Fantasia 2016 Review: Realive

When screenwriters turn towards directing their own features, the case is often that they can make their talkiest screenplay into a film. This is not necessary a bad thing at all, especially considering the case of Mateo Gil’s new science fiction tale, Realive (aka Proyecto Lazaro). Here is a film which asks a lot of astute science fiction questions around death and resurrection as our twenty-first century medical science advances towards growing organs, rejuvenating the body with stem cells, and cryogenically preserving the dead or the dying in the hopes that they may be attended to in the future. The corporation at the heart of the film’s Lazarus Project has a witty tagline that demonstrates some of the nuanced qualities of the screenplay, “Immortality is only a question of time.”

You are probably familiar with Gil’s work if you have watched any of Alejandro Amenabar’s cerebral but scary films, from Tesis to Abres Los Ojos (remade with Tom Cruise as Vanilla Sky) to Oscar nominated The Sea Inside and the criminally underrated sword and sandals flick on mathematics and religion, Agora. Gil is to Amenabar as Alex Garland is to Danny Boyle. And the adroit, glossy and verbal Realive is certainly Gil’s Ex Machina.

Structured in three layers, the film examines the case of Marc Jarvis, the first man to have his body pulled out of Cryo and re-constructed to the point where he can be paraded out in front of investors to further justify private company funding for perhaps the immortality of the human race. Much of the film is set in 2086, and involves the medical processes, and complications, in rehabilitating Marc’s body while acclimatizing his mind to 70 years of progress. Marc’s nurse explains (and demonstrates) that attitudes on sex and relationships have significantly changed in the 7 decades he was absent, and the film teases us with demonstrations on the way the internet is now fully audio-visual, and offhand mentions that nobody gives a shit about pulling oil out of the ground for energy or raw materials. Oh, and t-shirts have no neck-bands on the anymore.

Because the film is as much about the humanity as it is about the science, a second, quite significant, layer of the films structure spends a fair amount of time with Marc in 2016. He deals with the fallout of being diagnosed with cancer in his mid thirties, and the tough decision with his fiancee, here, exceptionally played by Game of Thrones‘ red wedding bride, Oona Chaplin, to commit suicide to preserve his body in the best possible shape for the slim hope that the freezing process will work, and that the company will last long enough until such a time comes to resurrect and heal the disease. The emotional crux of the matter, handled with lots of time and energy in the film, are potentially months of lost last days in Marc’s voluntary and pre-mature death. Upon his awakening, there is the anxiety that everyone he has ever had any ties will may be gone. Marc makes jokes over wine to his friends when he announces the decision, “I’ll be sure to fuck all your grandkids!” But, the levity is a cover.

There are several strata of anxiety on display here, both big picture and on an individual level. Science of course, does not work perfectly, nor free of the unexpected, and being an early test subject, Marc suffers immensly in his new body. Fans of Showtime’s exceptional medical inquiry show, The Knick, or those who may remember a certain scene from Alien: Resurrection will have a field day with how Realive understands that science, in execution, is a messy process of trial and error and far more disappointment than elation. Success is just failing not as badly. There is a classical mix of hubris and fear that has driven scientific speculation in popular art for centuries. A more daring step by Gil however is to make Marc neither the hero type, nor one who necessarily rises to the occasion of his own trail. This puts him in line with the characters of Ridley Scott’s vastly misunderstood Prometheus, where the so-called heroes were kind of shallow fuck-ups, with little self awareness of their own limitations.

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Fantasia 2016 Review: Shelley

A classy, atmospheric take on the hysteria of new parenthood, Ali Abbasi’s Shelley wears its influences boldly on its sleeve (and right there in the title), only the Frankenstein’s monster here is a baby born by way of our modern medical miracles.

Louise and Kaspar are a thirty-something couple well along in their successful twenty-first century careers. They have chosen to live in the pleasant isolation of a picturesque lake (pregnant with islands) in the Danish countryside. Enabled by their wealth and privilege, they grow their own food and even forgo using electricity for the sake of simpler, slower living.

The only thing missing from their life is that they cannot biologically have children. When a young Romanian housekeeper, Elena, arrives on their dime and quickly bonds over wine and intimate conversation, Louise appeals to her to act as a surrogate mother. The delicacy of such an interaction is not lost here, and some of the films best work takes place in the psychological set-up between two very different women.

I have no doubts these kinds of proposals happen in real life and perhaps they go professionally and smoothly as they possibly can. When they happen in the movies, any astute viewer knows things will not go anywhere near according to plan. The offer to Elena is thus: instead of her working for them for two or three years in Denmark, they will give her enough money to afford to return to her own young son (and extended family) with enough money to buy an apartment in Romania and make a step up in her current family lifestyle. Elena would need to lend her womb for nine months or so to one of Louise’s frozen eggs thereby artificially inseminated by Kaspar’s seed, and carry a child to term for them.

The director establishes the misty lake countryside early in the picture (blessedly bringing back the slow zoom!) perhaps to evoke the insular isolation where Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley hung out for the summer in 1816 with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and a few others whereby she conceived her iconic novel on the modern Prometheus. She effectively realizes Elena and Louise, the former, a practical minded but open girl and somewhat experienced mother who quietly scoffs at Louise’s license towards spiritual healers, crystals and other new-age paraphernalia.

Elena’s patience begins to be seriously tested as Louise starts to take over responsibility for her body as the baby grows. A glass of wine or snuck cigarette, a rash or even Elena’s weight sizzle with conflict, and the tension between whether or not to go to doctor is palpable. Who owns what in this transaction of bodies and life?

Louise’s perceived anxieties over new motherhood in someone else’s body starts to push the tone towards a favourite cross-cultural, upscale freak-out film of mine in recent times, Magic Magic. However, in a bid that fails to address so many consequences of this first and second act build, the writer-director seems to say, to hell with the consequences, I’m going to pack another film in the final act. Now I like that other film, in fact, I’d love to see another hour of that other film, but really, I question the motives and intent to not deal with what is so elegantly set up in the initial core thesis of the film.

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Trailer: Trainspotting 2

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From now on, when I say “T2”, I’m not talking about shapeshifting robots and time traveling assassins. I’m talking Sick Boy and Danny Boyle.

There really isn’t much to go on here other than an announcement, but it’s nice to see the four guys back together again. I’m really hoping Kelly Macdonald makes an appearance as well. Normally I’d be skeptical about something like this – and there have been a lot of “something like this” as of late – but for me, Danny Boyle is a go to screenwriter/director that can do (almost) no wrong. So I have faith in this cast and crew to make T2 something special.

I sort of wonder if Boyle and co. can go back and capture the gritty, independent spirit that the first film had to make it somewhat of a cult classic. Afterall, Boyle has been pretty glossy ever since then and something this dark hasn’t been part of his repertoire for some time. But hey, like I said, I have faith. Anyone else excited for this?

DVD Review: Solaris

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay by: Fridrikh Gorenshteyn, Andrei Tarkovsky
Based on a Novel by: Stanislaw Lem
Starring: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 160 min
Year: 1972
BBFC Certificate: 12


The next port of call in my journey through the work of Andrei Tarkovsky takes me to Solaris. It’s probably the director’s most well known and popular film, but at the same time it seems to be his most divisive. Some critics have cited this as the film where Tarkovsky’s style began to get too philosophical and slow for its own good, with a couple claiming the philosophies lean towards the cod end of the spectrum. It’s views like these that made me a little apprehensive about watching the film (and reviewing it for that matter). However, I’m determined to work through all of his films being re-released and would like an opinion on them, even if it’s a negative one, so the other night I found myself sitting down in front of the projector to check Solaris out.

The film sees psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. It is believed the crew has gone insane and he is sent to confirm and find out why, possibly destroying the station afterwards if it is irredeemable. Once on the station, he finds that one of the crew members has committed suicide and the other two seem emotionally unstable. The problem on board soon becomes apparent when a woman appears in Kris’ quarters who seems to be his recently deceased wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). This isn’t a mere ghost or dreamed memory though, she’s physically there in the station with him and the others can see her too. This embodiment of his wife doesn’t share Hari’s memories though, or at least not more than a few fractions to make her seem like Kris’ wife. She isn’t a mere shell either – although not human, she has her own thoughts and feelings, which Kris’ fellow crew members give little regard to. They refer to her and the other ‘guests’ on board as things they should cut up and analyse, even when Hari is in the room with them.

Kris realises this isn’t his wife straight away of course and initially tries to dispose of her, tricking her into a rocket and firing her off the station. However, another version soon appears so he realises he can’t get rid of this painful memory and instead learns to embrace it, mentally and physically. He grows too attached though and neglects his duties on the station, instead suggesting he stay on Solaris with Hari (3.0) forever.

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Cinecast Episode 449 – Gravitational Slipstream w/Ryan McNeil

With Kurt still on a four week vacation, we call in our designated hitter, Ryan McNeil of The Matinee podcast to talk all about the latest in the Star Trek franchise from Justin Lin and co. Andrew turns the tables a bit on Ryan with a second round of his patented “Know Your Enemy” questions and we dive into quite a bit of television watching in The Watch List, which includes a lot of love for Netflix Studios’ “Stranger Things.” We also reminisce on Cameron Crowe, Miles Davis and even with the DePalma retrospective on hold, we dive into some of his early filmography as well, with Blow Out. Thanks so much to Ryan McNeil for riding shotgun this week and we’ll be back next week with Bourn, a Fantasia Film Festival recap and the continuing adventures of Brian DePalma directing Casualties of War.

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As always, please join the conversation by leaving your own thoughts in the comment section below and again, thanks for listening!

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Trailer: Wonder Woman

wonder-woman-BvS

About 3/4 of the way through Batman v Superman (which was not very good by the way), Bruce Wayne finds an old photo of Wonder Woman hanging out with some soldiers that looked to be from World War I. I noted to my wife that one of those guys sure does look a lot like Captain Kirk. Well, this explains that then doesn’t it.

 

Review: Star Trek Beyond

stbeyond-posterDirector: Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow, Annapolis, Fast & Furious 3-6)
Writers: Doug Jones, Simon Pegg
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Roberto Orci
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 120 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


Star Trek Beyond, the third film in the rebooted version of the long-running series spearheaded by mastermind and all-around geek legend J.J. Abrams, is distinguishable from its predecessors for two important reasons. First, it’s been released in 2016, which marks the 50th anniversary of the franchise, five decades since it all began with Gene Roddenberry’s original television series starring William Shatner and the late Leonard Nimoy (who receives a touching tribute in the film’s closing credits, as does the recently departed Anton Yelchin, who reprises his role in the film as crew member Pavel Chekov). Second, it isn’t directed by J.J. Abrams. Although the leader of this new incarnation of these iconic characters does remain on board as producer, he quickly departed the director’s seat in favor of that other epic space saga (the one he not so secretly always favored), and was replaced by Justin Lin, who is most known for directing four of the Fast & Furious films. Both of these things have a heavy influence on Star Trek Beyond, and both tie in to the way that the film takes a more grounded, less spectacle-driven approach that feels different from what Abrams had done with the series, while still very much within the same spirit.

Any time you get three films into a series, you should have a pretty good idea as to what works and what doesn’t. Whether it’s from critical or fan response, or just seeing the final product yourself, you can see the places where you want to try and keep things the same, and where you should maybe think about changing it up a bit. It’s no secret that the first two films in this new trilogy, particularly the second, received some heavy backlash from the hardcore fanbase over what they felt was a betrayal of the spirit that Roddenberry had originally envisioned this franchise as being. It’s not surprising, really, as Abrams has always favored big spectacle and cinematic wonder over anything else, so the larger social and political themes were somewhat abandoned in his explosive popcorn blockbusters. Those worked for some people, myself included, but they weren’t necessarily what Star Trek was all about. With Abrams gone, and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof replaced by Doug Jung and Simon Pegg (another geek legend and self-confessed Trekker, as well as actor in the series) on script duties, Star Trek Beyond makes a noticeable effort to return things to where the series started, stripping down the bombast in favor of a more analog, character-driven take.

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Fantasia 2016 Review: I, Olga Hepnarová

At one point over the course of this haunting and difficult film, the lead character is reading the Graham Greene novel, The Quiet American. She highlights a passage from the novel that is the lynchpin to understanding the unanswerable questions left after the experience of watching the film. “Time has its revenges, but revenge seems so often sour. Wouldn’t we all do better not trying to understand, accepting the fact that no human being will ever understand another, not a wife with a husband, nor a parent a child?”

One of the primary function of movies is to act as an empathy machine, a vehicle to allow us to understand and live in the skin of someone who we are not, or a situation so far from our own to help us broaden our understanding about the human condition. Thus, it is interesting when filmmakers challenge and constrain themselves by bucking against the natural tendency of the medium to make a film that takes empathy off the table.

One might point the the films of Michael Haneke as the most obvious case in point, as his films are stark, often oblique exercises in detached intellectual or historical (or both) circumstance culminating in brief, sharp moments of violence. Scholar Elsie Walker has a wonderful video essay that underscores Haneke’s approach, particularly in films like Funny Games or Cache, are actually, ultimately, exercises in empathy, not lack thereof. Perhaps The White Ribbon, with its chilling portrait on the root psychology of 20th century madness. Perhaps. There is certainly a shared look, the crisp, precise black and white cinematography, that brings us to Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb’s I, Olga Hepnarová.

A cinematic re-creation of a famous female killer in the Czechoslovakia who ran down 20 plus innocent bystanders in her truck just to declare that the world was not fair to those who are different. This is truly a task in non-empathy, and, I would argue that is a quite one successful insofar as I do not recall such direct confrontation of certain ideas handled in this forthright a fashion, even in films such as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant or Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, perhaps the films closest analogues.

I, Olga Hepnarová pushes further in examining its central character the havoc she eventually wreaks. The film forces the viewer to face the fact that society will not, cannot be perfect, and innocent lives will suffer for this. Shaded with the recent, similar, incident in Nice, France, the film is a difficult viewing to say the least, and this is certain the intention.

The real life Olga Hepnarová declared, during her death sentence hearing, in 1973 that she was of sound mind, and that she knew exactly what she was doing. And that she wanted this to be a lesson to treat people nicer, or folks are going to be run over by people like her (“If they kill me, my crime will have greater value.”) The film uses transcripts from her letters and court hearing verbatim. This has the curious effect of explicitly stating a thesis and flat out explaining it to the audience, and violating another sacred rule of cinema, that of ‘show don’t tell.’ I, Olga Hepnarová shows and tells, and the blunt, leave nothing to the imagination telling is part of the confrontation matrix that the filmmakers are clearly striving for.

Opening in a state of funk in her well off existence, Olga is shown to immediate confront her family, and throw disdain on just about everything. Her mother choses to fire back with almost a challenging vitriol, Czech tough love, upon her first suicide attempt.

This is all starkly visualized with static, soundtrack free shots that take place entirely in the frame (think Swedish director Roy Andersson’s precise and boxed in mise en scène stripped of humour and rendered in sharp monochrome). While some camera movement does eventually work its way into the picture, the camera is mainly fixed in the manner that makes us stare, and the passage of time seem slower.

Michalina Olszanska, about a hundred and eighty degrees from her sensual, exuberant and larger-than life turn in The Lure, here is shown as waif-thin, tomboyish and striking with her bobbed pixie cut and subtle body language. She smokes cigarettes throughout the movie as almost a way to have something to do while casting scorn in all directions. It followers her from a privileged home where she attempts to poison herself and gets verbally castigated by her mother instead of a wordless hug. This might be out of tough love, but it feels, to this viewer at least, well enough on the wrong side of good parenting.

Easy judgement and oversimplification (judgement in shorthand) are some of the worst, but nevertheless real faults of the human condition; a small but systemic malfunction that can have serious consequences. The point is not lost that Olga will continue to poison herself, at least figuratively, when she is placed in a mental hospital for girls, before graduating to halfway house and finally working as a truck driver.

Each relationship and human interaction trails off into awkward discomfort (or flat out judgement by both sides). This is not Olga’s fault, nor is it completely the fault of those around her, these situations in life never are, but rather a combination of her psychopathic distance and a subtle sensing of this by would-be lovers (of both genders), coworkers or friends.

Olga is not bullied in what we might think of as the ‘conventional way,’ albeit there is however one scene early on that does speak to shades of Brian De Palma’s Carrie. People, mostly likely those in the audience of the film as well, simply do not know how to interact with her. And, ironically, it is their attempts at kindness, or at least tolerance, that cause the problem; a classic case of failure to communicate.

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