by Bill Chambers A professor (Masahiro Komoto) teaching a course on urban legends beseeches his class to get him a copy of the cursed video that summons Sadako, the vengeful spirit of Ringu and its sequels/prequels (this is the seventh film in the Japanese iteration of the series)...and also to buy his book. Not long after, the tape surfaces, and a young woman who watched it dies in the midst of joking with her co-workers about all the inexplicably terrifying things that have happened to her since. Needless to say, Sadako vs. Kayako has a sense of humour about itself--how could it not, given that what its title promises is like herding cats: Sadako only visits those with a working VHS player and Ju-on: The Grudge villainess Kayako never leaves the house. In parallel storylines, the professor and one of his students (Aimi Satsukawa) inherit the Sadako curse and the Grudge place beckons a teenage girl (Tina Tamashiro) who's moved in next door, although Sadako is the de facto star of this show. While the film might not be a conventional entry in either franchise, it's very much in a Japanese tradition, that of kaijū eiga movies featuring experts who sic monsters on other monsters, old-lady-who-swallowed-the-fly-like, when their other defenses prove ineffectual. No cities are levelled here, though.
Dirt */**** (d. Darius Clark Monroe) One of those time-loop conceits that opens with a guy burying a body and ends with...no, not telling. Dirt has an issue with editing and looping, the fallout being that image overlaps noise, confusing function. It's possible to do this meaningfully; it's also possible to junk it up so completely that every transition begins with unnecessary obfuscation. That's what's happened here. Dirt isn't promising, but it is brief.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) ***½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+ starring Meiko Kaji, Natsuyagi Isao, Rie Yokoyama, Fumio Watanabe written by Fumio Kônami and Hirô Matsuda, from the manga by Toru Shinohara directed by Shunya Itô
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) ****/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+ starring Meiko Kaji, Kayoko Shiraishi, Fumio Watanabe, Eiko Yanami written by Shunya Itô, Fumio Kônami and Hirô Matsuda, from the manga by Toru Shinohara directed by Shunya Itô
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973) ***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B starring Meiko Kaji, Mikio Narita, Koji Nanbara, Yayoi Watanabe written by Hirô Matsuda, from the manga by Toru Shinohara directed by Shunya Itô
Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701's Grudge Song (1973) **½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B starring Meiko Kaji, Masakazu Tamura, Toshiyuki Hosokawa, Sanae Nakahara written by Fumio Kônami, Hirô Matsuda and Yasuharu Hasebe, from the manga by Toru Shinohara directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
by Bryant Frazer One of the most audacious debuts in cinematic history is rookie Shunya Itô's expressionist rape-revenge saga, the Female Prisoner Scorpion trilogy. These three films, released in the 11-month period between August 1972 and July 1973, elevate Japanese studio Toei's series of "pinky violence" sexploitation films with daring, theatrical visuals reminiscent of the bold work that got Seijun Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu and a subversive sensibility that could be described as genuinely feminist. Of course, Itô's studio bosses didn't have art in mind. Loosely adapted from a popular manga, the first Scorpion was conceived as a gender-swapped take on Teruo Ishii's popular Abashiri Prison film series, on which Itô had worked as assistant director. Moving the story from a men's prison to a women's prison accommodated sensationalized images of nudity and sexual violence, which even major Japanese studios were relying on in the early 1970s as a way to compete with American imports. But Itô talked his screenwriters into throwing out their derivative original script and starting anew. He also convinced Meiko Kaji, a rising star thanks to her appearances in the popular Stray Cat Rock movies about Japanese youth street culture, to take on the title role. (Kaji arrived at Toei from Nikkatsu after the latter studio diverted its production resources to so-called "roman porno" softcore in an attempt to compete with the popularity of television.) The results are singular. Itô's flamboyant visuals created florid showcases for Kaji's riveting screen presence, especially her oft-deployed 1,000-yard stare--a stone-cold, daggers-to-your-eyeballs glare of the type seen elsewhere in only the most unnerving of horror films. Itô and Kaji turned out to be an electrifying combination.
by Bill Chambers True story: Carrie, dining alone, catches eyes with a handsome stranger across the restaurant. He confidently strides up to her table and she starts rambling on about how she's flattered but not interested, after which I said, in perfect unison with the handsome stranger on screen, "I was just going to ask if I could borrow your chair." Am I psychic? No, I'm just fluent in Sitcom. Incidentally, this cheap bit of embarrassment humour scored laughs instead of groans at my screening, which suggests that a generation throwing TV away has blinded them to its hackneyed standbys. (It also suggests these tropes are adapting to new habitats rather than dying off.) If only it were an isolated moment, but Carrie Pilby is stuck in such well-grooved territory that it's mindlessly anachronistic at times, like when the title character, a present-day 19-year-old girl with a smart phone, uses the Personals to get a date like the prototype for her New York neurotic would have once upon a time. There's old-school--which she most certainly is--and then there's, y'know, Amish. British expat Carrie (Bel Powley) is an extremely young Harvard grad living like a hermit off her father's dime in NYC. She's pretentious ("Van Goff," "Franny and Zoë"), uptight, sarcastic, entitled. Urging her to be more accommodating of people, a shrink friend of the family (Nathan Lane) prescribes a to-do list that translates to "find a boyfriend," outlining as it does a plot trajectory destined to climax on the cinema's emblem of the romantic pinnacle, New Year's Eve. Disappointing that gender-shuffling the Woody Allen and Manic Pixie Dreamgirl archetypes--the charming Cy (William Moseley), conveniently situated next door to Carrie, plays the didgeridoo when he's not using it as a bong--leads to the same dead-end happy ending; that the evil suitor (Colin O'Donoghue) is just another '80s ski-movie douchebag destined to be quelled by a punch to the face; that Carrie's defenses are reduced to a lot of Freudian baggage. Looking like regional advertising (only Powley's Bette Davis eyes are of aesthetic interest), Carrie Pilby is as synthetically directed as it is written, and the performers struggle. Programme: Special Presentations
by Walter Chaw Towards the end of Errol Morris's fitfully-fascinating portrait of legendary large-format Polaroid photographer Elsa Dorfman, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography, Dorfman, looking at one of the dozens of snapshots she's taken of the late Alan Ginsberg, says that maybe the true life of a photo isn't revealed until the subject has died. It's the emotional fulcrum of this brief piece, as the now-79-year-old Dorfman looks back on a lifetime of pictures taken while she went from being a single "New York Jew" without direction to a hob-nobber among the Greenwich Village crowd. Ensconced at Morris's bequest in her studio's backroom, she's dwarfed by a cluttered drafting table on the one side and rows and stacks of archived portraits on the other. As she opens each cabinet, Morris captures the delight and surprise of her rediscovering the "discards" of her customers (they pick one to keep; the other she dubs "the B-side" and ferrets away), reading the detailed captions she's left on them.
by Bill Chambers The retainer, the indifferent pompadour, the Cookie Monster table manners--it's obvious that Stefie (Étienne Galloy) doesn't have an image to protect. When two older-looking teens, Martin (Alexandre Lavigne) and Jean-Se (Simon Pigeon), invite him to participate in a bit of "Jackass" performance art (they need his phone to film it), Stefie discovers something about himself, I think: that he was lonely. Joining them on subsequent pranks, he has nothing to offer creatively but does assume the voice of the group's conscience, however muted. Often he himself is persuaded to ignore it by his desire to impress Martin's girlfriend, Lea (Constance Massicotte), who indelicately soaks up the attention of the new kid. TIFF's official guide compares Prank to Harmony Korine, but it's gentler than his work despite some scatological moments and a similar elevation of mischief to a higher calling, and it's rarely surreal for surreal's sake. There is much talk of doing drugs but a lot of it is bluster, and although they're chased by police at one point, the gang's stunts are strictly of the "Just for Laughs" variety. It might appear as if Stefie's fallen in with a bad crowd, but he doesn't exactly seem like someone who was on the road to becoming valedictorian. I like that Stefie is finally so unexceptional. Average kids have to come of age, too, even in movies. Admittedly, Stefie is so unburdened by biographical details--his mother's invisible when they allegedly go to the county fair together while he's high, he freely comes and goes at all hours without any parental interference, and he betrays no pretense of a school life--that Prank often feels underwritten. This is the feature debut of a short-film director (Vincent Biron) who doesn't always see the forest for the trees, but there are some exquisite vignettes, including one long shaggy-dog of a joke with a brutally funny pay-off and a running gag where Jean-Se recounts the plots of movies like Predator and Bloodsport to an enraptured Stefie as Biron cuts to paintings, presumably by Jean-Se, lovingly depicting the scenes he's describing. I thought about how my nephew wants to hear all about my favourite films but doesn't necessarily want to watch them, and how I love to oblige; Prank gets that the true appeal of old movies for most teenagers today is as campfire mythology--in the meantime, they're content with practical jokes on YouTube. I really want those paintings, by the way. Programme: Discovery
½*/**** starring Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O'Mara, Beverly D'Angelo screenplay by Robin Swicord, based on the story by E.L. Doctorow directed by Robin Swicord
by Walter Chaw Angry businessman Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) tunes in and drops out when, after chasing a raccoon into the unused attic of his garage, he decides to live there for a few months, spying on his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and their twin "budding adolescent" girls (as E.L. Doctorow, author of the story upon which this is based, calls them). There's a 1990 Jan Egleson film called A Shock to the System that sees a Howard Wakefield type played by Michael Caine mordantly, hilariously deciding to take control of his life through a series of carefully-planned murders. Robin Swicord's Wakefield aspires to be an updating of this but is hampered by the fact of Robin Swicord. Take the moment where Howard watches his long-suffering spouse dump his dinner on top of a bag of garbage in their driveway. Cut to the next day, with Howard opening the lid and looking down at it. Flashback to Diana dumping the dinner on top of a bag of garbage in their driveway. Yes, Swicord is so literal-minded and inept that she has offered gaffed viewers a flashback to a scene that just happened.
****/**** starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
by Walter Chaw Kenneth Lonergan is a brilliant writer who specializes in small interpersonal moments. His plays are extraordinary. The two previous films he directed, You Can Count on Me and Margaret, are masterful portraits of human failure and weakness. He is a poet of imperfection and imperfect resolution. Margaret gained attention for the lengths to which Lonergan fought for a cut that exceeded a contracted-upon two-and-a-half-hour running time. Martin Scorsese, with whom Lonergan collaborated on the script for Gangs of New York, helped facilitate a 165-minute cut that to my knowledge has never been screened. When Margaret finally hit home video after a swell of support from online advocates, the long version had inflated to 186 minutes. I've only seen the theatrical and extended cuts of the film. I love them both. I rarely wish movies were longer; Lonergan's are the exception. That has something to do with his writing, of course, and something to do with his casts, who, to a one, have contributed extraordinary work--perhaps the best work of their careers. Crucially, Lonergan trusts them to deliver his words. He doesn't garnish them with gaudy camera angles, or underscore them with expository soundtrack cues. Mark Ruffalo once said of Lonergan, affectionately, that the playwright was only playing at being humble. For me, however Lonergan is with other people, his humility comes through in the extent to which he allows his actors to do their job.
***/**** starring Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone screenplay by Kelly Reichardt, based on stories by Maile Meloy directed by Kelly Reichardt
by Bill Chambers I hate miserablism. I decided Kelly Reichardt wasn't for me after seeing Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and a few minutes of Meek's Cutoff, because even though they're about deeply unhappy people, their total void of humour bothered me. Relentless self-seriousness is teen angst, and incredibly unbecoming when the people on screen are adults and the filmmakers are, too. There's a moment near the beginning of Certain Women where Jared Harris sobs "Nobody understands how fucking miserable my life is!" (or something to that effect) that could be a panel from the MAD MAGAZINE parody of Reichardt's work, and I nearly fled the theatre until Laura Dern's reaction to Harris's wailing produced some titters in the audience, alerting me to the possibility that I had missed something crucial by not watching Reichardt's movies in public. Perhaps solitude blinds one to any levity in films about gloomy guses and lonesome outcasts. Be that as it may, Certain Women is definitely not as grim or hopeless as Old Joy, et al, despite its absence of anything resembling a conventional happy ending.
**/**** starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book Highest Duty by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow directed by Clint Eastwood
by Walter Chaw An elderly film by an elderly filmmaker for an elderly audience, everybody's favourite says-appalling-things old bastard Clint Eastwood directs the guy everyone can agree on, Tom Hanks, in a rah-rah hagiography of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the most uncomplicatedly heroic figure in the United States in the last...how long ago was Abraham Lincoln? 151 years? If you don't know, Sully landed an airplane with 155 passengers on it in the Hudson River when bird strikes disabled both of the plane's engines. Multiple dream sequences have Sully imagining what would've happened had he turned his plane over populated areas. 9/11 is referenced often--explicitly and obliquely. An applause-geeking closing title card informs that lots of New Yorkers helped rescue the passengers from the water after the splashdown because New Yorkers are good and America is great, raising the question, Mr. Eastwood, if it needs to be "great again." Maybe it's all gone to hell since 2009. The timing is interesting. Let's call it that.
by Bill Chambers The first thing you hear in Elle, after Anne Dudley's giallo-worthy (and, thus, slightly misleading) overture, are some violent sex noises, but the first thing you see is a cat, a good ol' Russian blue, who is watching his owner get violated with daunting ambivalence. Meet the director. Migrating from his native Holland to France this time, Paul Verhoeven has made a movie fascinated with rape at either the best or worst cultural moment he could have chosen. Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is depicted being raped several times over the course of the film by the same ski-masked stranger; my own reaction was a complicated gnarl of disgust and desensitization that led to more disgust. Eventually, I think, Michèle's relationship with her attacker becomes S&M in all but name, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Michèle is a well-to-do Parisian with a videogame company that seems to specialize in hentai (meaning you also get to see tentacle rape, Verhoeven-style). Family members--including a mother (Judith Magre) who's into much-younger men and a layabout son (Jonas Bloquet) who's fallen under the spell of a pregnant gold digger (Alice Isaaz)--orbit in close proximity despite her abrasive candor, which at one point finds her telling her friends and puppyish ex-husband (Charles Berling) about her rape over cocktails after work. They worry, but because she's the alpha dog, they probably don't worry enough.
by Walter Chaw About 20 minutes of Werner Herzog's 104-minute Into the Inferno is recycled footage from his own Encounters at the End of the World. Another 20 is a strange diversion into the discovery of a hominid skeleton in Africa featuring a particularly excitable paleoanthropologist. This leaves roughly an hour for the cultural/anthropological examination of cults sprung up around active volcanoes the movie promises, and at least a portion of that is devoted to the amazing footage captured by the late Katia and Maurice Krafft, who, like Kilgore on the beach, never thought they could be killed by the fire. They were. It's the kind of gallows revelation that is the purview of Herzog's mordant documentaries. He is at least as good at this as he is at his more traditional fictions. But Into the Inferno seems tossed-off and unfocused, and not even a partnership with affable British vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer can help Herzog ground this material. A previous incarnation of the filmmaker would find him stealthily building a profile of a man who spends his life staring into magma pools, perched at the edge of pyroclasmic calamity. This Herzog interviews a few chiefs of island cultures, the most fascinating of whom has decided that an American airman lives in the lava and will one day emerge to shower the villagers with a bounty of consumer goods.
**/**** starring Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Tara Fitzgerald screenplay by David Harrower, based on his play "Blackbird" directed by Benedict Andrews
by Walter Chaw Theatre director Benedict Andrews makes his feature-film debut with the best Patrick Marber stage adaptation that isn't from a Patrick Marber play, Una. (The play is actually David Harrower's "Blackbird", adapted for the screen by Harrower.) It's kind of a low bar, let's be honest. Una is about Una, who, as a 13-year-old child, is raped by Ray. But young Una (Ruby Stokes) thinks that she loves Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), and Ray, a sick fuck, is sure that he loves Una. This is Lolita told from the point-of-view of Controversial Playwright: Harrower stirs the shit and Andrews does his best to expand what's probably a one-room drama into a warren of warehouse offices, an apartment, a dinner party, and lots of flashbacks. The strategy appears to be a lot of walking around and then stopping to exchange twenty pages of gravid dialogue. The best things about Una (and they're fantastic) are Rooney Mara, who plays the title character as an adult, and Mendelsohn. Mara is growing on me, and if Mendelsohn has ever given a bad performance, I can't remember it. These two have a genuine fission in their interplay that makes it all feel dangerous. When Ray turns tender at the end, smoothing 28-year-old Una's hair and telling her she was the only 13-year-old he's ever been attracted to, there's a beat--maybe two--before you hear what he's saying.
****/**** starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang directed by Denis Villeneuve
by Walter Chaw Based on a humdinger of a Ted Chiang short story called "Story of Your Life," Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, while changing a detail here and there, distils the emotionality of the story, honours the science of it, and goes places the premise naturally indicates that it might. It clarifies without simplifying. It posits as its hero Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, who has never been better), a brilliant linguistics professor enlisted by the military to try to communicate with the things in the giant spacecraft that have appeared in twelve different locations around the planet. Not all of them, mind--just the ones in Montana. The others are their problem. Arrival suggests that the first complication of this story of our lives is that there are pronouns other than "us" in matters of international import. It reminds of The Abyss in its tale of an alien arrival that requires human cooperation, but whose purpose doesn't appear to be to coerce a response through a show of force. They just hang there, waiting for us to learn their language. That's an important point. It's something to think about.