For the past several years, I’ve gone down to the Chattanooga Film Festival – it’s one of my favorite weekends for film every single year. (You can see my previous year write-ups since moving to this blog here.) A festival that’s in love with genre films, trash cinema, and embraces the weird and wild, CFF’s philosophy is that every film is worth watching in some way, and it’s an idea I can always get behind. This year, I managed to get back down there for all four days, which means there’s a lot to talk about. After a lackluster first day, day two was a move back in the right direction, full of generally interesting – if flawed – films, as well as the first real knockout of the festival.
The idea of William Friedkin making a documentary about exorcism is an obvious one, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea. After all, here’s the director responsible for the definitive film about exorcism, responsible in no small way for the fact that the practice has found its way into mainstream knowledge. So when The Devil and Father Amorth is sold under a) the promise of a Friedkin documentary about exorcism, and b) reveals that Friedkin was given the chance to film an actual exorcism, performed by Father Gabriele Amorth, the Catholic church’s leading exorcist…well, you can imagine why that’s instantly compelling.
But even at a mere 68 minutes, The Devil and Father Amorth feels overlong and draggy, spending far too long navel-gazing and discussing the impact of The Exorcist on popular culture and exploring Friedkin’s personal beliefs on whether or not demon possession is a true phenomenon. Rather than becoming an engrossing documentary about exorcism and its place in modern times, Friedkin turns the film into either a glorified DVD extra for The Exorcist or, as my friend Adam put it, “the most overqualified episode of Unsolved Mysteries ever filmed.” By the time the film finally (and, again, when you’re using the word “finally” in regard to a 68 minute film, well, that’s something) gets to Amorth and the exorcism, you can forgive viewers for wondering what the point of all this is.
None of that keeps the actual exorcism footage from being less than fascinating, and although I have some questions about the unaltered nature of the footage (mainly with regard to the audio, which felt tweaked to me), it’s gripping and compelling stuff – less showy and Hollywood-like than anything we’ve ever seen, but no less strange and uncomfortable. It’s a shame, then, that Friedkin’s efforts to lead a debate about the footage afterward end up feeling so much like he’s steamrolling any interview subject; this is less a discussion and more of a chance for Friedkin to explain that he’s the smartest guy in the room, and to ask everyone else to confirm it. There’s some fascinating elements of this film, but you can’t help but wish it had been given to someone less interested in turning it into a film about themselves. Rating: ** ½
Trying to describe why I liked Borley Rectory is going to be a little tough in a verbal medium like a review, since so many of its pleasures come from its style and the experience of how it’s being told. As a documentary, Borley Rectory does its best to recount the fabled history of the titular house, often held up as the “most haunted house in England.” Writer/director Ashley Thorpe gives us a pretty straightforward accounting of events for the most part, tracing the house through its various owners and attempting to figure out some pattern to the sightings and hauntings…at least, until near the end, when the documentary seems to go about dismantling and disproving half of what it’s been claiming this whole time. (The willingness to look at both sides of the house is interesting; the out-of-nowhere swerve in tone at the end is less so, and ends up feeling jarring and disruptive.)
But what makes Borley Rectory worth seeing is less what it’s about, and more how it goes about it. The best way to approach this, I think, is to show you a clip, and I really recommend you pause in this review and take a couple of minutes to watch this brief excerpt, which gives you a sense of the film’s style and method. Mixing animation, re-enactments, old photographs, and a bit of stop-motion animation, Borley Rectory creates a fascinating, compelling atmosphere that’s hard to shake off, often giving you the feeling that you’re watching old photographs come to life. (Less so when original dialogue is introduced, though; the film does best when it’s quoting verbatim from primary sources.) Taken out of context, Borley Rectory could easily come across as little more than an old FMV game with a bit better technology, but when watched as an experience, it’s immersive and strange, plunging you into the supposed unreality of the house in a fascinating way. The result isn’t perfect, but it kept me pretty riveting and in love with its odd, unsettling atmosphere, and its sheer novelty and ambition alone makes it worth watching and seeking out. Rating: ****
(Before I go any further, I need to say: yes, the poster you see to the right of these words is really the poster for this film. Yes, it’s really that bad. No, I hadn’t seen it before I picked the film to see, or honestly, I might not have gone. Lord, what a nightmare that is.)
“A theater director’s latest project takes on a life of its own when her young star takes her performance too seriously.” So goes the logline for Madeline’s Madeline, a drama about an unstable young actress (Helena Howard, whose performance here is an absolute knockout) whose fractured perspective infects the film, turning it into a disjointed, uncomfortable, sometime surreal affair. There’s a lot to unpack here, from the film’s compelling and nuanced depiction of a deeply dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship (Howard’s mother is played by indie darling Miranda July, and her terror and unease at her unbalanced daughter is played perfectly) to the way it blurs the line between art and madness, between psychosis and coming of age. And there’s little denying that, from a technical and filmmaking perspective, or from an acting vantage, Madeline’s Madeline is pretty incredibly done – the performances are outstanding, and the film’s ambition and desire to push the envelope is mostly matched by the talent behind the camera (director Josephine Decker).
At the same time, I can’t lie to you: I ended up finding Madeline’s Madeline incredibly pretentious and more than a bit dull along the way, and I can’t help but feel that it falls in that category of “well, it may be a ‘good’ movie, but I didn’t really like it at all”. Part of that comes from my natural antipathy towards from about the “powerful inner struggle of art,” where navel-gazing becomes the rule and self-importance can’t be overstated, and there’s definitely a sense that this film is about The Power of Art and how Art Truly Can Change Your Life in a way that gets eye-rolling. More than that, by a certain point, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away from the film; yes, Madeline is a broken girl, one whose unpredictable and explosive actions are both riveting and dangerous, but I can’t see what Decker or the film wants us to take away from it beyond simply depicting it. I’m sure that this will end up being beloved by a lot of people, and I can’t entirely fault anyone for that – I can imagine this being the kind of movie that a lot of film people will really embrace and run with. But for me, the self-importance, weirdness for its own sake, pretension, and lack of purpose just left me admiring the craft but bored by the film. YMMV, though. Rating: ***
It’s hard not to think of the works of Guillermo del Toro when talking about Tigers Are Not Afraid, from Mexican director Issa López. Like del Toro’s films – especially The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth -López’s film deals with the harsh realities of a child’s life against a harsh backdrop by using fairy tales and fantastical elements to offset them. In Tigers, that backdrop takes the form of warring cartels that have left whole communities of orphaned children in their wake. Following Estrella, a young girl whose mother disappears, Tigers tells the story of how she falls in with a group of young boys and they build a community together, only to find themselves attracting the attention of cartels – cartels that have no problem murdering children to maintain their position.
That’s dark fare, to put it mildly, but somehow López keeps it from being overwhelming, due in no small part to the way he lets his young cast act like, well, young boys and girls. They’re silly, they’re needy, they’re immature, and they’re fun to be around. At times, Tigers is a testament to the resiliency of youth in much the same way that The Florida Project was – a reminder that children can be children, and even in the face of trauma, there’s something wonderfully innocent about them. But also like Sean baker did in The Florida Project, López never lets us forget what growing up in this world can do to someone, or the emotional toll it takes. There’s a lot involved in protecting young ones from the world, and there’s a lot that happens when you can’t get away from the darkest parts of the world around you.
What that doesn’t even get into is the way the film uses fairy tales and the supernatural as a framework to understand the world, as well as to touch on justice beyond the realm of this world. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a dark film, but there’s a sense that the scales may balance, if not in this world, then in the next. López uses his supernatural elements perfectly, creating a sense of unease and constantly leaving us largely uncertain if the things we are seeing are real or only in Estrella’s head. But, like in del Toro’s films, at a certain point, does it even matter, if she believes it?
Tigers Are Not Afraid was the first real masterpiece of the festival for me; it’s a film I hope gets widespread recognition in America and a wider release. It’s a tough watch at times, but hauntingly so, and the execution across the board – from the use of the slums as backdrop to the heartbreakingly good performances by the child actors – is nearly flawless. It’s the kind of film I come to CFF hoping to see every year, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it. Rating: *****
One of my all-time favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips involves Calvin creating a fantasy that ends with the most dangerous threat of all: tyrannosaurs in F-14s. “This is so cool,” says Calvin, while Hobbes simultaneous comments, “This is so stupid.”
That dichotomy nicely applies to Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, a truly dumb movie that I kind of enjoyed anyways. A Kill Bill-style female empowerment revenge film, Revenge follows the story of Jen, the mistress of a powerful businessman who is left for dead after a sexual assault by one of the man’s friends. When Jen realizes she’s not dead, however, it’s time to get some payback on these guys for what they’ve done.
I spent an awful long time in Revenge trying to decide if the film was accidentally stupid or knowingly stupid, and even at the end, I’m not entirely sure (although I’ll admit that the film’s wonderfully excessive and blood-soaked ending felt just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek for me). What I can’t argue is that it’s beautifully shot across the board, and finds a flair and style pretty much every chance it gets. More than that, especially in contrast to day one’s dire Downrange, Revenge knows how to bring out the suspense in a scene, taking its time and using pacing and quiet breaks in the action to fill the frame with unease and uncertainty. More than that, the film is gorgeously crafted, with some exquisite long takes and some great use of the desert backdrops.
And, of course, there’s the film’s gender politics, which manage the non-insignificant feat of having an incredibly attractive woman running around largely in her underwear and somehow never feeling leering or ogling. That’s no small thing, and it’s to Fargeat’s credit that she manages to turn that most disreputable of genres – the rape revenge film – into something that comments on women’s subservience to men, social conditioning, male gaze and expectations, and more, all while still never backing away from the demands of the genre. Does it hold together as a story or a plot? Nah, not really. But it’s still more fun than you’d expect. Rating: *** ½
Also on Day Two: I finally got to catch one of the CFF seminars hosted by famed B-movie connoisseur Joe Bob Briggs, and it was every bit worth the wait. Giving an overview of exploitation film, with a focus on how the genre used sex as a selling point, giving us a fantastic overview ranging from silent films to “educational” roadshows, and still finding a way to turn the last act into a tribute to Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis. It was a love letter to trash cinema from a man who adores it and knows his history, and I both learned a lot and just generally enjoyed myself.