Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Ode to Cronenberg by Way of Saramago

(Denis Villeneuve, Spain-
Canada-US, 2014, 90 mins.)

If a reporter were to ask random people on the street to name the individual who scares them more than anyone else in the world, they would be likely to receive a wide range of responses, from movie monsters to brutal dictators, but it's unlikely that anyone would point to themselves and say, "Me." Yet that's the premise with which French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve begins this psychosexual thriller, a loose adaptation of José Saramago's 2002 novella The Double.  

A bearded Jake Gyllenhaal, who appeared as a dogged detective in Villeneuve's suburban-set Prisoners, plays both of the central characters, starting with Adam, a disheveled history professor in Toronto (for once, the city plays itself). He has a decent job and a pretty blonde girlfriend, but something isn't quite right; he has trouble maintaining focus in class and his relationship with Mary (Beginners' Mélanie Laurent) seems a little perfunctory, though it's hard to say if there was ever any real heat there.

One afternoon, a colleague recommends a local comedy he thinks Adam might enjoy--and the guy definitely looks someone who could use a laugh--but it has the opposite effect. While watching the video, Adam spots an actor in a bit part that looks exactly like him, and becomes obsessed.

He starts by figuring out the actor's name, and then he poses as Anthony to get more information about him. It's clear, at this point, that Adam has crossed a line, but he can't seem to help himself. He calls Anthony to ar-
range a meeting, but gets his pretty blonde--and pregnant--wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), on the phone instead. Since the men share the same voice, Helen thinks Anthony is playing a trick on her. Though her husband is initially reluctant, he eventually agrees to meet his doppelgänger. 

Villeneuve opened the film by depicting a private sex show in which a naked woman threatens to crush a brown recluse with her stiletto (for better or for worse, it plays like an outtake from Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut). Once Adam discovers his double, the spider imagery intensifies. Though the director and co-writer Javier Gullón added the creatures to Saramago's text, it works, not least because the special effects are convincing. 

Much of the rest of the film, however, feels more like an ode to the body horror of David Cronenberg, though some of these similarities may be more coincidental than not. Nonetheless, Villeneuve didn't just shoot in Toronto, he used locations that appeared in Stereo and possibly even Crash. He also called on Gadon, who appears in Cosmopolis and his son Brandon Cronenberg's first feature, Antiviral. Then again, it only makes sense to dip into Toronto's talent pool when filming in the city.  

There's also the distinctive look of the film—cold and clinical—and the tone—so humorless that it's humorous (DP Nicolas Bolduc created the washed-out palette in-camera rather than through post-production).  

Then there's the concept of doubling which powers Dead Ringers, though Villeneuve never reveals that Adam and Anthony are long-lost twin brothers, but he leaves the possibility open, since they both have a scar on their abdomen. As with Jeremy Irons before him, Gyllenhaal has to pull off two roles or risk sinking the film. He does, and that helps to keep it afloat. If anything, he gives a better performance(s) in Enemy than he did in Prisoners in which he played an intriguing, if underwritten character. 

[spoiler space]

Not to give too much away, but I think the solution to the mystery lies in Cronenberg's adaptation of Patrick McGrath's Spider, in which Ralph Fiennes sees a whole lot of things that aren't there. The very title of that book and film seem like a dead giveaway, particularly in light of Enemy's surfeit of spiders, but Villeneuve's bizarre Walker Brothers-scored ending is tantalizingly inscrutable. As a longtime Cronenberg fan, I should probably be offended, except the Torontonian has been moving away from body horror for awhile now, so it was actually kind of enjoyable to see someone else pick up the mantle--at least for the length of one film

Enemy opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown and Sundance Cinemas on Mar 21. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear Has a Sting In Its Tale

Vic + Flo / Kimstim Films
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear / Vic + Flo Ont Vu un Ours
(Denis Côté, Canada, 2013, 95 mins.)

Seattle filmmaker Robinson Devor has described his second feature, Police Beat, as a “blue and green noir” (as opposed to his period debut, The Woman Chaser, a full-on black and white effort).

I recalled that term while watching Denis Côté’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear as the Québécois director is up to something similar in his seventh feature. 

After serving time for a crime that Côté neglects to disclose, 61-year-old Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille), a tall woman with a penetrating stare, leaves prison only to find that her Uncle Émile, who's now confined to a wheelchair, isn't in the best condition to receive house guests. With nowhere else to stay, she moves into his bungalow. As a mute, Émile lacks the means to say no, but he gives no indication that he wants her to leave.

Vic, Guillaume, + Flo / Kimstim Films
Guillaume, a parole officer (Goon’s Marc-André Grondin, virtually unrecognizable with a bald pate), checks in on Vic twice a week. He's pleasant enough, but she lies when she says that her brother, Yvon, still inhabits the house, which abuts a neglected sugar shack. Yvon's presence represents a condition of Vic's parole, but he's just left town with his new lady love.

Vic's lie seems likely to backfire, though Côté, who directed the tonally analogous Curling, keeps things more matter of fact than portentous--not counting the jungle drums, but he keeps even that effect to a minimum.

Vic's bisexual girlfriend, Florence (Romane Bohringer from The King Is Alive), soon joins the mix--as with Yvon's lady, Flo appears to be several years her junior. Guillaume continues to pay surprise visits, and puts things together quickly enough, but opts not to report any improprieties. 

Though Vic tells Flo, "I'm old enough to know that I hate people," she gets along well enough with Guillaume and Marina (Marie Brassard), a flirtatious local, though Nicholas (Olivier Aubin), a neighbor, doesn't believe she's taking proper care of Émile, and lodges a complaint with social services. At this point, Côté also introduces an African American gentleman who has a way with guns and guitars. The feeling that this community is about to collapse on itself grows every time someone new enters the scene.  

Should they stay or should they go? / Kimstim Films
The relationship between the two women shifts when Flo's shady past catches up with her. If Vic doesn't make a few changes to her living situation, she threatens to hit the road. And even if she does, Flo still might flee, since she expresses more affection towards Vic than passion, but where I expected someone to shoot or get shot--Checkov's Gun and all--Côté heads in another, more metaphysical direction. Still, the impression of a noir transferred from the hub-bub of the city to the quiet of the forest remains. And in this forest: there are hunters and there is prey.  

It pains me to say it, but I didn't really like the ending, which recalls Curling to some extent, except Côté isn't going for "likability" (and I haven't yet caught up with his previous film, Bestiaire). In this instance, however, he presents two endings which play alongside each other: the thing that happens and its aftermath, but it's actually rather generous of him, since you can take one and leave the other, or ponder the way they work together. In either case, he ensures that viewers considering a trip to rural Quebec will think twice--if they don't change their plans altogether. 

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear plays the Northwest Film Forum through Mar 20.  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Great Beauty Is Gorgeous and Exhausting

Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty / Janus Films
The Great Beauty / La Grande Bellezza
(Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2013, 
142 mins.)

In his Golden Globe-winning film, Paolo Sorrentino, writer-director of the fantastically baroque Il Divo, turns his penetrating gaze from an Italian leader, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, to an Italian city, Rome. 

Both films are cynical, yet gorgeous, which might sound like an oxy-
moron, except I choose to go with his flow, a compelling combination of bravera camera work, artfully selected music cues, and playful perfor-
mances (I missed his English-language debut, This Must Be the Place, which looked like a misfire what with Sean Penn in Robert Smith drag).

Sorrentino's take on The Eternal City presents its leisure class in a manner that recalls Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, though things get so grotesque at times that he slides into Luis Buñuel or Terry Gilliam territory, especially when he depicts a frenzied grade-school action painter or a gaggle of wealthy dowagers waiting for Botox treatments at a dramatically-lit nightclub (to SoundOnSight, Sorrentino demurred, "
La Dolce Vita is a masterpiece. La Grande Bellezza is only a movie").  

Poster image from Midnight Marauder
The novelistic narrative revolves around 65-year-old man-about-town Jep Gambardella (Il Divo's Toni Servillo), a 21st-century successor to Marcello Mastroianni's suave, linen-clad journalist, Marcello Rubini.

Despite having only one novella to his name, Jep lives in a stunning, crane-festooned apartment overlooking the Roman Colosseum. When he isn't attempting to interview conceptual artists, he naps, drinks, parties, and gossips. When accused of misogyny, he claims he's a misanthropist. 

I'm not sure that either claim is true. If anything, Jep seems genuinely interested in people, just not especially invested (later in the film, it transpires that he's still mourning a lost love). During the expansive running time, he cavorts with a stripper and a socialite, and he doesn't make idle promises to either one. Further, he reports to a female editor (Giovanna Vignola), and he doesn't take issue with her gender--or with her stature (she stands three feet high).

Consequently, I didn't find the film as cynical as some viewers, but it didn't knock me out the way I expected it to either. If anything, the repetition of certain themes and visual images--the nuns, the tourists, the empty conversations--becomes wearying after awhile, though this may have something to do with the fact that I watched it over the course of several weeks (and in two different states) due to a hard drive crash and a hectic holiday schedule. Where other people saw a movie: I saw a miniseries

As ever, though, Servillo is terrific, and he's reason enough to see the film, which also received an Oscar nomination. I've been wrong before, but I predict a win, and I hope it inspires moviegoers to catch up with previous Servillo titles, like the chilling Gomorrah. If The Great Beauty didn't cap-
ture the Rome I got to know, however briefly, in 2009, Servillo has come 
to represent his country now as surely as Mastroianni did in the 1960s.  


Because Seattle can't get enough of this thing, The Great Beauty is currently playing at SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave N) and Crest Cinema Center (16505 5th Ave NE) through 2/27. The Criterion Collection will be releasing the film on DVD and Blu-ray on 3/28. Extra features include deleted scenes; interviews with Sorrentino, Servillo, and screenwriter Umberto Contarello; and an essay from Phillip Lopate.

2/27 update: the film's run has been extended at the Crest through 3/7.  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bastards on Parade in Paris

Bastards / Les Salauds
(Claire Denis, France, 2013, 83 mins.)

With Bastards, Claire Denis returns to the shadowy, dread-filled filmmaking that characterized 2006's The Intruder (L'Intrus), which was also shot by the amazing Agnès Godard

She starts by showing the central characters going about their business, but without introducing them or explaining their connections to one another. Denis continues to withhold information throughout the film, doling out bits and pieces here and there, but always keeping a few crucial details to herself.  

After his brother-in-law, Jacques (Laurent Grevill), kills himself, Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon, who appeared in Denis's Friday Night and shares a countenance with Yves Montand), a coiled tiger of a tanker captain, returns from the Middle East to Paris to help out his sister, Sandra (Julie Baitaille). Sandra holds business magnate Edouard Laporte (aquamarine-eyed Michael Subor, The Intruder) responsible for her husband's death. 

Now the family business, which revolves around ladies shoes, is in shambles, and Sandra will have to file bankruptcy in order to avoid her debt to Laporte.
Marco proceeds to move into the same noirish, spiral-staircased building where Laporte's mistress, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), and their young son, Joseph, reside. A subtle sexual attraction develops between the two; the divorced man may be older than the single woman, but he's considerably younger than Edouard, so it's not too surprising when they embark on an affair, but it isn't clear whether or not Marco is just using her to get to Edouard.  

While the adults are dealing with their issues, Marco's teenage niece, Justine (Lola Créton, from Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard), ends up in a psychiatric facility due to her propensity to wander the rain-slick streets at night in the nude while wearing high heels, an arresting image, but not an especially persuasive one. 

The head psychiatrist (Denis mainstay Alex Descas) tells Marco that Justine has a history of sexual abuse, but she remains such a cipher that the disclosure fails to carry the necessary weight. Between Créton and Mastroianni, there's also a fair amount of nudity in the film, though the men remain fully clothed, possibly because they exert all of the control, but it still feels exploitative--even if exploitation lies at the heart of the story. 

Further, the narrative strands conjoin in a manner I found more dramatically than emotionally compelling (I preferred the open-endedness of The Intruder). This aptly-titled film is a chilly piece of work, and that includes the Tindersticks' score, which calls on more electronic textures than usual. Chilly isn't a bad thing when it comes to Denis, but after the warmth of 35 Shots of Rum, Bastards isn't the triumph I was expecting.  

Bastards plays the Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave.) through Nov. 21 at 7:15 and 9:15pm on weekdays, plus 5:15pm on Sat. and Sun. (click link for more info and to buy tickets).  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Something for Everyone

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
July 18-21, 2013
Castro Theatre

What drives an audience to the movies? Some viewers go to see beloved stars, some for insightful directors, and some for a good laugh. Has that changed since the advent of sound? Judging from this year’s lineup at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, running July 18-21 at the Castro Theatre, not much has changed at all.

Film stars started to draw progressively larger salaries during the silent period for a reason. Then, as now, a good actor provides the entry point for viewers into a fictional landscape that takes them out of their world and into adventure, and the 2013 festival offers one of the legends. Douglas Fairbanks grew to be a major box office draw throughout the world during the ‘20s with a series of swashbuckling period films, bringing to cinematic life the adventures of iconic figures like Robin Hood and D'Artagnan. The 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival affords attendees a chance to see one of his early films, Allen Dwan’s The Half-Breed (1916), recently restored through the efforts of the SFSFF and the Cinémathèque française.

Douglas Fairbanks half naked in The Half-Breed

Fairbanks plays Lo Dorman, the son of a Native American woman and an unknown white father. He lives among the redwoods on the outskirts of a small town, despised by the townfolks because of his ethnicity.  He finds fellowship when he encounters Teresa (Alma Rubens), a young woman hiding out from the law in the forest. The world they share inevitably collides with the mores of the town. Günter Buchwald will accompany the screening on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Buchwald has accompanied silent films for over 25 years, playing at silent film festivals around the world.

Certain directors, like Dwan with Half-Breed, use an impressive landscape and melodrama to depict human emotion. But some viewers choose their films based on the sensitivities of an insightful director who reveals the human heart of their characters through cinematic storytelling on a smaller scale. Yasujiro Ozu was a master of depicting ordinary people struggling with big but familiar circumstances, deftly blending comedy and drama for poignant results.

As with all of  Ozu's films, family is paramount in Tokyo Chorus.

In Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus (1931), a young insurance man stands up for an older co-worker who is neglected on bonus day, resulting in a humorously escalating tit-for-tat with his boss, at the end of which he loses his job. The film depicts his struggle to support his family during the economically tough times in contemporary Japan. Ozu delicately portrays the emotional hardships involved, not just the economic ones, as the family has to cope with the salesman’s loss of status as well as income. Günter Buchwald will again provide the musical accompaniment.

Sometimes what an audience desires most from a film is escapism provided by laughter, to have a talented comedian lead them into a madcap adventure from the security of their theater seat. In Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923), the small town everyman struggles to better himself financially by moving to the big city. Lloyd’s up-and-comer seizes opportunities as they arise with increasing risk of harm, mainly of the bodily variety. He is Ozu’s everyman thrust into a Fairbanks adventure.

Harold Lloyd running out of time in Safety Last

Ultimately, the desire to get ahead leads to one of the most famous and breathtaking stunts in movie history: Lloyd’s climbing the façade of a 12-story building and hanging precariously off a clock face, which starts slowly detaching itself from the building. Lloyd climbed the building himself; no stunt man and no cinematic tricks were involved. The Mont Alto Orchestra, a quintet dedicated to authentic silent picture accompaniment, will accompany the film.

There are, of course, differences between modern and silent era audiences. Contemporary viewers can watch movies in their homes, but much is lost in doing so. Watching films with an audience, laughing together, crying together, and being amazed together heightens each viewer’s individual experience. To see a film on the big screen of a movie palace immerses the viewer in a way that watching a film on a TV screen, even a 65-inch high definition model, can’t. Of course, now there are synchronized soundtracks to film, providing voices and a score. However, the silent films weren’t watched in silence; live music accompanied the films, adding enormously to the story unfolding onscreen. The SFSFF excels in bringing the best silent film accompanists from around the world to play for the films. The festival provides a chance to see silent films as intended: with an audience, in a movie palace, and accompanied by live music.

Visit the SFSFFwebsite for the full schedule, program notes and ticket information.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

An Englishman in Italy

2012, UK, 
92 mins.)

In Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, Donald Sutherland played an American in Italy, slowly going mad in the wake of a terrible loss. His wife (Julie Christie) was with him in Venice, but he was the one seeing the strange visions. Compared to Toby Jones, the lead in James Strickland's second film, Berberian Sound Studio, he was tall and stolid, whereas the diminutive Jones looks frail and vulnerable right from the start. 

Jones plays Gilderoy, a British sound mixer who travels to Italy in 1976 to work on The Equestrian Vortex, a giallo feature. Instead of opening with standard-issue credits, Strickland heads straight to the blood-red credits for the film-within-a-film as Broadcast's score fills the speakers (it features some of the last recorded vocals of the late Trish Keenan). Gilderoy's introduction to Santini's film doubles as our introduction to Strickland's.   

A specialist in 
television doc-
Gilderoy i
both surpris-
ed and unset-
tled to find 
that Eques-
trian has noth-
ing to do with 
horses. And 
that filmmaker 
Giancarlo San-
tini (Antonio Mancino) is rarely around. Instead, he works with impatient producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) on the sound design, which encompasses dialogue, sound effects, foley work, wordless singing, and music. 

Strickland, who shot the entire film in England, eschews exterior shots in favor of claustrophobic interiors filled with vintage recording equipment, like bulky reel-to-reel machines (whirring tape serves as a recurring motif).

Though the Italian crew speaks English, Gilderoy receives conflicting messages about the way things work at the studio. Money appears to be in short supply, and he comes to fear that he won't get anything at all. 

If his male colleagues can be boorish, he finds an ally in Sylvia (Fatma Mohamed), an actress who admires his work, but the misogyny of the project, which involves the torture of witches, starts to grind him down.  

As in the gial-
los of yore,  
those of Dario 
Argento, the 
scheme fav-
ors shadows, 
and everything is brown and gold with splashes of red--radishes, tomato sauce, and a flashing "Silenzio" sign--but Strickland avoids any scenes from the fictional film. The sound is the thing, and whenever the foley artists fail to show up, Gilderoy steps in to do their job.

Once he transitions from observer to participant, though, his sanity takes a trip, and Strickland blurs the lines between the studio, his dreams, his mother's letters, and the world of the film. They all join together as one. 

In its rigorous attention to sound, Berberian Sound Studio brings to 
mind Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Brian De Palma's  
Blow Out, cinematic predecessors that revolved around audio experts 
obsessing over the things they hear--or think they hear--on their reels. 

Is it significant that directors of Italian descent made those motion pictures? Probably not, but it's an intriguing coincidence, especially since Italy's Michelangelo Antonioni made Blow-Up, the British film that inspired De Palma's effort.

By comparison, Strickland has 
made a smaller movie, and the 
final sequence is so subtle that 
I didn't realize it was over until 
the closing credits began to un-
spool, and that's exactly how it 
should be. Just as Gilderoy los-
es the ability to distinguish fic-
tion from reality, I found myself 
letting go of my preconceptions about conventional thrillers to make way for a trickier proposition like Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio plays the Northwest Film Forum through July 11. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Before Bernard Herman: Rediscovering Hitchcock’s Silent Period

The Hitchcock 9
Castro Theatre
June 14-16, 2013

SIFF Cinema Uptown 
July 26-28, 2013 

Ivor Novello as  The Lodger (1926) 

San Franciscans will have a rare opportunity to see the British Film Institute's loving restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's earliest surviving films. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present The Hitchcock 9 June 14 through 16 at the historic Castro Theatre. The series illustrates the development of the master of suspense’s directorial style from his first film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), to the one he considered "the first true Hitchcock picture,"The Lodger (1926). While all these films have been on DVD or VHS previously (often transferred from public domain prints and with less than stellar soundtracks), this event provides a chance to see the films restored to their original splendor, in a single screen cinema, and accompanied by specially commissioned scores performed by accomplished silent film accompanist.

Director Alfred Hitchcock and star Anny Ondra have a bit of fun on the set of Blackmail.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a quintet dedicated to authentic silent picture accompaniment, will play for the opening night film, the silent version of the suspenseful psychological thriller Blackmail (1929). Originally produced as a silent film, British International pictures gave Hitchcock the go ahead to film a few sound sequences for Blackmail (a common practice during the film industry’s transition to sound). Hitchcock chose instead to create a second almost entirely sound version. Both were released, accommodating cinemas that had installed sound and those who hadn’t, resulting in a commercial success. Mont Alto will also accompany the boxing melodrama The Ring (1927) on Saturday and the closing night screening of The Lodger on Sunday.

As usual, the course of true love does not run smooth in The Farmer's Wife (1928)

Silent film pianist and composer Judy Rosenberg will perform her own scores for two films: The bubbly romantic comedy Champagne (1928) and the film adaptation of Noel Coward’s dramatic stage hit Easy Virtue (1927). The films play Saturday and Sunday afternoon respectively. The indefatigable composer, musician and BFI house accompanist Stephen Horne will play for the remaining four films, three of which he composed the scores for: Downhill (1927) based on the play co-written by the film’s star, Ivor Novello; the utterly charming romantic comedy The Farmer's Wife (1928); and the dark romantic triangle The Manxman (1929). Harpist Diana Rowan will join Horne for Manxman.  Horne will also accompany the backstage tale of two chorus girls (one bad, one good), The Pleasure Garden (1926).

A bad girl or a good one? The Pleasure Garden (1926)

Full program and ticket information for the SFSFF presentation of The Hitchcock 9 is available on the SFSFF's website. The series will also play in Seattle at the SIFF Cinema Uptown July 26-28. In addition, the series is set to screen in BrooklynLos Angeles Washington, D.C., Berkeley, Chicago, Houston, and Boston.  Each venue will feature differing line-ups of accompanists. The touring festival is a joint venture of the BFI, Park Circus/ITV Studios, and Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal.