Cinepocalypse 2018: Part Four

Final batch of reviews. Relaxer, Heavy Trip, The Appearance, and more short films.

Relaxer

Relaxer

Early on in Relaxer, the protagonist—a shirtless, pantsless slacker named Abbie—vomits what looks like a quart of milk all over himself. I can’t think of a better metaphor for the cinematic experience the film offers. The plot—at least, what passes for it—requires Abbie to best the world-record Pac-Man score* before he can leave his couch. If you think spending ninety minutes watching someone fiddle with a Nintendo controller sounds dull, guess what: it’s actually worse than it sounds. The script, largely devoid of incident, tends to focus on the largely unlikable characters engaging in interminable bickering (Abbie spends what seems like 10 to 15 minutes arguing with a “friend” over a bottle of cherry-flavored Faygo), separated by long, silent sequences focusing on lead actor Joshua Burge’s slack, dead-eyed stare. Not even a half-assed attempt at a subplot involving a pair of 3-D glasses that give Abbie telekinetic powers can relieve the monotony. If there’s an allegory here, I’m not finding it. Pointless, tedious, and actively unpleasant.

* Long story short: the world-record Pac-Man score (something in excess of 3.3 million points) cannot ever be beaten, because it represents reaching level 256 and scoring every possible point on all of those boards. Due to a quirk in the game software, it’s impossible to progress past 256, the game’s legendary “kill screen.”

United States. Directed by Joshua Potrykus.

Heavy Trip

Heavy Trip

Scandinavian black metal gets its very own equivalent to The Blues Brothers with this strangely feel-good comedy. The “symphonic post-apocalyptic reindeer-grinding Christ-abusing extreme war pagan Fennoscandic metal” band Impaled Rektum has been practicing at their guitarist’s father’s small-town slaughterhouse for twelve years but has never played an actual gig. That all changes when the promoter of a Norwegian heavy-metal festival pays a visit to the slaughterhouse, and soon the band finds itself on a quest to play said festival (even though they’re not actually invited). While the ensuing plot is more than a little familiar, the film succeeds with flying colors thanks to a rapid stream of hilarious gags and situations, strong performances and endearingly goofy characters (particularly Max Ovaska as the guitarist, who gets the film’s by-far best line). Probably the best tribute to heavy metal and its fandom since Saxon’s “Denim and Leather.”

Finland/Norway. Directed by Juuso Laatio and Jukka Vidgren.

The Appearance

The Appearance

Jake Stormoen and Game of Thrones fan favorite Kristian “Hodor” Nairn play a pair of inquisitors investigating accusations of devilry at a medieval monastery in Kurt Knight’s historical horror The Appearance. Remixing a number of standard elements from the sub-genre—including a wide-eyed girl accused of witchcraft, a hard-assed, cruel abbot, a series of ghastly murders, and more secrets than you can shake the Latin mass at—The Appearance occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of its familiarity (its overlong run time—I’m not sure how long it is, but the 90-minute time cited in the Cinepocalypse program was definitely wrong—doesn’t help matters). But Knight maintains a thick, eerie atmosphere throughout, and most of the cast (particularly Stormoen, Nairn, and Baylee Self) put in fine performances. If only they could have done something about those accents…

United States. Directed by Kurt Knight.

My Monster

Short Films

My Monster

Screened alongside Await Further Instructions.

Brea Grant finds herself plagued by both a hideous monster and a clueless husband(/boyfriend/partner/whatever) in this brief horror-comedy. I’ll pretty much watch Brea Grant in anything, and she didn’t disappoint me here, but overall My Monster didn’t do much for me.

Canine

Screened alongside Gags.

A man searches his neighborhood for his missing dog. I sussed out the twist pretty early, but I still enjoyed it.

Spell Claire

Screened alongside Relaxer.

The titular ’80s-obsessed Claire finds a Speak & Spell at a garage sale. It doesn’t like her. Have you ever wanted to watch a movie about an evil Speak & Spell? Here’s your chance. I’ll say it again for the kids in the back: EVIL SPEAK & SPELL! Winning performance by Wendy Jung.

Festival Overview

Ranking of all the movies I watched

The great:

  1. Heavy Trip
  2. Await Further Instructions
  3. Empathy Inc.

The good:

  1. Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss…
  2. Clara’s Ghost
  3. What Keeps You Alive
  4. The Devil’s Doorway
  5. The Appearance
  6. Satan’s Slaves
  7. The Russian Bride

The meh:

  1. The Ranger
  2. Gags
  3. Malicious

The bad:

  1. The Brink
  2. Hover
  3. Relaxer

Various achievements

Best director: Yedidya Gorsetman, Empathy Inc.

Best actress: Paula Neidert Elliott, Clara’s Ghost

Best supporting actress: Abby Elliott, Clara’s Ghost

Best actor: Zack Robidas, Empathy Inc.

Best supporting actor: Max Ovaska, Heavy Trip

Best screenplay: Gavin Williams, Await Further Instructions

Best original score: Omri Anghel, Empathy Inc.

Best use of non-original music: “Georgy Girl,” performed by the Seekers, Clara’s Ghost

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci takes the end of a bloody historical era and makes farce of it… ★★★★

The 1953 stroke that ended the life of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin left the country without a leader. There was an obvious (if not official) successor in Deputy Chairman Georgy Malenkov, but Moscow was full of ambitious men plotting to bring stability while carving out the largest slice of power for themselves. Chief among them were Internal Affairs Minister Lavrentiy Beria and Moscow party leader Nikita Khruschev. Vyacheslav Molotov, a former diplomat on the outs with Stalin, saw a chance to claw his way back to relevance. Stalin’s alcoholic son Vasily proved to be paranoid and erratic, and others struggled to control him. Loyalties turned on a kopek coin, and yesterday’s patriot could be tomorrow’s traitor. One false move—a mistake as simple or random as being in the wrong place at the wrong time—and you could be denounced as an enemy of the Revolution and shot. Even history could be rewritten, if you could convincingly deny that past events never happened.

Pretty funny, huh? Science fiction author Aaron Allston once said that the difference between tragedy and comedy is that tragedy is something awful happening to someone else, while comedy is something awful happening to someone else. Armando Iannucci, the Scottish satirist responsible for The Thick of It and Veep, puts this principle to work in his adaptation of the French graphic novel The Death of Stalin. Iannucci interprets these historical figures as comical characters and makes farce of the lengths they’ll go to avoid being killed.

To wit: on the last day of his life, Stalin “requests” a recording of a Mozart recital broadcast on Radio Moscow. The problem: Radio Moscow didn’t actually record it. So the producer goes great lengths to stage a second performance—pressing a new conductor into service, bribing the pianist, and filling empty seats in the concert hall with citizens literally grabbed off the street. The result: a recording of what the producer assures Stalin’s men is the performance as broadcast.

Iannucci doubles down on the absurdity by casting identifiable actors (often comedians) in the roles who don’t transform into famous men of history. Indeed, three of the leading actors play their characters as variations of what they’ve been doing their entire careers. Steve Buscemi’s Khruschev is brittle, high-strung, and Brooklyn-accented. Michael Palin’s Molotov is a neurotic buffoon not far removed from the dozens of similar characters he played as a member of a certain Flying Circus. And nothing would have surprised me less than if Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov started spouting random George Bluth Sr. quotes.

Despite these and other remarkable performances—Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin, Jason Isaacs as the cocky Field Marshal Zukhov, and strongest of all, Simon Russell Beale as the crafty, canny, and psychotic Beria—the main draw isn’t any one actor or actress but Iannucci himself, choreographing historical events as if they were scenes in Clue and writing deft, sharp zingers for his cast to lob off each other. While none of the characters prove as quotable as Iannucci’s most endearing creations, Alan Partridge and Malcolm Tucker, we do at least get Buscemi responding “And I want to fuck Grace Kelly” to Vasily’s request to deliver a eulogy at his father’s funeral, and Tambor inviting his rivals to kiss his Russian ass, and those are moments worth having.

Now, is it funny? I laughed quite a bit, but all comedy is in the eye of the beholder, and this specific kind of comedy won’t be to everyone’s taste. But I do assert that one of art’s most important roles in culture is to help us make sense of the senseless, and The Death of Stalin uses comedy to transform the end of an unthinkably large tragedy (this will be the last time that losers in Soviet power struggles will pay with their lives) into something that can be held in the mind and understood—and if we understand it, perhaps we can prevent it from happening again.

Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Adrian McLoughlin, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko. Directed by Armando Iannucci. 107 minutes.

Capsule Reviews: The Dinner; The Shape of Water; A Cure for Wellness; Death Note; It Comes at Night

Capsule reviews of The Shape of Water, It Comes at Night, and more

I’m planning on seeing a lot of movies in December, so instead of dropping 20 capsule reviews on you on New Year’s Day, I’ll break them up into more manageable groups.

The Dinner

The Dinner

United States. Directed by Oren Moverman. Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny.

If esteemed actors screaming at each other for two hours is your idea of a good time, The Dinner should make for a satisfying experience. Gubernatorial candidate Richard Gere and his wife Rebecca Hall (sporting a bob causing her to uncannily resemble political strategist Liz Mair) invites his depressed brother Steve Coogan and sister-in-law Laura Linney out for the sort of meal which is more art than food. Theoretically, they’re there to discuss an important family issue—no spoilers, but let’s just say that awful parents make for awful children—but mainly they spend the first two acts sniping at each other, both at the restaurant and in many, many flashbacks.

Cut through the thick misanthropy, heavy-handed comparisons between family arguments and the American Civil War, and the awkward flashbacks—The Dinner has more “hey, remember the time when…” moments than an entire season of Family Guy—what you’re left with is a scathing portrait of the hypocrisy of white privilege, using the characters’ apparent liberalism to cut deeper. It speaks volumes that the politician turns out the most sympathetic of the lot (although I found Coogan easier to empathize with once I understood the depth of the character’s mental illness, which doesn’t mean he isn’t an ass). While the film undoubtedly focuses on the relationship between the two brothers, I would have liked to have a better understanding of the women of the story, especially Gere’s first wife (played by Chloë Sevigny) who turns up in a couple of flashbacks.

The format requires a main cast fit comfortably into their roles, and these four do. The performances impress, but you’re not likely to walk away from the film with a new respect for any of the actors unless you’ve somehow managed to miss every Richard Gere movie since the early ’00s. The closest anyone gets to “stretching” is Coogan, who does his reliably Steve Coogan thing in an understated New York accent instead of his regular northern English one.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

United States. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones.

“A Cold War fairy tale about a mute woman who falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon” is a pitch only Guillermo del Toro would make, for a movie that only he could make. It’s my favorite film of the year (Baby Driver coming in a close second), and it might even be my favorite Del Toro, period—and considering that would put it above The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, that’s saying a lot.

It’s damn rare for me to find a film I can find nothing I dislike about—I think the only other films I can say that about are Audition and Oldboy—and I don’t like to gush endlessly, so this will be short. I’ll just say that Del Toro, his cast and crew have put together something that hits just about every sweet spot I have. Immersive world-building, gorgeous design, brilliant actors inhabiting fully-realized characters. If this doesn’t get Sally Hawkins her Oscar, there’s no justice in the world (sorry, Saorise; you’ve already got one, Frances). Nobody plays villainous like Michael Shannon, although among the supporting performances, it’s Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins who really steal the show.

What else? An awesome story about outsiders kicking against the pricks, and a dark, dreamy atmosphere. I even love the score, and I’m usually not a fan of Alexandre Desplat.

Seriously, go see this movie.

A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness

United States. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Starring Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth.

Gore Verbinski scared the pants off a generation with The Ring; he parlayed that good will into what we hope was a lucrative career as the world’s second- or third-leading peddler of Johnny Depp vehicles. Now, he returns to the horror genre with A Cure for Wellness. When the founder of a major financial firm refuses to return from a sinister Swiss health spa to sign off on an important merger, do they hire a P.I. or bounty hunter to retrieve him? No, they do not. They blackmail Dane DeHaan, a sickly-looking junior executive, to bring the wayward founder back.

That’s just the first problem with this heavily flawed film, but it’s by no means the most important one. The three primary problems with Cure are first, that it’s too long; second, that it would be immeasurably improved by being cut by at least forty-five minutes; and third, that there’s no real reason for it to go on for two and a half damn hours. Especially since there’s not enough incident to fill the second act, and Verbinski doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring any of the major themes the plot brings up, such as “we’re all a bunch of brainwashed corporate clones.” Eventually the movie plows through at least three false endings before finally grinding to a halt.

That’s the insult; the injury is that the project otherwise shows such promise. In a visual sense—both cinematography and design—it stands alongside Blade Runner 2049 and Shape of Water as one of the year’s most gorgeous films. Dane DeHaan has finally found a leading role he’s suited for (okay, maybe he’s suited to play the lead in Valerian but I doubt that for some reason), Jason Isaacs has rarely secreted such effective menace, and Mia Goth nails the “otherworldly waif” archetype so solidly I think she might actually be one in real life. And have I mentioned the design? I have? It’s stunning.

Sadly, it’s also stunningly broken, a great example of a film so determined to shoot itself in the foot. This should have been one of the year’s best, but I walked away from it only hoping that Verbinski does better with the Gambit movie (as long as Johnny Depp isn’t in it).

Death Note

Death Note

United States. Directed by Adam Wingard. Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigam, Willem Dafoe.

Adam Wingard (You’re NextThe Guest) is the latest to take up the tale of the titular Death Note. Write a name in the Death Note and that person will die (conditions apply), courtesy the “death god” Ryuk. It falls into the hands of the improbably-named high school student Light Turner, who uses it to kill evildoers across the planet, attributing them to his vigilante alias “Kira.” Not only does this impress his girlfriend Mia, it also grabs the attention of “L,” an eccentric consulting detective who takes it upon himself to investigate these seemingly impossible murders.

From here, you’d expect a battle of wits to develop between Light and L, complicated by Mia’s own desire to possess the Note and Ryuk’s manipulations, and exploring complex themes such as watching the watchmen and playing God. Wingard subverts expectations by using the setup to present a series of elaborately staged and stylishly photographed death sequences. The various fanbases of the story’s previous iterations are like to get riled up by this, but I found them amusing in a shallow, “later Final Destination sequels” sort of way.

Other sources of fun in Death Note come from the performances of Lakeith Stanfield, who plays L as a combination of Sherlock Holmes, the kid from The Middle, and the sort of mumblecore characters who populated Wingard’s early films; and Willem Dafoe, who provides Ryuk’s face and voice. Sadly, the screenplay confuses plot complexity with quality, and several scenes don’t make sense even after the film goes to great lengths to explain how and why they happened. And whoever signed off on star Nat Wolff’s blond highlights should have been fired—they cause him to look too much like Milo Yiannopoulos, a person I prefer not to be reminded of, thank you very much.

It Comes at Night

It Comes at Night

United States. Directed by Trey Edward Shults. Starring Joel Edgerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough.

When the trailer for It Comes at Night dropped in January (I think), it promised a cinematic experience so terrifying I could practically feel my bowels loosening in anticipation. Now, as the year draws to a close, it seems to me to be much more than a horror movie: it’s pure 2017, in concentrated cinematic form.

I’m not saying Trey Edward Schults had any political statements in mind when developing the film. (Mind you, the decision to make the central family multi-racial takes on a certain dimension when considered in Trump’s America.) But the two main themes I took away from it are “the gulfs between us, as people, are larger than ever” and “the real terror, as always, is within ourselves, not outside” and it’s a rare day when I don’t think those things about real life as well. And then of course there’s “grief over the loss of a loved one” which seems to be part of every damn film this year, an aspect shared by popcorn flix (It: Chapter One), prestige projects (Three Billboards), avant-garde exercises (The Crescent), and festival filler (In the Fade).

But that’s just cheddar on the burger. The real meat is the smallness of the characters, symbolized by Shults’ lantern-lit nighttime scenes and shots of people running through vast expanses of forest. Much has been made of It Comes‘ supposed ambiguity, but to me, the lesson is clear: the inevitable comes for us, though we knoweth not the day nor the hour—and yet, as biblical as that sounds, it comes with no real moral reckoning. It’s perhaps the finest recent expression of the smallness of humanity in the face of a cosmos that doesn’t revolve around us. What higher praise could there possibly be?

Cinepocalypse: Trench 11; Animals

A period horror film and a Lynchian nightmare

I saw two films on the final two days of the festival, Trench 11 and Animals.

Trench 11

Trench 11

Canada. Directed by Leo Scherman. Starring Rossif Sutherland, Ted Atherton, Shaun Benson, Robert Stadlober, Karine Vanasse. 90 minutes.

As one of the bloodiest, most destructive, and most senseless mass conflicts of the last few centuries, World War I provides fertile dramatic fodder for horror narratives, and Cronenberg protégé Leo Scherman exploits it to maximum effect in his latest effort Trench 11. Rossif Sutherland (son of Donald) heads an excellent cast as Berton, a Canadian tunneler assigned to an Allied Powers taskforce, led by Brits and supported by Americans. Their assignment: investigate an apparently deserted warren deep beneath the German trenches, rumored to house the laboratories of a notorious engineer of chemical and biological weapons.

Scherman milks the dimly-lit, underground setting for all it’s worth, and once our team of “heroes” reaches the tunnels, the tension never lets up. He pulls no punches when it comes to grue (an effective mix of practical effects and CGI), but wisely uses the infected test subjects as an environmental hazard, not as the primary threat. The antagonists (only the deranged Reiner, a German weapons expert, qualifies as a villain) remain identifiably human, helping the horror work on multiple levels.

Bottom line: highly recommended for those who like their horror unremittingly grim.

Animals (Tiere)

Germany. Directed by Greg Zglinski. Starring Birgit Minichmayr, Philipp Hochmair, Mona Petri, Mehdi Nebbou, Michael Ostrowski. 95 minutes.

A relationship on the rocks turns into a surreal nightmare in Animals. Anna, writer of children’s books, heads to Switzerland with her husband Nick in a last-ditch attempt to save her marriage, but an automobile accident proves to be the first of a series of unsettling and increasingly bizarre occurrences. Meanwhile, Mischa, the young woman hired to look after Anna and Nick’s apartment finds herself stalked by a man who thinks she’s his ex-girlfriend.

Writers Greg Zglinski (who also directed) and Jörg Kalt pile absurdity on top of absurdity: events occur out of order, Anna loses time and appears in two places at once; the talking cat and the giant fork sticking out of the sea are two of the less inexplicable anomalies. The film exhibits a distinct Lynchian influence, although the climax at least provides something that could pass for an explanation.

Unfortunately, this style of film just isn’t my cup of tea: I found it too disjointed. (I think understanding the film uses what I call “wedding ring logic,” after the visual device the viewer should use to tell the Jake Gyllenhaals apart in Enemy. In other words, it requires me to notice things I don’t normally pay attention to.) It didn’t help that I found funny several elements the filmmakers seem to have intended as creepy. (The talking cat is at the top of that list.) On the other hand, fans of Mulholland Dr. and other Lynchian puzzle movies should find this one worth the watch.

Wrap-Up

Well, that’s it for the first Cinepocalypse. Unfortunately I was only able to catch about half of the new features offered; and scheduling conflicts forced me to skip several films I would have liked to see, such as Poor AgnesThe Lodgers, and especially Psychopaths (having to miss Mickey Keating joining forces with Larry Fessenden, Helen Rogers, Jeremy Gardner, and Matt Mercer hurts). And It Came from the Desert sucked hard as a secret screening choice. But other than Desert, I’m pretty happy with my spread of screenings.

Top Five (Non-Repertory) Movies of the Festival, as Far as I’m Concerned:

  1. Mohawk
  2. The Crescent
  3. Trench 11
  4. Applecart
  5. Housewife

Best Director: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent

Best Writer(s): Ted Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix, Mohawk

Best Actress: Kaniehtto Horn, Mohawk

Best Supporting Actress: Barbara Crampton, Applecart

Best Actor: Rossif Sutherland, Trench 11

Best Supporting Actor: Ezra Buzzington, Mohawk

Best Score: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent

Cinepocalypse: Mohawk; Applecart; secret screening

An angry period thriller, a clever meta-horror film, and the secret screening

My fourth day of screenings (and sixth day of the festival overall) brought me MohawkApplecart, and the much-anticipated secret screening.

Mohawk

Mohawk

United States. Directed by Ted Geoghegan. Starring Kaniehtiio Horn, Justin Rain, Eamon Farren, Ezra Buzzington, Jonathan Huber. 91 minutes.

Ted Geoghegan’s follow-up to We Are Still Here finds the filmmaker in an angry mood. Set in unsettled New York territory during the War of 1812, Mohawk pits the Mohawk couple Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin (Justin Rain), and their mutual lover, Englishman Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren) against a small squadron of American soldiers led by the ruthless Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington). The Americans’ goal is to secure the Mohawk as allies against the British—and to treat them as enemies if the tribe refuses. If you know anything about American dealings with the country’s indigenous peoples, you don’t need me to tell you that things go south pretty quick.

Geoghegan mixes genres unapologetically here, but the main vibe is that of a hunt/chase film with a hint of horror and a large portion of tragedy, with sharp and brutal action sequences; you can almost feel the musket ball as it tears through flesh. The three leads put in fine performances and have fantastic chemistry, but the American soldiers, villainous though they are, are drawn fully as characters; particularly memorable are WWE wrester Jon Huber as the hulking but strangely honorable Lachlan and Noah Segal as the foppish, cowardly translator Yancy.

The suspense, action, and overall intensity of the film help deliver its powerful social commentary. Mohawk’s resistance to the whitewashing (pun very much intended) of American history is especially important, for reasons I hope are obvious.

Applecart

Applecart

United States. Directed by Brad Baruh. Starring Brea Grant, AJ Bowen, Barbara Crampton, Sophie Dalah, Elise Luthman, Joshua Hoffman. 80 minutes.

Director/co-writer Brad Baruh (a protégé of Don Coscarelli, who executive-produced) subjected his feature début, Applecart, to “radical changes” since rolling it out at Fantastic Fest to what seems to have been a largely negative reception. I gather opinion of this “definitive cut” is still polarized, but fuck it, I really liked it.

Brea Grant and AJ Bowen play the parents of two teenagers (today in “You Are Old”: Brea Grant is old enough to play the mother of teenaged children) who head to an isolated cabin in the woods with their daughter’s plus-one; the horror starts when Bowen happens across an unconscious Barbara Crampton in the woods. Baruh and co-screenwriter Irving Walker interpolate the plot with scenes from a future episode of a true-crime reality show (shades of The Final Broadcast) focusing on the family’s tragic massacre at the cabin. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), the two versions of events don’t jive.

Baruh delivers top-notch gore and fantastic performances from his cast (particularly Grant and daughter Sophie Dalah, but Crampton steals the show), but what I really loved was the structure and commentary. Without it, all you have is another cheap Evil Dead knock of. Instead, Applecart delivers a wallop of a message about the importance of “controlling the narrative”—a powerful and devastating lesson, but a vital one in today’s post-truth culture.

It Came from the Desert

Secret Screening: It Came from the Desert

United States/Canada/Finland. Directed by Marko Mäkilaakso. Starring Harry Lister Smith, Alex Mills, Vanessa Grasse.

It is as Mark, the Elevator Operator, told us on the night we met David S. Pumpkins: “Hey, look, it’s a Hundred Floors of Frights. They’re not all gonna be winners.”

And so it was with the secret screening. After initially trying to wrongfoot the audience with the first twenty or so minutes of Barney’s Great Adventure (the first act of which bears an uncanny resemblance to, I bull you no shit, Troll 2), the programmers revealed It Came from the Desert, a dudebros-versus-giant-ants extravaganza with all the charm and appeal of an Asylum production: that is to say, none.

I gave up after about half an hour and went home. It’s conceivable that it improved after that…

…no, I take that back, it’s not actually conceivable.

Next

My last two movies of the festival will be the Canadian wartime horror Trench 11 tomorrow and the surreal-looking Animals on Thursday.

The Revenant

Iñárritu transplants the viewer to an awesome, brutal environment to witness an epic tale of human willpower and survival.

United States. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck. 153 minutes. 9/10

Alejandro G. Iñárritu picked an unlikely project to succeed his quirky black comedy Birdman. Set in 1823 and based on a novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant tells the true tale of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who served as a tracker for Capt. Andrew Henry’s (Domhnall Gleeson) expedition of the Louisiana Purchase. Glass suffers life-threatening wounds during a bear attack; the party does not expect him to survive his injuries. The effort of moving him slows the party down too much, so Henry assigns John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to stay behind with Glass and his adopted Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Seeing this as a fool’s errand, Fitzgerald unsuccessfully attempts to murder Glass, ends up accidentally kills Hawk, and rejoins the expedition, telling a lie about Glass and his son’s fate.

Glass not only survives but recovers to the point where he can walk. Struggling against the brutal Western winter, and stalked by hostile members of the Arikara tribe (whose chief searches for his daughter, kidnapped by white fur trades), he pursues a seemingly impossible goal: to make it back to the expedition’s outpost and take revenge on Fitzgerald.

The word that repeatedly comes to mind when reflecting upon The Revenant is “awesome.” To paraphrase webcomic artist John Allison, we’ve deviated from the traditional definition of the word, and now use it to describe how we feel when our bread is toasted exactly right. That’s not what this is. This is the original meaning of “awesome”: the sense of being overwhelmed by something that is huger than us and almost entirely beyond our comprehension. In this case, that’s nature in all of its majesty and brutality, and while The Revenant evokes a time when humans seemed to be a bit tougher, we’re still puny, weak bags of meat and water in comparison to a defensive bear or a torrential blizzard.

Filmed entirely on location–none of yer green-screens or digital backlots here, mate–The Revenant oozes authenticity from every pixel. Iñárritu’s familiar hand-held cinematographical style was the source of much mirth in Birdman, but here he deploys it to a vastly different, devestating effect. By keeping the camera low to the ground, the scenery looms over the characters and the audience, and when the grizzly attacks, the shaky-cam proves essential. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to be eaten by a bear, watch The Revenant.

That sense of cinematic truth extends to the performances. I have a limited amount of respect for actors in physically-punishing roles, but DiCaprio inhabits the role of Glass in a way that goes beyond merely crawling across tundra and grunting for the entire second act of the film. To me, he actually became Hugh Glass, in a way I would have thought impossible. I’ve been watching him in movies for twenty years and while I’ve enjoyed many of his films, I’ve never seen him disappear into a role like he does here. And he’s not the only one! Hardy becomes barely recognizable for the second time this year, and it’s easy to forget The Revenant is the fourth film we’ve seen Gleeson in this year.

The Revenant is one of the most impressive cinematic achievements of 2015, not just in terms of how it was made (which is nothing to sneeze at), but the effect it has on the audience. It takes you out of the comfort of your environment and transplants you to a hostile wasteland to be part of an epic tale of human survival. Genuine movie magic, right here.

THE REVENANT poster.

Macbeth

Justin Kerzel’s interpretation of the Scottish Play doesn’t quite achieve the greatness for which we might have hoped. But built on a strong visual foundation, it remains eminently enjoyable.

United Kingdom/France/United States. Directed by Justin Kurzel, 2015. Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Thewlis. 113 minutes. 7/10

It’s a classic story, one many of us have known since our schooldays. In medieval Scotland, a war hero, fresh from a major military victory, receives a cryptic prophecy whose message is nonetheless crystal clear: he is to become King. Yet if he is not part of the royal succession, how will this come to pass? His wife states what he already knows: the surest way to ensure his destiny is to murder the current king and sieze his throne.

This is Shakespeare’s tragedy of the Thane of Glannis and Cawdor, very loosely modeled on the historical High King of Alba Mac Bethad mac Findlaích; who through ambition and treachery becomes King of Scots, and whose subsequent paranoia and madness lead to his downfall.

Director Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders) and his team of screenwriters conceive their adaptation of the Scottish Play mostly as part war movie, part bloody thriller. That’s not to say they entirely can the tragedy’s political and psychological elements, although Mr. and Mrs. M’s descent into insanity develops rather quickly, with this adaptation putting special emphasis on the couple’s inability to conceive. But Kurzel is clearly most comfortable behind the camera when people are killing each other.

Violence is the order of the day, and blood the major symbolic element; even the sky takes on the distinctive hue of spilled claret. The battle scenes which bookend the picture are remarkably gorgeous, with Braveheart exerting particular influence, most obviously in the facepaint Mackers wears during the battle with Macdonwald’s forces. The production design embodies a rough beauty, reflecting the characters’ baser urges. Even the ceremonial reflects the practical.

In terms of plot, the screenplay mostly hews to the shape and form of its source material, although as always changes must be made. It includes most of the play’s most memorable text. Notable omissions include Banquo’s final exchange with his assassins (“There will be rain to-night…”), and, less forgivably, the witches’ introductory dialog: staging the Scottish Play without “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” and “Something wicked this way comes” is a heresy on the level of omitting “To be, nor not to be” from Hamlet. More successful changes include an increased role for the Witches, and an ominous final scene playing on their prophecy regarding Banquo’s children.

A top-rate adaptation of Shakespeare requires a top-rate cast. Kurzel assembles a strong ensemble led by the great Michael Fassbender as the King and Marion Cotillard as his Lady, supported by Paddy Considine as Banquo, David Thewlis as King Duncan and Sean Harris as Macduff. While excellent, none of the performances are what you’d call revelatory or iconic; Considine perhaps comes closest.

As good as Kurzel’s intepretation of the King of Scotland’s tale is, it doesn’t quite achieve the greatness for which we might have hoped. But built on a strong visual foundation, it remains eminently enjoyable.

MACBETH 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

A Field in England

When you watch a Ben Wheatley film, you know you’re going to get something a little different. Or, in the case of A Field in England, a lot different. Maybe too different.

United Kingdom. Directed by Ben Wheatley, 2013. Starring Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Richard Glover. 90 minutes. 6/10

Trapped on a battlefield of the English Civil War, the coward (Reece Shearsmith) hides. His name is Whitehead, and he is–or maybe was–the apprentice of a mighty alchemist. His master gave him a task–to capture and arrest a man who stole from his library–and he failed. Now he hides from the bloodthirsty mercenary hired to kill him.

Yet his life is fortuitously saved by Cutler (Ryan Pope), a disillusioned soldier in Cromwell’s New Model Army. He has no wish to return to his regiment, and along with two fellow soldiers, the coarse Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and the simple Friend (Richard Glover), decide to desert in favor of an evening of debauchery at a nearby alehouse. Whitehead has little choice but to join them, and hopes he may yet find a way back into his master’s graces.

Yet Cutler is not all he seems. After feeding Jacob and Friend stew spiked with hallucinogenic mushrooms (Whitehead declines, as he is fasting until his task is complete), he leads his three companions to a field and affects the bizarre rescue of the Irishman O’Neil (Michael Smiley). This is the man Whitehead seeks, yet he’s in no position to apprehend the thief.

In this field, O’Neil tells Whitehead, there is a great treasure. He wishes to claim it, and use it to pay off his many debts before absconding to the continent. Yet as powerful as his magic is, he must grudgingly admit that some of Whitehead’s gifts are superior. Whitehead will help him find the treasure. He doesn’t need to say what will happen to Whitehead and his companions once the treasure is found.

Whitehead has little to depend on if he expects to survive this ordeal. His powers are meager, and Jacob and Friend can offer little aid in their addled state. But beneath the apprentice’s feet lies a potent ally. Can he find it in time and save himself?

I have a strong feeling that A Field in England is going to be one of those heavily polarizing movies. Everyone who sees it is either going to love it or hate it. And predictably, I find myself somewhere in the middle.

Ben Wheatley’s segment of The ABCs of Death piqued my interest; Kill List and Sightseers cemented my fandom. He’s an original voice in the genre, with a keen eye, strong casting skills and an ability to work within a number of genres. (Kill List is a cross between a torture porn-ish crime thriller and The Wicker ManSightseers is a deeply unsentimental black comedy with a wide streak of social commentary.) He’s capable of accessible work (he cut his teeth directing television, and continues to work in the medium; in fact, he’s directing two episodes of the upcoming season of Doctor Who), but he’s not afraid to take risks or try weird things. Bottom line, you watch a Ben Wheatley film, you know you’re going to get something a little different.

Or, in the case of A Field in England, a lot different. The word “psychedelic” gets used a lot when describing it, and to be fair there are sequences like that and they’re the ones which most audiences will remember most. But even the word “psychedelic” makes the film sound like it’s going to be much less weird than it actually is. It’s one thing for a film to present a psychedelic sequence. It’s quite another thing to present said sequence in black and white, in 2014.

To Wheatley’s credit, most of the risks he takes works. The film’s tone is largely serious yet he casts comedic actors in the lead roles: Shearsmith was a member of the sketch-comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen, while Smiley is a former stand-up comedian and veteran of Spaced. Both are excellent, with Shearsmith perfectly embodying Whitehead’s obsequiousness and cowardice, with occasional glints of madness, while Smiley’s interpretation of O’Neil as an arrogant bastard is perfection. The rest of the cast is also strong, with Glover’s Friend being a particular highlight, and Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh making the most of a brief cameo.

The photography is also excellent. The germ of an idea that grew into A Field in England is Wheatley’s desire to film an entire movie in a single location, and despite the open expanse the field offers, the film often oozes claustrophobia from its pores (aided, apparently, by a jury-rigged camera lens that DP Laurie Rose describes as having “a focus of about a foot” and producing an image that is “super sharp, but everything that falls off behind it is utterly out of focus.”)

On the other hand, some of the production’s less conventional elements are hit-and-miss. The psychedelic sequence is appropriately mind-bending but goes on a bit too long and is likely to annoy audiences who don’t like strobing and flashing images. A musical number sung by Glover will delight you if you’re up for that sort of thing, but will drag the action out if you’re not. And, every so often, the actors will interrupt the action and hold their pose for a minute or so. I’m not sure what Wheatley is getting at with these sequences, and I found the effect rather like those ersatz “freeze-frames” that used to end episodes of Police Squad!

For better or worse, A Field in England is a film that demands the viewer’s complete attention, with several characters’ actions not making much sense without scrutiny of what has happened before. Unclear of what exactly was supposed to be going on during O’Neil’s “rescue,” I watched the sequence several times but finding myself no less confounded after each viewing. It was only after watching the film again from the very beginning that I was able to formulate a theory about what was going on, although there’s still several things I’m unclear on.

A Field in England is quite an accomplishment and I respect it for even existing in the first place, but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t try my patience. At a couple of points, only my faith in Ben Wheatley kept me from abandoning it entirely. I’m glad I didn’t, but I also can’t bring myself to blame viewers who do.

A Field in England poster

Retro Review: The Asphyx

Just like Hammer and Amicus used to make

United Kingdom. Directed by Peter Newbrook, 1973. Starring Robert Stephens, Robert Powell, Jane Lapotaire. 86 minutes. 6/10

The quest to cheat death is a familiar one in horror fiction, and Sir Hugo Cunningham, the protagonist of The Asphyx, belongs to a long tradition of mad and semi-mad scientists driven to unravel the secret to immortality.

Set in the 1870s, The Asphyx details how Sir Hugo (Robert Stephens), a country squire with interests in photography and parapsychology, discovers the film’s titular spirit. In a series of photographs he and his associates have taken of people as they die, he discovers each features a mysterious smudge seemingly not caused by either faulty equipment or human error. Could these photos depict the soul leaving the human body?

Sir Hugo’s next clue comes as the result of personal tragedy. At a family gathering, he films (using a primitive motion picture camera) a boating accident in which his son Clive drowns. The mysterious smudge appears in the footage, but moving towards Clive, not away from him. Sir Hugo comes to the conclusion that the smudge might be an “asphyx,” a spirit described in Greek mythology that accompanies the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

He finds the final piece of the puzzle when, on behalf of an organization protesting capital punishment, he films a public execution. Using a spotlight of his own devising–the beam filtered through water dripping upon phosphorous crystals–he briefly and accidentally reveals the presence of a spectral figure which appears as the criminal hangs. Reviewing the footage later, Sir Hugo notices two things: first, that the beam of light trapped the figure, believed to be the asphyx; second, that as long as the asphyx remained trapped, the condemned man could not die.

Sir Hugo reasons that if he could somehow summon one’s asphyx (by bringing himself to the point of death), and trap it permanently, that he would never die. Involving his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) and daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire) in his experiments, he gains the answers he seeks–but at a terrible price.

The Asphyx is a textbook specimen of vintage British period horror, the sort of films Hammer and Amicus used to make. All of the signature elements of the format are in place. Nobody as familiar as Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee appears, but Stephens and Powell are more than capable of bringing their characters to life. The former portrays Sir Hugo as more down-to-earth and sympathetic than your average mad scientist without sacrificing the obsession; the latter’s take on Giles is a more capable character than most male juvenile leads in this sort of film. Christine is more of a reactive agent in the plot than an active one, but Lapotaire’s performance in the role is better than required.

The film is also chock-full of authentic-seeming (if not actually authentic) period detail. The film’s science is in line with how the “natural philosophers” of the Victorian age thought such things really worked. The interest in spiritual matters reflects the obsessions of the period, and while the asphyx isn’t a real spirit from Greek mythology, the film’s able to pull it off. Some viewers might find certain aspects of the story weird, such as the romance between Christina and her adopted brother Giles.

The production design is superb, filled with vivid detail. The asphyx effect is a bit hokey today, but I expect it was quite effective in the early ’70s. Sir Hugo’s method of trapping asphyxes has an endearingly proto-steampunk feel (and is also reminiscent of the later Ghostbusters).

Sadly, the direction and editing are problematic. Poor editing robs two crucial scenes (Giles’s death and the guillotine sequence) of vital emotional power. There are several highly questionable directorial decisions, such as the choice of footage used when Sir Hugo screens the footage of his son’s death to his peers. And a number of flaws exist in the story–such as the magically teleporting guinea pig and the complete disappearance of Sir Hugo’s fiancée from the story by the end of the first act–that could either be problems with the script or scenes deleted from the final cut.

Contemporary audiences might have accepted such flaws, but the modern viewer might not.

The Asphyx is, ultimately, an artifact of the time that produced it. It doesn’t have much to offer viewers who aren’t interested in this type of film. However, fans of the format should enjoy it immensely.

The Asphyx poster