Toronto After Dark 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 fairy tale, 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 channeling 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 among 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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Trailer: Évolution

Beautifully shot, languid, haunting, esoteric, and cold. All of these things can be said of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s latest film, Évolution. The same could be said of her first feature, Innocence, which was about a boarding school for girls. Her latest, coming more than a decade later, is about a strange ‘school’ for boys, but considering the somewhat spoiler-y nature of the trailer below, it’s not really a school in the case, more of a clinic (and it’s not really that either). Some very impressive body horror and formal cinematography abound in this one; both gorgeous shots of the seaside, and what lies beneath.

10-year-old Nicolas lives with his mother on a remote island, in a village inhabited solely by women and young boys. In a hospital overlooking the ocean, all the boys are subjected to a mysterious medical treatment. Only Nicolas questions what is happening around him. He senses that his mother is lying to him, and is determined to find out what she does with the other women at night, on the beach… What he discovers is the beginning of a nightmare into which he is helplessly drawn.

Fun Fact: Lucile Hadzihalilovic is married to Gaspar Noe, and their cinema complements each other in interesting ways, she is the yin to his yang, but she is also the better filmmaker.

Trailer: Studio Ghibli’s The Red Turtle

The Red Turtle

It seems now that Japan’s Studio Ghibli is awaiting auteurs to step up on native soil, they have turned to some international co-productions to keep the lights on. If Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit is any indication of this new collaboration arrangement, I am happy to see the direction things go. The Red Turtle looks gorgeous, has a hand animated aesthetic, with a flair for visual and emotional storytelling. The film premiers at Cannes this week. The trailer is below.

Hot Docs 2016 Review: Brothers


In Aslaug Holm’s gorgeously shot documentary on her own children – make no mistake, this is no home movie, but a rigorous 16mm film production by a veteran filmmaker – a recurring image is laundry hanging out on the line on the breezy Norwegian coast. In a sense Holm is airing her laundry figuratively as well, in Brothers, a decade long project capturing her two boys, Lukas and Markus, from ages 5 and 8 all the way into their teenage years.

The sparse images, photographs and film, Holm possesses of herself as a child, and even less media her own parents and extended family, led the urge preserve her offspring on film in a way that captures the hopes and dreams of children when their future remains completely ahead of them. The document she herself never had. She is not shy of bringing herself into the film, insofar as a reminder of the strings and mirrors of doing this sort of activity amongst the bustle of family life. As any good scientist knows, to observe an experiment is to affect the results in some capacity, and Holm and her camera factor into the frame honestly.

Markus loves soccer, and there are many shots of him practicing on a dirt pitch with his father and younger brother. Lukas has a more love-hate-love relationship with sports in general that is summed up with another recurring shot, that of the boys on the edge of a dock-house daring to jump into the water (as metaphors go, it’s powerfully obvious in that it is both obvious and powerful) at various ages.

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Trailer: Men & Chicken

A lot of people get confessional, or get hit on the head (often both at the same time) in Anders Thomas Jensen’s farcical comedy, Men & Chicken Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro and many other familiar Danish faces, the film is about a pair of socially-challenged siblings who discover they are adopted half-brothers in their late father’s videotaped will. Their journey in search of their true father takes them to the small, insular Danish island of Ork, where they stumble upon three additional half-brothers—each also sporting hereditary harelips and lunatic tendencies—living in a dilapidated mansion overrun by barn animals. Hitting ensues.

Drafthouse films acquired the film, and have cut a domestic trailer for the film which they are releasing very soon.

Trailer: Paul Verhoeven’s Elle

It’s a trick. Get an axe.

Isabelle Huppert does exactly that in the french language trailer for Paul Verhoeven’s latest film, Elle. While the lack of subtitles makes one without very good french do some of the work, the essential story is a very libertarian woman decides to take things into her own hands after a masked man starts terrorizing him. Because this is a Verhoeven film, she very likely has sex with her interloper.

It’s good to see the crazy Dutch satirist back in full Hollywood style form, like many classic directors who were run out of Tinseltown for myriad reasons, he has located himself in France (albeit after a decade dalliance back in his homeland that produced at least one good film).

This just shot up to one of my most anticipated films of 2016. The film should be opening around the time of the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

When Michelle, the CEO of a gaming software company, is attacked in her home by an unknown assailant, she refuses to let it alter her precisely ordered life. She manages crises involving her 75-year-old sex kitten mother, her imprisoned mass murderer father, her spoiled and immature son, her ex-husband and her lover, all with the same icy equanimity. This is the approach she brings to the situation when it appears that her assailant is not finished with her. As the mysterious stalker hovers in the shadows of her life, taunting her, Michelle cooly stalks him back. What emerges between Michelle and her stalker is a kind of game, a game that soon spirals out of control.

Trailer: The New Girlfriend

Turbo Kid

Searing violin, critical exclamations (“Erotic”, “Perverse”, “Brilliant!”) and a beautiful rhythm all make the brief trailer for François Ozon’s one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Everything seems heightened in a way that Alfred Hitchcock probably would have loved.

A young woman’s closest friend, passes away leaving behind a husband, and a newborn baby. One day she drops by his house unexpectedly, and finds him dressed in his dead wife’s clothes and feeding their baby with a bottle. He explains that his dead wife was well aware of his predilection, and eventually, so relieved that he has someone to share his secret with he begins to identify more strongly as a female this leads to confusing and conflicting feelings.

The film premiered at TIFF almost a year ago, today, and it is getting a US theatrical release on September 18, 2015.

Trailer: Louder Than Bombs

Norwegian director Joachim Trier, a darling on the festival circuit after 2006’s Reprise and 2011’s Oslo, August 31, returns with his English language debut, Louder than Bombs, which stars the ubiquitous Jesse Eisenberg, the always wonderful Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, David Straithairn and the boy who plays ‘Young Louis’ on Louis CK’s TV show, Devin Druid. His understated but powerful visual style is in full display in the trailer below.

An upcoming exhibition celebrating photographer Isabelle Reed three years after her untimely death, brings her eldest son Jonah back to the family house – forcing him to spend more time with his father Gene and withdrawn younger brother Conrad than he has in years. With the three of them under the same roof, Gene tries desperately to connect with his two sons, but they struggle to reconcile their feelings about the woman they remember so differently

Having already played Cannes and Karlovy Vary film festivals, and with Trier’s previous two films playing the Toronto International Film Festival in the past, here is hoping that some of us can catch this on this side of the pond before quite far off its April 2016 release date. If you’re in Norway, however, Louder Than Bombs opens in October.

A link to the trailer and two embedded clips are both tucked under the seat.

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Fantasia 2015 Review: Crumbs

Ethiopian post apocalypse dystopian fairy tale Crumbs has a decaying handsomeness to match its unique vision. It has a confident and accomplished auteur unwillingness for either pandering or traditionally pleasing its audience while simultaneously offering an archetypal hero-journey tale. An optimistic message (“the ducks are coming home…”) cloaked in a walkabout of despair and confusion that leads ultimately to ‘home is where the heart is.’ platitudes that are not platitudes for sheer will of the performances.

That eerie feeling you get wandering the early morning fog of an abandoned theme park is what Miguel Llansó has harnessed here, and the gorgeous melancholy is tempered with a sharp wit and soothing empathy. The film is a balm. It is also an African riff on Stalker, with the whole world being Tarkovsky’s uncanny Zone. It has a similar abandoned train-yard, a pretty young woman left at home in a deliciously decayed bowling alley. Water bubbles and broils in the post-nuclear desert of sulphur formations while the few remaining humans scavenge and weld. A curious space-ship floats in the sky similar to South Africa’s District 9, albeit similarities to Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature sharply end here.

Those on earth, in particular, hunchbacked pacifist Candy, dream of marshalling the means to get to that ship, as if it were the last hopeful place. It will take his journey through the wasteland towards a meeting with the fabled prophet Santa Claus, avoiding the ‘Second Generation Nazis’ and other third century Molegan warriors. Holy artifacts such as an acrylic painted vulcanized rubber Ninja Samurai Statue (i.e. a happy meal Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figure), a vinyl copy of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” and other twentieth century pop cultural detritus delicately litter the world and act as a kind of talismans of hope and desire; as well as consumer currency for a comically cynical pawn shop broker at the end of space and time. A photo of sweat-beaded-on-his-forehead, Michael Jordan clothed in his Chicago Bulls uniform is Buddha, Shiva and Christ, all rolled into one. It is played for easy yuks, and yet they still land. More sophisticated comedy is also present in the Santa Claus’ inflexible process. It reminds me of a mix of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil mashed with Mel Brook’s Spaceballs: “Fuck! Even in the post-apocalypse nothing works without bureaucracy!”

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