Rightwing Film Geek

TIFF Day Six, first part (with grades from Days 9 and 10)

No time to write more than a couple of capsules right now, but first my grades for the final two days at Toronto (with one film from Day 6 I had forgotten about):

FREE RADICALS (Barbara Albert, Austria, 2003) — 3
CLOUDS OF MAY (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2000) — 5
THE MERRY WIDOW (Erich Von Stroheim, USA, 1925) — 7
THE TULSE LUPER SUITCASES: PART 1 (Peter Greenaway, Britain, 2003) — 0
DALLAS 362 (Scott Caan, USA, 2003) — 9*
CONFESSION (Zeki Demirkubuz, Turkey, 2001) — 2
ZATOICHI (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 2003) — 7

*Best American film of the festival and does not (as of yesterday morning) have a distributor. This film could be an Indiewood smash if handled well. (What is it with the children of people involved with THE GODFATHER?)

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THE COMPANY (Robert Altman, USA, 2003, 6)

Fellow TIFF Geek (and roommate) Charles Odell said this film, about a season of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet Company, was Altman’s best since SHORT CUTS — an assessment with which I agree, but which means rather less coming from me than from him. Though his two masterpieces (NASHVILLE, THE PLAYER) mean I will never be wholly uninterested in him, Altman is just not one of my favorite directors. Still, this is obviously The Man doing what he does well, and that will be enough praise for some folks, and even semi-skeptics about Altman should try to check it out.

The ready comparison film is READY-TO-WEAR, Altman’s portrayal of the fashion industry, and the difference in tone is immediate and obvious. Yes, some of the hyperstylized ballet costumes look silly, but there’s a complete absence of the contempt and misanthropy that made the earlier film just so unpleasant to share a room with. With the director’s greatest weakness somewhat reined in (we still get some of those Lettermanesque end-the-shot punch lines), the movie is free to rock. Altman can do his characteristic overlapping, sound-mix-dependent dialog in his sleep, but the backstage setting and all the chaos that surrounds putting on a show of any kind means that here it feels fresh and appropriate.

Still, as always, he uses the ballet subject matter as a side-angle approach to his real concern — the relationships between the “ins” and the “outs” and the efforts of the latter group to become the former. There’s not much plot, and he handles the little there is in a rather perfunctory manner. Two or three threads threaten to take over the movie — the rehearsals, a backstage love affair — but never for long and as usual an Altman is weak in the narrative, but strong in a sense of place, and there are other compensating virtues — Malcolm McDowell performance as the company’s director is pure ham, but in the service of playing a ham.

For the second time this year, my lack of ballet knowledge gets in the way of judging one aspect of a movie with any confidence, but to my layman’s eye, star Neve Campbell did just fine (she certainly didn’t wreck the film by appearing untrained in a field of pro dancers) I won’t say there are definitely none, but I can say (sitting, jogging my memory a few days later) that I don’t recall a single cheap “ballet dancers are homos” joke. Which is good.

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LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE (Sylvain Chomet, France/Canada, 2003, 7)

A nice refreshing dousing with Perrier in the midst of a pretty sombre day. I had trepidations about this feature-length cartoon going into the festival, because of reputed America-bashing a la frog. There’s a little of that (the city of Belleville has some resemblance to New York and has a statue in the harbor that looks like the Statue of Liberty, only it’s fat and holding up a hamburger. But how insulting could such a joke be from the country that actually produced the Statue in the first place? More seriously, it’s just about three or four moments, and frankly they’re more than outweighed by the film’s jokes about All Things French (and how they’re crap). I mean, what’s not to love about a movie that features the French Mafia (demonstrating those famed Surrender Monkey martial virtues) missing every gunshot while using a fleet of 2-cylinder 1960s Citroens to chase a two-horse-drawn vehicle with no wheels … and losing.

TRIPLETTES begins with a TV show of a WW2-era trio of singers and their hit “Belleville Rendezvous,” the original title of the film. It then centers on three viewers, a boy who wants to be a cyclist, his implacable trainer-mother and their dog. During the Tour de France, some stuff happens and mom and dog have to rescue the now-adult boy from bondage in Belleville. It’s perfectly airy and silly, and is really just an excuse for a series of carefully set-up comic gags (there’s one that doesn’t pay off until after the closing credits).

TRIPLETTES also showcases a style of animation I’ve never quite seen before — a kind of retro-grunge Tex Avery. I’ve seen some French animation/comics in the past (BABAR, TINTIN, MADELINE, and the style of those pre-1960 movie posters), and TRIPLETTES seems to have some family resemblance (the flat 2-dimensionality of the animation e.g.) while also finding a new style (probably inspired by the Jeunet/Caro films like AMELIE and DELICATESSEN and the explicitly-acknowledged Jacques Tati films). This style, though it also owes something to Avery’s work at Looney Tunes, tends toward grotesquery, outsized caricature, elaborate gags, and outrageous and impossible physical movement.

I’m not sure how broad this movie’s appeal will be. Fun though it us, it clearly can’t appeal too broadly to American children, because, not only is its subject matter so alien, there’s almost no dialogue but a few lines of garble. It may be more intelligible in snatches to Francophones, but clearly there was nothing essential or requiring subtitling.

September 14, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF Day Five (with grades from Day 8)

Again, we’ll start short, with my grades from Day Eight at Toronto:

GOD IS BRAZILIAN (Carlos Diegues, Brazil, 2003) — 3
THE SINGING DETECTIVE (Keith Gordon, USA, 2003) — 7
GUEST ROOM (Skander Halim, Canada, 2003) — 7
THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth, Denmark, 2003) — 9
GOZU (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2003) — 8

And here are the capsules from Day Five, with major spoilers for DOGVILLE and A TALKING PICTURE

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DOGVILLE (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2003, 9)

All right … this is The Big One. The capsule I was dreading having to write. The film people are gonna be scratching their heads over next year. The film U.S. conservatives will blast someone called “Rightwing Film Geek” for thinking it’s one of the best films of the year. It was widely derided by the U.S. press at the Cannes festival in May as an anti-American rant by an ignorant man who had never been here. And not for no reason, mind you.

The vast 175-minute body of this film portrays the reaction of the residents of Dogville to the arrival of the stranger Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, and her involvement and eventual estrangement from the town. It’s easy to see how the usual suspects would interpret this in all sorts of ways (some of them invited by Von Trier, my favorite working filmmaker). But DOGVILLE is much richer and more complex than that (the unfortunately crude and literal closing credits notwithstanding), and Von Trier the artist-prankster is too good to make something dismissable or without formal brilliance.

On the one hand, DOGVILLE, performed on an “Our Town”-style stage where chalk outlines define the houses and streets and there are only a few props, is too unspecific to be convincing as a national portrait. DANCER IN THE DARK had the same “problem” — while clearly and specifically set in the United States, it really belonged in the world of movie melodramas and worked like gangbusters as a weepie (imagine watching TOP HAT for information about Venice, rather than enjoying Fred and Ginger’s dancing, for the sense of what I’m getting at). In the same way, the main body of DOGVILLE is so stylized, not so much general and unspecific as defiantly anti-specific (it literally screams “artificial set” at every instant), that it’s impossible to take seriously in realistic terms as social criticism.

Also it’s impossible to take seriously the closing credits — basically still photos of poor or oppressed Americans to the David Bowie song “Young Americans” — while taking equally seriously (I will speak vaguely) a back-seat car conversation between Nicole Kidman and James Caan near the film’s end. That conversation, which I have barely begun to fully digest, moves the film onto another plane entirely, the level of theological allegory (again, it’s not subtle — Kidman’s character is named Grace), and justifies the decision to stage DOGVILLE in this fashion. Plus, the anti-American Americans (think Susan Sontag) who might be expected to lap up this film will see an uncomfortable portrait of themselves in a certain character, who I also will not name, but it’ll be obvious when you see the movie.

So you have to triage something, and my inclination is to write off the closing credits as a mistake and love the main body of the film and its dazzling, masterful quality *as a film* — the overhead shots of the chalk-outlined stage; the use of sound effects for things unseen like the opening of doors (very noticeable at the start, when we’re unused to the stylistic trope; gradually diminshing as we’re absorbed in the film); John Hurt’s ubiquitous voice-of-God narration; the gallery of supporting performances, so good that no one stands out; the framing of the first rape of Grace so that we see people going about their daily business through the wall-less sets; the blinding quality of the cut to the first “daytime” shot, when the black dome around the set becomes pure white; the gold-orange light shining on Kidman and Ben Gazzara’s faces as she tears the black curtain for the only time in the film; the snow falling on the black stage set.

But what *is* it all about, Alfie? I’ll keep my cards close to the vest until more people have had a chance to see DOGVILLE (though I *have* outlined the essentials of the theory in person to some fellow TIFF geeks), but I think that after making “Lives of the Saints” films in BREAKING THE WAVES and (sorta) DANCER and THE IDIOTS, Von Trier has filmed a theological justification for Hell.

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THE FOG OF WAR (Errol Morris, USA, 2003, 6)

A major disappointment coming from a documentarian of Morris’ stature, especially since I was so psyched about the subject matter — a profile of Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson. But it retrospect, I can see how the film’s subject matter was just fundamentally alien to Morris’ talents. The maker of THE THIN BLUE LINE, MR. DEATH and GATES OF HEAVEN makes documentaries like nobody else. He coaxes people into saying things that reveal themselves in unintentional ways — sometimes for evil like the killer David Harris in LINE, sometimes for failure like the brothers in GATES, sometimes for a kind of sorrowful pathos like executioner Fred Leuchter in DEATH, sometimes for poetry like the woman on the porch talking about her dog in GATES. And he shows us parts of the world we hadn’t seen before — the pet cemetery business, a man who builds execution machines, a forgotten Texas death-row case.

And those comparisons should tell you why I found FOG OF WAR so blah — though never uninteresting or boring (hence the relatively high grade), and blessedly free of authorial didacticism. On the one hand, the issues covered here — WW2 civilian bombing, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War — have been publicly debated ad nauseum in one or another forum for decades. And on the other, McNamara is too cagey, too practiced, too much of a smoothie to say anything he doesn’t want to say. The film even includes a few minutes near the end where McNamara saying he handled the press by always thinking “don’t answer the question you’re asked, answer the question you wanted to be asked.” And FOG closes with McNamara hinting (kinda proudly, I thought) at the possibilities he left dangling: “I’d just get in trouble if I said more. One way or the other.” It’s as if Morris is saying “sorry, but I just didn’t get anything.”

The ominous, portentous Phillip Glass score, very similar to the one in THIN BLUE LINE, promises dark secrets, but the film just doesn’t deliver. You would think this would be the last thing ever to say of an Errol Morris movie, but FOG is just too conventional. The 11-lesson chapter structure notwithstanding, it even basically follows the chronological structure of a TV-movie biopic. Even the Interrotron (a camera machine setup invented by Morris that lets he and the subject look directly at each other, while the subject looks directly into the camera) is pretty much wasted, though it’s never uninteresting. THE FOG OF WAR is basically just a very arty Special Episode of 60 MINUTES, an interview/profile that is so disappointing because it did not need Errol Morris to be made.

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A TALKING PICTURE (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2003, 4)

I pretty much have to see this film a second time, and I can guarantee you that the rating won’t be “4” afterwards. It’ll likely either be a “7-or-8” or a “0-or-1” (the “4” is merely an average for now), because either this is the most insufferable 95 minutes of pretentious, self-congratulatory Euroweenie tripe ever made, or the most brilliant joke on pretentious, self-congratulatory Euroweenie tripe ever made. I honestly cannot decide, and for reasons I cannot explain without giving away the whole movie. Here’s what happened.

On principle, I have never walked out of a movie in a theater — I will not give a bad film the satisfaction. But at about the 60-minute mark of this movie, I decided to walk out for the first time in my life, as the film was driving me up the wall. To that point, it had literally been nothing more than a vacation film of a Lisbon history professor taking her daughter on a Mediterranean cruise. They (and we) see the sights of Marseilles, Naples, Athens, Istanbul and other cities accompanied by some of the worst didactic, exposition-laden dialogue I have ever heard. These are not direct quotations, but it is the general style:

“Mommy, what’s that.”
“That’s the Parthenon, dear.”
“What’s the Parthenon?”
“It was a temple the Greeks built to the godess Athena.”
“Who’s Athena?”
“She was the protector of Athens, represented in a 50-foot bronze statue.”
“Where’s the statue now, mommy?”
“It was destroyed by [whoever], dear.”
“So is Athens no longer protected?”
(Mother smiles indulgently.)

“The Greeks protect Athens now. It was just a myth.”
“What’s a myth, mommy?”
“It’s like a story …”

And on and on and on and on and on and on. At various stops, legendary European actresses Catherine Deneuve, Stephania Sandrelli and Irene Pappas get on the ship — playing celebrities, but not themselves. They have a dinner Symposium with ship captain John Malkovich, in which all four people, I am not kidding, give lengthy speeches in their native languages, and congratulate one another on how beautiful and multicultural they all are for understanding one another, and how wouldn’t the world be a better, more tolerant and understanding place if run by women just like them (the EU was founded by nasty men, you understand).

I got so sick of all this cosmopolitan cafe society blather that I walked out. I went to the theater’s bathroom, and after I was done thought to myself: “Victor, you just solved part of the reason you were so restless. You’re 0-for-life in not walking out. Go back in.” So I did, but A TALKING PICTURE continues in the same insufferable vein for another half-hour.

However … (and the SPOILERS are coming) then it takes the most bizarre twist I have ever seen. It only lasts about three minutes, has had audiences rolling in the aisles with laughter, and involves a terrorist bomb threat, but it potentially recodes everything that went before it. Is Oliveira saying that these people are a ship of fools, lounging on the Titanic? Is he berating (and, in the film, punishing) cosmopolitan Westerners for narcissism and self-absorption? Does indulgence of Islam spell doom? Does the first 90 minutes play differently, as something other than the leftist Eurotripe I was convinced I was watching, knowing what happens? It’s not so over-the top that it can *only* be parody (unless the pages of the Guardian and the closing credits of DOGVILLE are the same kind of parody). Does such recoding make the first 90 minutes less boring and thus worth trying to unpack all these questions? Stay tuned.

September 12, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 2 Comments

TIFF Days Three and Four (grades from Days 5, 6 and 7)

Let’s do the easy stuff first, my grades from the last three days of the Toronto International Film Festival:

DOGVILLE (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2003) — 9
THE FOG OF WAR (Errol Morris, USA, 2003) — 6
A TALKING PICTURE (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2003) — 4
THE COMPANY (Robert Altman, USA, 2003) — 6
LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE (Sylvain Chomet, France/Canada, 2003) — 7
GOOD BYE, DRAGON INN (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 2003) — 8
AT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran, 2003) — 4
THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (Richard Linklater, USA, 2003 ) — 7
21 GRAMS (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, USA, 2003) — 6
THE GRUB STAKE (Bert Van Tuyle/Nell Shipman, USA/Canada, 1923) — 3
SHATTERED GLASS (Billy Bob, USA, 2003) — 7

And here are the capsules for the remaining films I saw through Day Four:

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BRIGHT FUTURE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2003, 6)

This is easily my favorite film by Mr. No Relation, but this really isn’t saying as much as it might sound. Plus the Kiyoshi fans I know think this is one of his weaker efforts — call it a Kurosawa film for people who don’t like Kurosawa. The plot begins with two slacker friends, Yuji and Mamoru, and their boss, who wants to relive his youth. But sometimes whole subplots and sequences play themselves out merely to set up or get to the heart of something else (think THE CRYING GAME or CITY OF GOD), and the heart of the film is a pet jellyfish that Mamoru left Yuji, and the relationship between Yuji and Mamoru’s father.

What sets BRIGHT FUTURE apart from KK’s other films for me is that this time, he has a metaphor (the jellyfish) and stays with it and doesn’t try to get too obscure (CURE ended in a blizzard of non sequiturs; PULSE was just wtf? throughout). We’re kinda expecting this to morph into THE JELLYFISH THAT ATE TOKYO, since most of Kurosawa’s earlier films were horror films of one sort or another. But here, he stays with the film’s third father-son relationship and how it deals with “the jellyfish.” What is the jellyfish a metaphor for — the “sons” friendship, the future, adaptation to environment, all sorts of things (it’s one of those deliberately all-unifying symbols, like Moby Dick).

The film is shot on two different qualities of digital video, and the effect is a grungy, dirty, washed out world where the red on the jellyfish stands out as practically the only primary color, and results in a truly glorious image as a parade of glowing red balls swim through a grungy canal out to the sea. Sometimes the metaphors, hooks and symbols are just too obviously (and sometimes explicitly) metaphors, hooks and symbols — they don’t really work as themselves (there are two father figures; one of them has two sets of sons; the jellyfish revert to their nature once freed; fatherhood is transferred). BRIGHT FUTURE is a very schematic movie, with a deeply ironic and unsubtle ending. Still, I didn’t leave the theater bored or indifferent, and that’s always good.

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ONG-BAK: MUAY THAI WARRIOR (Pracha Pinkaew, Thailand, 2003, 9)

This martial arts film from Thailand is awesome. This movie has a Mr. Big villain that has a tracheotomy and so speaks through a machine, like Ned in SOUTH PARK, and smokes through the hole in his throat. This movie has a hero who jumps through a coiled-up ring of barbed wire, at full speed. This movie does not use wires or computer imaging. This movie’s hero runs over the shoulders of six bad guys in a line. This movie’s hero jumps over one moving car at full speed and slides under another at full speed. This movie has an Australian villain who snarls “Thai women come to my country to be hookers.” This movie has a fight in which a refrigerator is used as a weapon. This movie has two guys falling from a third-story window, and one plants a full kick on the other while in midair. Did you get that … “while in midair”? This movie has a hero who can execute a jump kick to the head while his legs are on fire. Did you get that … “while his legs are on fire”? This movie’s villain has a secret lair in the mountains. This movie has a villain who breaks the sidekick’s arm with a chop against the joint (think Joe Theismann); the hero retaliates by using the same maneuver to tear off that villain’s leg. This movie has a Buddha head crush two villains at once. This movie prompted dozens of winces and gasps (and laughs) from the hardened gorehounds at Toronto Midnight Madness (and the series’ first-ever standing ovation, according to the programmer). This movie had the first question for the director be “how many stuntmen were killed in making this movie?” (A: None.) This movie didn’t let out, because of delays and a lengthy Q-and-A, until 3 a.m. at the end of (for me) a six-film day; I was still on too much of an andrenaline high to sleep for more than an hour. This movie is the most awesome movie in the history of awesomeness.

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THE MAYOR OF SUNSET STRIP (George Hickenlooper, USA, 2003, 7)

A small bit of genius here in the fact that this is a moral film that is never moralistic. You might not even recognize until, purely hypothetically speaking of course, you are looking through your viewing notes in order to write your capsule live from a Toronto Internet cafe, just how thoroughly it repudiates the lifestyle and mores of its titular character, Rodney Bingenheimer.

The illusion and transitoriness of celebrity, in this case a disc jockey who was one of the great celebrity hangers-on of all time, has been done a thousand times before — but seldom with both this much thoroughness and with this much understanding for what made the lifestyle attractive in the first place without coming across as a scolding jeremiad (except in one scene, involving a member of the girl band the Runaways). It’s mostly a bright, fast-paced and funny look at one man’s journey through the sexdrugsandrocknroll lifestyle, and is consumable on those terms.

Bingenheimer was never exactly famous, but he was the ultimate plugged-in guy, and he had a knack for spotting The Next Hot Thing in pop music. This in-between status gave him thousands of celebrity photos with seemingly everybody who’s anybody — a fetish from a very young age; he even recorded a call to JFK’s White House, which we hear. He also had access to limitless sex. Groupies could get close enough to him, but not the actual celebrities, for a hookup. He got more than Robert Plant by being the next-best thing and available — which about says it all. The movie compares Bingenheimer to a West Coast Andy Warhol, but the amazing photos and footage in the film suggest another comparison — Woody Allen’s Zelig character, in that he seemingly morphed into whatever crowd was The In Crowd.

Yet you come out of the theater wondering just how much self-knowledge this guy has. He’s kept on at a radio station merely for show, and he doesn’t seem to realize that he has helped wreck the life of a man who went out West to become famous like him. There are several stand-out references to Kato Kaelin (a punchline) and Phil Spector (potentially a murderer). His father and stepmother are clearly, without saying it but showing it in the placement of photos, ashamed of him. And his girlfriend doesn’t love him.

My fellow TIFF geek Noel Murray said as we walked out the theater that the girlfriend and parent scenes were the documentarian rubbing Rodney’s nose in it. I initially told Noel that I didn’t really think so, but I have changed my mind. However, I have to say that it just didn’t bother me — partly because the film filmed Rodney’s holy moment (dumping his mother’s ashes); partly because Rodney makes it equally clear that he doesn’t love his girlfriend either (he says he’d move to London in a jiffy if he saw someone better); and partly because he seems so oblivious that self-knowledge might have required it.

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TIME OF THE WOLF (Michael Haneke, France/Austria, 2003, 8 )

The first 30-40 minutes of this movie are as good as anything Haneke has ever made, which is saying a lot. The man is the best pure director in the world, but his script lets him down in the middle of the movie. Society breaks down for reasons that are never explained and are thus not important — and the movie’s brilliant beginning shows Isabelle Huppert and her family trying to get by on a day-to-day basis (or a minute-to-minute one, actually) in a world where nothing can be counted on and all social rules have evaporated.

The opening scene, of a confrontation in the cabin, is as tight and tense as anything in FUNNY GAMES. The camera successfully follows a parakeet as it flies inside a cabin; a night-time closeup of a burning branch becomes a glowing speck on the horizon as the first outsider arrives (think of the famous horizon shot in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA); and a much bigger ember becomes the first group of outsiders. It’s all formally breathtaking, along with taut and suspenseful. Much of the action in the early part of the film occurs at night in the countryside, with no source of light beyond the fire the family keeps or the branches they can burn for a few seconds, but Haneke makes everything perfectly intelligible (except that which isn’t supposed to be). This family basically is slow to realize that they are no longer living in the bourgeois liberal social world, but Hobbes’ state of nature.

It is a critique of the modern bourgeoisie, but not one that many liberals are very eager to push — that if social relations are constructed, then outside the rules of society, the only rule is the law of the nature — force, the time of the wolf (they even meet a conscious outlaw), the war of all against all. Even the occasional grace notes are reversed (the smashing of a grave). However, Haneke is too smart to realize that the state of nature can’t last — “man is by nature a political animal,” Aristotle says, and so we get the family joining bands of people trying to form an embryonic society on the basis of survival. Haneke does “state of nature,” though, so much better than he does “civil society.” TIME OF THE WOLF just loses focuses about the midway point amidst an undisciplined flood of new characters that we never really come to know or care about, and no film has room for more than five or six archetypes.

There are still flashes of Haneke’s formal brilliance — a closeup of tears flowing down Huppert’s impassive face at night cuts to a blinding shot of a lush, verdant, sunny morning in the forest; the way he frames the single shot of a child’s funeral. But it’s not enough, though the film bounces back in the last two majestic shots, which I won’t spoil beyond saying that during the last one, a lengthy shot, I was muttering under my breath “please let this be the last shot.” And it was. thanks mickey.

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GOOD BYE, LENIN (Wolfgang Becker, Germany, 2003, 7)

This movie is gonna get a lot of flack from U.S. conservatives when it’s released because it’s basically a Communism nostalgia comedy, but we should give this film a spin, even though it will obviously attract plenty of the wrong kind of praise. Just keep in mind — it’s a light comedy. Basically the family mixup genre, but there’s a lot of heart in it, too — my TIFF geek friend Daniel Owen said it’s basically “everybody loves his mum.” And if that means harboring fond memories of communist tyranny .. well … she’s still your mum.

Plus, to the extent the film has a political point, it’s *making fun of* East German believers and their Western excuse-makers. Sure enough, the reliable nitwits at the Toronto Festival Guidebook People’s Central Committee refer to the unreconstructed East German Communist mother at the plot’s center as an “idealist” (while also somehow saying the film “steers clear of broad comedy,” which I guess is true if the Three Stooges set the standard). If you could groove on the Australian comedy THE CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION and ignore the idiotic critical praise it got, this film will work like gangbusters.

In 1989, an East Berlin true believer gets a heart attack while seeing the East German police be mean (imagine that). She slips into a coma and only awakens in early 1990, after the Berlin Wall has fallen and while the country is preparing for annexation by West Germany. Rather than risk another heart attack from her seeing all the decadent consumer capitalism consuming the Workers and Peasants Paradise (stop laughing, people), her son decides to take the bedridden woman home, so he can control the environment and maintain the illusion that East Germany is doing just super. OK, it’s an idiotic premise (he’s obviously gonna have to tell her someday), but it’s basically just Rip Von Winkle.

Once it gets cooking, however, this film becomes very funny, as the son has to go to increasingly elaborate lengths to keep his mother, whose health and thus mobility are improving, from finding out. The best scenes involve creating fake East German newscasts to tape for mother, and they are a perfect parody of Communist kitsch, Communist lies, and this woman’s limitless will to believe (and not just hers). The 1989 footage of East Germans climbing into West German embassies becomes quite literally the opposite, and she finds it believable. And every shred of the “news report” was a lie. But telling lies was the only way she could continue to believe in socialism and communism. Imagine that.

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THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003, 6)

(Open with map of Canada, star on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Images are in soft-focus, using high-contrast black-and-white. And no sound unless otherwise noted.)

NARRATOR:
The largest city in Canada, known to its residents as Toronto, decided to host a film festival, to find the saddest sound in the world. There were many contenders, from every corner of the globe.

(Cue Bollywood music clip; followed by Japanese samurai yell; Italian cursing; French philosophy debates; the sound of seats hitting the back of chairs as people walk out of 29 PALMS.)

maddin.jpgBut the saddest sound in the world turns out to be unrequited love, the tears flowing from the dashed expectations of a cinephile betrayed. (Cue picture of Victor over a broken heart). He went to the frigid Canadian north in expectation of a masterpiece from the man. (Insert picture of Guy Maddin, gleam on teeth) who made the greatest live-action short Victor had ever set eyes upon.

(Cue 20-second clip from HEART OF THE WORLD, with music soundtrack, preferably one of the cannon shots, depending on the negotiations on the rights.)

Further, he drank from this wizard (insert picture of Maddin, in Merlin costume) the most bizarre cocktail (insert picture of Maddin, in bartender apron and white shirt with sleeves rolled up to elbow) he had ever seen. This cocktail was a DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY, as the Merlin of the barstool (insert picture of Maddin, in bartender apron and white shirt with sleeves rolled up to elbow, and also wearing a pointed wizard hat) called it, made from the ingredients Murnau, Mahler, Daghiliev, and Dracula (use flash inserts for mugs of first three men, George Hamilton for the fourth). This feature inspired Victor to start writing a useless blog that nobody ever reads. And all this Maddin (flash edit mug) material came just in the past few months.

(Cue 30s Art Deco title card from THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD.)

An encounter with Mr. Maddin’s latest filled Victor’s heart (insert a beating heart from some animal; no goats) with anticipation as he took off (jet sound effect) on his trip to the Great White North. He paid two 2003 Canadian dollars to struggle through the Toronto Metro (subway sound effect) to the far-away Elgin Screening Room (North Pole image). And at first, all was as expected. The good Mr. Maddin (flashback to bartender/wizard costume) produced the expected deadpan absurdist comedy (pan along Isabella Rossellini’s beer-filled glass legs) done in an over-the-top pastiche of early cinema melodramas (cut to Mark McKinney in Snidely American Whiplash costume and Cheshire Cat grin), the softest black-and-white photography in the world (cut to practically any image), obvious studio sets (show Winnipeg in the snow), and fruity line readings (cue a clip from the pair of Winnipeg’s “Saddest Music in the World” contest commentators).

For a period of approximately one hour, perhaps less in the metric system or the Canadian exchange rate, Victor was delighted. One particular laugh of Victor’s (cue high-pitched loud laugh) was even heard and recognized at the farthest reaches of the Elgin (cut to quizzical looks from Mike D’Angelo, Noel Murray and Daniel Owen).

(Closeup of a giant, generic script crushing a Maddin doll as it tips over.)

But then the gods of cinema decreed that there should be a plot. That romantic alignments between the main characters must change repeatedly (cut to shot from the swapping orgy in THE ICE STORM), and that we must be made to care about them as human beings, rather than as ciphers and signifiers (cut to Cinema Studies pupil salivating; Victor in an ascot looking puzzled) for Maddin’s virtuosity and demented sense of humor.

So the good people of Toronto decided (cut to funeral pyres, with the big red word “SARS” superimposed) that this, then, was the saddest sound in the world. The sound of a dejected Victor leaving the Elgin (cut to North Pole shot, with penguins added) after expecting and then halfway getting a masterpiece. But by the end having been left merely with the sound of one hand clapping. What a sad sound.

September 11, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

TIFF Day Three — the first part

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MATCHSTICK MEN (Ridley Scott, USA, 2003, 6)

It’s tough to say exactly why this mostly very entertaining movie turned out as a whole lot less than the (considerable) sum of its parts. The basic problem was one of too much knowledge, and I cannot go into more detail than that without basically forcing everybody who reads this capsule into the same hole-filled boat. Since a little knowledge is a dangerous thing here, I will speak vaguely for a while.

MATCHSTICK MEN was a very funny picture with several well-handled conman setups. Nicolas Cage is as good as expected in the role of a conman with severe anxiety attacks who suddenly has a daughter whom he doesn’t even know exists (Alison Lohman, who is excellent) drop into his lap. Cage is like Phil Hartman’s anal-retentive guy on “Saturday Night Live”– literally wrapping his garbage in Zip-Loc bags. Problem is: he can’t function at all without his medication and he’s liable to suddenly go on benders of cleaning (in an amusing scene, using the same kind of flash edits Dody Dorn used in MEMENTO, he suddenly cleans his whole luxe apartment). In fact, and very rare for a conman movie, the first 25 or 30 minutes or so before the main plot kicks in with the daughter’s arrival (which I had expected since the trailer and ads give away that much of the plot) are fine material and not just thumb-twiddling filler.

But then the main plot kicks in (the SPOILERS are coming thick and fast now). Maybe this isn’t this movie’s fault, but I hereby officially petition for conman movies to cease the “con” of a meta-twist at the end, where everything we had been seeing turns out to be part of a bigger “long con.” It’s been 15 years since HOUSE OF GAMES and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, and almost 10 since THE USUAL SUSPECTS (and there have been a score of lesser films). We can see it coming since we now expect it. Turns out, to the surprise of nobody that I have talked to about MATCHSTICK MEN, that the daughter and the psychiatrist were part of a bigger con being played on Cage. All five or so friends with whom I have discussed this movie said we cottoned onto what was going on (at varying times admittedly) long before the film springs what-it-thinks-is-a-surprise. That kinda spoiled the film for me. And then the film adds a coda, which I in particular found absolutely unforgivable. A movie that thinks it’s conning the audience along with its characters has to have a soul as black as coal. MATCHSTICK MEN contrives to redeem its victim — being conned out of everything was *really* good for him. Blech.

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CHOKER BALI (Rituparno Ghosh, India, 2003, 3)

Just a godawful mess here. It’s a Bollywood movie with no songs. It’s a comedy of manners with very little comedy. And it’s a comedy of manners about manners that will make little sense to those of us without an intimate knowledge of 1905 Bengal. And it lasts 2 hours and 50 minutes. There are a couple of comic moments where CHOKER BALI fitfully stirs to life, but far too much of this film, based on a Rabindranath Tagore novel, follows the kind of material about social ritual that might work in an allusive, precise, minutely-detailed social novel — whether a widow should drink tea or eat fish, who can speak English, or the various rankings of inlaws within the Indian extended family. Or it might work in a film with an audience already familiar with the social mores being detailed, i.e., not me.

Yet I can’t imagine this film even working were I an Indian because of a fundamental miscasting. I’m a fan of Aishwarya Rai’s work in Bollywood films — she’s gorgeous, she has a model’s skill in moving on screen and wearing a costume convincingly, she has some dancing ability. But she’s essentially a beautiful star; not an actress. There’s nothing behind her eyes. Here, she’s playing the dramatic lead in a somber, novelistic work. Try … just try … to imagine Zsa Zsa Gabor as the mother in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (Katharine Hepburn in the movie) to give you a sense of just how misguided this casting is.

The film also just goes on too long, apparently trying to cram every incident in the novel. After we finally get to the last of what feels like the half-dozenth ending (“are we done yet?”) we get some cheap and arrant nonsense trying to draw some analogy between the breakup of a family and the division of Bengal into India and (now) Bangladesh (East Pakistan at the time it happened), particularly in a family (and a film for that matter) that has no Hindu-Muslim cleavages. I’m probably making this movie sound worse than it is, partly because it ran behind schedule, and so its lengthy running time caused me to miss the first 5 minutes of …

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CRIMSON GOLD (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2003, 8 )

… and so as a result I’m kinda hesitant to say too much about this film because, based on conversations with others about what I missed in those first five minutes, I saw a fundamentally different movie (though one I obviously happen to like a great deal).

For most of this movie’s length (speaking vaguely … the first five minutes are a more-detailed flash-forward to the last events before the film fades out), I was watching basically a light picaresque social comedy about the days and nights of a Tehran pizza delivery man, the people he runs into and what that means about social class in contemporary Iran. And that’s pizza … not falafel or baba ghanouj … we see the pizzas in some scenes, so it’s not a subtitling trick. Deliverer Hossein, a big inarticulate, shambling man, also has a woman he wants to marry but can’t afford the required jewelry. And in an honor-based society, also marinated in the egalitarianism of Islam, there is much humiliation in that. The woman’s brother Ali works with Hossein and is a little, talkative guy — giving the pair a kind of Mutt/Jeff or Ratso/Buck relationship as they drive around Tehran’s streets on motorbikes.

I didn’t much care for Panahi’s last film THE CIRCLE — a hand-wringing feminist whine masquerading as a movie. CRIMSON GOLD is also an angry, political movie in part about the treatment of women, though much more about inequality and class envy. But here Panahi’s ideas are … “subtle” isn’t exactly the word, it’s just that he and writer Abbas Kiarostami (a great director himself) find a way to tell an absorbing, entertaining story and so the film doesn’t come across as preachy.

For example, there is a scene in which Tehran police seal off a block in order to arrest people as they leave an immoral party (booze, dancing … that sort of thing), Hossein enters the block unwittingly, trying to deliver pizzas to another apartment in the building. But the fuzz won’t let him go, for fear he’ll alert the partygoers. So Hossein has nothing to do but politely badger the cops to let him go (they have other things on their mind), and try to dispose of his pizzas. While the arrests pile up, and other passers-by are held incognito. As I say, it’s not that the scene is subtle, it’s more that it’s not mere preaching. (Though I think the apartment in the next-to-last sequence is a bit *too* lavish.) By the time we get to the end, the climax (i.e. the start) felt earned. Even people who don’t often go to foreign or art films will, I think, find CRIMSON GOLD accessible, absorbing and entertaining when it plays on U.S. screens sometime next year.

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ELEPHANT (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2003, 0)

My “1” grade last night was too generous to this vile piece of immoral shit that should not sully any theater screen whose owners have a soul.

This film, about a generic high-school massacre but very closely based on Columbine, is basically a snuff film without the balls to actually kill anybody. Its world is the world of first-person computer role-playing games, only here presented in the much more realistic medium of cinema, taking us one step closer to the SERIES 7 world of murder as entertainment. Only we’re the ones supposed to be “entertained.” We learn nothing about these students beyond a one-line character-type tag — “the photographer,” “the jock,” “the popular bulimics,” “the shy girl ashamed of her legs” (though we never find out why). Even the film’s lengthy bravura tracks through the high school, which have been much-ballyhooed as connecting the students and establishing their universe, mostly follow the students from behind, so all we’re doing is seeing the backs of their heads, and it frankly feels like stalking the kids through the scope of a gun, as if they had targets painted on their backs.

What’s compounds the offense is that Van Sant indicates that he knows what he’s doing — there is a first-person POV shot of the shooters playing one of those first-person killing games (used by the Army to innure soldiers); there is even a shot of the killers enjoying Hitler, only from an Allied propaganda film (get the point … the text has no meaning, so the artist can’t be responsible for it). Oh … and there’s also a scene of the two killers’ last pre-killing act being a passionate kiss (and we presume more) in the shower … to give the gay kids in the audience somebody to identify with, I guess. I preferred Michael Moore’s bowling lie, frankly.

In a movie filled with unforgivable moments (Benny the dumb-ass being the one black character and acting in a way that makes Steppin Fetchit seem like Einstein), the worst is the last edit. One of the killers traps two students in the cafeteria freezer (amidst the sides of beef — get it, meat … metaphor?) and starts playing “eenie, meenie, meinie, mo” as the camera draws back, and right as he finishes saying “mo,” the film cuts to clouds passing overhead while Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” plays on the sountrack. End of movie. I am not kidding. We’d earlier seen one of the killers play the “Fur Elise” on his home piano and end it by flipping off the sheet music, as an act of universal contempt. That was my reaction, frankly … fuck you, Gus.

September 8, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF — Day Two (plus day 3 and early day 4 grades)

Three more short reviews, with vague spoilers for all three films, and some fairly explicit ones for BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS and LOST IN TRANSLATION.

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THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (Ted Kotcheff, Canada, 1974, 8)

This film, Canada’s first international prestige success, starred a young AMERICAN GRAFFITI-era Richard Dreyfuss, and shows some of his early cheekiness (before he became A Great Acting Institution) and even made good use of Dreyfus’ showboating ways. Duddy IS a showboat — a young working-class Montreal Jew always trying to make connections and impressions for the purpose of social climbing, and Dreyfus gives him a kind of annoying laugh (think Tom Hulce in AMADEUS cranked up to 11) that never ceases to be at least somewhat endearing in its roguish charm.

The film is like Duddy in many ways — a bit too eager to show off its plumbing knowledge, but one too many dog poo reference is a small price to pay for the very funny gag at the end of the opening band march. In another era and class, Duddy would have been someone like Julien in THE RED AND THE BLACK — each rises through the ranks of society through a mix of roguishness, moxie, charm and ruthlessness, except that Julien’s contempt for society and its unwillingness to accomodate him as he sees fit is closer to the surface and more explicit.

It’s there in Duddy, just more thoroughly sublimated. In what has been a theme these first few days, DUDDY KRAVITZ suffers from Adaptationitis — the swelling of a film beyond its capacity to develop by the need to get every subplot and every supporting character in the novel. It results in rushed, telescoped plotting. The McGill snobs at the beach get their comeuppance too quickly and too precisely symmetrically, and the roulette wheel scam is reversed in the very next scene. In addition, there’s the dean whom Duddy persuades (don’t ask how) to reverse the decision to expel his brother Lenny (really) from medical school. The dean appears only once after that (too) short sequence, and merely to be told off by Duddy for no reason that makes much sense in the context of the film.

But to every cloud, there’s a silver lining — one of those strictly-unnecessary supporting characters, A Prestigious Film Artist, gives the film its best sequence by far, one of the funniest films-within-a-film ever made (and, seperately, it gives us another look at the young, dumb Randy Quaid). But this Bar Mitzvah film ranks alongside “Springtime for Hitler” from THE PRODUCERS and “The Shrinking Lover” from TALK TO HER for sheer demented fun.

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BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS (Stephen Fry, Britain, 2003, 8)

Another adaptation with the Itis Disease here (there was one more on Day 3, as I write this on the middle of Day 4), It’s the film’s (bounteous) blessing and its (mild) curse in telling its story of the newest of new money — the bright young things, the “dot.com billionaires” of late-30s Britain and the tabloid journalism that fed them and consumed them. Like with DUDDY KRAVITZ, it produces a somewhat telescoped third act — World War 2 takes, like, 5 minutes of screen time. There’s also some subordination of plausability to allegory (e.g., the symbolically-named central character Adam buys back his love from her cad of a husband for *all* the 37,000 pounds he eventually gets his hands on) and to running time (the old major is killed *immediately* after handing over the money to Adam).

Still, this is Evelyn Waugh’s VILE BODIES they’ve got a hold of, and, even though I have no idea how faithful an adaptation this very funny and bright film is, it clearly has all of Waugh’s Catholic wit and anti-modernism and at least some of his Very Politically Incorrect Opinions Therein. I would be stunned if you see another film this year or for many years to come where pansy-like homosexuals are more plainly used as a symbol of decadent, sybaritic vice than this one. Even some tortured Catholicism is here. One of the two “author’s message” speeches is a jeremiad given by a revivalist preacher with some touring angels pure as the untouched snow, who are both in some ways a figure of fun both to the Bright Young Things and we modern descendants in today’s audience. But she tells it like it “tee-eye” is. So there’s plainly enough of the novel there (though I have obviously not read it, but now really want to) to merit a strong recommendation, when combined with the typically fine Scepter’d Isle cast (seemingly every other British actor has a part, even John “yes, I’m still alive … gimme my first cocaine role” Mills).

Acting honors go to the previously unknown-to-me Fenella Woolgar in the role of the ditziest of dumb party-girl blondes, who gets the two best scenes in the picture, the racing car scene and the other author’s message scene — where she speaks the only moments of self-knowledge in the film. At a dread-full price.

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LOST IN TRANSLATION (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2003, 8)

This movie deserves some kind of award as the first movie about two bored people, their boredom and their attempt to connect in friendship that is never itself boring. As THE VIRGIN SUICIDES showed, Coppola is a director interested in moods, auras and feelings — there the tactile quality of the sun shining on Kirsten Dunst’s hair and how it can make you feel so incredibly sad; here the neon lights of the Tokyo streets and in its bars and karaoke clubs and how they can make you feel so incredibly alone. And looking for companionship.

So yes, LOST IN TRANSLATION, is somewhat slow and light on the plot points, but that doesn’t really matter for two reasons — Coppola has two great performers that can do the acting equivalent of the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes. Is there anybody alive who can get more laughs out of fewer muscle movements than Bill Murray? A longtime master of deadpan underplaying, about 40 of the first 60 minutes of this movie (quite a few such moments are in the trailer) are basically Murray reacting to this alien world into which he had been thrown. We can be grateful that he’s cast opposite Scarlett Johansson, who, while not a comic, has a marvelously opaque face that can suddenly come to life with the quickest of gestures.

What’s also admirable about this film, plotwise, is that it takes the time to develop the relationship between the two. They’re first shown together in an elevator and share a meaningless catching of the eyes (while a funny visual gag is going on elsewhere), then a hello, then a brief conversation, then … etc., rather than the quick roll in the hay that the romantic comedy template, which LOST IN TRANSLATION follows in some ways, leads us to expect. There’s a long conversation between the two that takes place while they lie in bed together, fully clothed. In fact, this is fundamentally a film about a man and a woman (both married) who create a friendship without sex. In fact, the friendship is in some senses premised on its chastity. The movie’s one sex encounter (it’s not really a sex scene — we see the pickup and the morning after) is a fall for Murray that Johansson finds out about and in a few seconds, as noted above, her face says it all. She’s at the hotel-room door and when she overhears the giveaway, she gives a knowing-but-low-key “I know what you’re hiding, big boy” half-smile. Then when Murray closes the door, it turns into disappointment — “I thought you were better than that.”

One more thing — the people who attack this movie as racist (and you know who you are) because of a few accent jokes need to ask themselves — have they seen a non-Japanese movie that portrays a Japan as richly varied as the country shown here (while maintaining the otherness essential to any “innocents abroad” movie like this one)?

Also, just to get Word of Mouth out — here are my grades for Day Three and the first part of Four. And don’t worry Vadim, I will be writing a capsule for all of them.

MATCHSTICK MEN (Ridley Scott, USA, 2003, 6)
CHOKER BALI (Rituparno Ghosh, India, 2003, 3)
CRIMSON GOLD (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2003, 8)
ELEPHANT (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2003, 1)
BRIGHT FUTURE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2003, 6)
ONG-BAK: MUAY THAI WARRIOR (Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand, 2003, 9)

THE MAYOR OF SUNSET STRIP (George Hickenlooper, USA, 2003, 7)
TIME OF THE WOLF (Michael Haneke, France/Austria, 2003, 8)

September 7, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF — Day One

Before I begin this madness, I should note that all films are rated on a 1-10 scale

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S21, THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE (Rithy Panh, France/Cambodia, 2003, 7)

Jean-Luc Godard once said that the film about the concentration camps that needed to be made was one about the perpetrators, not the victims. This film demonstrates that in both good and not-so-good ways. S21 takes its name from a Phnom Penh prison (actually, the title comes closer) and interviews two of the only seven survivors, plus several of the guards.

It’s a bit like an informal version of post-Apartheid South Africa Truth Commission. It’s not an especially political film — a few quick title cards within the first minute take us to the day the Khmer Rouge took power; there is no detailed examination of Khmer Rouge or communist ideology; nor does the film even broach matters of who supported the genocidal regime (Red China, mostly) and acted as its cheerleaders abroad (Chomsky and some of the more-usual usual suspects). The survivors material, the conversations between the two, come across as staged for our benefit. More important, what they say isn’t terribly interesting, simply because, however amazing or grateful their existence is, they come across as didacts spouting platitudes we’ve heard a thousand times in a hundred Holocaust films — “reconciliation is impossible,” “why talk at all?” that sort of thing.

The guards, though, provide the material that makes S21 a worthy and important documentary. The filmmakers take the guards to S21, which is still standing in a museumy kind of way (the numbers on the walls designate places the inmates were chained to the walls, like bed numbers without beds), and the guards re-enact what they did, sometimes to the only political content of the film (the re-playing of Khmer Rouge revolutionary songs, the height of 70s Commie kitsch.) And the film takes on a surreal tone, as the ex-guards are convincing — perhaps a bit too much. One particularly brilliant shot lasts about five minutes as the camera crawls into, out of, and looks through the bars of, a massive holding cell, while the guard re-enacts his methods of dealing with the prisoners. I let out a slight giggle as I realized that he was saying the kinds of things a crabbed schoolmaster does to keep the kids in line “don’t move, if you do, I’m coming inside,” and of course, I was instantly ashamed of my giggle since the punishments go far beyond “six of the best.”

Some viewers criticized the film afterwards as soft-pedeling the guards — not asking any really probing questions of them. That criticism is obviously correct as a plain description of the film, but I think the film was after something else — showing the mechanics of genocide. That kind of questioning would have short-circuited that goal by preventing the guards from showing their behavior yes, but also their attitude — they’re neither abjectly apologetic nor unreconstructedly proud. They vascillate between the poles and middle ground, also giving such (true as far as they go) reasons as their being under orders and their being youths (one even cites the latter as the reason the guards raped all the female prisoners). But they also say something the absence of which always bothers me in Holocaust literature. Several guards say they could kill inmates with no qualms because they believed they were CIA-planted saboteurs, parasite enemies of the Glorious Kampuchean People’s Revolution and all of that. Exactly. They did it because they thought it was the right thing to do; it really isn’t any more complicated than that. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen could have given this film an alternate title: POL POT’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS.

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DISTANT (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2003, 5)

The back of my mind suspects that fellow TIFF-geeks Mike D’Angelo and Scott Tobias (see links at right) had some secret bet about what I’d think of this film, a highly-anticipated multiple prize winner at Cannes. Each seemed particularly eager, both before and after the film, to convince me that I’d like DISTANT less than I did (Mike) or more than I did (Scott). But I’m neither neither fire nor ice, just in the middle … like lukewarm water.

The basic narrative is an Istanbul version of “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” only here they’re cousins Yusuf (country) and Mahmut (city). I can’t fully embrace this film because it’s made in The Official Cinematic High-Art Style Of Contemporary Ennui — long shots, little dialogue, static framing, expressionless acting, not much happening at some points, and even less than that at others. I like some films made in this style (the works of Tsai Ming-liang, e.g.), but a little of it really does go a long way with me. In addition, the two lead actors are basically hangdog schmucks, posing in glum expressions of boredom throughout (whatever else might be said about Tsai, his actor Lee Kang-sheng is no hangdog). And frankly, I got fairly bored by DISTANT at several points, but every time I start to say how much that annoyed me, I remind myself (or am reminded by Scott) of a number of extremely funny sight (and sound) gags that leaven this hunk of ennui. I won’t even allude to them since some are dropped into the flow of the shot, sometimes so suddenly that that the unexpected suddenness is part of the joke, like the ad parodies in the ROBOCOP films.

In addition, there’s the film’s pure cinematic style, which is little short of breathtaking. Ceylan, a former still photographer, can compose and layer a static shot like nobody’s business. In the particularly fine opening shot, he divides a natural landscape into three distinct spaces (while a sliver of action goes on), and then he does a 90-degree pan to a different, but equally well-segmented landscape. Ceylan also has the mother of all sound designers, and he uses subtle wind chimes and ambient noise to in some cases even create action, and at one point even having a train run over you apparently from behind (I don’t recall that effect used so conspicuously and effectively since the opening chopper whirring in APOCALYPSE NOW … see this film in a good theater if you can).

And writing that “see this…” recommendation, I begin to think that “5” is too harsh, and I need to see it again, and … but still. That piling on of boredom and those inert characters are just finally too much. There is a scene late in the film where one character surreptitiously watches his beloved leave Turkey with someone else. I think it’s meant to be heartbreaking (like BRIEF ENCOUNTER and THE END OF THE AFFAIR). I didn’t give a damn.

September 5, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

That time of the year

I will be leaving tomorrow to fly up to Canada for Film Geek Woodstock … aka the Toronto International Film Festival, which runs until the 13th. That’s the place where you can feel like a piker for only seeing more than 40 films in 9 1/2 days (weeks … I almost said).

So until I come back, most or all of my updating will be quick opinions of what I see during those days. So expect a lot of capsules about Turkish art films, Brazilian social comedies, Thai kick-boxing flicks and a few films that you might actually have a chance to see at a future date.

Among the films I’m scheduled for that will find an audience of one size or another are some big fall prestige releases — Sofia Coppola’s LOST IN TRANSLATION with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, Robert Altman’s THE COMPANY with Neve Campbell and Malcolm McDowell, and Ridley Scott’s MATCHSTICK MEN with Nicolas Cage; Cannes prize winners DISTANT, AT 5 IN THE AFTERNOON and ELEPHANT; also THE FOG OF WAR, a Robert McNamara documentary by the top American documentarian (I mean Errol Morris, of THIN BLUE LINE, MR. DEATH and GATES OF HEAVEN sorta fame); and the latest films by art-house gods Michael Haneke (TIME OF THE WOLF), Lars Von Trier (DOGVILLE plus the documentary FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS), Guy Maddin (SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD), Tsai Ming-liang (GOODBYE, DRAGON INN) and others. It’ll be a hectic two weeks.

September 3, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Charles Bronson remembered

bronson.jpgBy coincidence, I saw Charles Bronson’s greatest film for the first time in a theater, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, just a week or so before his death at the weekend. Bronson was not a great actor, in the histrionic sense (he had no range, subtlety or wit), but he could do something just as difficult and (in the hands of the right director, like Sergio Leone) just as good. He could *be* on screen. He embodied in himself an image, a screen persona with consummate comfort, as if he was just being himself. And if you doubt that even literally playing yourself on screen is not as easy as it looks, check out Brett Favre in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY or Monica Lewinsky in her SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE appearance.

Bronson’s character, which almost never changed, was taciturn and brooding like John Garfield, stoic and tough like John Wayne. He followed trails blazed by Clint Eastwood, both in Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, and then later in the urban-vigilante genre. He was a man you didn’t wanna mess with, but was righteous enough not to mess with you for no reason. In other words, it was an image of pre-therapy masculinity. This summa cum laude graduate of the School of Hard Knocks (in real life as well as a screen persona) had all this chiseled onto a face that was perhaps the ugliest ever on a Hollywood leading man. But that leather face was perfect for Leone’s grubby, dusty, gorgeously-lit and -framed pictures. And the harmonica.

Besides being raw material for the virtuoso Leone, Bronson was also good in solid unpretentious 60s action films like THE DIRTY DOZEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE (the latter of which is one of the few films I remember seeing and liking quite a bit before the cinephilia bug bit in the late 1980s). I also think the first DEATH WISH film is not bad (it got boring by repetition; the reputation of the original ROCKY suffers for this same reason). But Bronson’s great late role is his lead character in the Walter Hill tough-guy picture HARD TIMES. The climactic bare-knuckle-boxing fight at the end could star nobody else but Bronson, because it *was* Bronson. Its virtues were his virtues. It’s an aging man, scrapping through the Depression with nothing but his bare hands, and doing it with no histrionics or self-analysis. The fight is shot like no other climactic fight that I can recall. It takes place in real time, with no music and not much editing or any form of flash. There’s a lot of grunting and pushing, and is grubby and tough. The fight has both a logical trajectory and is competitive enough for long enough (and then increasingly less so) that you see how difficult it is to beat up somebody who’s just as tough as you. And it ends as it does because of an understanding of masculine honor and virtue. You may lose the game, but there’s still honor in playing by the rules. Don’t pretend you won’t lose though. Bronson finally lost the game of life, like we all do … eventually. RIP.

September 3, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 27 Comments