Sunday, September 26, 2010

John Carpenter's THE WARD


Poor John Carpenter. The one-time maestro of malevolence cooks up his first feature-length fright flick in a decade and ends up inadvertently playing second fiddle to Martin Scorsese. It's bad timing and worse luck—don't blame Carpenter for the eerie, unflattering similarities between his latest and the year's other 60s-set insane asylum thriller. Blame him instead for everything willfully derivative about this uneasy cocktail blend of tired ol' genre tropes. One part supernatural slasher flick, two parts shaggy dog ghost story, The Ward commences with a baptizing fire, the farmhouse blaze set by brainy beauty Kristen (Amber Heard). Her mysterious act of arson gets her thrown into the girls-only loony bin, where she grapples with both primitive practitioners of mental health (led by an amusingly evasive Jared Harris) and a murderous spectral hag. What do her fellow, marked-for-death patients know that they're not letting on? And what connection is there between this rousing round of Ten Little Indians and Kristen's own troubled past?

If you can't put the pieces together faster than this amateur Nancy Drew, chances are the baldly-telegraphed big reveal of Shutter Island snuck up on you, too. Thing is, that hoary bit of hokum, predicated though it was on an exceedingly predictable twist ending, at least offered a boundless bounty of virtuosic aesthetic wonders. The same can't really be said for The Ward, which is handsomely made but completely bereft of memorable set-pieces. Working again in theatrical widescreen, Carpenter glides through the halls and the corridors of his haunted hospital—a fairly convincing period milieu, achieved on a very restricted budget—with the voyeuristic guile of Michael Myers. If but he had such a dread-inducing boogeyman at his disposal; this generic ghoulie evinces scarcely a shudder, and JC reduces her paranormal activities to a series of dully repetitive jump scares. Like Dario Argento, another over-the-hill prince of darkness, he seems to have lost the maliciously magic touch. Which is a shame, because there's enough potboiler potential in Carpenter's basic set-up—and enough gumption in his game cast of inmates-cum-victims, an all-girl variation on the usual cuckoo's nest of eccentric basket cases—to inspire visions of the enjoyable shlock that could have been. Forget Shutter Island. I would have settled for the passable pleasures of Halloween 2.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

TIFF10: 127 HOURS


In the summer of 2003, Aron Ralston, a young mountain-climber hiking alone through the deserts of Utah, fell feet-first into a narrow canyon. His arm pinned in place by an enormous boulder, Ralston spent several days alone in the darkness, fighting off dehydration and starvation, until... well, either you know how this incredible true story ends or you don't, and I'll be damned if I'm going to spoil it for you if you don't. It basically comes down to a dude, a rock and the barren, unforgiving desert––hell of an elemental yarn, but also not a particularly cinematic one. I can think of a select few filmmakers I'd entrust with adapting this trial of darkness to the screen. Imagine the man vs. nature(/self) parable Werner Herzog could spin out of Ralston's headline-grabbing hardships, or the Gerry-style existential nightmare Gus Van Sant might have cooked up.

There's one name, though, that my mind would never leap to. One director whose modus operandi seems fundamentally at odds with the dreadful stasis of Ralston's ordeal. That would be Danny Boyle, everyone's favorite ADD-inflicted auteur, fresh off the endless round of high-fives he earned for his supremely overvalued (and Best Picture winning) Slumdog Millionaire. Danny Boy, you see, he's a runner. The guy can't sit still. One of modern cinema's premiere speed freaks, Boyle gets off on bodies in motion, on foot races, on the fevered pursuits of junkies, hood rats, and murderously mad ghouls. He can't even tell a story at a normal clip; he's always skipping forward and backward in time, getting lost in daydreams and digressions. The mere notion of Boyle training his jittery, impatient gaze on someone literally stuck in place boggles the mind. But here it is, his 127 Hours. There's half a really good movie here. The other half's a Danny Boyle movie.

It starts like some kind of Slumdog victory lap, in song and dance and color and commotion. Boyle got the whole gang back together––this new paean to perseverance shares a screenwriter, a composer, a cinematographer and lord knows who else with its celebrated predecessor. Ralston, played by a never-better James Franco, enters the film like he's training for the X Games. Boyle, meanwhile, seems to be auditioning to direct Mountain Dew commercials. So obnoxiously boisterous is the film's protracted prologue that when Ralston finally takes his fated plunge, and then is greeted at the dusty bottom by the delayed arrival of a title card, the sudden stillness is genuinely jarring. (We're as shocked as he is, in a sense.) It's enough to instill hope that this might morph into the meditative one-man-show it begs to be.

In fits and starts it seems to almost get there. Stuck, to paraphrase the nonfiction novel in which the film is based, between a rock and a hard place, Ralston goes into problem-solving mode. But the more he tries to think his way out of the situation, the more it dawns upon him what dire straits he's in. There's a breathless fascination to these scenes, one owed almost exclusively to the fortitude of Franco's performance. He plays Ralston as a kind of cocksure broheim––amiable and resourceful, but also so invested in his loner-chic self-image that his wilderness adventures read as a handy way to keep a safe distance between himself and those around him. Simon Beaufoy's screenplay underlines this subtext with a bit too much clarity; like outdoorsy half-cousin Into the Wild, 127 Hours defaults to no-man-is-an-island truisms in its heart-tugging homestretch. Franco, striking an impressive (and precarious) balance between good-natured goofiness and suppressed panic, anchors the film's pretensions. "Sweet!" he declares to himself after retrieving, via inventive quick thinking, a dropped instrument. Our sentiments exactly.

The chief problem here is that Boyle can't not be Boyle, and his usual tics and tricks, trotted out for no good measure, register as pure distraction. We should be stranded down there in the dark with Ralston. We should feel the minutes, the hours, the lonely days spent in that private prison, that pit of despair. Boyle instead slices and dices the action into fevered montage. He offers us constant, bet-hedging reprieves: a fantasy sequence here, a flashback there, any and every opportunity taken to skitter out of that cramped space. The director's incessant need to turn every stand-alone moment into a toe-tapping music video undercurrents the suffocating intensity of Franco's tour de force. It's auteuristic self-sabotage at its most egregious.

If there's one single moment where the separate aims of performer and director seem to converge, it's the visceral climax. Boyle slyly foreshadows this last act of desperation, and he pulls no punches when it comes to executing the deed, in all of its peer-through-closed-fingers graphicness. It's beastly catharsis––in no small part because Boyle lets us feel Franco's pain, and his steely conviction. I wish that he didn't slumdog all the rest; somewhere out there, in the ragged raw footage of Franco at the bottom, is 127 hours of the movie that could have been. We'll have to make do with this curiosity: an unapologetic crowd-pleaser about a guy who gets trapped under a boulder and, in a mad grasp for survival, resorts to... well, either you know or you don't.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

TIFF10: Wavelengths #3 - RUHR


"Challenging," is how a slightly tipsy James Benning introduced his new film, Ruhr, to a packed house on the second night of Wavelengths. "I'm not really ready to watch it again," he confessed, before ducking off into the night. Curious, that none of us took pause; we couldn't say we hadn't been properly warned. When the director himself has expressed wariness about re-watching his own movie, you know you're in for something... less than immediately accessible. Ruhr, Benning's follow-up to the much more kinetic RR, is one of those rigorous formal exercises that seems to come to life only in the subsequent essays, arguments, conversations and theoretical elucidations it inspires. Only afterwards, when freed from the shackles of the film's punishingly unbroken gaze, does artistic engagement seem possible. But during? All you can do is gawk––in stunned fascination, in mind-melting tedium, or in some unholy combination of the two.

And I'm a James Benning fan. The documentarian as endless explorer/negotiator of cinematic space, he orchestrates movement and action within static frame lines better than anyone since Tati. That he does it without actually really orchestrating anything––his focus is always on real human objects interacting with real spaces, ostensibly free of intervention––marks him as one of the most sophisticated visual artists working today. His compositions are the filmmaking: how and where he sets up, from what angle and for what amount of time. He is, in essence, bending unfiltered, un-staged reality into clockwork poetry. There's no one in the crowded modern doc scene doing anything like this.

As in RR, Benning's endlessly inventive ode to trains and tracks and locomotive disruption, Ruhr unfolds as a series of lengthy, meticulously-composed still shots. Its locations are all real places: an expressway underpass; an industrial factory; a woodland overlooking an airport; a Muslim mosque; a graffiti-tagged wall; a quiet residential street; and a chemical plant, spewing noxious gas every twenty minutes or so. The connective tissue is supposedly the steel industry; all of the sites patiently looked upon here are somehow related, directly or tangentially, to the production of the precious metal. Benning may be intensely interested in processes––he's as obsessed with the inanimate as Frederick Wiseman is with the craft of flesh and blood people––but his work is far less intent on presenting information than it is in changing the way we look at things.

In Ruhr, Benning encourages us to approach the movie screen like one would a painting in a museum. By excising all but the most infrequent traces of movement––neither the frame lines nor the objects contained within them move much––he forces the audience to begin studying every corner, crook and cranny of a shot, for lack of anything else to occupy its attention. The element of time takes this a step further. You can walk away at any point from a picture in a museum; the captive moviegoing audience has no such escape, short of simply calling it quits and walking out of the movie. (Which wouldn't be a first at a Benning screening.) When there is movement in Ruhr, it arrives with the appetite-satiating enormity of an action set-piece. The director lulls us into a dazed stupor, only to disrupt the quietude and stillness with a sudden intrusion. (A car zooming by, an airplane flying over, etc.) Benning is after a radical redefining of how we watch movies.

At just seven shots, there are about six times less cuts in Ruhr than there were in the comparably dynamic RR. This makes an enormous (relative) difference; even a viewer wowed by the compositional wonders of the earlier film might balk at the lingering languidness of this new vision. Where Benning stumbles––or, as some will stubbornly insist, gloriously triumphs––is in the endless second hour. Having dispensed with his first six locales at the 60 minute mark, he devotes an equal amount of time to one single shot: that coke plant, looming large roughly in the center of the frame, ever so occasionally releasing a billowing cloud of yellow fumes. It's a beautiful image––and, for all but the most patient of zen cinephiles, one hell of an endurance test. If the first half of Ruhr succeeds in training us to look longer, harder, and with more clarity, the paralyzingly static second half abuses that imperative. Look at something for too long, for this long and it tends to lose all shape and meaning. Trapped in a filmic purgatory––Benning's Empire, in Warholian terms––my only solace was the shared disbelief of my fellow filmgoers. I can't speak for the whole lot of them, but I heard a lot of asses shifting in seats. And this, mind you, was the same crowd that hungrily devoured the first two programs in this uncompromising series. James Benning: brilliant artist, complex thinker and equal opportunity patience-trier.

Monday, September 13, 2010

TIFF10: Wavelengths #2


If there's any kind of connection to be made between Friday and Saturday's Wavelength programs––beyond, of course, the studio-free singularity of their visions––it lies most clearly in differing concepts of "home." Wavelengths #1 took the longview: the city as home, a sprawling space shared among strangers, a looming landscape of glass and steel and mortar that our souls themselves get tangled up in. The films of Wavelengths #2, subtitled "Plein-Air," found home in smaller places: in an old barn, in a cluttered workspace, in the smile lines of lovers and kin. If these works felt less major, less immediate in their impact than those of the previous program, it's because they were scaled to concerns of a more personal pitch. This was cinema not of grand ambition, of statement or bold declaration, but of fleeting, flickering emotion. No rising or falling buildings here, though a bush did burn, loudly if only abstractly.

In so much as there was a "headline attraction" among these endearingly compact pictures, Canada's own John Price deserved marquee top-billing. His aptly titled "Home Movie" was a jittery, overstuffed scrapbook tribute. There's a whole subset of avant-garde cinema devoted to the adorable offspring of experimental filmmakers; Brakhage's odes to his children are some of his most tender and vibrant works. Price, shooting on all old Russian camera, serves up an anything-goes smorgasbord of restless tricks and techniques. He keeps trying new things: mixing stocks, speeding up and slowing down the frame rate, solarizing the images, etc. On the soundtrack, volume seems to peak and flatline depending on how close Price's intrusive lens gets to its subject. (When he zooms in on the family cat, the beast's purr rumbles like a motorboat.) At the center of this lengthy sensory feast is Price's young children, their voices perpetually caught in song, their faces superimposed in the grain, as if burned into the very soul of the celluloid. It's a deeply sentimental picture––how could it not be? Still, Price's affection is tinged with a bittersweet aftertaste. The expired film stock he shoots on reflects the transitory nature of things; these kids will grow up sooner than later. Filming their childhood actually creates a record of its imminent passing.

That fleeting, ephemeral sense of time and place––that feeling that what we're watching could dissipate in the open air if we look away for even a second––similarly informs the other major highlight of the program. "Portrait, Teetrinken, Roter Vorhang," a Super8 mash note from Helga Fanderi, seems to operate as a blinking collection of stolen glances. It unfolds in a rapid succession of jump cuts, each brief shot capturing a different, impossibly specific tic or mannerism. Add them together and you've got an emotional spectrum in fast forward. You've also got little more than the ghost of a person––only who this man was in the then and there in which Fanderi shot him. No buildings crumbled or fell over these 80 odd minutes, these seven scraggily intimate films. It was mostly just lives that disappeared into the ether, shot by shot, frame by frame. Phantoms of a subjective past, welcoming you home. Or whatever remains of it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

TIFF10: THE FOUR TIMES


It's one of the incomparable pleasures of attending a major film festival: walking in blind to something you know virtually nothing about and being completely floored by it. In an age of media saturation, where even a no-budget oddity like After Last Season can get trailered on Apple.com, the ground zero of a fest screening is the closest one gets to filmgoing in a vacuum. I'm being a touch misleading: The Four Times, which I caught yesterday afternoon, isn't exactly an out-of-nowhere transmission. It played the Director's Fortnight at Cannes, where it delighted and entranced enough folks to earn some screenings here in Toronto, as well as a few at Telluride and NYFF. Thing is, that's all I knew about the film going in. Coming out of it, my brain curled around a number of nagging questions, not the least of which was: who the hell made this thing?

That'd be Michelangelo Frammartino, an Italian filmmaker whose only previous credit appears to be a Euro-festival fave called The Gift. He seems here to have emerged from the artistic womb fully formed; there is a grace, confidence and aesthetic prowess to this beguiling little picture that belies its "new director" pedigree. Blurring the line between pin-drop-quiet character study and observational documentary, Frammartino hones in on a quiet village in southern Italy, where a lonely old shepherd inches closer and closer to the grave. Where the film goes from there I won't say, except to note that it bears a superficial resemblance, in pure premise at least, to another TIFF entry playing later in the week.

Once you figure out what The Four Times is up to––and I did in a single shot, the first point of fissure, the transition between the first and second "time"––you realize how simple its narrative/structural gimmick is. And how radical: the film's break into two isn't just a jarring POV shift, it's a disruption of the secular "realism" that the movie has heretofore clung to. (Any suspicion that this might just be an unassuming docu-sketch of a dying old man goes straight out the window with the introduction of the second and––especially––the third "protagonists.") And though Frammartino is exploring a very specific tenet of a very specific faith system, he intersects the film's arc-as-spiritual-journey with small, clever allusions to eastern and western theology--a passion play on the march, cover taken under a giant tree for many seasons, etc. Such mixing and matching of religious signifiers speaks to a rather endearing faith in the shared links between our creation myths.

In the age of Carlos Reygadas and the Dardennes––who make punishing "spiritual" allegories aimed at atheist film critics, Reverse Shot once quipped––Frammartino's non-denominational parable hits you like a warm breeze. This may be the most playful religious picture since Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis. And the audience ate it up, spellbound by its quiet stretches and totally tickled by its inspired comic intrusions. (There's a long take involving a dog, a truck and the aforementioned marching passion play that ranks among the funniest and most ingenious single moments I've seen in years.) That a mixed crowd at a public screening sat utterly enraptured through this strange and completely wordless picture is a testament to its otherworldly power. Now why hasn't it been picked up yet?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

TIFF10: Wavelengths #1


"This is my favorite program of the festival," says 67-year-old Thom Andersen, standing onstage alongside five of the other six contributors to this year's first Wavelengths presentation. He adds, for sardonic good measure, "these are the real movies." It's vintage cantankerous wit from the director of Los Angeles Plays Itself, that outstanding, three-hour ode to the titular, misunderstood metropolis. It's also, more than likely, a dead on assessment. While scores of festival-goers flock to star-packed gala screenings and high-profile Hollywood premieres––many for movies that will be released commercially in the coming weeks or even days––TIFF's avant-garde showcase, now in its tenth year, seems like the fest's first and last stop for genuinely radical/challenging cinematic fare.

And last night was just the first of six such screenings, all taking place in the cozy contours of Jackman Hall, located within the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Fellow wayward Chicagoans take note: as with our very own Gene Siskel Film Center, the front row's got the best seats in the house.) Aptly dubbed "Soul Of the City," Wavelengths #1 was a mostly-stellar collection of urban mosaics, vastly disparate in tone and execution, but possessed of a shared interest in space and movement within architectural frame lines. Parallels between these seven movies ranged from the thematic (outrage regarding gentrification and the destruction of old building) to the formal (dividing the city of choice into squares and rectangles, into windows and pockets).

Andersen was, of course, the closest the program slate got to a household name, even among avant-garde enthusiasts. "Get Out of the Car," his 30-minute dissertation in miniature, played third––pity the films, just a bit, that had to follow this funky scrapbook/mash note to a forgotten city. Andersen picks up where he left off in Los Angeles Plays Itself, chronicling a part of L.A. the movies rarely depict or acknowledge––desolate streets, abandoned buildings, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, body shops that looks like strip clubs, strip clubs that look like body shops, etc. He trains his lens chiefly on signs and billboards, some of them weathered and faded and torn, others left miraculously intact despite the fact that the businesses they're advertising for have long since gone under. The soundtrack is a jukebox shuffle of street sounds and 60 years of L.A.-based music, ranging from Dylan and Guthrie to obscure blues and mariachi records. (Knowing Andersen, all of these were probably used without permission; maybe the short will be included on the Los Angeles Plays Itself DVD, scheduled to be released sometime between now and never.)

Funny and bittersweet, "Get Out of the Car" eventually reveals itself to be a sly tirade against the white-washing of local color and culture. Andersen fights back through empowering fantasy: we see nary a glimpse of the "new L.A." he's implicitly raging against, just oddly anachronistic signposts of a Land That Time Forgot. (Though most of the footage was shot in 2009, this could very easily be L.A. circa 1989.) Andersen's talent for digging up elaborate, hilarious, and oddly beautiful mural-style storefronts––most of them in predominantly Latin American neighborhoods––makes this a more sincere ode to street art than Exit Through the Gift Shop. It's also a loose and self-deprecating corrective to Thom's reputation as a cranky old cinephile. Caught filming a bare billboard, he offers up some vague missive about the power of absence, to which the bemused passerby quips "You make a movie about something, you give me a call."

"Get Out of the Car" arrives like a jolt of joyous, jazz-infused adrenaline––especially right on the heels of Dominic Angerame's silent, morose "Soul of Things." I know one film critic who thinks this is the dirty dog of the program; it feels to me too modest in its melancholia to register as any kind of offense. The only silent and black&white picture of the bunch, Angerame's short––a docu-sketch of a construction team at work, tearing down and building back up––is also the only selection that actually, historically embodies the "city symphony" mission statement of the program. It's roughly, perhaps even clumsily assembled but hypnotic in its solemnity. Its images of construction and destruction evoke the devastation of post-war landscapes. That aligns it neatly, thematically with both Andersen's film and "Everywhere Was the Same," a dread-infused lament for Palestine from Basma Al Sharif. She was the only filmmaker not in attendance––a pity, as this was maybe the film most in need of some serious elucidation. Its textual juxtapositions, setting vacation picture slides of abandoned buildings to the poems of an oppressed people, reminded me a great deal of latter day Godard. Anyone miffed that Film Socialisme screened without subtitles might have gotten their baffling and/or dazzling fix of poeticized politicks right here.

Callum Cooper's "Victoria, George, Edward & Thatcher," a speed-demon portrait of a neighborhood shot entirely on an iPhone, passes in an intoxicating blink. The most formally adventurous of the bunch was probably "Landscape, semi-surround," by Tokyo-based filmmaker Eriko Sonoda. I'm really not qualified to explain exactly how the hell Sonoda achieved the effect that she did here. A lingering look out the window of a moving train is multiplied by 16, neatly aligned into a block of squares, hung on a wall like paintings in an art gallery, painstakingly painted over frame by frame and toggled forward and backwards. So complicated is this formal experiment in frame manipulation that Sonoda herself, speaking during the Q & A session via a game translator, seemed rather unsure of how to explain her process. No matter: one could get lost in the stunning effect without understanding the cause. When the film suddenly and awesomely began to shift into a complicated musical number, you could hear minds blowing all across the packed, hushed auditorium. (As to how this is mostly rural travelogue qualifies as a "city symphony": search me.)

I assume home town pride was the driving force behind making Oliver Husain's "Leona Alone" the closing chapter of this unusually strong program. After all, it's the only one of the seven films to hone its peepers on the city of Toronto. Ironically, it's more of a haughty, accusing glare than an adoring gaze; self-described "Euro snob" Husain inserts an ornate glasswork between himself and the gentrified neighborhood he scowls upon. It struck me as a fairly obvious piece of work, long before Husain plainly explained it to all of us on stage. Andersen's would have made a more fitting climatic number.

Or Tomonari Nishikawa's. "Tokyo - Ebisu," which opened the program (and was thus the first movie I saw at Toronto) may have been the most spellbinding of the entire group. Using 29 mattes––one for every station in Tokyo––Nishikawa turns the daily commute into a bustling collision of bodies and trains, ghostly superimpositions creating multiple planes of overlapping human traffic. (Ozu would approve. As would James Benning, whose Ruhr plays in this same theatre later tonight.) I often feel as though I've spent half my adult life on commuter trains. The jaw-droppingly beautiful "Tokyo - Ebisu" speaks directly to that impression. Among these city symphonies, it's the one that most evokes what it actually feels like to live in a big city. On my first night of ten in an alien metropolis, it danced its way into my dreams. Top that, TIFF.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Link of the Day: Sufjan Stevens, ALL DELIGHTED PEOPLE


Greetings from the Great White North. About one hour ago I touched down in the fair city of Toronto, bright-eyed and beaming, ready to embark on my first major festival tour of duty. In some shape or capacity, I've attended (and sporadically covered) every year of the Chicago International Film Festival since 2004. But let's be real for a moment: (a) the CIFF hasn't been a particularly "major" film festival for decades, and (b) even though I live in Chicago, and some of those screenings are blocks from my home or work, I can never actually devote the kind of time necessary to properly and exhaustively "cover" the fest. Which is to say, I've maxed out at 12 screenings at CIFF. I've got about 30 lined up for TIFF. And it's my goal to write about all of them.

Check back here for daily updates starting tomorrow. In the meantime, here' a rare music review to tide you over: Sufjan Stevens' 60-minute "EP" All Delighted People, for In Review Online. It ain't no Illinois, but they can't all be the album of the decade can they?