Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Offenders / Have a Nice Day

A sociological thriller and an animated neo-noir

My third and final clump consisted of two World Cinema offerings: Offenders and Have a Nice Day.

Offenders

Offenders (Izgrednici)

Serbia. Directed by Dejan Zecevic. 107 minutes.

The CIFF program described Offenders as a “Serbian Pi” and certainly the film shares a few stylistic elements with Aronofsky’s début: the black-and-white presentation, the menacing EDM score, an academic discipline used as the basis for a thriller, the portrayal of an obsessed mind in free-fall. But Offenders is very much its own thing.

Using the classic video game Tetris as a metaphor for how ordered systems inevitably descend into chaos, a maverick sociology professor guides his three master’s candidates through a bizarre project: introduce chaotic elements into the Belgrade cityscape—a swastika spray-painted on a wall, bags of garbage deposited in a pedestrian tunnel—and observe the decay these elements incite. However, the arrival of the mythical “Statistanislav” triggers entropy in the experimenters as well as in the experiment.

It’s a fascinating study, but what made the film for me is its sharp monochrome cinematography, rendering Belgrade as a character unto itself, vivid as any human in the film. Great stuff, but then again, I could probably spend entire days watching footage of Cold War-era European architecture.

Have a Nice Day

Have a Nice Day (Hao ji le)

China. Directed by Jian Liu. 77 minutes.

A duffel bag containing one million yuan serves as the McGuffin in Have a Nice Day, a Chinese neo-noir in the Coen Brothers tradition: think Fargo, except animated, in Mandarin, and much shorter. The bag starts off stolen from a crime boss by one of his low-level couriers, who wants to use the money to pay for his girlfriend’s cosmetic surgery, and from there it makes its way through the usual assortment of fools, thugs, dreamers, or combinations thereof.

The plot drags a bit—I didn’t feel the story contained enough incident to justify its scant 77 minutes—and it never feels like there’s much going on under the surface (possibly the result of my ignorance of Chinese culture), but the characters entertain and engage and the animation, while not done in a style I much care for, fits the material well.

Overall I think there was a lot here that got lost in translation for me, but I still enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to someone who might think it’s their type of thing.

Synchronicity

It may seem unfair to constantly judge Synchronicity in the light of its obvious influences, but by constantly going out of his way to invite those comparisons, writer/director Jacob Genry leaves the viewer little choice.

Synchronicity

United States. Directed by Jacob Gentry, 2015. Starring Chadrian McKnight, Brianne Davis, AJ Bowen, Scott Poythress, Michael Ironside. 101 minutes. 5/10

Few ideas in science fiction tantalize or intrigue like that of time travel. But let’s get real: if it were possible, what would we actually do with it? That question has an obvious answer, succinctly summed up in a line of dialogue in the last act of Synchronicity, the latest film from writer/director Jacob Gentry (The SignalMy Super Psycho Sweet 16): we’d use it to get laid.

Admittedly, that’s probably not how the film’s protagonist, Jim Beale (Chadrian McKnight), thinks of it. Beale and his two assistants (played by genre stalwarts AJ Bowen and Scott Poythress) conduct cutting-edge research on time travel through the creation and manipulation of wormholes, but they depend on venture capitalist Klaus Meisner (Michael Ironside) for financing. Matters complicate further when Abby (Brianne Davis), a raven-haired gothic bombshell with a mysterious connection to Meisner, enters the picture. Beale quickly falls for her, and she seems to reciprocate…but mysterious forces seem to conspire to keep them apart. In order to learn the truth and win Abby’s heart, Beale makes a snap decision that could prove to have disastrous consequences.

Synchronicity’s publicity makes much of comparisons to Dark City, whose influence manifests most clearly in the film’s “future noir” imagery and puzzle-box plot construction. If you can forgive the film’s depopulated locales (presumably due to the low budget, although it does add to a lovely eerie atmosphere throughout), the occasional crummy CGI, and what I’ve dubbed “That Ubiquitous Blue Filter,” Synchronicity certainly looks good. Similarly, its plotting impresses with its cleverness.

Yet its lack of thematic depth and world-building keeps Synchronicity from standing beside influences such as Dark CityBlade Runner, and (less obviously) Donnie Darko. It may seem unfair to constantly judge the film in the light of its forebears, but by constantly going out of his way to invite those comparisons, Gentry leaves the audience little choice. The odd, retro-futuristic devices and dystopian trappings look nice, but they’re only there for show. Similarly, The film has little insight or substance to say about human relationships, and doesn’t seem particularly interested in thought-provoking philosophical flights of fancy. That’s not to say the it’s all style and no substance, but what you see is largely what you get. Like too many “puzzle movies,” once solved, it gives the viewer little reason to tackle it again.

That all being said, Synchronicity has enough in its favor to justify a look see. McKnight and Davis work as the leads, possessing enough chemistry to make a romantic subplot even if you can’t imagine their relationship lasting much past the end titles. But the real MVPs are the support players, especially Ironside, who seems to relish the chance to play a somewhat different kind of villain. Bowen also turns in a strong performance, proving once again why he’s the go-to guy for movies like this. Composer Ben Lovett also deserves special mention for his score; while retro analog-synth-based scores have become all the rage over the past few years, he delivers one of the few truly distinct examples of the form since It Follows.

As much as I enjoyed Synchronicity, it sadly seems destined to obscurity. It doesn’t distinguish itself enough to merit eventual cult classic status.

synchronicity poster

Phoenix

A stylish and insightful examination of the wounds left by tragedy, be it on an epic scale or a personal betrayal between two ordinary people.

Germany. Directed by Christian Petzold, 2014. Starring Nina Hoss, Roland Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf. 98 minutes. 8/10

One of our favorite themes here at the Gallery is identity: what makes us who we are, the difference between who others think we are and who we really are, stuff like that. And you don’t need to be a doppelgänger thriller like Coherence or a philosophical mindfuck like The Skin I Live In to present an intriguing take on the subject. Case in point: the German post-war drama Phoenix.

Before World War II, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) was a cabaret singer in Berlin. Having survived Aushwitz and undergone reconstructive surgery to repair the damage caused by a bullet wound to the face, she returns to the city she once called home, determined to reunite with her husband Johann (Roland Zehrfeld). When she finds him working at a nightclub in the American district, he doesn’t recognize her…but he does think she somewhat resembles the wife he believes dead. He enlists her in a scheme: the post-war Nelly will pose as the pre-war Nelly, so that Johann can claim her estate. Nelly agrees, but her friend Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) advises caution, claiming to have seen evidence that it was Johann who sold Nelly out to the Nazis in the first place…

Crucially, director Petzold (who also co-wrote, adapting a French novel) deals very little with flashback, leaving the viewer to speculate on the differences between the Nellys of the past and present. In Johann’s eyes, “Esther” doesn’t walk, talk, or wear makeup like the woman he married, and he must train her to take the place of the woman she doesn’t realize she actually is. But then again, the Nelly who entered Aushwitz isn’t the same one who left it. In a key scene, Nelly tells Lene she isn’t Jewish. I assume the camps eradicated that part of her identity.

Moreover, why doesn’t “Esther” tell Johann the truth? She defies Lene’s advice, insisting her husband still loves her, protesting his innocence of her friend’s accusations. But at the macro level, the Holocaust represented a vast betrayal by an entire nation against its own people. Perhaps that turned the trust that used to go unchallenged between a husband and wife becomes harder to regain as a result. Nelly tries to recapture a time before the war, for which her friend criticizes her. By contrast, Lene doesn’t even want to live in Germany anymore, constantly drawing plans for the two to emigrate to Palestine and the nascent Israeli state. (It may just be me, but I felt Petzold consistently implied deeper feelings on Lene’s part for Nelly.)

Petzold couches the story in the visual grammar of psychological thrillers and films noir, and comparisons to Hitchcock’s Vertigo abound, but Phoenix doesn’t really belong to either genre. That being said, he deploys that grammar effectively, particularly in the exterior shots of Berlin, a city divided and half-ruined, struggling to create a new version of itself, not quite assured of itself–much like the characters.

The ensemble digs for, and uncovers, the emotional truths behind their parts; particularly Hoss and Kunzendorf, but all the performances are excellent. The sorrowful, jazz-inflected score by Stefan Will (also incorporating elements of several songs of the era) sets the stage perfectly.

Phoenix is a stylish and insightful examination of the wounds left by tragedy, be it on an epic scale or a personal betrayal between two ordinary people. Psychological scars can’t be erased as easily as physical ones, as it turns out…not that we don’t already know that, but the film serves as a potent reminder. Highly recommended.

PHOENIX poster

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”

Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Six

On the sixth day, I watched: the John Hawkes-led neo-noir Too Late; the colonial-era horror film The Witch; the Polish supernatural drama Demon; the “extreme” and “controversial” anthology German Angst; Isaac Ezban’s Twilight Zone-inspired The Similars.

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Six”

Kill Me Three Times

A derivative dark, violent comedy that mostly works thanks to Simon Pegg.

Australia. Directed by Kriv Stenders, 2014. Starring Simon Pegg, Sullivan Stapleton, Alice Braga, Teresa Palmer, Callan Mulvey, Luke Hemsworth, Bryan Brown. 90 minutes.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve never asked yourself the question, “What would a Quentin Tarantino movie be like if Simon Pegg played the Samuel L. Jackson role?” Well, finally that question has an answer: it would be exactly like Kill Me Three Times.

This is one of those films that doesn’t progress in chronological order and you’re not supposed to go into it knowing how all the characters relate to each other, but I will muddle through as best I can. Pegg plays Charlie Wolfe, a hired killer stalking a woman named Alice (Alice Braga), a dental surgeon named Nathan (Sullivan Stapleton), and Nathan’s receptionist Lucy (Teresa Palmer). Nathan and Lucy are clearly up to something, and it doesn’t look good for Alice. But what exactly is going on, and how it connects to drunken, bitter hotel owner Jack (Callan Mulvey), garage mechanic Dylan (Luke Hemsworth), and corrupt cop Bruce (Bryan Brown)…you’re not going to start finding these things out until the second act.

So, yeah, convoluted structure, snappy dialog, self-consciously retro soundtrack, stylized violence, awesome cars, hopelessly hip title sequences…have I compared this to Tarantino yet? I have? Long story short, don’t go into Three Times expecting something particularly fresh and inventive. The most original thing about it is that it takes place in Australia.

Well, that…and Simon Pegg. I like Pegg as an actor, but I do readily admit I find it easy to underestimate him. It’s not that I don’t think he has range; it’s more that his range often extends in directions I don’t expect it to go. He’s not an obvious choice for the charming, sociopathic Charlie Wolfe. Three Times‘s story and structure center around Wolfe although he’s very much a supporting character (if the film has a genuine protagonist it’s Alice, even though she doesn’t start taking the focus until the second act). Like Wolfe, this is a cynical bastard of a movie that’s never happier than when it’s hurting people.

Thus, the success of the entire film largely depends on Pegg’s performance, and he carries it off like Satan; Three Times works because he does. I don’t mean to minimize the contributions of the rest of the cast–particularly Stapleton, Palmer, and above all Brown, who’s probably the clearest villain in a film full of morally compromised figures. But most of the roles would work if the performances weren’t as good, because this is Pegg’s show.

Sadly, Pegg’s performance doesn’t quite counterbalance Three Times‘s biggest flaw, which is that it clearly apes the work of iconic, influential filmmakers such as (here it comes again) Tarantino or the Coen brothers without having the corresponding thematic depth. It’s a shallow film that’s perfectly happy operating entirely on a surface level, and I don’t sense any ambition stretching beyond being a dark, violent comedy with noir-ish elements.

And that’s perfectly okay; at the end of the day, there’s something to be said for pure entertainment value, something Kill Me Three Times has in spades.

KILL ME THREE TIMES poster

Nightcrawler

A remarkable crime thriller and indictment of the news media.

United States. Directed by Dan Gilroy, 2014. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo. 117 minutes.

When we first meet Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), he’s a petty thief who talks like a corporate executive. He describes himself as “a hard worker” who “sets high goals” and describes himself as “persistent.” He peppers his speech with phrases like “communication is the number one single key to success” and “why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue” and “you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

He’s not an executive. He’s a “nightcrawler,” a freelance videographer; he and his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) show up at crime and accident scenes, camcorders in hand, recording the damage and selling the footage to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director at a TV station in L.A. Nina describes her newscast as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” She wants graphic and sensational footage, and she’s willing to pay top dollar for it.

That’s the setup of Nightcrawler, an intense and riveting indictment of the news media from Dan Gilroy. Gilroy has a point to make and he makes it by marrying the righteous anger of an ’80s “message movie” with the vibe of a ’70s New Hollywood thriller. This is not a subtle film and its primary weakness is that the sermonizing occasionally gets a bit too heavy-handed, especially towards the end.

But it’s hard to care about those flaws when a movie engrosses as much as this one. The direction is so well-constructed and confident that it’s difficult to believe this is Gilroy’s first feature-length effort. The pacing is brisk, the action exciting, and atmosphere oozes from every pixel. He creates an almost dystopic vision of the City of Angels and brings it to life vividly. Seedy underbellies have rarely been so exciting.

At the center of it all is Gyllenhaal’s gripping performance as Lou, a guy who almost never drops his calm, collected, businesslike front, even when he’s plotting to fuck you over out of spite. He only uncoils the rage a couple of times, but when he does, he’s as scary as any horror-movie monster. He owns this fictional world and he utterly dominates it. That’s not to say the supporting performances, by Russo, Ahmed, Bill Paxton (as a rival ‘crawler) and Kevin Rahm of Desperate Housewives (as Russo’s boss) are weak, but they all exist in Gyllenhaal’s shadow.

With Nightcrawler, Gilroy delivers a remarkable crime thriller with an equally remarkable central performance. Highly recommended, especially for fans of ’70s action thrillers such as Taxi Driver.

Nightcrawler

Retro Review: Oldboy

Oldboy thoughtfully considers its twin themes of revenge and redemption, presenting dark comedy, stylized violence and emotional devastation. Not just good or great, it’s one of the finest thrillers ever made.

South Korea. Directed by Chan-wook Park, 2003. Starring Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang. 119 minutes.

Are you a good person?

Silly question, right? Of course you are. Look at you, your life. Your family loves you. Your friends consider you a boon companion. You work hard and your boss respects you. You donate to charity, you volunteer at the senior center.

Okay, maybe you have a couple of vices. You might drink too much, or spend more money than you can afford on luxuries. Perhaps you cheat on your spouse. But you probably don’t.

Or maybe you have a secret. Were you the school bully? Did you swipe money from the collection basket? Tell a lie that hurt someone else? Probably–causing trouble is what kids do–but it was so long ago that you can’t remember and even if you could it doesn’t matter, right? Right.

So what are you doing in this prison cell?

Sure, it looks like a hotel room–bed, television, chest of drawers, bathroom and shower–but don’t let that fool you. It’s not like you can just walk out whenever you want: the door is bolted shut from the outside, and the window is fake. Someone slides your meals through a hatch in the door.

Seems as if you’ve made an enemy over the years. Maybe you’re not the upstanding citizen you believe yourself you are, and you’ve made a lot of enemies. Someone put you here, but who?

And what will you do when you get out?

In Oldboy, Chan-wook Park’s classic 2003 thriller, protagonist Dae-su Oh finds himself in this very position. The film thoughtfully considers its twin themes of revenge and redemption. It’s easy enough to say “revenge brings catharsis” or “revenge doesn’t bring catharsis” but as a dramatic theme, revenge is a bit more complex than that and you can tell Park and his screenwriters put more thought into it than many other filmmakers might. It all culminates in a conclusion that left my eyes watering and my jaw agape.

The film’s streak of dark comedy (the suicidal man on the rooftop is a treat) shifts to a darker, more serious tone over the course of the film, with such subtlety that you might not even notice you stopped laughing. The script deals with some difficult subject matter, but treats it with sensitivity and respect instead of sensationalizing and exploiting it.

The film hinges on the performances of its four lead actors. Min-sik Choi is nothing short of phenomenal in the role of Dae-su. His physical presence is highly effective, particularly in the half-hour or so following his release from imprisonment. As befits a man who’s spent the last fifteen years of his life in a space no larger than a spacious bedroom, he holds himself very compactly. His movements are quick, his reflexes squirrelly. Throughout the film he moves like a tightly wound spring that could uncoil at any moment.

That’s enough to impress by itself, but Choi also has the emotive skills to sell such a complex character. You can readily buy him as a man whose decade and a half of imprisonment have driven him more than a little crazy, and his ability to change moods on a dime (note two scenes where he goes from rage to apologetic simpering in a matter of milliseconds) is magical.

His opposite number is Ji-tae Yoo as Lee, Oh’s enemy and the man behind his imprisonment. Lee starts the film as a straight-up villain but as the film progresses we learn more about the exact nature of the relationship between Oh and Lee and Yoo deftly maneuvers through the shift in sympathy. Hye-jung Kang is adorable as Mi-do, a young sushi chef who starts the film as Oh’s ally and who eventually becomes his lover. Dal-su Oh’s Mr. Park, the manager of the unique prison Dae-su finds himself in, is memorable and entertaining as the sneering baddie Yoo doesn’t allow himself to play.

Visually, the film is a delight to watch from start to finish. Park’s visual sense is impeccable and much of the visual imagery is delightful (Dae-su’s emergence from the steamer trunk is a particular favorite moment). He doesn’t skimp on the blood or the action; the violent sequences stick in the mind for days afterward (I’ll never look at a claw hammer the same way) and the fights are clever, inventive and engaging. I appreciated how Dae-su, while a proficient fighter, is never portrayed as a superhuman badass and this anchors the suspension of disbelief.

It may seem like I haven’t given a balanced overview of Oldboy by describing its negatives as well as its positives. The truth is that it’s one of those rare films in which I can find no flaws whatsoever. As far as I can tell, it comes as close to perfect as a movie can.

Oldboy poster