Saturday, 13 September 2014

TIFF 2014 - A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence

How do you review or even talk about a movie that you've eagerly (very eagerly) been waiting to see for 7 years? A movie that brings deadpan to new levels of dead? A movie that packs in little bits and pieces into carefully constructed frames with long shots and no camera movement? A movie that closes a trilogy on the "human condition"? I'm not sure, but I do know that I loved it. Every single static shot, every single pasty white face, every single line delivery, every single bit of marvelous set design and every single surprising image that helps build up Roy Andersson's thesis about our species.

My affair with Andersson's set of masterpieces (I truly do not bandy that word around easily) began with his 2000 film Songs From The Second Floor which seemed to gives us a singular view of purgatory. Operatic singers on subways, constant traffic jams and people laying in wait in fields make up a world that seems disconnected from the rest of humanity. The colour has been drained away from the walls, the clothing, people's faces and life itself. No one cracks a smile, but there's plenty of humour throughout (a lot of it dark) and moments of simply glorious cinema. Andersson followed this up seven years later with 2007's You The Living - a film that almost made me burst out in tears at the simple beauty that was right in front of its characters but being missed on a daily basis. It's a movie that excoriates those who choose to complain and whine about things they don't have, pine for things they can't have and ignore what they already have. Again, the static scenes force your eyes to roam the landscape of these constructed sets and rooms and pick up on Andersson's themes while also laughing at the intrinsic head-slapping obliviousness of humanity. It's punctuated by a set of scenes near the end that moves from a funeral to a honeymoon train trip to a woman in a bathtub singing that remains one of my favourite stretches in all of film.

So what about A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence? The third and last installment follows the same style as the previous two (thou there's less pastel blues and greens this time out) while it works its way through what are essentially sketches that are loosely tied via characters - in particular a pair of entertainment gadget salesmen (the "classic" laugh bags are a popular product) who simply want to bring fun to other people even though they seem to take no joy in it whatsoever. There seems to be little fun for any of the inhabitants here though. They all seem to be chasing something with little regard for other people or wallowing in their own self-pity - instead of occasionally reflecting on their lives and the possibilities (like we presume the pigeon is doing as it pops up on the soundtrack occasionally).

Two key brilliant (and completely different) scenes cement this film for me...Firstly, a bar scene set in 1943 as the owner/bartender Limping Lotte croons a sales pitch to her customers about dollar shots to the tune of "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah". The military men at the bar sing back (using the same tune) that they would like a drink but have no money so what are they to do? This sets up a back and forth as Lotte smilingly sings back that all she requires is a kiss if they are willing...And they are willing...It's such a wonderful depiction of how humans can interact, can be kind to each other and can create these moments of wonder that I grinned like an idiot throughout it. Contrast this with the section "Home Sapiens" from late in the film - it starts with a monkey receiving electro shocks from an uncaring technician and follows it with a human rotisserie for slaves that, as it roasts them inside, creates music for the pleasure of the aristocracy. It's a moment that sucked the air straight out of the audience's lungs. An almost paralyzing silence came over the crowd as we were shocked and disgusted at this ridiculous concept - while also knowing that things equally as pointless and horrific have occurred in reality.

Which is the beauty of Andersson's films - through absurdity, humour and the occasional stunning image, he brings you both the warmth and the horror of humanity. And leaves it up to you what to take away. There's nothing else like it.

TIFF 2014 - Whiplash

Whiplash ends with possibly the most bracing cinematic moment of the year. A concert, some drumming and one helluva great resolution to the battle between the film's two main characters. The music, the editing, the performances of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons and the entire rhythm of the scene results in a glorious and almost breathless conclusion - one that made me, at scene's end, let out a pent up "Yeah!". I never do that, but simply couldn't help myself.

But I'm getting ahead of things...Damien Chazelle's Sundance jury winning film (which won the audience award too) delves into the freshman year of Andrew Neyman (Teller) as he enters the renowned Schaefer Music school to study drumming - specifically jazz drumming. Based at least somewhat on Chazelle's own personal experiences with the drive to be the best and the constant pushing by teachers and rival students, the film focuses on Andrew's unhealthy relationship with his teacher Terence Fletcher (Simmons). Andrew is desperate to please him as it would be a sign that he's the best. He dreams of one day joining the legions of jazz greats and leaving behind a legacy. Fletcher, for his part, recognizes immediately that Andrew is a talent and brings him into the main performance band, but is relentless in his verbal abuse, intimidation and belittlement. Fletcher believes this to be the proper tactic to find the gems, but the relationship starts taking its toll...

Simmons is a powerhouse here. It's a surprise to no one of course, but he is on fire in just about every scene with his eyes burning, insults spewing and his physical presence filling up the frame. Those insults thrown mostly at students have their own rhythm and almost feel like improvised drum fills with pauses and staccato punches. Teller is terrific too (he obviously has drumming talent to go with the acting chops) as he descends into obsession. The music throughout the film is tremendous and comes in fits and starts, sharp bursts and long workouts. The title tune is a standout and gets replayed several times as the band practice it and Fletcher has them redo parts over and over and over (he doesn't discriminate who he tortures). The drums drive the film forward with a distinct pulse through raucous periods, through tension filled moments and even through a few of the quieter sections. It feels like the perfect vehicle to represent the insistent drive for perfection that consumes these characters. They may never reach it, but it's possible the film itself did.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

TIFF 2014 - Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler is essentially a perfectly crafted film. As it tells the story of naive scammer/thief Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the film never once seems to hit a sour note or lag its pace. Through our initial intro to Lou, some fleshing out of his character, his discovery of a new possible career path and the film's gradual shift to action and cynicism, there aren't any dead spots or moments where you might question the film's direction. It's not due to any attempt to dull the audience's senses through too many fast paced cuts or loud obnoxious songs, but simply because the damn thing is so incredibly engaging from start to finish.

Lou is a con man and thief who seems to get most of his ideas and conversation points from Internet education videos. After a few of his failed attempts at getting work (using his "selling skills"), he stumbles one night on a car accident scene and witnesses some freelance videographers taking footage of the wreckage and carnage. He learns that you can make money doing this by selling the videos to TV stations. He asks the videographer Joe (Bill Paxton) for a job and is rebuked. Being the "hard working individual" that he is, he decides to go it alone and buys himself a cheap camera (from the proceeds of a theft). Of course he makes a mess of it initially, but Lou has a unique skill - he learns from his failures and builds on them. After getting a sale with one of the stations, he starts to develop a relationship with the news producer Nina (Rene Russo) and becomes more aggressive at getting the kind of footage she wants. Knowing that "if it bleeds, it leads", he gets a police scanner, an assistant named Rick (a great and very entertaining turn by Riz Ahmed) and aims for success.

As he gets better at it and even beats Joe at his own game, the confidence begins to build and the film picks up steam. He turns Joe down flat when he's offered a partnership with him, spouts corporate platitudes to Rick (of particular note is his "performance review" to Rick which is both hysterical and depressing because of how accurate it mimics a corporate training seminar) and gets himself a bright red Mustang. When he manages to get to a crime scene at a private residence ahead of the police, he doesn't hesitate to enter the house and get fresh footage of the victims lying in their own pools of blood. He also happens to get the criminals on tape as they flee, but he holds on to that video for his own purposes and doesn't even share it with the police. One might say that his moral fibre is of the flexible variety. Things escalate at this point and the film has numerous scenes of delicious tension and one major set piece of action so perfectly created that the audience at my screening deservedly broke into spontaneous applause at its conclusion (it's so good that you don't realize you've been gripping your chair the whole ride). The film has little good to say about U.S. TV journalism, but does so in a manner that still manages to find an inciteful point of view. It's not a happy one, but what news story is these days?

TIFF 2014 - Scarlet Innocence

A common statement about Korean cinema is that its films seem to be able to change genre and tone on a dime and do it better than just about anyone else. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise when the tone of Scarlet Innocence changes dramatically somewhere around the end of the first third of it. And yet, after being lulled into what could have been a low rent melodrama with cliche situations, the turn in the film towards high rent juicy melodrama with brighter colours, sweatier lust and lots of vengeance is not only unexpected, but so very welcomed.

It's not that the opening third is dull or boring, but it seems very conventionally set up to be a straightforward drama as checkboxes start getting ticked off. The story begins with a disgraced teacher moving to a small town to begin again and a student who starts to develop a crush on him. It evolves as you might expect and does so with a slow pace and decently constructed characters. It feels like it's building into a standard soap opera - nothing overly compelling, but still enough to keep the interest level from waning. But just as you think you've properly slotted the one note tone of the film, it shifts several gears at once - pretty much stripping the transmission completely. The single scene that accomplishes this precedes a jump forward of several years and suddenly the palette is more vibrant, the score more of a presence and all the emotions seem pitched higher, louder and broader. And it becomes a great deal of fun.

Suddenly there is betrayal, scandal, gangsters, gambling houses and all manner of bad behaviour. It also stops feeding you the story and expects you to keep up, fill in the details yourself or just sit back and give the director some confidence that he'll get you caught up soon enough. If the plot elements start getting a bit sillier, it's forgiven given the new context of the film as top notch melodrama (with perhaps a bit more brutality than Sirk may have used). And all this from an ancient Korean story of a daughter's devotion to her blind father...Seriously, you just never know where Korean cinema is going to wind up.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Before They Got Big...

After being cooped up in a cottage for an entire week (not that I'm complaining), I went on a bit of a movie bender and dove into some titles from the 60s and 70s. Almost as much fun as watching these films (and I was treated to some great stuff) was spotting some future stars in very early film appearances. Here's a quick run down of a few I stumbled across...

Donald Sutherland (in "The Bedford Incident")

This fine and surprising maritime thriller had some awesome talent in it: Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Martin Balsam, Wally Cox, etc. It also happened to contain one of the very first film roles for this young Canadian lad. Nothing to really indicate his future career, but he manages to get in a few smirks.

Peter Bonerz (in "What Ever Happened To Aunt Alice")

OK, so he may not be a big name nor even a very recognizable one, but Bonerz's role as dentist Dr. Jerry Robinson on The Bob Newhart Show (a major component of my childhood) is an old favourite. So it was nice to see him (even if just a scant few years before that classic sitcom started) in this entertaining and blackly comic suspense film. He looks so baby-faced.

Christopher Guest (in "Deathwish")

Speaking of baby-faced kids, you can definitely buy Christopher Guest as a rookie cop in this scene near the end of "Deathwish". Not a lot of room for improv, but I'd like to think the outtakes between him and Vincent Gardenia were gold.

Olympia Dukakis (in "Deathwish")

Though she never gets a full on view of her face in her single scene, her voice has a nice dose of attitude as she provides an update to a police detective bullpen. You could tell. You could just tell she had something...

Jeff Goldblum (in "Deathwish")

It may have been my least favourite film of this bunch, but it sure had a great ratio of future successes in its secondary cast. After witnessing his performance as "Freak #1", though, you likely would have been hard-pressed to guess that Goldblum would be one of the ones to break out.

Joan Rivers (in "The Swimmer")

Though already known as a comedienne from TV, this was her first speaking role in a film. Both she and the scene are a bit awkward, but the entire film is profoundly odd, so it worked out well.

Bruce Dern (in "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte")

Along with Hitchcock's "Marnie" in the same year, this was Dern's first big screen appearance (after several years on TV). And look at him now...