(USA/Canada, 2007, 94 minutes)
Written by: John Strysik and Stuart Gordon
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Cast: Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea, Russell Hornsby, Rukiya Bernard
Cult favorite Stuart Gordon will forever be associated with his debut film: 1985’s Re-Animator, the first decent H.P. Lovecraft adaptation (although based only loosely on the short story) since Corman’s The Haunted Palace (named for a Poe tale, but based on The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward). Fangoria junkies immediately embraced it, and Joe Bob Briggs praised it as “the first movie ever made where a principal actor loses his head halfway through the movie, but FINISHES THE MOVIE!”--and yet, Gordon was skilful enough to capture something of the New England paranoiac’s operatic misanthropy and cosmic fatalism amidst the campy tone and Grand Guignol splatter, a skill he must’ve honed during his many years in guerilla theatre as a founding member and director of Chicago’s notorious Organic Theatre Company.
Another Lovecraft pastiche followed—the kinky, pastel-hued From Beyond—before Gordon seemed to lose his way with a series of rather humdrum low-budget programmers (Dolls, Robot Jox, and Castle Freak for Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment) and the minor hit Fortress (with Christopher Lambert) that were technically accomplished but exhibited little of Gordon’s playful perversity (his underrated update of The Pit And The Pendulum, with Lance Henriksen as Torquemada, was the sole exception).
After Dagon--his long-planned adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth—failed to register so much as a blip on the horror radar, Gordon experimented with a prolific and versatile run that included a Bradbury adaptation (The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit), a sci-fi actioner (Space Truckers), and more significantly, the downbeat revenge drama King Of The Ants, and a screen translation of old theatre pal David Mamet’s Edmond, a bleak existential character study that placed William H. Macy’s defeated Willy Loman-type into the urban hell of Taxi Driver. While devoid of any obvious genre trappings, Edmond, like Re-Animator, found Gordon back where he belonged, modulating pitch black humour with often excruciating violence (although who knows what path his career would have taken had illness not prevented him from directing the Disney hit Honey I Shrunk The Kids!)
Gordon’s new film, Stuck, is another outraged and outrageous urban fable, in which two lives become not so much interwined as smashed together in what might be the director’s darkest and most cynical work to date.
Lovecraft’s Old Ones plotted to teach mankind “new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom”. That about sums up the philosophy of twenty-something Brandi Helper (Suvari), a well-liked caregiver in a retirement home in—where else? Providence!--who takes her job seriously and is up for a promotion if she can proved she’s got the maturity to take on the added responsibility. But evidenced by her hideous cornrows and gaudy nails, she’s also a party-gal not so much Lovecraftian as Lohanian with a drug dealer boyfriend (Hornsby) who keeps her supplied with weed and acid.
And then there’s Tom (Rea): an unemployed, middle-aged schlep down on his luck. He hopes to land a temp job to keep his flophouse apartment, but a scheduling screw-up at the unemployment office costs him the opportunity. Evicted onto the street, he meets a kindly vagrant who offers up his grocery cart as transport for Tom’s remaining possessions. Kicked off his park bench by the cops, Tom can’t possibly sink any lower until he crosses paths with—
--Brandi, speeding home high after a night of partying. She smashes into Tom as he crosses an intersection, shattering his shins and propelling him head-first through her front windshield, where he remains stuck as she heads home in panic.
Tom, badly injured and unable to move his legs, pleads for mercy. Fearing criminal charges and the risk to her promotion, Brandi decides not to tell anyone about the mishap--after all, there are no witnesses—and goads her beau Rashid into getting rid of the body. The problem is, Tom isn’t dead yet...
Mena Suvari, who also serves as one of the producers, is clearly having a good time as an amoral skank who devolves from cement-headed club rat to homicidal harpy—another daring role for the still-young actress (not yet 30) who could’ve stuck with the American Pie franchise and instead has pursued less-flattering roles in edgier fare like Spun, Factory Girl, and Gordon’s Edmond.
Stephen Rea, taking a break from his steady gig with Neil Jordan, embodies hang-dog loserdom like no one else, so the role isn’t exactly a big stretch for this always-amiable journeyman. Still, it’s that rare actor who can maintain his dignity when he’s lodged in a windshield ass-end-up…
I’m must admit I wasn’t exactly sure what metaphor Gordon was going for here—it’s tempting to read it simply as one of the-haves-vs.-the-have-nots since dim Brandi earns enough at her caregiver gig to afford a decent car and house, and straight-arrow Tom was robbed of what seems to have been an affluent lifestyle. The wisdom-spouting hobos and ice-cold civil servants are standard movie caricatures, but it’s hard to quibble when one realizes that this oddball scenario is based, incredibly, on a true incident that occurred in 2002, when 25 year old Texan Chante Mallard struck beggar Gregory Biggs and drove home with him embedded in her windshield. She kept him in her garage for three days until he died—and is now, thankfully, serving time in prison.
Stuck is rendered in suitably grotty, grindhouse textures, all bleeding colours and harsh skin tones—an extension of the smash n’ grab, verite-style that Gordon used in King Of The Ants and Edmond—that betrays otherwise scenic New Brunswick locations (standing in Lovecraft’s preferred New England climes).
While its debut screening was enthusiastically received by the audience and local critics, no release date has been set as of this writing. Gordon plans to return to the genre with an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Thing On The Doorstep, which he’s setting up at the newly reformed Amicus Productions, best known for 70s horror favorites like From Beyond The Grave, Tales From The Crypt, and At The Earth’s Core. After the human monsters of his last three films, giant, inter-dimensional cephalopods might not seem so bad…
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Monday, September 24, 2007
(United Kingdom, 121 minutes, 2007)
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Written by: Deborah Curtis and Matt Greenhalgh, based on the book “Touching From A Distance” by Deborah Curtis
Cast: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, Joe Anderson, Toby Kebbell, Craig Parkinson, James Anthony Pearson
I came to love Joy Division a few years after their heyday, which was in the late 70s and when I was a 13-year-old just waking up to the existence of the era’s really amazing bands. I remember listening to CFNY, Toronto’s alternative radio station, in the wee hours, getting shivers as Ian Curtis’ haunting, hollow vocals moaned out “Love…love will tear us apart…again” (watch it here). I even had a very creepy dream about him that somehow mashed up the video to that song with Roman Polanski’s Macbeth. Joy Division has lurked in the corners of my musical interest ever since.
Curtis has always been an enigma. The band only put out two albums: their debut, “Unknown Pleasures,” and “Closer,” before Curtis hanged himself at the ridiculously young age of 23. Compilations such as “Still” and “Substance” carried on the band’s name as the surviving members went on to form New Order. But in an age before music videos, before video cameras were in cel phones, before the proliferation of music networks and avenues by which bands could be interviewed ad nauseum, Ian Curtis was a bright flare that you caught in the corner of your eye before it disappeared. And only his wife, Deborah, was ever able to bring him to us as a whole human being with her biography, “Touching From A Distance”.
That biography forms the basis of Control, a moody and stirring biopic ably directed by onetime rock photographer Anton Corbijn (the band was once subjects). Actor and singer Sam Riley – who oddly enough, appears in the other movie that fictionalizes Joy Division, 24 Hour Party People, but not as Curtis -- manages to bring a dose of humanity to his role. Seeing Curtis in his day job as a fairly satisfied civil servant helping disabled people find jobs was a bit of an eye-opener given the band's often dark and ugly side. Much has been made about Riley’s eerie similarity to Curtis; he does indeed resemble the man but also brilliantly captures his unique stage presence and, as the story progresses, his ultimate despair over his life and his disabling epilepsy. Throughout the film it’s hard not to think that the combination of an already volatile personality and the heavy mixture of medications he was taking to treat the affliction was the deadly combination that led to his tragic death.
As usual, Samantha Morton is brilliant as his wife, Deborah, a woman who was clearly passionately in love with a man who she could only helplessly watch as he slipped into an abyss. In the film Deborah almost serves as Ian’s conscience, a voice trying to talk him down from the ledge, and Morton’s expressive and naturalistic acting style is note-perfect. Is she ever going to be recognized as one of the great actresses of our time?
Musical biopics seem to be a dime a dozen, but Control is one of the few that not only illuminates its subject but captures in its tone the very nature of the man. A must for fans of the band.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
(USA, 148 minutes)
Written and Directed by Sean Penn
Based on the book by Jon Krakauer
Starring Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook
I think Sean Penn is a really good actor, a bit of a blowhard in real life, but a really, really, great director. I’m a huge fan of this previous three films, “The Indian Runner,” “The Crossing Guard” and “The Pledge.” Each film possesses and emotional core so heart-wrenching that sometimes they’re hard to watch again – for me personally, especially the second one – but I’ve never forgotten them.
He's back with his fourth film, "Into The Wild," the true story of Christopher McCandless (played with enigmatic brilliance and energy by Emile Hirsch), a young man who, upon graduating from college, decides to give away his life savings and drop out of society without a word to his family. His ultimate goal is Alaska, where he intends to live in complete isolation. The film’s timeline crosses back and forth between McCandless’ last few weeks living in an abandoned bus in the stunning Alaskan bush and his two-year cross-country (and then some) journey.
McCandless has an almost manic idealism that does touch and inspire people on the way. He befriends a travelling hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) and brings them closer together; he works at a farm for a somewhat shady good ol’ boy (a great cameo from Vince Vaughn) and brings a lonely old man (Hal Holbrook, moving and melancholy) out of his reclusive shell. But Penn doesn't gloss over the fact that there's a fair bit of self-centeredness to his decision, and portrays that through the anguish of his family – parents, played by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt, and sister, played by Jena Malone – at his disappearance from their lives.
McCandless’ personal journey is as much of a roller coaster as his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants lifestyle, and stunningly beautiful cinematography by Eric Gautier, making the most of America's diverse natural beauty, as well as an evocative and often rollicking score by Michael Brook, Kaki King and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, help bring it all to life. It’s at times uplifting, and then sweet and sad and ultimately tragic; it's a great complex film that's certain to gain attention come awards season.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
"The Virgin Spring" (Dialogues Series)
(Sweden, 1960, 90 minutes)
Written by: Ulla Isaksson
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson
This year’s Dialogues series was one of the most impressive since the programme’s inception, with such luminaries as Peter Boganovich, Sidney Lumet, and Lord Richard Attenborough appearing in person to introduce and discuss films and filmmakers who had an influence on their own careers.
But on Friday September 12, The University Of Toronto’s Isabel Theatre hosted a Dialogues event more intimate than most. To honour the late Ingmar Bergman, his longtime friend and leading man Max von Sydow presided over an evening to his memory, speaking candidly about their classic collaborations and focusing specifically, on their second film together, 1960’s “The Virgin Spring”, which won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
After a humid week, the weather suddenly turned thanks to the fallout of Hurricane Isabel and the ticket holders had to endure chilly winds and an incessant downpour as the event started late. The perfect backdrop for a Bergman tribute, perhaps…
The esteemed actor/director took to the stage for a brief introduction, and immediately reinforced what a commanding, even intimidating, presence he can be, even at the age of 78. But von Sydow responded to his standing ovation with humility and self-deprecating humour. But he often paused thoughtfully to find the right words when discussing Bergman’s memory--clearly, he was still struggling with the loss of his friend just this past July.
“I owe him (Bergman) so much. This is not a happy reason (to be here). No one in film and the theatre has meant more to me…my career…my professional ethics…I owe it all to him.”
“I was asked to choose a film of his—which was difficult, because I’ve been in a few!” he joked. Indeed, the seemingly indefatigable actor continues to be a familiar face to art house and mainstream filmgoers of several generations, having appeared in this past summer’s “Rush Hour 3” and with two new features premiering at this year’s TIFF: Julian Schnabel’s drama “The Diving Bell And The Butterfly” and Paolo Barzman's “Emotional Arithmetic.”
“The Virgin Spring” was based on a “(13th century) medieval ballad, and it was one of the few for which he did not write the script. It was also Bergman’s first collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, although they had met once before.”
“It is a brutal subject--it takes place in a time when Christianity hadn’t grown strong and there were a lot of pagan beliefs…set in Sweden in the early spring.”
And then, the film, still beautiful and heartbreaking with its sparse settings and characterizations and an unnerving climax of shocking physical and emotional violence:
At a remote farm in medieval Sweden, prosperous Christians Töre (von Sydow) and Märeta (Valberg), prepare their 15-year old daughter Karin (Pettersson) for a day’s journey to a nearby church to deliver ceremonial candles. She is accompanied by her adopted sister Ingeri (Lindblom), a pagan who worships the ancient Norse deities. The two become separated, and Karen encounters three nomads—two men and a young boy--and invites them to share her food. To the boy’s horror, the elder men rape and kill Karin and steal her clothing.
The criminals, seeking shelter, unknowingly come upon the home of the girl they have just murdered. Tore and Mareta discover welcome them in, feed them, and offer seasonal work. But one of the men tries to sell Mareta her daughter’s clothes. Tore locks them in, and kills all of them with a blade, including the young boy. The next morning, they are lead by Ingeri to Karin’s body. Tore promises Mareta that although he does not understand God, he will build a church on their daughter’s final resting place in his honour. As Karin is lifted, a spring suddenly flows from where she was murdered.
Von Sydow returned to the stage after the screening and took his seat beside interviewer Piers Handling, Toronto International Film Festival Director and CEO. He looked at the audience cheerily and quipped: “That was a long time ago!”
“It still moves me.”
Handling asked him to recount his first encounter with Bergman: “I was at the acting academy in Stockholm. And there was this admired new director everyone was talking about. He was doing “The Visitor”, and needed extras to play policemen. I called him at home, from a phone booth, and he answered! But all the roles had been cast. Later, at the Elisabeth theatre, I met him again. When he was at the municipal theatre—he invited me to come and perform in two plays that season. In the spring, he was offered me a role in “The Seventh Seal”, which was shot in the summer of 1956.”
“It was a wonderful time, especially for young people. They’d hire for 8 months of work, 12-15 young actors. You did anything and everything—classical, modern, comedies, tragedies. Small parts, leads. To learn acting, you must do. He’d be editing the film in the autumn while he did stage productions. He had a wonderful ability to make people enthusiastic to work with him. After four years, Bergman went to the Stockholm National Theatre, and I went a year later.”
“He (Bergman) was an extraordinary stage director, and that’s what makes him absolutely unique. His theatre productions influenced the films he wanted to make.”
“He said to me: my play—“Wood Painting”, I think—I’ll do a film based on it. There’s a clown I’d like you to play. He loved art…music. He’d ask: Did you see the Picasso paintings “A Family Of Clowns”? (von Sydow was likely referring to 1905’s Family of Saltimbanques) Then, a few weeks later, he called back: “I’ve changed my mind. There’s a knight I’d like you to play. There’s no dialogue—his tongue has been cut out. But Bergman changed it, and wrote the character dialogue.” (“Wood Painting” was the basis for “The Seventh Seal”, in which von Sydow’s Antonius Block famously plays chess against Death during the Black Plague).
And what of Bergman’s process? “He’d give you a script. Everyone would read through it. He did not analyze or instruct much. Moods, meanings, but no direct instruction during shooting. He had a wonderful capacity for “blocking”, onstage or on the film set. Very precise blocking, to find the psychological rhythm. He’d use simple physical terms: ‘warmer’, ‘colder’. But never any psychological analysis.”
“This was a very liberal approach for an actor, but I was always worried I wasn’t doing the right thing!”
“Bergman gave us the freedom to work and fantasize and carry on. Actors like to believe we have a little bit of the initiative.”
“He could make ordinary human beings of great classical characters. And he liked to joke about them--joke about his own characters and stories.”
“There weren’t many takes--complex camera moves, yes, maybe the odd required retake.”
On Bergman’s first time collaboration with cinematographer Nykvist: “Sven and Ingmar understood each other so well. Sven preferred as little artificial light as possible. No direct lights, always indirect, reflected light.”
“One day, they shot the arrival of the guys (the men who rape and kill Karin) to the farm to stay for the night. Bergman was upset with the rushes: Sven had created dramatic shadows, which he did not like and are still in the film.”
Why did he select “The Virgin Spring” for this screening? Because it represents to me everything I experienced as very valuable in the work of Mr. Bergman. The part, the story, the wide register of the performance.”
“We shot it in early spring, when the light was rather cold. There is betrayal, guilt. He was the son of a Lutheran minister, his relationship with his father was complicated, and he talked about faith so many times. The collision between heathens and Christianity is very clear.”
(Interesting that according to Peter Cowie’s Criterion Collection essay, Bergman never really regarded The Virgin Spring as one of his achievements. In fact, his own films rarely performed well in Sweden. The title is barely mentioned in his two autobiographies The Magic Lantern and Images).
“The shoot was wonderful, we had good time.” For Bergman, it was a transitional film. He had just married (his fourth time, to pianist Käbi Laretei), he had a new cinematographer, a script from another writer--he was happy at this time.”
Did Von Sydow regard himself as Bergman’s onscreen alter ego? “Yes, but most of his characters were”. He thought “Hour Of The Wolf” as Bergman’s most personal and autobiographical film—“Bergman’s horror film.”
The most difficult scene to shoot? “The hardest scene was the end scene. It is not perfect, I’m sorry to say. It was a very long take, should have been reshot, but we didn’t have the time. I had to direct myself to God, away from the camera. The emotion was impossible to express in satisfactory form.”
“There is no music in the climax—it is not needed. It allows us the time to feel in the tragedy, to experience the emotion of the people exposed to terrible tragedy. It was very courageous.”
An audience member asked if there was any repressed sexuality intended between Töre and his daughter? Von Sydow shrugged off the notion: “No, someone else came up with that.”
Von Sydow expanded humorously on the “birch tree” scene, in which Töre, having deduced that his boarders have killed his daughter, violently attempts to uproot a tree: “You know the culture of sauna in Finland and Sweden? The classical way was to whip yourself in the steam to clear out your frustration.”
“It was funny to shoot: they couldn’t find a good birch tree so they planted one—one amongst millions!--close to the farm in the middle of nowhere. And the locals were watching and thinking: we have enough birch trees!”
“Well, the camera assistant made an error and the shot came back as a silhouette. My character was not visible, just black on black. So when he came up the hill, he’s invisible approaching the tree. So the tree rocks back and forth on its own!”
“The farmers watched again as ten days later, we came back and did it all over again.”
“He would write for a performer…based on a conversation. We were prepared to the minutest detail. There was little improvisation. Quality was the most difficult thing to provide. To be true to the character. Bergman was very demanding. It was all in the preparation: Who he is. Why does he do what he does? What interests him in his life? What does he want to achieve?”
“Bergman never allowed actors to look at rushes. He let us create the character on our own.”
Another attendee inquired: Where do you go to recall Bergman beyond the cinema? Von Sydow paused thoughtfully, and responded simply “I can’t talk about that.”
Another asked if von Sydow would like to do "King Lear"? “I’ve never done it. Bergman did it in Stockholm. But not long ago, on the phone, he admitted he wanted me for the role. But now, I’m too old.”
He admitted that he'd choose Bille August’s 1987 Oscar-winner “Pelle the Conqueror” as his finest work as an actor, but clarified that he regards his 11 collaborations with Bergman as “the most important”.
“The four years of continual work with Bergman was my happiest time. It was a great school, a great academy. I was at the right place, at the right moment.”
“He spoiled me.”
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Friday, September 21, 2007
(Japan, 2007, 121 minutes)
Written by: Takashi Miike and Masa Nakamura
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Cast: Hideaki Ito, Masanobu Ando, Koichi Sato, Kaori Momoi, Yusuke Iseya, Yoshino Kimura , Shun Oguri, Quentin Tarantino
By now it’s clear that there are few genres left for Midnight Madness staple Takashi Miike to subvert or deconstruct--did I say deconstruct? Disembowel might be the more appropriate term. And then sploshing around the innards until a story takes a raw, messy shape…
Arguably contemporary Japanese cinema’s most prolific filmmaker--at the very least its most consistently fearless in upsetting sensibilities (his Faber & Faber biography is aptly entitled Agitator)--Miike has merrily assaulted the crime film (the Dead Or Alive trilogy), the violent gangster saga (Ichi The Killer), the “Fatal Attraction” stalker melodrama (Audition), the prison drama (Big Bang Love, Juvenile A), the superhero yarn (Zebraman), even the musical (The Happiness of the Katakuris), and the epic children’s fantasy fable (The Great Yokai War). And Imprint, his first foray into American cable television? Banned! (and not for Billy Drago’s performance…)
With the Western having been granted its latest short-lived resurrection on North American screens this year--the festival gala The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Seraphim Falls, James Mangold’s solid remake of 3:10 To Yuma, hell, even BloodRayne 2!--how appropriate is it then that Miike’s latest (actually, his second of four films this year) dares to stare down the most American of genres? SWD is a saddle opera bonkers enough to make less-adventurous filmgoers pining for more conventional fare like, oh, Jodorowsky’s El Topo or George England’s “psychedelic western” Zachariah (costarring Don Johnson. Dick Van Patten, and The Eagles’ Joe Walsh!)…
Unable to attend the screening (he’s working—what else?), Miike provided a video introduction in which--shades of I’m Not There—the surprisingly jovial director expressed his gratitude for the long-time support of programmer Colin Geddes and the ever-loyal Toronto audience via a series of text cards.
Opening on what looks like a Death Valley campfire set designed by Waiting For Guffmans Corky St. Clair, we meet Quentin Tarantino as “Ringo”, a chatty cowpoke who, over a bowl of sukiyaki (beef stew), spins for us a yarn of "The Genpei Wars" of the 1100s, when during a gold rush the town of Yuda was besieged by the rival gangs the Genji Whites and the Heike Reds, until a mysterious “Gunman” (Ito) wandered in to set things right.
He befriends the defiant, hard-drinking Ruriko (Momoi), who runs the general store and raises her mute grandson Akira whose father—her son—was murdered by Kiyomori. He also wins the attentions of Shizuka (Kimura), the local prostitute who was once the bride of the vain, preening Kiyomori (Sato), the leader of the red-clad Heike gang who readies his followers for a violent turf war with the white-clad Genji clan, under the command of the flamboyant Yoshitsune (Iseya). The Heike have taken over the town after killing the mayor and enlisting the services of the traitorous sheriff (Kagawa). Playing each side against the other, the Gunman empowers the locals to take back their town, blasting, slashing, and bursting through any ornery cuss who gets in the way…
Yessir, it’s another bullet-ridden stampede through Yojimbo territory (and, of course, the 1966 Sergio Carbucci classic that provides part of the title), or rather, its Western remake/homage A Fistful Of Dollars. But, remember, Kurosawa based Yojimbo on the American short story “Red Harvest” by Dashielle Hammet, and since Yojimbo was remade by Walter Hill as the gangster yarn Last Man Standing—well, it’s safe to assume that somewhere along the line all of the cultural debts have officially been squared.
And if that’s not strange enough—and oh it is plenty strange—it’s also one of the wilder revisionist riffs on Shakespeare, specifically his Wars of the Roses dramas, with Kiyomori rechristening himself after Henry VI (“Hen-Ray”) and quoting it in garbled iambic pentameter (take that, Baz Luhrman!). And then there’s that hybrid rose bush…
As whacked-out as the production design and anachronisms are (A Buddhist temple next to the saloon, stetsons and leather dusters amidst samurai swords and crossbows, a Gatling gun right out of The Wild Bunch)SWD goes off the rails from the very first appearance of an Asian cowboy, who utters his knowingly clichéd lines in phonetic English, complete with affected Southern drawl (a perfectly ordinary quip like “you be whistlin’ Dixie” gains about three times the required syllables). So does the entire cast. Hell, even Tarantino soon gets in on the shtick; speaking his lines as if the English language is entirely alien to him (you can insert your own mocking one-liner of his much-debated thespian abilities here). Imagine a lengthy feature where everyone speaks Esperanto (Incubus) as delivered by the backwards dwarf from Twin Peaks, and you’ll have some idea of what you’re in for when and if you can ever track this one down in your neighborhood. Thankfully, the entire film is subtitled, and I “reckon” you’ll need ‘em.
Surprisingly, this is not the first of its type—in the late 50s, Japan’s Nikkatsu Studios conceived of the mukokuseki film with a sprawling, multi-film saga ala Zatoichi with Wataridori (Birds of Passage) which starred Akira Kobayashi as a contemporary cowboy complete with trademarked horse, guitar and bullwhip.
But while there’s little deadwood (or Deadwood for that matter), the film is far too self-referential and satisfied with its own cleverness for its own good (and ours). The film is overstuffed with clever and spectacular slapstick—and splatstick—action gags shot in Leone-patented widescreen. As with last year’s The Great Yokai War (reviewed here), SWD exhausted me by the end of the first half (and stops dead when a major character degenerates into Smeagol-mode), but regained its footing for a rousing climax—still, I couldn’t help but wonder what someone like Steven Chow could’ve done with this.
Still, while this is the kind of film that celebrates its unevenness, the presence of Tarantino reminded me that his own Kill Bill and Robert Rodriguez collaborations (From Dusk Til Dawn, Sin City, Grindhouse)—which owe much to Miike’s demented sensibility—were far more accomplished at playing fast and loose with genre conventions while remaining grounded in emotional reality even as their characters defied the laws of gravity, time, space, and whatever the hell logic is....
Sukiyaki Western Django will open in Japan this fall, but there’s been no North American release date set at this time.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Thursday, September 20, 2007
To say that Nightwatching, Peter Greenaway’s newest film, is his most accessible isn’t saying much—this isn’t like David Lynch going all G-rated on us with The Straight Story. Despite an intriguing what if? scenario about one of the world’s most famous paintings, it goes on way too long, the drama is flattened under the weight of its sober formalism, and the performances range from the laughably shrill to the hopelessly unintelligible.
We first meet the manic Rembrandt van Rijn (Martin Freeman) well into his career as Holland’s most successful artist. He lives in an opulent home in Amsterdam with his pregnant wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle), and a host of servants, with Geertje (Jodhi May) and Hendrickje (Emily Holmes) being his favorites.
With a child on the way, Rembrandt is urged by his wife to accept an offer to paint a portrait of the 17 local merchants who comprise the Kloveniers--the Amsterdam Civil Guard--for a handsome commission. But he resists the assignment at first, until one of the members is killed by an “accidental” musket misfire and he suspects a cover up.
He immerses himself in the physics of firearms to recreate the fatal shot. Appealing to the guardsmen’s vanity, he learns that their leader, Frans Banning Cocq (Adrian Lukis), was concealing a forbidden affair with co-conspirator Willem van Ruytenburgh (Adam Kotz). He uncovers that the orphanage under the Guard's protection is a front for a child brothel.
No longer content to squander his skills and secret knowledge on a conventional military portrait, Rembrandt makes his accusations within the cryptic details of the painting itself, to send a message to the conspirators that he’s on to their hypocrisy (he even includes himself in the painting, partially visible behind Banning Cocq’s head). But the work is halted when Saskia dies and Rembrandt plummets into grief.
Nevertheless, he completes the work, and the conspirators vow revenge. To discredit him, they send a mistress to seduce and betray him. They try to blind him. Bankrupt him. Even attempt to kill his son. But the work, comprising a total of 34 individual characters, goes on to become his most celebrated work: The Night Watch, or, The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch.
The Nightwatch was such a dense and mysterious work that centuries later there’s still a lot of room for conjecture as to what it all means, and Greenaway’s theories are well-researched and make a certain amount of dramatic sense. But he’s not much of a storyteller, at least not in the three-act model, and the film’s virtues lie squarely in its art direction (it’s a highbrow companion to the living illustrations of Sin City or 300). Greenaway has never denied the influence of Renaissance painting and the Dutch Masters on his past works and here he gets to revel in it, with figures perfectly composed amidst the nuances of costume detail and architecture and meticulous lighting schemes that perfectly balance light and shadow, simulating photographically the chiarascuro technique Rembrandt modified to his own style.
But for all of his exactitude to period detail, Greenaway never creates a convincing sense of time and place. Although shot in Amsterdam, the UK, Poland, and apparently right here in Canada, the film is stage bound and hermetically-sealed, we never get a sense of The Netherland’s “Golden Age”, and Rembrandt’s environment rarely extends beyond his home’s dark interior and a rooftop balcony where he interacts with neighbouring servants on what looks like a leftover set from David S. Ward’s Cannery Row.
It doesn’t help that Rembrandt is portrayed by Martin Freeman of all people, who’s perhaps best known for his role as “Tim” in Ricky Gervais’ original The Office serials, and recently as Arthur Dent in the feature version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. He’s a likeable actor, sure, and his toussled mane and facial stubble make him look as much like the famous painter as we know from his self-portraits, but Freeman never sold me on van Rijn’s lusty bravado and tortured artistic temperament.
And yet, there’s something about the film that wants you to love it—to share Rembrandt’s passion to transcend the limitations of the canvas, admire at his enlightened, progressive attitudes, titter at its explicit bedroom romps, wince at the tragedies that befall his young family, and channel your armchair sleuth at every knot twist of its DaVinci Codey conspiracy plot –but dammit Greenaway, how can I love Nightwatching when you keep pushing me away?
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD
Written and directed by George A. Romero
Cast: Shawn Roberts, Joshua Close Michelle Morgan, Jon Dinicoi, Phillip Riccio, Scott Wentworth
George A. Romero was unhappy with the State Of The Zombie Nation. His fourth installment in his allegorical horror saga, Land Of The Dead, was a return to Hollywood filmmaking, which demanded that he ensure the studio (Universal) an “R” rating (not an easy thing when the operating philosophy of the cast is “shoot ‘em in the head!”), employ “name” actors (Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo) over Pittsburgh-area unknowns, and worst of all, shoot it in Toronto, subbing for his preferred Pennsylvania climes (at least the Florida-shot Day Of The Dead was set in The Sunshine State!).
As Romero and his crew were desperately trying to make the Leslie Spit look like the Three Rivers junction, across town a remake of his 1978 second chapter Dawn Of The Dead was in production. This one was also set in a shopping mall, but eschewed social commentary for slam-bang action and dared to suggest that the recently-resurrected could be fast! Running zombies? That stuff might fly in London, but here--it was time for the founding father to seriously rethink where his creation was going.
Romero’s Dead installments have always been uniquely attuned to the temperament of their times. 1968’s Night Of The Living Dead sounded like an undistinguished drive-in programmer, but was a thoughtful examination of the gradual collapse of social order within the microcosm of a remote farmhouse, with black leading man (rare for its day) crafty enough to survive the ghouls but not a careless bullet from an overzealous militia. Ten years later, Dawn Of The Dead saw the plague move to the inner cities, and worked in some pointed (dare-I-say biting?) satire on materialism and conspicuous-consumption between Tom Savini’s outrageous Grand Guignol bloodletting. 1985’s more didactic Day Of The Dead was a response to the Reagan-era’s “might makes right” philosophy as a cure-all for the world’s problems. And 2005’s Land Of The Dead (which was conceived in the 1990s but plagued with production delays) saw human civilization rising from the chaos but doomed to repeat its mistakes.
So where to take it next? It occurred to Romero that the time was right for a reboot (Night Of The Living Dead was already remade with Romero’s blessing in 1990) to re-examine the original’s premise through today’s omniscient media. In 1968, the survivors were totally reliant on "official' sources—a single black and white television airing a local news feed was the only window to the insanity that was spreading across the nation. By 1978, the collapsing Pittsburgh cable access channel kept the experts talking and knowingly broadcasted false hope about emergency shelters to keep whatever viewers were left watching. How would America react to a zombie infestation today? Would they even believe it? Would they trust their sources or turn to the alternative media? Could citizen journalist be trusted? Would the YouTubers be content to simply tape it, mix it, upload it, and watch it as just another viral distraction?
It’s a heady concept, and a dramatically risky one—but Diary Of The Dead transcends its “Blair Witch”y hook, thanks to Romero’s ever-virile imagination and Humanist anger (mixed with a healthy dollop of Catholic outrage) that four-decades after he conceived of something called “Night Of Anubis” shows no sign of exhausting itself at the age of 67.
An off-screen female narrator, Debra (Michelle Morgan), tells us that the film we are about to see is “The Death Of Death”, a documentary that has been assembled on-the-fly from a variety of sources but is, she assures us, the absolute “truth”. When it begins, a group of film students lead by Jason (Joshua Close) are shooting a no-budget “mummy” movie late at night in the Pennsylvania woods, when they are attacked by what appears to be a real zombie, which is captured by their own camcorders. They escape in their Winnebago and return to the University of Pennsylvania campus, which has already been invaded by the undead.
The government, predictably, denies any crisis (“a virus that causes mass psychosis” is the official explanation, shades of the “Venus probe” virus offered in the original), but the underground news media and portable technology unleashes what is being suppressed. Online, a video makes the rounds of a domestic crime scene where the allegedly “dead” victims rise up and attack the paramedics and the police.
Joined by their surviving college professor (Scott Wentworth), the students take to the road to head for Jason’s opulent family home and encounter increasing numbers of the living dead at every turn. In the countryside, they help an Amish farmer secure his property. A group of African-American survivalists who were left abandoned suspect their intentions but eventually acknowledge they’re fighting for the same cause. During a run to the hospital to pick up supplies, Jason is so committed to capturing the “right” images that the ghouls almost overpower them. Debra encounters her resurrected mother. The dead are rising all right—this is no online Orson Welles hoax—and Jason appoints himself to be mankind’s last, official chronicler of its dying days…
Romero’s attempts at mock-verite are very convincing—he began his career as a documentary filmmaker in Pittsburgh before taking a gamble on features—and while Diary Of The Dead is serious-minded, it’s not all so Costa Gavras that it skimps on the stuff that keeps us coming back to these movies again and again: the flesh-eating is plentiful and gruesomely entertaining, and KNB’s makeup effects are amongst the most convincing yet realized (and there have been a lot of zombie yarns since 1968) and are greatly aided by seamless CGI substitution. And Romero’s expected black humour (he once staged a pie-and-seltzer-bottle fight amidst a zombie attack, remember?) is in steady supply, with deaf/mute Amish farmer “Samuel” being one of the more memorable encounters, as he dispatches the undead with his farm instruments and introduces himself to the camera through a chalkboard around his neck.
Celebrity voice cameos add to the fun: listen close, and you’ll hear Shawn Of The Deads Simon Pegg, Guillermo Del Toro, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven, and even Stephen King, one of Romero’s best friends and a frequent collaborator.
There are obvious echoes here, of the shocking Katrina viz and the Bush administration’s supression of Abu Ghraib images and other horrors of the Iraq War (a subject that fellow genre icon Brian DePalma tackled this same year with his mockumentary Redacted, which I will also review shortly). And Jason’s commitment to capture everything at any costs, even to his friends’ well-being, rings depressingly true in light of increasingly voyeuristic footage that has been burned into the public consciousness. The hook itself is not entirely new to the genre (in Zack Snyder’s Dawn remake—which I’m a big fan of btw despite Romero’s lamentations—incorporates home video footage in its chilling coda), and some of the narration is a little too on the nose, perhaps (a problem with Day, too), but given that the film-within-the-film is created by impassioned college students, we can forgive their penchant for melodrama.
“Are we worth saving?”, Debra asks as the film closes. It’s certainly not the first time a George A. Romero character has posed this loaded question, and hopefully not the last (I think we need one of these every 10 years or so to take stock of things). Maybe next time, though, Romero will give the zombies the camcorders and let us see it from their POV—the shots won’t be as steady, but at least they’ll shut up and let the pictures tell the tale.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
(France, 2007, 83 minutes)
Written by: Alexandre Bustillo
Directed by: Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Mury
Cast: Béatrice Dalle, Alysson Paradis, Natalie Roussel, François-Régis Marchasson, Jean-Baptiste Tabourin
À l'intérieur begins with a truly terrifying image--the logo of the new Weinstein Company— which means that the chances of this skilful and outrageously depraved debut feature finding an audience beyond its European borders are already screwed. Harvey and Bob were once champions of the horror crowd who will never forgive the duo for splitting up Grindhouse and buying-up-and-then-burying fine films like All The Boys Love Mandy Lane and Feast (they’ve gotten their meat hooks on George A. Romero’s Diary Of The Dead, too!—finally answering the question, “how do you kill something that’s already dead?”).
But if the bros want to atone for past sins, they could start by hyping this one into overdrive (if not, it’s your civic duty to borrow, bootleg or BitTorrent). Yes, it is French, and oui, there are subtitles, but a good 99% of the dialogue uttered in the film’s second and third acts consists of howls of anguish. Even though the title at first conjures up images of Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen (in his Bergman phase), and just because it’s from the land of meandering critics’ darlings Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc whathisname doesn’t mean it gets all Michael Haneke on us and denies us our baser pleasures. While even the most seasoned gorehound will probably encounter a moment or three where he’ll be forced to turn his head, À l'intérieur will be nothing less than excruciating to a female perspective—(what a great double bill it’d make with Dead Ringers!)--I wonder if it’s time to resurrect one of those old William Castle-type disclaimers warning pregnant women to attend at their own risk?
The film’s second image is a close up of a fetus in the womb, subtly reacting to the sound of a comforting female voice (presumably its mother) before the chamber fills with blood after a brutal impact collision.
Of course, in this era of Saw and Hostel there will be those ready to brand À l'intérieur as “torture porn”—an already tiresome label I despise in that it is inaccurate, intolerant, and born of the same knee-jerk grandstanding that befell the so-called “slasher” subgenre of the early 80s—but its European roots might muster up some cushioning art house cache. A warning to rival camps, though: gorehounds expecting nothing a parade of the red stuff might be taken aback by the film’s unique feminine fury, and those of the PBS set looking for something to “transcend its genre” will feel like they’ve been slapped around with a meat tenderizer for nearly 90 straight minutes. Its rewards are found somewhere in the middle: outrageously over the top sadism, anchored in an expertly-paced and well-acted premise that’s all too plausible.
Freshman directors Bustillo and Mury are clearly students of the 70s independent horror scene, working from a visual palette that mixes equal parts Carpenter’s claustrophobic widescreen compositions and Argento’s operatic bloodshed (the film appears to have been shot on digital video, but I really couldn’t tell for sure). Clive Barker has personally selected the boys to direct a remake of his 1986 cult classic Hellraiser, which is another domestic horror tale that could benefit from their collective keen eye and empathy for even the most monstrous motivations.
Béatrice Dalle, perhaps still best known for Beiniex’s erotic melodrama Betty Blue, creates one of recent horror cinema’s more believable and thus all-the-more terrifying homicidal nutjobs, and the suffering that obvious trooper Alysson Paradis experiences makes one think that there should be some sort of “special award” given to her come next year’s Cesars. Not being female, I’m really in no position to evaluate either character’s motivations or emotional responses, but thanks to the raw emotions and utter lack of vanity displayed by both actresses, the gimmicky scenario seemed unnervingly real with only one minor contrivance easily forgiveable.
Like the breakout French shocker Haute Tension, this is one of the most relentlessly savage thrillers to come out of anywhere. Thankfully, its third act plot twist is nowhere near as ridiculous as that of Alexander Aja’s 2003 debut, and the film ends on a more satisfying, even bittersweet, note. And while on the subject, what is it with France being the breeding ground for so many stylish and hyper-violent genre films lately? Maléfique, Frontieres, Them, Calvaire, Irreversible—if you believe that horror uniquely reflects a country’s “spirit of the age” or moment (that’s zeitgeist to you eggheads, and yes, I do...), then what the hell are these people going through that needs to be played out with such gleeful nihilism?
Once you’ve pondered the question, you’ll have to make due with the trailer (here), since the retitled Inside isn’t scheduled for North American release until 2008.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Saturday, September 15, 2007
David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" was declared the winner of the Cadillac People's Choice Award, announced today at the 32nd Toronto International Film Festival's Awards Reception, held at the Fairmont Royal York.
The Cadillac People's Choice award was presented by Norm Sawula, Cadillac Marketing Manager, which consists of a $15,000 cash prize and custom award.
"Eastern Promises" is now in first-run release in select cities. My review of the Gala presentation will be posted here shortly.
Friday, September 14, 2007
(Canada/USA. 90 minutes, 2007)
Written and directed by Brian DePalma
Cast: Patrick Carroll, Francois Caillaud, Rob Devaney, Izzy Diaz, Mike Figueroa, Ty Jones, Ohad Knoller, Paul O'Brien, Abigail Savage
Prior to 1983 (where the film was only a minor critical and box office hit) DePalma was renowned as an auteur of thrillers--Carrie, Dressed To Kill, and Blow Out among his key successes—with the label “modern day Hitchcock” both an artistic blessing and a critical curse (the Paulettes of the age rarely gave him any respect and dismissed him as a shallow, showy stylist). But before becoming identified with lengthy tracking shots, disorienting split screens, and shrieking Pino Donnagio strings, he began his career as a young Sarah Lawrence grad shooting 16mm, semi-improvisational counterculture satires like Hi, Mom! and Greetings on the streets of his native New York.
In 1989, just as the “Vietnam” cycle that began with Platoon was coming to an end, he surprised his staunchest critics and splintering fan base with Casualties Of War, an impassioned dramatization of a rape/murder committed by American soldiers in the early days of the conflict. As expected, it was greeted with critical and box-office indifference (he was taken to task for casting Michael J. Fox in the lead role), but has since endured as one of his defining efforts.
During production of his adaptation of James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia, DePalma came upon a terrible subject that would return him not only to the psychic landscape of his underappreciated anti-war drama, but to his roots as a guerilla filmmaker....
A soldier’s camcorder introduces us to the young American Marines of Alfa Company, stationed at Camp Carolina, Samara, Iraq. Private Salazar (Diaz) is an aspiring filmmaker who plans to use his homemade documentary as an audition piece for film school. He turns his lens on his mates, who include their leader and Iraq vet Master Sgt. James Sweet (Jones), the immature Rush (Sherman), his buddy the arrogant, remote Reno Flake (Carroll), bookish Gabe Blix (O’Neill), and the noble, idealistic “Lawyer” (literally) McCoy (Devaney).
Alfa Company’s main duties are to police a military checkpoint at the city’s entrance, which the French documentary crew captures for the slick, earnest documentary "Barrage". Their HD cameras record an explosive moment when an Iraqi family panics and attempts to break through the barrier—a struggle in which Flake shoots and kills a young pregnant women with troubling ease.
Investigating reports of a nearby terror cell, the Company raids an Iraqi household where a terrified family recoils as their simple homestead is ransacked but ultimately declared free of threat. But later that night, Rush and Flake, stoned and resentful and full of lust for the family’s 15 year old daughter, ignore orders and make an unauthorized return to the house. McCoy returns to base in disgust. Salazar’s helmet camera captures their gang-rape and murder the girl. Rush and Flake coldly assassinate the remaining family.
Retaliation comes swiftly and without mercy. The checkpoint is bombed. Then, one of the soldiers is kidnapped. The next morning, his body is found, beheaded. The website of the radical Islamic group "Shuhada' ul-hurriyya" ('Martyrs of Freedom) posts video of the execution, with a vow that more will follow.
From America, an Army wife documents her grief through her video blog. And on another site, a college-age rebel posts her rant against the U.S. government and sympathizes with the radicals.
Back at Camp Carolina, McCoy is haunted by his implication in the horrific tragedy and reports the crime, only to find out the hard way that the military looks after its own…
Coproduced with Canada's The Film Farm (the folks behind Sarah Polley's directorial debut Away From Her), “Redacted” was shot in Jordan, with unknown actors in only two weeks on a meager budget of $5 million dollars provided by Mark Cuban’s HD Net.
As with Casualties, which began as a New Yorker article by Daniel Lang, DePalma was inspired by a news article about the 2006 Mahmudiyah killings, in which fourteen-year old Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi was raped, murdered, and burned along with her parents and sister by U.S. soldiers. Acknowledging the thematic similarities, he wanted to explore the subject in a “different way”.
Outraged at the lack of mainstream news coverage of the Iraqi conflict (at least the Vietnam War was played out on the nightly news, he argued in the Q&A, which fueled America’s take-it-to-the-streets dissention), DePalma found inspiration in “Citizen Journalist” and the “alternative” media that have dared to document since 2003 what the “official” sources can’t or won’t touch. Redacted is constructed entirely from faux-"found" footage and rotating points-of-view, each simmering with its own agenda: a formal French documentary, the camp’s security tapes, an Arab TV channel, American and Islamic fundamentalist web sites, camera phone recordings, and, primarily, a soldier's video diary (come to think of it, it’s a little bit like Patrick Sheane Duncan’s 84 Charlie MoPic, which came out four months before Casualities). What it lacks the technical pizzazz of DePalma's thrillers or mainstream works is made up for by its energy (90 brief minutes blow by) and collision of styles that make its sense of outrage all the more palpable and unnerving.
The more formal, faux-documentary from the French crew is particularly well-done, utilizing classical music (Sarabande by Handel, which was first used effectively in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), portentous narration (of the 2000 Iraqis killed at check points, only 60 have been confirmed as insurgents), and artful images (ala Gunner Palace, et al) of soldier’s weary faces and sun baked buildings that both damns and fetishizes the American iconography of the occupation.
Redacted's most controversial moment comes--ala Lars Von Trier’s anti-American Chomsky-meets-Brecht screed Dogville--at the very end: After McCoy’s teary confession to friends back home, DePalma closes on a blistering montage of unseen and censored stills of the victims of “collateral damage”, but mixes in some faked images of incidents staged for the film’s narrative. Devotees of DePalma’s hypnotic, often eroticized images will find themselves pummeled by his rage and conviction. This is powerful, one-sided, in-your-face stuff.
(UPDATED 10/13/2007: “Redacted” has since been “redacted” for real (more here)! The closing credit photos have been blacked out, a “Boycott Redacted” website has been launched accusing DePalma of treason, and Mark Cuban has offered to sell DePalma his film back so he can have nothing to do with it. Conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly's pissed with it, of course, and the critical reaction from the mostly Liberal media is, true to form, “mixed’. I can only hope this long time provocateur is laughing and shaking his head at another “mission accomplished”.)
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Thursday, September 13, 2007
(2007, USA, 86 minutes)
Written by: Harold Pinter, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Michael Caine, Jude Law
Anthony Shaffer’s Tony-winning 1970 theatrical staple (somewhere right now, I’m sure, a community theatre company is planning a production) has been given a 21st century makeover by three generations of British cinematic royalty: Kenneth Branagh stays behind the camera this time to put Michael Caine and Jude Law through this chatty clash of ego titans, this time with a script revamped by esteemed poet/playwright (and recent Nobel Prize recipient) Harold Pinter. Caine and Law generate the combustible energy a chamber piece like this demands, but by the end it’s all Pinter’s show--which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your take on Pinter and reverence for Shaffer’s original text.
Branagh demonstrated himself a skilled visual director from the get-go with his definitive Henry V adaptation, and his followups Dead Again and Hamlet showed invention and assurance that betrayed his (then) relative inexperience. Here, he relies more on his stagecraft to keep this hermetically-sealed two-hander from degenerating into an inert talk-fest.
He’s smart to keep the camera back and let the actors do the work. Caine, of course, portrayed Milo Tindle in the original film version, and it was his idea to revisit the play and take on Laurence Olivier’s role. He personally selected Jude Law for Tindle, presumably having been impressed with Law’s portrayal of his own Alfie Elkins in Charles Shyer’s recent remake of Alfie. At one point, Law’s Tindle cheekily even asks Caine’s Wyke: “What’s it all about?”, which can’t be a coincidence (assuming this trend continues, can we expect to one day see Law in a remake of The Hand?).
Both actors are clearly having fun throughout facing off through jut jaws and snarling teeth as they spar through various levels of Wyke’s compound, which instead of the old money, game-filled mansion of the original, is now a giant Skinner Box of cobalt and cool blues, with neon splashes that change with the psychological vibe of the moment--like something out a Saw sequel directed by Michael Mann. One can’t imagine a novelist creating a lauded body of work in a such a chilly mausoleum, one presumes that Wyke dipped into his hefty finances to outfit his home with such elaborate traps and devices purely to mess with the randy philanderer's pretty blond head.
There are problems earlier, too, as appearance of the sleazy inspector leads to a twist which is so obvious that I’m surprised the ease of its detection wasn’t an actual plot point (at the risking of committing a SPOILER, let’s just say that there are only five performers credited, and one appears fleetingly as a television image and the other is an off-camera female voice).
This version is much shorter than the original (just 86 minutes, while Joseph L. Mankiewicz's’s 1972 adaptation ran more than two hours), but despite its brisker pace, nastier edge and surprising lack of Pinter pauses, it builds to a disappointing coda. Pinter unfortunately bogs down the climax with a broadly-etched bedroom showdown that throws the Freud into overdrive and brings the homoerotic undercurrents to the forefront, affording viewers the unique opportunity to witness the androgynous Law in semi-drag but deflating the cat-and-mouse frissons that have kept us on edge with a near audible pfft. Such explicit confrontation would have been scandalous around the time of Pinter’s The Birthday Party or Old Times, but today plods as overwrought and obvious—perversely, making this 35th anniversary reimagining somehow more dated than the original.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Monday, September 10, 2007
(Canada/UK, 96 minutes)
Written by: Steve Knight
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortenson, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel, Sinead Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowski
Whether adapting a best-selling novel (The Dead Zone) or a smash Broadway play (M Butterfly), remaking a notorious ‘50s potboiler (The Fly), or an acclaimed graphic novel (A History Of Violence), David Cronenberg infuses the original author’s vision with the obsessive themes and recurring imagery of his earlier, self-penned works (in film lingo, “Cronenbergian” has become an adjective as instantly resonant as “Hitchcockian”), even though he insists that this is often accidental (the mind reels at what he would have done with Flashdance or Top Gun, two Hollywood blockbusters he was offered). Eastern Promises, while at first glance a more conventional exercise than say, the minimalist psychodrama Spider (based on Patrick McGrath’s first-person novel), has much more to offer than its formal Syd-Field-friendly structure and crowd-pleasing melodrama might suggest.
Marketed as a “companion piece” to 2005’s A History Of Violence, Cronenberg’s newest genre-bender re-teams him with Viggo Mortenson in Guy Ritchie territory: a “mob” yarn which can also be read as another exploration of “biology as destiny”, but here, it’s not a venereal parasite, or an experimental skin graft that will pit soul against flesh, but one’s own family blood.
Midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) fails to save the life of Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), a fourteen-year-old addict/prostitute who is rushed to her London hospital in labour. But the child lives and Anna sets out to find the girl’s family to give the baby girl--whom she names “Christine”--a proper home. A card in the girl’s possession leads Anna to the Trans-Siberian restaurant, which is owned by the paternal Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose gentle demeanour betrays a ruthless loyalty to the code of the vory v zakone--the Russian mafia. He demands that the diary be turned over to him for translation.
Meanwhile, Anna’s mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack) and her Russian-born uncle Stepan (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, of the Cannes-winning “Moonlighting”) have already started translating Tatiana’s journal and urge her to keep out of it—according to the girl’s confessions, Semyon is the one responsible for raping her and forcing her into a a life of prostitution.
Semyon's chauffer and “cleaner” Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) is sponsored to become a full member of the crime family, due largely to his repeated and patient defence of Semyon's hot-headed son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who had arranged a hit on a rival Chechen gangleader without his father’s approval. The Chechen gang vow revenge and embarks on London, but Semyon plans to save his inept son and trick loyal Nikolai into taking Kirill's place at a meeting at the baths. Thinking he’s Kirill, the Chechen assassins attack Nikolai but he kills them both. He ends up at Anna’s hospital, where she tends to his vicious injuries.
Nikolai reveals that he, too, harbours a secret. He’s actually an undercover member of the Russian Security Services, and has been working with a Scotland Yard detective Yuri (Donald Sumpter) to bring Semyon down; leaving him coded messages along with the bodies he’s been disposing in the Thames River. He already knows of the contents of the diary, and with Semyon out of the picture he would be the most powerful member and able to dismantle the London branch of the crime family completely from within.
Mortenson’s stoic intelligence brings shading to what could have been theatrical, 2-D character: the tattooed hit man (Nikolai’s body art—literally to illustrate his commitment to crime family--chronicles a “history of violence” of its own). The degree to which he fearlessly immerses himself in the role is impressive for an actor who could likely retire from his action figure revenue. The already-notorious bath house brawl, which he performs naked, is blistering--and exhausting--in its visceral impact, but Mortenson’s wounded countenance make you feel Nikolai’s betrayal with every slice and shattered limb.
It’s hard to compete with Mortenson’s transformation, but Watts, always a versatile actress, brings steely grace and a maternal doggedness (Anna has lost her own baby to a miscarriage) to her crusade. Cassell gets to have a lot more fun tearing into the “Fredo” role as the libidinous psycho Kirill. Meuller-Stahl’s every appearance seethes with hushed malevolence.
Stephen Knight, who wrote the searing Stephen Frears class drama Dirty Pretty Things, provides Cronenberg with a perfectly structured and briskly paced screenplay, which offers plenty of opportunity to explore the nuances and iconography of yet another subculture while spinning a yarn that’s more audience friendly than much of what comprises his iconoclastic, often-polarizing filmography.
Cronenberg’s usual company is in top form: cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, art director Carol Spier, editor Ronald Sanders, and composer Howard Shore. It’s also one of the first films he’s shot outside Canada, with his hometown of Toronto having stood in for Maine, Pennsylvania, and Tangiers, and Montreal the setting for his Tax-Shelter Era classics Shivers, Rabid, and Scanners. Suschitzky's restrained camera and lack of obvious stylization (his aesthetic reminds me of that of the late great Freddie Francis)--coupled with Spier’s knack for resonant detail—suits a crime yarn that is more concerned about that which lives in the margins.
It’s also short—clocking in at a taut hour-and-a-half--at a time when goofball comedies like Knocked Up run as long as Terence Malick meditations.
Eastern Promises shows that at the age of 64 Cronenberg has lost none of his subversive streak and is an artist at the top of his form. Obviously, Toronto film fest audiences felt the same way, as they awarded it the Audience Prize as Best Film. Be sure to catch it now, currently in theatres.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
(USA, 122 minutes, 2007)
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Kelly McDonald, Woody Harrelson, Stephen Root, Barry Corbin
One of the year’s best films will also be one of the most polarizing: at first glance, No Country For Old Men appears to be a conventional thriller, a straight-up morality tale about a regular Joe who happens upon a stash of loot and the nogoodnicks who want it back, climaxing in the expected betrayal and violence.
But the Coen brothers don’t make conventional films, and the prose stylings of Cormac McCarthy have frequently been characterized with terms like exultant and dense and with sentences like comma-less convoys—and those are his favorable reviews! The cinema of the Coens is distinguished (and in some camps, derided) for its ironic detachment, broad characterizations, and impeccable formalism. McCarthy is a moralist who writes in opaque metaphors and verbose interior monologues. Their unlikely collision crackles:
In 1980, while hunting deer near the Rio Grande, Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) comes upon the aftermath of a bloody drug deal. He finds a circle of bullet-ridden bodies, a stash of heroin, and 2.4 million dollars in cash. Llewelyn doesn’t hesitate to take the money, but before he can help the only survivor, another crew of gunmen pull up and give chase. Llewelyn’s intimacy with the landscape aids in his escape and he makes it home to his wife Carla Jean (McDonald). He puts her on a bus out of town to visit her ailing mother until the whole thing blows over.
Local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell ( Jones) and his deputy Wendell (Deadwood’s Garret Dillahunt) discover the crime scene and Moss’ abandoned vehicle. Bell is also a veteran, of the Second World War, and is haunted by an incident that has awarded him a Bronze Star and decades of regret. He takes on the Moss family’s troubles as if to make penance for his own past sins.
It’s somehow appropriate then, that a living force of Old Testament retribution, Anton Chigurh, emerges from the desert to locate the missing cash. Chigurh speaks in riddles and loves toying with his victims (basically, anyone who crosses his path) before dispatching them with his unusual weapon—a cattle stun gun—which is ideal for bursting locks as well as human heads. Unaware that there’s a transponder in the stolen money bag, Llewelyn crosses the border into Tijuana. But Chigurh maintains pursuit, seemingly more by supernatural predestination than technology.
Enter private eye Carson Wells (Harrelson), who’s hired by an anonymous businessman (Root) to recover the money. Wells is cocky and efficient and soon establishes contact with Moss in Mexico to bargain for an exchange. But fate has brought him to the same hotel as Chigurh and he’s killed. When Moss calls Wells’ number, Chigurh answers and informs him matter-of-factly that while he should consider himself a dead man, his wife’s life will be spared if he hands over the cash…
Always two steps behind as the trail splinters and the bodies pile up, Bell cannot fathom the senselessness of it all, which he fears is a portent for darker days to come…
Save for a few minor changes (mostly structural) the novel has been translated more or less intact—I read it in two sittings and found it to very film-friendly, with its sparse descriptions, pithy dialogue, and action-heavy scenes. The Coens succeed in capturing the novel’s two voices: the third person, and Bell’s first person account, trimmed here to bookend the film. McCarthy’s underlying theme (the title, never explicitly explained, is a quote from Yeats’ “Sailing From Byzantium”) plays out a bit more obtusely on the screen than on the page, but then ambiguity usually does...
But McCarthy’s headier concerns are not at the expense of entertainment—he’s not a writer who shys away from the theatrical (the hairless, supernatural Judge in “Blood Meridian”, the cannibal clans in “The Road”), and No Country For Old Men is still a damn good yarn. All the pulp elements are there, but McCarthy and the Coens enjoy screwing with them.
Josh Brolin, in the strongest of his five film roles this year (in addition to Planet Terror, American Gangster, In The Valley Of Elah, and the French anthology Chacun Son Cinéma, which reteams him with the Coens) aces a difficult challenge as the enigmatic Llewelyn. Neither McCarthy or the Coens provide any specific motivation as to why he takes the money or what he plans to do with it—he’s an amiable cipher who quickly surrenders his folksy kindness and decency to his war-hewned survivalist instincts.
Chigurh is one of recent literature’s more distinctive villains—a stone-faced phantom who comes from out of nowhere to lay waste to any living creature in his path with his unique choice of weapon, but occasionally granting a victim a chance at escape with the calling of a coin-toss (like Batman’s “Two-Face”, Chigurh subscribes to a moral code: the world is meaningless). Bardem—a magnetic actor who can steal a scene just by being in the frame--has fun with the nuances (the role as written gives him plenty of room to invent) and manages to give life to what could’ve been a heavy-handed symbol-- an existential Terminator (he even performs some icky self-surgery) embodying Bell’s dread of what the future holds.
Tommy Lee Jones and McCarthy are such a perfect match that it seems as if Bell’s laconic musings were written for the actor’s hang-dog cadence, which can sell a line like “when you quit hearing `sir' and `ma'am,' the rest is sure to follow” without a stitch of irony. Jones’ recent directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada owed a visual and philosophical debt to McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy”, and it’s been reported that Jones owns the rights to “Blood Meridian” with plans film it when he feels ready (on the other hand, the IMDB lists it as a future Ridley Scott project). His role here is small but essential as the story’s anchor: Bell pines for the “old days” in which the bloodshed he witnessed on the battlefield and encountered on the Texas streets were of a type he could understand. A wistful interlude between Bell and his aged mentor is the second extended dialogue scene between Jones and Barry Corbin at TIFF 2007 to debate the collapse of a moral code and the escalating savagery and banality of violence (the other is Paul Haggis’ Iraq-themed In The Valley Of Elah).
Roger Deakins’ cinematography brilliantly captures a range of distinctive palettes, from the shimmering, southern-fried landscapes, to ominous nocturnal open spaces (the initial desert chase, captured largely in the headlights of the pursuit vehicles, is breathtaking), to the shadowed, spare interiors of border town hotels. But he also reels in his considerable mastery of the frame to linger on some truly great faces that are often required to evoke more than the dialogue.
As for Carter Burwell’s score—well, it’s an odd credit, as there isn’t one. At all. Unless my recollection is faulty (I’m writing this a few days after the screening, and my head is still buzzing as I try to process it all), the “music” is found here in the silences—the wind through the brush in the desert, the crackle of tires on asphalt, the creaking of floorboards—punctuated by startling staccato rounds of gunfire. The only literal music heard until the end credits is the sudden sonic burst (and it’s quite a jolt!) of a mariachi band when Moss awakens in Tijuana.
No Country For Old Men reminds us that early in their careers, the Coens were heralded as innovative suspense stylists with their intimate noir debut Blood Simple and the sweeping gangster drama Miller’s Crossing. After a run of absurdist comedies, the brothers thankfully haven’t lost their nihilistic edge: they've fashioned a sh*t-kicker cousin to Fargo, a seemingly simple fable steeped in symbolic landscapes, regional dialects, confounding motivations, and outrageous savagery from which the extremes of human behavior spiral into equal parts humour and horror.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis
Sunday, September 09, 2007
(Spain, 110 minutes, 2007)
Written by Sergio G. Sánchez
Directed by Juan Atonio Bayona
Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Geraldine Chaplin, Monsterrat Carulla, Roger Princep
This low-key ghost story will invite comparison to the literary frights of Shirley Jackson and Henry James, whose enduring tales of terror were as much about the demons of the mind as they were any spectral shenanigans, but it’s also a worthy addition to the Spanish fantasy film canon which includes the highly-personal and impeccably crafted works of Victor Erice, Alejandro Amenábar, Nacho Cerda, and Jaume Balagueró. The Orphanage will likely be sold on the participation of its esteemed producer--the recently coronated Guillermo del Toro-- but first-timer Bayona (a del Toro discovery) demonstrates he’s got the stuff to make it on his own.
We first meet Laura as a seven year old girl happily playing “statues”--a form of tag--with five friends at The Good Shepherd Orphanage on the Spanish coast.
Thirty-years later, adult Laura (Belén Rueda) convinces her new husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) to purchase the since-abandoned property as their home from which she can operate a daycare centre for special needs children.
Her seven-year old son Simón (Roger Princep) is a lonely but imaginative boy, finding comfort in his imaginary friends, especially “Tomas”, whose grotesque visage he repeatedly sketches. As they prepare to open, Laura and Carlos are visited by a mercurial social worker Benigna (Montserrat Carulla) who eventually reveals her agenda: her deformed son was killed at the orphanage when she was employed there and she blames the children. Simón, while on a scavenger hunt with his invisible playmates, eavesdrops and learns that he’s not only adopted, but HIV-positive. After an argument with his mother—in which he announces his plan to stay young forever just like “Peter Pan”-- Simón goes off to play “statues” with his five new “friends”, and disappears on the morning of the centre’s grand opening.
After six months of fruitless searching, Laura holds on to hope that Simón is still alive, even without his medication. Laura tracks down Benigna, but only to witness her death in a freak car accident. Desperate and frustrated with the police, she enlists the unique gifts of medium Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin). “Seeing is not believing”, Aurora tells her, “it’s the other way around.”
As Laura retraces her once idyllic memories, she becomes convinced that her childhood friends remain, and have snatched Simón to take her place.
Seasoned horror junkies will no doubt be shaking their heads by now: another psychic loner kid? More shock cuts to creepy children standing in ominous tableau? Haunting nursery rhymes? Eerie doll heads? Wasn’t this already done by another Spaniard—Alejandro Amenábar —in a little something called The Others? Well, yes and no, but before you dismiss it as so much John Saul fodder, I’ll admit that this sort of imagery--a rumpled button mask, torn wallpaper, tableaus of empty children’s’ beds, the ominous swooping beams of a nearby lighthouse--could have easily been overtly precious and self-consciously “classy” in the hands of a timid and less accomplished filmmaker.
But Bayona is not above in-your-face shocks —it’s just that his command of tried-and-true horror semantics and his confidence to freely chuck them to mine the silent spaces between the funhouse moments make the two lackluster seasons from the so-called Masters Of Horror even more depressing for a fan to bear. There is one instance of graphic violence so shocking and perfectly timed that I found myself—a committed, card-carrying gore hound—agreeing with the naysayer’s refrain that sometimes, less is more.
As with del Toro’s Spanish language companion pieces The Devil’s Backbone and the Oscar-nominated Pan’s Labyrinth and Erice’s iconic Spirit Of The Beehive, The Orphanage is foremost a drama rooted in the childhood fears of abandonment and parental betrayal, although in this instance, those traumas are explored from an adult’s point-of-view, which gives it a kinship to Nacho Cerda’s recent The Abandoned, which also featured a middle-aged mother tormented by her haunted lineage.
Likewise, Geraldine Chaplin makes a rare screen appearance in a memorable cameo as the medium Aurora. Shot entirely in spectral night vision, her attempt to contact the spirits in the home is the scariest sequence of its type since Poltergeist, and climaxes in one of the supreme “boo!” moments of the year (you’ve been warned…).
Bayona keeps his cast front and centre, with Oscar Faura’s fine widescreen compositions threatening terror in the margins.
Picturehouse won’t release The Orphanage in North American until this coming December, but it’s already slated for an English-language remake (which del Toro will reportedly produce for New Line). In better news, it’s just been announced as Spain's Official Submission to the Best Foreign Language Film Category of the upcoming 80th Annual Academy Awards.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis