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The first Saturday of the festival is always my favorite. Not because of anything within the event itself. No, the reason is the giant Christian parade, often with fervent anti-gay sentiment, that winds through downtown apparently meant to attract festival-goers to the faith. There’s something about watching thousands of people proclaiming love for some people and hate for others that really warms my heart.

Besides that, I feel like I was slack today. Only four films plus a few shorts, but a lot of that was due to available options. I’ve had some emails asking how I decide to see any given film. Generally, the answer is scheduling. Today, I had to hit A History of Violence first thing, which knocked out a bunch of films that began between 9 and 10, since I prefer not to walk in late. After one film is set, it’s just a matter of choosing what’s available. Today it worked out; some days it doesn’t.

A History of Violence
[USA; David Cronenberg]

A hostory of ViolenceManderlay already has competition — this is one of the best films of the year. No matter what you might have heard, this is almost 100% pure Cronenberg. It’s the work of a master; complex, disturbing, thought provoking and immensely satisfying.

I’m loathe to give away more plot than necessary. Essentially, when Tom Stall shoots two gunmen dead in his small-town diner, his life changes in ways his family would previously have thought impossible. As Tom, Viggo Mortensen is absolutely perfect, and Maria Bello is wonderfully intense as his wife Edie.

At first glance, this film would seem to be wildly divergent from the body of Cronenberg’s work. It has no meticulous credit sequence, instead running names over the first scene. His characters and situations are also new, though certainly not to mainstream media. And in the basic scenario, there’s the potential for very routine, predictable solutions to the film’s problems.

Within fifteen minutes, however, the director has firmly taken hold of the material and made it his own. Better yet, he’s done so without compromising the basic integrity of each player. The Stall family feels whole and honest, and the film’s gangsters are memorable. Ed Harris brings serious menace, and William Hurt harnesses all of his personal quirks to create a personality that steps far outside typical genre bounds.

A History of Violence is also the bloodiest film the director has made since The Fly. (I guess eXistenZ also has a lot of fluids, but since there’s so much non-human gore, it doesn’t hit as hard.) I can’t think of a gorier crime flick from the past decade, but the curious thing is that the gristle isn’t what you’ll remember. Instead, what sticks is the real pain of violence, and the notion that it breeds like vermin.

It’s tremendously enjoyable to watch someone like Cronenberg work in an unfamiliar genre, because he’s fully in control, but there’s a sense of total unpredictability. That uncertainty does more than simply add thrills to the film. It reflects what’s happening to the characters in a very tangible way. How many thrillers fail to convince you that the participants are really in danger, or that their lives are irrevocably changed by events in the film? How often do you really feel it? In A History of Violence, everyone will feel the pain and uncertainty experienced by this family.

Above all, Cronenberg’s cool eye and very steady hand are what make the film. The economy and brevity on display are the work of a master. Despite a wealth of detail that suggests layers of meaning, the movie runs barely an hour and a half. Few filmmakers could do so much in so little time.

[UK/Canada; Terry Gilliam]

Tideland.I’ll admit that I don’t really know what to think. Part of me really admires Tideland, for it’s sense of purpose and refusal to be swayed, but most of me never wants to see it again. Watching Gilliam’s movies can feel like being devoured. Sometimes that’s good, but when the material is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Tideland, the experience can be draining. Gilliam is known as an audacious, unrestrained filmmaker, but he’s never gone so far as he does here. The man seems to have given up on the very notion of limits.

Tideland is the story of Jeliza-Rose, the child of junkie parents. She’s recruited to cook shots for her father every night, but is repulsed by her slovenly, shrill mother. When the old lady ODs on methadone, pop and Rose hit the road, landing at the old family homestead out on the prairie. There Rose is drawn further and further into a fantasy life populated by talking doll heads and fearful dreams.

She also meets Dickens, a child-man who fancies himself as deep sea captain hunting the Monster Shark; in reality a train which runs on tracks near their homes. Years of abuse and neglect are implicit in the lives of both Dickens and Rose, and Gilliam finds the most unusual and memorable means with which to bring disturbing events to light. Those with young children may find Tideland incredibly difficult, as it puts Rose into situations typically far beyond taboo in American cinema.

And yet this isn’t Gilliam’s most fantastical film, though it is certainly his most grotesque. Much of his language is very literal and real. While Rose’s doll heads are her friends, only once or twice are they actually animated into life. And as a friend pointed out, when we see the monster shark, it simply appears as a train.

(Gilliam does retain the basic visual style seen in Fear and Loathing. Drunken, leering camera angles are his basic syntax. No dutch angle is too dutch.)

Further anchoring the film is a solid performance by Jodelle Ferland as Jeliza-Rose. An occasionally weak southern accent aside, she gamely handles everything Gilliam throws at her, which is quite a lot. So much so, that at times it’s hard to see the point, and Ferland’s easy presence in front of the camera kept me in my seat.

But the film does have ambitions, and all the grotesquerie isn’t simply for it’s own sake. Gilliam is looking at the inheritance of abuse in a vivid and interesting way, though I’m still not sure it’s worth the effort of watching.

I haven’t been keeping up on what’s been sold to distributors, but a part of me will be shocked if Tideland makes it to theatres. This movie is way out there, and if The Brothers Grimm was meant to be Gilliam’s mainstream cash-in, this is the total opposite.

[France/Germany/UK; Diane Bertrand]

L'AnnulaireAfter the gorgeous Iris loses the tip of her finger on the job, the young woman finds new employment at a small laboratory near the sea. Run by a quietly intense doctor, the lab offers an unusual service: the conservation and storage of personal items. People might bring any small object to be preserved, whether to solidify their assiated memories, or destroy them.

Iris is quickly drawn into a fetishistic love affair with the doctor, while also enjoying (at great distance) a sort of infatuation with the shoreman with whom she shares a room. They’re on opposite schedules, only encountering one another in passing, and through items left behind in their small living space.

Diane Bertrand’s gorgeous, compellingly erotic film is a poem about loss and desire. Put that way, it sounds pretty typical, but L’Annulaire is haunting and compelling. As Iris edges further into new psychological territory, the film’s cool demeanor and coldly beautiful photography paradoxically lend an incredible tension to the narrative. Not even the intrusion of vaguely supernatural elements can break the spell.

Incidentally, the film’s music is by Beth Gibbons, formerly of Portishead. She conjures some of the smoky ambiance of her former band and also moves into other soft, intriguing arrangements in both vocal and instrumental tracks.

Day of John (Short)
[Canada; Christopher R. Nash]

Day of JohnA loser learns to love life after his neighbor accidentally unleashes demonic hell upon the neighborhood. But instead of unleashing the hidden power within, this guy in Christopher Nash’s short lives to tell the tale thanks to chance and…well just chance, really.

It’s sort of The Spoon River Anthology with flesh-eating demons, as the story leaps from one character to another, tracing their misfortunes and how they eventually come to bear on other people in the world around them. The film may only be sixteen minutes long, but the narrative plays fast and loose with the timeline, jumping back and forth in chronology to add extra details, crack a few jokes and kill a nose-picker with an airbag. And the demon? Love it, with all it’s low-fi glory.

The organization could have become confusing, but Nash handles the constant time shifts with ease and humor, and Day of John is a funny, vaguely nasty way to spend a quarter of an hour.

Hiro (Short)
[Canada; Matthew Swanson]

HiroWhen an insect collector flies from Tokyo to Canada to purchase an exceedingly rare beetle, he’s caught up in a kidnapping and grows wings. Hiro is happy to present a few odd, vaguely interesting characters, but it doesn’t do much with them. Essentially a twenty-minute chase film, the story barely has time to begin before the fast pace of the chase rushes it to the conclusion. Beautifully shot and well-constructed, Hiro is enjoyable to watch, but it doesn’t achieve much beyond quirky and pretty.

Evil Aliens
[Jake West]

Evil Aliens.Not all extra terrestrials are like E.T., thank god. The men from the sky in Evil Aliens are violent, disgusting bastards. They appear in Wales, impregnate a young woman and anally examine/rape her date for the night, then disappear. For a few days, at least. In the meantime, a low-rent tabloid television show gets wind of the story and hoofs it over to the small Welsh island where the landing supposedly took place.

From there, Evil Aliens turns into a full orgy of fluids. A trio of inbred rednecks becomes the first to fight the invaders, and we learn pretty quickly that resistance is futile. Granted, they’re not exactly using state of the art technology, but even when our pseudo-heroes end up at the reins of a cranially controlled spacecraft, things don’t get much better.

This is splatter in the old sense of the word. Blood flows everywhere, from pretty much every orifice, and exploding heads and bodies are common. Jake West didn’t have a huge budget, but he makes quite a lot with whatever he did have available, and the flick doesn’t feel cheap. Instead, it’s enthusiastic and goofy, which helps carry viewers past the fact that we’ve seen most of it before.

I do wish that Evil Aliens avoided the heavy references to Dead Alive and Sam Raimi. I understand the impulse, and in the past decade this particular sort of movie has definitely become a haven for homage. But when someone makes a splatter flick like Evil Aliens, it’s a chance to throw everything out the window and bust all the moves you’ve wanted to see but never have. When I watch Dead Alive I don’t think of anything but Dead Alive, and that’s what I hope to find every time I walk into a similar film. I didn’t find it here. I enjoyed the film as just a dumb bit of fun, but it’s not the pure free for all it might have been.

Tomorrow evening is the new Beat Takeshi flick — based on what I’ve heard, I’m excited to see it. Now, I’m also excited to go to bed.

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