Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part One

A waking nightmare and a tragic biopic

This is my first year attending the Chicago International Film Festival, hooray! I’m seeing a handful of movies, most of them part of the After Dark program.

My plans are to attend screenings in two “clumps,” the first consisting of this past weekend, covered in this article. I saw two films, the dark Mexican fantasy The Darkness (Spanish title Las tinieblas), and the biopic Christine. The second clump will be from next week Sunday to Wednesday, and will definitely feature Alice Lowe’s Prevenge and the Macedonian crime drama Amok, and hopefully a couple more.

The Darkness

The Darkness

Mexico, 2016. AKA Las tinieblasDirected by Daniel Castro Zimbrón. 94 minutes.

Set on a world of eternal twilight, in a fog-shrouded forest, where a family of four hides from an unseen beast, The Darkness feels more like a morbid fairy tale than a horror movie. The average literate filmgoer should be able to draw comparisons to at least two or three Guillermo del Toro movies by the end of the first act. Just to drive the point home, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s son Brontis plays the father. Director/co-writer Daniel Castro Zimbrón offers up enough enigma, atmosphere, and enchantment to slake the thirst of any fan of enigmatic dark fantasy, with a few twists into the genuinely unexpected and a looming, menacing forest that nearly becomes a character in its own right.

Hell, you might even suss out what’s actually happening; I think I may have, but I’m keeping my mouth shut, for the time being.

Just in case.

Christine

Christine

United States, 2016. Directed by Antonio Campos. 120 minutes.

One of two films released this year centered on the story of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota-based news reporter who shot herself on live television in 1974 (the other being the “documentary” Kate Plays Christine, not playing CIFF as far as I know). Star Rebecca Hall, director Antonio Campos, and screenwriter Craig Shilowich paint a complex portrait, positioning Chubbuck between the pressures of personal and professional disillusion on the one side and a struggle with mental illness on the other. The cultural turmoil of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s fall from grace serve as the background. (As someone who faces a few of the same issues as the film’s version of Christine, its portrayal of coping with severe depression and loneliness in a world growing increasingly madder rang particularly true to me.)

It’s not all doom and gloom, thanks to endearingly eccentric performances from Hall and her supporting cast, led by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, Rectify’s J. Smith-Cameron, and playwright Tracy Letts. But ultimately, the message is a downbeat one: we as humans don’t have to be alone, the film seems to say, but it also offers no easy answers for those who find it difficult to find and reach out to others.

Fantastic Fest 2015: Wrap-up

The internet demands lists! The best of Fantastic Fest 2015.

Note to those who have been following my Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage: there isn’t any new content in this post, this is just the “Best Of” and Ranking segments broken off from the day 8 post for ease of reading.

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2015: Wrap-up”

Lost River

Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut may be a boondoggle but it’s a highly entertaining boondoggle.

United States. Directed by Ryan Gosling, 2014. Starring Christina Hendricks, Saiorse Ronan, Iain de Caestecker, Matt Smith, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn. 95 minutes.

Ryan Gosling made a movie, and Warner Brothers paid for it. This is what he turned in: a nightmarish portrait of urban decay, reimagining  Detroit as a rural ghost town. Billy (Christina Hendricks), down on her luck and behind on her mortgage, takes a job dancing at a giallo-inspired burlesque theater, run by the sinister Dave (Ben Mendelsohn). Her son Bones (Iain de Caestecker) scours abandoned buildings and steals copper to sell on the black market, running afoul of the sadistic Bully (Matt Smith). Their neighbor Rat (Saiorse Ronan) lives with her elderly grandmother (Barbara Steele) and pet rat Nick. Not too far away lies an underwater town populated by dinosaurs, where streetlamps rise out of the reservoir.

Lost River might not be particularly original. Certainly Gosling has come under fire for cribbing a bit too obviously from the filmmakers he admires: Nicolas Winding Refn, David Lynch, Terence Malick, Dario Argento. I see the Lynch connection in the retro-modern aesthetic, and the score (by Johnny Jewel) makes references to Deep Red. I haven’t seen anything by Refn or Malick, so I can’t speak to what Gosling might have done with those influences.

Certainly Gosling has a long way to go in terms of plot. I found the premise intriguing but the treatment shallow, the structure formless, and the characterization thin. As Clint Worthington points out, Smith plays a bully, so his name is Bully, right? Right. But on the other hand, it makes more sense than Suspiria and is just as pretty to look at. Nothing against Suspiria, of course, which is a goddamned classic.

Anyway, this one isn’t about the story, it’s about the experience. The experience of Ben Mendelsohn singing the classic cowboy song “Cool Water.” The experience of Christina Hendricks performing a burlesque act inspired by Eyes Without a Face (the French movie, not the Billy Idol hit, natch). The experience of Saiorse Ronan performing a fragile ballad on a toy synth in a room lit by pink neon. The experience of Matt Smith riding in the back of a convertible, screaming into a bullhorn: “HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY! THIS IS MY MOTHERFUCKING COUNTRY! THIS IS MY MOTHERFUCKING CITY! DON’T LET ME SEE YOUR MOTHERFUCKING FACE AGAAAAAAAAAAAIN!” Try to imagine David Tennant doing that. I bet you can’t.

I enjoyed Lost River. Is it actually any good? If it’s a boondoggle it’s a highly entertaining one. The big studios seem dedicated to churning out product that all pretty much looks and feels the same, so when someone manages to buck the system and produce something personal and singular, you cherish it. Even if it’s as weird as this.

Lost River poster

Retro Review: Enter the Void

A bold, unique, singular, visionary work about terrible people I didn’t engage with doing terrible things I didn’t care about.

France. Directed by Gaspar Noé, 2009. Starring Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy. 143 minutes.

I think someone once said that his definition of a good television series was a show where you wanted to hang out with the characters every week. I don’t remember who said this, and I don’t remember the exact wording, but I’m pretty sure it was something along those lines. I don’t agree with that, from a personal standpoint. But I can extrapolate that definition to come up with one of my own personal rules, what Adam Cadre would call a “pattern of evaluation”: if I hate the symbolic process of hanging out with a group of characters, I’m going to hate the narrative, no matter what else it has in its favor.

Gaspar Noé’s 2009 effort Enter the Void has many wonderful elements, but none of them make up for it being an overlong, self-indulgent slog. The focal point of the film is Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), an American expatriate living in Tokyo, where he takes drugs, deals drugs, and lives with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), a stripper with whom he has a suspiciously Freudian relationship. Oscar’s best friend rats him out to the cops and he dies in a confrontation so stupid it would have earned him a Darwin award were he not a fictional character. After that, his disembodied soul floats around, first seeing the immediate repercussions of his death, then reflecting on the events of his life. His parents died in an automobile when he was a child and he and his sister went to separate foster homes, and  later in life.  Then he went to Tokyo, started doing shitty things to pay to bring Linda to Tokyo, did other shitty things for his own gratification, lived in a state of more-or-less constant denial, and then died. Then he returns to the present and the long-term repercussions of his death. And this goes on for nearly two and a half fucking hours.

Hopefully the impression I’ve given you is that Oscar is a terrible person. I expect the whole “parents died in front of him” thing is meant to explain why he is the way he is and why he has such a creepy relationship with Linda, but emotionally that explanation is an equation that doesn’t add up. Basically, he’s an asshole living in a permanent state of denial, an endless cycle of buying, taking, and selling drugs. Whatever time is left to him, he spends lusting after his own goddamn sister. And everyone around him is just as bad.

The terrible performances only compounded the problem. Brown delivers each line in the same mumbly, dull monotone, and fails utterly to convince, a real shame considering he improvised most of his dialog. De la Huerta (a performer who readily admits she’s not an actress) conveys lust and histrionics very well, but is completely lost when Noé requires anything more of her. Cyril Roy and Olly Alexander (as Oscar’s friends) and Sara Stockbridge (as Oscar’s older, married lover) fare better, but their characters are such cyphers that I kept mixing up Roy and Alexander’s character’s names, and kept forgetting Stockbridge’s even existed.

Enter the Void has a number of positives in its favor. It’s often a breathtakingly beautiful film with one of the most amazing soundtracks I’ve ever heard, and not just because it features Delia Derbyshire’s sublime interpretation of Bach’s “Air on the G String.” It’s bold, unique, singular, visionary. Its director and co-writer, Gaspar Noé, doesn’t so much (to quote my review of Melancholia) challenge the audience as double-dog-dare it to keep watching. Between Void and descriptions I’ve heard of Irreversible without actually having seen it, it seems the guy doesn’t believe that art is by necessity a pleasant experience. Good for him. I respect that.

Unfortunately the bulk of the experience he offers in Enter the Void offers is too much time spent with awful people doing stupid things, and all the pretty pictures and interesting sounds in the world can’t give me my hundred and forty minutes back.

Enter the Void poster

Retro Review: Heavy Metal

From the pages of the legendary comics magazine of adult fantasy and science fiction come an animated exploitation flick, filled with pulpy gore and sleazy sex.

Canada. Directed by Gerald Potteron, 1981. 90 minutes. 5/10

From the pages of Heavy Metal, the legendary comics magazine of adult fantasy and science fiction, come these tales of heroism, sensuality, violence and imagination.

An astronaut returns to his home with a gift, a green crystal sphere, for his young daughter. But he realizes, too late, that this is no mere bauble. It is the Loc-Nar, “the sum of all evils,” a powerful alien intelligence whose corrupting influence has been felt across worlds, times, and universes. It will destroy the astronaut’s daughter, it says, for she possesses a destiny of which she is yet unaware. But first, it will reveal itself, and the full extent of its powers, to her, in these tales of the death and destruction it has caused.

  • In New York, in the near future, a group of ruthless alien businessmen threaten a young woman in possession of the Loc-Nar, and a taxi driver gets more than he bargained for when he comes to her aid.
  • The Queen of Neverwhere uses it in human sacrifice rituals to commune with the great god Uhluhtc. An arrogant upstart seeks to steal it, to usurp the Queen’s power for himself. Between them stands a stranger: Den, a strapping warrior claiming to hail from a far-away land known as “Earth.”
  • A seemingly harmless bauble picked up by an apparently random passer-by, it nevertheless has the power to interfere with the fate of a roguish spaceship captain on trial for his life.
  • It appears on board a bomber plane during the darkest days of World War II, and teaches the hapless crew that some horrors are worse even than war.
  • A motley crew of aliens pick it–and a beautiful young stenographer–up when it causes an android masquerading as a government scientist to malfunction.
  • Finally, it takes a nomadic tribe under its evil influence, mutating them into warrior savages who make war against an ancient city. The city’s elders call upon the lone descendent of a noble warrior to protect them. But she arrives too late, and her quest becomes one of vengeance.

*   *   *

Most anthology films are mixed bags and the 1981 animated effort Heavy Metal is no exception. Pulpy, a bit sleazy and not particularly sophisticated, it wants to prove animation ain’t just kid’s stuff, but it doesn’t understand what “mature content” actually is. (It’s like the target audience isn’t adults but teenage boys.) It just throws a lot of gore and sex at the audience, and the end result is something like an animated exploitation flick.

It’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. A couple of the segments are quite good, and even the weaker ones aren’t unwatchably bad, especially if you can keep yourself from thinking too much. But taken as a whole, it’s more than a little less than the sum of its parts.

Reviews of the individual segments, using capsule-review ratings, follow.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Soft Landing/Grimaldi

Heavy Metal kicks off with one Hell of a visual event: a Space Shuttle deploying a 1960 ‘Vette from its cargo bay, which then descends to the Earth’s surface. Then we get the whole thing with the astronaut and the little girl and the Loc-Nar.

This is the film starting as it means to go on, prepping the audience for most of the conceits that recur over the next hour and a half. The animation style is…well, there’s no way around it, pretty creaky by modern standards. If you’re familiar with Ralph Bakshi’s output of this vintage, the animation’s quality shouldn’t really surprise you. I really hope you like rotoscoping, though. On the other hand, if Don Bluth is the standard by which you judge all early-Eighties feature animation, Heavy Metal isn’t likely to impress you.

In terms of the art itself and the overall visual aesthetic, those who like genre mash-ups will find themselves drooling uncontrollably like dogs in Pavlov’s kitchen. “Soft Landing” juxtaposes the Space Shuttle (a very 1981 image) with a classic sports car, and “Grimaldi” twists it again by adding the obviously mystical Loc-Nar to the mix. Again, this is something that the film does throughout, so this is just setting the stage.

Other recurring elements that start here is the sight of a human being dissolving into goo (which declares the film’s commitment to graphic violence as well as being the signature effect of the first third or so of the film) and the use of contemporary rock (mostly hard rock and heavy metal) in the soundtrack, in the form of Jerry Riggs’s “Radar Rider.”

Harry Canyon

The first proper story is a bit of a weird one: initially continuing in the same science fiction-horror vein as “Grimaldi,” with a death scene set to Blue Öyster Cult’s “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” the genre then shifts to near-future neo-noir, with the taxi-driving title character caught between a beautiful young woman and the alien “investors” who want to buy the Loc-Nar from her.

“Harry Canyon” should work a lot better than it does, considering its refreshingly sardonic tone and beautiful design (apparently influenced by the French comics genius Jean “Mœbius” Giraud), but it comes up short. The writers don’t put much effort into the characterization. For example, the femme fatale doesn’t seem to have a name other than “Girl,” which should give you a good idea of what the film’s sexual politics are like. The world-building is similarly lazy, despite a few nice touches such as the NYPD demanding cash up-front to investigate the attack on Girl.

But the big problem here is the animation. Too many poorly-rendered scenes like the one where Harry hands Girl a beer. Also, notice how the side vents on Girl’s dress seem to appear and disappear from scene to scene. I know enough not to expect Disney quality from Heavy Metal but this is something Bakshi might turn in if he just didn’t give a shit.

Den

About a month ago a friend of mine retweeted the following:

That’s not really true, of course: only two of the stories, “Harry Canyon” and “Den,” are like that. (The two appearing right next to each other in the running order doesn’t help matters, though.) But it is indicative of something I’ve always suspected: while “Taarna” is the segment of Heavy Metal people seem to remember most clearly, “Den” sums up what the hive-mind seems to think the entire experience of watching it is like: cheap T&A and gratuitous violence.

Based on material writer/artist Richard Corben started publishing during a fad in sword-and-sorcery comics (and comix) that lasted throughout the early to mid-’70s, “Den” is essentially Conan with the nudity Marvel Comics couldn’t depict in their comic books featuring Robert E. Howard’s legendary warrior-hero. Basically, it’s a juvenile power-fantasy. A nerdy eighteen-year-old virgin on Earth, Den becomes a muscular, charismatic badass in Neverwhere. Whereas Harry Canyon’s sexual prowess was incidental, Den’s is crucial: in one scene, he literally fucks–albeit temporarily–some sense into one of the villains. No wonder he doesn’t want to go back home.

As such, “Den” feels a bit quainter and cornier than the rest of Heavy Metal, because these days audiences expect more sophistication from fantasy. (Not that fantasy always delivers.) But as a product of the age of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, it’s exactly what the mass-mind thought fantasy was like in 1981. The writers undercut this somewhat by using the same sardonic sensibility that marked “Harry Canyon,” juxtaposing cornball lines such as “Your great strength has brought peace to my restless body” with the immortal “There was no way I was gonna walk around this place with my dork hangin’ out!”

The story benefits somewhat by refusing to play the material straight. But one piece of casting pushes it a bit too far. To give the film credit, contemporary audiences might not have immediately recognized up-and-coming comic actor John Candy as the voice of Den. Modern audiences don’t have that luxury, and while Candy’s performance isn’t bad (and he probably provided the producers with exactly what they asked for), it’s too distracting. I guess, considering the number of connections that exist between Heavy Metal and Stripes, we should just be thankful Bill Murray didn’t end up in the role.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Captain Sternn

Next is a tale of Berni Wrightson’s Capt. Lincoln Sternn, standing trial for “twelve counts of murder in the first degree, fourteen counts of armed theft of Federation property, twenty-two counts of piracy in high space, eighteen counts of fraud, thirty-seven counts of rape, and one moving violation.” But he has an angle: he bribed the nebbishy Hanover Fiste to serve as character witness. Unfortunately, fate wrecks Capt. Sternn’s plans when Fiste pockets a small green marble he comes across in the corridor. Prompted by the Loc-Nar, Fiste Hulks out on the stand, accuses Sternn of “selling dope while disguised as a nun,” and proceeds to attack Sternn and the entire space station.

“Captain Sternn” is the more successful of Heavy Metal’s two attempts at outright comedy, and is easily my favorite segment of the bunch. The design matches Wrightson’s illustration style exactly and the script lifts almost all of its dialogue from the first Sternn story. The voice casting–SCTV vets Eugene Levy as Sternn and Joe Flaherty as his lawyer, along with SpongeBob’s Rodger (Squidward) Bumpass as Fiste, is dead-on.

The chase scene goes on a bit too long, and as a segment it doesn’t feel particularly substantial compared to some of the other stories (that’s why I don’t have much to say about it), but on the whole “Captain Sternn” is as good as Heavy Metal gets.

B-17

Based on an unpublished short story by Dan O’Bannon, “B-17” is Heavy Metal’s only excursion into pure horror and apparently the only segment that can’t be traced back to something that originally appeared in the magazine (the Loc-Nar comes from the Lovecrafian mythos Corben invented for the “Den” stories, while “Harry Canyon” and “Taarna” have their own influences).

It’s also another success. The grossest of the lot (not even the corpse-meltings are this disgusting), “B-17” owes an obvious debt to the horror titles of E.C. Comics, with its Loc-Nar-animated corpses attacking the flight crew of a wartime bomber plane. The art, coming in part from comics (creator of Ghost Rider) and animation (Wizards) vet Mike Ploog, is gorgeous and overall the segment is very effective.

If I have to pick a fault, though, it’s in the song used during the segment, “Heavy Metal” by Don Felder. Seriously, who commissions the ex-co-lead guitarist of the Eagles to write and perform a song called “Heavy Metal”? Come on.

So Beautiful and So Dangerous

There are times when Heavy Metal feels more like a product of the ’70s than the ’80s. Of course, most of the source material was actually published during the Me Decade, but that’s not the only reason. And no segment feels more like the ’70s than “So Beautiful and So Dangerous,” which takes the designs of Angus McKie and transplants them into a story which might as well be called Cheech and Chong in Space.

It’s an unfocused, meandering affair, which starts with aliens in a smiley-face spaceship abducting a scientist and a stenographer from a government meeting about Americans mutating into green beasts (I blame the Loc-Nar), and ends with the crew, stoned to the gills on “Plutonian Nyborg” (cocaine, essentially), trying to pilot into a space station hangar (“You know your perspective’s fucked, so you just let your hands work the controls as if you were straight”) while the stenographer discusses the prospect of marriage with the ship’s robot. “I’m just scared some day I’ll come home and find you screwing the toaster.” Legit concern.

John Candy (as the robot), Eugene Levy and the late Harold Ramis (as the crew) put in fine performances, and the art and design (with McKie consulting) are breathtaking, particularly the CG-rendered spaceship, the story is just…kinda pointless, really, never seeming to go anywhere or do or say anything, as if the screenwriters were high on Plutonian Nyborg themselves. (I’ve not read the source material, but I’ve heard it described as a more philosophical affair.)

The feeling I get is that the producers felt Heavy Metal needed three things to prove to the audience that it wasn’t a kiddie cartoon: violence, sex and drugs. Other segments cover the first two (actually, “Beautiful/Dangerous” spends plenty of time objectifying the nude female form as well), but the latter needed to be represented. And thus…this.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Taarna

The cornerstone of Heavy Metal is its final segment, “Taarna.” Promotional work features the title character heavily (the most common poster art, later used on home video release covers, is Chris Achilleos’s rendition of her). Taking up the final third of the running time, it seemed to have received the most thought…and the most money. “Taarna” is the only segment that gets all the disparate elements–story, themes, character, aesthetic, and animation–right.

Cribbing heavily once again from Mœbius–this time the “Arzach” cycle–“Taarna” takes all the various elements explored in the preceding segments and blends them together to create something other than else. The result is a mystical Western with both science fiction and fantasy elements, like someone trying to describe El Topo without ever having actually seen it.

The key to the segment’s success is the title character. I’ve criticized the film’s depiction of women in earlier paragraphs, but honestly, Heavy Metal is really no more offensive than your average exploitation flick or teen sex comedy of this vintage. And Taarna certainly suffers from her fair share of objectification: she’s as top-heavy as any of the film’s other major female characters, her battle garb consists of a bikini with strapless top and thong bottom, and she spends two or three sequences completely nude.

But she also has a lot of implied depth and is fierce enough to stand toe-to-toe with any modern action heroine. She’s the film’s most fully realized woman, and considering she has absolutely no dialogue, that’s no mean feat.

Epilogue

Sadly, the film’s end, which ties “Taarna” together with the frame story, isn’t as strong as might be hoped. The connection between Grimaldi’s daughter and Taarna isn’t much of a surprise; admittedly, it’s probably not intended as one, but it’s still somewhat lame. And the links between the two segments are…maddening. Everything the film tells us indicates that “Taarna” takes place in the past, so how does Taarna’s defeat of the Loc-Nar affect the girl in the future? The assumption that the two segments take place simultaneously creates its own problems.

It doesn’t kill the whole film or the power of the “Taarna” segment, but it’s a disappointing way to resolve the strongest portion of the film.

Heavy Metal poster