Friday, May 19, 2017

Film roundup: new Kelly Reichardt, Demme Jam, The Transfiguration and more

I have loved some of the films of Kelly Reichardt - Old Joy and Night Moves especially - and respected others (River of Grass, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek's Cutoff). She makes films that are both intensely observant and gentle, that are quiet but rich, that assume left-leaning liberal points of view but also do much to undercut and challenge them -- as with Night Moves, her previous film, which deals with a group of eco-saboteurs who make a horrible mistake, and then have to find a way to live with the repercussions of that; that her characters fuck up and do morally questionable things made the film an uncomfortable experience, perhaps, for people who expected cause-oriented flag waving, but there is nothing particularly simple or uni-dimensional about Reichardt's universe; there are actions, and consequences, and coming to terms with those consequences, which may or may not be possible to do - and which may not happen in the course of the films, which are comfortable with open-ended, unresolved endings. I have tried enough times without success to interview her that I don't try very hard now; she's clearly a woman who prefers to DO the work than talk about it, as her nearly silent commentary track to Old Joy will amply demonstrate. She is not, however, a difficult person, it seems: she has a rep as a tough interview, but she seemed very friendly and personable during the Skype chat with the audience the Cinematheque organized last year. I am not sure why I'm not entirely feelin' it (yet!) around her newest film Certain Women - which I was excited about last year, when I first heard about it during the Cinematheque's Reichardt retrospective, but which took a very long time to actually get any screen presence at all in Vancouver. Maybe I've just had too much else on my mind this year? I'm going to try to make it to the Cinematheque tomorrow to see it, in any case. For some reason, the distributors are being stingy about making screeners available (even though it's already out on DVD!), so I haven't been able to preview it, but I'll try to note reactions ASAP after I catch the first screening. Michelle Williams, whom I've liked in everything I've seen her in, is in it, as is Laura Dern (capable of fine work, but seldom onscreen these days) and Kristen Stewart, who I think is a highly capable, under-rated actress. I don't think I know Lily Gladstone yet, whom the Cinematheque writeup describes as "a revelation;" she has had only one other feature film role to my knowledge, an adaptation of James Welch's novel Winter in the Blood (authentically First Nations, I believe - I don't THINK Welch is a white guy). She has an interesting face, in any case (bottom one on the poster, above).

There is plenty coming up elsewise at the Cinematheque to note - from Sunday's Afternoon with Marv Newland programme this weekend to a chance, not too far off, to see Stephen Chow's delightful, silly Kung Fu Hustle - his follow up to Shaolin Soccer - on screen, as part of a retrospective of Hong Kong cinema. Also coming soon, there's a restored Bogart cult classic I haven't seen, which I believe plays tonight alongside the Reichardt movie, and free screenings of three Canadian films - Atom Egoyan's most self-hating and cringe-inducingly embarrassing film, Calendar; Michael Snow's classic of experimental cinema, Wavelength; and Alanis Obomsawin's documentary about the Oka crisis, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which I might just check out for what it reveals about a favourite film of mine, Clear Cut, informed by events at Oka. Plus the Cinematheque's 24 Hour Movie Marathon is back; I've never attended and doubt I will this time - it's the sort of thing I would have eaten up twenty five years ago, but which sounds daunting now; still it's a hell of a fun-sounding idea (made vastly more appealing by their new, improved seats - which aren't that new anymore, but are still the most comfortable seats the Cinematheque has had since I started going in the 1980's).

Meantime at the Vancity Theatre, there is a documentary of the moment about the housing crisis and homelessness in Vancouver, called Vancouver: No Fixed Address; a pretty unique-sounding animated film called My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea; and - a little further into the future, a tribute to filmmaker Jonathan Demme, Demme Jam, another FREE event, where (I believe the idea is) people will introduce and talk about their favourite clips from Jonathan Demme's films. There are some of Demme's films that I have not yet seen, but based on what I have seen, I think Demme's concert films are where he really shines; you don't realize just how intelligently and beautifully filmed and edited a work like Stop Making Sense - his Talking Heads film - is until you take a look at almost all other concert films and see what a mess people usually make of the form, with zooming cameras and choppy edits which I suppose are designed to imitate the music, but which often make it absolutely impossible to just watch and appreciate the musicians at work. Demme is great at that, however; he has tremendous respect for the performers onstage, knows that people want to watch them and that what they are doing - making music - is inherently interesting on screen, without gimmick or glitz. He mostly stays out of the way of the process, taking a fairly calm, observational approach, while still providing plenty of pleasing details and asides. Storefront Hitchcock, showcasing Robyn Hitchcock, performing in, yes, an empty storefront, is filmed with a slightly different eye from Stop Making Sense, but with just as much restraint and intelligence. (Swimming to Cambodia, if you count that as a concert film, is also an old favourite of mine, though somewhat marred by Spalding Gray's later suicide, which he orchestrated in such a way that his family fretted for some time before his body was found; it's a shitty way to go, not that being found dead in your hotel room is much better).

After that, there are four categories I place Demme's films in - of the ones I've seen; I've missed some of his early Corman productions,  did not see his Wallace Shawn/ Andre Gregory collaboration, A Master Builder, and never got around to Melvin and Howard, which I'm told by a couple of people that I respect is his best film. Of the ones I have seen, there are those that I think are near brilliant (Rachel Getting Married - pictured above - almost arrives at times in Cassavetean territory, depicting familial conflict and awkwardness around a wedding ceremony, and seems his best non-concert film); those that I really would like to like more than I do (his Hitchcockian Last Embrace, with some great work from Roy Scheider and an ending that fails so hard I put it out of my mind every time I see it, which apparently requires me to see it again every now and then to remind myself that he fucks it up); those that I respected and enjoyed, but have no investment in or attachment to, like Philadelphia, Married to the Mob, and Something Wild - all very fun films, but outside my usual areas of passion; and those that annoy me for one reason or another, either because they're too crass (the unsubtle exploitations and hammy Hopkinsisms of Silence of the Lambs), too cute (his trivial remake of Charade, The Truth About Charlie, which ACTUALLY PROPOSES TO REPLACE CARY GRANT WITH MARK WAHLBERG, ferfucksake), or so annoyingly unnecessary and ill-advised that they offend my love of cinema (his remake of The Manchurian Candidate - though now I want to see that again, since it seems Robyn Hitchcock actually acts in it, something I had forgotten about entirely; his brief appearance in Rachel Getting Married just involves him singing songs at the wedding in the film, which isn't exactly a stretch).  A video mix of inspired moments across his catalogue might just be a very fun way to appreciate his work. (RIP Jonathan Demme, by the way, and Chris Cornell and Spalding Gray and anyone else dead - Michael Parks, Powers Boothe, I just don't have time to keep up with obits these days!). 

Finally (for this blogpost, anyhow) there is a moody, smart and I gather ultimately quite horrifying indy vampire film, The Transfiguration, which I think will excite anyone who likes horror movies (but doesn't mind them subdued and reflective). One obvious comparison is to George A. Romero's Martin, since it deals with a contemporary vampire, a young man who has seen Let the Right One In and deems it superior ("more realistic") to either Twilight or True Blood, and whose vampirism is an extension of his growing up alienated and lonely, a way of trying to figure out who he is and where he fits. He happens to be black. The film begins provocatively enough: a man at a public urinal hears sucking sounds coming from a bathroom stall, peeps under the stall door (actually GETS DOWN ON THE BATHROOM FLOOR to do this, something I would really not consider), and presumes when he sees two men inside that something gay is going on. Nope: turns out, as we enter the stall, that it's Milo, our protagonist, who is sucking the blood from the neck of what appears to be a dead white businessman; once he's done, Milo steals the man's money, which he ends up hiding behind his shelf of vampire-themed VHS tapes (he's also a big fan of slaughterhouse documentaries). A whole bunch of flags go up: is this somehow going to use vampirism to show young urban black youth "preying" on whites? Is it going to somehow equate vampirism with homosexuality? Is there going to be - as with the source novel for Let the Right One In - an element of pedophilia here? (Milo is barely a teenager). I tend to respond to the first moments of a movie like they contain a thesis statement, hidden or not, and a few bells were ringing; but quickly I found myself fascinated by Milo, his life, and his relationship to an even lonelier, self-harming white girl who moves into his building. I actually haven't finished the film yet, have managed to keep myself from knowing where it is going, but I think I can already confidently recommend it. It screens one time only at the Vancity Theatre at 10:15 PM tomorrow (Saturday) night. Reichardt fans would probably like it, and will probably be happy to see Larry Fessenden - whom I spoke to last year about his role in Reichardt's River of Grass - popping up in the film (he seems to get his throat cut in most movies he has cameos in lately, so I'm wondering how long he'll last in this one).


Allan MacInnis said...

Certain Women is, of course, really good! It has a little bit of that "short story problem," where you're left wishing each story had been a novel, though the Laura Dern one is nearly complete, and I recommend the film no less. The Michelle Williams story is the least satisfying, though it did make me wonder if Rene's quail calls were in homage to Altman. (I am awake early and too lazy to check the spellings of Auborjonois or Brewster... McCloud?). Lily Gladstone is indeed great, and I liked her story the best of the three, while the people I talked to liked it the least, though it has the least satisfying ending. Also... Did Lucy die? There are lots of dogs and some horses, but she isn't in it, and the film is dedicated to her. There is a little Welsh corgi who is a real scene stealer, though. I didnt get its name...anyhow, another fine film. Everyone laughed at one of Jared Harris' lines near the end... you will know which.

Allan MacInnis said...

Finished The Transfiguration at home tonight, while people were still watching it in the theatre! I liked it, and I don't regret recommending it based on only having seen half the film; it's well worth seeing, the most unique and interesting vampire film since Let the Right One In. I have two criticisms, the first of which involves no spoilers whatsoever, and it goes something like this: fer fucksake, Twilight, in its highly recognizable hardcover doorstop incarnation, is available at every thrift store in the western world, in multiple copies, for a buck or less; it is an easier and cheaper book to find than the fucking Da Vinci Code these days. So why the HELL do the filmmakers use an obviously different book when the vampire's girlfriend gives him Twilight as a gift? I'm no fan of Twilight, but I noticed the switchout as soon as she says the book was Twilight. Hells no, it wasn't! Lame.

Secondly, you know, this is, sadly, one of those films that arrives at a great ending, then another, slightly less great ending, and then - spoilers follow - they go on for another two minutes, trying to find ANOTHER place to end, finally arriving at a limp, disappointing fizzle, compared to what was already on the screen, so that you go away mad at the movie for not having trusted itself. There *is* a problem with the first, best ending: it makes obvious the film that The Transfiguration REALLY owes a debt to, which is unclear elsewise, which is the original, Abel Ferrara Bad Lieutenant. I didn't see that coming, but both films are about a man with bad habits who becomes transformed by love and decides to enact a plan of redemption that involves his own passively-engineered demise. "Hey freak" and "hey cop" - bang, bang: identical. They still could have stopped there and arrived at something powerful; I mean, I don't think Ferrara would have sued or anything, particularly given more egregious ripoffs of his film that have existed (I like the Herzog film plenty, don't get me wrong, but I can see why Abel's ass was chapped by it). The subsequent shot of the sun, that Milo is watching as he dies, kind of takes away from concerns of plagiarism, so it would also have been okay as an ending, if the concern was not doing EXACTLY the same thing as Bad Lieutenant. The joke about Twilight sucking aside, though, we really didn't need to follow the girl on the bus, really didn't need to affirm that Milo wasn't going to rise up from the autopsy as an undead being - if that was indeed why we ended up with autopsy and funeral scenes - and really, really didn't need Milo in voice over to make his thoughts about vampires being able to kill themselves explicit; they'd have been better left buried earlier in the film, maybe alluded to subtly. Sometimes you gotta leave it to the audience to go back and work it through for themselves, especially if you'd like them to want to watch your movie more than once. O'Shea, with this weak, too user-friendly and un-self-confident ending, kept his own film from greatness, from being a film that would make me want to watch it again. Everything else about the film is so good that he shoulda known. He loses a whole mark, dropping from A+ to B+, for wasting a great ending in favour of a bland one.

Oh, guess what, Larry Fessenden gets his throat cut AGAIN! I feel like I've seen him die this way in his cameos three or four times now - certainly, and most memorably, in Ti West's In a Valley of Violence (maybe also in You're Next?). I'm starting to wonder if there's some weird personal history with Fessenden's throat that makes him want to die this way, or makes people want to kill him this way, on film. He is a fucking brave actor, though: it's like he's willing to take the least flattering role in the whole screenplay - fat, spouse-abusing drunk and bad father? - and save anyone else the indignity of doing it. He's just gross in this. He's great!

Allan MacInnis said...

...though as a friend rightly observed, what exactly WAS the point of the gay hookup reference in the beginning of the film? Is it meant as a "we're not in Kansas" anymore provocation, and nothing more - a red herring that isn't thematically relevant at all? Why strike such a note if it has nothing to do with the rest of the film - to acknowledge with the peeing white guy at the beginning of the movie that we're in voyeuristic territory here? The film is pretty sensitive to the experience of its characters - I didn't feel like Milo, his brother, or even the gangstas of the film were being "exploited," but I could see there being a very critical reading of this film, that calls the use of these characters into question.... dunno, now that I think on it, what to make of any of that. I liked Milo... I liked his choices... I was rooting for him... but to the extent that he engineers his destruction, having discovered he's become evil... is there an implication that this is a choice other characters in the movie - the gangstas, say - should make? How convenient for white people, if all black "bad guys" destroyed themselves, devoting their last gesture to helping some white person?