If you are even the least bit interested in a) damn fine cinema, b) damn fine science fiction or c) both, you need to watch Shane Carruth’s debut film Primer (2004) and his latest sensation Upstream Color (2013). Both are available to stream on Netflix. Catch them before his third feature, The Modern Ocean, arrives sometime in the next year or so.
Carruth is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today–just a quick look at the credits of Upstream Color confirms that this mathmatician-turned-filmmaker is something special. He not only served as the film’s writer, director and producer, but also starred in a leading role, composed the score and independently distributed it after its brief festival run. Film School Rejects has a great piece exploring the film, one of the most mind-bending of the year. I won’t go into plot details here, but the movie touches on themes of human connection and the cyclical nature of life. It is a film you will want to watch more than once (it is beautiful to take in, but challenges you to think about the meaning of every image).
Primer on the other hand is an ultra low-budget ($7000!), time travel sci-fi tale, one that is excellently done given the resources available to Carruth for his first feature (it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival). Like Upstream Color, those looking for a linear narrative will be disappointed–laws of physics are as likely to be broken as the established conventions of filmmaking. Notable for its refusal to dumb down dialog for a non-scientist audience, the story centers around four engineers who accidentally stumble across the solution to time travel. The characters and scenarios feel raw and real (thanks in part to the flat look provided by the 16mm filmstock) and it is significantly more dialog driven compared to the relatively meditative Upstream Color. It is rare to find a director that can simultaneously exhilarate and challenge, and even more rare to find one with their entire canon of films easily accessible to stream online.
Directed by brothers Jean-Marie Larrieu and Arnaud Larrieu, this sometimes bizarre, often darkly comic noir thriller relies heavily on the acting of Mathieu Amalric to keep it in the realm of the believable and plays like Freud and Hitchcock decided to team up on Jekyll and Hyde meets Basic Instinct. Amalric plays Marc, a womanizing professor who lives with his beautiful and curiously unattached sister in a remote winter mountain lodge. When a student romantically linked to Marc turns up missing, the police start to investigate and his world spirals slowly out of control. The raw power of the gorgeously shot Swiss Alps are juxtaposed with the curves and glass of the university, providing a chaos/order milieu as the backdrop–an element as integral to the tone and mood of the film as any character. One of the most fun and under-the-radar films at the festival.
A throwback to 1980s creature features and one of the best Midnight Madness films at TIFF. While other movies might get more press for their titles (All Cheerleaders Die) or undiscovered Evil Dead-esque indie horror cred (Almost Human), The Station is pure old-school John Carpenter horror fun. Remote location? Check. Great acting from its no-name cast? Check. A creature that breeds with other animals and then becomes a hybrid monster? Check. Austrian goofiness? Check. The perfect midnight movie.
Life as can only be captured by Frederick Wiseman. A timely and important look into the daily routines, battles, challenges and successes at one of the most well-known American universities. A film that will be viewed as a time capsule of the American education system. Pro tip: drink very little before watching the film as it is over four hours long.
All About the Feathers
TIFF programmer Diana Sanchez accurately described All About the Feathers as a ”bromance between a man and his rooster.” What begins as a simple character study about a man on a quest to fulfill his dream of becoming a champion cockfighter becomes a surprisingly powerful story about friendship, the fleeting nature of dreams and a glance into a side of Costa Rican culture absent from the familiar beaches and resorts. One of the gems of TIFF.
A look at the negative effects of the internet on our society. Any one of the issues presented could be its own documentary, but still a thought-provoking starting point into the darker side of the World Wide Web.
Greed, capitalism and materialism all wrapped up into a home invasion drama. A group of nomads in business suits progressively insert themselves into a family at the top of the western culture food chain exposing the shallowness of their lives in this unsettling Kafkaesque allegory. Stick with it the whole way and you will find solving the film’s riddles is well worth the challenge. Already picked up for distribution by Drafthouse Films.
Missing from Rags and Tatters is the surging energy of Tahrir Square featured in documentaries like The Square, but this makes the film no less revolutionary. Set on the outskirts of Cairo, a nameless man escapes from prison only to find the outside world has become a tense, violent and uneasy place. Gangs patrol the poor neighborhoods where he seeks shelter and gunshots ring out at random. The hand-held choppiness of the film’s opening frames give way to contemplative long takes and dialog purposefully muted by director Ahmad Abdalla (Microphone). The expanse of the outer city, tinged with orange and purple hues of a concealed setting sun is juxtaposed with claustrophobic small dwellings and the tan dustiness of a society built upon hot desert sand. In this way the film is able to capture people rather than characters. Stripping the film down to its bare bones eliminates any stereotypes and expected endings within the narrative and as we journey with this inconspicuous soul through the streets and alleys, we are able to see beyond the news reports and sound bites into the very fabric of life surrounding the Egyptian revolution, providing the “why” to the chanting crowds and power struggles. Rags and Tatters presents quiet moments of sadness, struggle, joy and contemplation among the chaos and uncertainty of Cairo and is a film that will be examined, perhaps even more so than its documentary cousins, as essential to understanding the Arab Spring in the years to come.
Sorry, motherfuckers, this ain’t High School Musical. This ain’t a happy teen romp. This is the movie that takes all that stuff that makes your music and videos and social-networking lifestyles and uses it against you.”
Gareth Evans’ The Raid: Redemption was one of the best films of 2011 and easily the best action flick of the year. After dropping jaws at its Toronto International Film Festival Midnight Madness premiere, it went on to have a solid (but short) theater and DVD run. Its simple premise and raw expertly choreographed action was a breath of fresh air in a world dominated by CGI and cut-heavy chaos cinema. Gareth Evan’s follow-up to the Indonesian action flick, The Raid: Berandal now has a trailer and a a bit more info on when we can expect a release. As Variety reports, Sony Pictures Classics will be theatrically releasing The Raid: Berandal in the United States in 2014.
Check out the first trailer below, coming to you via Twitch.
As mentioned in my previous post, one of the themes that emerged across the more than 300 films at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was the doppelgänger. Three films in particular are representative of this trend–Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (starring a Jake Gyllenhaal doppelgänger), Richard Ayoade’s The Double (featuring dueling Jesse Eisenberg doppelgängers) and Arie Posin’s The Face of Love (with double visions of Ed Harris).
What to do in the meantime while waiting for all this doppelgänger goodness? Check out the posters below, which offer a deliciously tantalizing glimpse into the atmosphere of each film.
The poster brilliantly captures the melancholic unease the and sinister Toronto backdrop presented by the film.
The dark tones and duel nature of society captured in The Double is brought to life through a series of two posters, one featuring Jesse Eisenberg (playing both James Simon and Simon James in the film) and Mia Wasikowska (Hannah, the love interest for the dueling doppelgängers).
The Face of Love
Hard to find an English version of the poster, but it is easy to tell that the film is rooted more in the tradition of romantic drama and less in a dystopian and/or Freudian future like Enemy and The Double.
With over 300 films from 70 different countries, it is hard to imagine a single theme emerging across even a small subset of the cinema presented at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Films dealing with more serious topics of revolution and social upheaval (Rags and Tatters, Ladder to Damascus) screen side by side stories about alien abduction (Almost Human) and undead cheerleaders (All Cheerleaders Die). The diversity of images presented by the festival demonstrates how film, perhaps more than any other art form, is able to capture our dreams, fantasies and the nuances of every day life. But even at a festival as expansive and eclectic as TIFF, themes do emerge, some planned, others out of sheer coincidence.
One of these themes is how the internet continues to change and shape our society. Documentary films like InRealLife addressed this issue directly by following cables and data centers across the globe, interviewing heavily connected teens and featuring experts from the field, while more lighthearted fare like Lucky Them set a search for a long-lost lover and musical progeny against the backdrop of a music magazine dealing with the changes of a digital age. Change wrought by the internet is a hot topic and one that seems ripped straight from the headlines, but more interesting are films that capture the transient currents under the surface of everyday existence, those that are able to tap into the subconscious of an entire culture. This is the realm of suppressed urges and desires, of darkness just below the surface of life, the dreams of a path not taken. The doppelgänger represents all of these ideas and is a concept that has intrigued everyone from Freud to Hitchcock. It is also happens to be one of the main themes that played out across numerous films at TIFF.
Equals parts sorrow and romance, The Face of Love finds Nikki (Annette Bening) falling in love with a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to her dead husband, Garrett (Ed Harris). The most sinister vision of Toronto to ever hit the silver screen is the tableau for Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, an erotic psychological tale where Jake Gyllenhaal plays both a history professor and small time actor. As the lives of these two individuals become intertwined, an almost imperceptible dread creeps in and sets up one of the best endings of the festival. It is a scene that will leave audiences with their jaws on the floor and wondering what lurid corner of consciousness birthed this nightmare.
The standout doppelgänger of TIFF was Jesse Eisenberg in Richard Ayoade’s The Double. Eisenberg plays Simon James, a meek soul leading a bland existence in some unspecified retro-future. His days spent hunched over his computer and the nights alone in his dimly lit, bunker-like apartment are interrupted only by his unsuccessful attempts to woo Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a neighbor clueless to his existence. The guard Simon passes every morning as he trudges into his cubed office prison doesn’t seem to remember him and the waitress at his go-to restaurant consistently regards him with disdain. Things begin to change when the company hires on a new employee, James Simon. Although others don’t seem to notice, James and Simon look identical. The similarities stop there however, as James is a fast talker, a ladies man, a smoother operator–everything Simon is not. Into this alter ego, Eisenberg expertly channels the brashness and braggadocio of previous roles, namely The Social Network as Mark Zuckerberg and Now You See Me as magician J. Daniel Atlas. Although Simon attempts to befriend his duplicate, when he spills his guts out about the nature of being lonely, James steals the prose to sweep Hannah of her feet and in similar fashion takes credit for his ideas in the office (much to the acclaim of one Mr. Papadopoulos, the role Wallace Shawn was born to play forever). Even his mother seems to prefer his living, breathing alter ego. This makes for some darkly comic fun throughout the film, but also sets up an ending that will inspire debate long after the credits have rolled. Fittingly, the The Double ends as it begins, a double ending or a double beginning depending on how you read it.
The film is dark and moody, evoking an almost subterranean feel and the whole affair has a distinct British sensibility. But aesthetics aside, the brilliance of Ayoade’s film is its ability to capture the dichotomous nature of the current western world. Unlike 1984 and Brazil–two obvious influences–corporations have replaced the state, providing a slightly different twist on the dystopian surveillance narrative. Every piece of work is logged and tracked, employee movements are monitored and the wet dream of Taylorism is realized. People become nothing more than machines–manpower!–cogs in an age valuing data over physical objects or human connection. Just as the rich need a subservient population of poor kept motivated by the desire for a better (if often unobtainable) life, so to do companies need employees with blind devotion to the cause (for glorious profit!), motivated by contests, games, peer competition or devotion to a revered CEO figure (The Colonel, played by James Fox).
The world of The Double may share qualities with the the Orwellian environment depicted by its cinematic predecessors, but this is a tale of a more cerebral nature. Winston Smith and Sam Lowry (1984 and Brazil respectively) recognize and try to escape from the nightmare in which they live. The environment spurs them to action and even a taste of freedom before they are ultimately enveloped by the omnipotent eyes of the state. But instead of a story of awakening or escape, The Double is a microscope into the psyche of humans trapped in such an environment. The point of view is from the inside looking out. The split nature of Simon James / James Simon is a metaphor of the celebrity age, where the brash and offensive are rewarded and those who are not “known” or have a “personal brand” are trampled. The retro-future aesthetic adds to this dual nature. The old computers remind us of a period when we imagined technology as the answer to our problems while simultaneously presenting the “now” of unforeseen human consequences. Simon and Hannah sit isolated in their apartments, longing for connection, but never able to find it.
The Double also presents a few interesting conundrums when it comes to dystopian cinema. The first concerns the actionable nature of cinema itself. If 1984 and Brazil were the warning shots telling us our culture was barreling towards a cliff, Ayoade’s new film is the picture snapped by a photographer as it plunges over. Compared to a straight documentary approach, I would argue narrative fiction film can have a greater impact on awakening the human mind into the realization of the realities that surround us. If we know going into a film that it concerns “real life” our minds are immediately on guard, erecting barriers to anything that may threaten our peace of mind and stability. With fiction–I mean really good fiction like The Double–the mind slips into a narrative and can be exposed to thoughts and ideas that challenge the rules that define everyday life. But what I struggle with is can cinema spur action. The mission of TIFF is to “transform the way people see the world through film.” Arguably, The Double does this, but I often wonder if that is enough in today’s world.
The second conundrum concerns the tropes of dystopia itself. As close as we are to the corporate/surveillance state vision presented by Gilliam, Orwell (via director Michael Radford) and Ayoade, every one of these stories presents heterosexual love, either as a taboo (1984), the ultimate goal of the character (The Double) or as some dream (Jill, the woman from Sam’s dream in Brazil). However, it seems more likely in our society today–if that is what truly is being reflected into these narratives of dystopia–that it would be the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities being marked as taboo or representing the goal/dream. Cinematically speaking, love between a man and a woman is old hat. Eisenberg and Wasikowska are captivating as Simon and Hannah, but the narrow-mindedness and the false taboos displayed by bans on same-sex marriage provide far more interesting and timely content to be wound into a dystopian narrative.
It may not be the haul of expensive promotional goodies the stars get after walking the red carpet, but it suits me just fine. A couple of tickets to Midnight Madness is all this guy needs to be a happy camper.
A standout documentary at TIFF, Jodorowsky’s Dune is the story of one of the biggest “what ifs” in cinema. Years before films like Star Wars and Alien shaped American filmmaking and more specifically, the science fiction genre, artist and cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky assembled a bold vision of Frank Hebert’s novel Dune–considered by many to be the bible of science fiction. Despite completing preproduction work, Jodorowsky’s version of the story (rumored to be almost 14 hours) never arrived in theaters. After numerous false starts, the 1984 David Lynch-directed film we know today was finally made, but its critical and financial failure have caused many to muse about the alternatives. Only a handful of individuals have laid their eyes upon Jodorowsky’s original tome-sized script and storyboard of the film and it has since taken on an almost mythical quality. Director Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Drive, Only God Forgives) is one of the lucky few and even he seems awestruck by its audacious vision in an interview early in the film.
If Jodorowsky’s Dune was simply the story of an artist’s attempt at filming the holy grail of sci-fi, it would be enough to make a great documentary. Jodorowsky is a captivating presence–it easy to see how he was able to convince talent ranging from Orson Wells, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali to star in the film. When sketches from the much sought-after storyboard are animated at various points in the film, it gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. With Dali playing the emperor, a different rock band scoring music for each planet, and an opening sequence influenced heavily by Touch of Evil–galaxies and starships taking the place of roads and cars during an extended take–it doesn’t take long for the imagination to run wild with possibilities.
But director Frank Pavich is not satisfied with simple speculation and goes the extra mile by outlining the striking impact Jodorowsky had on cinema. The team he assembled for his ill-fated project included the influential writer/cartoonist/artist Jean Giraud (also known as Mœbius), Lovecraftian artist H.R. Giger, artist/illustrator Chris Foss, and screenwriter David O’Bannon (Alien, Dark Star), all who went on to incorporate the work from Dune into their own future projects (including some with Jodorowsky himself). Pavich connects the dots between Dune and later films like Contact (1997), Alien (1979), Prometheus (2012), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Star Wars (1977) and FlashGordon (1980), each which incorporate (if not blatantly copy) at least a sliver of Jodorowsky’s vision. His influence even affects the way we watch movies today. With his first two features–the surreal western El Topo and the psychedelic drama The Holy Mountain–Jodorowsky became a pioneer in cult movies. Cinephiles of the night who frequent the weird, odd, and wonderful offerings of midnight madness programs owe at least a small debt to this master of the surreal.
What we realize by the end of the film is Jodorowsky’s version of Dune does exist. Through graphic novels like The Incal (a collaboration with Mœbius) or the countless science fiction and fantasy films that have since borrowed from his original vision, his journey becomes a parable. As originally conceived our dreams may never come to pass, but with enough ambition and passion, like Dune, they arrive in forms we could have never imagined.