Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)

Enigmatic yet immaculately structured. Emotionally muted while relentlessly compelling, with tension that escalates with measured precision, Cosmopolis is a film of remarkable gravity. It’s a picture that one can directly associate with civil unrest in the aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but its reach extends significantly further. My disagreement with many contemporary critics is coming from the confining nature of their analysis of Cosmopolis. It is a film that transcends modern socioeconomic discourse and gets at the heart of the matter – at the heart of how people view themselves and view others. What David Cronenberg achieves in Cosmopolis is a natural progression from his previous picture, A Dangerous Method. Both films adhere to dialogue-heavy streams of consciousness, whereupon characters and the audience attempt to forge some minute understanding of existence and the abstracts terms associated with perception. 

Much like the limousine that functions as transport, domicile, and office, the impenetrableness of Cosmopolis’ setting is only matched by its dense verbal exchanges. At points indecipherable, Cosmopolis still remains at arm’s reach, capable of provoking deep intellectual thought while challenging viewers to redefine not just their cinematic expectations, but their worldview at large. Much of what goes on comes to play on how the world views the rich, and conversely, how the rich view the rest of the world. Having recently watched The Queen of Versailles, Cosmopolis builds on that film’s questions of perceived notions of the economically privileged and their perpetual debt that is owed to society.

The abstract concepts that Cosmopolis addresses evoke so many penetrating moods, from an airy dreamscape to apocalyptic dread, the film may not possess inherit emotional qualities, but they certainly inspire them from within. It’s a testament to Cronenberg and even Pattinson’s strengths that such initially clunky and bizarre dialogue could possess such immediate impact halfway through the picture. Pairing Pattinson with such an impressive supporting cast (Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, and especially Paul Giamatti) affords him with the perfect counter to his rather flat delivery. While some may criticize his work, it’s precisely what Cosmopolis needs from this wunderkind billionaire.

There’s a lot to digest in Cosmopolis. It’s a film that purposefully denies audience conclusive elements. It can be jarring, almost random in design. But there’s a delicate and careful aim to so much of its construction. Visual elements, such as Pattinson’s loss of clothing throughout the picture, stripped of perceived elegance - through the hemorrhaging of money - works like some of the keen orally-fixated imagery in A Dangerous Method. Perhaps some of it comes across as too clever, perhaps too subversive. And even while watching the picture, I struggled to pinpoint where I stood on the film. But immediately after walking out of the theater, it’s a film that sustains itself through its subversions and questions. There aren’t going to be many films this year that arouse so many questions while remaining so impeccably fluid and approaching the way Cosmopolis does.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday Ten: Horror Films

As I’ve wrapped up my festival viewings and with Halloween fast-approaching, I thought it time to look at some of my favorite horror films. Mind you, the whole concept of what constitutes a “horror” film tends to be defined by the individual person; like a comedy, what’s funny or scary to one person is not necessarily the case for another.

But there’s a certain compulsion we all have as cinephiles to look at the horror genre fondly; as children, it’s almost a rite of passage to watch that film that keeps us up for the night. As our definitions of horror broadens, there’s still that nostalgic appreciation we have for films that rather than plucking at our heart strings, outright go for the stab.

Today’s Thursday Ten focuses on the horror films that don’t necessarily fit comfortably within the traditional definition of horror, but rather cross boundaries that strike a more personal chord. Not a single film here has a vampire, werewolf, or zombie; sometimes fear is best realized in something that’s closer to home.

10.  We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

It’s a fear that I can only assume is a mother’s worst nightmare: what if their child commits an unthinkable crime? Anchored in a reality that is all too authentic, Lynne Ramsay’s brilliant adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel explores the daily routine of a grief-stricken mother as she contends with the fact that her oldest son had committed a school shooting, serving to dismantle her household and make her the community’s social pariah. The film strikes an absolutely nerve-wracking tone with its sound-editing; the sound of school children screaming for their lives haunts Tilda Swinton’s character at every turn, and effectively instills an on-going sense of anxiety that Ramsay maintains from scene to scene.

9.  The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Fear and insanity stemming from isolation; it’s a theme that recurs in several of Kubrick’s films and is most overt in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The implications of Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) insanity stem beyond gory hallucinations and a violent rampage; there’s the disintegration of the family unit and even more frightening – the idea that there is a larger omnipotent force motivating him. Marked with Kubrick’s own obsessive attention to detail, The Shining is a landmark piece of filmmaking that is relentless in maintaining an uneasy atmosphere. As the film unites two converging narrative arcs, there’s a petrifying sense that we’re delving deeper into the hedge maze of insanity.

8.   The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

What, in the end, do we have if not our own identity? The Hitcher questions how we arrive at defining ourselves, as well as how the landscape we identify with can turn its back on us. The Hitcher is as much a parable on a boy’s ascent into adulthood as it is an analysis on violent shift in times. A boy (C. Thomas Howell) is accused of a massive crime spree; he becomes the victim of both a real chase by the police and an existential chase by his demon (represented chillingly by Rutger Hauer). The Hitcher is smartly positioned as the sort of horror/thriller that never attempts to explain the why of it all; the world is not always kind enough to give us an explanation.

7.  Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

Unlike the aforementioned We Need to Talk About Kevin, I don’t assume that this is a mother’s worst nightmare; I know it has to be. It’s the deliberate pacing that makes Rosemary’s Baby so effective; Roman Polanski allows his film to linger as we get accustomed to our central couple in Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. And only then are we introduced to their mysterious neighbors. He lingers on their eerie behavior before we become aware of what Rosemary’s pregnancy means to her husband and those neighbors. It’s not just that Rosemary births the spawn of Satan; it’s that it was an orchestration led by the one she trusted the most. The echoing chant of Hail Satan leaves its mark.

6.  Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

A relic of my childhood, Candyman was the type of film that I wanted to brave through, but ultimately, its imagery and closeness to home often sent me out of the living room within its opening ten minutes. Even as an adult, the film gives me an uneasy feeling. It could be the accented voice of Tony Todd as the title character. Or perhaps it’s the gruesomeness of how he slaughters his victims. Or perhaps it’s how Candyman is beckoned – say his name five times in the mirror. Or maybe it’s because I recognize the various Chicago locations throughout the film and living only a few miles away gives me chills. It’s probably a little bit of it all.

5.  Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

Days removed from Repulsion made walking down a dark narrow corridor a test of will. The film is an exercise in paranoia and the extent in which one can be overwhelmed by the confines of a closed-off living space. As part of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Repulsion is a perpetual example of how eeriness and fear can be induced through the everyday. A precursor to a film like Black Swan, Repulsion unravels as the sort of psychological horror that focuses on the fear of isolation; confined to an apartment, your mind turns against you. The biting of fingernails, the cracks on the ground, , razor blades, and hands protruding through the walls will likely worm their way into your nightmares for weeks.

4.  The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

While the aforementioned Repulsion dwells on psychological horror, The Fly dwells on the physical manifestation of it. The virtues and conflicts of the film are deeply rooted in reality; themes of unrequited love, success, greed, and fears are realized with such grace. The happenstance that the film implements science-fiction elements through the physical transformation of its main character (Jeff Goldblum, in his best role) serves to amplify the horror considerably. As Goldblum decays in front of our eyes, the lingering sense that all he had worked for, the love that he attempts to realize, is slipping away; it is the greatest horror of all. Few films have been able to so effectively contemplate our mortality all while implementing such a gruesome science-fiction element.

3.  2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey stands as my most atypical example of what constitutes a horror film. But it’s a film that instills a great deal of fear and dread into me every time I watch it. This fear typically stems from the overwhelming isolation I derive from it; as the narrative unfolds, the fear of man against machine and the fight against being left behind in the vastness of space is profoundly moving and quite simply, terrifying. Much like The Shining, the setting serves as an immense undercurrent to maintain this sense of isolation. One can even look as the computerized HAL and Jack Torrance as two characters of the same lineage; their descent into insanity can be interpreted as being a product of their environments.

2.  Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)

The recurring theme throughout most of this list is that I tend to respond to horror films that touch upon themes of mortality, conflict in identity, the circumstances of insanity, isolation, and anxiety toward one’s ascent to adulthood. Seconds touches upon all of these themes in one way or another, and does so within a finely scripted and incredibly directed effort from John Frankenheimer. With a nuanced performance from Rock Hudson, Frankenheimer redefines the question of what it means to be human, what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, and the devastating loneliness and extreme anxiety that stems from it all. The film bares some of the most impressive direction and editing I’ve ever seen in any film, which only serves accentuate the surreal terror on display.

1.  Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

I wrote a great deal about my appreciation for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. What makes it stand out from all of my favorite “horror” films is the simplicity in which it achieves its horror elements. Given the procedural nature of the film, there’s this immediate connection you have with every character, wherein you understand where they stand, their traits, and what motivates them. So when you place them in a reality where an unknown assailant is murdering people, you are immediately thrust into their world and feel what they feel. The investigation, the mystery, and the prevailing sense that there is someone out there planning to kill is persistent throughout Zodiac.

Obsession is the prevailing theme throughout Zodiac and it comes from all sides. It comes from the filmmaking, which is so exact and attuned to the details and setting. It also comes from Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) obsession with finding out who the Zodiac killer is eventually puts him and his family at risk.  And that scene, where Robert Graysmith thinks he may have cracked the case, finding himself alone in a basement with his prime suspect, is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in film.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

Intellectually stimulating above all, A Dangerous Method has been one of the more difficult films for me to assess. The precision and attention to detail is undeniably impressive, as are the uniformly tight performances from Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as Carl Yung and Sigmund Freud respectively. But there’s a particular dryness to the way in which the film is written; not so much in the actual dialogue or exchanges, but in the way the film connects scenes. The screenplay, written by Christopher Hampton and based on John Kerr’s book, lacks a sense of connected uniformity. Individual scenes work out impressively, but when put together, they seem fragmented and devoid of cinematic bravura.

It’s not to fault the film entirely on Hampton’s screenplay, as it’s hardly a bad work, but rather that it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the cinematic. Hampton had initially written the screenplay as a stageplay, therein introducing some of the problems I have with the feature to begin with – it certainly feels like a play, wherein scenes of dialogue unfold in one area, before eventually transitioning to another scene where two individuals combat in verbal acrobatics.

Honestly though, listening to Fassbender and Mortensen play out their roles and discussing theories of psychosexual development and anal fixation (all while Mortensen smokes a cigar; perpetually living out his own oral fixation theory) is worth viewing A Dangerous Method in itself. And the two banter in a way that make use of the material, as they are quite subdued and naturalistic in their performances. But it’s Kiera Knightly as Sabrina Spielrein who chews the scenery and completely revolts against the film’s restrained tone. To say she chews the scenery is an understatement here – she absolutely overwhelms the audience with her gaudy stammering and facial contortions to the point you have to wonder how someone like Fassbender could have kept a straight face throughout some of the film’s initial sequences. Knightly eventually finds her footing as the film progresses, but she is definitely operating under a different understanding of the material.

And there’s David Cronenberg. A Dangerous Method is not quite like any of his other films, as he is subscribing to a far more classical method of visual storytelling than even A History of Violence or Eastern Promises. I’ve read comparisons to Dead Ringers, but A Dangerous Method never really dabbles into an insatiably weird ideology – it’s fairly straightforward in its thinking, and at this point, Freud’s ideological framework isn’t exactly lurid material.  But if Cronenberg is giving up his 80s obsession with physical horror, he is adhering to a far more subtle psychological horror that has allowed for the greater advancement of his formal technique. Precise and perceptive, A Dangerous Method may not be Cronenberg’s best film, but it just might be his finest directorial effort.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday Ten: The Chicago International Film Festival

The 47th Annual Chicago International Film Festival opens today until the 20th.  Punctuated by a tagline of What the World is Watching, one has to wonder why, oh, why their opening film is The Last Rites of Joe May. Starring Chicago theater actor Dennis Farina, the film really has no place opening an international film festival, particularly one with such a rich history. As New York City vies for screening the many yet-to-be-seen films of the year (rumor has it that J. Edgar or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could have a special screening), Chicago‘s minimalist approach is a bit disheartening.

But I don’t mean to say that I’m not excited for the festival – because I’m utterly jubilant. My excitement stems from watching a lot of the Cannes, Toronto, and Telluride holdovers that I currently have slated for my festival schedule. And it’s perhaps the most stacked in terms of prolific directors – I’ll be viewing films by Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier, Lynne Ramsay, and the Dardenne Brothers. And I’ll be treated with a discussion with one of my favorite actors, John C. Reilly.

To start off what will be a new weekly column here on Chicago Cinema Circuit, I’ll delve into the ten screenings I’ll be watching at the Chicago International Film Festival.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

David Cronenberg is simply one of those directors that I am drawn to, as the mere prospect of a new project is enough to get me interested in his work. Starring rising star Michael Fassbender and acting collaborator Viggo Mortenson, A Dangerous Method looks to be the sort of Cronenberg feature that meshes the cerebral elements of his recent films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) with his more explicit older work, particularly Crash and Dead Ringers.

Buzz on the film has been fairly muted – it is a Cronenberg after all, and one can understand how it could make people uncomfortable. Such quiet praise has only gotten me more amped for the film.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

I’d be lying if I said that I really believed this film would amount to a hill of beans. Ever since the trailer dropped, I suspected the film would be a trite exercise that subscribes to typical indie clichés. And I can’t say that I wholeheartedly reject that notion just yet. But The Descendants has received some of the very best critical reviews out of the festival circuit, and being a rookie Oscar prognosticator, I simply could not resist the temptation to see it for myself. If I’m going to make an argument to or for it, I really need to see it and dive into that conversation.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

You know it’s quite the year when you get a double dose of craziness in the form of two Herzog documentaries. His early year 3-D feature, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is one of my favorite films of the year, but the sheer grounded reality of Into the Abyss has gotten me quite excited. The topical nature of the film is of obvious interest, particularly given the recent release of the West Memphis Three and the film Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the philosophy and ethics behind the death penalty are once again contemporary.

The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The brutal and simplistic way in which the Dardennes approach their subject matter always makes for a rousing experience. I have yet seen a film by the two that I have not found extraordinary. They are simply two of the most underrated writer/directors going at the moment. The Kid with the Bike was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and continued the duo's streak of walking out of that festival with a reward under their belt – unfortunate that their films have yet to catch on with the American public. And even more unfortunate is that the film was not selected by the Belgium film committee to compete at this year’s Oscars. But as it stands, the Dardennes will continue on. As some critics have noted, The Kid with the Bike is more of the same from the brothers – that’s fine by me.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

I’ll be starting out my festival experience with Lars von Trier’s latest. I had seen Antichrist at the 2009 Chicago Film Festival and had a fantastic time (not only was the film utterly explosive, Willem Dafoe happened to be in attendance as well). It’s been unfortunate that Melancholia has been a bit drowned out by Lars von Trier’s rather disheartening remarks at the Cannes Film Festival. Despite his gaffe, Kirstin Dunst managed to score a Best Actress win at the festival. Melancholia has had a rough festival run since, but the quality of the film is considered remarkably high – it’s the controversy surrounding the director that has hurt its chances as an Oscar contender. Trier is a director that I am very high on and have come to expect great things from; Melancholia looks to continue his thread of cinematic excellence.

Shorts 2: Pen and Paper

I tend to be drawn by animated short films. With films that include a reimagining of Bill Plympton’s Guard Dog short and a variety of foreign shorts, I’m hoping to catch some early possible entries into next year’s Best Animated Shorts category. Oh, and to have fun too. These films always tend to tell very simple but narratively astute stories that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the genuine sense of glee that so many animated shorts display.

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh)

A film presented by one of my favorite female directors, Jane Campion, Sleeping Beauty bares such a striking visual sense from its trailer that I immediately knew that the film would be on my “too see” list. Its response at Cannes was fairly negative, though Guy Lodge of Incontention gave a glowing review that certainly maintained my elation. It has been a while since I even heard about the film, but to seeing it slated for the Chicago International Film Festival has renewed my interest in the film.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)

While it’s not my most anticipated film, Turn Me On, Dammit! has an interesting premise. It’s fairly typical in terms of what you get out of American indie comedies, particularly those based on teenage sexuality. But to see it played out in a foreign context will hopefully take the material in a new direction. And if there’s one way that the film festival can live up to its motto, it can be to introduce the Chicago audience to a subject matter that is familiar to them, but handled in a different way.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

My most anticipated film. Having read Lionel Shriver’s novel, I am intriguing to see how the talented Lynne Ramsay handles the incredibly difficult material. Adapting Shriver’s novel is a task upon itself, but given everything that I’ve seen so far in clips of the film, there’s definitely an eerie sense that is realized in the film that is apparent throughout the novel. It certainly seems like the film will work. The film also happens to star two of my favorite actors, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. The fact that Reilly will be in attendance just seals the deal.

Without (Mark Jackson)

Perhaps the dark horse of my viewings, Without doesn’t really have a whole lot of buzz behind it. But its premise is so intriguing that I’d have to think that, if properly executed, the film could be a tremendous success. First time director Mark Jackson will certainly have his work cut out for him, but if his lead actress, Joslyn Jensen delivers with such difficult material  (it is about a young woman who becomes a caretaker to an old man on  a remote island), we could see something truly revelatory.

Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)

A reoccurring description of Crash notes that it is “the film where people get off on car crashes”. Perhaps reflecting a small, yet vocal, minority, those who dismiss Crash tend to ignore (or dismiss) the film’s artistic accomplishments.  My leanings reflect my admiration for what Mr. Cronenberg achieved, what he failed to achieve, and what he doesn’t do. Even with that in mind, I can understand where resistance to the film comes from – though it’s ignorant to dismiss Crash with the aforementioned statement.

Crash’s emphasis on sexuality, and the carnal links in which one achieves sensual satisfaction, is an idea that to most, may come across as half-baked. But Mr. Cronenberg effectively stimulates a different sense all together- he broadens the canvas of the possible by questioning the very nature of human sexuality. He treats sex, and the people who embark upon it, as animals. Perhaps resistance to the film stems from a rejection of this idea – do people want to be told that they’re animals? Certainly not, but it’s an idea that he explores as his thesis.

James Ballard (James Spader) lives in a sedated state. He goes through the monotony of work, attempting to please his sexual desires in dull and ultimately unsatisfactory ways. He ends up in a car accident, where he badly injuries a woman in the other car – her passenger, her husband, is killed. James is hospitalized and discovers that the woman, Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), is in the facility with him. It’s here where the two strike up a relationship – though it defies notions of traditional human psychology. Helen is less concerned with the death of her husband, instead so beaten by the monotony of life that she pursues a new thrill all together.

The accident that injures James and Helen provides an outlet of thrill that rivals the sexual. Perhaps combine the two? The matter-of-fact nature in which Mr. Cronenberg posits this theory is utterly compelling and logically sound within the construct of the narrative. Is mutilation, the risk of death, and the subsequent connection to sex, enough to help define people? It’s an idea that Crash plays with. This is particularly evident in the way Mr. Cronenberg treats his characters- they’re not defined by their work or accomplishments. They are dull, ultimately empty canvases, waiting for that something to happen to help them realize themselves. This speaks to how modernity, how the concept of the present, serves to produce hordes of drones who lack the self-reflective skills to question the larger social systems at hand.

Crash works best when Mr. Cronenberg establishes the rules of the road- there’s a lingering sense of exploration that is not only interesting, but unabashedly sexy as well. The film veers out of control in its final act though, as Mr. Cronenberg seeks to unite the film’s secondary characters to create a circle of sexual compulsion. It becomes a bit unnecessary, and ultimately works more for shock and less for the ideas that Mr. Cronenberg introduces from Crash’s onset.

The scale in which Crash works in is most impressive. I feared that the film would transform into something on the scale of Fight Club – i.e, a small reclusive group entering a mainstream society. The two films have quite a bit in common in terms of cult acceptance and taboo practices, though Crash is more honest with itself and the reality of the world – acceptance of unconventional sexual practices goes against the socially constructed braintrust of society. There isn’t going to be a revolution – there’s just going to be this pocket of individuals who are aware of the constructs of society and share in mutual glee when they reject them.

Rating: 6/10