Sunday, July 27, 2014

The One I Love--Charlie McDowell (2014)

Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) encounter some serious Twilight Zone sh** in The One I Love (2014)
Charlie McDowell's The One I Love (2014) was a delightful surprise at Fantasia--a subtle sci-fi film that's equal parts hilarious and touching, and even mildly creepy.  It's definitely the funniest film I've seen at the festival thus far (and the film is intentionally witty and wry rather than accidentally so).

The film's setup is that Ethan (Mark Duplass) has sometime in the recent past cheated on Sophie (Elizabeth Moss), and they are currently struggling in couple's therapy in order to manage their problems and move on.  Ted Danson has a very amusing, brief role as their therapist.  After trying to get them to play "in harmony" on a piano in his office, he finally suggests that they go to a romantic retreat to recapture the flame of their marriage.  Yes, this film has another "Cabin in the Woods," but this cabin is way, way upscale.  Both Sophie and Ethan are game for this therapeutic getaway, because their couples therapy sessions seem to be going nowhere.

Once they arrive at their destination, they proceed to relax and enjoy each other's company, having dinner together, drinking some wine, and smoking a little pot,  Each person, in turn, also explores the guesthouse, where they encounter some weird Twilight Zone sh** indeed.  The supernatural/sci-fi logic of the guesthouse isn't entirely clear, but the couple are willing to explore its possibilities.  Unsurprisingly, it comes to bite them in the a**.  In a quest to either provoke or discover their better selves, they find that fantasy is almost always better than reality.

Ethan promises to not spy on Sophie in the guesthouse, but he cannot resist
Elizabeth Moss as Sophie is just terrific in this film, and out of the two of them, I found her the most sympathetic.  Her emotional range is both nuanced and subtle, and I enjoyed everything single scene she is in.  Mark Duplass as Ethan...well...he's really good at playing that annoying schlub who is simultaneously uptight and judgmental.  I find him really unappealing, even in his "funny, surfer-dude" guise, when he is his "best self."  I realize that comment is cryptic, but I really don't want to give any of the fun of this movie away.  And it's really, really fun.  When you think about the fact that there are only three actors in the entire film (Moss, Duplass, and Danson), it's successes become even more impressive.

The film has some substantial unexpected twists, and a degree of menace (as it takes the notion of the uncanny doppelganger to a whole new level).  There are still a couple of plot fissures that don't ever really make sense, but like Animosity, the film is too well made to get riled up about some head-scratching moments.  I'm still trying to figure out what the therapist's end game is here, since he sent them on this little romantic (mis)adventure.  How does the physics of the place actually work, and how real are these people (any of them)?  Part of the fun is trying to figure this sh** out.  Nevertheless, Elizabeth Moss has a really fine career ahead of her.  Her performance is a knockout.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Han Gong-Ju--Su-jin Lee (2013)

Woo-hee Chun gives a stunning performance as the titular character in Han Gong-Ju (2013)
Steubenville, OH is now a place synonymous with the rape culture that permeates the U.S.  Victim blaming, slut-shaming, defending our young men because "boys will be boys," Elliot Rodgers--all of these instances of misogyny are intertwined with the use of technology to document it all.  Yet, rape culture and sexual violence against girls (and women) is a global problem, and South Korean filmmakers are tackling these issues in moving and powerful ways.  I first encountered this powerful vision upon seeing Poetry (2010).  Here an elderly woman tries to understand her own grandson's involvement in a gang rape.  She attempts to find beauty in a world riddled with casual misogyny and gendered violence--all while she struggles with the onset of Alzheimer's disease.  This film is simply breathtaking.

Su-Jin Lee's Han Gong-Ju, based on the 2004 Miryang gang rape case, frames its story through its victim's eyes, as she is exiled to another town and enrolled in a new school while her rapists go to trial back home.  Gong-Ju's experience of the events that happened that day unfolds gradually, in flashback, as she attempts to tentatively build a new life in a new place.  Unfortunately, in a culture that blames and ostracizes its victims of sexual violence, she has nowhere to turn and largely no one to trust.  One young girl attempts to befriend her, and she does her best to push her away, only grudgingly accepting her kindness.  This "toughness" is so clearly a facade for this desperately lonely teen, and it's heartbreaking to watch Gong-Ju's tentative smiles and fearful glances.  Like any wounded kid, she covers her vulnerability with false bravado.

Gong-Ju's musical talents attract (wanted and unwanted) attention
Like Poetry, Han Gong-Ju finds a delicate beauty in the arts, primarily through Gong-ju's soft voice and gentle guitar playing.  One of the subplots of the film involves her very real talent, and the way she must keep her voice hidden in order to avoid the scandal from which she has fled.  Yet her past comes to find her, and her secrets are discovered by the press (likewise, a filmed copy of the assault is leaked to the internet, further exacerbating her shame and victimization).

The film is undeniably an indictment of the culture surrounding these brutal acts, and sensitively explores Gong-Ju's delicate psyche while not overwhelmingly sensationalizing or exploiting the events that have triggered her exile.  Still, the casual misogyny, coupled with the macho posturing and bullying that intersects with rape culture, are represented with a queasy realism.  One doesn't get the full picture until the film's final moments, but by that time we are fully committed to Gong-Ju's character, and can only wish that she finds some semblance of peace.  Han Gong-Ju is both harrowing and highly recommended.

Predestination--The Spierig Brothers (2014)

Ethan Hawke is pretty intense as the grizzled protagonist in Predestination (2014)
The Spierig brothers make tremendously fun and wickedly smart films--ones that appeal to smart viewers who like to think when they go to the movies (and perhaps keep thinking afterward).  I'll never forget going to see Undead (2003) on a whim, even though it received a blisteringly terrible review from Entertainment Weekly's Owen Glieberman (who just didn't get it).  It's a zombie film with a female hero, an alien film, and just plain awesome (and hilarious).  In fact, it's one of the only horror comedies I've ever really liked.  Many years later, they made Daybreakers (2009), also starring Ethan Hawke.  The film created a detailed world where vampires were part of the fabric of society, outnumbering humans and struggling to feed when there is little to no human blood to be found.  These filmmakers are really strong at world-building and creating a visually rich tapestry of images, and Predestination continues there pretty stunning track record (three for three)!  The film is based on a Robert A. Heinlein story "All You Zombies" from 1958.

Trying to stop the Fizzle bomber
The film opens with an explosion that disfigures the main character, who wakes up in the hospital after reconstructive surgery and his voice has altered.  Hmmmm.  Turns out he (Hawke) is a time-traveler who works for a covert government agency that stops horrific crimes before they happen.  He's been tracking the "Fizzle bomber," who allegedly will blow up 10 city blocks in 1975.  So he goes back to the 70s on his final mission to try to stop the guy.  His deep cover is as a bartender at a dive bar in New York City.

One night at work he meets a unique, but rather grumpy person, who comes into the bar and wagers that he has the best, most compelling story to tell (for a full bottle of booze).  This stranger (Sarah Snook) proceeds to tell a twisting, tragic story that plays with gender--turns out that he is a former "she," born a hermaphrodite, who struggled with his gender identity, fell in love with a mystery man who knocked her up, mothered a child who was subsequently stolen from her, and now writes True Confession stories, and walks through this world, as a man (with the requisite sex organs).  Some of the film's strongest moments come from the detailed construction of this sci-fi world during these 60s flashbacks, where women are trained to service men in outer space as a part of the "Space Corps."

women training for their trip into space as "space corps"
Hawke's character, upon hearing his tale of woe, tells him that he can deliver the man who caused all of these rather tragic events, and takes him back to meet his earlier self (as a woman), in 1963.  Things get messier from there, because Hawke's character is actually actively recruiting the storyteller to become a time travel agent for this secret government agency, run by an enigmatic Noah Taylor.

There's more to "space corps" than meets the eye
I'll stop here because any additional description of the film will give too much away.  Suffice to say that one of the most annoying things about a time-travel film is the time paradox, and how that paradox is explained. From The Terminator series, to Looper, to Lost, to the awesome Sci-fi show Continuum, the time paradox tends to really muck things up, and skew any sensible logic to the film.  Now imagine if one raised the paradox to the NTH degree, and you have the clever, and rather sick, Predestination.  These filmmakers are committed to mind fu**ing the audience with this one.

Okay, so I hated Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010), and I figure that opinion might make me decidedly unpopular.  That film just seemed like it was trying too hard to be smart, and made some viewers feel clever when the film wasn't remotely clever at all.  While Predestination is smarter than Nolan's pop mind fu**, I figured out part of the big twist within the film's first 10 minutes, and the rest of it not long after.  That discovery does not really hurt the film, though.  It's still a tremendously fun ride, that kept me thinking, albeit a little queasy, during the closing credits and beyond.  I would definitely check it out, and the rest of the Spierig Brothers work, while you're at it.

Honeymoon--Leigh Janiak (2014)

Things go wrong too quickly for Paul (Harry Treadaway) and Bea (Rose Leslie) in Honeymoon (2014)
Ah, Honeymoon. This film has so much potential, truly, but this tale of a Honeymooning couple who run afoul of something in the woods outside Bea's childhood family retreat just cannot rise above the questions it leaves hanging, or the gore and shock tactics that render women's bodies horrifying and disgusting.  I'm disappointed to see that this viewpoint, entirely told through the eyes of the male protagonist, Paul, is written and directed by a woman.  Heavy sigh.  This film is her first, and though it has some issues, I hope it is not her last.

The film suggests that one can never know one's spouse, especially if after finding her walking around in the woods in the middle of the night, he awakens to find her unable to brew coffee or make french toast adequately.  The HORROR!  Paul is suspicious and proceeds to test Bea at every turn, especially after going back to where he found her in the woods and finding her torn nightgown.  The biggest problem with this film is that there is no building of tension or slow burn.  Change happens very quickly, and the film has virtually no suspense.

Paul investigates Bea's sexy nightgown
While Treadaway is really quite delightful as Victor Frankenstein on Showtime's Penny Dreadful, and Rose Leslie is also great on Game of Thrones, there really is no chemistry between these actors in this film.  They seem to be sniping at each other very soon into the honeymoon, and the film goes to some length to maintain Bea's "mystery" by never getting into her head.  She's constantly scrutinized by her new husband, and the audience is supposed to be discovering the horror right along with Paul.  Yet, I found him so unappealing and unlikeable (his decision to go and catch fish in the early morning hours utterly idiotic), that I just wanted him to right away.  Instead, the camera follows him around as he (and we) piece things together.

"You Know Nothing, Paul!"
The world gets weirder as the story evolves.  The one clear thing is that "something bad" happened to Bea in the woods, and its affecting her body, especially her lady parts.  She has some nasty, scabby "mosquito" bites on her inner thighs, she starts spontaneously bleeding, self-mutilates herself at one point, and then there's a truly gross-out scare that sends everything into hyper-drive.  After that moment, Bea becomes completely and utterly abject, and one wonders just how things are going to all shake out.  Unsurprisingly, at this point in the film, Paul loses all interest in her--she's beyond saving.  Thankfully, she is kind enough to help him "hide," even after he's treated her so shoddily.

I can hint at references the film makes--to body snatching, the Evil Dead, possession narratives, alien abduction, The Wicker Man--but what you end up with is mere speculation.  The film never really reveals what happens in the woods, and the spectator is left hanging, attempting to fill in the many plot holes that the film leaves gaping open.  Honeymoon never reaches for cleverness or provides any explanations, which leaves one saying "Okay, then."  The film has so much potential, but it just squanders it.  I think even merely changing things by providing Bea's point-of-view would have made the film far more compelling.  Instead, we're stuck with Paul.

If you want to see a film that explores the abject, female body, but has a more fleshed out female protagonist, I would recommend the fore-mentioned Animosity (2013), or the smart and twisty Dutch horror thriller Left Bank (2008).

Harvest--John McNaughton (2013)

Katherine (Samantha Morton) losing it in The Harvest (2013)
John McNaughton has made some pretty intense films.  The last film of his I saw, Wild Things (1998) was really nuts.  So I shouldn't have expected any less from his latest, The Harvest (2013).  The beauty of the Fantasia Film Festival is that directors show up for Q & As after the screening and tend to really enhance the film's experience.  Without John McNaughton's wry humor and pointed contextualizing, I would not be as respectful of the film as I am.  Still, this film has serious, serious problems.

McNaughton's film is a twisted fairy tale about over-protective and abusive parents, terrible marriages, sick kids, and intrepid young teens fighting against adults who just don't understand.  Oh, and Peter Fonda plays "The Grandfather."

Katherine and Richard (Michael Shannon) are a hot mess
The film opens with a kid being knocked senseless by a baseball hit, and then Katherine, a pediatric surgeon, swooping in and saving his life.  She seems to perform these feats regularly, with Richard as a stay-at-home Dad who takes care of their sickly kid, Andy.  (Richard was formerly a NURSE, which may be how this dyfunctional couple met, but is now just a reminder of how essentially emasculated he is here).

Their son has been sick since birth, and they have him on a somewhat hinky experimental drug regimen that makes him tired, bed-ridden, and barely functioning. 

Andy (Charlie Tahan) must do his homework so he can be a doctor, not a nurse
Both Mom and Dad are really strict though, and make sure that Andy does his home-schooled homework.  Everything goes pear-shaped when a spunky girl, Maryann (Natasha Calis), moves in a mile away and starts skulking around their house, peeking in the windows.  She has recently lost her parents in an accident, and is living with her grandparents, one of which is played by Peter Fonda (who says "Far out" several times, in case we do not know who he is).  Maryann is looking for a friend, and for the sake of the plot, she latches onto Andy after seeing him through his bedroom window.  

pint-sized creeper Maryann
I don't know, you just kind of have to go with it.  Things become very Hansel and Gretel soon afterward, as Katherine does not want Andy to have any friends, and does her best to be creepy and menacing a la evil witch.  Someone yelled "Bitch" out loud in the theater, unsurprising for Samantha Morton succeeds in this fairly thankless, cliched role.  Things get crazier and there's a pretty decent twist towards the end, but the hoary gender tropes are mostly irritating.

During the Q & A, one fellow said, "I've seen so many scary things at this festival--vampires, werewolves, etc.--but nothing scares me more than the psychotic middle-aged Mom."  Yeah, dude, that's kind of the problem.  I would have loved to see a little more nuance to these characters, and for something to be at stake more than "CHILDREN ARE IN PERIL!"  With two fine actors like Morton and Shannon on-board, one would hope for more, but she's a screeching Gorgon and he's some kind of sad kicked dog who flinches all the time.  Then I remind myself that this guy directed Wild Things, which also seemed so utterly nutso, that I just should expect no less from a John McNaughton film. 

Many times during the screening, people laughed at seemingly "unfunny" moments.  Sure, moments of levity are often necessary in a very dark story, but giving the kid mini-marshmellows in his cocoa, or Richard getting dressed after having sex with an adoring drug rep--hilarious!  I did find myself laughing and shaking my head at Katherine much of the time.  Her temper tantrums were so epic, they just elicited chuckles and guffaws.  Samantha Morton must have needed a serious vacation after this film.  McNaughton pointed out that most female actors did not want to touch this role, especially those with kids.  Gee, no kidding.  BTW, Morton has a couple of kids.  I'm thinking that she should show them this film as a kind of cautionary tale--don't piss Mommy off.

The director, during the Q & A, referenced fairy tales and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and those kernels are there, but they are relatively buried under a histrionic Jody Picoult novel.  Eh.  I'd give it a pass.

Friday, July 25, 2014

White Bird In A Blizzard--Gregg Araki (2014)

Eva Green's deeply miserable Eve in White Bird in a Blizzard
Part of the appeal of all of Gregg Araki's movies is his witty, poignant, and pointed use of soundtrack material.  Watching White Bird in a Blizzard, which takes place in 1989-1991 respectively, was like bathing in the luscious sounds of that time (full disclosure, I was a DJ at a "new music" dance club during those years).  This Mortal Coil's "Fond Affections," New Order's "Temptation," The Psychedelic Furs' "Heartbreak Beat," Depeche Mode's "Behind the Wheel," Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Dazzle." This particular film focuses on Katrina (Kat) Connor (Shailene Woodley) in the wake of her strange mother Eve's disappearance.  While I didn't want to like Woodley (based on her stupid anti-feminist public comments), I found that the film's narrative structure, Araki's candid representation of female heterosexual desire, and her incredible supporting cast (including Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Thomas Jane, Gabourey Sidibe, Angela Bassett) allowed Woodley's Kat to win me over in the end.

Peppered with magical fantasy and fairy-tale moments, often subjectively arising out of Kat's dream life, White Bird in a Blizzard draws us not only into Kat's world, but her feelings about her family as she struggles to understand both her mother's unhappiness and her own sense of loss.  Araki crafts a deeply subjective portrait of Eve, skewed from the perspective of a disaffected teen riddled with burgeoning desire.  Told in the present, and through flashbacks, the film never wavers from Kat's view.  Kat is simultaneously astute and confused by her mother's behavior, yearning for the playful Mom of her past, but only encountering her empty shell as Eve fights her loneliness, aging, and loss of her sexual power just as her daughter's comes into being.  Green brings equal parts elegance, mystery, and despair into Eve, her resentment toward the family that she feels has trapped her boiling over into both passive aggression and vicious snipes.  Yet, both Kat and the audience feel deep sympathy toward her plight--the plight of so many women whose senses of self are buried in loveless marriages.  Kat's world seems rich in possibilities while Eva's seems devoid of them.

Gregg Araki tends to tell boys' stories, and he does so beautifully (Mysterious Skin, Kaboom), but here he explores a young woman's feelings and experiences with such nuance and power, the film  takes your breath away.  His wry take on sexuality is always refreshing as well, and Kat's sexual affair with a local police detective is represented with both thoughtfulness and candor.

In some ways, the mystery of what happened to Eve is both the focus of the story and beside the point, for in its telling, through Kat's distinctive point-of-view, one actually learns how incredibly complicated and confusing hetero-femininity can be.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Jellyfish Eyes--Takashi Murakami (2013)

Extreme Cuteness in the wake of Fukushima
Is this film a rollicking feel-good comedy about kids with cute imaginary friends coping with crazy violence in an uncertain world, or a sobering commentary on how that violence is endemic, and that one must struggle for kindness and understanding in the face of out-of-control technologies?  Both?  I figure I'll write my thoughts on the film before I read reviews on it, so I think some of the plot here may be lost in translation.  Here we go.

Masashi and his mother are returning home after spending a while in an evacuation center.  Masashi's nightmares and Mom's tears over a family photograph suggest the recent loss of the family's father, perhaps in the Fukushima disaster.  Young Uncle Noato works for a defense organization that's run by eager teenagers wearing black hooded capes, who have given all the children in the area an imaginary electronic F.R.I.E.N.D. and a device to control it, in order to harness the children's negative energy to save the world from natural disasters (even though their ultimate maniacal plan is to reap destruction in order to cleanse the world and start over--I think.)  Meanwhile, the parents, adults, and authority figures are really clueless, rule-driven, and unimaginative, joining cults and basically ignoring their kids.  The evil teen superhero/scientists/wizards/whatever have somehow sussed out that these kids, former friends, will ultimately turn against each other during dire competitions between their technological friends/gizmos, creating a ton of negative energy (a good thing).  With me so far?

Saki and Masashi in their goofy school uniforms
Saki and Masashi meet cute at the school, where they try to stay out of the fighting cute critter olympics, even though they each have their own adorable creatures.  Masashi has Kurage-bo (or Jellyfish Boy) and Saki's "F.R.I.E.N.D." is Luxor.

Kurage-bo is Super cute!
Luxor is also Cute!
Somehow all this technological cuteness, under the thumb of the maniacal teenagers, is channeled through Masashi (who is a repository of negative energy) into a giant Techno creature who is out to destroy the town (and the now evil teens are happy about this havoc).  He's also pretty cute.

Cute Giant Eraserhead-like Monster that smashes the town
Honestly, this film was so over-the-top that I couldn't figure out if I was watching a Camp extravaganza and send-up of Japanese pop culture, or something that was utterly earnest and sincere.  Granted, it could be both, but that's where I felt that I really needed to get more cultural references.  Some of the familiar themes of Japanese anime--the corruption of humanity by the power of technology, the emotional rift between children and adults, the way communities cope with disaster--were overwhelmed by the craziness.  What is the deal with the teenagers in hooded capes? How about the "environmental" cult that worships purity in the face of Fukushima's contamination?  What about the teachers who run the school?  The acting is so hyperbolic, it's just kind of hilarious.  Is that feeling intentional?  I hope so.  I'm going with that impulse.

School kids can save the world
So the schoolmates and former friends must band together and quit fighting in order to work together and stop the creature from destroying their town and world.  Do they succeed?  Well, what do you think?

Cuteness rules!
While I feel like I might have missed some of the crucial references in this film, I think I get the gist, and the world is saved by CUTENESS.  Murakami's pop culture world is vivid and fun, and if you let yourself succumb to the visual extravaganza, the film's complete lack of logic doesn't really matter.  I think I'll have to see it again just to explore a bit further its symbolism and tone.

Suburban Gothic--Richard Bates Jr. (2014)

Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler) has the best scream
So, Horror Comedies.  Why aren't they funny?  I guess because poop jokes, boob jokes, semen jokes, casually racist and homophobic jokes, and jokes about unconscious girls getting fingered (allegedly) really do nothing for me.  Nothing.  Juvenile, immature humor--kind of like a guy fu**ing a pie.  Hilarious.  Not.  If you like that kind of humor, you will love this film.

First, I'll focus on the positive.  No doubt, Richard Bates's horror comedy Suburban Gothic had some amusing moments.  A few.  Ray Wise is pretty amazing in all things, even if he plays the biggest a**hole ever (something he explained in a bit more detail in the Q & A).  Raymond's adventures with Becka (Kat Dennings) are also pretty appealing, but the chemistry between them is uber-forced.  A standing joke throughout the film (not so funny), is that because of Raymond's sensitive nature, proper use of the English language, and very eccentric fashion sense, he must be gay.  Despite wacking off to some Latina Internet booty, he still has an ambiguous sexual vibe--which I kind of liked.  So a romance between Raymond and Becka just doesn't work.  Let's just let them be friends.
Raymond and Becka don't have to be a couple
One of the hands down, best things about the film is its production design.  The costumes, sets, and mise-en-scene are really brilliant.  Every outfit that Raymond wore topped the last.  His use of a good cravat is epic.
Raymond rocking a denim shorts jumpsuit and ascot
Raymond's outstanding purple scarf
The film has just enough weirdness to keep you wondering what will happen next, and feels pretty PG-13 (especially suited for the male 13-15 crowd).  The flashes of clever visual language and originality are brief, as are the cameos from people like Jen and Sylvia Soska (as two mourners at a funeral) and the much seen John Waters cameo.  He fits perfectly into Bates Jr.'s odd world.

John Waters fits right in
And while John Waters's own films, especially Pink Flamingos and A Dirty Shame, have their own bodily fluid-littered universe, at least his earlier work was pretty damn gender subversive.  Unfortunately, Suburban Gothic is saddled with a bunch of lazy cliches--fey (formerly overweight) sensitive boy, tough slutty goth chic, macho racist Dad, Mom stuck in the 50s, redneck belligerent thug, crazy psychic lady...even the ghosts are super-typical, as the house is haunted by a father and daughter who must have everything set to rights in order to move on.  And the very last image/action.  Really?  Forced, forced, forced.

Still, the true winners of the evening are the really awesome folks at the Fantasia Film Festival--the people running the show and the incredible audience.  No matter how I felt about the film, I was swept up in the auditorium-rocking excitement and fervor of the whole thing.  Richard Bates Jr. was PREMIERING his film at Fantasia, and I was so excited for him.  His mom (and Gubler's mom) were in the theatre with friends and family, and it was an EVENT!  I was proud of the director and his crew, and I didn't really like the film.  But man, his heart was all in.  I wanted to like it.  People went nuts when Ray Wise was onstage--as did I.  The crowd was rowdy, happy, and Fantasia knows how to have a really good time.  I had seen the other films in the two smaller theaters, and this place was packed with a roaring, delighted crowd.  I wouldn't recommend Suburban Gothic, but I would highly recommend Fantasia Film Festival.  Here's hoping Bates Jr.'s next film rocks!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

I Origins--Mike Cahill (2014)

Astrid Berges-Frisbey's lovely eyes in Mike Cahill's I Origins (2014)

Mike Cahill and Britt Marling's new film was released in the states today, and I just saw it at the Fantasia Film Festival.  I liked it...but not as much as Another Earth, the pair's first significant work together.  Supposedly, the two have known each other since their late teens, and they seem to have a rhythm down for making "subtle sci-fi"--even though this film dabbles a bit in the spiritual, albeit grounded in the struggles between science and faith.

Perhaps part of the reason I enjoyed Another Earth more is that I Origins dabbles in some well-worn tropes, even if it tries to turn them on their head later in the film.  One of the main tropes is the ubiquitous "manic pixie dream girl," that quirky, youthful, free-spirit coined by Nathan Rabin in 2007 (who has recently just apologized for its coining).  The film takes place 8 years after the death of said "manic pixie," Sofi, and schlumpy scientist Ian (Michael Pitt) narrates how his traveling to India to find someone with matching irises came to be.

Ian is an "eye" scientist, and is exploring how to bring sight to non-seeing animals in order to forward ocular science for humans.  He meets the enigmatic Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) at a Halloween party, they have a quickie in a bathroom, and then she scampers off.  He eventually tracks her down.  They proceed to have lovely adventures.  

Meanwhile, Ian has taken on a new assistant, Karen (Britt Marling), who is just about the smartest person on the entire planet--way smarter than Ian or his roommate, Kenny (Stephen Yuen) who both work in the lab.  With the brilliant and wry Karen, the film tries to balance the romantic weight placed on Sofi.  Cahill has written a rich and beautiful role for Marling, and she steals all of her scenes away from the rather flat, affect-less Pitt.  The only way he really emotes is through some loud screaming, and then some moping.  Marling speaks volumes in a glance.

One of the greatest pleasures of the film is the way in which scientific experimentation and research are represented.  The work that the main characters do in the lab is rich and exciting, and one keenly feels the thrill of discovery.  Karen and Sofi are such polar opposites, I found myself growing increasingly impatient with Sofi, who exclaims that Ian leaves her "to experiment all day on little worms."  She is the spiritual voice in what starts to feel like a very heavy-handed conversation on the relationship between science and God, and scientists as gods.  Meh.

Another problem with the film is how clearly telegraphed Sofi's death is--a death in some ways that fits well into an old Dario Argento giallo.  Of course, she must die in order for Ian to have his revelatory experience which shakes his very scientific foundation.  And strangely enough, Kalinda from The Good Wife (Archie Penjabi) magically shows up as a helpful Indian woman during Ian's trip to India.  I just wanted her to have her own movie, she's such a fine actress!  But does everyone have to go to India, Tibet, or Bali to get their spiritual sh** together?


I Origins is a good movie, with some fine performances and some wonderful witty dialogue and rapport between the characters.  Yet it had some very familiar tropes that made it a bit less intensely original than Another Earth.  Still, if you are a Britt Marling fan, she does continue to shine.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Animosity--Brendan Steere (2013)

Tracy Willet as Carrie in Animosity
The Fantasia Film Festival certainly started out with a "bang" with Brendan Steere's Animosity (2013), a twisty indie horror film that kept me guessing right until the end...and left me with a few questions.  I like films that still have me thinking after they are over.  In the Q&A afterwards, I didn't want to know the answers to all of my questions, so some mysteries are still left intact.  I'll try to be careful of what I give away, but inevitably there will be some spoilers...

This film definitely reminds one of the "perils of home ownership," as viewers are introduced to the leads, Carrie and Mike, as they are buying a new house.  They arrive shortly after the house's former owner has seemingly killed her daughter (and that opening scene is truly a stunner).  Immediately, one thinks "what's wrong with this house?"  Yet, the film flashes forward to Carrie and Mike days into their moving in, with boxes still packed and the house without phone or internet service (so they've bought the place, but they are isolated).  So far so good.

Thankfully, the film takes place almost entirely through Carrie's subjective perspective.  She's a composer who is currently scoring a "B" horror film, while Mike works at some lab with Carl and Nicole, who carpool with him to work.  The film's slow burn comes from Carrie's days at home, where she hears strange sounds and encounters her creepy neighbor, Tom, who likes to shoot at things with a sawed-off shotgun.  Steere states that the first half of the film is reminiscent of Rosemary's Baby, and the way that the film hews close to Carrie while making everyone else seem rather enigmatic--especially Mike--contributes to that feeling of creeping dead.  Inevitably, weird sh** starts happening and no one believes Carrie.  Or they are working hard to convince her that she's imagining things.  The male characters are pretty damn despicable throughout, and that might be the film's one flaw--it's hard to sympathize with Mike (Marcin Paluch), and one gets the sense that we should toward film's end.  His loathsomeness is balanced beautifully by Tracy Willet's truly remarkable performance as Carrie.  She is simultaneously sympathetic and fierce, and wholly riveting.

At the 40 minute mark, the film takes a rather dramatic turn, and offers up revelations that serve to further complicate the mysteries involved.

This film really does have everything.  Beyond Rosemary's Baby, the recipe calls for some Haute Tension, a touch of Texas Chainsaw, some Evil Dead, and a healthy dose of Pet Cemetery--with even some mad science thrown in for good measure.  In the Q & A, Steere said that he really wanted to make Solaris, but he couldn't do outer space, so he shot it at his parents' place in Pennsylvania. These woods are seriously, seriously eerie, and the film's sound team does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension.  Most of all, despite any small plot fissures, this film is wickedly smart, not relying on the jump scares and "final girl" cliches that are so common to contemporary horror cinema.  The film's world building may reference other films, but in many ways, its wholly original and a strong showing for a first feature.

Steere jokingly suggested that the film leaves an opening for Animosity 2, and the film has the kind of "trick film" structure that merits repeat viewings and a continuation of the film's mythos.  Still, don't call it Animosity...the title is the least interesting thing about this film.  Perhaps naming it something else would have given too much away, and hopefully I haven't done so in reviewing it.  I now appreciate the film's poster even more.  Where can I get one??

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Back from the Dead with news from Fantasia 2014

This year was a tough one, so I decided to reward myself and reinvigorate my love for cinema, especially horror, by attending Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival this summer.  On Monday, the festival program came out with an attached DVD full of bible as I made my detailed schedule for the fest.  Tuesday, I stood in line for 4 HOURS to get tickets to everything I wanted to see during this festival, and amazingly, it was worth it.  So here's a rundown of the goodies I'm seeing, and what I'll be writing about in the next few weeks.

Animosity--Brendan Steere (2013)

I gravitate toward supernatural horror and films that focus on female experience.  This film appears to be utilizing both of these things.  Steere also won me over with this statement: "I love movies with gobs of gore and blood, but this is just not that movie. I was thinking a lot about Ti West's films while making it. Argento's earlier giallo work. Alien and Rosemary's Baby – movies that creep and build. There's a palpable mystery and build that really I'm very happy with. I think we've really made something special, and I really hope the horror community responds to it."  I like his references.  Granted, the film premiered a year ago at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, but why turn down a chance to see it on the big screen.  Here's the trailer:

I Origins--Mike Cahill (2014)
The dynamic duo of Mike Cahill and Britt Marling are back again after their stunning debut film Another Earth (2011)--you can read my review from July 2012 on this site.  That film was both low-key and gorgeous, so I'd be on board for anything they might do.  Their latest is another sci-fi mind bender about love, death, and the utterly unique eye retina (no two are the same--ever).  I've also become a huge fan of Michael Pitt after his genius work on Hannibal.  This film will play on demand and in some art-house theaters, but I'd like to see it first.  Here's the trailer:

 Suburban Gothic--Richard Bates Jr. (2014)

I'm not much for mixing comedy with my horror, even though some films do hold a special place in my heart (Evil Dead 2, Undead (2003), Sightseers).  Anything that might be considered "zany" or has boob humor tends to just put my to sleep.  I like my humor dark and twisted, and perhaps not that funny.  Excision (2012) was pretty damn twisted, so I figured I'd give Bates' next feature a try.  Fantasia tends to show its humorous horror at the last screening of the night, in the giant Concordia Hall Theatre to a group of very vocal filmgoers.  I think it might be pretty fun.  Ray Wise from Twin Peaks plays Raymond's Dad, and John Waters has a killer cameo.  Here's the redband trailer:

Jellyfish Eyes--Takashi Murakami (2013)
I have been so excited to see this film ever since the NYTimes featured it in its style section, and I watched the incredible trailer.  I like Murakami's Japanese pop Otaku style, and this film just looks like a pure delight.  Here's an interview with the director and the trailer.  Check it out:

White Bird in a Blizzard--Gregg Araki (2014)

I have seen every film that Gregg Araki has ever made, and I have loved every one of them.  His dark, irreverent humor, endearing characters, and incredible visual flair touch every film he makes.  I don't know why he decided to use that annoying "but I'm not a feminist" Shailene Woodley as his lead, but at least Eva Green is in it...although the fact that she's playing this girl's mother is just crazy.  Oh, and NO ONE has better soundtracks for his films.  NO ONE.  Araki's keeping a love for the Cocteau Twins alive!  Here's the trailer:

The Harvest--John McNaughton (2013)
The film's stars, Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton, are known for some really dark material; Likewise, director McNaughton, who made Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and the utterly gonzo Wild Things (1998), crafts a tale here that involves some "child harm," which gets a ton of people really riled.  Hailing from Chicago, McNaughton screened the film at the Chicago Intl. Film Festival, and one reviewer called it "absolutely despicable."  Sign me up.  I'm hoping it's not just another "Munchausen by Proxy" narrative.  Here's where you can see the trailer.
 Honeymoon--Leigh Janiak (2014)

Why a couple would take their Honeymoon in the middle of some scary woods is beyond me, but it's nice to see Rose Leslie in any role, even if she's bloody and creepy.  I'm hoping the film is not solely from the male lead's POV , and as the director is a woman, its probably going to be far more complex than some marriage cautionary tale. Twitch really liked it.  The trailer has a nice aura of menace in Janiak's directorial debut, which premiered recently at SXSW.

I really like the poster too.  Creepy!

Predestination--The Spierig Brothers (2014)

After really enjoying the Spierig Brothers' previous efforts Undead (2003), and Daybreakers (2009), I was definitely excited about their third feature, even though it involves that well-worn plot device--time travel.  I haven't seen a trailer, but here's an interview with the directors about their new film, which received raves at SXSW.

Han Gong-Ju--Su-Jin Lee (2013)
I have seen so many incredible Korean films, with 2010's Poetry immediately springing to mind.   Han Gong-Ju has been called "devastating" and a "hidden gem," so I was suitably intrigued by this film that delves into the title character's dark past.  The trailer conveys the film's mysterious melancholy.

The Midnight Swim--Sarah Adina Smith 
A film about women, written and directed by a woman, with strong supernatural elements and a creepy atmosphere of dread!  I am so excited for this film's world premiere at Fantasia, and hope this debut turns into a major calling card for this director.  The trailer is awesome.

The Man in the Orange Jacket--Aik Karapetian 2014
I was on the fence about seeing this film, but it's the international premiere of a Latvian horror film all about class warfare.  Some of the images in the trailer are quite stunning, so I was persuaded. 

The clincher is that this film is screening with Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Seventh Code (2013), which I really want to see, so I figured that I'd mix in some Latvian horror as well.

The Creeping Garden--Tim Grabham and Jason Sharp (2013)
If someone had told me that I would be buying a ticket to a documentary on slime mold at Fantasia, I probably would have laughed in their face.  Here's the convincing blurb from the Fantasia program:
"The true stars of the doc, though, are the slime molds themselves, their uncanny activities vividly captured through a combination of microscopic photography and time-lapse techniques. Enriching the otherworldly atmosphere conjured up through Grabham and Sharp’s imagery is an appropriately subtle yet unsettling score by post-rock icon Jim O’Rourke (Tortoise, Sonic Youth, GRIZZLY MAN, UNITED RED ARMY). Among the strangest and most thought-provoking entries at Fantasia this year, THE CREEPING GARDEN opens a window on a wondrous new realm of discovery, reminding us that the world we think we’ve mastered still holds amazing secrets to unlock."
Sounds cool, right?  The trailer's just as cool, and the soundtrack is simply amazing.  Here's the film's official site.
Guardian--Helfi C.H. Kardit (2014)
I teach a course that explores women in action films, and to be utterly cliched, this film looks like a "non-stop" thrill ride.  Women with guns, car chases, rocket launchers.  Indonesia has gained some attention with action films like The Raid--this film looks like uber-violent kinetic entertainment at its best, and with women as the focus.  Here's the trailer:

At the Devil's Door/Home--Nicholas McCarthy (2014)
I truly loved McCarthy's first feature film The Pact (2012).  That film combined all the things I love about horror: a woman protagonist torn between possible supernatural forces and her own incipient madness.  As soon as I heard about At the Devil's Door, I was monitoring its release.  I am so delighted that the film is screening at Fantasia...I'm pretty sure I'm going to love it.  This director is a master at creating haunted, dread-filled spaces.  It will be on demand in a couple weeks, but I cannot wait.  Check it out.

The One I Love--Charlie McDowell (2014)

Ever since I was mesmerized by Jane Campion's Top of the Lake, and Elizabeth Moss's marvelous performance, I have been eager to see her in almost anything else (despite the fact that she's a Scientologist).  To some extent, here's another "marriage in trouble...let's go into the woods to fix it" drama, but one never knows what's lurking in the woods.  Hopefully some scary or at least weird sh**. When a blurb or description of a film hints at a "twist" but will not give anything away, I'm intrigued.  The film premiered at Sundance.  Fun fact: Charlie is the son of Malcolm McDowell.  You can see the trailer here.

The House at the End of Time--Alejandro Hidalgo (2013)

Touted as the first Venezuelan supernatural thriller, this film rides that delicious line between madness and hauntings, with a woman at its center, unraveling a house's mystery.  The poster's pretty cool, and spells out what's to be expected.

While the trailer provides many horror tropes, the Fantasia programmers insist that it's not your average haunted house movie.  The film has to be better than The Conjuring.

Dys--Maude Michaud (2014)

Love the catchphrase for this movie.  Is it a zombie apocalypse film?  A dysfunctional relationship turned violent film?  A serial killer film?  A cannibalism film?  Let's hope all of the above in Maude Michaud's feature directorial debut.  While the film is showing in the smallest theater, Michaud hails from Canada, so the film will likely be sold out.  When I picked up my tickets, already half of them were gone.  Lots of estranged couples with dark secrets in the line-up this year (or at least my chosen line-up).  Here's the trailer.

The Drownsman--Chad Archibald (2014)

A woman's truly crappy friends decide to cure her phobia of water (stimulated by her near death), by "drowning" her in a tub.  Bad idea, girlfriends.  I know, the premise in and of itself is problematic, but ever since I got a peek at this film and trailer, I was excited to see it.  The only justice is for the creepy "Drownsman" to kill all of Madison's crappy friends.  Heh.  The film is having its World Premiere (whoo!) at Fantasia.  The trailer has some really vivid imagery.


Real--Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Kurosawa's Pulse (2001) is one of my absolute favorite J-Horror films--truly a stunning visual and narrative achievement (yes, it was remade in the U.S. with Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) which is unfortunate).  On that film alone, I am partial to Kurosawa's films, and Real dedicates itself to questioning that word and its meanings (like Inception, The Matrix, etc.)  The trailer is so cheesy though, I hope I haven't made a mistake.  Sigh.


Housebound--Gerard Johnstone (2014)

My second foray into the horror comedy genre is New Zealand's Housebound, which master of the genre Peter Jackson describes as "brilliant." The premise is that our heroine is stuck under "house arrest" in a haunted house.  Fantasia describes the film as non-stop hilarious, so I'll give it a chance.  Interesting how both the "horror-comedies" that I'm seeing are about adult children forced to go back and live with their parents.  Yeah, that sounds pretty horrifying--for the parents.

Frank--Lenny Abrahamson (2014)

I have a Michael Fassbender problem.  No matter what role he plays, I inevitably think he's hot, even if he's playing a troubling role.  In Fish Tank, where he plays a borderline rapist pedophile--HOT.  In X-Man: Origins where he plays the evil Magneto (before he's quite so evil)--HOT.  In Shame, he's a sex addict who seems to have an unseemly attraction to his sister--HOT!  I haven't seen 12 Years a Slave because...well you know why.  So, a film where he is always hidden behind a giant creepy mask?  Yeah, I'll still think he's hot.  I'm all over that.  (Oh, and if you want to see prime young MF, you should watch the BBC's Hex).

Closer to God--Billy Senese (2014)

Cloning has really taken off in popular culture lately, especially with television shows such as Orphan Black (if you haven't seen it yet, what ARE you waiting for??)  Shows such as Extant and The Lottery also explore contemporary reproductive technologies.Yet humans meddling with science is a well-worn theme in horror, with many variations on the Frankenstein mythos.  One of my recent favorites was Vincenzo Natali's Splice (2009).  These stories of arrogance and misplaced hubris always slip wildly out of control.  This film will be no different.  Yay!


When Animals Dream--Jonas Alexander Arnby (2014)

This highly anticipated Danish film received widespread positive reviews at Cannes, and its narrative hints at the coming of age/burgeoning sexuality/werewolf narrative that made a film like Canada's own Gingersnaps (2000) so powerful. The film is also being compared to the Swedish Let the Right One In (2008), which doesn't hurt.  The trailer is absolutely incredible. 

Ju-on: The Beginning of the End--Masayuki Ochiai (2014)

I love the Ju-on series, so I didn't have to really read about this seventh edition to want to see it.  I'll never forget seeing Takashi Shimizu's first Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) in a theater in Los Angeles, and being utterly freaked out and scared out of my mind.  The remake wasn't bad, but it just wasn't the same; I had similar issues with Nakata's Ringu.  The cultural specificity of these Japanese films inflects their atmospheric fear and dread, and I prefer the originals over their U.S. remakes.  So I'm excited to see my favorite creepy long-haired woman and little boy ghosts running around, wreaking havoc on everyone who encounters them.  One doesn't even need subtitles to get the gist from this trailer.

The Five--Jung Yeon-Sik (2013)

Korean filmmakers have mastered the art of revenge, as Chan-wook Park's Vengeance trilogy so ably demonstrates.  The Five has that dark, twisted aura, where an elaborate scheme perpetrated by five misfits will see justice served very, very cold.  Twitch mildly complains that the film is a "showcase of style over substance," but that take makes it even more appealing to me.  I'm seeing this film on the last day of the festival, and hopefully I will not be too burned out by then.  More to come!