about people being buffeted around like… well, not to be precious about it, but like balls on a pool table.

Thank God for her, anyway, because The Color of Money is a snoozy march through obvious and pre-ordained story beats without it. Eddie decides to take Vincent and Carmen under his wing, and teach them all about the fine art of hustling on the way to a tournament in Atlantic City where he plans to debut the new, more disciplined Vincent to the amazement of the professional pool-playing world. But Vincent is frustrated by Eddie's limiting rules, and by the obvious respect and attention that Carmen gives to the older man's words, and eventually they split apart. Aimless, but remembering why he loved the game in the first place, Eddie throws himself back into the world, training himself how to be a great player again, and eventually entering that same tournament. Oh, how I bet you can't even start to imagine who he'll end up playing before all is said and done.

I haven't read the source novel by Walter Tevis, but in the film adapted by Richard Price, this could not be more of a stock scenario. Clichés become clichés because they work reliably, but not one damn thing about it here works any better than usual. Cruise, eager to do anything besides have a sexy grin, puts some passion and darkness into Vincent, but he wasn't quite aware enough yet of how to do that for it to land properly. Newman, meanwhile, coasts. He coasts like a motherfucker. We could perhaps look at this from a thick layer of meta-narrative analysis and suggest that since the film is primarily about Eddie deciding that he's been coasting himself for so long and taking steps to rejuvenate himself, Newman's performance is meant to mirror that, and since his best work comes in the final couple of scenes, that's maybe even a defensible argument. But the acting tricks that we'd expect to see in a Jacques Rivette film are not the right tricks, maybe, for a Touchstone Pictures movie from the 1980s about a cocky pool player, and while Newman coasting is still immensely charming and likable, there are too many hollow moments for it to feel like a real strategy. Meanwhile, the film's ambivalent ending falls flat on account of how little work Newman has done in advance to make it feel like Eddie might have naturally reached the point the ending requires of him.

Newman is coasting, and that hurts, but Scorsese is just being lazy, and that's what really ruins it. Not even ruins it: there's not enough spirit here for the film to have a full-on collapse, like the other low-tier Scorsese films out there. It is a dull movie, and its dullness stems in part because it has a director who has seen the hundred other movies that have the same progression of emotional beats, and so he simply copies what was done a hundred other times. It is dull because it's so proficient and impressive about being not surprising in the least degree. Everything about it strictly adheres to the standard template for '80s commercial dramas for adults, neither better nor worse; it doesn't even have the stench of a self-loathing artist behind it to make it noticeably bad. Take away all the elements on paper that seem like they should be fascinating together, and it's just invisibly functional hackwork, and that is the most disappointing thing that this production could have resulted in. Like death, the 1980s come to all men eventually.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1986
-Jim Jarmusch, one of the most important names in the restructuring American independent scene, makes the slow, jazzy jailbreak film Down by Law
-The relationships between man and machine, civilian and soldier, are plumbed with nuance, complexity, and gravity in the legendary Short Circuit
-Historians everywhere feel a shadow cross their grave as the insane The Clan of the Cave Bear asserts itself in theaters

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1986
-What will eventually be termed the Cinéma du look in France kicks into high gear with Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue and Leos Carax's Mauvais sang
-Australia's biggest export ever is, somehow, the broad-ass sitcom Crocodile Dundee
-Andrei Tarkovsky's final film, The Sacrifice, premieres at Cannes

CIFF '14: THE BABADOOK (JENNIFER KENT, AUSTRALIA)

Screens at CIFF: 10/10 & 10/21
World premiere: 17 January, 2014, Sundance Film Festival

The business of being a fan of horror movies is a frustrating and thankless one, since they are so especially prone to being bad, but ever so often one comes along that you can stand up and cheer and point at and say "that one. That is what I have been waiting for". And this is what I have found to be the case with The Babadook, the first feature by writer-director Jennifer Kent, whose work I look forward to following with fawning enthusiasm over the next few years. It is, simply, one of the best scary movies in a decade, unflagging in its focus on presenting a completely unnerving spooky story about one of contemporary horror's most deliciously-expressed monsters. And for seasoning, it provides solid character drama, even more solid than it needs to be, on the relationship between a mother and young son who seem locked in some kind of mutually-defeating race to see who can be the more psychologically broken.

YOKAI WALK WITH ME

Daiei Film's third and final film centered around yokai, 1969's Along with Ghosts (a very unlovely title, but the literal translation isn't much better), is certainly the weakest of the three. And the least centered around yokai. In fact, while 100 Monsters would be hollowed out to almost nothing without having the paranormal entities covered by the highly nonspecific umbrella of the word yokai, and Spook Warfare wouldn't exist at all, it would be fairly easy to rewrite Along with Ghosts to lack any specific kind of haunting at all; just a sense of creepy dread in an old forest in one scene, and the monster mash in the final 10 minutes of the film could be snipped out entirely, offering as it does very little other than the sense that the filmmakers forgot that they were making a yokai film until it was to late to do anything but arbitrarily throw ghosts at the finale.

None of which means that Along with Ghosts doesn't have its strengths, nor that it isn't effectively creepy - which it is, perhaps surprisingly, given how little actual creepy material exists, and how much ghastly-ass comic relief does. This is not a movie as overtly For Children as Spook Warfare, but it has a lengthy scene dropped right into the middle that finds two bumbling henchmen hunting for kids in a slapstick sequence that would barely pass muster in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, hard to defend on any level other than "you know... for kids!", and an angry dwarf lady who is hard to defend on any level whatsoever. In the lowest depths of these passages -which I take to be unquestionably the bit where the henchmen are chasing a barrel zipping back and forth, thinking it has the children when in fact it is a dog - it's difficult to conceive of Along with Ghosts being any damn good on any level. And then the rest of the movie happens, and while it's not great by any means, it's still a pretty good ghost story even when the ghosts are conspicuously absent.

The feudal politics in this one get dense to the point that the film can be hard to follow, so what follows is more the impression of the plot than the actual plot: a yakuza band led by Kanzo (Tamaki Kazue, I think; the credits are incomplete in English, and information online is dubious) has stolen an incriminating document, killing the messengers carrying it in the middle of a sacred spot. When they are warned against this by the old man caring for that shrine (Hidari Bokuzen), Kanzo kills him too, though he survives long enough to pass word to his 7-year-old granddaughter Miyo (Burukido Masami) that she must take the document and flee to an inn some way down the Tokaido, the great sea road. She is assisted in this quest by Shinta (Hozumi Pepe), a slightly older and much more world-wise boy, and Hyakasuro (Hongo Kojiro), a samurai who had till lately been in the employ of the man Kanzo killed. Also ghosts - spooky, zombie-like ghosts who are pissed as all get-out at Kanzo and his men's initial and persistent violations of their sacred spaces, and do their own little bit to stop the yakuza, though it is very little indeed.

I'm inclined to a certain feeling of generosity towards Along with Ghosts that it probably doesn't earn. The thing is, for all its many lapses, it gets one key thing right: it paces out its most explicitly haunted scenes with great canniness, so even though there is virtually no yokai action and only a little bit more paranormal activity of any sort, there's never a long enough break that it feels like we've abandoned the universe of a lightly creepy bedtime story, where the promise of ghosts and monsters hiding just around the next bend is omnipresent, regardless of whether they actually prove to show up or not. And in fact, arguably the two best scenes in the film - the initial attack at the shrine, and Kanzo's torment of Miyo in a fixed dice game - are both eerie and ghostly without actually having ghosts. That's a tone that suits the film comfortably, and directors Yasuda Kimiyoshi and Kuroda Yoshiyuki (individually, the directors of the two preceding yokai films) did well to sustain it more or less, even though there's a pretty rough patch towards the center where too much daylight and too much kiddie frolicking and too many cartoon bad guys threaten to knock the entire film off the rails.

The flipside is that, while the tone is mostly enjoyably insinuating in its storytelling atmosphere, it leaves things a little abstract, and that hurts this as a yokai film even more than the lack of yokai does. When we think of the first two movies, we think, like as not, in terms of the great creatures: the karakasa, umbrella ghost, and the snake-necked lady, and the kappa, and that rock-headed thing from Spook Warfare who led the yokai, and my Japanese mythology is nowhere near strong enough to guess what he was supposed to be. All of them have interesting screen presence and well-defined personalities as morally neutral monsters. The phantoms in Along with Ghosts, in contrast, are totally generic and impersonal. They make an impact, I suppose, with the slow way they fade in, and the overtly threatening nature of their appearances, staged in ritualistic ways that feel far more deliberate and angry than anything in the previous movies. But they're just ugly creatures with decaying faces, and absolutely no energy. It's terribly disappointing, mostly only in reference to the first two. Though even if we just take this as a film unto itself, the relatively anonymous character of the yokai here only underscores the impression that this could just as easily have none of them, making it through on its implicit paranormal elements and leaving the outright haunting out of it.

And that would leave us with a satisfactory but not at all special samuarai adventure with a perfectly charming little girl for a protagonist, suitably threatening villains for a movie that keeps just pulling back from committing to being a kids' film, too many scenes that make their point three or four times before wrapping up, and lots of subdued, atmospheric imagery. It's a pleasing yarn, but certainly no more, and it's easily the least memorable film of the trilogy. There's a genuine sleepy pleasure to it, though, and if it's a fairly empty conclusion to a likable little horror series, I can't honestly declare it to be an obviously insufficient one.

Reviews in this series
100 Monsters (Yasuda, 1968)
Spook Warfare (Kuroda, 1968)
Along with Ghosts (Yasuda & Kuroda, 1969)

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: TIMBUKTU (ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO, MAURITANIA / FRANCE

Winner of the Silver Hugo for Best Director
Screens at CIFF: 10/15 & 10/16
World premiere: 15 May, 2014, Cannes International Film Festival

There is a heightened irony at the heart of Timbuktu that is completely obvious, and which fuels the rage that drives every moment of Abderrahmane Sissako's first feature in eight years, following the great and underseen Bamako: that forcing religious piety onto a population is a one-way ticket to creating Hell on Earth. And thus it is that one of the most visually beautiful films of 2014 (cinematographer Sofiane El Fani has made every single frame positively vibrate with precise compositions, lighting, and use of color) tells one of the most severe, ghastly stories. It creates a totally disorienting clash of sensations, like watching Terrence Malick make a torture porno: how can such flawlessly beauty harbor such casual, unforced cruelty? The film's signature moment is one breathtaking image of a river at sunset, an extravagant wide shot that lingers and lasts and sinks into your eyes with grandeur, both natural and cinematic. And what occurs in this long, long shot? A character we've come to like and respect as a decent man in an indecent world kills a man. Not deliberately nor in malice, but that's of little matter once the deed is done.

20 October 2014

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: THE LOOK OF SILENCE (JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER, DENMARK / INDONESIA / NORWAY / FINLAND / UK)

Screens at CIFF: 10/18 & 10/20
World premiere: 28 August, 2014, Venice International Film Festival

The Look of Silence is unmistakably a great film, though it is not a singular one. For one thing, it isn't an object totally complete unto itself, like director Joshua Oppenheimer's previous work, The Act of Killing: it is a sequel to that film, or perhaps we might call it a follow-up, a companion piece, or an addendum (yes, addendum, I think that's the one I like the best), and it's absolutely aware of that fact. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer and the camera were able to vanish, recording the men whose testimonies and self-directed re-enactments made up the film from an invisible vantage point, and this was key to what the thing was: a chance for unrepentant murderers - why should they repent, their government and countrymen regard them as heroes for their role in the mass killings of over one million people in Indonesia in 1965, on the grounds that they were (or were accused of being) Communists - to comfortably and freely indict themselves on the full, limitless horror of what they did, expressed with braggadocio and zeal. But with The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer can't disappear; here is a film in which the subjects are aware of the first movie, and one of the key repeated images used to anchor the progression of the story is the sight of one man, Adi, watching footage of the men responsible for killing his elder brother Ramli, before he was ever born. Far from standing as a blank slate to receive their self-aggrandising, self-damning narratives, the old killers in this film have begun to figure out that the European with the camera isn't actually on their side: many interviews start to crumble with someone's agitated declaration that they're not interested in talking about this with "Josh" anymore.

It's also certainly true that The Look of Silence is more conventional in its goals and its construction, the almost inevitable side-effect of its re-focused attention. The Act of Killing was a film about the minds of people who had committed violence on an enormous scale, and it is appropriately florid and grotesque. The Look of Silence is instead about one single family of victims, and it is necessarily more subdued and intimate: it is not, after all, being filtered through the imagination of madmen. It has no chance to be as expressive and unprecedented. That's certainly no slight against the film, for it is still extraordinarily powerful and potent; maybe even more so, given that it can engage with sorrow and loss more directly. Certainly, I haven't seen a film in 2014 that left me feeling so hollowed-out and anguished - I mean, how many films are there that actually leave you feeling anguished? - and it seems unlikely that this shall not remain the case.

The concept is straightforward and feels distinctly like something executive producer Werner Herzog might do in one of his own films: in 2012, Oppenheimer showed Adi, a 44-year-old ophthalmologist, footage that was shot in 2003, of the people who perpetrated the Snake River massacre, an event at which Ramli was killed in a distinctive and disturbing manner even by the standards of the 1965 mass killings, which were marked perhaps especially by the prevalence of excessively cruel and brutal violence. And then, Oppenheimer took Adi to interview those same men, in the hopes of finding some spark of regret or guilt or just apology from these people (the possibly belabored "the eye doctor hopes to make these people 'see' the effects of their actions" metaphor is thankfully only trotted out once).

What results from all this is harrowing, soul-aching footage. What emerges is less the sense of killers realising that they need to atone for their crimes than killers being confronted, in no small amount of confusion, with the idea that decent people might actually think they did something horrible. What happens, time and time again (and even described in words close to this), is the ripping off of ancient scabs, leaving history raw and fresh and oozing. Indonesia, we find, is not a country that has taken ownership of its sins of made peace with them, but simply stuffed them down at the bottom of the drawer to fester, and in The Look of Silence, we see what happens when that is questioned, and when one person forces another person to reckon with the past.

It is ugly and painful, of course. The film contains an exceptional number of scenes that aren't just depressing, but are acutely uncomfortable to watch on top of it. One woman sitting next to her doddering father for what she plainly expects to be just a game of "let's reminisce" is shattered to learn that he, like many of the killers, drank the blood of his victims to stave off feelings of insanity from the knowledge of his actions (and really, isn't "if we don't drink this human blood, we might go crazy!" just the most perfectly horrifying window into how the minds of these killers?). In something like real-time, we get to watch as she begins reconstructing her worldview to decide that this information is something to be rejected or diminished. And that's not nearly the most cringe-inducing moment in a film where Adi learns that his mother's brother was involved in the system of killings, thinking himself free from guilt since he didn't, personally, take any lives; or a meeting with the family of a man who died sometime after Oppenheimer's 2003 interviews, furiously and passionately and repeatedly trying to deny that the things the director has immediate, firsthand proof of being true could possibly have ever happened.

None of this is, as such, "surprising". While The Act of Killing was a peek in to the minds of the insane, The Look of Silence is about the sane, and it's easier for us to follow along, and suppose, "well yes, that is how I would expect that person to feel about what's going on right now". But simply the lack of being revelatory isn't sufficient to cheapen what The Look of Silence is or what it does. It's no less powerful or important than the first film, using the particular case of one man's death in one period of chaos as a prism through which we can view and ponder the whole business of humans being cruel to other humans and not repenting, and yet never losing sight of the very specific true story being recorded for future historians. The film's consistent rerun to Adi and Ramli's parents, centenarians whose lifetime of suffering is worn visibly on their body (and here, my one big caveat: Adi's 109-year-old father is both mostly blind and mostly deaf, and just on the film's own terms, it's not clear that he could have given his informed consent to be involved in a film that obsessively shows him to be a desiccated man-skeleton being washed and tended for by his patient, loving family), is its best tool in making sure that, whatever universal meaning is easily plucked from the film, we never get to separate it from the specific history that has been almost totally scrubbed from history. Oppenheimer's project - which is probably done now, as he's indicated in interviews that he doesn't think it will be safe for him to return to Indonesia moving forward - is as important historically as cinematically, and if The Look of Silence feels like it needs that justification just a slight touch more than The Act of Killing, the fact remains that we now, in 2014, have a grand total of two important films about the Indonesia mass killings, and it would be irresponsible to pretend that their historical importance isn't a significant part of their legacy. It's wonderful indeed that they are both so powerful, intelligent, and beautifully made on top of it: this is painful and devastating stuff to watch, but so emphatically and movingly human that it's not possible to regret the experience

10/10

19 October 2014

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: OF HORSES AND MEN (BENEDIKT ERLINGSSON, ICELAND / NORWAY / GERMANY)

Screens at CIFF: 10/18 & 10/19
World premiere: 28 August, 2013, general release in Iceland

From its 2013 release in its native Iceland all the way to its present international festival run, the pitch for writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson's terrific debut feature Of Horses and Men (the original Iclandic title, which is universes better in its tongue-warming poetry, is Hross í oss) has focused with pitbull-like intensity on one single moment in the film: come for the horses fucking, stay for the horses fucking. And, more to the point, horses fucking while one of them is being ridden by a human who looks positively dismal at realising that he has just gotten wrapped up in the worst three-way ever.

The reasons for focusing on that scene, from a marketing standpoint, are beyond obvious, but it does the film a great disservice to reduce it to its most prurient elements. If, indeed, it's accurate to refer to horse-fucking as "prurient". Beyond its obvious surface elements - including not just equine sexuality, but an ironic relationship to sudden, violent human death, and the kind of dry, warped absurdist comedy that Scandinavian cinema delights in so very much - it's got some surprising tenderness and respect for the physical and emotional delicacy of horse and human alike. Even when that tenderness is expressed in bent moments like a man's insensate jealousy that his prize mare would screw a stallion, or a horse quietly standing over its owner after he's puked himself to death on bootleg hooch.

17 October 2014

REVIEW ALL MONSTERS! - HE IS FILLED WITH TURTLE MEAT

Seven years after Kaneko Shusuke put to bed his grand re-casting of goofy-ass '60s monster Gamera as something like a force of nature over a trilogy of some of the best daikaiju eiga ever made, Kadokawa Pictures - the company that had ultimately gathered up the tattered remains of Daiei Film in the interim - brought the character back for what is, as of this writing, his final screen appearance. Once again, Gamera merely followed in the wake of Godzilla: much as the '90s trilogy didn't start until the same year that Godzilla's second phase of movies wrapped up, 2006's Gamera the Brave came out two years after the third phase of Godzilla had ended with the promise that we'd see no more of the big lizard for a full ten years. It would seem, then, that Kadokawa was simply taking advantage of a vacuum in the marketplace, except that the opposite was more true: while the '90s Godzilla films had been largely successful for what they were, the '00s films had trailed off in popularity badly. There was, at any rate, no clamoring for any new daikaiju eiga at the time Gamera the Brave bowed.

And thus we segue into the question of who, exactly, was supposed to be the audience for this film. The darker, more self-serious Gamera trilogy of the '90s makes perfect intuitive sense: I have no idea if it was marketed this way in Japan, but it was perfectly positioned to remind adult viewers of those ludicrous, cheap monster adventures that they watched back when they were kids. Which had now been deepened and enriched with more sobriety and thoughtfulness, growing up much as its audience had. Gamera the Brave, meanwhile, is a straightforward children's movie; probably the single most unabashed children's movie in the franchise. And for what children? The ones who had been born more than a quarter of a century after the campier incarnation of the giant turtle had last been seen in 1971's Gamera vs. Zigra (I'm not counting Gamera: Super Monster, and neither should you)? Because I have a tough time imagining that they'd care. The film's plot actually suggests an answer, in that it features a father who was a kid when Gamera last came around now has a son of his own to share the new incarnation of the monster with, though the relationship between the two is mostly ignored for the bulk of the running time. It could just be that the studio had a brand name and proceeded to make terrible choices with it in a tone-deaf attempt to make some easy money, but I don't like to impugn movie studios like that.

Given that there's virtually no clear reason for Gamera the Brave to exist, it's actually pretty decent. It's unmistakably a children's movie, right down to the goofy music cues, but it's a mostly decent one, with enough well-staged daikaiju action that it doesn't feel as bitterly toothless as the likes of Son of Godzilla, which will always be my gold standard for a children's daikaiju eiga going as wrong as it possibly can. And there are scenes which reinforce something that gets reinforced a lot, if you watch enough children's entertainment made outside of the United States, which that a lot of countries have a much more ambitious and dangerous sense of what qualifies as "kid-friendly entertainment" than we do. There is, in this film, a scene in which the villain kaiju Zedus is scene thoughtfully chomping - complete with cartoon chomping noises - a human being. We don't see the human being, but it's still so casually violent and I will confess to dearly loving it for that.

Things start up in 1973, with Gamera dying; I take this to be an attempt to situate the film in continuity with the first seven movies, and explain why none were made in between 1971 and the reboot in 1995. None were made. Gamera's death comes after he protects the world from a trio of Gyaoses, sacrificing himself to end their reign of evil. Gamera, incidentally, looks willfully unappealing in this scene, worse than in any of the previous films in the franchise, but he goes away fast enough that it's not a huge issue. Many years later, Aizawa Toru (Tomioka Ryo), the young son of Aizawa Kousuke (Tsuda Kanji), who witnessed Gamera's death, is playing around on a rock pile with some friends who are kind of bullyish, and when he separates himself from them, he finds a magic glowing egg. As one does. Hardly has he picked it up when out hatches a perfectly ordinary looking CGI turtle, whom Toru names Toto.

Now, we know what movie we're watching, so we're much less surprised than Toru when his little Toto starts to evidence some very odd skills, uncharacteristic of other turtles, like his ability to fly and breath fire. And I will confess at this point that whatever risk Gamera the Brave was running of totally losing my goodwill (the opening act establishing Toru is way too long for such a tepid little character), when Toto starts to run around exhibiting superpowers, the film won me right back. Not for any good reason, but because Toto's smug look of satisfaction, done without ever making him look less like a real turtle, is the most fucking adorable goddamn thing. And there's a weird but charming shout-out to Gamera vs. Guiron, when a kitchen knife falls blade-first in front of Toto, and the little turtle gets a very angry and intense look on its face before he spits a fireball at it.

Among the turtle's other powers, it grows quickly to a very large size, and we get to see what a juvenile Gamera looks like, with its big earnest wet cow eyes and everything. And from here, Gamera the Brave clicks over into standard-issue Gamera plotting: a monster, the big (and impressively scary) dragon-thing Zedus is making trouble, and instinctively, Toto-Gamera knows that he must fight on behalf of humanity. In round 1, the better-choreographed by far, he ends up incapacitated, and Zedus goes on wreaking havoc while the humans work on a plan to juice up Toto-Gamera until he reaches the full size of his illustrious father, big enough to knock Zedus out completely. Importantly, other than being the requisite boychild who roots for the giant turtle and tells adults about how Toto is a friend to all children, Toru is mostly just a chatty waste of time, contributing a grand total of one action to the entire back half of the plot. Which makes it especially irritating that we had to spend 40 minutes getting to know all about him. But kids' movies need kid protagonists, or whatever.

The film is certainly more soft and gentle than anything preceding it in the series, without real danger even despite the presence of a giant man-eating dragon. Though, the action is actually fairly decent, with a good sense of weight and destruction between the two brawling monsters (it helps that the film balances practical effects with CGI only when necessary, and it ends up looking surprisingly great, even better than the 1990s films). And the film doesn't dumb itself down at all: Toru may not be a very sophisticated observer of the world around him, but that world proceeds along with its adult business much the same as in any daikaiju eiga. So still pretty dumb, but it's not like the stakes have been lowered. The fates of cities still hang in the balance.

Director Tazaki Ryuta, a veteran of action TV and movies for children, handles all of this with a light tone that never feels insubstantial or insincere; it's not great cinematic art, but the 96-minute film breezes past without tripping up on its plot slowdowns, or the moments that might easily have seeped into dimwitted sentimentality, as the relationship between Toru and his giant turtle friend are foregrounded. And it's because Tazaki and screenwriter Tatsui Yukari weren't aiming to make a character story, or a moral play for wee folk, but a quick-stepping action-adventure. This they accomplished. It's not remotely the best farewell to the character, mucking up the grandeur of 1999's Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris, and going into it knowing that it's the final Gamera story leaves it feeling a lot more hollow than it deserves. But of course, there's unlikely to be a "final" Gamera story as long as there are movies, and until the series gets restarted yet again, Gamera the Brave is a totally satisfying if slight place to pause for a while.

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: 1001 GRAMS (BENT HAMER, NORWAY)

Winner of the Silver Hugo for Best Cinematography
Screens at CIFF: 10/14 & 10/16 & 10/22
World premiere: 7 September, 2014, Toronto International Film Festival

1001 Grams is, first and foremost, a precious movie. It has a darling little shadowbox of a plot in which heightened characters move through immaculately quirky setpieces on their way to a conclusion that is both absurdly obvious and impossible to predict, on account of being slapped so indifferently onto the framework of a movie that had been telling a very different story to begin with. For a certain kind of viewer, not necessarily an uncommon one, it's absolutely easy to see how this is all very charming and very appealing, oddball enough to be funny, laced with enough actual pain and sorrow to avoid being frivolous. It's a good introduction to austere Northern European cinema for anybody who misses all those clumsy Wes Anderson knock-offs from the middle-'00s. As far as your present reviewer goes, the only thing that kept me from wanting to claw the skin off my face was the film's happily skewed visual humor: director Bent Hamer and cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund craft some really enjoyable compositions that are just about the drollest damn things you could imagine, frequently borrowing from the Jacques Tati playbook (a shot that apparently gives a globe a shapely pair of legs is the most obvious example, but there are more subtle ones: a sequence of people lining up to stare with ritualistic solemnity at an undistinguished but historically important chunk of metal particularly called to mind Mon oncle, though I do not know if I could explain why).

16 October 2014

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: THE PRESIDENT (MOHSEN MAKHMALBAF, GEORGIA / FRANCE / UK / GERMANY)

Winner of the Gold Hugo for Best Film
Screens at CIFF: 10/15 & 10/16
World premiere: 30 August, 2014, Venice International Film Festival

Satire doesn't get much more on-the-nose, snottily sarcastic, or, in fairness, absolutely hilarious as the opening of The President, a most uncharacteristic but hugely welcome surprise from self-exiled Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. A narrator waxes rhapsodic about the beauty of the capital city in this nameless (but pretty obviously former Soviet) nation, with special attention paid to the beloved president-for-life, also nameless, whose vision is what caused the city to bathed in attractive modern light. And then we travel up to the presidential palace, where the president himself (Misha Gomiashvili) is sitting with his beloved grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili), indulging the boy's every random question with happy patience, and for a finale, offers to let the boy place a call to have the entire power grid shut down and turned back on over and over again the way that a child of less powerful descent might play with the lights on a Christmas tree. That is: the dictator literally treats the city under his command like a child's toy. No wonder that during one of the dark patches, the city suddenly erupts in revolution.

15 October 2014

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: ABLATIONS (ARNOLD DE PARSCAU, FRANCE / BELGIUM)

Screens at CIFF: 10/13 & 10/15 & 10/16
World premiere: 1 February, 2014, Gérardmer International Fantastic Film Festival

The first act of Ablations is great. Maybe not great. But promising - hella promising. A man wakes up on the bank of a river, the day after a huge bender, and his kidney's missing. He wants it back - at the very least, he wants to know who took it. Original it ain't, but it's creepy, mysterious, uncomfortably direct in prodding whatever psychological safeguards keep us from always thinking about the pieces of meat sitting inside our bodies and regulating all of our systems, and being all "no, I want you to really think about your organs. Right now. Think about how squishy and tender they are". And it's punctuated by a magnificent scene in which our unlikable protagonist and antihero, Pastor (Denis Ménochet), visits a whore bar and starts to lose his tether on reality completely, as the mere fact of sexually attractive women triggers some kind of revulsive fit that proves, above all things that director Arnold de Parscau has been studying his David Lynch - it feels like an outtake from Twin Peaks in all the best ways. Right about the time this scene was crescendoing, the film had me firmly in the palm of its hand, which makes it all the sadder and more disappointing, and honestly a little weird, that this is exactly the point where it looks around, decides that it has been so far spending far too much time portraying reasonable human behavior that's at least persuasive in the context of a genre film, and that the time has come to make every last member of the cast start behaving like their solitary motivation in life is that they read the last scene of the screenplay and want to make sure they get to it properly. Except maybe Pastor's wife, Léa (the much overqualified Virginie Ledoyen), whose arc over the course of the movie is from a certain curiosity about what the heck is going on, towards angry confusion, and finally desperate, wheedling begging that she'll forgive everything if things will just stop being so bizarre and make any kind of sense again. In which regard she is an ideal surrogate for the viewer.

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: RED ROSE (SEPIDEH FARSI, FRANCE / GREECE, IRAN)

Screens at CIFF: 10/15 & 10/17 & 10/19
World premiere: 7 September, 2014, Toronto International Film Festival

Movies about ideas are wonderful things; movies that are "About Ideas" to the point where they start to disappear inside their own ass are much less so. And the French-made Iranian film Red Rose (that is, the crew and creative team are Iranian, but it was too politically charged to be made in that country) lives right on the knife's edge that separates satisfying conceptual filmmaking from tedious wankery. It wants very much for its character drama between a middle-aged former activist and a twentysomething protester and Twitter warrior, who end up having sex with potentially sinister overtones, to be all at once a story of two people attempting to make any kind of connection with humanity at large, to flaunt religious moral convention by presenting a sexually bold and provocative film, and to metaphorically explore how the generation that couldn't save the world last time and the generation that's probably not going to save the world this time interact with each other. All while the protests following the hopelessly corrupt and compromised 2009 elections in Iran serve as both the background and the main theme of the film.

TAKE MY WIFE, PLEASE

That Gone Girl is something close to a mechanically flawless thriller I take to be more of an objective reality than an opinion. There is great mastery to be found in Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography, using the harsh sharpness of digital video to render suburban spaces with an exaggerated realism, making them pop so hard that they go 'round the other side and start to feel like fake structures, all surface texture and color, and this turns out to be just about the perfect setting for the story. The subtle visual overlaps in Kirk Baxter's editing (he's working without reliable partner Angus Wall this time) and the pulses in the cutting rhythm nicely echo and reinforce the sense in all good thrillers of fate closing in, wrapping around, and choking the characters and audience, while also - crucially in this case, creating a steady enough flow that a 149-minute running time prances by unnoticed. It's never been clearer that these two men are, increasingly, as important components in the making of David Fincher films as director David Fincher himself, whose noted obsessive perfectionism is anyway ideally suited to making the kind of elaborate watchworks of a film like this, where the story progresses in three separate chronological registers (the present, the several years past, and the past of about a week ago), all building towards one unalterable doom, obvious in retrospect but terrifyingly confusing in the moment.

And for all that it's perfect, I find that Gone Girl suffers from that most amorphous and indescribable and subjective of artistic flaws: I just didn't like it. It reminds me most, out of Fincher's directorial canon, of The Game, another magnificently crafted device that ends up being too chilly and remote from its characters for its own damn good. It's not simply that they're unlikable, though the leads in Gone Girl are immeasurably unlikable. It's that there's not much reason offered within the film for us to have any kind of feeling about them beyond the sense that we're watching rats in an especially masterful maze - but nothing ever offers us the chance to feel like we're inside with those rats, nor apparently does the film even grasp why that might be a way to make a thriller that's generally gripping and involving, and not just a handsome exercise in structuring and executing a thriller whose outcome is largely of academic, not emotional interest.

(And yes, there's the contingent who have seen the movie, as they read Gillian Flynn's bestselling book, as a deeply intimate and involving study of marriage in free fall. I don't begrudge anybody that reading, but I think it only holds if you close the book or stop the movie at the halfway point, and thus save yourself the discovery that it is in fact a trashy potboiler about a psychopath being psychopathic, and if it resembles your marriage in even the broadest sense at that point, I hope with all my heart that you have a terrific counselor).

The plot, in brief, and largely for form's sake - it is an immensely spoiler-sensitive story. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife, Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) have not been happy in their marriage for many years. On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously vanishes, and the evidence starts to pile up, especially when you start looking for it, that Nick maybe probably killed her. His sole allies are his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), a skeptical police detective, Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), and eventually the tacky men's rights lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry). His opponents number just about everybody with eyes to look at the mounting circumstantial evidence, but most persuasive is Amy herself, who gets to tell her side of the story of how their marriage grew toxic and malevolent in a series of flashbacks to their life together, from dazzling meet cute to the shrill misery of their move to Missouri from New York, precipitated in part by Nick's mother's illness, mostly because of financial collapse during the post-2008 recession. And while I will not at any other point stoop to making a "the book does this, but the movie does this" comparison - both of them are ultimately sudsy, enjoyable, but aggravatingly insubstantial beach reads - I can't overlook how much better a job the book does than the movie of expressing the story as an extension of the general social malaise of economical despair.

Anyway, the question looms: did Nick kill Amy, and is Amy even for sure dead? And I'm going to avoid the Big Spoilers, but it's really not worth talking about the film without touching on at least some of the Little Spoilers, so please take that as your warning to skedaddle if you're inclined.

So if we've shaken off all the spoilerphobes, here's one of the really odd things about Gone Girl, the movie (not bad, necessarily, but odd): it's basically never plausible that Nick is actually guilty of murder. Blame the way that the cinema eye feels "objective" while first-person narration does not, blame the way that Affleck, however brilliantly cast as an arrogant dick who has to work enormously hard every minute to seem even a little bit less smug and off-putting, is still a charismatic movie star, and its damn hard to sell charismatic movie stars as villains, unless you go all the way over the top with it, and of course in Gone Girl, the whole point is to keep things as ambiguous as possible. But for all that he's unpleasant and off-putting almost constantly, the way the visuals are structured and the film is assembled simply takes it for granted that he's innocent, of this crime at least.

The result is a sleek wrong man thriller, nothing more or less, and I suppose there's nothing wrong with that; it's a bit lugubrious for a genre film, with its imposing cinematography and strangulating sense of things getting worse and worse and worse in the screenplay (also written by Flynn, who largely just transcribes and condenses her book, though there's a different final scene). But it also clips by, and there's a decent quantity of humor, almost all of it provided by the side character - almost all of it supplied by Coon's Margo, in fact, in what I'm tempted to call my favorite out of a good bunch of performances (Perry is a sardonic, self-aware reservation, and while Dickens is kind of playing a stereotype, she does it with energy).

The only weaker spots are the leads, really, though whether it's because the austere remove the film keeps us at from them that they seem so vague, or of the shortcomings of the performance are part of what drives the austerity, I cannot say. At any rate, Affleck is here more to be Fincher's handsome, thick-chinned prop of entitled manhood, while Pike, on top of employing a far too measured American accent that never falters, but which she obviously finds uncomfortable (the only time she ever feels like speaking is natural to her is when she adopts a broad Southern accent, which I believe to be easier for Brits to mimic than the studied Midland accent Pike shoots for), disappointingly stops her performance at whatever is obviously happening on the surface - Amy is undoubtedly a rich, chewy role for any performer, even without having to dig for undercurrents, and it's easy to see why Pike left things at the level the script dictates. But one of her best gifts has always been finding what's not in the script and playing a character who comes into the film slantwise, and that's not her Amy, not at all. Her Amy is exactly the Amy I had in my head reading the book, and anyone could have played that part. Pike didn't become one of my favorites of her generation from doing things I would have expected.

None of which really detracts from the pleasures of Gone Girl, since they are almost all formal in nature: the way that the images create tension, the way that the editing punctuates, and to a degree the way that the score keeps it all at a heightened pitch (I am undecided on the music - it works in the film's interests, but it's by far the least interesting of the three film scores that Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross have composed for Fincher). The film clicks along fluidily and icily; it's technically impeccable but the whole thing feels awfully dry to me, proof of the director's technical accomplishment, but even more, proof that he badly needs process-oriented stories to bring to life, like Zodiac and The Social Network, because he's just too damn chilly for character dramas.

7/10

14 October 2014

DOLL FACE

The best movies are the ones that introduce you to a totally new experience. One of those happened to me at Annabelle. I have literally never had anything even a little bit like this happen to me before, and I don't know if it will ever happen again, though I can live in hope: after the movie ended, and just as the first card in the end credits was starting to fade up, someone in the middle of the theater loudly asked, in a voice that had more despair in it than anger, "Everybody agrees that was absolutely terrible, right? Did anybody think that was good?" And not one of the twenty or so souls in the room challenged him, though a few of us laughed.*

It could be worse. I mean, I'm sure it could. Though at this particular moment in time, I'm having a bit of a hard time imagining how that could be the case. Director John R. Leonetti (a cinematographer by trade, but his directorial credits extend all the way back to 1997's all-time classic Mortal Kombat: Annihilation) and his filmmaking team manage to make a creepy-as-shit doll not scary. That's like Horror Cinema 101: creepy dolls and ventriloquist's dummies. The only bigger gimme is clowns. And yet, in Annabelle, the titular doll only manages to look profoundly stupid. "Perhaps the Annabelle doll is just too ridiculously overdone and veers straight into camp", I thought to myself, around the time that Leonetti and DP James Kniest favored it with a close-up that lovingly showcased its cracked grey skin and its enormous blood-shot eyes, like it had gotten its little doll self plowed on doll-sized whiskey sours. But that can't be the case - we already saw Annabelle in 2013, in The Conjuring, to which Annabelle is a sort of half-assed prequel, and the doll was terrifying as all hell back then.

So the only real solution is that Annabelle is just a piece of incompetent shit, and the agitated fellow in the movie theater with me was absolutely right. It's not just that the film is bad: there are far more horror films that are bad than otherwise. It's that it's bad to a degree that absolutely makes no sense: even just regurgitating every single scare tactic from every single haunting movie in recent memory should have produced a somewhat more functional genre film than this terribly exercise in cinematic lard and self-sabotaging mistakes at every corner. There's a scene in which the female lead, Mia Gordon (Annabelle Wallis) is trapped in a basement with what certainly looks like Satan, or anyway a charcoal grey job that resembles the lazy "ooh, the Devil" design that horror filmmakers rest on when they're not interested in being bold. She gets on the elevator, and pushes 6. The doors close, the elevator grinds, the doors open, it's still the basement. She shines the flashlight around. Nothing is there. She pushes the "door close" button. This happens no fewer than four times, and Satan never does show up - never even puts his shiny black claws in the elevator door at the last minute to freak Mia out real good. I would call it laughably inept, except that, dear reader, I was not laughing. Just silently stewing and becoming good and pissed off that the film had decided that a busted elevator with nothing attacking it was the stuff of top-notch skin-crawling excitement

Or, ooh, how's this for ineptitude: in one scene, an artificial long take is created by stitching two shorter takes together, one as Mia walks to the front door of her house, one as she walks through her house. Garden-variety stuff. Emmanuel Lubezki has made a career out of it. And yet clear as day, you can see where then filmmakers here just threw in a really short dissolve to marry the takes, and it's as believable as those jump cuts in an old movie where the only way to make an object appear or disappear was to stop the camera, have everybody stand still, and hope like hell nobody shifted so much that their position in the frame shifted. When that happens in a film from the '40s, it's part of the buy-in you make to watch a film of that vintage. When it happens to an all-digital production from 2014, it is acutely disgusting.

The movie itself is a grab-bag of lazy notions from every other horror movie of the last five or ten years. A very pregnant Mia and her husband John (Ward Horton) are young marrieds in Santa Monica, CA, in 1972. He's applying for his medical residency, she's… it doesn't matter what she does, since she's about to be taken out of commission for a while. They have a kindly pair of neighbors, and the neighbors have a long-lost daughter named Annabelle, who left to join a cult. And one fateful night, she and her cult boyfriend creep back home to ritually murder her parents. When John goes to investigate the screaming Mia heard, they follow him back home, where they stab her in the belly. The baby survives, but the doctor insists that she stay in bed as much as remotely possible for the rest of the pregnancy.

So "Mia", "John", pregnant, Satan: it's an overt Rosemary's Baby nod, though by mostly limiting itself to stealing the names of that film's lead actors, it's actually something of a classy and restrained one. But as long as Roman Polanski is on the table - or even if he otherwise wasn't - hauling up the "Southern California cultists stab a pregnant woman" plot point (the Manson Family is even name-dropped in a news report) is neither classy nor restrained by any possible definition of those terms. I would go so far as to call it shockingly crass and exploitative to call upon the memory of Sharon Tate's horrible murder in such a direct and unthinking way. Annabelle, folks: there's no wrong way to hate it. But back to the plot.

It's during her convalescence that Mia starts to notice odd things, all of them clustering around the hideous-as-sin collector's doll that John bought for her the morning of the killings, and which Annabelle was holding as she committed suicide that night. We who saw The Conjuring - or even Annabelle's prologue, where two young women freaked out as they described their experience with the doll to an unheard offscreen investigator who the film rather obviously sets up to be a cameoing Patrick Wilson, except it never returns to the frame narrative at the end and so, fuck it (I will concede the possibility of a post-credits scene, but waiting to find out wasn't a priority at the moment the film ended) - we know that Annabelle-the-possessed doll is behind it, which frees up the filmmakers to stage lots of menacing shots of the doll as the music booms and nothing happens for many long seconds at a time. It takes the help of a pair of Wise Ethnics - Father Perez (Tony Amendola), the family priest, and Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), a bookstore owner with an interest in the occult, but it's not an occult bookstore, because that would be lazy writing - to clear up what's going on, and what is going on is the usual "the demon wants your newborn baby" folderol, with the usual lightbulbs bursting and devil faces appear in shadows and popcorn exploding and setting the kitchen on fire.

If the film does anything worthwhile, it's that it gets its '70s signifiers all lined up properly: the cloths and props are a little showy at times ("hey, I got you a VINTAGE BAG OF DORITOS! WHO WANTS DORITOS?" screeches one scene), but for the most part the settings specific enough that we can't forget it, but unforced enough that it doesn't get in the way of the story, which is almost a shame. And when Woodard shows up, she's like a cool breeze on a hot day, providing the movie with an authoritative, stable presence that comes amazingly close to making some scenes not-unpleasant to watch (I might add that, even by horror movie standards, what happens to Annabelle's solitary African-American character is a malarial swamp of problematic racial representation). Having said that, I'm tapped out of compliments: there's nothing else that's tolerable in Annabell, let alone actively good. The acting is horrible, especially Horton's, with his wide-eyed "golly willickers!" attitude that suggests he accidentally researched the 1910s when building his character, not the 1970s. But the actors can only be blamed so much, what with the crudely functional dialogue they are obliged to deliver, and the broken motivations they are given to play (for a woman whose single driving motivation is her baby's safety, Mia sure does seem to leave her alone in the haunted apartment a lot). And it's just even a wee tiny bit scary: every jump scare announces itself and is diluted by the half-dozen jump scares preceding it that never bothered to show up, and the creepiness of the "Satan wants your baby" routine is undercut by how much the baby feels like a concept the actors are playing, not a living being that parents desperately want to protect. Also by how much this is plainly a film that won't kill its baby.

It's useless, completely useless: clumsily made and criminally underwritten. If you had asked me if a 2014 movie about a baby and devil-worshippers had even a prayer of being worse than Devil's Due, I'd have laughed right in your face, but oh, how strong a bid Annabelle puts in for itself in the race to be the worst horror film of 2014!

1/10

13 October 2014

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: BLACK COAL, THIN ICE (DIAO YINAN, CHINA)

Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/13 & 10/17
World premiere: 12 February, 2014, Berlin International Film Festival

It might have been filmed in color; it might have been filmed in China; it might have been filmed decades after of the essential cultural context of the post-WWII America; but other than those little things, Black Coal, Thin Ice is one of the most all-around perfect example of a film noir to have come out in years. True, any one of those elements is arguably an automatic disqualification, let alone all three, but with its beautiful but menacing cinematography, its portrayal of urban life as inherently prone to violence and moral decay, and its choice of protagonist is a drunk, slovenly ex-cop, plagued by memories of the case that got away, and given a chance to make things right at great personal cost. The tune is right even if the instruments are funny. And the great overriding theme of all the great films noirs - you are alone, nobody can be trusted, and the world around you is dying - is proudly on display in every beat of the darkly thrilling mystery that the film explores.

THIS IS THE WAY THE END OF THE WORLD ENDS

I have wonderful news: Left Behind: World at War isn't nearly such an angrifying slog as its predecessor, Tribulation Force, and we'll have none of the bitterness that got in between me and my snark when I wrote about it. Compared to that film, and compared also to 2000's original Left Behind, the 2005 trilogy-capper is actually quite a different experience altogether, one that feels much more like a secular bad movie that has these regular, strange interruptions from Kirk Cameron smugly evangelising. And the difference between those movies and this one is obvious enough: World at War somehow managed to finagle the financial backing of Sony, and thus suddenly looks enormously more professional and competent. Which is not to say that it's actually professional or competent, in the absolute sense: its sets look like set, full of random computers and monitors and shiny surfaces, and they are lit hard and flat, and the handful of showcase effects are very much at the level of a film with a title like Bearacuda or Piranhaconda vs. Boa Sharkstrictor, both in the quality of their rendering and the grace with which they have been composited in. But it no longer looks like the whole thing was shot in a convention center lobby. It's even in widescreen!

The biggest difference the budget made, though, was that it enabled World at War to afford a real actor. The first two Left Behinds had to make do with Brad Johnson as their representative good-or-decent actor, an oasis of some kind of solid professionalism that threw into relief how tawdry most of the film was around him, and I will always be grateful to the stolidity he brought to those movies. But he's got nothing on the actor paid what I'm certain was not nearly enough money to validate the dime store spy picture shenanigans of World at War, that being Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett, Jr. It is not possible to communicate just how much his presence alters the landscape of the movie. Most importantly, the filmmakers had the good damn sense to realise that they had somebody with genuine onscreen authority and presence, and the good luck for that person to have concluded that even if he'd ended up in a direct-to-video-churches Christian thriller in which the President of the United States Gerald Fitzhugh (Gossett just looks like a Fitzhugh, doesn't he?) does his Nancy Drew act against Dracula playing David Bowie playing the Antichrist, well dammit, he was still a paid professional and he'd still treat the part like an actual part in a real movie. God bless him (and for begin in this movie, I imagine that's exactly what happens), Gossett is actually trying. Faced with the impossible dialogue and speeches that Paul Lalonde, Peter Lalonde, and André van Heerden's screenplay screenplay leaves him to recite, Gossett dives right in and tries to figure out what his character might be thinking and feeling in those moments, and while he cannot translate the words of the screenplay into the sounds of human speech, he delivers them with enough gravity and feeling that they still feel like reflections of his character's emotions.

Better yet, between Gossett's wildly disproportionate skill level and the amount of money the producers had to invest to get access to him, he got promoted to the level of lead, which means that Cameron has been knocked down a peg. And that is a development which is all alone enough to make World at War the classiest Left Behind movie with the most human interest. And that's even with its plot revolving around a paranoiac fantasy about the UN lacing Bibles with toxic gas, something I'd expect to see in a parody of hard-right Christian filmmaking rather than a legitimate example of it.

Poisoned Bibles, in all their melodramatic excess, are to be found nowhere in the book series upon which this was based (it's mostly taken from the last two chapters of Tribulation Force, the second novel, with some grace notes from the third, Nicolae), and that's not the only overt way in which the film mostly discards the source material in order to invent a plot in which things actually happen and there is some kind of momentum to be had. It's thanks to this development, which does very much make World at War the least boring Left Behind movie (leaving it plenty of room to be immensely boring, mind you, especially in the first, more character-driven half), that the series came to a halt after only three movies adapting only the first two of a 16-volume series. For novelists Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins, but probably mostly LaHaye, were upset at how much the films had drifted from the mission state of the books, which was to present made-up eschatological esoterica through the matrix of lifeless prose and empty characters inching their way through a story in which virtually nothing happened. They were able to cut the series off at the knees before it diluted their brand any further, and immediately set to re-starting the series with more of the intemperate religion that was the whole notion of the series in the first place.

It is true that as an End Times field guide, World at War is serious lacking. Antichrist and world dictator Nicholae Carpathia (Gordon Currie) is, functionally, no different than any other mustache-twirling Bondian supervillain, except for the part where he's immortal, and the plot by which President Fitzhugh and his survivalist militia team resist Carpathia's wicked schemes doesn't meaningfully differ from any random action thriller about a rag-tag rebel group. Even our very own Tribulation Force, the team of True Believers forming a more godly resistance to Carpathia, feels denuded of explicit religious zeal in a lot of the movie, and that's not even acknowledging how very little most of them are involved: Rayford Steele (Johnson) mostly just shows up because it would be weird if he didn't (though he does get married off in the early scenes to a woman we've never met and don't get to know), and his daughter Chloe (Janaya Stephens), herself having married the dashing TV reporter Buck Williams (Cameron), is largely on hand to be The Woman for Buck's plot. Which, given Cameron's skittishness about being a filthy un-Christian actor and doing things like touching the actress playing his new wife, isn't much of a good deal for her, given that the husband she's ostensibly supporting is visibly uncomfortable being around her. And as for Our Buck, he's laden with some random bullshit that takes up a lot of time, as a star of Kirk Cameron's white-hot celebrity would clearly deserve. His main job is to preach at Fitzhugh until he converts the president to the withholding and joyless fringe Christianity that, in LaHaye's worldview, is the only kind that keeps God and Jesus from hating you and your sinful ass.

By cutting down the rage-drenched theology cut down mostly just to the scenes that involve Cameron, World at War proves to be a whole lot more pleasant to watch than the bullying, accusatory pair of films that precede it. Though I cannot say if that's because the film isn't so wedded to its gross reduction of Christian thought to its angriest elements, or simply because Kirk Cameron comes off as so supercilious and boastful that it listening to him talk about any subject would be intolerable, and he's happily reduced to a supporting role. Whatever is causing it, World at War ends up feeling more like a movie than the other two, in all possible ways, and between Gossett pretending that there's some actual emotional weight and importance to the President's actions, and Currie's continued refinement of Carpathia into an ever more pure articulation of campy flair and self-satisfied wickedness, the film even enjoys something of a compelling relationship between its hero and villain.

Is this enough to make the film good? Oh, hell no, in no uncertain terms. It's quite terrible: Craig R. Baxley has, unquestionably, the strongest overall career of any of the Left Behind directors, and it shows in his significantly higher investment in making the action scenes vaguely exciting and the thriller scenes tense, but budget and the moral limitations placed on him by the production put a firm cap on how ambitious World at War can possibly be. It's glossy and mainstream and exciting for a fundamentalist Christian movie, but I really can't express what an enormous qualifying statement that is: being the most action-packed Christian movie in history only puts it at about the level of a no-budget underground Filipino thriller from the '70s.

And for all that I'm grateful that Cameron isn't the focus this time around, he still has the second-largest role in the movie; Buck Williams and his preening awful face and Cameron's inability to do that fussy thing "acting", when he can just recite his punishing, theologically inane dogma and sit back beaming with the flush of his evangelical zeal, they are all still very much with us (so is Cameron's wife Chelsea Noble, never worse in the series than in the scene where she confronts Rayford for leading her on; a gifted actress might have found the irony in playing a scorned woman who never actually had an affair with the man she's screaming at, but since Noble has decided that her character is a vindictive slutwhore, that's what we see, even though it's virtually impossible to justify that approach based on the script). World at War is a breath of fresh air compared the high school drama club production values of the first two, and the madman on the street with a sandwich board quality to the messaging, but compared to virtually any other action thriller about fighting a crazed supernatural Romanian dictator and stopping him from poisoning all the Christians with toxic Bibles, it's still unmistakably poor, hobbled by its philosophy and tremendously shy of actually being a genre film. It's the difference between getting your hand slammed in a door versus actually having your entire arm ripped off; there's still nothing pleasant about it, but the pain doesn't hang on for nearly as long.