Saturday, September 17, 2011


(Contemporary World Cinema)

(Spain, 2011, 90 minutes)

Directed by: Nacho Vigalondo

Cast: Julian Villagran, Michelle Jenner, Raul Cimas, Carlos Areces, Miguel Noguera

It’s taken too-long time for Nacho Vigalondo to follow up his witty, Mobius loop of a sci-fi thriller “Timecrimes”, and the result is, as expected, a delightful surprise. While still a genre film (ostensibly), “Extraterrestrial” is a quieter, character-driven romp with a deliciously cruel heart that spins a fable of just how far a man will go to compete for a woman’s love, even if there’s a massive alien invasion on the horizon.

One sunny morning Julio (Villagrán) wakes up beside beautiful Julia (Jenner) in her apartment, hungover, and unsure of how and when they met, but definitely certain that they’ve engaged in a passionate one-night stand. As Julia rushes Julio on his way, fearful of her boyfriend’s sudden arrival, they both realize the neighbourhood is unusually…quiet. Overhead, in the distance, they can make out the shape of what can only be a massive alien mothership. With no functioning media to consult, they aim a camcorder at the craft and monitor is vigilantly, but the only thing they can be sure of is that an overnight mass exodus has left them possibly the only two people left in Madrid.

But not in the building: Julia’s obsessive creep of a neighbor, Angel (Areces) explains what’s been going on, and reveals he’s all-too-aware of their forbidden dalliance. And then Julia’s boyfriend Carlos (Cimas) shows up alive decked out as a would-be Mad Max, prompting an even bigger fear than total species annihilation: will the conniving blabbermouth Angel tip off Carlos that his girlfriend and Julio have been naughty? What if they were to convince Carlos that Angel is one of the alien invaders?

Almost entirely devoid of special effects, save for the odd cutaway to a news image, “Extraterrestrial” is mostly apartment-bound for much of its running time. For some this might echo Shyamalan’s straight-faced “Signs”, but I couldn’t help but think of it as a comedic version of Geoff Murphy’s New Zealand cult film “The Quiet Earth”, which was also something of an end-of-the-world romantic triangle (with a far less photogenic cast).

Still, the ship is an ominous presence, and much like the giant spacecraft that was suspended silently over Johannesburg in “District 9”, one expects that something could emerge from it at any moment. Carlos makes regular daring visits outside for supplies and fuel, which Vigalondo punctuates with mournful image of vacated streets, a glimpse of strangers, and the occasional unexplained explosion in the distance.

Vigalondo never loses sight of his charming tale’s true purpose: that Julio and Julia juggle truth and fiction in an attempt to preserve what could be their only night together, against the backdrop of what could mankind’s last day left—a wonderful metaphor, really, and I’m amazed that no one else had thought of it earlier. Let’s hope “Extraterrestrial” gets a proper North American release before someone shelves it for an Ashton Kutcher remake… although at the post-screening Q&A Vigalondo jokingly promised “Extraterrestrial 2: Now With Extraterrestrials!"

©2011 Robert J. Lewis

Friday, September 16, 2011

TIFF Review 2011: "Paul Williams: Still Alive"

Paul Williams: Still Alive
(Real To Reel)
(USA, 2011, 87 minutes)
Directed by: Stephen Kessler
Cast: Paul Williams, Stephen Kessler, Robert Blake, John Travolta, Barbra Streisand
I honestly can't remember a time during my childhood in which the distinctive stature and voice of Paul Williams wasn't a presence in my parents' living room: Karen Carpenter and Three Dog Night performing his songs on the tinny AM radio, and on the tube, appearances (often as himself) on The Brady Bunch, The Love Boat, The Odd Couple, The Muppet Show (and Movie), every conceivable talk/quiz show “Match Game”, “Hollywood Squares" mostly), and even “Battle For The Planet Of The Apes” (I was a pre-pubescent “Apes” maniac bordering on the pathological, so his appearance as peacenik orangutan Virgil was probably what converted me). In my teens, I discovered of the forbidden thrill of Danny Peary’s “Cult Movies” in which Brian DePalma's “The Phantom Of The Paradise” received very high praise indeed , and as the fates validated my obsession but offering a well-timed late night TV broadcast.
Then, Williams seemed to just...vanish. I mean, I didn’t notice, really--I grew into a teenage filmmaker and cineaste, most network television bored me, and I could barely get to the communal television set in my university residence to catch a late night Letterman broadcast or SCTV rerun, never mind to keep up on the state of the pop culture nation (which was changing radically, thanks to the 30 megaton blast of a little thing called MTV).
Only once, a few years back, when I happened upon a broadcast of “Stone Cold Dead”--one of the odder Canadian Tax Shelter exploitation gems, in which Williams plays a sniper targeting prostitutes (really) pursued by Richard Crenna--did I briefly wonder where it was he’d vanished to. As with most celebs from my childhood, I’d hoped he'd retired on his money and accolades and was doing well. Or well-enough for a two-night run at one of the better border casinos. Did he fade from the spotlight, or was he unceremoniously drop-kicked to the margins?
Director Stephen Kessler had a similar impromptu moment, and a Wiki search lead him to pursue a documentary on his childhood idol. The successful commercial director bankrolled a trip to Los Angeles to meet Williams and was promptly rejected.
Tracking him down to a restaurant, Williams allows him in and they bond over, of all things, a mutual love of calamari. Soon, Kessler realizes he's not dealing with persona he once idolized on television.
Kessler now steps in front of the camera and becomes a comical presence, initially, constantly bemoaned and badgered by Williams who is clearly irritated with Kessler's probing questions and unintended disrespect for his privacy.
Kessler accompanies Williams from one-off lounge gigs to celebrity golf tournaments to a Philippines stadium tour — necessitating a six-hour bus ride through an Al-Quada occupied jungle when the client won't pay for a plane. Over time, Williams grows comfortable with Kessler's camera and becomes relaxed and accommodating. Fueled by drugs and an inflated ego, Williams blames only himself for his downward spiral.
While his Oscars and Emmys sit on a shelf next to a dust-covered DVD remote in his modest home, Williams reveals at the film's conclusion a cold storage shed filled with memorabilia from virtually every aspect of his once-meteoric career. From it, Kessler assembles a series of flashbacks both warmly nostalgic and blistering candid, esp. the week Williams hosted The Mike Douglas Show and offered near-daily meltdowns.
After the screening I happened upon him getting into his limo just outside of the AMC Theatre and darted over to congratulate. He graciously gave me a few moments of his time, and his first question was “did you like the new song at the end?” (McCartney was equally giddy with the need for affirmation of his new material in “The Love We Make”). Truth is, I barely heard it, but I'm guessing that once others experience this wonderful, inspirational film it'll soon be hard to avoid him again...
©2011 Robert J. Lewis

Thursday, September 15, 2011

TIFF Review 2011: "Neil Young: Journeys"

(USA, 2001, 87 minutes)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Neil Young, Bob Young

Well, it's a short journey, literally speaking (approx. 140 km north east from Toronto, or two hours) but metaphorically, a cyclical one: in "Neil Young: Journeys", the indefatigable (33 solo albums in 29 years), unstoppable (even an aneurism couldn't defeat him), and ageless (at 65 he's eligible for Canadian retirement benefits) icon/iconoclast returns to Toronto's Massey Hall--the site of his 1971 Journey Through the Past Solo Tour-- for a low-key concert to promote his then-new album, Le Noise, produced by Daniel Lanois. Re-teaming with director Jonathon Demme, Young takes us on a candid, off-the-cuff afternoon ride along the 401 (following his brother Bob), inter-cut with performance footage of the two-night event.

For devotees, it's a chance to hear some familiar autographical yarns spun again as Young tours around Omemee, a community in the Kwartha Lakes where he was raised from the age of four (having been born in Toronto). From behind the wheel of his vintage Crown Victoria and sporting a Manitoba Moose cap, Young shows off his parent’s home, his uncle’s yard, and the public school named in honour of his father, writer Scott Young. Happening upon yet another development site, Young laments that “It's all gone, but still in my head". On a lighter note, he cranks up the stereo and confesses that he listens to most new music on the "these daysî and that the tinny car radio is the ultimate test of a song's quality and longevity.

Onstage at Toronto's Massey Hall, Young shares the floor with a large wooden statue of a Native American and hobbles with measured enthusiasm between sets to one of two pianos, an organ, and a variety of acoustic and electric guitars. The set list primarily focuses on his newest material but he works in a few solo signatures like “After The Gold Rush”, “Down By The River”, and “Ohio” (movingly punctuated by the projected names and pictures of the four who were shot dead at Kent State University on May 4, 1970).

"Journeys" marks Young’s third documentary collaboration with Jonathon Demme (they first met when Young wrote a song for Demme’s 1993 drama Philadelphia), following Neil Young: Heart of Gold, recorded in Nashville only a year after brain surgery, and Neil Young Trunk Show, which documented a Pennsylvania performance of his long-awaited Chrome Dreams II. Young’s evasive filmmaking alter ego, Bernard Shakey, is nowhere to be found and cited only in the name of his production company.

Considering that Young spends most of the film seated, the film is inventively shot by DOP Declan Quinn who harnesses six HD cameras and five ìiconî cameras (each about the size of a cigarette package) for just about every conceivable angle. But sonically, it’s a revelation, and something of a pioneering effort being the first film to be recorded at 96 kHz, offering twice the amount of sound data (as most films are apparently recorded at 48).

Three Neil Young docs in under a single decade might be a bit much for the unenlightened, but for committed fans it makes for some Le Grand Noise, indeedÖ

©2011 Robert J. Lewis

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TIFF Review 2011: "Sarah Palin: You Betcha!""

Sarah Palin: You Betcha!
(Real To Reel)
(United Kingdom, 2011, 90 minutes)
Directed by: Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill
Cast: Nick Broomfield

The shtick is familiar by now: the shambling about like a clueless tourist who just got off the boat, sporting an Ignatious P. Reilly hunting cap, toting his Nagra and shotgun mike, and disarming his aggressors with the effortless charm of a doting uncle while in pursuit of an unattainable subject—Nick Broomfield is at again and this time, he’s dogging, unsuccessfully, everyone’s favorite Republican nut-job. And by that, I mean Sarah Palin…really; the field is getting sort of crowded at the time of this writing…

Defeated as a Vice Presidential candidate after having resigned as the Governor of Alaska, Palin manages to retain her fan base with her “tell-all” book Going Rogue: An American Life. It’s at a signing in Houston where Broomfield first requests an interview (recording the moment with a hidden camera) and it’s her patented enthusiastic response that gives the film its title. Of course, we know from Broomfield’s “Tracking Down Maggie” how this is going to go…
When repeated promises for an interview are broken and his calls go unreturned, Broomfield (and longtime filmmaking partner Joan Churchill) heads directly for Palin’s former frozen fiefdom: Wasilla, Alaska. Population: six thousand. Chief industries: crystal meth, and churches. Seventy-six of them. And no strip clubs.

Getting right to it, Broomfield’s first encounter is with Palin’s parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, and for the most part, the project starts off promisingly. They share photographs, archival video, and childhood trinkets and welcome the filmmaker like a long, lost relative. The respect seems mutual, even if they don’t agree politically.

But when Broomfield starts sniffing around her former mayoral office and asking some pointed questions about Sarah’s political qualifications and financial savvy (not to mention a healthy list of scandals), it doesn’t take long for word to get around and the Heath’s participation starts to wane as they become suspicious of the once-charming Brit’s true intentions.

The local testimony amassed from former colleagues, employees, campaign advisers, teachers, law enforcement, and even a priest (!)—Many of them afraid to talk on camera else risk ostracism and even violence--is hardly flattering to no one’s surprise. “Thrown Under The Bus” is uttered so often it could be the film’s alternate subtitle…

What emerges is troubling history of a vapid, vindictive aging Prom Queen who remembers everyone who ever enacted a perceived slight--a sociopathic, anti-intellectual opportunist who could manufacture a charming smile and folksy one-liner while planning your eminent, merciless destruction.

And a dangerous one, too: Reverend Howard Bess, still a courageous Wasilla resident even though his book, “Pastor, I Am Gay”, was banned by Mayor Palin from the local libraries, is deeply troubled by her devotion to the extreme Assembly Of God and feels she honestly believes she’s been anointed by The Creator. Clearly not the kind of person you’d want with their finger on the button (I’ll admit, for a moment here I was no longer chuckling and became genuinely worried that in a few short years I could be living next to a female Greg Stillson from Stephen King’s “The Dead Zone”).

There’s humorous footage of her stints as beauty pageant contestant, local news anchor, and something vaguely resembling an exorcism during an Assembly Of God service, but those are easy bits (but not unwelcome, mind you). Much more worrying is the damage she can cause to those suckers that voted for her in the first place: when she left office as mayor, she stuck Wasilla with a $22M deficit. Then, as governor of Alaska, she slapped a huge tax on oil companies drilling there, even to the protests of fellow Republicans!

Finally, Broomfield is left with little choice but to up the ante and confront her himself, from a crowd of several thousand, mind you. During a post-rally Q&A of “approved” questions only, the director stands up with a megaphone and blasts in her direction: "Do you think your political career is over?" Palin doesn’t miss a beat and after a sip of water, suggests he ask the crowd. Right on cue, the burst into terrifying applause as Broomfield and his crew are hauled off the floor by security (what he doesn’t show is that the cameraman was smashed into the wall).
Broomfield’s kick is that his quixotic quests is an essential part of the narrative, with personalities of the non-present subjects (from Thatcher to Cobain to Tupac) forming from varying points-of-view like a biographical Rashoman. Of course, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock are enjoying the fruits of Broomfield’s once-daunting and very risky experiment. As Broomfield said in his Q&A, the questions that aren’t answered can be just as revealing…
The film’s financing is just as interesting, and a harbinger of realities to come as there are fewer “small” films being made and even fewer venues to see them: via the fundraising website Kickstarter, Broomfield was able to elicit $30,000 in donations to supplement the UK’s Channel 4 funding).

Recent events have already dated the urgency of the film as much ado about nothing—there’s not a chance in hell she’ll get anywhere near the White House now that she’s officially suspended her campaign—but as a portrait of eccentricity, it’ll surely be as fascinating decades from now as Grey Gardens.

©2011 Robert J. Lewis

TIFF Review 2011: "Intruders"

(Special Presentations)
(Spain, 2011,100 minutes)
Directed by: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Cast: Clive Owen, Carice Van Houten, Daniel Brühl, Pilar López de Ayala, Ella Purnell

Spanish thriller director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo has such a knack for crafting shocks and extended scenes of knuckle-whitening dread that his work should be mentioned in the same breath as that of Guillermo Del Toro or Jaume Balagueró—if only he was more prolific. With only three feature films to his credit in a decade (a real shame, considering the number of genre hacks who crank out a “Resident Evil” or “Final Destination sequel every other year like it’s the law), each successive release has become something of an event to this viewer, who was dazzled by his inventive debut feature “Intacto” (not inaccurately labeled as the Spanish “Unbreakable”).

His “28 Weeks Later” was that rare sequel that eclipsed the original (which was pretty damned fine)—there are terror sequences in that unexpected gem that I rank amongst the finest work crafted by Carpenter, Romero, and yes, even Hitchcock.

So I was very excited having read he had a new horror effort ready for release and that it would receive an esteemed “Special Presentations” slot here at TIFF. I wish I could say I liked it more—overall it’s a solid, classy endeavour (that should earn only a PG-rating in Ontario), but I felt it hinged too much on a predictable plot revelation and visually didn’t offer much that Bernard Rose didn’t attempt with his debut dark fantasy “Paperhouse” and Clive Barker adaptation “Candyman”, to which “Intruders” owes a lot.
Fresnadillo spins twin story arcs: the first, set in an unidentified, Spanish-speaking country, where a single mother (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) comforts her son, Juan, at bed time not to be afraid of the local legend “Hollowface”, who is said to steal the faces of children because he doesn’t have one of his own.
Elsewhere, in what is presumably England, Meanwhile, another child, Mia (Ella Purnell) unearths a wooden box from her yard, and inside finds yellowing pages on which an unfinished story is hand-written. The story of Hollowface. She decides to continue writing it as part of a school assignment.
Immediately, the monster becomes a phantom presence in both of their lives. Juan’s nightmares worsen, so his mother takes him to a local priest, whose mentor scoffs “that boy needs a psychiatrist, not an exorcist”. Mia’s father John (Clive Owen) takes her to a psychiatrist, but the caseworkers are more concerned about his increasingly agitated and violent state.
There are some chilling sequences—the creature’s first pursuit of Juan across the rain-slicked scaffolding of his mother’s tenement, Owen’s security camera encounter that forecasts the twist a little too early, a mock-exorcism to placate Juan’s mother, and Hollowface itself is a creepy image--a hooded reaper gene-spliced with Venom that should make for a very cool action figure from McFarlane Toys.
But then it flips for a direction I feared was coming and found unnecessary—not the “it’s all a dream” ending from “Invaders From Mars”, but still a too-often used rug pull in horror films these days that can smack of a cop-out to a cynical infusion of psychological “depth”, as if good, honest scares aren’t enough.
In the hands of directors like Fresnadillo, they most certainly are. Maybe after a few more movies he will have developed the confidence to match his eye. I just hope I don’t have to wait another ten years.
©2011 Robert J. Lewis

TIFF Review 2011: "Into The Abyss"

(USA, 2011, 87 minutes)
Directed by: Werner Herzog

In October 2001, Sandra Stotler was murdered in her home in the small town of Conroe, Texas, for the senseless reason that there was a red Camaro in her garage that the killers wanted very badly.

After leaving the premises to dump her body, her killers returned to take the automobile and found the gate locked. They happened upon two young men in the woods (one of them was Stotler’s son Adam), murdered them for the remote control to the gate, and went on a joyride in the Camaro before being captured by police after a shoot-out in a mall parking lot. Jason Burkett received a life sentence and Michael Perry was sentenced to death.

“Into The Abyss”, as one would assume from the not-terribly subtle Nietzchian reference, aspires to more than a rote procedural intended to push one’s buttons and manufacture outrage (although given the circumstances of the crime, a dearth of outrage shouldn’t be a problem to any sane viewer). That’s because it’s yet another compelling, poignant, and patently unique study from TIFF’s favorite versatile stalwart, Werner Herzog, who brings it town on day one only a year after his stunning “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams” (in 3D!).

Herzog interviews Perry, then twenty-eight, from behind the plexiglass partition at the Texas prison where he will be put to death by lethal injection just a week later. Curiously relaxed, well-spoken amidst a hearty twang, and flashing a toothy grin that makes him look at least a decade younger, Perry expresses little in the way of regret but professes his belief in Christ and is convinced paradise awaits.

Burkett is a bit more solemn and carries the weight of his crimes (Perry was the first to confess). His father is a career criminal serving a 40-year sentence of his own in the same prison. Burkett Sr. testified at his own son’s trial, pleading for understanding and blaming his own parental neglect and poor example. It worked: Burkett got off with a life sentence. I’ll come back to him later.

Of course, equal screen time is given to the victims’ surviving family members: one has to admire the composure of Lisa Stotler-Balloun, whose mother and brother were so cruelly murdered. “My world was ripped out from beneath”, she states with clarity that doesn’t dilute the ferocity of her wounds. “Our lives are empty.”

There are other memorable personalities along the way, among them the prison chaplain who revels in the memory of having saved a squirrel’s life and how his favorite golf course is proof of the divine, a local dirt bag who knew the convicts and boasts of reporting to work despite having been stabbed with a screwdriver.

The most affecting subject for this viewer was a former guard who assisted in the execution of over 120 inmates, who eventually had enough and quit, but is still clearly haunted by what he has done. “No one has the right to take another life”.

And for flat-out bonkers weird the third act is completely stolen by one Melyssa Thompson-Burkett – do note the last name—who married Burkett in prison even though she knew he was a convicted murderer, and via some unexplained cloak-and-dagger and smuggling from within the corrupt system, holds up an ultrasound image of their then-unborn child. Artificial insemination? She’s not talking…

As with his other documentaries, the ever-venerable director assays the roles of observer and empathetic listener, his (much-parodied) serene Bavarian intonations being his signature tool in getting his subjects to reveal much—perhaps too much—and despite his prodigious skills as a filmmaker, never resorts to creative editing, gimmicky juxtaposition, or voice-over editorializing to make a political point. Quite remarkable when one considers that the longest time he spent with any of his onscreen subjects was just under an hour.

Which is not to be misread as a cop-out: Herzog was very clear in an interview that he didn’t intend “Into The Abyss” to be an “issue” film, arguing “pro” or “con” on the subject of capital punishment. He disagrees with the practice (“respectfully” he qualifies, ever polite), and only ever states onscreen, once, his firm belief “that human beings should not be executed.”
Herzog has announced he will expand the film for its TV broadcast later next year, which he promises to be more “coherent”. Some have already criticized that it looks like any average episode of A&E filler they’re so wrong), but the point here is that…well, here is no point. Some things, esp. human behavior, are just too complex and utterly baffling, leaving wounds and questions that impossible to resolve.

© 2011 Robert J. Lewis

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

TIFF Review 2011: "The Incident"

(Midnight Madness)
(France, 2011, 85 minutes)
Directed by: Alexandre Courtes
Cast: Rupert Evans, Kenny Doughty, Joseph Kennedy, Dave Legeno, Marcus Garvey, Richard Brake

Not likely to end up on CAMH’s recommended viewing list, “The Incident” is basically
“Assault on Precinct 13” with crazy people. Toss in a little “Straw Dogs” and whatever one has retained from “Lord of the Flies” in Grade 8 and you have a mélange that’s not exactly nouvelle cuisine but it still goes down mighty fine as a midnight snack, especially when one has been pretending to understand Godard and von Trier all week (do forgive my admittedly awkward food metaphor--it’s just that the protagonist is a cook, so…)

Set in the US during the 80s (I think the Reagan era is the new “period” horror film setting of choice—cell phones came along and made it a helluva lot more difficult to isolate a cast from hordes of whatever), “”The Incident” is, amazingly, not an American film, but rather the Belgian-shot, French-produced feature debut of big-time music video auteur Alexandre Courtes, who has produced memorable clips for U2 and The White Stripes. It’ll come as no surprise then to learn that the film looks fantastic—all gleaming surfaces and inky shadows and that muted teal hue that signifies doom these days. But Russell Mulcahy made great music videos too, and really, have you ever been able to sit through anything he’s made other than “Highlander”, and maybe “Razorback”? It’s a huge leap to pad out 90 minutes when you’re used to filling just 5—but Courtes works from a script by S. Craig Zahler (an American western novelist of some acclaim—who knew?) and JÈrÙme Fanstenthat takes all the right strategic moves from the Carpenter handbook (although Cortes speaks most fondly of Sam Peckinpah) and the film flies by with a giddy, let’s-piss-everyone-off-vibe…

Exploring the thin line that separates our civilized selves from our inner cavemen (or Minutemen gun nut)—again (and it’s definitely a thin RED line in this film, if you get my drift)—three musician friends are forced to survive by-any-means-and-with-whatever- tools-necessary when the power goes out at the Washington State maximum security asylum where they work as cooks between their very-few gigs. And there’s no Nurse Ratchett to save them…
George (Evans), Max (Doughty) and Ricky (Kennedy) are initially trapped in the secured kitchen after the blackout, and place a lot of faith in the thick, slotted window where they ordinarily dispatch meals to the inmates, most of whom are at best catatonic save for one Harry Green (Brake), who seems to daily will the protective glass to break with his hungry, perverted stare. Eventually, the inmates shatter the window with a prison table, and the band mates must flee, along with head guard J.B. (Legeno) into the unlocked corridors to get to a phone, a generator, an exit door…alive…
While horror buffs might not know the leads or the director, Midnight Madness veterans will give props to the superb editing from “Baxter”, who gave Bustillo and Maury’s À l’intérieur, and Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension their unique, pulse-pounding vibes…
The hospital’s labyrinthine interior provides the appropriate visual metaphor and opportunities abound for hulking psychopaths to emerge out of the dark, usually toting a new horrible makeshift weapon or the corpse of another poor bastard who didn’t make it (and usually not…intact…), lit and framed for maximum dread by DOP Laurent Tangy,
There’s been much quibbling about the film’s downturn from its character-driven and deliberately-paced first act to its outrageously violent and relentlessly grim second (I’ll avoid the controversial third act twist, other than to say I’m more fine with this one than what I was asked to swallow by Aja’s debut). The lack of backstory, “arcs”, and all that Syd Field stuff works just fine in films of this type, where the viewer is placed, real-time and firmly, in the gore-soaked shoes of the protagonists to experience their own sense of the universe gone mad.
Besides, when was the last time you read that a film was so violent it made not one but TWO viewers faint? This one did—and two Midnight Madness goers, no less…
IFC Midnight has purchased distribution rights to “The Incident” and plans to release it to theatres next year.
©2011 Robert J. Lewis

Monday, September 12, 2011

TIFF Review 2011: "A Dangerous Method"

(Gala Presentations)
(Germany/Canada, 2011, 93 minutes)
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Sarah Gadon, Vincent Cassel

Hard to believe these days when seemingly every other person on television is in analysis and/or trying to shake off some trauma (real-or-imagined) to justify their dumb-ass behaviour (to the likes of so-called “Doctors” Phil and Drew) that once, not all that long ago, the very concept of psychoanalysis was not only laughed but downright vilified...

At first blush this austere costume drama might seem an odd fit in the filmography of the man who conceived of Brundlefly and The New Flesh, but the consistent thread of virtually all of Cronenberg's films (with the possible exception of "Fast Company" and "Eastern Promises") is the disconnect between the mind and body. Freudian imagery abounds in his work--"Shivers" oral parasites? Marilyn Chambers' armpit stinger? Woods' stomach fissure?

In Vienna, just before the advent of the WW1, novice psychiatrist Carl Jung (Fassbender), runs a clinic and practices the methods of his mentor, the already-notorious and controversial Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), while developing his own theories based on the study of his own psychologically troubled patients.
When a young Russian woman Sabina Spielrein (Knightly) is brought in as a patient, her unique sexual obsessions strike a chord and unleash Jung's own buried desires. As he uses "the talking cure" to help her explore and purge the dark incidents of her past with her sadistic father, Jung's desire for her intensifies and they form a relationship of forbidden indulgences. Jung starts to challenge the limitations of his mentor's theories and visits him to offer his own thoughts on human desire, based upon his experiences with Sabina, who is fast becoming a skilled and sensitive analyst in her own right...
Screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted the film from his own play The Talking Cure, (based on John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein) and was originally intended as a vehicle for Julia Roberts. Thankfully revised, under Cronenberg's direction, it offers little by the way of sentimentality and noble statements.

Despite the heady subject matter, there’s still fun to be had here, as Jung and Sabine eventually get around to covert romps to get their respective inner freaks on. Vincent Cassell enlivens up much of the period brow-furrowing and hand-wringing as the boozing, hedonistic psychoanalyst Otto Gross, who encourages his patients to celebrate rather than repress their sexual instincts. And Mortenson, in a brave bit of casting (his third collaboration with the director) brings some wry wit as a more robust and hedonistic Freud than the frail figure we've seen in photos.

Fassbender, seemingly everywhere these days, masterfully embodies a man of an almost Vulcanesque decorum that gets chipped away as he finds a willing outlet in Sabina.

I wasn't so sold on Knightly as Sabina initially--I found her initial scenes hammy and too-"methody", but as her character gains composure under Jung's therapy she becomes more bearable and convincing...

Cronenberg has flippantly referred to the film as "an intellectual menage a trois", but really, how unique a subject is it? Wasn't “Dead Ringers” the tale of two doctors who spar for the affections of a kinky female patient?)

©2011 Robert J. Lewis

TIFF Review 2011: "Comic-Con Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope""

Comic-Con Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope

(Real To Reel)

(USA, 2011, 90 minutes)

Directed by: Morgan Spurlock

Cast: Holly Conrad, Eric Hensen, Skip Harvey, Chuck Rozanski, James Darling, Se Young Kang, Stan Lee, Joss Whedon

From the what-took-them-so-long-department, someone has finally made a documentary on the annual fanboy bacchanal known as the San Diego Comic Con. With testimonials from geeks-made-good like Joss Whedon (an executive producer), Harry Knowles (ditto), directors like Eli Roth and Guillermo Del Toro, Kevin Smith (of course), Matt Groening, and comic book pros like Todd McFarlane and Mark Millar, director Morgan Spurlock dials down his usual provocateur stance (and never appears on camera for a change) for what is essentially a puff piece, but still compelling, charming viewing whether you're a fan of this stuff or not (I most certainly am--long before it became fashionable to do so, and I'm only more than a bit miffed that I was somehow overlooked to participate)...

Spurlock was inspired to make the film when he attended his first Comic Con in 2009 to recruit fans for a 20th anniversary special on "The Simpsons". Shot the following year, Spurlock smartly give the film something of a narrative structure by focusing on five simultaneous scenarios: Holly Conrad, a designer of those often costumes you often see on the cosplayers, Eric Henson, an aspiring comic book artist, Skip Harvey, another would-be Neal Adams, convention veteran/comics dealer Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics, and endearing young couple James Darling and Se Young Kang, who become engaged during a Kevin Smith seminar. Intercut are testimonials from genre luminaries and plenty of shots of voluptuous fan-girls.

I found Rozanski's thread the most interesting, in that he represents the perverse dilemma of how hard it is to sell comics books at what is still, officially, a comic book convention. As he tries to sell some rare, vintage Marvel comics, he's repeatedly screwed by no-show collectors and has to keep slashing prices to generate booth traffic. He provides us with some history: The first con was held in 1970 in a hotel and drew a few hundred collectors. Within the past decade and with the advent of the web, genre became mainstream and the original intention expanded to encompass anime, videogames and for the most part, has become entirely dominated by Hollywood blockbusters. Hundreds of thousands of fans now attend , along with agents and celebrities hawking their upcoming projects.

And it's nice to learn that the uber-ambitious and talented Conrad ends up getting a job on the Mass Effect 2 feature film--the ultimate f*ck to those who no doubt tsk-tsk'd from the sidelines telling her it was all a waste of time...

Once the stuff of condescending local news hits, comic cons are no longer representative of a subculture but what is now the culture. Where once my public school teacher tore comics from my hand and pitched them in the trash, high school libraries now stock graphic novels. Comic-Con Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope is hardly illuminating or confrontational, but should give some comfort to long-suffering, self-proclaimed nerds that they were right all the time...

©2011 Robert J. Lewis

Sunday, September 11, 2011

TIFF Review 2011: "Drive"


(Special Presentations)

(USA, 2011, 100 minutes)

Written by: Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks

The influence of Michael Mann’s now-iconic Reagan-era thrillers "Thief" and "Manhunter" are evident from the fuel-injected get-go in Nicolas Winding Frefn's pulse-pounding ode "Drive", from the day-glo title font and throbbing synth soundtrack to the main character's MTV-issue scorpion jacket. But it’s much more than a fanboy's nostalgic clone—(it equally acknowledges Walter Hill's 1977 classic "The Driver" in title and theme--a nameless getaway driver burning rubber through a curiously underpopulated Los Angeles--as well as the existential French thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville that were as much about redemption as they were about gunplay)--"Drive" has a distinctive look and vibe of its own, and hopefully will become a standard by which all subsequent crime melodramas are measured.

The Driver (Gosling) is officially employed as a Hollywood stunt driver but when we first meet him, he's engaged in his "other" trade: a getaway driver for hire. His terms of employment are simple: he works anonymously, never for the same client twice, and allows them only five minutes to carry out their (illegal) business. He confidently, expertly evades the police during a dizzying night time pursuit through the streets of Los Angeles, dropping off his thieving temp employers and their loot before vanishing into the exiting crowd at the Staples Centre.

The Driver home base is the auto repair shop run by Shannon (Cranston), who also sets up his young partner with wheelman jobs. Shannon longs to go legit, though, and use the youngster's talent to conquer the racing circuit. Borrowing $300,000 from mobster Bernie Rose (Brooks), he buys a stock car. Bernie is impressed with the Driver's skills and agrees to further back the venture, with only one wrinkle: Bernie's partner is the surly Nino (Perlman), who once ordered Shannon's pelvis broken when he found out he was overcharged.

The Driver lives in a run-down tenement and becomes friends with neighbour Irene (Mulligan), and her son Benicio. Irene's husband Standard (Isaac) is released from prison but he still owes "protection money" to a ruthless gangster. To settle his outstanding account, Standard agrees to rob a pawn shop. The Driver agrees to help Standard if it means Irene and Benicio will be free of any threats, but the heist goes horribly wrong, with Standard shot dead. The Driver learns from Cook's moll Blanche (Hendricks) that the plan was to double cross Standard and take the money, before assassins attack and she, too, is killed.

The Driver confronts Cook at his strip club and finds out that Nino and Bernie were behind the heist, and that the money lifted from the pawn shop is in fact that of the East Coast mafia. Bernie kills Cook and Standard, and orders Nino to take care of The Driver...

My introduction to the considerable skills of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was his notorious "Bronson" (I've yet to catch up his "Pusher" trilogy or acclaimed Viking adventure "Valhalla Rising"), the searing, hyper-stylized faux-biopic of one of the U.K.'s most colourful criminals. Originally announced as a vehicle for Hugh Jackman and director Neil Marshall, Sallis' lean/mean novella found its worthy visionary when star Gosling had the good taste to offer it to Frefn himself.

I thought Gosling might be too mild-mannered to play a character who is basically an unhinged, anti-social misfit, but his easy-going demeanor and boyish smile work nicely to make his fits of ferocious, merciless violence all the more shocking.

Albert Brooks is a revelation as Bernie, transforming his usual persona of a defeated, world-weary schlub into an equally-weary sociopath. His key scene with Cranston is one of the year's most powerful screen moments--portraying Bernie as a ruthless killer, but not one without regret and some fatigue with the path he has chosen.

Carey Mulligan, whose character was Latino in the book, works well against type as the diminutive, exhausted Irene. The always-reliable Perlman exudes his usual slow-burn menace as foul-mouthed Nino. And Cranston, who is proving himself to be one of current cinema's most versatile character actors, embodies Shannon's broken spirit with a grand loping gait that never plays as excessively theatrical, actor-ly indulgence.

While not particularly action-heavy for a crime yarn, "Drive"s violence is an extreme counterpoint to the main character's serene countenance and the calming, ambient soundtrack–the aforementioned elevator assault, and the gruesome fate of Christina Hendricks (in little more than an extended cameo as a second gun during the pawn shop heist).

And despite the title, there's not a lot of driving, either, but the handful of sequences that do showcase the character doing his thing are spectacularly staged and shot (by DOP Newton Thomas Sigel) and edited (by Mat Newman ) and will leave even the most cynical action devotee breathless--they've got that strap-you-to-the-car-hood/analog vibe that fueled "Bullitt", "The French Connection", and the original "Mad Max".

"Drive" speeds into first-run release a mere week after its TIFF premiere--don't miss it, as it's sure to polarize critics and viewers and demands big-screen viewing...

©2011 Robert J. Lewis

Saturday, September 10, 2011

TIFF Review 2011: "The Love We Make"

(USA, 2011, 94 minutes)
Directed by: Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan
Cast: Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Bill Clinton, James Taylor, Billy Joel
Timely released to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the devastating events of 9/11, Sir Paul McCartney's new documentary--a TIFF World Premiere--chronicles the ennui and angst of the fallout of that turbulent day, albeit—as some wags have accused--from the perspective of a reasonably insulated, well-to-do celebrity who nonetheless rose to the calling to do his part with equal parts selflessness and canny self-promotion (still steaming from having bought a first-run ticket for “Give My Regards To Broad Street”, are we?).
On the morning of September 11, 2001, before American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Centre’s North Tower, Paul McCartney was sitting on New York's JFK tarmac waiting to return to England. Once the flight was delayed and he found himself stranded, he wondered what he could do to help lift the spirits of New Yorkers and America-as-a-whole. As a former Beatle and one of the most beloved celebrities of this or any other century, the answer, of course, lied in what he did best: make music. With a little help from his friends (couldn’t resist)...
The first thing McCartney did was enlist the services of master documentarian and long-time friend Albert Maysles (who, with his late brother David, photographed The Fab Four's first arrival in New York City in 1964 to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in their infamous short What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.) to chronicle the events of next several manic weeks. In a time a few years before the advent of 720p cell phone video, Maysles had little choice but to use the unwieldy and comparatively expensive 16mm film format to capture McCartney's grandiose plans for The Concert For New York City on the fly...
While obviously aware of the camera's presence, McCartney comes off as an unpretentious, gracious, and even humble presence (esp. when he confesses that he sent his children to public school so that they wouldn't become "snobs"). Just shy of 60, he was still full of youthful energy and enthusiasm (he repeatedly, and endearingly, hard-sells his new 9/11 anthem "Freedom" to anyone within earshot, as if he'd conceived of the next "Let It Be"). Bolting around Manhattan through a manic schedule of interviews and promo events, McCartney seems relaxed and confident while cavorting along the sidewalk of New York, engaging fans who seem genuinely bewitched and startled by their encounter with a genuine Beatle, after all...
There’s a bit of rehearsal footage with his new touring band, then, we’re backstage at Madison Square Garden, where McCartney trades corny quips with fellow celebrities who have clearly caught his infectious ebullient bug. Among heavy-hitters like Bill Clinton, Ozzy Osbourne (their first meeting, amazingly), Eric Clapton, Jim Carrey, Harrison Ford, a young Stella McCartney (yet to take the fashion world by storm) is most excited about meeting Jon Bon Jovi. Sadly, no other Beatles appear (George was sick and in the UK), but Ringo’s son Zak Starkey fills in for The Who’s Keith Moon.
There are some key clips from the benefit, most memorably, Elton John’s performance of “Your Song” to the families of lost police and firemen, and McCartney’s own “Yesterday” (one of the few songs he performs in the film in its entirety).
Strangely, Maysles devotes only a minimum of screen time to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (in a performance of “Miss You”), considering their collective achievement of the timeless documentary classic "Gimmee Shelter").
The doc's most revealing sequence comes in the very last scene, where McCartney squashes any suspicion that this has all been an exercise in opportunistic image building. Outside a firehouse, he tells a small audience of firefighters that he was born at the end of the war (World War II), and that his own father was a volunteer firefighter who also inspired him, and many others still rebuilding their lives out of the rubble, with the unifying power of music. Upon witnessing the bravery and sacrifice of New York’s finest that morning, there was no doubt about what he should do…
With a decade having past, Maysles, co-director Bradley Kaplan, and editor passage Ian Markiewicz were able to infuse their account with some perspective and a refreshing lack of political melodrama that made so much of the initial artistic responses to the day either shrill and overwrought or too-timid and guarded.
This hopeless Beatlemaniac was sad to learn that Sir Paul couldn’t be at the public screening in person (although the now 69-year old, newly remarried McCartney did prepare a warm video introduction) but was equally thrilled to be in the presence of 82-year old Maysles, along with Kaplan and Markiewicz, for a spirited post-screening discussion.
©2011 Robert J. Lewis

TIFF Review 2011: "God Bless America"


(Midnight Madness)

(USA, 2011, 99 minutes)

Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait

Cast: Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr, Larry Miller, Geoff Peirson, Melinda Page Hamilton

For all of the (just) praise awarded to the works of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as well as the once-great The Simpsons, Bobcat Goldthwait deserves to be mentioned alongside the names of America’s most fearless and incendiary contemporary satirists—if only more people saw his films. From his debut “Shakes The Clown”, Bobcat never seemed to be able to break the festival circuit (blink and you might have caught “Sleeping Dogs Lie” in first run), or worst, the direct-to-video market (as befell his truly demented “World’s Greatest Dad” starring Robin Williams, with a cover that looks like it’s awaiting an additional Photoshop cut-and-past of Martin Short).

It’s unlikely that “God Bless America” will prove to be his breakthrough (if Robin Williams couldn’t do it, what chance does Bill Murray’s brother have?), which finds Goldthwait at his angriest yet with a tale of a bloody road trip for a 45-year old middle-aged loser and his teenage sidekick.

Anonymous salary-man Frank (Murray) can no longer tolerate the brain-softening climate of vanity and vapidity in which he ekes out a tolerable existence. His ex-wife hates him and seems intent on turning their daughter against him. Whining neighbours and their even whinier kid, office small talk and corporate speak, right wing blowhards, left wing political correctness, and television’s endless marathons of reality shows. He’s fired over a complaint to HR: the flowers he sent to a female coworker have brought him up on charges of sexual harassment.

Then, he’s diagnosed with a brain tumour...

With so little time left, will he be forced to spend it in a milieu where the highest priority on everyone’s minds seems to be another mindless singing competition, the excruciating “American Superstarz”? With nothing to lose, he purchases a handgun and hops in his car to drive to the studio in Los Angeles.

Along the way, he meets high school misfit Roxy (Barr), who shares an equal contempt for her classmates and so-called “authority figures”. He teaches her how to fire a gun, and she provides him with practice targets. First up, the impossibly horrible brat who stars in a “Gossip Girl”esque TV reality series…

Perhaps an easy target (has anyone made a “pro” reality-TV feature to date?), but at least Goldthwait pulls no punches in letting the schlockmeisters who have hijacked the airwaves get their justs. The film premiered on the eve of the tenth anniversary of September 11 and offers a scathing vision of his home country…

Murray, who starred with Goldthwait in “One Crazy Summer” and “Shakes The Clown”, is a familiar “oh that guy!” face from television, and might best be known to current audiences as Freddy Rumsen on “Mad Men” (he’s also in another much-anticipated TIFF entry “The Artist”). He’s well cast and is often faced with the thankless task of spewing some lengthy diatribes about society, celebrity, etc., but he’s makes for an endearing, passionate, and of course, pathologically dangerous schlubb.

Tara Lynn Barr, in her film debut, is a cross between Molly Ringwalk and Bonnie Parker (right down to the wardrobe that riffs on Dunaway’s iconic fashions) and manages to tread the line between precocious and downright terrifying winningly, even if a foul-mouthed, violent teenage girl isn’t quite as outrageous as Goldthwait had intended given recent screen offerings…

“God Bless America” was produced by Richard Kelly’s “Darko Entertainment” but no release date was set at the time of this writing.

AMENDED: Mark Cuban’s Magnet Releasing has acquired distribution rights and it will be available via video on demand and theatrical release in 2012.

© 2011 Robert J. Lewis

Friday, September 09, 2011

TIFF 2011 Review: "Martha Marcy May Marlene"


(Special Presentations)

(USA, 2010, 103 minutes)

Directed by: Sean Burkin

Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Hugh Dancy, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson

This unnerving, at times frustrating, but consistently mesmerizing psychological drama/character study comes to TIFF’s “Special Presentations” with a high pedigree—it won Best Director at Sundance and its leading lady has been eliciting quite the coronation. The AM press screening I attended was curiously under populated considering it was Day One and the film’s almost universal critical hosannas since it debuted out of competition at Cannes—maybe I was the only guy in a name tag who didn’t go to Utah this year?

The film works its weirdly bewitching, ambient pull from its opening shots in a remote farmhouse, offering little by way of crops and livestock outside but inside, a group of a half dozen young women sleep on squalid mattresses. They awake to prepare meals for an equal number of young men, who then eat alone by lamplight. After they clear out, the women are allowed to do the same…in silence. The next morning, one of the women slips out and breaks into a mad dash into the woods. She’s soon pursued by one of the men (Abbott), who tracks her down at a diner in town. We learn her name is Mary. In the safety of public view, she refuses his plea to return to the farm and he relents. For now. Mary then calls her sister for help, and confesses in a panic that she doesn’t even know where she is.

Mary moves in with Lucy (Paulson) and her smug husband Ted (Dancy) who clearly isn’t too pleased with the arrangement. Their parents gone, Lucy is Mary’s only family and friend beyond the cult she’s just fled. She’s been missing for two years, but is reluctant to speak of her experiences. In harrowing flashbacks, we see how a small group of men and women have fallen under spell of charismatic Patrick (Hawkes), who basically runs a sex cult in the Catskills for young men to prey on even younger woman under the auspices of starting an agricultural commune where the women do all of the work—one, a new recruit, is barely into her teens. While not terribly explicit visually, you’ll have a hard time holding back your gag reflex when the criminally young girl, clad only in a robe and captive in an attic, awaits the arrival of Patrick for her “initiation”.

The flashback structure works to disorient and simulate something of Mary’s fractured mental state. They aren’t always chronological, which makes one sequence doubly-frightening, when we think some of the cult members are coming to the house to take Mary back until we learn it’s in fact another similar lake house that they intended to rob when Mary was still a member.

Throughout I had this nagging feeling--who is that actress? I didn’t even make the association of her last name—it wasn’t until I downloaded the press notes that I had my “a-ha” moment. Elizabeth Olsen is the sister of wonder-twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, but in this astonishingly raw and brave debut, she severs any connection with their insipid franchise.

John Hawkes, now an ever-reliable ego-free character actor on par with Walken, contributes only a few memorable scenes as Patrick, the charismatic guru. Hawkes' song to Mary (he christens her "Marcy May") manages to communicate his charismatic pull on his followers (incidentally, the "Marlene" of the title is the generic name female followers are required to use when answering the phone).

The ending will surely polarize--ala "The Sopranos"--I'm still not sure if I felt satisfied or totally hosed. Suffice to say that it concludes with the suggestion that Martha's fears might lie ahead of her--for life. As the credits roll, we recognize that Martha’s true ordeal may still be ahead of her. What is real and what is her own manufactured threat? We'll never know, nor will she...

AMENDED JANUARY 2012: “Mary Marcy May Marlene” will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in February and will contain Durkin’s short, “Mary Last Seen”, from which the film was expanded.

©2011 Robert J. Lewis