CIFF 2019: “Knives Out,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and Five More Contenders

MORNING BELL

Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and Jaeden Martell in Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out.” © 2018 MRC II Distribution Company L.P. All rights reserved.

Few modern filmmakers understand the essence of Frank Oz’s artistry as innately as Rian Johnson. The most euphoric sequence in Johnson’s sublime 2017 blockbuster, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” occurs when Luke (Mark Hamill) has a meaningful encounter with the spirit of his Jedi master, Yoda (Oz, puppeteering for the first time since he retired from the Muppets in 2000). Yoda’s bold decision to burn—either symbolically or otherwise—the Jedi texts demonstrates to Luke that they aren’t as important as the spiritual bond that connects all living things. When I told Frank that this belief appears to be synonymous with Jim Henson’s worldview, he said, “I never thought about that! Jim is exactly that. I didn’t see it in there, but you would’ve seen it, because you’re right. That is so much his spirit.” Naturally, when Johnson arrived on the red carpet for the Chicago International Film Festival premiere of his latest feature, “Knives Out,” headed to theaters in time for Thanksgiving, I couldn’t resist sharing this interpretation with him. “That is so true,” he replied, smiling. “For me, Frank has the spiritual essence of what so much of ‘Star Wars’ is, and it’s tied into everything that Jim Henson was doing. There is an essential goodness to Frank and to his philosophy. I look up to that guy in every conceivable way.”

Johnson said that he and Oz became friends while making “The Last Jedi” together, and he has cited the veteran filmmaker’s 1988 con man comedy, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” as a key inspiration for his own entry in the genre, 2008’s “The Brothers Bloom.” He also expressed interest during the post-screening Q&A at CIFF that he desires to make a musical, and considers Oz’s 1986 cult classic, “Little Shop of Horrors,” one of the best ever lensed (I agree). Michael Shannon, one of the many marvelous talents among the ensemble in “Knives Out,” had joined Johnson on the red carpet, and when he heard us chatting about Oz, he couldn’t help chiming in. “Frank Oz is a master of the cinema on a number of different fronts,” he said, “not just acting but directing and producing and just creating. He is a very creative man.” In “Knives Out,” Oz receives his first significant non-animated or puppeteering role since his collaborations with John Landis, and at the screening I attended, he brought down the house with his unflappable demeanor in the midst of escalating familial outrage. “What shocked me about him is how humble he was and how nervous he got,” recalled Shannon. “He was so hungry to get it right, and the man obviously has a phenomenal intellect. It was amazing to see somebody I admired literally since I was a child still have that instinct or impulse to struggle through a scene in order to perfect it.”

Perfectionism is clearly a trait shared by both Johnson and Oz. Each line of Yoda’s dialogue required at least three or four days of rehearsal, allowing Oz and his three assistants to relish the challenge of mastering the character’s every intricately specific movement. The meticulous structure of Johnson’s “Knives Out” is a similarly formidable one to pull off, yet he succeeds more than practically anyone ever has in making an Agatha Christie-inspired whodunit translate to film with its wit and suspense intact. Like John Gillerman’s “Death on the Nile,” which unforgettably paired Bette Davis with Maggie Smith, Johnson’s seriocomic mystery is howlingly funny at least half of the time. Daniel Craig shines as Benoit Blanc, a pleasingly un-Bond-like detective with a southern drawl and penchant for delivering dizzying monologues about doughnuts, yet it is Ana de Armas who anchors the picture as its unlikely heroine. She plays Marta, the devoted caregiver of famed novelist Harlan (Christopher Plummer, as magnetic as ever at age 89), whose large family of eccentrics—including Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette—is intent on living off his wealth. When he’s found with his throat slit, Blanc is assigned to track down the killer, and production designer David Crank has a field day illustrating the paranoia and delusions of Harlan’s greedy brood (I was reminded of how Oz and Derek DelGaudio’s brilliant live show, “In & Of Itself,” tackled the illusory nature of identity). Shannon loved the idea of having his Red Orchid Theatre company put on a stage version of this film, which is a richly enjoyable treat from its hilarious pre-title opener to its absolutely perfect, deeply satisfying final shot.

I was able to catch six other potential awards season contenders at the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival, which wrapped last night, and you can find my thoughts on them (along with a few of their respective release dates) below…

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Ireon Roach, Grace Smith and Kayla Carter in Jennifer Reeder’s “Knives and Skin.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Knives and Skin

Dan Hedaya’s sudden exclamation of “Help me!” in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” reverberates through the entirety of Chicago-based writer/director Jennifer Reeder’s entrancingly strange and achingly human adolescent noir, beginning with the cries of 15-year-old Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley), after she’s left bloodied and alone by her abusive would-be date. Her subsequent disappearance triggers various inhabitants of her small town to embark on a search, both in an external and inward sense, to reclaim what has been robbed from them. Fueled by her love of “difficult, complicated and opaque women,” Reeder sought to portray how a society enabling predators continually disrupts the simple need of young people to exist and evolve on their own terms, hence the film’s poignant refrain of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” A hit at Berlinale and Fantastic Fest, Reeder’s film should be a shoo-in for recognition at the Indie Spirit Awards, particularly for its galvanizing performance by Marika Engelhardt as Carolyn’s distraught mom. She keeps an ice cream cake for her absent daughter perched on a table until it becomes the sort of puddle only Miss Havisham would find edible. There is a Lynchian charm to the film’s absurdist flourishes, such as a pillow covered in aluminum foil or lines like, “Was that even dad’s fake baby?!”, yet as in “Twin Peaks,” what lingers is the scarring tragedy from which the surrealism has sprung, coupled with the hunger for connection in an alienating and often bewildering world.

“Knives and Skin” opens in US theaters on Friday, December 6th.

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Eliza Scanlen in Shannon Murphy’s “Babyteeth.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Babyteeth

Watching Aussie director Shannon Murphy’s debut feature is akin to devouring a book of vignettes, each titled after the characters’ plans and desires, which are guaranteed to be thwarted. Some segments may only last a page and contain very few words, yet they still manage to speak volumes about the heroine’s inner life. A scene titled “What The Dead Said to Milla” consists of a single shot, showing the film’s terminally ill protagonist Milla (Eliza Scanlen) basking in the silence of her bedroom, her face half illuminated by a shaft of light from her window, as she peters on the tenuous line separating the material world from eternity. She is simultaneously at the beginning and end of her life, striving to enjoy the fruits of her adolescence as her mortality creeps ever-closer. Scanlen’s duality as a performer, which was unforgettably showcased on HBO’s “Sharp Objects” (where she appeared 13 or 33, depending on the given setting), makes her an excellent choice for the lead of Murphy’s film, an antidote to the saccharine dying teen romances favored by Hollywood. Her infatuation—a homeless drug dealer (Toby Wallace)—is hopelessly incompatible, yet the joy he brings Milla motivates her mom (“The Babadook”’s Essie Davis) and dad (Ben Mendelsohn, never better) to make the best of his sudden presence in their household. The unflinching honesty of Scanlen’s work here makes me all the more enticed for her upcoming work in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” (here’s hoping this film gets a US release too).

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Milos Forman in Jakob Hejna and Helena Trestíková’s “Forman vs. Forman.”

Forman vs. Forman

Ranked high among my most cherished moviegoing memories was watching Milos Forman’s 1965 gem, “Loves of a Blonde,” in a packed auditorium on the opening night of last year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It was the first installment of the Czech Republic’s annual festival, the largest in Central and Eastern Europe, held after the death of Forman, who was its most cherished frequent guest. The love for his taboo-bursting humor was palpable in the theater, as a young naked man onscreen made several uproariously clumsy attempts at closing a window shade. This scene is one of many career highlights featured in Jakob Hejna and Helena Trestíková’s fascinating documentary profile of the late Czech filmmaker, whose championing of freedom when battling against his country’s communist regime is reflected in so many of his characters—R.P. McMurphy, Mozart, Larry Flynt, Andy Kaufman, the hippies of “Hair,” to name a few. Deftly blending archival interviews with candid family footage, this film provides an intimate account of Forman’s statistically improbably life, from his two pairs of twin boys birthed by different wives, to the two Academy Awards he deservedly won for Best Picture Oscar winners. It was the sappy pro-communist propaganda he endured while growing up that inspired him to capture the truth of his homeland, and in doing so, he created a timeless body of work utterly universal in its relevance.

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Petr Kotlar in Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird.” Courtesy of CIFF.

The Painted Bird

Speaking of endurance tests, this year’s CIFF selection eager to inspire the most walk-outs was Václav Marhoul’s Czech Oscar submission, an unforgivingly brutal adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel about a Jewish boy (Petr Kotlar, looking understandably perturbed) struggling to survive on his own during WWII. The bleak Eastern European setting is so superstitious and savage that it might as well be out of the Middle Ages. Divided into chapters, each centering on a particular form of torture that the child must withstand, the film’s aggressive unpleasantness is best encapsulated by its notorious sequence pictured above. Accused of demonic possession, the child is stripped bare and buried in the ground so that crows can swoop down and peck at his head. It’s the most harrowing avian attack I’ve seen since the raid on the farmhouse in Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” yet after a while, the film’s three hours of graphic horrors eventually grow numbing to the point where they become unintentionally amusing. Among the boy’s would-be caretakers is a monstrous Udo Kier, whose method for getting back at his unfaithful wife is to scoop out her lover’s eyes with a spoon during dinner, while two cats fornicate loudly in the corner. Vladimir Smutny’s black-and-white cinematography at least gives the ghastly sights a painterly texture, while Marhoul’s gift for largely wordless storytelling compensates for the poor dubbing (particularly on Harvey Keitel, who is otherwise touching as a good if misguided priest).

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Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” Courtesy of CIFF.

The Irishman

Immediately after “The Painted Bird” came to a merciful close, I raced across the hall to complete my six-and-a-half hour Harvey Keitel-a-thon with the Chicago premiere of Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated crime epic on Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and his relationship with mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Since Netflix gave the filmmaker and his invaluable editor Thelma Schoonmaker full creative freedom, the resulting movie plays like an extended director’s cut, and watching it in a theater is like binging a limited series without the bathroom breaks. Upon my initial viewing, I’m unsure that every minute was indispensable, yet it’s hard not to savor them anyway, since they let us spend even more time with some of the greatest actors ever to grace the screen, reunited at long last. Preoccupied with the particulars of death, Steve Zaillian’s script introduces each character by specifying the bloody details of when and how they expired (after De Niro is informed that an old acquaintance has passed, his first response is, “Who did it?”). Though the expensive de-aging process on the leads often resembles CGI Botox, it’s most seamless on the face of Pacino, in part because the actor delivers the sort of vintage, scenery-chewing performance I thought I’d never see from him again. As for De Niro and Joe Pesci, their undying chemistry is lovely to behold, even as their scenes become steeped in melancholy.

“The Irishman” opens in US theaters on Friday, November 1st, and arrives on Netflix on Wednesday, November 27th.

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Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

No list of my favorite filmmakers in world cinema is complete without French auteur Céline Sciamma. In all three of her previous feature-length directorial efforts, which she has referred to as an unofficial trilogy, Sciamma has displayed an unparalleled eye for capturing the complicated dynamics between women and their struggle to define themselves despite societal strictures. Her young heroines consistently subvert gendered tropes, imitating the behavior of others as a half-step toward forming their own identities, as when the 10-year-old in “Tomboy” practices spitting in order to present as a boy, or when a macho crew of football players in “Girlhood” reveal themselves to be female. In some ways, Sciamma’s long-awaited fourth feature, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” is a continuation of her 2007 debut film, “Water Lilies,” about the repressed desires between a slender brunette (Paulina Acquart) and an alluring blonde (Adèle Haenel). Haenel has been subsequently credited as a muse of sorts for Sciamma, to whom she was romantically involved for a period of time, and in “Portrait,” the actress receives the finest showcase of her career to date, portraying the full emotional arc of the picture in a single breathtaking close-up set to Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto in G Minor.” That moment alone would make the movie well-deserving of CIFF’s top prize, the Gold Hugo, which it earned as part of the International Feature Film Competition, yet that is only one indelible example of its greatness.

Sciamma obliterates the stereotypical roles associated with an artist and muse, showing how a fruitful collaboration requires an intimate meeting of the souls. There’s something inherently erotic about how Marianne (an equally masterful Noémie Merlant) stares at the reluctant bride-to-be, Héloïse (Haenel), she has been assigned to stealthily paint without her subject’s knowledge. Only by delving beneath the woman’s polished facade can she begin to portray her essence on the canvas, and she catches her first glimpse of it when Héloïse charges up to the precipice of a cliff, if only to approximate the fleeting sensation of freedom. Winner of the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes, Sciamma’s dialogue reminds us of how overwritten most movies are. Not a word is wasted between this pair, and there’s a wonderful scene where they dissect each other’s body language, articulating the hidden meaning behind each gesture. Equally rapturous is a sequence set in the woods, where Marianne and Héloïse come upon various other eighteenth century women inhabiting their small island community in Brittany. Exuding the same excitement of the friends in “Girlhood” when they lip-synced to Rhianna’s “Diamonds,” the islanders’ voices rise in unison as they begin to perform a spellbinding a cappella number that literally sets the screen ablaze. It’s the latest unforgettable instance of Sciamma’s signature motif, namely the synchronicity practiced by those who wish to join as one, whether it be swimmers, allies or lovers. This is, without a doubt, the most glorious moviegoing experience I’ve had in a theater so far this year, cementing Sciamma’s status as one of world cinema’s grandest maestros.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” opens in US theaters on Friday, December 6th.

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