I recently stumbled across this highly amusing 1920 review of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by the Chicago Tribune‘s pseudonymously named film critic “Mae Tinee” (who also owned the distinction of being the first Chicago journalist to interview Charlie Chaplin when he shot His New Job here for Essanay Studios in 1915). Aside from the faint whiff of xenophobia in the line about “their own backyard,” and in spite of the fact that this is a negative review (she doesn’t like Caligari precisely because it was effective in giving her “the willies”), this is a fun read that I think accurately captures the spirit of the film. Tinee calls it “a weird, mad, fantastic thing whose settings remind you of nothing so much as the disordered groupings of varicolored particles seen through the eye of a kaliedoscope,” before concluding that “Caligari is a Poe Charlie Chaplin!” Good God, have newspaper movie reviews gotten worse over the last hundred years?
Monthly Archives: October 2012
Part two of my CIFF report card:
Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Grade: B / 7.4
This begins like a documentary as a group of characters, including a musician whose Spanish-guitar score provides the film with much of its hypnotic power, hang out on a hotel balcony overlooking the Mekong River and talk about nothing much in particular. But, this being an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie, it isn’t long before characters who may or may not be ghosts are eating the entrails of other characters who may or may not be dreaming. This impressive divertissement is slow, quiet and serene, much like the river eternally flowing in the background through most of the film’s slight 61-minute running time. Mekong Hotel may be a minor work by a major director but, after three great movies in a row (Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, “Joe” deserves a little throat-clearing exercise like this while plotting his next move.
F*ckload of Scotch Tape (Grant, USA)
Grade: B / 7.0, Capsule review here.
The Final Member (Bekhor/Math, Canada/Iceland)
Grade: B / 7.1
This charming oddball documentary concerns Sigurdur “Siggi” Hjartarson, curator of the “Icelandic Phallological Museum,” the world’s only museum devoted to the male reproductive organ. Siggi apparently has penis samples of every mammal in the world in his collection, with the exception of the elusive human specimen, and the film details his attempts to find a suitable donor. What seems at first like it might be gimmicky or in bad taste becomes genuinely moving, funny and even suspenseful instead as the filmmakers craft a race-against-time structure by cross-cutting between two potential donors, both of whom want the dubious honor of being “the first”: 95-year old Pall Arason, a legendary Icelandic explorer who has willed his penis to the museum, and Tom Mitchell, a millionaire American cowboy who wants to have his penis surgically removed so he can donate it to the museum while still alive. Proof yet again that truth is stranger than fiction.
Consuming Spirits (Sullivan, USA)
Grade: B / 7.1, Capsule review here.
Rhino Season (Bahman Ghobadi, Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey)
Grade: B- / 6.8, Capsule review here.
John Dies at the End (Coscarelli, USA)
Grade: B- / 6.6
In this horror/comedy/instant cult classic, a new drug known as “Soy Sauce” hits the street with the promise of making users geniuses as well as masters of time and space. It also inadvertently causes them to return from other dimensions as non-human creatures bent on destroying the earth. Naturally, it’s up to two college dropout/stoner buddies to save the day in what amounts to a low-budget, indie version of Ghostbusters on LSD. It may have the least spoiler-free title ever but there are still plenty of surprises (and laughs) in this nutso vision by director Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho Tep) who adapted a cult novel by the pseudonymous David Wong. Paul Giamatti deserves major props for agreeing to play a journalist in a framing story, and for taking his role with deadly seriousness. I found this tonally uneven (a perpetual problem with genre mash-ups) but it will go over well with the midnight movie crowd for whom it was made. You already know if that includes you.
Room 237 (Ascher, USA)
Grade: D+ / 4.5
Five people with too much time on their hands give vent to their theories about what Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining “really” means in this occasionally clever, mostly tedious documentary that puts the concept of “fair use” to the test. The interviewees are never seen but frequently heard explicating their crackpot theories in voice-over (e.g., the film is Kubrick’s apology for helping NASA fake the moon landing, an allegory for the holocaust, an allegory for the genocide of Native Americans, etc.) while the filmmakers mostly show images from other movies, including large chunks of The Shining. This premiered in Sundance to great acclaim at the beginning of 2012 and by the time it showed up at CIFF it was already sporting the IFC Films logo at the beginning. The hoopla is somewhat understandable given that the film has a guaranteed built-in fan base but Room 237 strikes me as something that would be moderately amusing at best as a DVD supplement. Sadly, genuinely great (and highly poetic) “fair use” docs like Los Angeles Plays Itself and The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni will be seen by only a tiny fraction of the people who see this snarky, unnecessary tribute to the tinfoil hat brigade.
1. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls)
2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch)
3. In the Mood for Love (Wong)
4. Halloween (Carpenter)
5. Directed by John Ford (Bogdanovich)
6. Rome, Open City (Rossellini)
7. Wild at Heart (Lynch)
8. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang)
9. Nowhere to Hide (Lee)
10. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
As I noted in my pre-festival coverage, the 48th CIFF offered a virtual embarrassment of riches; I saw 15 movies, a personal record, and still wasn’t able to take in everything I really wanted to see (Raul Ruiz’s Night Across the Street and the Tavianis’ Caesar Must Die both regrettably got away). More importantly, not only did CIFF offer up a lot of good films, the very best of them seemed to matter in a way that said “Cinema is alive and well,” and audiences responded in kind: there was an electric vibe running through the sold out screenings of Holy Motors and Like Someone in Love that resulted in bursts of spontaneous applause and instantly heated arguments at the end of each respective movie. Below are my grades for the films that finished, for me, at the “head of the class.” The rest of my grades will be posted next week.
Holy Motors (Carax, France)
Grade: A+ / 10
Leos Carax’ first feature film after a 13 year absence is a funny, strange, joyous, heartbreaking, beautiful and difficult to describe experience — a tour de force of filmmaking in which chameleonic actor Denis Lavant plays a shape-shifting character (or should that be 11 different characters?) in a series of loosely connected vignettes. This structure affords viewers a journey through myriad film genres (experimental animation, film noir, melodrama, musical romance, etc.) as a means for the director to offer a wide-ranging commentary on both film history and the mutability of identity in the internet age. Obviously not for all tastes, this was for me a mind-bending, soul-thrilling experience that I can only compare to seeing Mulholland Drive for the first time over a decade ago: I laughed, I cried, I wanted to dance in the aisles during the accordion-jam entr’acte. Holy Motors is a movie lover’s paradise and there is simply nothing else like it. To see it on the big screen is to be struck repeatedly by lightning bolts of ecstasy. “Trois, douze, merde!” Long review coming soon.
Something in the Air (Assayas, France)
Grade: A / 9.6
“New ideas require new language,” uttered by a wannabe revolutionary filmmaker, is one of the more stimulating lines of dialogue in Olivier Assayas’ latest (and arguably greatest) movie. It’s also a concept that the formidable critic-turned-director has continually wrestled with throughout his career; intriguingly, the harder Assayas has tried to construct a “new language” to comment on the changing world in the past, the worse off his films have been (as in the ridiculous “cyber-thriller” Demonlover or the aimless artiness of Clean). On the other hand, working within well-established and even conventional aesthetic traditions has tended to produce his very best work (as in Cold Water, Summer Hours and Carlos). Something in the Air is a direct sequel to Cold Water that picks up where the earlier film left off but, being made 18 years later, features a new actor inhabiting the lead role of Gilles (the young protagonist based on Assayas). The end result is a film that borrows from Cold Water‘s playbook (a richly detailed portrait of the French youth culture of the early Seventies characterized by handheld camerawork and impressively naturalistic dialogue and performances) while expanding its scope to engage in complex questions about the relationship between art and politics, and featuring a larger ensemble cast whose globe-trotting, criss-crossing lives make the film take on the feel of a genuine epic.
Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)
Grade: A / 9.3
The late Chilean director Raul Ruiz’s delightfully playful book Poetics of Cinema argues against the necessity of “central conflict theory” that has long dominated commercial filmmaking in the western world. If Abbas Kiarostami, one of the world’s greatest living directors, ever wrote a comparable book on film theory, one suspects he might similarly challenge the notion of the “three-act structure.” The Japanese-set Like Someone in Love may well be the Iranian master’s most provocative work; his extremely unconventional handling of narrative sees him lop his story off at the exact moment where it climaxes, a bold move that I can’t ever recall having seen in another movie. (I imagine the Chicago critic who foolishly called the ending of Kiarostami’s far more accessible Certified Copy “abrupt and unsatisfying” will have an aneurysm if he sees this film.) And yet, this provocation is the movie’s raison d’etre: Kiarostami gives us believable characters and compelling drama, so why, he seems to be asking, do we need “falling action” and “resolution”? The story, such as it is, concerns an elderly, retired professor who hires a young prostitute for the evening. It turns out that she’s a Sociology student (the very subject he used to teach) and he finds himself becoming unwittingly drawn into the lives of her and her pathologically jealous boyfriend over the next 24 hours. These characters are quirky, nuanced, and, as played by a superb trio of Japanese actors, fascinating to spend time with; the fact that each is keeping secrets from the others turns the whole thing into an absurdist shell-game of a narrative, one that revisits Certified Copy‘s role-playing motif but to far darker ends. This can even be seen as a reaction against the earlier film’s surprise success; Kiarostami has said he chose to set Like Someone in Love in Japan so that he wouldn’t be accused of “catering to western tastes.” It may be an exercise in not paying off the audience but that doesn’t mean that it’s not also a great movie. This is major Kiarostami.
Meeting Leila (Yaraghi, Iran)
Grade: A- / 8.2, Capsule review here.
Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium)
Grade: A- / 8.2
Writer/director Joachim Lafosse’s disturbing, slow-burn drama tracks the machinations of a paternalistic Belgian doctor whose controlling influence on the lives of his adoptive Moroccan son and daughter-in-law lead to devastating consequences. The heavyweight cast includes Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup (the co-leads from A Prophet) and Emilie Dequenne (the little girl from Rosetta all grown up), and all three give incredible performances here; each character’s actions are rendered with utter psychological believability as the sharp original screenplay shows with grim relentlessness — but also great lucidity — the inevitable disintegration of an alternative family. As a result, family politics have rarely been rendered so oppressively onscreen. But Lafosse’s widescreen mise-en-scene impresses as much as his script and handling of actors: during the final gut-wrenching scenes, he wisely uses off-screen space to imply that which is too terrible to show.
The Last Sentence (Troell, Sweden/Norway)
Grade: B+/ 7.8, Capsule review here.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Thompson, USA)
Grade: B+ / 7.7
In an era when cable television is flooded with trashy shows about serial killers, this unexpectedly excellent documentary/narrative hybrid takes the least exploitative approach to its subject imaginable. It features extensive interviews with three people whose lives were profoundly affected by the title character: the homicide detective who got the killer’s confession (and who turns out to be a colorful character and delightful storyteller in his own right), the medical examiner responsible for cataloguing the body parts found in Dahmer’s apartment, and the woman who lived in the apartment next door (in complete ignorance of the unimaginable horror that was happening mere feet away). These interviews are provocatively intercut with fictional re-enactments, not of Dahmer’s crimes but of him performing mundane activities – buying goldfish, drinking beer, receiving an eye exam, etc. Some of these sequences, which illustrate the “banality of evil” concept, seem sinister only because of what we know about the subject based on the interviews (i.e., Dahmer purchasing an industrial-sized waste disposal barrel). Young director Chris Thompson shows an impressive compassion for his subjects and an incredible feel for his blue-collar Milwaukee locations. I greatly look forward to seeing his future work.
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Rania Stephan, Lebanon/Egypt)
Grade: B+ / 7.7, Capsule review here.
1. Our Children (Lafosse)
2. The River (Renoir)
3. John Dies at the End (Coscarelli)
4. Pursued (Walsh)
5. Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul)
6. Silent Hill (Gans)
7. The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Thompson)
8. Room 237 (Ascher)
9. Ravenous (Bird)
10. Double Indemnity (Wilder)
Last week I had the great privilege of interviewing the Swedish director Jan Troell when he came to the Chicago International Film Festival for the U.S. premiere of his new movie The Last Sentence. This screening was hot on the heels of the world premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival where Troell deservedly won the Best Director prize. Unfortunately, Troell, a contemporary of Ingmar Bergman and one of the greatest living filmmakers, remains too little known outside of Scandinavia. In the U.S. he is probably best known for his early 1970s masterpieces The Emigrants and The New Land, a long out-of-print two-part epic starring Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman, and Everlasting Moments, his terrific 2008 film, which is available in a superb Blu-ray edition via the Criterion Collection. The Last Sentence is a worthy addition to Troell’s body of work; it tells the powerful true story of Trogny Segerstedt — brilliantly played by the Danish actor Jesper Christenson — a Swedish journalist who crusaded against Hitler from 1933 (long before it was fashionable) until the end of WWII.
Jan Troell is more vigorous and youthful-looking in person than his 81 years might lead one to believe; although he told me he thought Everlasting Moments might be his last film, he has also recently spoken of beginning a new film — an autobiographical drama based on his family’s relationships with their hired help over the years — that one hopes will come to fruition. During the course of our nearly 30-minute face-to-face chat, Troell was soft-spoken, forthright and very friendly. The last thing he said to me during the interview is a compliment I will always cherish. Accompanying Troell to CIFF was his whip-smart daughter Yohanna, who is in the process of finishing a documentary about the making of The Last Sentence. Yohanna occasionally made valuable contributions to our conversation and, less frequently, helped her father translate a stray word or two of Swedish into English. One also hopes that she will continue in her father’s formidable filmmaking footsteps.
MGS: Your best-known films are period pieces. Is there something you find especially compelling about making films set in the past?
JT: I know that I’m a very nostalgic kind of person. I think it’s a great pleasure – this sort of feeling of living in another period that for some reason fascinates me. That I guess is one reason. But the most practical reason is I started out with an epic film by a Swedish author, Here is Your Life, and that led to another big epic film, The Emigrants, which I was asked to do. So in a way I ended up in this niche, so I got other offers of that kind. But there are a couple of feature films that are contemporary too and I also all the time work parallel with documentary short films.
MGS: So you’re saying producers think of you as someone who does period films?
JT: That’s one part of it, yeah.
YT: I guess it also has to do with the fact that you make a lot of films about real people who have lived and you’re fascinated by their stories and usually they’re dead by now. (laughs)
JT: I think it’s fascinating to try to get inside people who really existed once, to get to know them. I also feel very comfortable having something I believe in myself. I believe in the story. It’s not the result of some other person’s imagination. That’s part of it. And so there are several different reasons for it.
MGS: What initially attracted you to Trogny Segerstedt as a subject for a movie?
JT: That it came at a very crucial moment in my life. I was offered to do it. I had just finished the film before (Everlasting Moments) and it might very well have been my last film because it’s not easy to get a film through. It takes years. And so I welcomed the invitation and the invitation came from the author of a biography (on Segerstedt) who’s name is Kenne Fant, who was also the head of the Swedish film industry who produced so many of Ingmar Bergman’s films. And he was also the head of that company when I made the first feature film Here is Your Life and The Emigrants and The New Land and so on. So we knew each other rather well.
MGS: You said in the documentary Troell’s Magic Mirror that in 1940 the Swedish people were very afraid Germany might invade Sweden. And you said you think that affected your personality as a child. Did you use any of your own memories of that time in the making of The Last Sentence?
JT: Just the feeling of it – the people, the way they looked and so on. I’m sure this film gives a very good feeling of the period. But the real memories of the war started with the war. I remember very, very well seeing the headlines in the street when I was walking to go swimming. It was a very hot day. And the letters on the papers were as big as this (holds fingers six inches apart). It just said “WAR.”
MGS: There was a moment early on in the film that surprised me where a character says that the Swedish Jews are more cultivated than the German Jews. But it made sense because I thought this must be how people in Europe outside of Germany rationalized the persecution of the Jews in Germany. Was that a widespread feeling in Sweden at the time?
JT: Yeah. I think also that many of the Jews in Berlin, they came from Poland and were poor people. This line in the film is taken word-by-word from what this man who says it in the film had written in a letter to Segerstedt as early as 1932. So I had it from the page. He (also) says “If the Jews are annihilated, it would not be good for business.” (chuckles in disbelief)
MGS: Wow, that’s scary. Something else that surprised me was seeing how forceful Segerstedt’s language was in denouncing Hitler as early as 1933. Today it’s common to hear people say that no one knew what a threat Hitler posed until it was too late and yet 1933 was early in Hitler’s career. Segerstedt clearly knew very early on . . .
JT: From the very first day. He wrote this article maybe five days after Hitler came to power. But he had written some article already in the Twenties warning for Hitler.
MGS: I’d like to ask you about the visual style of the film. It looks very different from Everlasting Moments, which had a lot of film grain and very warm colors. The Last Sentence was shot in digital black and white and the images are very clean and crisp. Is it important for you to try and do something different in terms of style each time out or does the style grow out of the subject matter?
JT: I think the style grows out of the subject, definitely. First, I wanted to shoot on 35 but we couldn’t afford that. We didn’t have enough money. So I had to decide on Super 16 as we had on (Everlasting Moments). We made tests on 16 and on 35 and I was more or less persuaded to try a new camera – Alexa. I said it’s almost like a real film camera. I didn’t intend to use that (initially) and then I saw the tests. There was no question about it. The Alexa was even better than the 35. It’s so sensitive to light that you can shoot in almost no light at all. And also it’s made to, if you shoot digitally, you can add the 35mm feeling, that it’s not 100% crisp. You get the grain. You can put any kind of grain on it.
MGS: In camera or in post-production?
JT: Afterwards. And we talked about that. We thought we would make tests but I decided not to because I liked this very exact feeling for this film. And that was my very vague thoughts from the beginning; I didn’t want any handheld camera, I didn’t want a lot of movements – in a way like he (Segerstedt) was.
MGS: Right, so it reflects his personality. There’s a great quote from Liv Ullmann where she said she never knew what you were shooting during The Emigrants because you were always holding the camera in your hands and panning around with it. In The Last Sentence, the style is more static and, like you say, exact. Is there any camera movement in the film? I can’t remember.
YT: Yeah, there is. But you don’t notice it.
JT: Oh, yes. Of course, I pan and so on but not many traveling camera shots.
YT: I made the behind-the-scenes film and I interviewed the actors and they’re all saying the same thing. Even in this film, for instance, Pernilla August, who plays Maja (Segerstedt’s mistress) and Jesper, of course, they’re talking about how it always keeps them on their toes because, even though they’ve made up exactly how they’re going to do it, they never know . . . My father might stop on the way, and then he comes to them, and so it’s still like shooting a documentary.
MGS: So they still don’t know exactly what he’s going to do?
JT: That’s one reason for me operating the camera myself. Because I don’t have to decide 100% in advance how or if to move the camera. I always get a focus puller who knows the way I work so he’s prepared to change the focus. It depends on what’s happening in front of the camera; suddenly I feel I should go here or there.
MGS: You go with how you feel in the moment?
JT: Not completely but very much, yeah.
MGS: One movie I thought of while watching The Last Sentence was Gertrud by Carl Dreyer. Was that an influence on you at all?
JT: Oh yes, I’ve seen it but, well, you never know where you get the influences from. I hadn’t thought of that.
MGS: There was something about the quality of the black and white and the dialogue scenes of well-dressed people speaking to each other in rooms and the rigorousness and precision of it all that made me think of that.
YT: Good Night and Good Luck was one of the films we saw.
JT: Oh yes. I love that film. That is in beautiful black and white. I had a DVD with extra material, where you see people interviewed, you see the location, that’s in color and it’s not at all as good. I didn’t decide 100% to end up in black and white (for The Last Sentence) but I thought from the beginning, “I hope I would end up in black and white.” And for the first time in my working life, the producer did not oppose it. So that made me a little bit worried. (laughs) Now it’s all up to me, it’s a big decision. Anyway, before, there were a couple of films I wanted black and white but it was impossible because of money and because of television. They demand color. Or did.
MGS: What do you think has changed that now black and white is more acceptable?
JT: I think the first thing, maybe, it has become a trend. It’s been a trend in commercials, advertising, on T.V. It’s supposed to be very artistic. So people see that and sometimes think it’s a plus. That is one thing. Of course, there was the Austrian director (Michael Haneke) who made this film The White Ribbon. It’s so beautiful. That was filmed in color too. And he didn’t know for sure that it would end up in black and white. But he managed to get it through all the way. As the Coen brothers did for The Man Who Wasn’t There. That was released as a DVD in both versions. Have you seen it?
MGS: I’ve not seen the color version but I’ve heard the color is very desaturated.
JT: Yeah, I prefer the black and white. But this doesn’t mean I always prefer black and white, of course. But for this (The Last Sentence), I’m sure it’s the right choice because, for me anyway, this period in life is black and white: my parents, the images, all the photographs of me as a child, all the documentaries from the war, all those things. At that time every film was in black and white.
MGS: All of the recent films you just named are period films too, so I think we all think of the past in black and white.
JT: That’s right.
MGS: What about the use of the documentary inserts? Why did you decide to include them?
JT: Well, that I knew from the beginning I would use. I was thinking a lot of how to use it because it’s so overdone. You’ve seen those scenes from the war. You see it almost every day on T.V. Many of them are so well known. I tried to find some that I didn’t think had been shown too much. I decided to not make it as technically perfect as possible. So I filmed with a film camera – we projected the films and I used the camera to shoot since I could move inside the image and I also had zooms, which I didn’t have in those days.
MGS: There’s one shot in particular of Hitler petting a dog that’s very brief . . .
JT: Yeah, yeah, I panned in that.
MGS: Did you include that because of Segerstedt’s relationships to his own dogs?
JT: Of course.
MGS: I thought it was interesting that the most poignant relationship in the whole film was between him and his dogs.
JT: Yeah. I’m sure it was like that in his life too. It has been witnessed.
MGS: I have one final question for you. There are two ideas in this movie that I think are related that are very powerful: one is the importance of having a free press, the other is in the line of dialogue about how silence is acquiescence. Do you think these ideas are particularly relevant in the world today?
JT: Definitely, yes. Also in Sweden (specifically), because there’s no censorship but there is, I think, some self-censorship. There are things that are so touchy to write about.
YT: I think, especially now with the internet, you can get so harassed, which is a big threat. If Segerstedt had been on the internet, I think he would’ve been in much bigger trouble than he was. (laughs) So there’s definitely a parallel.
MGS: Well, hopefully, there are still some people around like Segerstedt today. Thank you so much for your time. Your answers were great.
JT: Your questions were great. They weren’t the usual questions.
Music Box Films has acquired U.S. distribution rights for The Last Sentence. Hopefully, it will return to Chicago soon.