Yella (Germany, 2007) * * *
D: Christian Petzold
At every screening at WIFF, you're handed a ballot at the door, and on the way out you're asked to mark the little slip of paper and drop it off, grading a film on a five-point scale. It doesn't help that my mind can't really think in five-point grading scales, not even after a couple years of Netflix (perhaps it was those adolescent years spent checking out Roger Ebert video guides from the library). But it's even worse to try to judge a film on the spot, before you leave the theater. After the Friday afternoon screening of Yella at the Wisconsin Union Theater, I didn't know what to think. And after a half-hour-long argument with my wife about the film at Chin's Asia Fresh afterwards, I still didn't feel I could properly judge the merits of the film. Here's the problem. Yella is, by all appearances, a direct remake of Herk Harvey's 1962's horror classic Carnival of Souls, yet it doesn't announce its inspiration, leaving one who has seen the original film to keep wondering if this is a remake (until the ending, when it becomes clear that it is), and simply compare and contrast the two versions without an objective view of Yella's own effectiveness. (Incidentally, if Carnival of Souls were made today instead of forty-six years ago, it would most certainly be playing the Wisconsin Film Festival. It's a true classic of independent, zero-budget filmmaking, and worth seeking out - my review of that film is here.) The set-up is almost identical in both films. As in the original, the main character is caught in a car as it goes hurling off the edge of a bridge, and she crawls out of the water dazed and not quite herself. Yet she goes about her life, pursuing her dodgy career, and it's here that the details change dramatically enough to make Yella its own unique story. In the original, the protagonist, looking for a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City, is haunted by images of a walking corpse. In the 2007 version, Yella (Nina Hoss) is taking a job as an accountant, but her boss just got fired from the company, and her only prospect for employment is a young businessman who wants to take her on as his personal assistant for some shady, high-stakes business deals. At the same time, she is pursued by a specter--not of a ghoul, but of her psychotic ex-husband, the one who drove her off the bridge, and who apparently survived the crash. Most of the action takes place around a hotel, the kind you'd find near an airport in a nondescript part of town riddled by business parks and car rental lots. For some reason or another, hotel room doors are frequently left open, and the characters wander in and out of each other's rooms like lost souls, seeking companionship or violent, emotional confrontations. The arc Yella follows over the course of the film is curiously conflicted: on the one hand, she's developing a warm personal bond with her new boss, and seems to finally be finding happiness; on the other, she's becoming an increasingly impersonal and amoral dealmaker with little regard for the person at the other end of the table. Your feminist side wants to applaud her journey toward self-actualization, but it becomes increasingly obvious, as seemingly supernatural events keep intruding upon the narrative, that Yella is avoiding a harsh truth about herself, leading to a final revelation that you may or may not see coming a mile away. Since I'd seen Carnival of Souls, I knew the twist from the beginning of the film, and waited for its reveal; I admit that I have no idea how obvious it is to those unfamiliar with the original film--I'm also curious how effective the ending from that perspective. I feel like I can't judge the thing properly. But I am positive that it's a well-acted, beautifully edited thriller whose pace one might call "deliberate"--which of course means "slow"--though I found that refreshing: Yella has the patience to generate a slowly-building sense of dread. While refraining from overtly disturbing imagery, the film is almost psychically disturbing. I'm not sure that Yella adds up to very much in terms of meaning, but it's the rare genre film that largely avoids genre shortcuts to be effective.
Bon Cop, Bad Cop (Canada, 2006) * * 1/2
D: Erik Canuel
The setup of Bon Cop, Bad Cop is best illustrated in this photo. A dead body has been found on the border between Ontario and Québec--precisely on the border, suspended on the sign, and therefore overlapping the police jurisdictions of both territories (I didn't realize that highway signs marked borders so precisely, but perhaps the cops were too lazy to consult surveyor's maps.). A cop from each is assigned to the case: Toronto's tough-but-straightlaced cop Martin Ward (Colm Feore--read, Danny Glover), and tougher, loose cannon David Bouchard (Patrick Huard--read, Mel Gibson). Both are bilingual, but nonetheless Bouchard uses his French as a barrier to keeping Ward at bay, mumbling smartass comments in his native tongue. Both have a child and a woman tending the house--for divorcee Ward, it's his younger sister, who keeps a close eye on his teenage son, and for Bouchard, it's an ex-wife with whom he's still very close, and their young daughter, a ballerina. The murder is somehow tied to a conspiracy involving hockey teams--yes, this is the second film of the festival featuring Canada, hockey, and a ballerina, although, surprisingly for a buddy cop movie, there is less overtly homoerotic content than in Guy Maddin's film. Bon Cop, Bad Cop, really the first film to exploit the Canadian Film Board's government-sponsored resources to make a crowd-pleasing action film instead of an austere arthouse product, was a smash hit in its native country--which of course means that the country with which it shares a vast border has never heard of it. It's filled with Canadian humor, most obviously in its culture clashes between the Canadians and the Québécois, but also in little details, many of which, I'm sure, went over my head. But it does play to American audiences as a winking satire of Canadian culture, and is certainly worthy of a wider release down here. The problem is that it is really just a retread of the Lethal Weapon series, right down to the daughter-in-jeopardy climax; the humor, which is welcome, is unfortunately nowhere near as sophisticated, or as funny, as that found in last year's buddy-cop parody Hot Fuzz, and it suffers greatly by comparison. Still, the film was clearly a hit with Friday's night's capacity crowd at the Orpheum, who responded to the broad jokes and gross-out gags with tidal waves of laughter. I'm skeptical the film would work as well in a different setting, without such a pleasingly game audience.
Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) (Spain, 2007) * * * *
D: Nacho Vigalando
I loved this movie. Both brilliant and dizzyingly absurd, Timecrimes begins as a semi-surrealist horror film, permeated with terror of the unknown, before--as that "unknown" is gradually revealed, and every room of a spooky old house is explored from various angles, making its residents known--transitioning into a grandly tragic comedy. It opens with Hector, a middle-aged, paunchy man given to voyeurism, his binoculars permanently hanging from his neck, unexpectedly discovering, from afar, a beautiful woman stripping in the woods. When he subsequently spies her lying inert, he ventures into the woods out of fateful curiosity--and is stabbed in the arm with a pair of scissors by a man with bloodied bandages about his face. He flees, climbing a fence and breaking into a neighboring building, which appears to be abandoned, though it has a sinister laboratory in the basement. And what happens then...well, let's say this much: it's a film about time travel, primarily, and if you plan on seeing it, you'd best stop reading there. It's almost impossible to describe Timecrimes without robbing the film of its chief weapon--surprise and fear (as Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition would put it)--and the less you know going in, the more effective and wonderful the film becomes. Then again, I eagerly await a second viewing, since the various twists can only muddy the film's narrative even more. If you've seen any time travel film made after the Back to the Future trilogy, or even The Terminator films, you will accept the rules this film puts forth unquestioningly. The beauty of Timecrimes is that it knows you'll follow its frenetic premise, which then allows writer-director Nacho Vigalando to take you upon the wildest of Möbius-strip rides, making you wonder why you'd accept the bizarre rules of time travel stories in the first place. Timecrimes makes not a lick of sense, ultimately, and yet it is logical and precise, building upon each established premise and raising the stakes each time Hector is plunged backward in time. What Hector does--and why he does it--makes this film a mini-masterpiece of black satire. The bandaged man, the girl in the woods, the man in the lab, the terrorized wife--all of these elements are arranged and rearranged like some complicated mathematical equation. Or a very good joke which Kurt Vonnegut might have told. (Incidentally, to give you a sense of how difficult it is to instantly judge a film with those ballots-at-the-door, I gave this film a 4 out of 5 when I left the theater last night, suspecting--though I loved what I'd seen--that Timecrimes might not have held up by the morning. Instead, I wake up to find myself even more enthralled and intrigued. Dammit.)