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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Fantasia 2016 Review: In A Valley Of Violence

In Sergio Leone’s classic The Good The Bad And The Ugly, one of many iconic scenes involves a gunfighter sneaking up to murder Eli Wallach’s Tuco in the bath-tub. The anonymous heavy lost his arm in a shootout with Tuco in the opening scene of the film, and seeking bloody revenge, as is par for the course in so many westerns, he stops first for a smug monologue about how it took months to learn how to shoot with his other hand. As the grimy Italian blonde savours the reversal of fortune (again, a staple of this superb film) with words, Tuco turns the table because he has his pistol in the bath-tub. He blows away the smug, would-be killer through the soap suds. To the corpse, he lectures, “When you have to shoot, SHOOT. Don’t talk.” It would not surprise me in the slightest, if it was this scene alone that inspired Ti West to make In A Valley of Violence, a film that seems a full featured examination of what amounts to a throwaway 2 minutes in a 179 minute film. More recently, HBO’s Deadwood, The Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake, and the recent pair of Quentin Tarantino gunslinger film have set out to prove that excessively loquacious, but nevertheless savoury, dialogue is a wholesome part of the Western that bears at least some consideration.

Ethan Hawke plays civil war deserter Paul, who, after a Shakespearean styled prologue with a drunken Irish priest (Burn Gorman doing what he so wonderfully does) about the nature of where he finds himself, ends up nevertheless caught up in the local toxicity of a friable futureless village-slash-movie-set called Denton. He tries to keep his head down and sip his drink at the bar as the local blowhard and sadistic bully, Gilly (Generation Kill & The Wire‘s oily-but-wide-eyed James Ransome), who also the deputy and son of the town’s sheriff, picks a fight with him for no reason other than that Paul a stranger in a place that, you guessed it, don’t like no strangers.

Pestered to the point of violence, and equally important to the point of speaking (mainly to the audience) he says that he just wants to hang out with his preternaturally cute, Lassie-like, dog and make for Mexico to forget the horrors of the war. Anyone who has ever seen a western, hell anyone who has ever seen some movies, can spot what is coming a mile away. Don’t get me wrong though, the point of the film seems less about realistically defined characters or completely reinventing the wheel (West even shoots on 35mm film, although he favours 1.85:1 over cinemascope to keep things somewhat small) and more about playing with familiar tropes of the western. This auto-critique of the genre, whose often deadpan and straight-up approach to many familiar situations is sure to be abrasive to some.

Paul being forced to deal revenge to many of the denizens of Denton is without question a given in this sort of thing. As Paul reluctantly returns to town with guns a-blazin’, it is more through dialogue than gunfire that the showdown at high noon takes place. If there is a mission statement to In A Valley of Violence it is (as stated above) when to speak and when not to speak.

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Fantasia 2016 Review: The Lure

Mermaids are apparently popular again. Disney is currently remaking their animated hit as an expensive live-action feature, and Stephen Chow’s, The Mermaid ended up being an epic-sized cash-machine of a blockbuster in his native China. But whoa there now, here is a first feature, and one of the most confident film debuts, particularly for a style this tricky, to come along in some time. If you love weird yet meticulous filmmaking that is simultaneously both classic and fresh, then you are going to want to remember the name Agnieszka Smoczynska. Her deeply unorthodox adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson classic fairytale, The Little Mermaid, as a Polish period musical he has given the original title Córki Dancingu, literally translated to Daughter of the Dance, for domestic release, but for the rest of the worlds as simply called, The Lure, comes with a wheelbarrow full of superlatives: shocking! sexy! subversive! sublime! entertaining! visionary! And just plain catchy.

Smoczynska takes the classic, literal, fish-out of water tale, and places it in a burlesque club in 1980s Poland. When a family of musicians (whose main gig is to play back-up for the strippers at a night-club) discover two mermaids in the water while drinking and singing on the beach, they bring them aboard as part of their act. Sort of like adopting two new children, and drop them right in to soft-core sex trade. This hardly sounds like it could be the beginning to a mainstream hollywood film, but trust me, it kind of is. However, I doubt, if it were, there would be the scene where the owner casually examines the ‘tail-vagina’ on the one of the ‘maids and declares, ‘it is fishy, but I like it.’ Nudity and sexual hunger, both casual and intense, are rampant in The Lure, but because of Smoczynska’s acute sense of how to stage-dress, light, and shoot the film like an Blondie video on steroids, these things are not off-putting or controversial, they are part of the films sense of style and sensibility. Somewhere in Iceland, Bjork is going to see this movie, slap her forehead and say, “Shit! How did I never make this movie?!” Furthermore, if in 2016 you still need an argument for more women directors, well, here is another great one to put on the pile.

Michalina Olszanska (a major rising actress in eastern Europe, who for lack of a better explanation is a blend between Juno Temple and Kristen Stewart) and Marta Mazurek (here exquisitely channelling Sissy Spacek) play the pair of mermaids, Golden and Silver. They are, in essence, the aquatic version of twenty-something party girls looking for shits and giggles up for a quick stop in Poland before swimming onward to America. But Silver beings to fall in love with their blonde young band-mate, Mietek. She is strongly warned by her ‘sister,’ as well as another air-touring underwater creature named Triton, who looks like the Kurgan and rocks a riotous punk act in Warsaw. Unsurprisingly, Mermaids and Mermen are obviously great, charismatic singers-of-songs, and The Lure has a seemingly endless capacity for incorporating classic mer-mythology amongst the drama and the musical numbers. The crisis of the films (after a quick rise to fame) is that if Silver falls in truly in love, but the love is not returned, then she will cease to exist. In an honest, if not particularly wise, sacrificial gesture to earn the love of her bright young thing, she decides to remove her tail and become a human. (Wait for that set piece! It’s a serious OMG bit of genre craft!) The mermaids may want to fall in love human-style, but they are vicious, cunning, and selfish creatures when they want to be. They make no bones about it, and neither does the filmmaking.
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Fantasia 2016 Review: The Rupture

“Don’t fight it. Let it happen. This confusion is all part of the process.”

This advice is repeated, often in a beatific manner, by the mysterious group of captors who are intent on, among other things, helping the audience navigate the actual film. It has been a decade since Seven Shainberg’s previous film, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. He returns once again to defy expectations with, Rupture, a tight indie horror picture that poses big questions in a claustrophobic package.

Beleaguered single mom Renee is on the cusp of a get away from it all weekend, a skydiving trip with her girlfriend. After struggling with her son to get his homework done and drop him off at his father’s house, on the cusp of her weekend of freedom, her car is run off the road and she ends up strapped to a medical gurney in a laboratory compound in the middle of nowhere. In an alternating series of uncomfortable mind games by the mysterious cult of captors, and various escape attempts by Renee – who shows signs of impressive resilience under pressure – the film finds its rhythm in the three loud clacks of the heavy-door lock mechanism opening and closing between visits.

Noomi Rapace, an unconventional leading lady who often serves a spry chameleon on camera is no stranger to body horror. She endured one of the most wince-inducing sequences in recent mainstream cinema, namely the Xenomorph hysterectomy in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. This might have been a key reason for her casting as the resourceful Renee, who blossoms, in her way, as she is seriously fucked with, both mentally and physically, by her captors. She is restrained, caressed, cajoled, subjected mercilessly to her worst fear (arachnophobes beware, Rupture would make a skin-crawly double bill with Dennis Villeneuve’s Enemy) and bears witness to scenes that would not be out of place in a Saw sequel.

Shainberg’s approach is to keep the body horror in kind of a mellow holding pattern (shades of his S&M approach in 2002’s Secretary). He wants us to wallow in Renee’s predicament without the kind of transparent gamesmanship typically involved in these sorts of genre pictures. We are allowed time to consider some of the questions the film asks, while the ‘nuclear-candy’ colour palette keeps our baser visual senses simulated. Cinematographer Karim Hussain pushes the envelope of his neon-carnival-nightmare work on Hobo With A Shotgun, by wedding it to the more subtle frame composition of something like 12 Angry Men. As Renee’s world is forced into ever smaller spaces, so too does the camera, which becomes lubricated with sweat and blood to allow for the squeeze. Some of this careful work is undermined by a few moments of picture-breaking CGI, which took me out of the movie hard enough to think about the wrong question, “was there a simpler, better way to show a certain key image?”

Nevertheless, Shainberg and his co-writer, Brian Nelson use the frame-work of an ‘escape-room’ narrative to probe the extremes of the human condition. How fear and trauma can destroy, but under particularly delicate circumstances, it can also temper towards greatness. Rapace is game with what the filmmakers are aiming to put her through, and she is ably supported (or rather manipulated) by a rogues gallery of top performers including Peter Stormare, Lesley Manville and Michael Chiklis, all of whom chew the scenery on Qualuudes. Are they aliens, religious nuts, government think-tank operatives, or highly resourced self-help enthusiasts? In the end the reasons matter less than one might think. In this kind of filmmaking, it is all the same process, only Shainberg bends things towards his own idiosyncratic ends.

Fantasia 2016 Review: Terraformars

I learned something from filmmaker Edgar Wright a long time ago, when he presented Riki-Oh! The Story of Ricky. There is a certain kind of narrative silliness in screenwriting that can only be labelled a ‘Why didn’t they do that in the first place?’ movie. Takashi Miike’s Manga adapted bug-hunt on Mars, Terraformars is ridiculous, grotesquely violent, card-board thin on both premise and characterization, and is a delightful second only to Riki-Oh, as exemplar of kind of film.

For several hundred years, the government has been terraforming Mars for colonization by importing significant amounts of moss and cockroaches to kick-start a biosphere and an ecosystem. Now that the planet is has the right climate for human habitation, there is the problem of getting rid of the bugs. To do this, a shady Tokyo executive, with an acute hair and fashion sense, is charged with hiring the scum of the earth – Yakuza, serial killers, illegal immigrants, teen prostitutes (!), hackers, and crooked cops – to eliminate the infestation on mars. This being a Japanese science fiction film, they are of course turned into a transforming (a play on the title Terraformars) Sentai team, each with their own special super-attack and wikipedia introduction screenshot. You see, the bug problem is one of hyper-accelerated evolution, these are not trillions of tiny little squash-able critters that run from the light, but a more movie-friendly problem of highly evolved CGI super-roach-men that exist on the surface in hordes. This explanation is almost redundant, because the movie is content with reams of exposition to everything, important or not, two or three times, in the very definition of goofy excess; a recent Miike tic, that has evolved out of control not unlike the bugs here.

Miike’s Sukiyaki Django Western was, at its core, about story and image appropriation from one country to another, he’s done his fair share of remakes (including 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri) and his recent action nail-biter, Shield of Straw cheerfully pilfered the style and rhythm of Tony Scott. With Terraformars it is wholesale image-thievery of the science fiction of Ridley Scott.

The film opens in a Tokyo-sprawl version of Bladerunner (complete with the police driving flying Spinners), before moving into the aesthetics and plot points of Alien, Prometheus and even The Martian. No matter though, much of the homage remains second fiddle to Miike’s signature anarchy of ultra-violence. He has a CGI generated army of bugs that he can use as a World War Z zombie horde, a Power Rangers group melee, or a Street Fighter II one-on-one tango.

Interspersed throughout are Lost-styled flashbacks for the rogues gallery of ‘heroes.’ Some of these are distracting, because character motivation seems not the point here, but most of them are mercifully short, and the films nearly two hour runtime is not as punishing as many Manga adaptations.

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Abbas Kiarostami. 1940 – 2016

Another day, it seems that another world cinema auteur passes on. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami succumbed to Cancer at 76.

If you spent any time on the A-list festival circuit in the past 20 years, you will have encountered many of Abbas Kiarostami’s films. He put Iranian cinema on the world stage with his Palm D’Or win of A Taste of Cherry and was one of the defining voices in the Iranian New Wave. His no-nonsense, documentary-like visual style was mixed with long wide panoramic shots that brought a quiet poetry to the rural living subjects and children.

The director however, worked in all parts of the world flirted with mainstream success recently with the exquisite Tuscany-set Certified Copy examining relationships and communication in an esoteric and intellectual fashion with Juliette Binoche and William Shimell; cinema gamesmanship.

After a lengthy career in advertising and working in all aspects behind the camera (from designing credit sequences to posters) as well as writing children’s books and poetry, Kiarostami made his first feature in 1977, and worked prolifically until his death at 76. His last film, the quite stylized (oh that opening shot!) Like Someone In Love was shot in Japan.

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Sunday Video Essay: The Empathic Silences of Michael Haneke

Elsie Walker is writing a book about the sound tracks of Michael Haneke’s films called Hearing the Cinema of Michael Haneke (forthcoming with Oxford University Press). She co-created this video essay with Jacob T. Swinney, whose video essays for Slant, Fandor, and the Tribeca Film Festival are already world-renowned. This video essay (“Taking Time to Hear…”) is about sound as a kind of salvation. Haneke demands that we experience pain along with his characters but, contrary to many scholarly arguments that the director is a sadistic and cruel filmmaker, we explore how Haneke prompts us to experience a form of ultimate empathy.

*Warning, There are some major SPOILERS (or at least key moments from) half of Haneke’s filmography in the above video*

One thing that is beautifully done here, is that the text cards of the thesis are silent, and the clips from the film play out nearly so, this makes this a very different kind of video essay, and it’s a good one, albeit far too brief.

“It’s all in the reflexes!” Happy 30th Anniversary To John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China

On this day in 1986, John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China was released in cinemas to mostly baffled audiences. The goofy-fun-silly-awesome cocktail of Chinese black magic, wuxia, neon, and the World Class American Bullshit Artist that is Kurt Russell’s rig-drivin’ lead character, Jack Burton was quickly relegated to cult status. As The Monster Squad was the cult sweetheart to the more popular The Goonies, so was Big Trouble in Little China the cult answer to mega-hit Ghostbusters.

This movie remains a litmus test to a certain type of film sensibility. If you don’t like this movie, it’s going to be hard for us to have any serious conversations about film, be it Kubrick, Fellini, Hitchcock or Bay’ be it gothic romance, Fordian westerns, The French New Wave or the Dogme95 movement. Because if you don’t like Big Trouble In Little China, you don’t like filmmaking.

Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”

Happy 30th.

Michael Cimino. 1939 – 2016

Wow, 2016. Just stop.

Cinema legend Michael Cimino has passed on at 77 (albeit nobody seems to trust that was actually his age.) While he started his career in New York making Television commercials, he quickly moved into screenwriting (he wrote the Bruce Dern hippie-sci-fi near-classic Silent Running, as well as the second Dirty Harry picture, Magnum Force) before starting to direct features in the mid 1970s.

Michael Cimino was perhaps best known for making one of the great Vietnam War pictures, The Deer Hunter, the film which made Christopher Walken a star, and included fine performances from Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and John Cazale. He was also infamous for his studio crushing Heaven’s Gate, a film so expensive it put United Artists into receivership with its financial excesses, but nevertheless, nearly 40 years later, is now hailed by many as a true American masterpiece. It killed his career, although he made a few more modest films in the 1980s and 1990s, nothing of the massive, deliberate scale of his two great films. It is notable that the man has more unrealized films in that period that most directors, in part due to his budget bloating fastidiousness directing method.

Cinimo always felt like the odd man out of the cinema-brats of the 1970s (Polanski, Friedkin, Scorsese, De Palma, Spielberg & Lucas), maybe because his films were considered slow and pondering, even by the standards of the era. The man nevertheless had a great eye for imagery and knew how to craft a setpiece.

The Guardian has more.