Keep Halloween Weird!

A quick entry for those seeking new thrills on Halloween...

If you are planning an at-home movie marathon, here is a trio of recommendations that stray from the ol' horror stand-bys, to say the least:

1.  House (1977) - directed by Nobuhiko Ohbayashi , Japan

2.  Thirst (2009) - directed by Chan-wook Park, South Korea

3.  Trouble Every Day (2001) - directed by Claire Denis, France

Happy Halloween!  Keep It Weird, and Stay Ecstatic!


CIFF Picture Diary

A special thanks to my former film and theatre students who came out for the CIFF:  Husni Ashiku and Nathan Waters.
Thanks to Brian Morgan, who not only joined me for some films, but put me up for most of my time in Chicago.  You can drink the sour beer already.
And, all my love to my partner Jen for travelling from Michigan to attend the fest.  (I'm sorry you had to leave Abby-geddon alone with those poor, tortured boys).

Also, it needs to be said at the end of this CIFF journey that the coordinators and volunteers that organize the CIFF, from the ticket takers to the presenters, ran an incredible festival.  A very special thanks for all of their tremendous effort in keeping everything running smoothly.

                    --Jason Hedrick


Top Ten - 47th Annual Chicago International Film Festival

Not a huge believer in lists, but here it is, just for fun.  1-6 are a pretty impressive, interchangeable lot.  7-8 are definitely a tier below, but still films I enjoyed immensely.  For what it's worth...

1.  "Pina"  Wim Wenders - UK
2.  "The Turin Horse"  Bela Tarr - Hungary
3.  "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia"  Nuir Bilge Ceylan - Turkey
4.  "Into the Abyss"  Werner Herzog - USA
5.  "Day Is Done"  Thomas Imbach - Sweden
6.  "Crazy Horse"  Frederick Wiseman - USA
7.  "Smuggler"  Katsuhito Ishii - Japan
8.  "Southwest"  Eduardo Nunes - Brazil
9.  "Rabies"  Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado - Israel
10."Andrew Bird:  Fever Year"  Xan Aranda - USA

CIFF Diary: Day 13, pt. 2 - The Surprise Event!

10/19 - I love that the CIFF's day of award-winning and audience choice films is capped off by a "Surprise Event," featuring a highly anticipated new feature that will only reveal itself once the opening credits roll.  The admission for the mysterious screening was covered simply by wearing a CIFF T-shirt or Sweatshirt, and the house was pretty much packed with black and white attire.  Although I had managed to come up with only one guess as to what the film might be (Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, perhaps?--it wasn't) I felt like my chances were pretty good considering that prior to a screening on Saturday of The Turin Horse, DePaul digital cinema instructor and fellow film writer Dan Pal informed me that the previous year's film was Paul Haggis's The Next Three Days starring Russel Crowe, a film I still have little desire to see (mostly because of the Crowe-factor).  All in all, I feel pretty satisfied with what we got.  Although the first title card to appear wasn't an absolute guarantee of cinematic quality, it was a good sign:  "Kevin Spacey."  The next title, a bit confusing:  "Paul Bettany."  And, the third title card, I believe, sealed the deal for most of the audience:  "Jeremy Irons."  Then, the unimpressive and ambiguous title, especially to someone like myself who hadn't even heard buzz of this film, appeared in a cold, white font:  Margin Call, directed and written by J.C. Chandor.  Who is J.C. Chandor, you ask?  I don't know, but he's made a pretty timely film.

Surprise!  It's Kevin Spacey!  - Margin Call
Margin Call is a film that lives inside of the 24-hour period of a major, Lehman Borthers-type firm coming to the realization that they have to make their final and ultimate move of moral bankruptcy as the financial state of the institution crumbles beneath their feet.  As we have seen it play out in reality, the fattest rats are always able to scurry to safety and wealth, somehow, and the fattest rat of this film is portrayed with unsurprising gravity by Irons.  Caught up in his own family drama is Kevin Spacey's "Sam," the boss of the top floor, and probably the most human core of the film.  With that said, credit also needs to be given to Stanley Tucci as "the messenger" of the company's downfall, Eric Dale, in what might be one of the most subtly brilliant performances of his career.  Chandor throws a particular scene to Tucci and Bettany late in the film that allows Tucci an unforgettable moment, and shows us that Chandor took some care with this script, and is not out to simply draw nasty caricatures of corporate devils.

Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci in Margin Call
I think the ultimate problem with Margin Call is that it should have been a written by David Mamet at his best (the early 80's, lets say), in a time when David Mamet may be at his worst.  Chandor gets some of the Mamet-esque pressure-cooker elements in there, and most of the film clicks along by the virtue of it's fine performances.  But, if it were Glengarry-era Mamet at the helm, the sense of being immersed in that world would have felt even more complete, suffocating, and dangerous.  As it is, Chandor manages to get off some good lines, and crafts some scenes that really make me curious to see what he will produce next, though not every element of the script has as much forward momentum as it should, and the ending, although admirably risky, is a bit off-kilter.  The supporting cast of Margin Call is very competent, particularly Zachary Quinto (recently seen as Spock in the Star Trek re-boot), who probably deserves billing over Bettany here.  Aside from a particularly wooden turn by Demi Moore (who's lucky she got seated next to the Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi), Margin Call is a solid ensemble piece, though not as weighty as I think it wants to be.

Zachary Quinto in Margin Call
But, the weight of Margin Call as an examination of how the real people involved in these huge corporate meltdowns, which people dedicate volumes to attempting to describe in detail, is appreciated in the way it truncates a view of something so complex within an entertaining, thoughtful, and contained space.  Not a movie I would ever need to see again, but one I am thankful I saw in Chicago at this point in history, and a great way to cap off the CIFF.

Up Next:  My CIFF Top Ten!


CIFF Diary: Day 13 - Of Oedipus and Insects

10/19 - Zaida Bergroth's feature The Good Son was featured in both the "Reel Women" and "New Directors" programming at the 47th annual CIFF, and I was fortunate enough to catch an encore screening of it during my final day at the festival, which gave fest goers an opportunity to see some of the award winning and best loved films of the fest.  The Golden Hugo award winner in the "New Directors" category was Bergroth's debut Finnish "thriller" The Good Son (or possibly, as Google translated for the film's site, Good Boy).  The film stars Elina Knihtila (Leila) and Samuli Niittymaki (Ilmari) as an aging actress and her teenage son who travel to their lakeside retreat, the primary location of the film, as a way to escape the tabloid rumors that have been recently spread about Leila.  Also in tow is the actual "good boy" in the film, Leila's youngest son, Unto (played with quiet perfection by Eetu Julin).  We are introduced to the protective relationship Ilmari has with his mother in one of the opening scenes where Ilmari spots a customer snapping photos of his mother in a diner.  With a seething anger that Niittymaki maintains perfectly throughout the film, we are introduced to the first lashing out of Ilmari, as he takes the patron's phone and drops it into a glass of water.  Soon after, we see Leila sharing a cigarette with Ilmari as she drives them toward their isolated destination.  The gesture of Leila passing the cigarette to her blond son, mop-headed and stoic in the backseat, is charged with an energy that defines the unique character of their connection and permeates the entire film.

Leila and Ilmari - The Good Son
The odd bond between these two, which definitely leads the viewer subtly toward Oedipal interpretations, is essential to the narrative arc of the story, as Ilmari and Leila's relationship is disturbed by two characters that infiltrate their quiet retreat (Eero Aho as Leila's literate but boring suitor, Aimo, and Anna Paavilainen as Ilmari's sparkle-eyed mix-cd making pursuant, Karita).  The film then puts at stake the extent to which we buy their relationship, as it introduces the threat of outsiders.  And threat is pervasive in The Good Son, which is essentially a film of suspense, with occasional touches of the horror genre.  This sense of danger and repressed violence is held aloft most impressively by Niittymaki, who, if this is a horror movie, is playing the monster.  As Ilmari becomes desperately devoted to Karita, and increasingly jealous of Aimo, we feel the Oedipal arc creeping toward it's conclusion in a plot that, without giving anything away, is told with simple, believable clarity.

Leila meets Ilmari's new girlfriend Karita for the first time - The Good Son
The Good Son uses a preoccupation with the natural, rural setting of the film as a constant reflector of the horrific, naturalistic view the film takes of Ilmari.  As I said before, Ilmari is violent and seething in the face of he and his mother's changing and threatened relationship, but what makes The Good Son so ultimately frightening at it's core is the fact that it presents Ilmari's tendencies as parallel to the natural landscape; as natural as the water, the grass, and the dragonflies.  In an early scene, when Leila and the boys arrive at the house, Leila begins to start a fire in the wood burning stove, only to hear that nature has taken it's course in the time they have been away, as a chirping nest of birds lodged in the chimney audibly begin to reveal themselves.  As the fire burns, and she an Ilmari try negotiate this tense dilemma, we realize that this family is existing within their own suffocating circumstances, and even though it is unclear where the story is going at that point, that it will probably not end well.  It's a remarkable, subtle piece of foreshadowing that is exemplary of the finest touches of Bergroth's ability as a storyteller.

Leila and Ilmari - The Good Son
Bergroth's direction is superb, and deserving of recognition, especially in the way in which she visually contrasts the main narrative to what is, essentially, a "parallel narrative" in the film, that of Leila's youngest son, Unto.  Unto lives on the outskirts of this film, only occasionally entering the story, mostly in conversation with Ilmari, who is too busy for Unto's creative pursuits which involve the ongoing video capture of the insects that inhabit their rural surroundings.  We get the sense that Unto's fascination with the insects, which keeps him away from the family drama, may have something to do with the conflict arising between his mother and his brother, but mostly Unto is presented as having a sincere passion for documenting the natural world, editing together the footage he captures and creating voice-over to accompany his collection of insect world close-ups.  It is an image of Unto that Bergroth leaves us with, after the violence of Ilmari has erupted.  The consequences of Ilmari's actions at this point are ambiguous, as we leave the primary narrative to see Unto in a beautiful final image (a bit reminiscent of Malick's Days of Heaven), quietly observing the nature of the world in front of him.

Unto records the natural world - The Good Son
Although I didn't have an overwhelming reaction to The Good Son at the time of the screening, which may have had to do with it's position at the end my thirteen day festival journey, in retrospect it's hard to come up with anything I object to about the film.  Expertly directed and acted, and very possibly a fringe, art-house horror/thriller classic, The Good Son definitely deserves the recognition it got a this year's fest.

Up Next:  A Surprise!


CIFF Diary: Day 12, pt.2 - Movement and Space

10/18 -
She developed a unique phenomenology of gestures,
a view of the world, so to speak, or even better:
an explanation or interpretation of our humanity
that was wholly new and unexplored.

           -Wim Wenders, on September 4, 2009,
             at the memorial ceremony for Pina Bausch
              in the Wuppertal Opera House

Pina Bausch photographed by Donata Wenders, 2004
Without a doubt, the highlight of the Chicago International Film Festival was Wim Wenders' presentation of his 3-D tribute to the life and work of renowned choreographer, Pina Bausch.  Before the CIFF screening of Pina, Wim Wenders gave an eloquent introduction for his new film that detailed the arduous journey of the nearly abandoned project.  Twenty years in the making, Wenders had communicated numerous times with Bausch about making a dance film, but, even after viewing every dance film he could get his hands on, he was not only dissatisfied with all past portrayals of dance on film, but confounded about how to capture the brilliance of Bausch's work in one of his own.  Then, Wenders told us, he saw a film that brought all of his ideas into the light.  Although he found the title inelegant, U2 3D was an unexpected catalyst for his thinking about the collaboration with Brausch, and he was on the phone to Bausch before the credits were done rolling.  "I know how to do it," he said to her.  Unfortunately, Bausch died at 68 years old, only days after she was diagnosed with cancer, and just before the film was to go into production.

"The Rite of Spring" - Pina
I hesitate to attach the descriptor "3-D" to Wender's extraordinary film, given the climate of the current commercial cinema as it desperately tries to sell every weak-scripted product to a mass audience through the use of 3-D, defiling a technology that, as we see in such rare glimpses, can be used to astonishing affect.  Although "3-D" is entirely accurate and necessary here, the term itself seems to have been dragged through the mud.  I have commented on the empty use of 3-D technology a number of times on this site, but seeing a film like Pina reminds me anew how carelessly the technique of shooting in this format has been used over the last decade (and, trust me, I've seen a lot of them, from the animated features to the horror splatter-fests).  With the majority of 3-D movies, the 3-D process often being applied in post-production as more of a marketing tool than an aesthetic one, the "effect" usually starts out very strong, eventually drifting away from it's capacity to "wow" the audience by halfway into the picture.  And, why shouldn't it?  Everything else in our lives is 3-dimensional, so how long can the thrill really be expected to last inside the cinema, especially when nobody took the care to make the images meaningful in their two dimensional state?  As far as my experience is concerned, I have seen only three films that grasp the potential for 3-D cinema:  Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreamsthe Nasa produced Hubble 3D (not a great film in it's writing or construction, but a mind-blowing 3D experience of time and space travel)and, now, Wim Wenders' Pina.

Wenders was inspired to complete his film by the dancers who lived on with Bausch's work in their bodies.  The way in which he documents Bausch's dancers is brilliant, always contrasting a candid, intimate close up of each member with a voice over of them expounding on Bausch's influence.  Wenders then contrasts the stillness of these portraits with dance scenes that pay tribute to Bausch through each individual dancer, often set in stunning outdoor locations, or within interiors that, through the poetic use of Wenders' camera, become part of the dance in his stereoscopic vision.  Also on display here are longer passages from the most memorable of Bausch's work:  "The Rite of Spring," "Cafe Mueller," "Kantakthof," and "Vollmond."  It is within these ensemble stage pieces that we feel the full power of Bausch's choreography, and begin to believe that Wenders was, indeed, correct:  this is a film that needed to be in 3D.

"Cafe Mueller" -  Pina
Prior to the screening, Wenders told us that Pina is not a sad film.  But, if there is one criticism I can make of Pina, it is that it is difficult to see through 3D glasses when you are weeping.  And, no, the film is not sad, and the tears were tears of absolute wonder.  Wenders told us after the screening that back in the 80's he had no interest in dance whatsoever.  But, once he saw Bausch's work, the weight of what he was seeing expressed was, for him, revelatory.  Particularly, what Bausch's work expressed to him about relationships between men and women was more revealing and insightful than every movie he had seen up until that point combined, he told us.  Pina shows in Wenders' work the careful and intent gaze that was supposedly Pina's trademark as a director, as he allows the life and work of his dear and talented friend to live on through this breathtaking document.

"Vollmond" - Pina
My personal love of dance feels strikingly similar to what Wenders described in his Q&A that evening.  What can be captured about the human condition through the basic elements of motion and space, beyond language, blows me away in very much the same way he expressed, and so fully communicates through this film.  I can say the same for the great movement and spaces of Wender's films, which continue to inspire with the same potency as when I first encountered them.  Without Kings of the Road, Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas...the list goes on...I wouldn't see the world in the same way that I do today.  I thank the CIFF for allowing us to engage with Wenders, and for giving me the opportunity to thank this tremendous director for is work.

Wim and I at the CIFF
Up Next:  Zaida Bergroth's Gold Hugo Winner in the New Directors category at the CIFF, The Good Son.


CIFF Diary: Day 12 - "Holidays by the sea are groovy..."

10/18 - ...or so goes the hilarious tune that is performed by a colorful punk/ska band of musicians who frame the new French comedy by Pascal Rabate, Holidays by the Sea, setting a whimsical tone for this nearly wordless homage to the comedic films of the highly regarded French film maker and actor Jacques Tati; a talent, I must confess, that never connected with my funny bone.  With that said, Holidays by the Sea is sometimes boisterously funny, and the kind of film that may have allowed just the right kind of respite for those who have taken the CIFF journey along with me, and perhaps failed to dig the feel-good qualities of The Turin Horse (click on the trailer, which pretty much says it all).

Dominique Pinon and Delphine Bronzi in Holidays by the Sea
For fans of Dominique Pinon, Holidays by the Sea is a sure win.  Although he is not the lead actor here, if you have seen Pinon in the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (DelicatessenCity of Lost Children), then you are familiar with the kind of acting projects that Pinon fits into best.  Holidays is perfect for Pinon, with his effortless physical humor and his endlessly interesting and impossibly pinched countenance.  If you are one of those who is just annoyed by Jeunet's penchant for visual indulgence over story, then Holidays might not be for you.  But, there is a surprising weight to the central idea of Holidays, which is perhaps what separates it from Jeunet's less-than-satisfying outings.

Dominique Pinon in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs
Maria de Medeiros and Jacques Gamblin in Holidays by the Sea
Holidays by the Sea operates mostly as a critique of bourgeois life, using the vacation as a way to playfully pull off the thin veil of religious convictions that the characters adhere to, in varying degrees, within their workaday lives.  The film uses a clever array of characterizations to bounce this critique off of, from a fetishist who suffers being tied to a bed frame at the cost of seeking his kicks (which includes using a certain orifice as a vase for a bouquet of rose stems), to the central couple of the film, an aging, overweight pair that rediscover a bit of their passion for one another amid the confines of a cultural construct that they have learned to fit into through routine, although they barely fit into it physically.  Campsite families mingle and gather for cocktails, couples swap partners, and teenagers have their first sexual encounters while the adults play.  Although all of this may sound kind of expected, the inspired visual storytelling keeps Holidays afloat for it's brief 77-minute running time.  It ultimately doesn't need to be anything more than what it is, though on a level of ideas, what it is might strike you as being a bit more substantial than what you expect.   

Up Next:  Wim Wenders comes to Chicago to introduce his new 3-D dance film, Pina   


CIFF Diary: Day 11, pt.2 - Tombstones Take Flight

10/17 - ECSTATIC takes it's name from legendary earth walker and film maker Werner Herzog and his notion of "ecstatic truth," which has defined his consistent goal of seeking new and deeply truthful images, always engaging the stories he encounters with a uniquely expansive view of the narrative paradigm.  The image you see the word "Ecstatic" pasted over at the top of this page is that of Anna Karina, a favorite actress of mine, and of French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard.  In interviews Herzog has occasionally delighted in deriding Godard as "intellectual counterfeit money," all the while praising the cultural significance of "The Anna Nicole Show" and the cinematic superiority of a good "kung-fu" movie.  One of the exciting parts of following the career of Herzog (and Godard, for that matter) is the unexpected nature of his choices and his strange preoccupations, always challenging the perceptions of his audience, always asking them to take another leap into a new abyss.  Needless to say, his new film Into the Abyss was for me one of the most anticipated screenings of the festival.

Michael Perry, eight days before his execution - Into the Abyss
Into the Abyss (subtitled, "A Story of Death, A Story of Life") may surprise Herzog fans in it's technique, as it masquerades in part as a conventional "real crime" television show.  For others, Herzog's disinterest in getting to the very bottom of "who did what" in favor of his central questions about capital punishment (as well as his tendency toward interview questions like: "Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel") will most likely frustrate; a sentiment I sensed from the few walk-outs that happened around me before the film's end Monday night.  But, in Herzogian fashion, I like to re-author those walk-outs as a dissatisfaction with the very thing that makes Into the Abyss so essential (though, I'm afraid, poorly titled).  Into the Abyss was shot very quickly with little room for error or re-takes, especially in the case of the scenes that are shot within prison or death row confines.  In this sense, the film recalls Herzog's last film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, where we witness he and his crew find a way to record and transform the ancient cave paintings of Chauvet in the south of France while confined to only a narrow metal walkway.

Herzog and his crew shoot the Chauvet Caves
Jason Burkett - Into the Abyss
In some ways, it feels almost as if the confinement of the Chauvet caves inspired the limitations put on Herzog in Into the Abyss, as he seems to embrace the immediacy of the situation, having supposedly only one attempt at the interviews with the convicted criminals:  Michael Perry, sentenced to death; Jason Burkett, up for parole in 2041.  Herzog also interviews Delbert Burkett, Jason's father, who is serving 40 years on eight felony counts.  Although we have seen Herzog interview in this way before, Into the Abyss contains a lot of Herzog-as-interviewer, which sets up the audience for a film that could possibly lean into John Stossle-like expose territory.  Fortunately, Herzog is incapable of creating something that fits neatly into the facile, exploitative landscape of commercial television.  Going back to the walk-outs I mentioned, perhaps their impatience is a reaction born of the dull conditioning of commercial "re-enactment" dramas.  Into the Abyss asks you to actually listen to it's subjects in a way that simply cannot be explored from within the template of reality TV.  This kind of case shows up on TV nightly, packaged with jittery, repetitive editing and canted angle black-and-white re-enactment footage, relentlessly teasing the "money shot" as the lead in-and-out of every commercial.  In contrast, Into the Abyss asks us to listen deeply.  Once again, this seems complimentary to the way Cave of Forgotten Dreams asked us to really look at it's revelatory images in a way that similarly challenges the impatient "travel" or "nature" TV doc.

The walls of Chauvet Cave
Werner Herzog shoots Into the Abyss
In a recent interview for the Toronto International Film Festival, Herzog commented on this tension between commercial storytelling and the nature of his role as storyteller:  
I have such reservations about television, which interrupts stories with commercial breaks.  Such a great achievement of communal life is the ability to tell stories. We have created it since Neanderthal times, and all of a sudden we are fragmenting it, fracturing it and destroying it for the sake of commerciality of product.
There are moments of Into the Abyss that may go sadly unnoticed, as a majority of audiences tend to look at a film like this through that commercial storytelling lens, only asking the question of "what really happened?" and maybe failing to see the goal of Herzog's storytelling.  Herzog states very clearly in the film, to Perry himself, that he does not feel that anyone should be executed in the manner that Perry was, but the film is far from a Michael Moore-esque polemic against capital punishment (nothing against Moore--unlike Godard, Herzog and I are both fans).  In fact, Herzog gives tremendous weight to the story of the mother of one of the young victims who describes how witnessing Perry's execution literally healed her heart, eventually summing up her position as "some people just deserve to die."  Later, as he surveys the cross-shaped  tombstones of the death row executed, inscribed with only their prison inmate numbers, Herzog fades quickly to black, then back up to a shot of a nearby landfill swarming with birds in chaotic uniformity.  It's through these ecstatic juxtapositions, the ability to allow tombstones to take flight, that Herzog remains one of our most important seekers of truth.

Up Next:  A very French vacation:  Pascal Rabate's Holidays by the Sea