TIFF 2014 Review: Leviathan


A rundown fishing town on the coast of the Arctic Ocean is the rugged edge-of-the-world stage for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s complex, but quite accessible, new film. There is a visual mastery of relating wide open natural spaces, with precise man-made interiors, present in all of his work, but taken to new heights here.

Leviathan tells the tale of a man losing his land, losing his wife to his best friend, and losing his son to anger. It scales this Job-sian human tragedy up to savage some sacred-cows, the Russian institutions of community, the state and the orthodox church. That this is based on a true story is shocking (and utterly believable) in both the specifics and the universality. You certainly don’t have to speak Russian to understand human flaws and failure.

Kolya is living on the best piece of land in town, on a hilltop which overlooks the river as it joins the Ocean. The towns corrupt mayor, Vadim, is intent on seizing this property for a choice development project and is willing the exploit a property rights loophole, and his control over the municipal courts and police, to get his way. In a Kafka-esque single-take shot, the court baliff reads, at robotic speed, several pages of policy and verdict on why Kolya’s appeal to keep his property is being denied. Shortly thereafter Kolya is arrested and put in prison for filing paperwork.

His long-time army pal who is now a big-shot Moscow lawyer, Dima first tries conventional bureaucratic methods but soon take another tact, attempting to blackmail Vadim, a heavy, belligerent brute who has more skeletons in his closet than Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and is up for re-election. A lot of vodka is consumed, a lot of cigarettes are smoked. Men confront one another in intoxicated states. The local teens drink and smoke in one of the towns abandoned churches, indoctrinating themselves into what will likely be their fates as adults in the local fish processing plant. Images of gutted fish being sorted and processed cement the notion.

Another scene involves birthday party getaway to an isolated quarry to BBQ meat, drink vodka (of course) and shooting bottles. When the supply of bottles is exhausted (in part because the birthday boy is packing a Kalashnakov automatic rifle) targets are switched to portraits of Russian presidents. Near the shooting gallery is a waterfall, which we only get a glance, of two boys tensely navigating the rocks and froth at the summit. It echoes the opening moments in the Zvyagintsev’s The Return. One boy witnesses Dima and Kolya’s wife, Lilya in coitus, shattering things on the home front, pitting Kolya and Lilya’s mutual friends against each other and sending their son Roma running off into his own confused wilderness of adolescence.

Kolya (and for that matter, Dima, Lilya and Vadim) want reasons and answers for their woes and conflicts, but are left as alone in the wilderness as Roma. Even as there are occasional winners in the game, the mortar of modern Russia is mixed with the crumbled bones of its citizenry. A character mentions offhand that no fortune was ever amassed without sin and suffering. In personal or political circles this is likely a truism if there ever was one. The final gut-punch of the film (allow me to reiterate that this is a true story) is feral in its undiluted satire. And the pounding score drives home the epic nature of this story of small people rolled over by the body of the whale.

Whale skeletons and fishing boats share equal space on the beach with a corpse whose fate is a mystery, but both institutions and community have little problem crafting meaning around it. Far from a pleasant experience, where the power of forgiveness is a whisper in a hurricane, Leviathan is masterclass in imagery and storytelling (the screenplay won the prize a Cannes earlier this year) one of the best films of the year, and showcases a director at the absolute top of his craft who is still willing to lob a grenade into the power circles of his country.

TIFF 2014 Review: 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.

TIFF 2014 Review: The Duke Of Burgundy


Starting off with what is undoubtedly the opening credit sequence of the year, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy never ceases to surprise and delight over its 100 minutes, offering a dry but meticulous humour and rhythm. Those credits, offering the promise of ‘perfume by’ and ‘lingerie’ by,’ evoke a specific period of Euro-sleaze cinema from the early 1970s that was drenched in velvet, silk and hosiery (and undoubtedly all kinds of musk). Harpsichords and cellos abound.

In Strickland’s previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, he took the mood and repeated patterns of the Italian Giallos to deliver a witty and uncomfortable workplace comedy. It was a film where a British man is driven mad simply by the culture shock of alien ungraspable protocols. It was terrifying, confusing and above all, funny as hell. Here he does a two hander in an oversized, lushly designed manor house in the country exploring the sexual politics of two women immersed in the protocols of their own passions. Their only break between shared intimacy is in the meticulous study of moths and butterflies, creatures who are nearly infinite in variation, aid in pollination, and whose rapidly pulsing wings sound more than a little like a vibrator.

Young Evelyn arrives to work as the housemaid for the matron of the house, who haughtily finds fault in every task; a master who is clearly power tripping. Everything is heightened as Evelyn brushes the carpets on her knees, hangs damp underwear up to drip-dry, or slowly polishes the barrel of the microscope in the entomology laboratory, where hundreds of glass cases of moths and butterflies pinned to velvet pillows. If you can take your eyes off the production design here, your sympathies might slide towards poor Evelyn, but things quickly get complicated as it becomes obvious that she is seriously getting off on the ritual. Body language and pregnant glances are the key to unlocking this picture, so keep at attention.

Like nearly every scene in the film, there is a punchline. It is amusing to watch this film with a large festival audience (I hope everyone gets a chance) as certain visual cues become apparent at different times for different people, giving an atmosphere of someone on the verge of laughter at any given moment, while others are intent on something entirely different. I won’t give anything away, but suffice it to say, that as the film progresses, it gets murky, then clear, then murky again, in who is the slave and who is the master. The rhythms and cycles of The Duke of Burgundy echo the give and take between lovers. How far can things go before the proclivities of a partner begin to feel like a chore? When do the sexy outfits begin to be more constrictive than empowering? When does the purchase a human-toilet device start to feel like a compromise?

Wait, what?

Strickland is fond of saying that he does not deal in metaphor, but comedy is association, and the image a moth pinned by its wings and displayed glass is ripe. As is a room full of handsomely attired women lecturing one another on the minutiae of cricket sounds and colour markings. No matter, there is mood to spare – the film is nothing if not fully immersive. But it also traffics in playfully obscuring its own sight gags. Be sure to pay attention to the slightly out of focused middle ground during the films several moth seminars with out loosing focus of all the passive-aggressive judgement throughout.

Observation and understanding create entertainment and pleasure, that works just fine even whether or not you are familiar with the genre Strickland is archly riffing on and reconfiguring. And boy, oh, boy those opening titles. For that matter, stay for the closing credits for further gems such as ‘human toilet consultant’ which are scattered throughout the text.

There is not a single man in The Duke of Burgundy, but the film doesn’t need any to show us some universal truths about the species and its mating rituals. I can still smell the perfume.

Read more: http://twitchfilm.com/2014/09/toronto-2014-review-the-duke-of-burgundy-is-a-sublime-and-specific-sex-comedy.html#ixzz3D1AXZhzx

TIFF 2014 Review: Clouds of Sils Maria


The eponymous image of Clouds of Sils Maria features a heavenly mist snaking its way through mountain peaks like a river, the rocks frozen in time, immutable, the clouds in perpetual motion. It is shown as shot for Olivier Assayas 2014, and the characters in the film at one point watch the 1924 Arnold Fank silent, black and white short documentary The Cloud Phenomena of Maloja. The technology and aesthetics have changed, but filmmaking keeps on rumbling chaotically along as the images captured become fixed and un-aging objects. 

No matter how many films Assayas makes, he cannot help himself from being a film critic. As with many of the auteur directors of the French New Wave a generation or more before him, he wrote for Cahiers Du Cinema before becoming a hot-shot young director. Throughout his career he has often made films that examine the business, chaos and soul of filmmaking, in France and abroad. Irma Vep had New Wave icon Jean Pierre Leaud playing an addled director who casts Maggie Cheung out the Hong Kong action cinema of Johnnie To and Jackie Chan and dropped her onto a dysfunctional Parisian film set to shoot an avant-garde remake of iconic french serial Les Vampires and Demon Lover wrapped a tangled corporate thriller around the global video and web distribution rights of anime tentacle pornography. 

Regardless of what subjects the director tackles, what is interesting about his cinema is that he has always favoured actors and performances to allow his ideas to flow out onto he screen over cinematography and editing. His films breathe.

Lately, Assayas has been pre-occupied with age and youth, and has left behind, mostly, any genre trappings to make films about the passage of time and how it changes people. In Clouds of Sils Maria, he has Juliette Binoche playing a fictional version of herself named Maria Enders. An actress at a point in her career where she is an international movie who did a stint in Hollywood blockbusters before returning to the European art house and stage. A young director asks her to appear in his revival of the play that made her famous, only this time she will be playing the broken-down wealthy businesswoman part instead of the aggressive and domineering young personal assistant who sexually dominates her boss and the stage. The play in the film bears remarkable similarity to Alain Corneau’s final film, Love Crime (which was recently remade by Brian DePalma as Passion).

The middle portion of Clouds of Sils Maria, the best portion of the film, sees Enders living in isolation in the Swiss mountains, negotiating a messy divorce and occasionally going for a hike, all the while rehearsing the part with her own personal assistant. Kristen Stewart, all tangled hair and random tattoos, exuding the casual confidence and ‘above-it-all’ attitude that often gets the Twilight-actress excoriated by the media and viewing public at Awards shows, delivers a convincing, possibly career best, performance as the personal assistant, Valentine. 

The rehearsals, with Valentine line-reading the younger part while Enders blasts out the older part, starts to mimic the content of the play in subtle ways, only with many more messy complications of life (even in isolation there is Skype and Google) happening around the written-drama. Enders is trying to work out the older part, but cannot shake her desire and her memories of her own younger self. There is the suggestion sexual attraction between Binoche and Stewart (they go skinny dipping in the cold mountain waters at one point) but really it is more about the envy of unfettered freedom of youth, as opposed to the obligation and baggage of age. The same scene indulges the audiences to compare the bodies of Stewart and Binoche, even as the ladies laugh at the cold, cold water they just dove into.

An overly simple read of the film would be that the personal assistant is merely a figment of the actress’s psyche, Assays peppers the visual language of the film with many hints and visual cues:  the notably strange cellphone reception on a train in the films opening sequence; a double-exposed driving sequence when Valentine returns from a sexual tryst with a photographer and vomits on the side of the road. Clouds of Sils Maria would make a curious double-bill with Binoche’s other recent breezy self-reflective puzzle, Certified Copy. You can try to parse the details of what is going on in both films, but really you should just sit back and take in the universal human bits that make both films great. The truth however, that cinema is an object that our own perspective and viewpoint shapes what is perceived to be going on, is the brain of the film, while Juliette Binoche essaying an aging actress grappling with being the object, is the heart. 

The emotionally vulnerable actress is also obsessed with the young tabloid train-wreck who is cast in the role that made Enders famous. A small role occupied by Chloe-Grace Moretz has some fun with TMZ internet celebrity, Hollywood starlets in Europe, and some good old-time paparazzo stalking. There is even a silly, sci-fi action movie created in the film, featuring Moretz’s character that is exposition heavy to the point of hilarity. But watching the boozy  discussion of Ender’s and Valantine on how the ideas and anxieties, clumsily expressed in this sci-fi blockbuster are no different than the pop cinema 50 years ago, only with different wardrobe and trappings. This is not the heart of the film, but it is the director, ever being the critic, allowing the actors to essay his thoughts with their emotions.

TIFF 2014 Review: The World of Kanako


The first two minutes of Tetsuya Nakashima’s violent and unrelenting assault on the senses are a litmus test on whether one should proceed. A frenetic orgy of editing non-sequitors, both assaulting and attention grabbing, occurs right before slamming into a stylized split-screen opening credits sequence right out of 1960s Nikkatsu cop movies but painted over with expletives and animated blood spatters. What follows is 120 minutes of uncomfortable, aggressive, and rigourously crafted filmmaking. Even up against the most extreme offerings from Takashi Miike and Sion Sono this film feels like it is pushing the visual envelope to an endgame where this branch of cinema is ready to be pruned from the tree lest it grow any further and kill the organism. I jest, but only a little

The film features the sweatiest and angriest performance from Kôji Yakusho in his prolific career. As disgraced detective Akikazu, he is channelling the same unhinged brutishness as Michael Caine’s Get Carter and Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant. He starts the film off in a ratty white suit with a rats nest of hair and a glaze of perspiration on everything. As the film proceeds at bullet train velocity, a derailment ever 4 minutes or so, the suit gets soaked in blood, his face a punching bag of bruises and tense angry expression.

Divorced from his wife after an she had affair, and he pummelled the other man into the hospital, Akikazu has been cut off from his daughter and left to stew in his own rage for months. The doctors have him on some powerful brain medications which ostensibly are the reason for the temporal obliteration in the editing structure. He is unstuck in time from his state of mind and chemistry such that he barely knows what is happening at any given moment, blinded rage at the universe for his lot in life. He is given purpose when his daughter is kidnapped and his ex-wife pleas with him for help. Tangentially akin to Christopher Nolan’s far more sedate Memento or Erik Van Looy’s underrated The Alzheimer Case, in terms of anti-heroes in no shape for any kind of procedural investigation, this is just the framework for the gonzo editing tapestry which unfolds.

Azikazu’s bull in a china shop investigation of the private life of his daughter, Kanako, reveals her to be as big a monster as her father, only with the whims and desires of a hormonal teenager. She is Laura Palmer in Fire Walk With Me, raised to the power of Ichi The Killer. Flashbacks of school bullying, suicide, Spring Breakers inspired drug orgies, and other extracurricular prostitutions are as far as possible from the quiet, controlled simmering of Nakashima’s previous school set trauma-drama Confessions.

The quest might be noble, but Azikazu goes about it in the most monstrous fashion. Women are slapped, sexually assaulted, men are stabbed, shot and curb stomped. Did I mention this movie is not for the faint of heart? Where things become irresponsible is that many sequences, even people being run over by vehicles, are playfully whimsical. The score consists foot tapping, classic tunes including House of the Rising Sun and Across 110th Street only with newly written english lyrics substituted in. The tonal shifts on display here boggle the mind. There is some kind of mad genius at work here. The craft is impeccible.

Along with so many other 21st century Japanese films, what the creative set has has to say about the nation’s educational institutions, is that it is they are place of abject, unrelenting terror. Blame is placed as much on the culture and the establishment as it is on distant, neglectful parenting. But the film doesn’t point fingers, it breaks them or chops them off. When reality penetrates Akikazu’s anger and drug fuelled haze to realize his quest is more to kill his daughter with his own hands rather than any quaint notion of saving her from the cruel world. Everyone is drowning in a river of shit (us included) so wide that the embankments are not visible and the current is unyielding. This is not hyperbole, this is what it is.

The filmmakers and actors have no interest in proceeding with caution in The World of Kanako, but my suggestion is that anyone taking this trip to cinematic hell be aware of just how far down the rabbit hole goes.

TIFF 2014 Review: Spring


“You saw me all fucked up and I am still here.” So says Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) to his Italian girlfriend, Louise (Nadia Hilker), after discovering that her ‘little secret’ is well outside his comfort zone. It is this moment, well into the film when Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s Spring becomes something special. This is not the sweet notion that Evan, a nice California guy drifting through Italy while escaping a number of problems at home, is willing to make a serious commitment to a preternaturally attractive girl after only a few weeks in a foreign country. No, it is the staggering human trait that we can get acclimatized to the strangest things so incredibly fast if we are willing to accept and roll with the punches. For better or worse.

Set mainly in a tiny Italian village of Polignano a Mare, the platonic ideal of picturesque European exoticism, there is a wonderful shot of Evan arriving as an eager tourist. The camera, gliding in slow motion, follows his sight line as he walks through the town taking in the sort of panorama of a post card come to life: Old men playing chess, church bells ringing, sunlight bathing the 1000 year old cobble stones all briefly capture his gaze until the camera swishes past the woman in the red dress. Panning back to Evan, he does almost a twirl, drunk on the possibilities of being rootless in Europe for the first time. As with the character, so is the film.

Evan decides to stay and finds himself employment on a local farm that is run by a nattily dressed, jauntily capped widower. The widower is played by character actor Francesco Carnelutti who looks alarmingly like Italy’s Christopher Plummer and confirms something about the directing duo’s debut Resolution: That they have a knack for casting interesting faces to occupy the periphery and set tone. The town, as small as it is, offers many opportunities to keep running into Louise and a kind of courtship ensues between the naive Yank and the worldly European.

Not in a hurry to get anywhere, Spring indulges itself in a Linklater kind of vibe and allows for the pair to alternate between charming banter and sex. Religion, pop-mythology and language are avenues of youthful self-exploration, individually and as budding couple. But the camera seems to be always stalking them rather than passively following them. There are suggestions that we are in a horror film, looming overhead drone shots, close-ups of insects writhing in the dirt – the world being both intimate and unfathomable – are cut between the Before Sunrise evening walks and cafe stops.

And Louise occasionally eats a cat or a bunny or a tourist keep increasingly graphic body horror transformations in check. Yes, there is that. By merging two wildly disparate types, the seductive monster film with the budding travel romance, Spring creates a something fresh, intimate and icky (seductive but baggage-laden) that overcomes the familiarity of either genre for the most part. When Louise muses that she only knows 50% of her self, there are several meanings attached to the phrase that the film is inclined to explore both obliquely and explicitly, albeit mostly from the male point of view. The widowed farmer might have some connection, maybe. Maybe not. The filmmaking here is reserved enough to allow for you to draw any tangential or historical connections, while it focuses on the central relationship and other special effects.

After a single viewing I am inclined to believe the Evan and Louise’s relationship built here is not going to last, a looming volcano in the background visibly suggests I am correct. It is refreshing to see life and the future embraced with the romance of cinema tamped down only slightly with the wisdom that everything is ephemeral, even the Old World.