Rightwing Film Geek

Me and Max

max2.jpgAs great as were the justly-hyped new films by Andersson, the Coens, Reygadas, Maddin, Mungiu, etc. — the event at Toronto I was most looking forward to, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world, was seeing Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING presented in the Dialogues program by Max von Sydow. SPRING is a very very good film obviously, but it’s not Bergman’s greatest by a long shot (not even in his Top 10, I’d say). Still … a month after the death of the cinema’s maybe-greatest director, to see one of his films presented by his maybe-greatest actor, with an onstage interview and an audience Q-and-A … no explanation is possible or necessary. It’d be like skipping your best friend’s funeral.

It was even better than I’d hoped.

I arrived as early as I could to make sure I’d get a good seat. I got one in the very front row (which fills up slowly even at the mostly-excellent TIFF theaters, though at this one, the Isabel Bader, the screen is on a slightly-elevated live-theater stage, and back a bit, so there’s no neck-craning at all). And I was just four seats or so in from the aisle — prime autograph-stalking territory. And just 20 feet away from where Von Sydow would be when introducing SPRING and then being interviewed afterward by festival director Piers Handling. While waiting in my seat, my parents called and I told them excitedly and breathlessly where I was and who I was about to see: “Max Von Sydow … THE VIRGIN SPRING … The Knight who played chess with the Grim Reaper? … in THE SEVENTH SEAL??” The person sitting next to me in the theater said: “try the priest in THE EXORCIST.” Well … THAT reference my father got.

When von Sydow strides out on stage, in very good physical shape for a man pushing 80 (born 1929), everyone gives a standing ovation, which von Sydow quickly joins, realizing it’s as much for Bergman as for him. When it finally dies down, I’m close enough to see the tears welling up in von Sydow’s eyes when he says of Bergman “I owe it all to him.” And then they welled up in mine, as if the event was no mere film screening, no … BECAUSE the event was no mere film screening, but a wake for Ingmar Bergman. With von Sydow as the chief eulogist.

After the film was over, von Sydow and Handling came down the aisle, but Handling went up on stage first as the stagehands were arranging chairs, a table, microphones, etc. That was the opportunity I was waiting for and had my festival guidebook deliberately marked at the page for THE VIRGIN SPRING. I quickly walk the 20 feet over to von Sydow, hold out a pen, and say “Mr. von Sydow, would you sign my festival book, on the VIRGIN SPRING page here? It would be a great honor and make my festival.” He does so quickly, and I leave him right as Handling calls him onstage to another standing ovation.

hands.jpg

Incredibly, I also got to ask von Sydow a question during the audience Q-and-A. This one didn’t go quite so well. Close as I can recall, what I said was “do you know whether Bergman, when casting his male roles, tailored them to your specific personality offscreen, and do the same for the offscreen personalities of Gunnar Bjornstrand and Erland Josephson and others?” He didn’t give a very good answer, saying in general terms without examples, that he did and that “once a part was cast, he would even rewrite some things to fit me, of course.” Not very illuminating, but that was my fault. What I was hoping for was confirmation or denial for a theory I have about Bergman’s whole body of male roles — that, to coarsely generalize, von Sydow played the tortured souls, Bjornstrand played the self-conscious skeptics and Josephson the post-Christians. And I was wondering whether that was deliberate and/or the result of roles being tailored to the men’s offscreen personalities. In my dreams, von Sydow might have even discussed his own religiosity. But asking it that way would have required a whole critical setup of the premises on my part, and thus my committing the cardinal sin of audience Q-and-As, the questioner making a speech of his own. I also didn’t want to be perceived as asking him too personal a question. So I decided to be short and tactful … and it fell flat. Though, with reference to von Sydow’s own religiosity, he may have revealed something in his word choice during his intro, saying SPRING was about religious clash, and how “there was still a lot of heathen beliefs” in Sweden at the time. “Heathen”?!?! Isn’t that a hate crime? Where were the language police? How did von Sydow ever escape the Soviet Socialist Republic of Canuckistan after committing such an awful Thoughtcrime??¹

Anyway, unlike most TIFF Q-and-As², this one was genuinely enlightening, partly because a prepared professional questioner had most of the time, and partly because von Sydow was trying to be as forthcoming as he could, and was Old-World gracious about everything. When he answered my question for example, he strode toward the part of the stage near where I was sitting, and looked me in the eye as he gave his answer. Later, when someone asked, “what are your personal memories of Bergman,” he responded slowly and sadly, without coming across as scolding: “I can’t talk about that. I’m sorry. I just can’t. Not now.” And surprisingly, while he called the approximately 10 years when he did most of his work for Bergman “the happiest time of my life as an actor,” he said his single favorite role of his whole career, was in PELLE THE CONQUERER.

criterion.jpgVon Sydow recounted his first encounter with Bergman — in the early 50s, as he was starting to make a reputation in Sweden. He and two actor friends wanted to be in one of this hot new director’s movies, and one of them got Bergman’s number somehow, plus wind that he needed to fill a few small roles in his next movie. “So we crammed into a phone booth and told him we were all interested. He turned us down, saying he had completed casting, and I had no contact with him again for several years” — until Bergman was casting THE SEVENTH SEAL.

Surprisingly to me, von Sydow said Bergman gave little explicit direction³, something to the effect of “he gave us general ideas and if we weren’t doing something right, he’d tell us.” But he was not a control-freak, which von Sydow said he liked. “Actors don’t like to be given orders. You want the sense of having some input and some control over what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s boring,” he said. Surprisingly, this was more or less the direction style of another of my favorite directors, but a man who doesn’t have Bergman’s reputation as a great director of actors — Alfred (“actors are cattle“) Hitchcock.⁴

Despite Bergman’s reputation as an expressionist, von Sydow said he tried to make things as realistic as possible in THE VIRGIN SPRING. It wasn’t simply eschewing directorial-tricks like underscore music in the climactic revelation to the mother of who the killers are. But Von Sydow said Bergman also didn’t like “dramatic shadows that had no reason to be there.” When Bergman saw the dailies one day, he realized Sven Nykvist⁵ had the killers casting ominous-looking shadows as they returned unwittingly to the family home. He said Bergman threw a fit … “why? It’s the dead of night,” and before there could be modern illumination. But there wasn’t time to reshoot, and the shadows stayed in the film. Von Sydow also said he didn’t like his performance in the last scene, a very long take which focuses on his post-murder penitential speech. He was shot mostly from behind (though over the course of the shot, it turns into a profile), which he thought was “cheating,” but it was what Bergman wanted. “He said I should direct myself toward God, not the camera,” von Sydow recalled.

Most of all, von Sydow came across as likeable, and as an Old World gentleman, and even his few difficulties with hearing and accented (though otherwise perfect) English contributed to that feel. When asked “what was the most difficult thing you had to provide Bergman,” he paused and gave a one-word answer “Quality.” And paused again before repeating the word and then elaborating a bit. When he was asked the sort of vulgar contemporary question about whether his VIRGIN SPRING character went ballistic against the killers because of “repressed sexual feelings for the daughter,” von Sydow handled it with class and simple directness: “No. Not at all.” When asked what he thought of the theory, he said “sounds like something somebody just came up with,” which I think is a to-Swedish-and-back-to-English translation for “pulled out of his ass.”

tree.jpg

But my favorite moment was (of course) a funny anecdote about shooting THE VIRGIN SPRING. In one scene, von Sydow’s character wrestles down a birch tree, to get branches for a cleaning sauna. As you can see from this still above, this tree was isolated and thus von Sydow’s actions more dramatic (he’s locked up the killers and is getting ready for his revenge) and thematically apropos (he’s alone). Von Sydow said “we sent location people all over, but we couldn’t find a usable tree.” The problem was not finding birch trees per se — there are millions of them in Sweden; it’s finding birch trees all by their lonesome, not part of a forest. “So,” von Sydow said, “we found a usable open field and decided to plant one we had just cut down.” When the crew and von Sydow went out there, a bunch of nearby farmers showed up and “couldn’t believe what these crazy people from Stockholm were doing, planting a lone birch tree in the middle of nowhere.” “There’s thousands of trees over there in that forest,” von Sydow recalled the disbelieving farmers as saying. So the team shoots the scene … an exhausting one for von Sydow. But the next day, they look at the previous day’s footage: catastrophe. Some light found its way into the camera and completely blew out the image. “The only things you could see were all-black and all-white,” von Sydow recalled, “since you couldn’t see me, you saw the tree shape fall over all of a sudden, for no reason.” So they had to reshoot. And go back to the same fields. To face the same farmers. Now doubly nonplussed at this bunch of picture folk who can’t even do their crazy games right.
———————————————————–
¹ In a similar vein, when introducing THE WALKER, Paul Schrader used even worse Hateweapons. He was referring to Washington’s (supposedly) being the only place in the US where homosexuality can be grounds for blackmail. He said “in Washington, it’s the sin that dare not speak its name; in New York, it’s the sin that won’t shut up.” SIN?!?!?! That is Badthought! Get that man in a re-education camp!! NOW!!!
² I will never forget the very first question I ever heard at my very first TIFF. It was a Dialogues showing of Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, presented by Canadian director Bruce Sweeney. The first question he had to field still holds the record for “dumbest question ever” — “so why couldn’t they leave the room?”
³ I recalled once having read/seen an interview with Liv Ullmann in which she said the only “character trait” Bergman gave her for Maria in CRIES AND WHISPERS, other than what was in the script, was “she’s the sort of woman who never closes the door after she enters the room.”
⁴ Doris Day, in her memoirs, said something almost identical about Hitchcock’s lack of direction of her in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. I can’t find the exact quote quickly, but according to Wikipedia‘s paraphrase: Hitchcock “said everything was fine; if [Day] wasn’t doing what he wanted he would have said something.”
⁵ Throughout, von Sydow pronounced the surname of Bergman’s ace cinematographer, who von Sydow said was as great in his field as Bergman, as “NOOK’-vist.” Which sounds wrong to me (I want to say NIGH’-kvist), but he’s the one who speaks Swedish.

October 3, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 9 Comments

TIFF Capsules — Day 10

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN, Cristian Nemescu, Romania — 6

Of the four recent Romanian films I’ve seen, this is the one that comes closest in style and tone to the East European black-comedies of the 60s (Munk, Forman, Menzel, etc.) — a bureaucratic snafu, an arbitrary decision-maker, allegorical plot, a lot of people waiting around, and establishing a temporary idyll while “the papers are being processed” offstage. With a group of American soldiers trapped in Romanian Nowheresville on their way to Kosovo, you get a range of reactions and interactions, all of them at least bordering on the cynical. I was also floored by the black-and-white flashback to the 40s, which explains exactly why some of the people behave as they do. Compared to the northern part of ex-Commie Europe though, Balkan humor, or at least the behavior of the characters, is a bit less dry and bit more blustery. DREAMIN is a funny delight, but it just went on for too long for the premise and the episodic structure eventually wore out its welcome. I can’t help but think Nemescu would have tightened it up some if he hadn’t been killed in a car accident.

ANGEL, Francois Ozon, Britain/France — 8

I may need to take another look at Todd Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN, to which I had a decidedly mixed reaction, because I so thoroughly enjoyed this movie, which succeeds on exactly the terms that HEAVEN’s fans say it did. A sort of female bildungsroman about a teenage dreamer who becomes a writer of cheap romances and then Britain’s biggest literary star, ANGEL isn’t in any way a parody or a pastiche or a travesty of the 30s/40s woman’s picture. It is simply an example of it, a re-creation of it — outdated conventions and all (complaining about the obvious rear-projection, as does the lead review on the IMDb as I write this, utterly misses the point). And given the subject matter and the central character, this is an entirely appropriate stylistic choice. Like Blanche DuBois, Angel doesn’t want realism, she wants magic. ANGEL is in color — a garish and stylized look by contemporary standards; not so much by the standards of the color available in the 30s, but Ozon is at least nodding in that direction. But in every other respect, you can imagine MGM of the 30s putting out this movie, with Norma Shearer or Joan Crawford or Greer Garson in the lead (even to the lead actress being too old for the early, teenager scenes). You can hear the ghosts of Franz Waxman or Dmitri Tiomkin on the extravagantly romantic, mostly-strings score. The honeymoon is presented in a montage of “around the world” scenography (obvious back-projection again). The sets are deliberately opulent (per the “Tiffany studio” rep) to the point of unbelievable if ANGEL were in any way trying to be realistic or even contemporary, but which by their very stand-out quality, sustain both the illusion of a re-creation and the reflection of a soul who doesn’t want realism. In the same vein, what makes Romola Garai’s performance in the central role so awesome is that she stakes out her own ground within this stylized genre. Garai in no way imitates Bette Davis or some of her particular mannerisms. She simply acts herself but in a manner that recalls Davis, and her character is as much a self-centered dynamic asshole as anything Davis ever created. Like Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE, Garai is clearly having a ball playing an unredeemed bitch in the early scenes and then, when the character starts to suffer as the genre demands, she’s just as self-assured in her pleadings. There is simply no substitute for conviction.

THE SUN ALSO RISES, Jiang Wen, China — 5

When you start training in submission wrestling or jiu-jitsu, the first thing you’re told is that submitting or “tapping out” is part of the game. If you’re caught, you’re caught; and “only wimps submit” is not an attitude you can take. In the analogous spirit in the matter of film criticism … I now must tap out to a sunk-in arm bar. I wimpishly admit that I have no effing idea what this movie is about. It’s got something to do with the Cultural Revolution, and there are stretches of 10 or 15 minutes when it almost makes sense. There seem to be a couple of plot lines, one involving a professor and a film screening of Maoist propaganda, and another involving a crazy mother who climbs trees. I almost hope that Jiang just made it deliberately obscure in order to confound the Chi-Com censors. What makes SUN tolerable is that it’s so gorgeous to look at — the high-contrast images with the colors saturated up to 11 (especially on the orange-red, as if the whole film was shot at Roland Garros tennis stadium). It’s also often quite funny or bizarre (particularly in the mother character, throwing sheep down trees). But seeing SUN was like watching a coloratura opera in another language, without titles, without having read the book. You admire the virtuosity for a while and remind yourself to “read the book next time.” But in the end, you can’t embrace it.

MY WINNIPEG, Guy Maddin, Canada — 8

The key word here is “my.” This is the most humorously self-absorbed “City Symphony” movie since Fellini’s ROMA, and any resemblance between this film and the actual capital of Manitoba is purely coincidental and quite probably actionable (“10 times the suicide rate of any place in the world”? Really?) I was stunned when I saw on the credits that the Documentary Channel had helped finance this film — eccentric, brilliant and side-splittingly funny though it is. Some of the history recounted has a basis in fact — but everything in Maddin’s hands becomes raw material for his wack imagination, maybe the greatest comic mind working in the movies now. For example, I have no doubt that some sort of accident at a Winnipeg racetrack really did kill some horses. I rather doubt that the horses fell into the river, instantly freezing them to death. And I’m positive that the frozen-in-death heads did not remain above ice all winter and become a kind of decorative statuary attraction for Winnipegers. In this, MY WINNIPEG is like the greatest ever segment of David Letterman’s “Brush with Greatness” — absurd comic embellishments off real events that we’re not supposed to believe, but told with a straight face because it’s so much more enjoyable that way. In a similar vein, this gives a reason for the use of the usual Maddin style — a fevered, impressionistic look, silent footage (a copious voiceover narration here, though) and a “looks 70 years old” quality. It’s part of the “straight face,” given how old some of the history is. Maddin also makes the film intensely personal, after his fashion, by re-creating certain episodes of his 60s Winnipeg childhood, but his now 80-something mom playing herself (not so, though this is what is said during the film; see comments), hired actors playing the others in his family. And using a chihuahua to play the family’s boxer-pup (or was it the other way around). And remembering the world’s most absurd TV show (to describe it would spoil it) — “The Pride of Winnipeg.” Writing this capsule, I’m already starting to convince myself I’ve underestimated MY WINNIPEG. One complaint though: there was not a single mention of Winnipeg’s second-greatest artists, the Crash Test Dummies, so stunned that I left the theater asking myself “Hmmmmm?”

JUST LIKE HOME, Lone Sherfig, Denmark — 3

I want to finish this quickly, so I can get to some of the posts and updates I’ve put off. So it’s hardly worth mentioning this completely forgettable sitcom, which, if it hadn’t been in Danish (or at least not in English), would never grace an important international film festival. The minute you see that one of the characters is an uptight Christian virgin, the only question is “whom will she bed by the movie’s end?” This being Scandinavia, it can be literally anyone for all it matters. This also being Scandinavia, she and the rest of the women will also get a chance to see every man in town naked.

September 24, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

TIFF Capsules — Day 9

ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON, Eric Rohmer, France — 6

I’m afraid I may be becoming an auteurist zombie with my grade on this movie, an adaptation of a 17th-century novel in the chivalric style, about a 5th-century love split by a misunderstanding. ROMANCE is the weakest film I’ve ever seen by my favorite living film-maker, but not an uninteresting one, exactly because I had such difficulty with it.¹ To state what is most obvious, ROMANCE is very badly acted movie. Atrociously acted. At the bad middle-school, Max Fischer Players level of reciting clearly-memorized lines. It’s so bad that it HAS to be deliberate … this is Eric frickin’ Rohmer, right? And he did make PERCEVAL, a medieval-set heroic tale that was just as stiffly and artificially acted. Right? He did. Except … PERCEVAL was clearly performed as an onscreen text — absurdly artificial cardboard sets, characters self-narrating their actions, a visible music chorus, complete with Foley artists in costume. I can’t entirely embrace PERCEVAL, but it was clearly an anti-realist period film (though I think THE LADY AND THE DUKE much superior in that vein). But there’s none of either earlier film’s visual strategy in ROMANCE, which is shot plain-vanilla style in natural settings that neither evoke the past or signify anything at all. And seeing ROMANCE the same day as THE VIRGIN SPRING didn’t make me more receptive to the “medieval stylization” claim. Theo pointed out to me later that Rohmer begins ROMANCE with a card saying the film would try to recreate how a 17th-century audience would imagine this chivalric-romance story. Which I got, but doesn’t seem like an explanation. Would (or could) Enlightenment audiences have imagined an-already-past piece in the style of cinematic realism? I have such regard for Rohmer that I have no doubt he achieved what he wanted to. I just don’t have the foggiest notion of what exactly that was. And why.

THE WALKER, Paul Schrader, USA — 7

In the midst of all the snooty art films at a festival like TIFF, the good ones and the bad ones, you still need at least a couple of palate cleaners: English-language entertainment films with few ambitions beyond telling a story, making you laugh, giving you a thrill/chill or two. So for the ninth day of a fest, THE WALKER is a perfectly confectionary film. Schrader pretty much made this movie 25 years ago. A “walker” is basically a publicly-presentable escort/companion for older socially-prominent women (no sex occurs, and gay men are particularly valuable since can appear publicly with women without suspicion). In this Washington-set movie, Schrader more or less tells the story of AMERICAN GIGOLO with Woody Harrelson as a gay Richard Gere. There’s a dash or two of political intrigue added in, the latter of which is little more than another example of what I call “liberalism as product placement.” But Schrader handles the mechanics of the semi-political thriller deftly, Harrelson effectively plays both sides of the street — a bon-vivant and a man unexpectedly finding himself pushed into a corner. And any movie with a Diva Row like this one — Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Bacall — can only be called “fabulous.”

ERIK NIETZSCHE: THE EARLY YEARS, Jacob Thuesen, Denmark — 3

When reviewing a 1981 film, Roger Ebert asked himself the following question, the most basic one a film critic can ask: “Why is Heaven’s Gate so painful and unpleasant to look at?” and answered that “it is so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen” and concluded that “a director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.” Since the momentous December 1996 day when I walked half-awares into an Atlanta theater playing BREAKING THE WAVES, Lars Von Trier the director has never failed to make my annual Top 10. But Lars Von Trier the writer, when directed by others, has never avoided an all-caps CON (the only other such title is DEAR WENDY), and both WENDY and NIETZSCHE, a roman a self-clef about LvT’s years in Danish film school, have (among others) the same basic primary visual problem: a beige-brown palette that is simply ugly and dirty to look at. You DO want to try Windex on ERIK NIETZSCHE. The material isn’t all that bad — the pseudonymous “Nietzsche” finding his way through film school — and often very funny (the portrayals of the other students and professors have the feel of getting back on your own high-school class). But it’s extremely one-dimensional and the LvT self-promotion bandwagon has worn out its welcome. And the film’s as ugly as ass.

THE VIRGIN SPRING, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1960 — 8

I’ll describe my particular interactions with presenter Max von Sydow in another post, but to speak strictly of SPRING as a movie (we have all seen it, right?). Von Sydow pointed out after the film how the central scene of discovery, when the mother sees her daughter’s clothes among the thieves’ belongings, Bergman simply held on the mother’s face for a very long time. No cutting away and no underlining score, or any of the other things that a film-maker would do today. “He takes the time to make you feel her loss,” Von Sydow said (quoting from memory; may be a little off). He’s obviously correct about Bergman taking his time when he needs to, but I was struck just as much by almost the opposite reaction — just how efficiently-paced SPRING is. Bergman doesn’t waste a moment in a film that is as lean and fast (but without seeming hurried or harried; that’s the genius) in its storytelling as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Whatever may be said about his other movies, Bergman knew that medieval legends went straight to the point. Uniting my observation and Von Sydow’s — every scene is exactly as long as it should be. SPRING may also represent the peak (or at least “most typical”) example of Bergman’s black-and-white visual style: a bold chiaroscuro with harshly-defined lines around the objects, but with the pearl-gray ambience producing soft shadows, the result of using a kind of diffused light typical of the overcast North. Given that Bergman so comprehensively creates texture, this movie’s medieval setting and parable story produce the effect of looking at tableaux or a series of church icons (like the Stations of the Cross, say) from a time where movies didn’t exist. The thing that struck me most anew in this viewing of SPRING, my third or fourth, was how spoiled and naive is the young girl of the title (like Narcissus, she pauses to admire her own beauty in a pool of water), and how Birgitta Petterson’s performance, effective in this context though it is, seems to belong in another movie. She’s all sunny and light-hearted, as if she doesn’t realize that she’s living in medieval times. Camille Paglia would no doubt have a field day applying her theories of date rape to this girl’s reckless behavior, plus the archetypes Bergman plays to the nines — blonde-vs.-brunette, say. But I will always think that Gunnel Lindblom as the pagan maid isn’t giving is a bit … much of the smoldering hatred act.

—————————————————–

¹ I hasten to say that ROMANCE is not at all “difficult” in the LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD sense of “hard to follow.” Indeed it’s almost too simple, a romantic misunderstanding followed by efforts to straighten things out.

September 24, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF Capsules — Day 8

DR. PLONK, Rolf de Heer, Australia — 6
The titular 1907 scientist discovers that the world will end a hundred years hence and so develops a time machine to get the proof and/or warn the then-present. Since it’s done in the style of a silent comedy, or more specifically a not-quite-so-frenetic Mack Sennett, this silent-film fanboy was ready to adore DR. PLONK. And there IS a lot of stuff to like here: a charming dog with a ball fetish to end all ball fetishes, the deaf assistant, Dr. Plonk’s chalkboard with not-quite-brilliant scrawls (“c² = e/m”), and my favorite gag was the way Dr. Plonk handles the TV salesman. But I quickly realized I wasn’t laughing as much as I should have been, and it’s because writer-director deHeer does little “shading” or “building” the gags. Let me give one example: whenever he gets a good idea, Dr. Plonk pulls out of his pocket and displays to the camera a glowing lightbulb, not attached to any socket or other visible power source. In the course of the film, he does this maybe six times or so. But that’s only funny the first or second time. If Chaplin or Lloyd were to have done this, they would have had something unexpected happen during or because of the gesture, rather than just rinse-and-repeat. And not much is really made of the 1907-2007 contrasts, other than a funny bit about trying to visit the Australian prime minister. DR. PLONK is more an great stunt done passably than a great movie.

RECLAIM YOUR BRAIN, Hans Weingartner, Germany — 0
I should have reclaimed mine by walking out of this vile bag of stupid, self-satisfied, self-righteous, audience-fellating garbage. Weingartner said in his intro at the festival that the “TV rating system does not reflect intelligent people like us,” which got my back up right away. “Us”? And then, the very first dramatic scene is so over-the top — imagine this PJ O’Rourke essay as adapted by someone who didn’t realize O’Rourke is a humorist — that the only question really left was how much I would hate RECLAIM YOUR BRAIN. Quite a lot. A supposed satire about the dumbing effect of television and a plot by a ragtag group to electronically rig the ratings and turn Germany in a few months into a nation full of “intelligent people like us,” it really increased my admiration for movies like SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS and IDIOCRACY, which handle some of the same subject matter, but without the smarmy adolescent superiority. This is the sort of movie where two guerrillas try to steal a ratings box and “turn” the security guard chasing after them by sheer dint of persuasion. This is the sort of movie where PERSONA and ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL are put forth as ideal programming, but which has several happy, sappy montages of the New Intelligent Liberated Germany scored to happy, sappy pop music that I don’t recall Bergman or Fassbinder having a jones for. This is the sort of movie that thinks capitalist advertising causes people to consume willy-nilly for the sake of consumption (what caused Roman vomitoriums or “Madame Deficit” then???). It is even the sort of movie where at one point a character notes that “we don’t want to change the ratings too quickly, it’ll attract suspicion” but then later, the characters will huddle around a computer to watch the hacked “real-time ratings” for one network drop by three-fourths in 15 seconds.

DAYS OF DARKNESS, Denys Arcand, Canada — 8
According to Mike, nobody liked this movie at Cannes (and nobody in my circle at Toronto even as much as saw it). I will freely admit that DARKNESS profited enormously from both my seeing it immediately after that piece of scheisse and also from comparison with Arcand’s BARBARIAN INVASIONS, which I rather disliked. DARKNESS shares some thematic similarities with both films and even a narrowly topical resemblance to INVASIONS. But the difference is in the perspective — instead of INVASION’s insufferably smug circle of intellectuals, DARKNESS follows a single protagonist who works in the bowels of that kafkaesque P.C. behemoth that Quebec calls a government. He’s a nobody in his family (his wife is even a Realtor, shades of AMERICAN BEAUTY), he’s bullied at work, where he cannot do anything to help the people who come to him with serious woes. And, like Walter Mitty and Billy Liar, he escapes into fantastical dreams that Arcand presents as black-out comedy sketches. That never quite avoid sex. Arcand presents Quebec as choking on a suburban hyper-modern bureaucratic impersonalism that has arrogated everything and its meaning unto itself. There is a “real-life” scene involving a tribunal over the hero’s use of the word “Negro” that is funny enough but probably is far wittier in French. A lengthy sequence involves a weekend among medieval impersonators (Society for Creative Anachronism types) which the hero says is about “people who just want order and faith.” But, eventually, the only thing left to the hero is to withdraw. TS Eliot said he’d show us fear in a handful of dust (and the Waste Land’s dust is choking the city at the start of the movie) and Arcand shows us the meaning of life in an apple. In other words, this is the right-Romantic “Gemeinschaft” critique of capitalism and modernity (which is incompatible with anything smacking of Marxism or anything leftist): “Crunchy” Rod … see this movie.

SECRET SUNSHINE, Lee Chang-dong, South Korea — 8
I wish I could have just worn a mike and recorded the beer-sodden (on my end) conversation I had with J. Robert Parks on Friday night, so I could post that here as a Podcast. I admired SECRET SUNSHINE much more than Robert does, though the film’s virtues are fairly self-evident: a bravura central performance by Jeon Do-yeon as Shin-ae a newly-widowed mother hit by tragedy as she moves into her late husband’s hometown, and an understatedly-comic turn by Song Kang-ho as Mr. Kim (something needed in a movie where the central character is so BIG and goes through such wild emotional swings). We agreed on all that, where we disagreed and what we mostly discussed was the presentation of Christianity in SECRET SUNSHINE.

After a tragedy, Shin-ae finds her way into a church, an evangelical Protestant group with a strong charismatic bent. At the healing service she wanders into half-unawares, the minister lays his hands on her (the rest of him is offscreen … the perfect framing) and it’s as if 16 tons of coal are off her shoulders. This scene is presented straight and without irony. She joins the church and seems content and at peace. But then tries something heroic, which I won’t spoil, but which turns her against the church and into the remoter edges of sanity. I wouldn’t agree with Darren Hughes that SECRET SUNSHINE is “the truest depiction of evangelical Christianity I’ve seen on film” (I’ve seen THE APOSTLE, and even, in a movie that has more in common with SECRET SUNSHINE, TENDER MERCIES). But Lee does get a lot right, including the physical stuff like the songs (no “Dies Irae” in a low-church setting or “Ave Maria” among Protestants, say), the parking arrangements, and the ways that this church provides community and love to those who badly need it. And Mr. Kim, who joins the church simply to pursue Shin-ae, eventually becomes a reasonably contented member.

Even the warts Lee shows in the church, or rather in this church, are not things Christians (or even evangelicals like Robert) are blind to — starting with a certain spiritual immaturity that, while admirable because it grows from a boundless faith in the Holy Spirit, would encourage the spiritual equivalent of fighting for the world title after winning the Golden Gloves. (And as a Catholic, I have no difficulty with noting how the evangelical once-and-for-all soteriology encourages rashness even in non-salvific or more-secular things; indeed I count this as one of the film’s strengths in its depiction of Christianity.) Even if Robert is right … back me on this one bud … there can be no questioning Lee’s basic receptivity and seriousness, his sincere desire to explore a milieu or phenomenon in its fullness — a religion relatively new to Korea but rapidly-growing. We’re not talking Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, in other words.

One reservation: the film should have ended … I will be vague … as the heroine walks down the street, saying “help me.” Instead there’s a really dumb coda in which a certain action is used as a metaphor for “striking out on one’s own / thinking for oneself.” Except that the action used is one that there are very good natural reasons most people have others do it for them. Which undermines whatever point the coda would have to have to justify its existence.

A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE, Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan — 6

A half-dozen kids make up the entire elementary school in a small Japanese village but a boy comes from Tokyo to study in the top grade, joining the class with the girl who’s the leader of the pack but about to become a teenager. If I had to sum up GENTLE BREEZE in a single word, it would be “sweet.” There isn’t much plot tension exactly, but Yamashita creates a mood more than anything — one of easy happiness without saccharin uplift. The children form a group and love one another rather than the sort of cliquish wiseacres — going to the beach together and even inviting the new boy along lest he feel left out. When GENTLE BREEZE stays with the environment of the children, it is superb and filled with “just so” moments of recognition — I had memories tickled of being afraid to take “The Rock Way” home from St. Lawrence’s Primary when someone told me it was haunted. Even though I never believed in ghosts, exactly. There’s another moment when the youngest girl hugs the eldest, who is a bit of a mother hen to the group without being bossy, that is frog-in-the-throat territory. In his setup, Yamashita deliberately invokes Ozu-style framing to emphasize that this village hasn’t changed much since Ozu’s time. But high-school and the class trip to Tokyo beckon, where the heroine finds out some things about the new boy. GENTLE BREEZE has some very funny comic moments, my favorite being the discussion of the ethics of kisses and handshakes that is far removed from the world of Britney and Lindsey as imaginable. But good as the parts are, they never really come together and the film does drag, grooving on its sweet a bit much for my tastes — as a result, it sometimes feels as slight and inconsequential as … well … a gentle breeze in the village (sorry).

September 22, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

TIFF Grades — Day 10

15 SEPT
CALIFORNIA DREAMIN, Cristian Nemescu, Romania — 6
ANGEL, Francois Ozon, France — 8
THE SUN ALSO RISES, Jiang Wen, China — 5
MY WINNIPEG, Guy Maddin, Canada — 8
JUST LIKE HOME, Lone Sherfig, Denmark — 3

So that’s everything I saw in this year’s TIFF. The grades make it clear that this was a pretty awesome festival, as expected and hyped. Of the 44 films seen, I have five films graded at 9 and another seven at 8 (plus THE VIRGIN SPRING). With only two films graded lower than 3. By contrast, in 2004 (probably the worst year since I started going), I had only two 9-grades, five 8-grades, with another five grades lower than 3.

I’ll get started on the three remaining days of capsules, plus one essay, when I get back to Washington on Sunday, Morpheus willing.

September 16, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

TIFF Capsules — Day 7

its-a-free-world.jpg

IT’S A FREE WORLD …, Ken Loach, Britain — 5
This is mostly Loach in his “good” mode, staying off his soapbox and with the leftistical pinko points being made by the events rather than speechifying. Unfortunately, he didn’t make a very good film in his “good” genre. He does, typically, get a great central performance from the unknown Kierston Wareing as a worker for a labor-recruitment agency named Angie who loses her job and decides to start her own immigrant-employment service. She’s smart, wily and has an entrepreneurial spirit — a kind of Anglo-Saxon Rosetta with more about her head. What makes Angie so compelling is that the second-level character touches are all there — her defensiveness toward her father, say, and the fact that she does try to help people. When it’s not against her interests, that is. There is also one terrific “character” turn, by Raymond Mearns as the Glaswegian bartender Andy, whose “yooz wummun” speech is just a joy to listen to for its working-class tinfoil-hat quality.

But, and this is about the last thing one would expect to say about a Loach film, the script really isn’t sufficiently focused. Subplots like the Polish boyfriend just sort of peter out. And there is a crime that takes place in the next-to-last scene that is simply ridiculous — both narrativewise (it happens out of nowhere, but is resolved far too quickly and the scene ends on a line that the Coen Brothers blew away in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) and detailwise (a criminal would hardly give *this* speech under *these* circunstances; plus it’s as economically silly as most Loach soapboxing). And that’s it, plus an obviously symmetrical coda; the film doesn’t so much end as stop. And the bad Loach occasionally rears his head, e.g., Angie asks an Iranian family why the had to leave and the only thing clear in the sound mix is the father blaming the US overthrow of Mossadeq in 1953. The man and wife in this family look to be in their 30s.

last-mistress.jpg

THE LAST MISTRESS, Catherine Breillat, France — 4
My favorite Breillat so far, but that really is saying only that THE LAST MISTRESS didn’t want to make me claw my eyes out (ROMANCE made me want to mutilate myself in other ways). The big-budget period piece (an adaptation of a Barbey d’Aureville novel about an aristocratic marriage and a Spanish prostitute whom the man can’t let go of) does somewhat rein in Breillat’s perversity or pervertedness. And she has an interesting theme — how hatred and jealousy can fuel romance and (especially) sex. There’s a scene in which a character slashes another across the face that draws blood in more ways than one. But remember when I said “somewhat rein in.” Somewhat. Asia Argento still cannot act, but she have very large and round boobs, a fact of which Breillat constantly reminds us. While showing Roxanne Mesquida’s flat chest for comparison. The pervs and the feminists will no doubt form a Coalition of the Willing around this film.

atonement.jpg

ATONEMENT, Joe Wright, Britain — 9 (changed from 8 )
Organizing my notes for this, I realized just how strong ATONEMENT is and how completely brilliant is the third act, hence the upgrade. Saying why this film is so great will require giving away the entire plot. I profited immensely from going in knowing nothing of the novel (something Wright’s first film obviously had no hope of) and having at least forgotten about a certain member of the cast (brainlock from seeing 5 films a day does have its advantages). ATONEMENT opens in theaters shortly, so I’ll speak vaguely. The film is segmented into three easily definable acts. The first, set in a 1935 British manor, is great. The second, following several characters from the first act through the years of World War II, is pretty good but we’re starting to feel things get rote. The third act is a mind-blower that turns the whole movie inside out.

The first contains most of the virtues people will expect — Keira Knightley will get most of the praise (and hopefully a cheeseburger) as Cecilia, but James McAvoy as the social-climber/gardener Robbie persuades me for the first time that he’s something more than a boyish face. The two have an incredibly erotic sex scene while hardly taking off any clothes (they’re in the manor library … appearances, people), while bathed in not-quite expressionistic dark shadows. And the kids are the best of all, note-perfect in their desires to be more than kids. Saorise Ronan as aspiring writer Briany, Cecilia’s sister, and Juno Temple as Lola both think they are more mature than they are (milked for comedy in Lola’s case) and both make the mistake of their lives, in different cases. By the second act, Briany now played by TIFF Acting MVP Romola Garai, has come to realize her mistake but the war effort and residual anger block her efforts to come back to terms. This contains a shot, of the evacuation at Dunkirk that’s already causing sneers and unfavorable comparison to CHILDREN OF MEN. But I didn’t “spot” its length (maybe because I wasn’t primed to), plus it’s more of a look-around within a defined space shot, more in common with the opening shot of THE PLAYER than CoM.

The third act. I will come back to this capsule later (and edit accordingly) … probably when the fest is over. But there will be SPOILERS aplenty. Suffice to say fernow that the last shot, of a cottage on the white cliffs of Dover is absolutely gorgeous. And absolutely heartbreaking.

girl-cut-in-two.jpg

A GIRL CUT IN TWO, Claude Chabrol, France — 4
I have to come clean and admit that Chabrol just may be a blind spot of mine. I have seen about seven of his films but have never really been blown away by one (LE BOUCHER came closest). This film has a few funny epigrams like “Old age is when you start saying ‘I never felt so young’,” but it passed before my eyes for 100 minutes without leaving a single emotional mark on me. It’s not awful; professionally done in every way, the events happen, the plot resolves itself, the movie’s over and I’m left shrugging. I think it may be that Chabrol is neither a distinctive stylist nor a great story-teller nor does he have a body of work strongly united by theme or genre (all my favorite directors have at least one of those; most more). Or perhaps that GIRL, like many of his movies, has events that center on a murder and so can sound like some kind of semi-thriller. But the pacing and tension are just too tepid for GIRL to be considered anything but a failure on those genre terms.

September 15, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 3 Comments

TIFF Grades — Days 8/9

13 SEPT
DR. PLONK, Rolf de Heer, Australia — 6
RECLAIM YOUR BRAIN, Hans Weingartner, Germany — 0
DAYS OF DARKNESS, Denys Arcand, Canada — 8
SECRET SUNSHINE, Lee Chang-dong, South Korea — 8
A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE, Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan — 6

14 SEPT
ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON, Eric Rohmer, France — 6
THE WALKER, Paul Schrader, USA — 7
ERIK NIETZSCHE: THE EARLY YEARS, Jacob Thuesen, Denmark — 3
THE VIRGIN SPRING, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1960 — 8

September 13, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

TIFF Capsules — Day 6

(Saving the OPERATION FILMMAKER doc to pair with MY KID COULD PAINT THAT … essay coming after the fest).

margot-at-the-wedding.jpg

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, Noah Baumbach, USA — 8
I complained about the “does-he-or-doesn’t-he” ending of IN MEMORY OF ME that it didn’t matter which way the film-makers turned it. In MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, whether Nicole Kidman’s Margot gets on a bus at the end of the film is every bit as arbitrary as whether Christo Jivkov leaves the seminary. But unlike Costanzo, Baumbach has made a film about that very fact, which makes the ending perfect even if it doesn’t make sense (and I agree that as a matter of strict logic, it doesn’t; but this whole movie is not about strict logic). The characters on MARGOT — primarily about Kidman visiting sister Jennifer Jason Leigh on the week of her planned marriage to Jack Black — are typical Baumbach characters. The film thus stands or falls — or rather stands marvelously — on the writing and delivery. These people are a certain type of upper-class New Yorker, schooled in the arts of passive-aggressive one-upmanship. They are deeply self-absorbed, but with a bad conscience about their wealth and social status (they are liberals, after all) which leads to hyper-defensiveness on every manner of subject. And they fit Baumbach’s writing style, as the stretch for the bon-mot that might lead to an inadvertantly humorous/damning juxtaposition, is what matters to them. The speech about the Puerto Rican plumber, with its gaggle of subordinate clauses, qualifying, clarifying, qualifying the clarification and clarifying those qualifications — it’s some kind of masterpiece of hyper-articulate writing. But ultimately, their unselfconscious privilege leaves them as clueless as Cher Horowitz (or … ahem … Emma Wodehouse). And here’s a premature Skandies Plug for Best Scene: Kidman’s Book Q-and-A, with her ex-husband, natch. Compared to Baumbach’s Year-End Top-5’er THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, this follow-up feels a bit less urgent, cuts less deeply and is more of a divertissement (though there have to be some autobiographicalish elements; there’s a crushed-by-family male character who would have been born around 1968). It just goes on until it ends, but the fact that I wouldn’t have cared if it had gone on in the same vein for 30 minutes more says what’s near-great about MARGOT. The fact I would have felt the same way had it ended 30 minutes earlier is what limits it to near-greatness. MARGOT is just an excuse to spend time in the Baumbach universe. But that’s a very nice place to visit.

paranoid-park.jpg

PARANOID PARK, Gus Van Sant, USA — 3
I utterly detested Van Sant’s ELEPHANT as complicit with mass murder and forcing the audience into the same complicity, to no good end beyond that achievement. This movie — about “the skatebard community” — isn’t quite as evil because it doesn’t tip its hand until the end (thus leaving alone the existential experience of watching most of the movie for the first time) and doesn’t lock in the viewer. Hence a grade other than 0. But the attitude Van Sant objective and impressionistic direction exemplifies — which adds up in this milieu to a sort of ironic “whatever” — links him inseparably to these characters. Look, I won’t pretend to be the biggest fan of the emo personality-type. Nor will I deny my suspicions about Van Sant’s interest in teen culture (though he is far more subtle than the drooling perv Larry Clark). These facts DO feed into my repulsion for ELEPHANT and PARANOID PARK. And don’t get me wrong — PARANOID PARK is shot by Christopher Doyle and thus lovely to look at, particularly in its use of both narrow and deep focal depths; the sound mix is incredible, with Felliniesque music cues, natural sound and expressionistic use of spoken dialog. And its narrative is an exercise in structural denial, as Van Sant constantly fills in gaps in what happend “that night” down by the skateboard park, which resulted in a security guard’s death in being run over by a train.

But this structure leads into what is disgusting about this movie — it’s engaged in the same acts of denial and delay as the film’s protagonist Alex (flatly portrayed by Gabe Nevins, like a Bressonian model). Neither its including a homicide nor the killer “getting away with it” are my point at all; nor is it that Alex that denies what he did, but rather I am saying that Van Sant does this also. He puts off telling us that Alex killed a security guard and then after that it’s all about Alex, i.e., the very narcissism and selfishness that led to the killing in the first place. Besides the story structure, Van Sant’s Alex-identifying direction and the flat affectlessness of his Bela-Tarr-style correlates with Alex’s attitude. PARK even invites the comparison, by having Alex write a letter called “Paranoid Park” telling what happened. The film ends with the “smart chick” telling Alex, without knowing exactly what is “troubling” him, that “it’s good to put it out there even if nobody reads it.” Alex supposedly does (the film jumps around in time a lot, but is never unclear). And then he burns the letter. End of movie (more or less). But wait … there’s a human being who has been cut in half here, and is this exclusively “telling=catharsis” ending morally acceptable? Can this film end by cutting to one more lyrical interlude of skateboarders doing their schtick? For an act of that gravity? When the movie has no other possible “there” there? No.

sukiyaki-western-django.jpg

SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO, Takashi Miike, Japan — 7
There really isn’t any way to react positively to this movie — a tribute to Westerns, particularly Sergio Leone and spaghetti Westerns acted by an (almost-)all-Japanese cast but in badly spoken English — except with slobbering fanboy worship. So let the slobbering begin: the pre-credits sequence involving Quentin Tarantino as Charles Bronson in a hyper-artificial take-off on the start of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is awesome; QT’s other scene apes the Uma-Gordon Liu scenes in KILL BILL, only it’s about cooking, and it’s even awesomer (consider these Skandie plugs); two souls fighting over control of one body has kicked ass ever since ALL OF ME; characters wanting to be Shakespearean heroes rocks; swords stopping bullets roolz; Japanese people mangling English is never not funny; Japanese people innocently spouting Western terms they only half-understand (if there’s a “social criticism” angle to the film, that’s it) never isn’t either. OK. Perspective. (Victor goes to dry out mouth.) Like all recent Miike, DJANGO is too long and often drags. Miike seems to be better at coming up with wtf-premises than at executing them from fade-in to fade-out. After a half-hour I was sore with laughter but thinking “he can’t keep this up.” And he can’t. The last hour runs on the fumes of movie in-jokes (I apparently was the only person in the insane Ryerson Midnight Madness crowd to get a joke about Japanese MLB players.) But the fumes are high-octane-grade enough to kick the comic engine into gear often enough to recommend.

September 13, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF Grades — Days 6/7

11 SEPT (skipped two morning “filler” films to catch up sleep
OPERATION FILMMAKER, Nina Davenport, USA — 7
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, Noah Baumbach, USA — 8
PARANOID PARK, Gus Van Sant, USA — 3
SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO, Takashi Miike, Japan — 7

12 SEPT
ITS A FREE WORLD …, Ken Loach, Britain — 5
THE LAST MISTRESS, Catherine Breillat, France — 4
ATONEMENT, Joe Wright, Britain — 8
A GIRL CUT IN TWO, Claude Chabrol, France — 4

September 12, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

TIFF Capsules — Day 5

4-weeks.jpg

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 9
Mike generally has a generally good sense of my tastes, so I’m curious why he was unsure whether I would like this film, given that he (accurately) predicted that moral/religious reasons would not be a problem. When Ryan and I began discussing 4 MONTHS sitting in the theater during the credits, at almost the same point, we said “Dardennes,” i.e., one of my 2 or 3 favorite current filmmakers. This film is the answer to that eternal riddle “what if the Dardenne Brothers had been born in Bucharest?”: the style and general interest is exactly the same — all-natural light, down-at-the-heels urban milieu, characters at the economic margins but not exactly poor, no music but a very precise sound mix, constantly roving camera, short period of time, tightly focused plotting, a narrow life-defining quest pursued with dogged DOGGED persistence in the midst of a variety of other tasks, naturalistic performances. The major difference is that Dardennes deal in moral dilemmas and their consequences; in 4 MONTHS, there really aren’t any. Mungiu made a film much more about the most-hectic shit day of your life, trying to juggle 100 tasks, remembering what lies you told, and get around others in your way (in that sense, not unlike THE CHILD).

Surprisingly, the central Rosetta-like protagonist is not Gabita, the woman seeking an illegal abortion, but her college roommate Otilia (Anamaria Lucia, a great performance). Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is a real airhead, and not in a funny way; indeed her stupid lies and avoidances set up potential fatal situations. And so it’s believable that her friend would simply “help” a la Vera Drake, seeing herself as a protector of a friend in over her head. All the while, trying to deal with her own boyfriend issues and trying to get by in Ceaucescu-era Romania where cigarettes serve as a kind of second currency, scarce commodities are traded as needed, and the black market for all goods, not just abortion, is considered a part of life. Scene after scene plays with perfect attention to detail and balance. Especially fine is a scene of a birthday party where everybody is engaging in fairly-interesting party talk while the camera keeps a tight frame for several minutes on two people privately miles away. Indeed, life in actually-existing-socialist Romania is portrayed as nothing but lies, where lying about things large and small, hiding things, maintaining appearances, getting around others is ubiquitous. Everybody does it. And everybody knows everybody else does it, making social life one long cynical day of pragmatic getting-by. The short performance by the abortionist himself (Vlad Ivanov) should be on Wikipedia as the illustration of “Pragmatism,” subfield “ruthless.” And anyone who thinks THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU had unbelievably insensitive hospital personnel is invited to look at the hotel workers here.

As for the portrayal of abortion. Yes, this movie is in a very broad sense *about* the quest for an illegal abortion. Abortion as either a moral matter or a political issue simply does not appear, on either side. The decision to abort was made before the movie begins, and the abortion and disposing of the dead baby are simply tasks in a laundry list and, unlike in VERA DRAKE, nobody says abortion is wrong. But there is a shot of the result of the abortion that doesn’t last long but is as in-you-face and bloody as any pro-life group poster (this being the 5th month, it’s an undeniably human form and it’s far more explicit than the original ALFIE. Squeamish: Consider this your warning.) On balance, I would put it this way: 4 MONTHS is a movie where nobody says word of pro-choice propaganda and which shows an aborted corpse dead on the floor. That’s a net plus. Indeed, I wonder how this film would have played had it not come with the reputation and handy tag “Romanian abortion movie.” The A-word, like with the central plot points in THE SON, LA PROMESSE and THE CHILD, is not even mentioned until quite a way into the movie, though there is much indirect (not the same as euphemistic) talk about what had already been arranged offscreen. Would the first 20-30 minutes have played differently, as more mysterious, with the shocking A-word clicking together what much of the talk’s been about? The world will never know.

happiness.jpg

HAPPINESS, Hur Jin-ho, South Korea, 5
The kind of moderately entertaining festival fare that tends to evaporate in your head fairly quickly amid all the great stuff (and crap) surrounding it. Starts like the Feel-Good Movie from Hell though, as a high-living South Korean secretly flees the big city and the alcohol that has given him cirrhosis in his 30s. He heads for a kind of health farm, filled with wacky characters, including The Girl Who Will Save Him but has has own fatal disease (lung cancer). But it takes some surprising turns in its second half and is much tougher on the central character and more serious than it starts out as. Still, to be perfectly frank, it’s four days later and nothing particular or singular, for good or ill, about it has stuck in my head (hence the grade change from 6 to 5). Except that HAPPINESS maintains current South Korean cinema’s near-perfect record of having in every film one scene or one action or gesture of shockingly (to this and most other Westerners) unmotivated or excessive-for-the-motive brutalism, even in a movie that you wouldn’t call violent.

elizabeth.jpg

ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, Shekhar Kapur, Britain, 2
Begins with a lie — an internally-secure Queen Elizabeth saying in 1585 that Catholics will not be punished in her England for their beliefs, but only for their actions (every British Catholic grows up knowing what a “priest hole” is). And it ends with a lie — a title card saying that with victory over the Spanish Armada, “England entered a time of peace and prosperity” (no, it became victorious in its external wars and there were great cultural and exploratory achievements; but anti-Catholic persecution became much more vigorous and culminated in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot against Elizabeth’s successor; the English Civil War came within 50 years of Elizabeth’s death). And in between — there isn’t much: bombastic style with pompous score, portentous camera angles and sinister shadows that pound everything into the ground. Cate Blanchett is playing a middle-aged Elizabeth, so she doesn’t have the girlish charm that made her performance in the original so winning. Worst of all, the film frankly traffics in some quite ugly anti-Catholic imagery. And to be clear, I’m talking director’s choices — things like having crucifixes and rosary beads sinking slowly down to the bottom of the sea to triumphal music. No sane man denies the obvious facts of history: Spain WAS a Catholic power and the Church DID try to overthrown Elizabeth and used English Catholics in its efforts. I quite liked the first ELIZABETH film, and, like most British Catholics, I really do have pretty thick skin about British history, thicker than a lot of St. Blogs’s Americans. But this pissed off even me.

encounters.jpg

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, Werner Herzog, USA, 6
ENCOUNTERS doesn’t have a central protagonist as compelling as GRIZZLY MAN’s Timothy Treadwell. Nor does it really have much of a unifying idea or structure — it would be very easy to dismiss ENCOUNTERS as a T-shirt saying “Werner went to Antarctica and all we got with this lousy [sic] home movie.” And Herzog for the first time (to me, anyway) shows a side to his persona that can fairly be called ugly. He steps on people’s self-descriptions as “ridiculous” or “I’ll make a long story short,” which comes across as especially mean from Werner Herzog, since no human being walking the face of the Earth has made a better life from being or from chronicling the sort of “touched” eccentrics whose lives are “efforts to jump off the world” and so collect at its Antarctic bottom? But with those limitations stipulated, and the 6-grade noted, this remains a very entertaining and often amazing piece of Discovery Channel programming (though it’s more of an anti-doc than a doc). And in fairness, Herzog does hold back at certain moments — the Russian who doesn’t want to discuss his past, say. And his “Stuttering John/’Man Show’ Boy”-schtick of asking inane or bizarre questions that prompt “keeping up appearances” answers (“is this a great moment?” say) is never not funny. And the imagery Herzog gets of the world under the ice is simply unbelievable — and even 75 inches of the best plasma won’t do it justice: jellyfish with visible hairs on their tentacles; droplets of water (though who knows what size they are) on the underside of the ice sheet, converging like droplets of ink on the table; swimming through fields of small marine life that cloud and blotch the visual field like the pulp in a glass of orange juice. And Herzog can still get the image too bizarre to be believed — the “piece of luggage act,” the blonding-snowstorm training both look like games that “It’s A Knockout” would have envied. And there ARE penguins in this movie. But this being a Herzog mnovie, it is not a spoiler to note that they are deranged.

September 12, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 6 Comments

TIFF Capsules — Day 4

bucking-broadway.jpg

BUCKING BROADWAY, John Ford, USA, 1917, 4
Presenter Peter Bogdanovich, who brought down the house with his Ford imitations, called this film “interesting for what Ford became, not so much for itself.” The DW Griffith influence is here very obvious — e.g. the climax has cowboys riding to the rescue, intercut with the barroom brawl where they’ll intervene. In this 50-minute featurette cowboy star Harry Carey is the dominant artistic force, here playing a bit more gung-ho than usual. But like with a lot of silent films, BUCKING BROADWAY is interesting simply as social archeology and rebuttal of what you thought you knew about film history — the cowboy is already somewhat “Other,” the object of fish-out-of-water in the city comedy, barely two decades after the closing of the frontier and the cowboy’s heyday, and with Wyatt Earp still around in Hollywood. Also surprisingly, there’s here a moment of purely-associational editing for psychological metaphor (involving a radiator). This is 1917, long before Eisenstein and Kuleshov.

in-memory-of-myself.jpg

IN MEMORY OF MYSELF, Saverio Costanzo, Italy, 3
I thought from the opening scene that I would love this film about a Catholic man in formation for an unnamed order (but apparently some kind of contemplatives). The initial interview asks all the right kinds of questions and the lead actor has an appropriately serious face. The opening scenes indicate how silent rules work, and the seminary environment is presented as devout, austere and without a hint of irony or parody (the film gets metaphorical points for never becoming anti-Catholic … see that later). But MEMORY’s script is all ellipses without drama — there are two other men who the lead character appears fascinated by, but we never really learn why (is it a homosexual crush? is it holiness? is it past acquaintance?) and they only come into focus when they leave, and the revelations turn out fairly banal and hardly justifying of either the lead man’s fascination or ours or the portentous loudly-mixed score ladled all over the film. And MEMORY stretches out its few plot points to death … no, it s t r e t c h e s t h e m o u t. The last few scenes get stronger, with the central character finally giving voice to some of what ails him, some of what conflicts him, and while they’re not things every devout man has not felt, it is truthful and causes him to consider whether God can really be calling him. But by the very end, and after plenty of telegraphing that “The Big Moment of Choice is coming, folks,” it didn’t matter which way the film-maker turned it — either in terms of its plausability or in terms of my caring.

nightwatching.jpg

NIGHTWATCHING, Peter Greenaway, Britain, 6
Well, I didn’t try to tear down the door at Burgundy’s, so that’s obviously a vast improvement over the last Greenaway film I saw. I swore the night I walked out of TULSE LUPER 1 in anger that I’d never watch another of his films. But I relented and NIGHTWATCHING turned out to be exactly what the buzz said it was — by Greenaway standards (underline that part, newbies), a fairly coherent, entertaining and accessible movie with a very good central performance by Martin Freeman, who plays Rembrandt as a bon-vivant “character” who learns what a bunch of asses an Amsterdam regiment is and decides to ridicule them and basically accuse them of murder in his “Night Watch” painting. There’s a couple of great scenes — one of Freeman recounting into the camera Rembrandt’s Greenawayized biography and doing it in a manner somewhat like a human being, and the unveiling of the painting, with cutaways to illustrate not only Greenaway’s theories but the elements in the drama which we had just seen (which made the typically stylized narrative seem not so arbitrary). Lots of elements in common too with COOK, THIEF, one of my all-time faves — the opening scene of a man being forcibly stripped nude on a setting made to llok like a stage, an opening curtain, lots of stylized talk about Art and other Big Topics (most of it intentionally stupid). Still this is Greenaway — there are tedious scenes and the specific historical thesis, that the painting caused retaliation from the officers, killing Rembrandt’s career is [insert Dutch words for "bullshit" and "self-serving"]. And I knew the former even before doing any research, simply from the way Greenaway “waterproofs” his theory by having the head of the team say nobody must do anything publicly, in order to hide their Vast Conspiracy from future generations. The broader thesis, that artists are night watchers who paint onto the black screen of the void, made sense. But the day’s next film went from preaching that to just doing it.

silent-light.jpg

SILENT LIGHT, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/Holland, 9
What is so special about the incredible opening shot, which some of my buds say is among the most beautiful in movie history? It’s not simply some “inherent beauty of nature” (I would not have been impressed by that), but the fact that the sunrise actually happens before our very eyes (though time lapse is used) and that Reygadas takes the time to show the light change the world, or actually creating our experience of it. And there’s real drama — what gets revealed to us as the shot continues. As in Genesis 1, in the beginning, the movie screen was a void. Then there were the stars. Then there was the light. Then there was a cosmic shape. Then there was nature per se [trees, hills]. Then there was nature as shaped by man [farms, crops]. Now that the natural world is fully revealed — cut to a home on a street [i.e., to man as fully civilized]. Yes, it’s a very lengthy shot but (1) we see the universe happen within it and (2) its length and slowness prepares us, trains us, for what follows. SILENT LIGHT is, in almost every conceivable way, paced slowly but precisely for that reason is deeply moving. The father in a Germanic Mennonite family in Mexico is having an affair but his religious conscience (he has seven children) will not let him at ease. This milieu makes the Official Art-House Style seem more like a natural fact. The people in this semi-separated religious community (they’re not isolated, like the Amish; they drive trucks, etc.) do speak slowly, do pause between sentences, never talk over one another, never engage in idle chat, etc. And so even such elements of Reygadas style as long takes and slow camera movements seem more like a reflection of this world than an imposed authorial contrivance. Simple. Beautiful. Perfect.

September 12, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF Grades — Days 4/5

9 SEPT
BUCKING BROADWAY, John Ford, USA, 1917, 4
IN MEMORY OF MYSELF, Saverio Costanzo, Italy, 3
NIGHTWATCHING, Peter Greenaway, Britain, 6
SILENT LIGHT, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/Holland, 9

10 SEPT
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 9
HAPPINESS, Hur Jin-ho, South Korea, 6
ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, Shekhar Kapur, Britain, 2
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, Werner Herzog, USA, 6
MY KID COULD PAINT THAT, Amir Bar-Lev, USA, 8
MY KID COULD PAINT THAT, Amir Bar-Lev, USA, 1
(duplication except for one character is not a typo … this is the most conflicted I can recall feeling about a movie)

September 10, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

TIFF Capsules — Day 3

persepolis.jpg

PERSEPOLIS, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, France/Iran, 8
What makes PERSEPOLIS so strong is that the movie never pushes political consciousness beyond what a little girl would have. And then gives us an adult who shifts allegiances on believable terms. In other words, Marjane is a particular dramatic character and not A Bundle Of Westernized Feminist Metaphor. She goes from loving the Shah to yelling “Down with the Shah” overnight and talks about “communiss” and “che guevaro”; notices other people’s birthmarks becoming resistance wounds after the Islamic Revolution; gets a gang of kids together to bully the schoolmate whose father worked for the Shah’s secret police. She even creates her own religion in which “old people will not suffer … [because] it will be forbidden” (which isn’t as dopily far-fetched as some real revolutionaries). The film also does a fine job recreating the look of a comic book — thanks to black-and-white, outsized characters, exaggerated shapes. Yet, this is also an “animated” cartoon — the closest comparison are some of the Betty Boop and Felix the Cat shorts from the 20s (or a less-busy Tex Avery) and PERSEPOLIS sometimes even borrows from the “silhouette cutout” look of the Lotte Reiniger silent classic THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED. The only weakness, really, is a slight case of “and-then-ism” inherent in biographical stories. I don’t know how widespread a release PERSEPOLIS will get, but it’s accessible and “childish” enough to be a perfect film to introduce kids to subtitles. It’s also quite a “conservative” movie for adults, as the role of communists in the Islamic Revolution is presented upfront (including their various stages of denial, with a self-deception almost worthy of Foucault himself), as is the reaction of an Iranian, even a progressive one, to the West’s self-indulgence, hedonism, poseur-nihilism, free-love, and how we somehow consider it deep to note the current image of Santa Claus as originating in a Coke commercial.

man-from-london.jpg

THE MAN FROM LONDON, Bela Tarr, Hungary, 6
My friend Ryan once said that Tsai Ming-liang’s movies were like those exhibitions in which guys eat 20 hot dogs in 2 minutes: it’s a fascinating and amazing stunt, but at the end you’re wondering “what the hell’s the point.” That was basically my reaction to this film, my first complete exposure to Tarr. The mildly-positive grade is a reflection of a movie this boring managed never to leave me bored (if that makes any sense). People more familiar with Tarr have said that this is his first effort with genre material (the “plot”[sic] is adapted from a Georges Simenon pulp-crime novel) and it’s too alien to his talents, which hardly apply to such things as creating plot, tension, or character conflict. MAN FROM LONDON is all style, no content. But. What. Style. Tarr uses black-and-white like nobody this side of early Orson Welles, giving us high-contrast Hopper-like visions of men standing under lamps and docks holding off the waves of black ink crashing in from the sea. Tarr tracks like nobody this side of Max Ophuls, and to some strange effects, like having characters exit stage left and, while the camera tracks or pans over the scene while the sound mix is unaffected, having them re-enter stage right. Tarr composes a shot and “cuts” within a shot like … well, nobody (maybe Angelopoulos), often starting with an element in the foreground, which conceals the scene’s other main element until his millimeter-a-minute track says it’s time for that other character to “enter” the scene. He also is a maestro of sound effects (the sea is the most important character in this movie, frankly) and using a few bars of theme music throughout after a scene has the whole composition. And he has more of a sense of humor (I’m told by Tarr devotees) than he shows here, though there is one unforgettable and completely irrelevant scene involving a chair, a billiard ball and an accordion player.

edge-of-heaven.jpg

THE EDGE OF HEAVEN, Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey, 8
Think of Kieslowski’s RED, rather than capping the Three Colors trilogy as the most magnificent by tying together the very notion of tying together, as a pale reunion of some of the characters of BLUE and WHITE, with more unseen-to-them connections and Juliette Binoche now acting as if her husband had never died. That should give you a sense of how frustrating I found this film’s third section, also called “The Edge of Heaven.” In fact, and back me up on this Ryan, just as the second section of this trilogy within a film called “The Death of Lotte” (the first section is “The Death of Yeter”), I let out a heavy breath, muttered “wow” and started to get up out of my seat, thinking the movie was over and eager to get out and proclaim the masterpieceness and festival-bestness of this diptych. But then the film continued with its third section and — well. Still BLUE and WHITE are still pretty fast company on their own terms and the fact that I’m using Kieslowski as a measuring stick should tell you something. Akin’s got a corner and an angle on a great subject matter, German-Turkish cultural exchange and clash, plus the sensibility to put his feet in both (i.e., it’s not “German oppressers, noble Turks” victimology). The first story is about an old (and old-school) Turkish man in Germany trying to make an honest woman out of a Turkish prostitute, despite objections from his Germanized professor son. The second is about a Turkish Kurd militant fleeing to Germany homeless and falling in with a university student. There’s not a false note in the performances. The stories play out ironically, but never cheaply. And these two stories mirror and thus comment upon each other — each basically involves someone trying to “save” someone else, in part through a sexual relationship. With the third section, it wasn’t simply that it ruined the architecture, but that it was syrupy on its own terms (a spit in the face moment aside) and the extra connections (plus such Closed Captions for the Thinking Impaired camera gestures as Mike notes here) just made the whole thing look too contrived.

no-country-for-old-men.jpg

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Coen Brothers, USA, 9
A conversation involving Coenheads (which, by the standards of Gen-X cinephiles, I am not) invariably involves which of their wildly-varying films you like best. My favorites are BLOOD SIMPLE and FARGO, followed at a distance by MILLER’S CROSSING and THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, while I outright detest O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, RAISING ARIZONA and THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. In short, I dig the crime movies and diss the pure comedies. So, on those terms, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is the Coen Brothers movie of my dreams. The first approximately 80 minutes of this Texas modern-day Western are as tight, focused and thrilling as BLOOD SIMPLE. An innocent man (Josh Brolin) comes across a cat-case full of money left from an unseen drug deal gone bad. The millions are also very badly sought by a hired assassin (Javier Bardem, “the Iberian Lee Van Cleef,” the Coens called him during the intro, just 10 feet away from Yours Truly). Set piece after set piece in motel rooms, trucks, rivers, and border crossings follow, with nary a wasted gesture and very few of the Coens’ beloved words. The last 15 minutes or so, I was initially resistant to. SPOILER WARNING: From the point where Brolin talks to Bardem and basically gives the “now it’s personal” speech from a thousand vigilante or “righteous dude” movies, the Coens start to frustrate the riled-up genre expectations (deliberately and to great effect, I eventually decided and I’m curious how an America that hated the ending of the Sporanos will react to this movie). The climactic central-characters shootout occurs offscreen, and the Coens stop giving us “money shots” of people killing. The film gets a bit more philosophical as Tommy Lee Jones’s sheriff takes over the movie’s center. He has the Marge role from FARGO, only his investigation was hardly noticed by Bardem and Brolin. But both in the starting voiceover (which replicates Marge’s “it’s a beautiful day outside … all this for a little bit of money” speech at the end of FARGO) and the last few scenes, Jones speaks as a man who is shown decisively his obsolescence, how his time, Marge’s time, has been surpassed by contemporary brutality. People “just knew” things in the past, but “once you quit saying ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ it’s all over.” It’s as if FARGO had ended with Marge quitting the Brainerd Police because “I just don’t understand.” This is still my favorite film of the fest as I write.

jesse-james.jpg

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, Andrew Dominik, USA, 7
Here’s another elegiac Western and seeing it right after NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN did not do it favors. Like LIBERTY VALANCE, it’s about the construction of legend. While the rap against this movie will be “too long” (the comparisons to LEGENDS OF THE FALL will be legion) and it IS longer than it needs to be narratively, it’s never boring. The irrelevant or too-long set pieces — for example, a dinner conversation that has echoes of the Joe Pesci “am I funny” scene in GOODFELLAS — are entertaining on their own terms, or maybe tension-filled is the better term. And after the event in the title happens at about the 140 minute-mark, we get a lengthy coda, and people are gonna be shifting in their seats wondering “is it over now.” But it’s both brilliant on its own terms (especially stylistically with the use of freeze-frames) and absolutely essential to the film’s thematic point about “the coward.” Still, BONNIE AND CLYDE did everything this movie did with about an hour to spare. Brad Pitt won Best Actor at Venice and he’ll be a (deserved) AMPAS front-runner. His natural charisma and bad-boy image, both in real life and from roles like Tyler in FIGHT CLUB, make him both an effective gang leader and a psychopath. Someone whom the same man would both join from love and kill from fear.

September 9, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

TIFF Grades — Day 3

OK … the festival is now officially awesome.

PERSEPOLIS, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, France/Iran, 8
THE MAN FROM LONDON, Bela Tarr, Hungary, 6
THE EDGE OF HEAVEN, Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey, 8
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Coen Brothers, USA, 9
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, Andrew Dominik, USA, 7

September 9, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

TIFF Capsules — Day 2

Not a very good day, frankly. One (fully expected to be) great film and several disappointing misfires, even the Ang Lee to some extent.

you-the-living.jpg

YOU, THE LIVING, Roy Andersson, Sweden — 9
The only possible criticism of this film is that it’s the same movie as SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR — Charles Odell said it [mostly] could have been the outtakes from the 2000 masterpiece. LIVING is (very) marginally less implausibly surrealistic, but the same distinctive style is abundant — the forced perspective on the sets, the nailed-down camera with a handful of zooms in and out, the single-take scenes, the white-faced characters, the incantatory dialogue, the shot-in-studio claustrophobia with nary a drop of natural light in sight, the same dread-filled apocalyptic tone, though that doesn’t kick in until later. LIVING starts out funnier than SONGS, and if you’re expecting a pure comedy, you may think it loses gas in its last third, as it does become a bit more serious. I just want to tick off the funny scenes like a litany: the dog, the tablecloth, non-alcoholic beer, the haircut, the execution, the sensitive 90s biker, the trial. The key is offhand gestures that are ignored (e.g., a door closing) or things that build up from nowhere in particular, like a grain of sand that becomes a pearly before your eyes (the scenes in the apartments that we’ve just seen “across the yard”). It’s a minimalist and very dry style of humor that is so perfectly in synch with my own sense of humor that Andersson may be incapable of making a film I wouldn’t like. The film does take a darker turn (an untypically unperceptive Mike aside) — there are several scenes that are not played for jokes at all, often associated with fourth-wall breaking (the psychiatrist, the happy wedding). And both religion and music, often in concert, are foregrounded as creating both community and the hope of a better life “across the Jordan”; one song, played more than once during LIVING, was identified by Robert as an evangelical hymn. Given SONGS as well, Andersson has a sensibility with a hotline to mine.

mourning-forest.jpg

THE MOURNING FOREST, Naomi Kawase, Japan — 5
To be perfectly frank, I was nodding off on and off during this one (and I didn’t nod off at all during the 915am LIVING, so I know it’s at-least partially FOREST’s fault). Clearly, Kawase has an eye for both the sweeping landscape extreme long shot and an urgent verite-style “among the weeds.” Just as clearly, she has no ability to create interesting characters or plots. The tone is completely different, but FOREST in some ways reminded me of L’AVVENTURA — beginning with an ensemble, of residents and youthful caregivers at an old-folks home, that narrows focus to a couple of characters, and with the drama coming in natural correlatives in the landscape. And like with my first viewing of the Antonioni, I knew when I saw the last shot — of two people embracing, of two trees intertwined — that I *should* be getting more out this image than I objectively am.

100-nails.jpg

ONE HUNDRED NAILS, Ermanno Olmi, Italy — 4
A film so ham-fisted that it can’t pass for exhibition in Israel. You know it’s all too obvious when a Christ-figure protagonist is called “Jesus Christ” by other characters. And when his resemblance to Jesus is noted in police Identikit descriptions. And when an old man asks him to tell the story about the rich boy and we hear (a version of) the Prodigal Son parable. And when the central character’s friends ask him to get more wine because we can’t have a celebration without wine (as even Jesus said, it’s pointed out). Oh … and I’m not sure why Our Lord would destroy books, but I guess Olmi sees Jesus as a existential personalist. I was liking this film for a while, as the central character drops out of society to live like a hermit, like Jesus going off to the desert. And it does close with a lovely image, of candles lining the route of the expected return. But what did any of this have to do with the government’s Po River projects that (apparently) threaten the Apostles remained obscure at best.

chansons-damour.jpg

LES CHANSONS D’AMOUR, Christophe Honore, France — 4
The official Cordon Bleu Recipe for this French dish: Take one cup each of UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, mix well. But before mixing, take out the hack Michel LeGrand music, both wall-to-wall themes and Mozartian arias, and replace with contemporary Francopop. Also, ditch all choreography, however cheerfully amateurish, and replace with natural movement around sets or streets (also, be sure to keep away Gene Kelly or anyone similar). And who needs those unrealistic candy-pastel colors and even color-coordinated costumes. We can do color *realistically* now dammit. Oh … and speaking of things we can do now … add heaping dollops of sex, of every imaginable variety of Tab A fitting Slot B (can we get those two Deneuve chicks, only make sure that in this opening scene, they’ll be in bed with each other and a man). The product — ick.

lust-caution.jpg

LUST, CAUTION, Ang Lee, Taiwan — 7
Despite this film’s notorious and rather off-putting sex scenes (which are richly deserving of the NC-17 rating), the best scene in this spy thriller is one that Hitchcock would have been proud of. And that’s not speculation — he actually did make the Gromek scene in TORN CURTAIN, he said, to illustrate a point — how difficult it really is to kill someone. And to be honest, I think Lee actually did his scene on the same point, better — a bit dirtier, just as messy, but doesn’t go on for quite as long and so avoids bad laughter. Yes, I did say that: Ang Lee outdid Hitchcock. To continue the Hitchcock comparisons, the basic scenario here is NOTORIOUS — basically man persuades the woman he loves to sleep with the enemy to advance political intrigue. That comparison is obviously unfair — Lee’s film is a very good literate-midlebrow genre piece (i.e., what he makes), but it isn’t in that category. Why? Imagine Devlin as a politics-only romantic cipher, and also because I simply did not buy the last plot point — the one that takes place in a jeweler’s shop. Still, this is a good film and an expansion of Lee’s major theme of repression. While the early trailers were selling IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, *the* recent film about “passion repressed,” Lee gives us here passion expressed, only for something other than love. Until love (or jealousy or something) gets in the way. And Tony Leung is as good at playing repressed, which he does here for much of the films length, as he was in the Wong Kar-wai film.

September 8, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

TIFF Capsules — Day 1

fugitive-pieces.jpg

FUGITIVE PIECES, Jeremy Podeswa, Canada — 4
Not a terrible movie; just rote, predictable and uninspired. Once you realize the film’s premise — a jumbled-chronology memory piece about a boy rescued from the Holocaust who emigrates to Canada –you basically have the movie. And it just lies there. May work better for you if you’ve never seen a “burden of memory” film where the characters say things like “I long for the loss of memory” and “To live with ghosts requires solitude” (I wanted to say “oh, come off it” every five minutes at the lead character). Here’s the other problem with this movie: film tends to makes things literal, and that kind of self-conscious prose comes across as affected in a movie, at least one that looks naturalistic. And symbology that might work on a page — oranges, in this movie, e.g. — comes across as too crudely “on-the-nose” in a plain-styled film. And one more thing — if a director wants to kill of a character at his peak moment of happiness, in an Existential acte-gratuit on the part of the auteur-god, he’d better have made THE WAGES OF FEAR or THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING to that point.

brave-one.jpg

THE BRAVE ONE, Neil Jordan, USA — 6
This film, a much-better-acted update of DEATH WISH, left me asking is: is that a Good Thing? Do we want Jodie Foster in a Charles Bronson role, though there is no question she is a far superior actor? Unlike Jeremy Podeswa, she can “sell” (or rather her character has a plausible reason for saying) lugubrious lines about the role of memory in constituting a city. The script is far more plausible than DEATH WISH, as she becomes accustomed to acts of vigilanteism that become increasingly morally problematic and calculated. Regardless of Foster’s appropriateness, I want to see Terrence Howard in every role that requires a Y-chromosome. The man has apparently limitless screen presence, charisma and realness — here, the first and the third used mostly in the figure of the police detective who kinda knows what he doesn’t want to believe. His cat-and-mouse-game scenes with Foster are clinics. Also Scott Tobias is wrong; this movie is about as pro-vigilantism as anything short of JOE could be. Foster’s character arc is accepting the new person she has become; and [SPOILER] the narrative arc begins with the “my city was gone” lament and ends with the vigilante walking free.

mother-of-tears.jpg

THE MOTHER OF TEARS, Dario Argento, Italy — 3
I’m afraid I’m just not the gorehound I thought I was. The coldly baroque, elegant style — the garishly stylized color, the wind, the music — that made Argento’s SUSPIRIA one of the greatest horror movies ever is scarcely present here. Instead there’s a lot of creative ways to draw blood — my favorite [sic] was having a woman impaled through her whatsit and then have the lengthy spear come out through her mouth. Plot is pretty silly (Scooby-Doo quality … trying to find the right priest with the right spell, basically) and the central conflict doesn’t even really get cooking until the last reel. Daughter Asia Argento can’t act. Just a mess in every way. Still, I will go to my grave with the fond memory of hearing the whole Ryerson Theater opening-night Midnight Madness crowd singing “Happy Birthday to You” to Argento, who turned 67 at midnight.

September 7, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF Grades — Days 1/2

At a Toronto public library with only a half-hour before they log me off (neither a Canadian citizen, nor a Toronto resident, so I really can’t complain at terms of free access). So grades only for now.

Day 1
FUGITIVE PIECES, Jeremy Podeswa, Canada — 4
THE BRAVE ONE, Neil Jordan, USA — 6
THE MOTHER OF TEARS, Dario Argento, Italy — 3

Day 2
YOU, THE LIVING, Roy Andersson, Sweden — 9
THE MOURNING FOREST, Naomi Kawase, Japan — 5
ONE HUNDRED NAILS, Ermanno Olmi, Italy — 4
LES CHANSONS D’AMOUR, Christophe Honore, France — 4
LUST, CAUTION, Ang Lee, Taiwan — 7

September 7, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

TIFFing time again

If this year’s Toronto International Film Festival lineup is any indication, it will be a long fall, with the Artist-Industrial Complex lecturing about the evil that is (in the words of this blurb) “the so-called War on Terror” (and the rest of the usual demonology). With that in mind, I didn’t give a bunch of films playing at this year’s festival so much as a second look — here’s the whole list of Toronto movies and presentations that I would not see on principle. I saw the subject matter or read the descriptions, crossed it off and moved on.

Looking at that list, or rather the length of it (20 films and several presentations) — I really have to wonder if alienating conservative viewers is something Hollywood, Indiewood and the Festival Mafia do as a conscious marketing strategy or is just so much their unstated “Dasein” that they can’t even step outside themselves to see it.

But in a festival of almost 300 films, that’s not an insurmountable loss. In fact, here is another pretty distinguished list (will try to reconstruct later, VJM) — the films I really wanted to see but probably will not (I may juggle stuff around, depending on buzz). For the most part, it was simply a matter of scheduling, trying to squeeze a quart of 60 must-see films into a pint pot of 50 time slots. You can get to their individual pages from this list-page.

  • Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen, Britain) — no explanation needed, I hope
  • The Last Lear (Rituparno Ghosh, India) — Amitabh Bachchan, the world’s biggest star, in his first English role
  • Beyond the Years (Im Kwon-taek, South Korea) — the pansori singer was the best part of Im’s Chunhyang
  • Christopher Columbus: The Enigma (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal) — another weird-out conversation piece like A Talking Picture?
  • The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, France) — every film by the New Wave Masters is an event
  • Juliette Binoche in films by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Amos Gitai — can maybe the world’s greatest actress help out torpid auteurs?
  • The Pope’s Toilet (Enrique Fernandez/Cesar Charlone, Uruguay) — wack premise could make a great semi- (or even non-) blasphemous black comedy
  • Juno (Jason Reitman, USA) — Thank You for Smoking as a debut film; plus, later, Mike d’A says strong buzz from Telluride
  • Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, USA) — Ryan Gosling; the word “Lars” and the use a puppet to substitute for a person (Ryan, stay the hell away)
  • Boy A (John Crowley, Britain) — echoes of Nolan’s Memento and the Dardennes’ Le Fils
  • Ellen Burstyn presents Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (Martin Scorsese, USA) — No explanation needed, I hope

So … bitching over.

Unlike last year, I got all my first choices, and this festival is shaping up with the potential to be the greatest ever. After a so-so first day, the potential masterpieces come in daily and in bunches — Andersson, Herzog, Rohmer, Maddin, A. Lee, Baumbach, Olmi, Lee M-s, Ozon. Plus enormous buzz on the Bar-Lev, Van Sant, the Coens and Matsumoto. The films by the uneven Miike and Loach look to fit the maker’s good molds rather than the bad ones. Plus Cannes prize-winners by Mungiu, Kawase, Lee C-d. And my first exposures to Tarr, Reygadas, and Jiang. The Breillat and Arcand even seem tolerable. A rediscovered Ford silent, plus a contemporary-made silent slapstick homage. Even Greenaway, whose last film became the first I ever walked out on, is cause for optimism — getting back into Dutch paintings and a group of militiamen, so can we expect The Draughtsman, The Thief, His Wife, etc.? And to top it all off — Max von Sydow presenting one of Ingmar Bergman’s movies a few weeks after his death.¹

This will be an awesome week-and-a-half. Here is my planned schedule.

6 SEPT
630pm Fugitive Pieces (Jeremy Podeswa, Canada)
900pm The Brave One (Neil Jordan, USA)
1159pm The Mother of Tears (Dario Argento, Italy)

7 SEPT
915am You, the Living (Roy Andersson, Sweden)
noon The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, Japan)
400pm One Hundred Nails (Ermanno Olmi, Italy)
715pm Les Chansons d’Amour (Christophe Honore, France)
900pm Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, Taiwan)

8 SEPT
1000am Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, France/Iran)
1245pm The Man from London (Bela Tarr, Hungary)
330pm The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey)
600pm No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers, USA)
900pm The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, USA)

9 SEPT
200pm Bucking Broadway (John Ford, USA, 1917; presented by Peter Bogdanovich)
345pm In Memory of Myself (Saverio Costanzo, Italy)
600pm Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway, Britain)
900pm Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/Holland)

10 SEPT
1000am 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)
1215pm Happiness (Hur Jin-ho, South Korea)
300pm Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Shekhar Kapur, Britain)
700pm Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, USA)
915pm My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev, USA)

11 SEPT
1100am Children of the Sun (Yaldey Hashemesh, Israel)
100pm Chaotic Ana (Julio Medem, Spain)
345pm Operation Filmmaker (Nina Davenport, USA)
600pm Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, USA)
915pm Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, USA)
1159pm Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike, Japan)

12 SEPT
930am It’s a Free World… (Ken Loach, Britain)
noon The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat, France)
230pm Atonement (Joe Wright, Britain)
600pm A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol, France)

13 SEPT
930am Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer, Australia)
1230pm Reclaim Your Brain (Hans Weingartner, Germany)
300pm Days of Darkness (Denys Arcand, Canada)
515pm Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)
915pm A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan)

14 SEPT
900am Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer, France)
noon M (Lee Myung-se, South Korea)
300pm The Walker (Paul Schrader, USA)
545pm Erik Nietzsche: The Early Years (Jacon Thuesen, Denmark)
800pm The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1960; presented by Max Von Sydow)
1159pm Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan)

15 SEPT
945am California Dreamin’ (Endless) (Cristian Nemescu, Romania)
1245pm Angel (Francois Ozon, France)
245pm Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, Britain)
600pm The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen, China)
800pm My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada)
1100pm Just Like Home (Lone Sherfig, Denmark)

——————
¹ Was there nobody in Italy to do the same for Antonioni? Or is/was any tribute programming done at Venice?

September 5, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

   

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 985 other followers