You only need to take a glance at First Reformed director Paul Schrader’s extensive filmography to know that he’s a risk taker. Not just because of the subjects he choses or the approach he takes, but also in method. He’s worked in the studio system with big budgets, but he has also self-financed his work through Kickstarter. Schrader’s work bristles with themes of obsession and loneliness. Every film feels like an opportunity to explore those themes in a different context. What’s loneliness when you’re a drug dealer? A gigolo? A gay playwright? Schrader is one of those artists who, after 50 years, still feels like he’s in his prime.
He was in Montreal for a retrospective of his work at the Festival of New Cinema. We talked in a hotel cafe in Old Montreal. Here is our conversation.
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It’s the tried and true experiment: stick a dysfunctional family in a big house for a day and see what happens. When done well, it can be a like a cathartic claustrophobic symphony. But Ben Wheatley‘s Happy New Year, Colin Burstead doesn’t pack a punch.
This particular story of family dysfunction is set in the grand Cumberland House in Dorset, also referred to by its characters as a castle, Burstead Hall and “fucking Downton Abbey.” It’s not exactly a bottle episode, because we do see glimpses of Colin (Neil Maskell), his Mum Sandy (Doon Mackichan) and his sister’s Gini’s houses (Hayley Squires), but not enough to get a sense of how differently they all live. With such a large ensemble and diversity of personalities, Happy New Year fails to flesh them out.
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Most teenagers would rather die than submit to their dad going through their entire laptop, contacting all of their friends and watching their private videos. But Margot Kim isn’t most teenagers. In Searching, David (John Cho) plays a recent widower whose daughter goes missing overnight. Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) volunteers to take on the case, but David can’t remove himself for the investigation, so he starts his own inquiry on his laptop and eventually logs into his daughter’s computer.
But as the film proves, the computer is only as smart as the person who uses it – you have to know what to type in the search bar. In that way, modern technology is neither a force for good nor evil. It’s a tool.
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From the first time you sit in that crowded theatre and hear the collective murmurings, you know that you’re up for a special experience. Genre fans are some of the most passionate and knowledgeable film fans out there. And for these fans, Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival is like a pilgrimage. It’s a chance to watch, discuss (and buy!) some of the best genre films of the year to come.
But what’s most peculiar about the festival is how it labels itself as a genre festival, but its programming often dissolves those established barriers. Genre is more a term used in film marketing departments than it is used by filmmakers. That’s partly due to the fact that so many popular “genre” films nowadays are not just one thing. Indeed, Fantasia is home to the multi-hyphenate film: Japanese-Zombie-Meta-Comedy (One Cut of the Dead), High School-Christmas-Zombie-Musical (Anna and the Apocalypse), and Neo-Noir-Slacker-Comedy (Under the Silver Lake). Basically the one rule of mixing styles and genres is: if you can justify it, you can pull it off.
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Let’s be real: most film students’ thesis films are mediocre, at best. And certainly most thesis films don’t get into Berlinale or Fantasia. So let me introduce you to Luz, a 70-minute feature written and directed by Tilman Singer. He’s a young German filmmaker with a hell of a future ahead of him if he’s given the opportunity (i.e the money) to make more work.
In his review for /Film, our own Matt Donato describes the “what-the-fuck’”slow-burner that is Luz. There isn’t much of a plot to speak of, and the simple narrative (once you figure out what’s going on) hints to more of what’s offscreen than on. But I’ll give it a go: a young Chilean cab driver named Luz wanders into a police station after getting into a car accident after which her passenger disappeared. A psychiatrist, a detective and a sound technician assist in her interrogation. What they discover through hypnosis is, well, demonic. Shot on 16mm with a trance inducing score, the stunningly confident debut is a maelstrom of bodily possession and hypnosis.
I sat down with Luz writer/director Tilman Singer and producer/production designer Dario Mendez Acosta to talk about the film at the Fantasia Film Festival. Topics included demonic possession, the challenges of making a feature at school, and the upcoming Suspiria remake.
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“And soon, mechanically, oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of a sad future, I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a piece of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake-crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening in me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.” –Excerpt from Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, translated by Lydia Davis
“You are not the cat, you’re inside the cat. The emotions you are having are not your own. They are someone else’s.” These are the first few lines spoken at us by a blurry, distorted KK (Okwui Okpokwasili) as she stares into the lens, putting us into a trance. Her soft-spoken words clash with Proust’s quote about madeleines. When we receive a sensation that is triggered from an outside source (like a madeline, or a cat) is that sensation housed inside us or are we made up of it? What if we apply those questions to acting? Does acting entail transforming into someone else from the outside in, or finding the character from inside and growing outwards?
These are the kinds of questions that have long preoccupied the art of acting and they are front and centre in Josephine Decker’s brilliant third feature Madeline’s Madeline.
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“Blindness is an illness, but it’s also a metaphor,” explains the actress Mabel (Jess Weixler) in an interview with a skeptical journalist. She’s talking about her role as a blind woman in a sordid arthouse horror film set in a hospital for the disfigured and genetically abnormal. As she, a sight-seeing woman, defends her choice to play a blind woman amid much controversy, she squirms a little. She knows she’s bullshitting. How do you play a metaphor when you have no experience of that which is symbolized? Do we impose metaphors on that which makes us uncomfortable, functioning as a coping mechanism?
These are the questions Chained for Life tackles directly..
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“At what point will happiness happen?” muses Amiko, the lost teenager (I guess that’s redundant) in the eponymous film. She lives in the city of Nagano, in central Japan. But it might as well be the seventh circle of hell. Early on in the film, she falls in love with Aomi (Hiroro Oshita) in the space of a single conversation. They talk about their mutual love of Radiohead, their mutual hatred for sports, and their shared boredom. Sounds like a first love, right? You would think so, but Amiko (Aira Sunohara) will have to wait months before she can speak to him again. By that time, she will have tracked him down in Tokyo, where he is living with an older, ex-student.
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When you hear neo-noir, what do you think of? The dark underbelly of a city? A detective with a broken moral compass? Illusive women? Venetian blinds? Well, Under the Silver Lake has all of that. And more. Much, much more.
But contrary to the film’s marketing, Under the Silver Lake is not like Mulholland Dr., nor is it like Chinatown. Whether it wants to be is unclear. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows follow-up is a bold, beguiling tale about erotic obsession and paranoia set in L.A.
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Picture this: a group of friends get together for their weekly game night. It’s all fun and games until they get entangled in a mess they can’t get out of and their innocent worlds collide with the dark underbelly of crime. If this sounds like the plot of Game Night, then you’re half right, because it’s also what happens in Unfriended: Dark Web (previously titled Unfriended: Game Night). The major difference between the two (and it’s not the fact that only one is a comedy, because Unfriended is pretty funny) is in its form. The film takes place entirely on a laptop screen. In that sense, it’s a sequel in form only to 2014’s Unfriended (there is no haunted dead girl in this one). Read More »