Rightwing Film Geek

Dour Scandinavians update (2)

ORDET (Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1955, 10)

I saw this film again, on TCM last week, for the first time in several years, and for the first time since seeing Dreyer’s later GERTRUD, which ORDET points toward in terms of the Great Dane taking his stylized-theater way of making movies to their very limit. It’s not that ORDET and GERTRUD are difficult exactly — they tell straightforward stories, with a beginning, middle, and end (this is even more true of ORDET — a classically-Christian fable about a miracle). It’s just that the two films are very slowly paced and acted out, “performed” in the most stylized way possibly, and have a rather minimalist “look.”

The actors¹ in ORDET usually do not talk to each other like human beings, instead in the fullest sense “reciting” their “lines” — this is obvious even to a man like me who does not speak Danish — and often as if projecting to a spot off in the distance, rather than at the other characters. The movements of the camera and of the characters are ultra-deliberate, almost (almost) to the point of mannered parody. The images and the camera movement also have little depth and minimal perspective cues, giving the film a flat two-dimensionality — I believe the camera never moves into or out of an image, but only across it or on a diagonal — and creating the effect of watching a medieval tableau or a tapestry come to life.

I shuddered at the thought of what the audience with whom I saw a different Dreyer masterpiece would make of ORDET — particularly the scenes where a “touched” Johannes walks onstage and offstage reciting parable-like lines usually having nothing to do with the immediate drama before the other characters — which is mostly a conflict between two extended families over a proposed inter-religious marriage. The Dreyer “look,” which that still above exemplifies, uses spare, starkly dressed sets and expressionist lighting schemes, with “pools” of light that have no natural source to produce what someone once called the “glowing wall” effect. It tends to isolate the characters, as if seen in their essence rather than their existence, and living out the conflicts inside a human soul. But the mannered lighting schemes almost always spotlight Johannes’s face, as if gracing him with a kind of aura, probably more and more-consistently than of any character in film history. The medium tends, after all, toward the realistic, making these sort of lighting schemes rarely practiced, and never with the level of rigor Dreyer uses in ORDET (they would be just this side of impossible in color).

But by this point in history, words from me can seem superfluous — ORDET is securely canonized (and I use that word deliberately). But seeing the film anew in the specific context I did opened my eyes to it, and to myself, in ways it hadn’t before.

In recent weeks and months, I’ve spilled a few billion 0s and 1s at various St. Blogs comboxes on matters related to the interrogation and treatment of terrorists and even began another site dedicated to it. To overstate, oversimplify and crudify, I’m about as pro-torture (I prefer “anti-anti-torture”) as it gets. I won’t rehearse the arguments here because they are not relevant in themselves, but seeing ORDET gave me the first doubts I’ve ever had because of how the film ends (suffice for this purpose² to say that it ends with a miracle).

Very early on, Johannes, as clear a Christ figure as a film director ever made, lights some candles and places them by a window. Another character comes along, smiles indulgently at the unpragmaticness of the act, and then snuffs the candles out and puts the candelabra away. What’s the point of placing candles by an open window on a Danish night? And this fairly obviously symbolic act is not done by the character whom you would think would represent Secular Worldliness (and not because there aren’t such characters in ORDET). The film, though fictional, is as straightforward a Biblical story as it gets. The source play was written by Kaj Munk, a Danish pastor who was killed by the Nazis in 1944 and who said, among other things, “it is better that Denmark’s relations with Germany should suffer than its relations with the Lord Jesus should suffer.” As clearly as anything, ORDET is about the miracles the Lord Jesus can produce for us when we have faith and hope.

Faith and hope are clearly constructed in ORDET as something if not outright irrational, at least something a little odd through, primarily, the eccentricness and secular off-puttingness of Johannes. “Man’s wisdom is God’s foolishness” (1 Corinthians 3:19) and all of that. Yet through Dreyer’s very strangenesses in style, ORDET made me realize that I may simply be lacking in hope. In fact, a priest once wrote to me the following about Gaudium et Spes, the principle proof-text on torture (though not in the specific context of that topic):

I’m not saying it has too much hope (how could there be such a thing) …

Well, perhaps I do think there’s such a thing. Johannes’ berates early on “Ye of little faith” and the final miracle only comes about when someone asks for it simply, and trusts in Johannes absolutely. A Christian must place his whole self at the Lord’s disposal and trust completely in Him, regardless of the apparent consequences, and anything less than that is a fraud that the film rebukes. Which makes the next paragraph not an easy one to type.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying ORDET has actually *persuaded* me I’m wrong about “torture.” I do think there are quite fundamental distinctions between a person and a polity. Unlike a person made imago dei, a polity is purely a conventional agreeement among men.³ I’m not sure that a secular non-consecrated polity *should* operate on the basis of Christian hope, that it *should* abandon man’s wisdom, and that perhaps it *is* better than America’s relations with the Lord Jesus should suffer than its security. Machiavelli put it with his customary directness when he said he loved his country more than his soul — and for the leader of a secular non-consecrated polity, I’m not sure he’s describing an inadmirable trait.

Now I must go off to Adoration …
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1 … including as the wife Inger, Birgitte Federspiel — who died last year but who decades after ORDET would go on to play one of the sisters in BABETTE’S FEAST, a St. Blogs favorite.
2 … and for minimal spoiler-avoidance. If you’re a Christian or (OR) a film buff and haven’t seen ORDET, you should. You really should. If you’re both and haven’t seen ORDET — shame on you.
3 There is a scene very early on in Luchino Visconti’s THE LEOPARD, between a priest and a nobleman. The movie is set in Sicily while Garibaldi was pushing through it. The priest says something like: “why is your class backing these republican rabble and their bourgeois backers against the Church. You’re only buying them off for a century.” The prince (played by Burt Lancaster) says something like: “a class and a country don’t have eternal guarantees that the gates of hell will not prevail. 100 years is a blink of an eye to the Church. It is eternity to a class.”

September 29, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Dour Scandinavians update (1)

Last week, Sven Nykvist one of the great cinematographers — if not the greatest — died. And there’s the trailer Bilge put up to Ingmar Bergman’s HOUR OF THE WOLF (just about the most important Bergman-Nykvist collaboration I *haven’t* seen)

His work was inevitably tied to that of the great director Ingmar Bergman, with whom he shot about two dozen films. But he also worked with other Scandinavians, shooting the Liv Ullmann-directed KRISTIAN LAVRANSDATTER (which I have not seen, shame on me), and Lasse Hallstrom’s WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, plus works by such important American directors as Philip Kaufman (THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING) and Woody Allen (several titles; the best-known being CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS). And let’s just say I hope he was well-compensated and put his kids through college for lensing MIXED NUTS.

But for a measure of Nykvist virtuosity, look at these shots from UNBEARABLE — how he adapted Bergman’s close-up heavy style to produce two iconic sexual presences (Lena Olin in the hat; Juliette Binoche with the camera; both in their English-language debuts) yet could also make convincing fake “newsreel” footage of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

But probably his important non-Bergman related work was when exiled Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky came to Sweden to make THE SACRIFICE. In Chris Marker’s documentary ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVITCH, we see the two collaborating despite neither speaking the other’s language. It’s another measure of his brilliance that Nykvist was able to get the kind of images that made Tarkovsky Tarkovsky — an oversaturated but dirty lushness in the nature shots, e.g. Just as he got the kind of images that made Bergman Bergman — a bold chiaroscuro in the overcast pearl-gray Swedish light in the black-and-white movies; a mercilessly bright, decadent and pastel-free hues in the color ones. Two movies in that latter category — CRIES AND WHISPERS and FANNY AND ALEXANDER — won Nykvist his two Oscars.

For an example, look at this shot from AUTUMN SONATA. As I said about the Thai director “Joe” having a distinctive look to his films based on the lighting near the Equator, the Swede Nykvist seemed to work best when working with soft, diffused light in nature and a harsh interior contrast. Every time I see CRIES AND WHISPERS (one of my 10 all-time faves), I get a physical chill down my spine and goose flesh all over when we get the outdoor scene that ends the movie — so different in feel, look, breath and ultimately hope from everything that went before it.

Nykvist did direct one film of his own — THE OX, an early starring role for Stellan Skarsgard, with Bergman vets Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow in significant supporting parts. Sweden submitted THE OX as its entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and it did nab one of the five nominations, but lost to Italy’s MEDITERRANEO, a film I have neither seen nor ever heard a good word about (Gilligan’s Island with subtitles and a more-bosomy Ginger, it looks like). But 15 years after seeing it, I have nothing but fond memories of THE OX — dour, but so superbly acted (how it could not be) and classically structured. Nykvist also made it just *look* so right, without being showy or overly pretty or ostentatiously ugly. But THE OX is not like Bergman or even Tarkovsky in that plays out according to the moral framework of a traditional Christian-era tragedy. There’s little of Bergman’s existential Angst, and none at all of Tarkovsky’s Orthodox Holy-Fool-ism. To be perfectly frank, sitting before my computer now, I only have good memories of THE OX, and can’t recall why I only graded it a “7,” except maybe that I thought of it as “Bergman-lite,” given who all was involved in making it. I’m not engaging in “speak no ill of the dead,” I don’t think — I may need to take a look at it again.

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Stills from UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and AUTUMN SONATA from Matthew Dessem at The Criterion Contraption.

September 28, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Toronto – Day 10 – grades

I have updated below the grade for the de Oliveira BELLE TOUJOURS. The Festival Wall also hit well and truly as I only saw 3 films in each of the last two days, amid a lot of juggling to respond to buzz, to bring my festival total to 40. But herewith, my final grades, with capsules on Days 8, 9 and 10 films (plus LITTLE CHILDREN) to come in the next few days:

The Last Winter (Larry Fessenden, USA, 6)
Taxidermia (Gyorgy Palfi, Hungary, 7)
Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland, 3)

September 17, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Toronto – Day 7 – capsules

THE DIXIE CHICKS: SHUT UP AND SING (Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, USA, 6)

I will prescind from my precise experience of seeing this movie at the liberal equivalent of a 1984 Two Hours of Hate, saving that for another post. This movie, seen in its noumenal self, is a conventional but entertaining and interesting backstage account of the two years after Natalie Maines made the group notorious for all the wrong reasons by telling a London audience on the eve of the Iraq War that “we are ashamed that the president is from Texas” (a moment that we actually see in the film– I’m curious how Kopple and Peck acquired the footage). There are places this film could have gone but didn’t (Noel Murray pointed out to me that Willie Nelson has long been linked to left-wing causes, without tarnishing his status with country fans). But SHUT UP AND SING is still much more than a mere VH1 Behind the Music episode, and not just a worshipful encomium to the free-speech martyrs suffering at the hands of Bushitleretardespot. For one thing, Kopple shows without either creating or commenting upon the cleavages in the group — generally between Maines and manager Simon Renshaw on the one hand, and the other two group members, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. Maines comes across particularly as naive — thinking at that the start that any publicity is good publicity. And there is a shouting match between the *three* band members and Renshaw (who frankly came across, to me at least, as a bit of a wanker) in which Renshaw assures them there’s no boycott of their music, even though no radio station will play them. There’s also differences between how Maines/Renshaw and Maguire/Robison view country music, its fan base, and its identification with the red states, with the former being frequently and (behind the scenes at least) openly contemptuous of “that redneck bullshit” and view the furor as an opportunity to do new things without fear of alienating the “hick towns”; while Maguire and Robison want to see what can be done to recover their career with that format. Still, one of the most memorable moments for me was an interview in which Maguire breaks into tears defending Maines in an interview with (I assume) the filmmakers, who are never seen or heard in the film. Also, I’m no music critic, but I must say that I don’t see how the Chicks’ music changes from what we see of their recent album — other than the literal meanings of the lyrics.

MON MEILLEUR AMI (MY BEST FRIEND) (Patrice Leconte, France, 8 )

Yes Mike, the premise is rather sit-commy — man has to find a best friend to win a bet and prove to his circle of non-friend acquaintances that he isn’t a total asshole. I really don’t think any sitcom would take some of the darker turns this story does, nor would the ordinary sitcom have this much heart (Seinfeld couldn’t have turned off the snark). MON MEILLEUR AMI also earns some of its emotional response in non-cheap ways no sitcom would … speaking vaguely … the coda would have occurred that very night in the American remake of this film. Still, I don’t see the point of noting that Auteuil’s smile is rather fake, because it’s a brilliant, constipated contrast with the reason this film is so good despite an admittedly hackneyed premise. That is Dany Boon’s performance as the cab driver whom Auteuil cons into being his best friend, or rather what he communicates through his very Being in this movie (for the record … I had never seen him in anything before this movie). Boon is not simply happy, he is happiness embodied. His face is so open, his gait so light, his eyes so jolly, his smile so present without seeming pasted-on that he carries the movie by making you like him; you want to be his friend too. And so, he gets you involved in rooting for Auteuil — to see what he has in front of him, and what he might piss away. “Infectiously happy” is an easy thing to say, but not since AMELIE have I left a movie theater wiping away tears of happiness. Leconte’s direction and style is not as eccentrically brilliant as Jeunet’s though. MON MEILLEUR AMI is undoubtedly formula; but of a superior grade. And a crowd-pleaser, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with pleasing a crowd. One more thing. Patrice … I am recommending your latest film. Now can we please get MONSIEUR HIRE (the movie that won you my eternal esteem) out on North American home video in something other than an out-of-print pan-and-scan VHS. thanksbud

LITTLE CHILDREN (Todd Field, USA, 6)

TC

SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka “Joe,” Thailand, 8)

I raised the grade on this in the last few days because it just keeps growing in my memory, even though that memory is very hazy. I got to the theater about 10 minutes into SYNDROMES because my previous movie had ran late. And then, during the film, I hit The Festival Wall and dropped off for 20 winks or so. So in no way could I be said to have seen this film properly. The first half takes place in a small clinic on the edge of a Thai jungle; the second half in a modern hospital. There’s the obvious nature-civilization parallels (a shot that looks into a total solar eclipse is rhymed with a track toward a vacuum hole that sucks in smoke), and they kinda come together at the end, with both coexisting (Joe’s view of industrial civilization seems to be like Antonioni’s in RED DESERT). But I can’t actually say much about what SYNDROMES is about, per se, but I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway, and THAT I can explain. Joe makes movies that you CAN nod off during and still enjoy. I know that sounds like the ultimate back-handed compliment, particularly since Joe has the reputation of being a “Level IV” filmmaker, i.e., the highest degree of difficulty. But I’m referring to something else — the vibe that comes from SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (like TROPICAL MALADY before it). Joe doesn’t make movies with beginnings, middles and ends. Nor does he make formalist conceits, nor does he engage in mind-trickery. No … Joe makes friendly, inviting films that feel like a light-toned party or even a family picnic (indeed, his films BLISSFULLY YOURS starts with a picnic). And like a party or a picnic, you can show up late, doze off or wander away from one group for a while, and pick up where you left off, by chatting up a new subgroup or try a new dish or drink or listening to someone else tell a new story — it’s still the same picnic. If you go with his flow and realize that you’re not watching a plot, Joe’s films are astonishingly simple and lovable (my friend Charles Odell compared his films to “a nice nap… but in a good way”). They might come together into a thematic or formal whole for you or they might not, but a Joe film is not really *about* “coming together” in that way but about offering moment-to-moment impressionistic portraits of human beings. Frequently, Joe will turn the film over for several minutes at a time to characters that have little to do with the film’s main throughline and let them converse on some topic or tell a story (my favorite sequence of this sort in TROPICAL MALADY was the acted-out story of two monks). Here in SYNDROMES, we get moments out of time like a driver’s-seat shot of a drive through a Thai village while the soundtrack is of three characters offscreen discussing old memories of photographs and tattoos. There’s a sequence about the hunt for orchids that glow in the dark. And another in which a Thai TV talk-show hostess at a hospital, in front of doctors no less, does a traditional remedy on a brain-damaged patient. You just hear the story/watch the sequence and just enjoy the moment. This is what Theo was getting at when he called TROPICAL MALADY an experience, not a movie. When I walked in to SYNDROMES, the first sequence I saw was of a monk getting a dentist checkup. He mentions wanting to have been a DJ before entering religious life. The dentist had musical ambitions too, and he starts to sing. The monk says “is this a checkup or a concert.” Heck if I knew what it was about in the broader scheme of the movie (though I have some ideas). There is a scene in which a woman makes tea in her office while the sun shines through the open window. Nothing happens in this shot, but I wish the whole movie could be that empty. But just as important to their appeal to me is the way Joe shoots his movies. They are gorgeous and delectable — you just want to jump on the screen and devour them. He shoots the Thai outdoors as some place that really exists and that sane people live in and near. It’s inviting, warm and sunny — the key is that the lighting is as soft as tissue paper, without being fuzzy or picture-postcardy. As a result, there’s little harsh contrasts or starkly-drawn shadows in most of SYNDROMES and MALADY. Perhaps this is a feature of an Equitorial climate, where the sun is often directly overhead, and how, even for interior scenes, it affects a director’ssense of how light “should” look. He also frames his images in a distinctive way — shooting his people at social distances, respecting both their private space (i.e., few closeups) and their autonomy (i.e., not framing them in long shot to be consumed by the world, or trapped by tight compositions). Exactly as you would when meeting someone at a party. Another reason you want to follow Joe’s characters through his movies: unlike in a lot of Asian art-house movies, they don’t talk in stilted or stylized phrases or act like glum ciphers … they talk like normal human beings, which makes his films much more accessible from moment to moment than their reputations.

GRBAVICA (Jasmila Zbanic, Bosnia, 5)

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the end of this film, in which Mirjana Karanovic gives a lengthy monolog about some of the atrocities her character — a Muslim woman from Sarajevo — suffered during the war that broke up Yugoslavia a decade and a half ago. You’d also have to have a head of stone not to have seen it coming from the first reel. While GRBAVICA, which won the Golden Bear as top film at the last Berlin Film Festival, is easily the best of this year’s winners at the three biggest European festivals, it’s also the kind of movie that, however valuable, interesting or vital for its native country, can’t help but come across as a bit outdated for the wider world. It’s basically a Bosnian version of THIRTEEN, albeit with a much higher-stakes back story. There’s lots of scenes of mother/tomboyish-daughter fighting, and a working-class mother taking shit at a second job to pay for a trip for her daughter. But scenes of a female achieving sexual awakening through the use of firearms hasn’t worked since Faye Dunaway in BONNIE AND CLYDE (which was made before I was walking upright). Still, this is the best possible “Bosnian THIRTEEN” I can imagine. It is undoubtedly “powerful,” except that I generally react to such movies as “screaming climax and pat denouement.”

September 16, 2006 Posted by | Barbara Kopple (w & w/o Cecilia Peck), Jasmila Zbanic, Joe, Patrice Leconte, TIFF 2006 | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Todd Field … good to the last drop

Before I tell this story, I will note up here that I have updated below the two posts that had the Tsai capsule listed as To Come and had similarly noted the grade for The Bosnian Film with a Title Unpronounceable in English.

Anyway … this probably will be my own “celebrity sighting” anecdote from TIFF since I don’t have the slightest interest in attending red-carpets or parties, etc.

I had to leave Wednesday’s screening of LITTLE CHILDREN because I had only eight minutes between the scheduled end of that film and the start of my next film, the Thai hanging-out movie SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (assuming perfect lickety-split schedule-following at both theaters). So, with about 10 minutes to go in LITTLE CHILDREN, I left my seat to watch from the pathway that separates the theater entrance and the back row of seats. This would let me book out of the theater in two seconds.

But I look to my left, and there’s the film’s director Todd Field¹ standing a foot away from me. I rummage through my backpack to dig out my festival guidebook, and I’m able to find in the dark the page for LITTLE CHILDREN. I go to him and whisper “Mr. Field,” and he starts to gesture as if to say “I don’t walk to talk, I want to pay attention to my movie.” But he quickly figures out that all I want is his autograph, so he takes my pen and signs it, I thank him and move a few inches away, back to social space.

About 9 minutes later, there’s the return of a voice-over, which ends with a clear walk-off line. The camera starts to pan up and out. All the narrative threads have been resolved. Movie’s clearly over.

I turn toward the door, and Todd Field touches me and whispers something to the effect of Ddon’t go. Not over yet.” So I don’t.

The movie last maybe another 3 seconds for a shot of a set of swings, coming to a stop (makes sense if you’ve seen the movie). Fade to black. Before I step outside, I say to him something like “I’m sorry, Mr. Field. I didn’t mean to disrespect your work. I just have my next film in five minutes, and I needed to get out quickly.” He says in an “I understand” tone something like “That’s OK. Go to your next film.”

Hey, if my presence matters to (and was noticed by) a film’s director, who am I to say he’s wrong.
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¹ Whose IN THE BEDROOM I think a great film; this one I like, but not so much.

September 15, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Toronto – Days 8 and 9 – grades

Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella, Britain, 4)
The Fountain (Darren Aronovsky, USA, 6)
King and the Clown (Lee Jun-ik, South Korea, 8)
Red Road (Andrea Arnold, Britain, 8)
Severance (Christopher Smith, Britain, walked out)

Starter for Ten (Tom Vaughan, Britain, 3)
Time (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea, 8)
Belle Toujours (Manoel de Oliveira, France, 7)

September 15, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toronto – capsules – Day 6

THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY [Wedding Daze] (Michael Ian Black, USA, 2)

Crass Stupidity, Part I. I understand that the guidebook for a film festival needs to make every film sound appetizing, so I know better than to blame the Toronto Festival’s writers if a movie turns out to be bad. But there still is an implicit moral contract of a certain amount of truth-in-advertising. I knew this was a commercial comedy going in. I was not prepared for how utterly crass and juvenile THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY was — pace these explicit words of Noah Cowan: “Black’s timing and rhythm is unerringly precise. He takes a sophisticated, adult approach to situations that might otherwise yield cheap laughs.” THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a yarmulke-wearing character who designs such toys as “Jew-nicorns” (get it) and “Jew-la hoops” in the shape of the Star of David (get it … “Jew-la” … rhymes with “hula”). THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a scene in which a father talks to his newly-engaged son about marriage and what he needs to know about the facts of life. But now Dad can pass down to Son his favorite cock ring, for when he needs extra endurance (it did not help that the son is played by Jason Biggs, who starred in a great but identical-in-premise scene in AMERICAN PIE opposite “father” Eugene Levy). THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a scene in which a newly-engaged couple on a bus put their ears up against a woman’s bulging belly. This is the exchange close as I can recall: “I feel it kicking … I can hear a heartbeat … When is the baby due? … I’m not pregnant.” Yes, that’s the sophisticated, adult approach that doesn’t go far cheap laughs. Now, my complaint is not that I did not laugh and I found THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY unbearably crass and nihilistic (though I did … and I could rant all day about this film’s worldview and understanding of love). What I find funny is not Cowan’s or TIFF’s responsibility. Nor is it my point that I never enjoy cheap laughs and/or the turning off of adult sophistication — I still rather like PORKY’S, 25 years later. But there is noway, nohow, no two opinions on whether PLEASURE’s approach to humor is “cheap” or “sophisticated,” and thus the festival’s description is a lie. Noway otherwise. Nohow.

COEURS [Private Fears in Public Places] (Alain Resnais, France, 9)

This film may be profitting by the dogs surrounding it, but I rather doubt it. Even the people who don’t embrace COEURS as full-on-great like I do — like “Lee Walker,” Michael Sicinski (pan down to the 14th) and Theo acknowledge that Resnais’ direction and Eric Gauthier’s cinematography are nothing short of flawless and there is much to like in this movie, even if they don’t think it quite comes together, as I do. It’s a very English film, with a strong resemblance to BRIEF ENCOUNTER — covering a lot of the same emotional ground, within the same reserved emotional register and a similar “life goes on as we endure unhappily” ending. Stylewise, COEURS is simply an unimpeachable treat — loading up on the unnaturally dazzling and color-saturated images, but with light schemes like the fluorescent light tubes at bars, the glass-with-Macs look at an office, etc., which give that dazzling look a reality.

As for content, I’m not ready to make the “Alain Resnais has found religion” speech (though I have some notes for a rough draft), but there’s no doubt that mortality casts its shadow over everything in this film by this 84-year-old Master. COUERS is filled with snow … all the fades between scenes are of fades to falling snow rather than the usual black (with IS used to great contrasting effect to mark the divisions among acts). It’s an image of winter, a memento mori, and an annual reminder that everything in this world ends, and not always on the terms we’d like. There is a scene between Charlotte and Lionel (brilliantly played by Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi) in which the two discuss religion and Hell, which suddenly blinks from a familiar interior set to a snow-bound one. Charlotte is a rare figure in contemporary movies — a conventionally religious woman, a Catholic, who is never made a mockery of or the object of satire therein. She has a past, which is used to some comic effect, but … trying to vague … her sin doesn’t work as planned and it’s clearly shown as a one-off. But in this gentle snowbound exchange on the existence of Hell, she plainly has the upper hand as COEURS presents it. It’s a lovely scene but the one where I welled up the most was one in which Lionel described to Charlotte why he’s taking care of this comic tyrant of an old father. It’s unostentatious, dutiful and quietly moving in a way that middle-class middlebrow tragedy. Charlotte says at another point that “God blesses us with trials,” and neither COUERS nor the Toronto audience took it as a laugh line.

I obviously did not find NOT ON THE LIPS to be off-puttingly stylized to the point of aggravation or alienation. But some did, and you can rest easy on that front (you might not like COEURS obviously, but *that* should not be a problem). There’s no mugging, no fourth-wall breaking, no rhyming couplets or songs, though there’s some very stylized lighting and Resnais keeps the seven principal characters within about a half-dozen settings, and within what-I-take-to-be Alan Ayckbourne’s structure. And I see I’ve written a lot about this film without mentioning the brilliant performance by Lambert Wilson, who goes from depressed to jaunty without changing a thing or overdoing it; the way the film does a Hong Song-soo by recapitulating romantic relationships (admittedly among an ensemble) from one act to the next; or the way the three videotapes Charlotte loans to Thierry (Andre Dussolier — another brilliant performance) change both in meaning and in content, for her, for him and his girlfriend. There’s just that much to love.

OUTSOURCED (John Jeffcoat, USA, 2)

Crass Stupidity, Part II. Despite its title, this movie just uses the phenomenon of shipping service jobs abroad as an excuse to get The Innocent Abroad for a culture-clash romantic comedy, of a very rote pedigree. But Jeffcoat is not Mark Twain, though. We get the driver assuring the American arriving in India, to train his call-service office’s replacements, that “our town is very clean.” Cut to man peeing against the wall. Ho ho ho. The hero’s name is “Todd,” but the Indians call him “Mr. Toad” (there’s a lot more in this vein. Apu on THE SIMPSONS speaks better English than most of these Indians, thankyouvirrymuch). We get jokes about having to rent the Kama Sutra Suite at the hotel, misunderstandings over what hand to use to eat versus to wipe your ass (I saw another movie with that same joke earlier today), and attempts to explain the differences between rubbers, erasers and condoms. Yuk yuk yuk. And it wouldn’t be a movie about India without a failed attempt to get beef or The Innocent Abroad wondering why there is a cow wandering about someplace incongruous. If any of this description sounds funny to you, by all means rush out and see OUTSOURCED. There is one scene that works, in which the romantic leads, Josh Hamilton (not a bad match for Ron Livingston in OFFICE SPACE) and Ayesha Dharker (best remembered by me for the great Tamil film THE TERRORIST) are on a ferry trip. They recite each’s stereotypes of the other in the other’s accents. Dharker’s American English is near-perfect and Hamilton’s Indian English is at least broad enough and self-aware to be funny. They’re an attractive couple, and the scene works because it crackles with wit and spontaneity rather than 100 bad standup routines.

STILL LIFE (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 3)

I capped off a wildly uneven day with this film, which was hastily-added for two days after its surprising win at Venice, where it took the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion. STILL LIFE has a scene where a rotating fan starts to move from right to left, but the fan blades don’t start to turn for a couple of seconds. Those couple of seconds sum up this snoozefest — lots of panning, but feeling nothing because the engine is dead. Some friends were convinced there were some video/color-correction issues. But obviously the film had arresting images of the effects of China’s plan to dam up the Yangtze River, flooding large areas in the resulting artificial lakes. Thus requiring a lot of demolition workers, the milieu through which the principal “character” moves in a quest to find his lost family from long ago (METAPHOR ALERT!!!!). And I enjoyed some of the images of buildings being demolished, and Jia’s framing of one demolition through the ripped hole in another building’s wall. Plus the sheer wtf-ness of a building suddenly blasting off into space. In other words, Jia has made a movie that would be really interesting if it weren’t boring as ass. To quote Mike D’Angelo apropos another film: “there are no human beings in [this] movie” (actually, there is one: the young man who tries to act like Chow Yun-fat. He disappears from the movie in its only moment of emotional heft). Everyone else mopes through this movie like a brain-damaged zombie on Ritalin. Double-dose. It’s as if Jia thinks that landscapes can create character. They cannot. And after a while, his attempts to substitute landscapes for things like incisive dialogue and psychology — both absent from these depressive undead/lumps of dead air — gets irritating. Impressive though it was, the dialogue when the central couple finally meet and discuss a divorce is so thumpingly banal that the (admittedly interesting in concept) way that the background changes as the camera tracks/pans around them didn’t impress me. It just aggravated me. At least, it was better than the top-prize winner at Cannes. But not as good as Berlin (TC).

September 15, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Toronto – Days 6 and 7 – grades

The Pleasure of Your Company (Michael Ian Black, USA, 2)
Coeurs (Alain Resnais, France, 9)
Outsourced (John Jeffcoat, USA, 2)
Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 3)

The Dixie Chicks – Shut Up and Sing (Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, USA, 6)¹
Mon Meilleur Ami (Patrice Leconte, France, 8)
Little Children (Todd Field, USA, 6)
Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka “Joe,” Thailand, 7)
Grbavica (Jasmila Zbanic, Bosnia, 5)

September 13, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Toronto – Day 5 – capsules

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ALL THE KING’S MEN (Steve Zaillian, USA, 4)

Not as craptacular as some of the early reports, from Noel Murray, Jim Ridley and others. For one thing, I wasn’t terribly bothered by the admittedly scenery-chewing performances from James Gandolfini and from Sean Penn outside his stump speeches, which really ARE gratingly over-the-top. Both men are playing a type of “redneck” Southern male not unknown in real life who has a “big” personality with which he tries to fill the room and play to the back row. Penn and Gandolfini are also never without twinkles in their eyes to leaven everything. Some of the individual sequences are powerful. The visit to the judge’s home, both in how it’s set up at the film’s in-media-res beginning and how it plays out once happened. Also, Jude Law and Anthony Hopkins do quite well with their typed parts — audience-ID and movie’s-conscience; and the last image is powerful. That said, KING’S MEN has some severe problems — the hyperactive and fanfare-addicted horn section needed to put a frickin sock in it and the plot is very sketchy For example, Huey Long Willie Stark really WAS a corrupt summvabitch — something KING’S MEN barely more than makes note of; you’d be forgiven for thinking the legislature was impeaching him on trumped-up lies.

I am curious about one thing, though. The movie’s timeframe is moved up from the 30s of real-life and the Robert Penn Warren novel/film, to the early 50s. Why? Not only is there no discernable reason, but it adds two distinct problems: (1) economic populism would not have played as well during the post-war prosperity and the post-New-Deal state as it did during the Depression; and (2) the film makes no mention of what was in fact the biggest issue of Southern politics in the early 1950s, the civil-rights movement.

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FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (Christopher Guest, USA, 7)

Guest drops the mockumentary format, but this film about Oscar season is so steeped in film discourse and different levels of reality (onscreen/offscreen; cutaways to interviews; and clips from a variety of faked shows) that it hardly makes a difference. FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION is not even trying to be realistic and always parodic, so it makes no more sense to complain that HOME FOR PURIM as shown would not be an Oscar contender, nor be retooled so quickly into HOME FOR THANKSGIVING than it does to complain about the absurdity of the lyrics on “Smell the Glove.” Fred Willard is doing exactly the same act here that he always does on Guest’s movies and it’s never not funny. (For Your Skandie Considerification: Willard’s Oscar Day interviews segment). The suggested posters for HOME FOR PURIM is a gag Guest has never not done and it’s still funny. I know that “funny is funny” isn’t much of a review, but there’s not much more to say about this. There isn’t a moment of pure emotional joy that the Mitch & Mickey reunion in A MIGHTY WIND was, nor does CONSIDERATION reach the Everest peak of SPINAL TAP.

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FAY GRIM (Hal Hartley, USA, 7)

Maybe I’m a pushover by this point in a festival, but I also thought this movie, a sequel to 1998′s HENRY FOOL (the only other Hartley film I unambiguously like), pure midless fun as well. It has little in common with HENRY other than the characters and some of Hartley’s characteristic deadpan absurdity in the content of the script, but the delivery is totally different. Instead, it’s basically THE THIRD MAN from the POV of Alida Valli, but done as a screwball comedy, with Parker Posey as the titular heiress. Think about the parallels with Carol Reed’s masterpiece — every shot in FAY GRIM is tilted; it’s primary plot is about the search for a character who doesn’t appear for 4/5 of the film’s running time; when he does appear it’s for one lengthy dialog scene and for a wordless chase scene. There’s a lot of political material in both films — the opening obsession with the details of Vienna’s political status; every secret political action since 1970 appears until the FBI has convinced itself that Henry’s Confessions were a coded blueprint for a nuclear bomb.

But here’s the most important parallel — that’s all classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin. It no more matters in FAY GRIM what’s in Henry’s “Confessions” book than the details of the Viennese penicillin trade or uranium sands or whatever the colorful NORTH BY NORTHWEST was all about. It’s about the Valli-Cotten-(memories of) Lime triangle, or whether the abandoned Fay will get together with Henry. The great difference is that Reed does take his material somewhat seriously, but Hartley doesn’t — eventually, the viewer, though nobody in the movie, realize that Henry’s “Confessions” is the classic post-modern text. I knew right away that none of this was meant to be serious — a pornographic viewing device gets passed around several educated religious men and they can’t even realize what is the alphabet for some text written on the wall behind an orgy, with each making guesses using languages that use different alphabets and so can’t possibly be mistaken for one another. So I just sat back and laughed at everybody in the movie’s eforts to “make sense” of it all.

Everything in FAY GRIM exists to be milked for laughs — to hear Jeff Goldblum (brilliant), Posey, James Urbaniak, etc., rattle off Hartley’s arch dialogue, which the strange delivery and the canted camera feed off of. In my dream of dreams, I hope the genesis of this project was that someone offered Hartley a lot of money to make a (unneeded) sequel to HENRY FOOL, and he decided to surround the only thing that could matter — the Fay-Simon-Henry triangle — with a lot of absurd guff, signifying nothing.

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I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE (Tsai Ming-liang, Malaysia/Taiwan, 2)

I have no doubt that this grade reflects in larger part disappointment at a film by one of my favorite directors than objective badness (though I genuinely did dislike it). By about the hour point, the only thing that was in my head was — why? I tried to think about why I respond so favorably to most Tsai movies and yet could not bear this one.

I decided that the degree to which I like a Tsai is almost directly proportional to how funny it is. With his parched-dry style — no camera movement, no cutting within a scene, very little dialogue (GOODBYE DRAGON INN had fewer than 15 lines not from the film screen) — Tsai needs the leavening of humor or absurdly artificial musical numbers to keep his films from collapsing into tedium. In I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE, not only is there very little humor (and all the music just songs on the radio), but the best of what little there is comes at the end. For example, with about 20 minutes to go, Kuala Lumpur gets hit by a dust storm and that causes some very funny complications, such as two characters trying to have sex while wearing those public-breathing masks. “At last,” I think, “here’s the director I love,” remembering how often Tsai’s Taipei got hit by storms, floods or droughts, with which the chataracters in DRAGON, THE HOLE, THE RIVER, and THE WAYWARD CLOUD have to cope — bailing the apartments, the value of watermelons, trying to shoot a porn-film shower scene with no water.

Other mistakes — without the standard dialog (or at least the sound of voices), and the usual editing cues, it gets hard to juggle more than three or four significant characters without obvious connections, as he tries to do here. He needs a densely-concentrated universe, rather than semi-portrait of a city thing. It was also a mistake to cast Lee Kang-sheng in two different roles and have one of the roles being comatose in two different places (I was thinking for the first half-hour that there was time-juggling going on). Frankly, I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE just lost me in its failure to create characters and situations that mattered. Ryan Wu once predicted in a private e-mail, before I’d seen any of Tsai’s movies, that I wouldn’t be much of a fan. He turned out to be wrong, but after seeing this film, I can see where he could have got that opinion.

September 13, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Toronto — Day 5 — grades

All the King’s Men (Steve Zaillian, USA, 4)
For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, USA, 7)
Fay Grim (Hal Hartley, USA, 7)
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, Malaysia/Taiwan, 2)

September 12, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Toronto — Day 4 — capsules

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BORN AND BRED (Pablo Trapero, Argentina, 4)

My reaction to this movie is, rationally speaking, impossible. BORN AND BRED is a 100-minute movie. For the first 98 minutes of it, I was completely uninterested in it. Oh, I didn’t hate it — BORN AND BRED is professionally made, professionally acted, technically competent, not morally repulsive or otherwise objectionable per se. I was just utterly indifferent. The early part of the film plays like a Haneke depiction of a well-off Buenos Aires bourgeois couple with their perfect child — only as shot by a TV-movie crew and a network dramedy writing team. I knew that something would happen to burst this perfect (and perfectly inert) bubble. Sure enough it does, and once I realized what had happened next and that the movie on my mind should have been BLUE, I knew where BORN AND BRED would go. And one (very well-telegraphed) difference from the Kieslowski aside, that’s exactly what happened. Fitfully. And with little of interest happening through the slog, though someone with more interest in landscapes and scenery than me might enjoy the vistas of either southern Patagonia or Tierra del Fuego. But then the last scene happened (and it’s not a scene that’s unexpected or otherwise recodes the first 98 minutes), and I felt a lump in the throat. I was actually kinda moved by the reunion, though I should not have been. Not moved enough to recommend BORN AND BRED or to be interested in seeing it again to see if I missed something. But there it is. I report; you decide.

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OFFSIDE (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 8 )

Mike D’Angelo once dismissed an Iranian movie, saying (close as I recall) “why do the women in this set-in-Iran movie act as if they don’t know that the status of women in Iran is shit.” If Mike wasn’t referring to Panahi’s THE CIRCLE, he should (also) have been, and that’s what makes OFFSIDE such a step forward over that piece of feminist hand-wringing masquerading as a movie. These Iranian women know their status, and the basic plot premise is about their efforts to get around it and do something particular that men take for granted, in this case (though obviously it stands for more than itself) by getting into Tehran’s national soccer stadium for a World Cup qualifying game against Bahrain. (One word of advice for soccer geeks — don’t keep score during the drama.) Like Panahi’s WHITE BALLOON and CRIMSON GOLD, it’s a simple premise that gets developed to the fullest in the course of a long day. There are lengthy sequences of 20-plus minutes (here, taking a woman to the bathroom, like CRIMSON GOLD’s pizza man stuck on the street while a vice raid is going on) that actually use plausible drama rather than a soapbox to illustrate how Iranians live with/don’t live with/undermine their theocratic regime’s stifling restrictions on women. To its eternal credit, OFFSIDE also shows how the women are actually real soccer fans and Iranian patriots first — when Iran scores, they chant “Iran forever” and sing the same frenzied cheers the men do (“Iran blankets you with goals” — which I assume sounds better in the original). This is not only more believable — I remember waiting to see Pope John Paul, standing for four hours next to a Brazilian woman who knew as much about soccer and was as opinionated about it as I — but OFFSIDE thus shows how national pride matters. It not only isn’t dimmed by an oppressive regime, but (and I will be vague) such nationalism even offers a space for dissent or undermining such a tyranny. And God bless him, Panahi never pushes that point as such, though it’s plain to anyone with two eyes.

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CASHBACK (Sean Ellis, Britain, 4)

I didn’t see the same-titled short film that this grew out of, but now I do want to — and not for a particularly good reason. I was assured by fellow film geek Jason Overbeck that the short CASHBACK doesn’t have the most aggravating facet of the feature CASHBACK. That score. Gawd is it ever incessant. We get the standard “Bolero” and Bellini’s “Norma” interpolations (which is obviously fine music in itself) and a lot of piano-tinkling mickey-mousing. A lot. In fact, the music is practically wall-to-wall, particularly during the incessant slo-mo sequences about how you want to freeze time to snatch and savor all the beauty in it — to the point that the music became the dominant fact about the film for me. Imagine the paper-bag sequence from AMERICAN BEAUTY. Now imagine it for about 40 minutes of a 90-minute movie. It’s supposed to evoke all sorts of romantic heartache and longing, but it mostly gave me an ache somewhere else and left me longing for a stiff drink. I began to sympathize with people who say Wong Kar-wai used Yumeji’s Theme too much (but come on … that’s way better music, and it accompanies Maggie sashaying in a qipao). It’s as if Ellis didn’t have enough confidence in his drama — and supporting this thesis, CASHBACK also has a great deal of voiceover narration. Pity. The basic premise (and what the short is) is an OFFICE-SPACE like portrayal of My Strange Workmates at the Supermarket Overnight Shift. Had potential — there are some real eccentrics here. But Ellis tries to flesh it out with backstory into a low-budget romantic comedy. The material was way too thin for that.

September 12, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Toronto — Day 4 — capsules

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THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (Ken Loach, Britain, 2)

What utter hatriotic crap. BARLEY lost me from the opening scenes, where the British soldiers act with an over-the-top unsubtlety that Mack Sennett would have rejected from his Keystone Kops. I don’t mean to be an absolutist, but these first half-hour performances are objectively bad and there are not two sane opinions about that. The line “I’ll make your mother suffer” is said with such a snarl and such a toff accent that I couldn’t suppress laughter at it, and from the point the film just became impossible to take as anything but a tendentious thesis statement. What makes the portrayals worse is that there’s no prior context to any of it. It comes from nowhere in the film, and a Martian who saw this film could be forgiven for thinking than the British were Venutians who landed in Ireland for the fun of kicking the shit out of the stupid, drunken Paddies. The notion that the Irish or Ulster Protestants might have had something to do with either British soldiers’ presence or the 1922 Free State treaty and the division of the island is quite literally never even alluded to (and not because the latter set of topics never come up). Or that those people even exist. Loach redeems himself some in the latter half of the film, as the history dictates a change from Catholic Irish-vs.-British to an Irish internicene war. But I quickly began hating BARLEY too, though for entirely different reasons. At that point, the Communist Loach can’t resist depicting the Irish independence movement as a remnant holding the true faith of a one-party socialist state, a democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants (that WAS what “The Wild Colonial Bhoy” is all about, right?) vs. the sellouts whose dick and balls are in the control of the king (that’s what the central character says). Every deck is stacked, every scene develops a thesis, and it has all the objectivity and subtlety of an Al-Jazeera report. What BARLEY needed to have any interest was something like the famous sequence in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS where the three female guerrillas are shown quite deliberately and quite collectedly planting bombs in civilian places for the sake of killing French civilians. But that’s the difference between an artist (Pontecorvo) and a hack pamphleteer (Loach).

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THE FALL (Tarsem, Britain/India, 7)

An improvement over THE CELL certainly, though I liked that one too. Tarsem delivers the same giganticist baroque fantasies as imaginary depictions, only with a much better “present tense” premise. To steal a half-line from my friend Josh Rothkopf, it’s like STRANGER THAN FICTION meets THE PRINCESS BRIDE, with an injured silent-movie stuntman telling stories to a little girl with a broken arm to pass time in the hospital. And win her trust for other reasons. (Instead of J-Lo helping Vince Vaughn track a serial killer’s victim.) There’s real tension in the “present tense,” as each of the two principal characters has a different agenda, with some of the premise of THE 1,001 NIGHTS. Though everything we see is plainly how the little girl imagines things, each character’s agenda slops into the tale-telling (each character in the fairy tale has a clear real-world analogue: think THE WIZARD OF OZ) and even interrupts the story. My favorite touch in that vein was how one of the heroes in “the story” was an Indian, with the voiceover refering to “a squaw” and “a teepee.” But the girl is Persian, so they are shown as a Bollywood-style devi and a Taj Mahal-like castle. THE FALL is also a tribute to the movies themselves as stores of fantasy that people, especially children, need. It opens with a memorable image — a silent-film scene (though the lush range of shades more resembles a current-day perfume ad) set to Beethoven’s 7th and featuring a horse hanging from a suspension bridge by a crashed train. We later figure out what it means when the film closes with a lengthy montage of famous silent-film stunts, but which the actor Lee Pace stands for all the silent-film clowns, now that he’s recovered both body and soul.

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HALF MOON (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran, 5)

This is not a bad movie, and some people might think it great — it just isn’t really in my wheelhouse. I don’t have a particular stake in Kurdish cultural nationalism and no prior appreciation or knowledge of Kurdish music, and I think the film assumes too much of a non-Kurdish audience. But as I say, HALF MOON has definitely got some merits as a film — it’s a kind of anti-picaresque, following the patriarch of Kurdish music Mamo as he takes his group to a concert engagement. It’s a universal story, certainly — it could be a college fraternity band going to Daytona Beach for a Spring Break gig (with hijinks to follow). Only these are Iranian Kurds, and the show is in Iraqi Kurdistan. Also Kurdish music is frowned on by Iran’s Islamist government because it uses female singers and male musicians, thus requiring a disapproved mixing of the sexes. So these are very different “hijinks” — it wouldn’t be an Iranian movie though without at least one scene of a woman trying to hide from authorities. And there are plenty of moments of comic relief and some nice imagery — especially of an all-female-singers town-in-exile cut out of the side of a mountain. But what makes HALF MOON an anti-picaresque is that the group disintegrates along the route, has to change paths, split up several times (and not always completely reuniting). As if a tight journey with closure is not the Kurdish story for now.

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WOMAN ON THE BEACH (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 9)

From the very earliest moments, Hong makes it clear that this movie will be his attempt at an Eric Rohmer film, rather than some of his stranger mind-fuck material (which I have not seen, partly by choice). And he succeeds in making a great film that the French master would have been proud of — a precisely observed, finely-detailed miniature of a romantic comedy on the battle of the sexes. The resemblance to Rohmer is the basic scenario — going off on vacation, arriving at a beachfront resort, lengthy conversations over meals about theories of romance and the acting out therein. But it’s also in the way, to quote Rohmer about his own MORAL TALES, that WOMAN is less about what people do than what they think about while they’re doing it. The initial three lead characters — all people who work in the film industry — all play thoroughly-discoursed conceptions of themselves. It turns out that what they most fear in others is the characteristics they have, or that they like others for their unadmirable qualities. Like Rohmer, WOMAN is often very funny in a subtle, ironic way (the only moment of honesty we get from one character is when he is on bed with his mate, but fully clothed). Or in a broad way — there are jokes about the equipment of Asian males here (though it’s not gratuitous; nothing here is; it comes back later). Still, WOMAN is just as clearly Hong — the same situation of the male jerk and a romantic triangle; the same two-part story, with the second half in some way recapitulating the first. It also makes no pretentions to being even slightly realistic — there are only about 8 speaking parts, and the beach resort is empty except for them. And don’t think anybody — even a dog, or two joggers who play no role in their scene — will appear by accident or not for at least a second time. The style is as precise as usual for Hong — pointed use of zooms and pans in a mostly master-shot film. The beach images are cold and acetic rather than warm and inviting, with a lot of metaphor packed into such details as a calf muscle, a dog, a stuck car, finishing a script, an obsession with obsession and more — all of which makes this film about a repetitive auteur feel like a rather discomfortingly honest self-portrait.

September 12, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Toronto — grades – Days 3 and 4

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, Britain, 2)
The Fall (Tarsem, Britain/India, 7)
Half Moon (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran, 5)
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 9)

Born and Bred (Pablo Trapero, Argentina, 4)
Offside (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 8)
Cashback (Sean Ellis, Britain, 4)

September 11, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Toronto – Day 2 – capsules

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12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 6)

This comedy, in the blackly cynical vein of the Soviet-era East European political satires (early Forman, Munk, etc.), doesn’t really get cooking until the three principal characters all have finally gathered at the TV station for the talk show on whether there was a revolution post-Ceaucescu in their small town. The title refers to the moment when Ceaucescu abdicated, and where everybody was when the defining event of present-day Romania occurred (I type this on September 11). And the first 40-50 minutes or so of 12:08 are fairly routine semi-comic miserabilism as everybody goes through their pre-show day, which I found only intermittently funny. But then the show begins, and it’s a total hoot. The visual poverty and monotony of a low-budget small-market TV show causes the eyes to wander and thus alight on the gags as they happen (the best and most perfectly-timed one … I will be vague … involves origami). The show’s host babbles about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and watching him is like watching Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge try to keep face on KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU as the wheels come off around him and his self-importance is ground into the dust; the professor’s account of his revolutionary heroism is stripped bare (curiously, he never abandons it); the old man is the character who survives the glare of TV best, but he’s the one with the fewest pretentions, saying he wanted the $100 Ceaucescu had promised. The film’s moral: “enjoy the snow today; tomorrow it’ll be mud.”

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REQUIEM (Hans-Christian Schmid, Germany, 4)

My friend J. Robert Parks told me that this movie, which I already knew told the same story as THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, was more like one of Werner Herzog’s “madmen” movies. Certainly “you can’t choose what God has in store for you” is a theme I’d groove on, and it’s certainly got a simple and powerful last shot, making it clear that the film is not about exorcism per se, but a Pilgrim’s Progress of lead character Michaela’s soul toward accepting martyrdom. The problem is that I didn’t find Michaela’s “touchedness” to be remotely interesting. Maybe she should have tried to conquer the Amazon or drag a boat over a mountain, instead of just living the life of an ordinary first-semester college student. She’s also a bit of an ugly duckling, and an epileptic who stops taking her meds. With fairly predictable results. She’s a religious woman, so she takes this be possession, but I don’t think REQUIEM is nearly as ambiguous as Robert does about whether she really is possessed. Its style is naturalistic, which tends to privilege natural explanations, and simply taking it as I did leaves no “gaps,” no “inexplicables.” I’m not asking for the EXORCIST “would you like some pea soup” scene, but couldn’t there be at least one scene that involves something a little supernatural, a little strange? Particularly when the film pointedly shows her pouring her pills down the sink and “times” most of her worst bouts of insanity with perfectly mundane causes for stress like having a college paper deadline.

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CLIMATES (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 9)

This movie had me from the pre-credits scene. It takes place among some ancient ruins. There’s a man and a woman (played by the film’s director and his real-life wife, Ebru). They talk a little, but mostly seem bored, with themselves and with each other. The woman appears in a lengthy closeup in which her facial expression changes over about a minute from indifference to sadness to tears. And then a fly buzzes in her hair. CLIMATES has the feel of a Bergman movie — one of the first post-credits scenes is of the central couple and a pair of married friends, and it rivals the dinner-foursome scenes from THE PASSION OF ANNA or SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE for how whole universes of anger in swallowed in a glass of red wine. When an insect hits its cue, you know you’re in a the hands of a genius director. Although sometimes he is just showing off (the cigarette, e.g.), there can be no questioning Ceylan’s formal chops. There isn’t much drama, in the narrative-arc sense, in CLIMATES because these are two people who are what they are. Here, “character is destiny.” They’re made for each other, and not in a good way — each knows the other well enough to know when he’s lying, but also not to push the issue; each is as emotionally careless as the other. They’re apart for the middle half of the movie, but not to any great revelations or changes. Character is destiny. But see this movie in a theater, where you can really appreciate how careful and how deeply subjective is the film’s sound mix, and what an eye Ceylan has for using composition, depth of field and focal length to tell a psychological story, one of two people who, like the couples in LA NOTTE or 5×2, can neither be together or apart happily.

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A GRAVE-KEEPER’S TALE (Chitra Palekar, India, 3)

Though I really like the Hindi pop cinema of “Bollywood,” I’ve not been a great fan of what I’ve seen of India’s “parallel” or art cinema, and it finally occurred to me why when watching this movie. For one thing, they cover a lot of thematic ground that can’t help but look outdated to this Western firangi. In TALE, DAY OF WRATH becomes a stock feminist morality tale and a screed against “superstitious religion,” by way of THE CRUCIBLE (there’s some Cassandra myth, too). For another, the acting styles tend to be just as artificial, albeit in a different way, as Bollywood’s song-and-dance extravaganzas. In TALE, the gorgeous Nandita Das acts the title role as if she’s on stage — strident, “gesturey” and obvious (if not exactly “loud”). But while “Bollywood” movies are about as unrealistic as it gets, much of the parallel cinema makes a neorealist show of being about important matters. In this declamatory, voicey acting style. Oil. Water. TALE is also not well-structured and kinda illogical, with about half the movie being a flashback to the origin of this “ghoul,” which is a “she’s your mom” tale, told by a character (dad) who has no reason at that moment to tell it (to son).

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VINCE VAUGHN’S WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW (Ari Sandel, USA, 5)

For the first 15 minutes or so, I thought this was going to be a real dog. For example, there was a scene of Vaughn, Jon Favreau and the whipping boy from DODGEBALL, and they’re improvizing a scene on stage in Hollywood. Only the director keeps cutting away from the scene to interviews and voiceovers of Vaughn and Favreau explaining what was happening (which was perfectly clear, BTW). But the film recovers some as it finds its shape — it’s really more an account of the tour than a film of the four performers’ standup comedy acts, which we never see for more than a minute or so of clips at a time. The comparison to Spike Lee’s ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY — which gave each performer about an uninterrupted 20-25 minutes with some intercalary material between each man’s whole set — is really not favorable. A standup comedian needs to build and get the audience in his hands. Still, I understand Vaughn’s motives for making this film this way. There WAS some drama on the tour — e.g., Katrina and Rita forced some changes in the schedule and one of the biggest laughs comes at a visit to a refugee shelter where the comics visit, along with the painter guy from THE WEDDING CRASHERS. Also, Vaughn’s comics — Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst and Sebastian Mansicalco — are all relative unknowns (one even still has a day job), while Spike had performers who were all superstars, at least among black audiences. So Vaughn introduces us to them in the usual ways — giving bio stories, interviews with the four, meeting the family on tour, and cutting to relevant parts of that man’s routine. In fact, had the film-makers gone the Spike route and filmed a pure concert film, this film would have made a kick-ass “Making Of” supplement on that film’s DVD release. As a movie on its own … not so good.

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THE HOST (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 8 )

Just about as much exhilirating pure fun as you can have with a monster movie, with THE HOST showing that it’s still possible to make a monster movie like they did in the 50s and 60s, the film the JURASSIC PARK series should have been. It’s funny without being intentionally campy. While being scary and gripping, with a well-designed monster. And being visually inventive and knowing exactly how to frame a shot for maximum shock (or laugh) value. The lengthy scene of the monster’s first attack on the beach is hereby given a “For Your Consideration” plug for year-end award polls (hint, hint). There’s also a quarrelsome family that makes the film, kinda like SHAUN OF THE DEAD only not quite as tongue-in-cheek, largely a comedy for long stretches … my favorite such scene being the exchange in the car, where someone notices he’s not mentioned in news reports. My only real complaint is that THE HOST gets kinda flabby in the third act, largely forgetting the comedy and becoming semi-serious. And it’s not clear from the coda who has (else may have) survived. But generally, this is Midnight Movie catnip.

September 11, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Toronto — Day 2 Grades

12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania) — 6
Requiem (Hand-Christian Schmid, Germany) — 4
Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) — 9
A Grave-Keeper’s Tale (Chitra Palekar, India) — 3
Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show (Ari Sandel, USA) — 5
The Host (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea) — 8

September 9, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Toronto — Day 1 capsules

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THE MAGIC FLUTE (Kenneth Branagh, Britain, 2006, 3)

Ingmar Bergman has nothing to worry about. Just a godawful mess that will satisfy nobody. If you walk in innocent of the original, you won’t be able to make head or tail of it, and singing it in English doesn’t help a whole lot since opera-style singing is hard to follow even in a language you understand. If you already know the original, you’re still limited by (1) it wasn’t the tightest, most-logically-plotted, obscure-symbolism-free opera to begin with; and (2) Branagh kinda sets it in World War I (to the extent that this opera can be said to have a setting at all) and plops a lot of confused and confusing pacifist propaganda onto it. It’s supposed to make it tries to make it Important and Relevant. Instead, it pretty much brings the music down to the level of the New Seekers — “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” Pretty much. The music is too good not to survive this, though. Some record company or studio should sign that guy up.

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THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (Sophie Fiennes, Britain, 2006, 7)

The important thing to understand is that this is not a film. It’s a work of film criticism, but as that, it’s very strong and the best possible film of its kind. PERVERT’S GUIDE is only 2 1/2 hours of Freudian philosopher/film critic Slavoj Zizek talking about how films work and how they help construct our sexual and other subjectivities. There’s plenty of well-chosen clips to illustrate his points, but, funny if predictable variations in setting aside, not much more than him talking and showing clips. So obviously PERVERT’S GUIDE is not in the league of either THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS or ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVITCH. Neither is it particularly groundbreaking in terms of its ideas per se, and some of them are rather dubious. But Zizek really has star presence and the entertaining “voice” to sell his ideas, at least for the length of the film. He has the fumbling-English Mitteleuropa-sage bit down pat, and his takes on DOGVILLE, PSYCHO and THE CONVERSATION, plus Tarkovsky and Haneke and Fritz Lang made me sit up and take notice (his tastes are practically wired into mine). Hey, if boring European psychobabble can be made this interesting, bring it on.

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THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany, 2006, 8 )

Someone on St. Blogs a few weeks ago (I forget who) wanted to know why Hollywood never makes movies about Communist tyranny. I hold no brief for the US industry, but there are such films made in the countries that lived under it. THE LIVES OF OTHERS is a tautly-dramatic and suspenseful film (if not exactly a “thriller”) about surveillance in East Germany — a companion piece to the nostalgia comedy GOODBYE LENIN from a few years ago. Its richly ironic plot tells of how and why a playwright who was the most loyal artist in East Germany was bugged by state security, what happened, how and why he turned against East Germany, and how his Stasi surveiller unwittingly got involved, both for good and for ill. LIVES won a very lengthy standing ovation from the Elgin audience Thursday night, it’s obviously very accessible and conventionally entertaining, and so it’s destined to be one of the major foreign-film releases in the US next year, after having dominated the German Oskars. Unlike a lot of broadly-seen foreign films, this one will deserve the praise. It’s subtly acted in a nicely low-key — Hitchcock noted the gap between what people say and what they mean, and the performances are all at least good in this vein. Because it establishes very quickly the ubiquity of spying and the effectiveness of the East German secret police, everything has a suspenseful aura over it, even the scenes you wouldn’t call “set pieces.” Goes about 3 minutes too long though — everything after a certain newspaper headline is in my opinion redundant.

September 9, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Shameless self-promotion (plus a point of personal privilege)

Bilge has put up on his Nerve.com blog, The Screen Grab, my worst filmgoing experiences. If you want to read all about Victor being accused of committing the solitary vice in public, or how and where he concluded that God is dead — here is your chance.

Addendum: Why the there-referred-to McNamara line in THE FOG OF WAR is retarded. “Nations with similar values” doesn’t mean anything. Looking at how nations lined up vis the U.S. on the Iraq War — set aside Britain and France (they’re special culture-driven cases). By what standard is Canada (opposed) a “nation with similar values” but Australia (supportive) not? By what standard is Germany and Belgium (opposed) “nations with similar values” but Spain or Italy (supportive) not? Russia, but not Poland and Bulgaria? Turkey but not Kuwait? And if the UN’s gonna get into the act, nothing would be done on anything at all without the approval of Communist China, about whose “similar values,” the less said, the better. Looking at the European and Commonwealth nations named above, with the Anglo-frog exceptions — support entirely turned on whether the government in power at the time was left-led (in which case it opposed the war) or right-led (in which case it supported it). Support for the was pretty much a partisan affair (in the US too). “Nations with similar values”? My tookus.

September 7, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fox … anathema sit

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IDIOCRACY (Mike Judge, USA, 2006, 8 )

Before the festival started, I took the opportunity last night to see IDIOCRACY, since Toronto is one of the few cities where Fox is dumping it. Shame, shame, shame.

The film looks somewhat cheezy and is unquestionably a bit one-note — “these people are stupid” is really the point to 90 percent of the jokes. It breaks no thematic ground that BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD hadn’t already plowed quite well.

But I busted a gut. This film is filled with quotable moments and lines — the hospital title (kind of a theological impossibility), the method of medical diagnosis (which isn’t that far off from cash registers in the era of innumeracy), the evolution of US News & World Report and the anchors at Fox News, always fair and balanced. The trial is like THE TRIAL as rewritten by Beavis & Butthead. And like with B&B, people who complain that, e.g., there’s too much cheap balls-kicking humor, are missing that this isn’t meant to be funny per se. What’s funny (and often hilarious) is that the characters in the film think it’s funny and/or brilliant. It’s a measure of the emptiness of their souls, consumed with consumption and sex (wait till you see what Starbucks is doing in the future; and I swear-to-God, the first time I ever heard someone refer to “Fuddruckers,” I thought this too). Nor is it just a pro-eugenic sneer at Red State hicks — the high-IQ couple are brilliantly skewered as well in their brief appearance at the set-up.

This is a movie made for video admittedly, as it is all throwaway gags and one-liners, and crammed with in-jokes at the edges of the frames (Sam Adams made the comparison to THE SIMPSONS last night over cider and beer). So for dumping this movie, Fox News, always fair and balanced, is … like … really retarded and shit.

This note brought to you by Carl’s Jr. They give me money when I say that.

September 7, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Worst Moviegoing Experiences: Misadventures of a Rightwing Film Geek

This is a reprint of an article at the Nerve.com film blog The Screengrab, which is now defunct but was edited at the time by Bilge Ebiri. As a regular feature, he would ask critics and cinephiles to name their worst filmgoing experiences. As I said at the time, “if you want to read all about Victor being accused of committing the solitary vice in public, or how and where he concluded that God is dead — here is your chance.” The Screengrab is now inaccessible except through Web archiving, which is why I feel comfortable reproducing this Nerve post here, in 2013. I was able to recover Bilge’s art and his captions, which were quite fun. The italics are Bilge’s words, including an insertion that I thought required a response. It was initially a separate blog post of my own, but it works fine now as a footnote here.

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Extremism in the defense of Lars Von Trier is no vice.

Victor Morton, aka The Rightwing Film Geek, is one of the best film writers out there. Notice that I don’t say “online” anywhere in that sentence — that’s because Victor could easily give most pro print critics a run for their money as well. And while Victor’s politics don’t exactly match mine — or most Nerve readers’, I suspect — even some of his political rantings are worth reading, as they’re often (though not always) very cogently argued. Anyway, I digress. Here, Victor relates one rather unfortunate, and unfortunately hilarious, incident that occurred to him a few years ago, and then muses on some of the difficulties of being a film-buff with beliefs diametrically opposed to his fellow cineastes.

The worst filmgoing experience I have ever had was actually a moment of profound personal embarrassment. An opening weekend midnight screening of HIGH FIDELITY was packed to the rafters and the only seat I could easily find was the very back row, right against the wall. A woman was sitting next to me and her boyfriend was on her other side. It was kind of cold in the theater and so, since I had on only a polo shirt and shorts, I stuck both my arms inside my shirt to keep warmer. In addition, my shorts were just a little bit tight around the waist and so (under my shirt) I stuck my fingers in between the shorts’ waistband and my waist, just about nail-deep, to relieve the pressure some. Now my description makes it clear I was doing nothing untoward. But to someone with imperfect knowledge, like, say…someone sitting immediately next to you in a dark theater…it could easily look like…something else.

In the middle of the movie, the scene where Rob goes to the bar with the intent of picking up Marie De Salle, the boyfriend turns to me and says (not yelling, but not in a movie-theater whisper either), “Would you STOP that?” Confused, I said, “What? I’m just cold.” It then dawned on me what he might have been thinking. I issued a euphemistic denial and repeated that I was only feeling cold. Nothing was said after that, but my face was the approximate hue of the richest marinara sauce you ever ate and the approximate temperature of Washington in August. I was so embarrassed and self-conscious that the rest of the movie could have been the missing reels from the end of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and my mind would still have been somewhere else. I made a point of sitting through the credits to cut down the chances of seeing the pair outside.

“You, in the back. Yeah, you. Don’t think I can’t see what you’re doing…”

Most of my bad film-going experiences have involved bad reactions from other audience members. When I saw RUSSIAN ARK in commercial release in Washington, someone made his political opinions known after the credits started to run. He yelled at the screen (or it felt like a yell in the little shoebox art-house with a capacity of maybe 80 people) “Hooray for empire. Fuck Bush. What a disgusting movie.” Yes, there is a human being walking the face of the Earth, wasting perfectly good oxygen (and I doubt he’s the only one) who can see a movie about the aristocratic splendor of traditional monarchy and think of … Dubya.

But I expect nothing on that front from DC art-house audiences. Or from the Toronto Film Festival audience who applauded in the middle of THE FOG OF WAR at Robert McNamara’s retarded “please love me, leftists” line “if we can’t persuade nations of similar values of the rightness of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.” Of course, Errol Morris thoughtfully provided a few seconds of dead space at that point. [Editor's confession: We applauded too. It's a great line.]*

That sort of “lone Red Sox supporter in Yankee Stadium” moment is just par for the course for a conservative film geek. Which is why my most-depressing filmgoing experience ever came from a very different audience. When I was in grad school, I was psyched for the chance to see DAY OF WRATH in a theater, at a campus screening. Now, I’m a complete Dreyer fanboy, and while he did make a couple of lighter films early in his pre-PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC career, he wasn’t one for inserting comic relief into a serious film. And DAY OF WRATH, masterpiece though it is, is a completely humorless, gray, dour movie. There is a scene near the midway point of the movie of Anne and Martin — the new wife and stepson — together at the rectory that was intercut with Absalon (the religious patriarch) visiting the deathbed of the witch-torturer. Anne says to Martin something like “I wish him dead,” referring to Absalon. Then Dreyer cut back to Absalon crossing the moors on the way home, letting out a shiver and saying something like, “I felt the cold hand of death brush my shoulder.” At that line, the audience let out a big laugh.

Hipster central?

I was on the point of tears when I reflected on it. Here was a movie where clearly witches, the devil, God and the supernatural are taken deadly seriously and yet the audience was too post-modern, too hip, too knowing to take the possibilities seriously enough, even if only for 100 minutes of a VERY somber movie. Apparently God can’t even gain a place as a fictional character about whom you suspend disbelief as though he were a crime-fighting space alien who flies and gains super strength because of our planet’s yellow sun. But what makes this moment the ne plus ultra of depressing filmgoing experiences was where this occurred — Notre Dame. The national icon of Catholic higher education. Where every dorm has its own Sunday Mass. Where academic department have their own priests. The home of Touchdown Jesus, ferchrissakes. I had tears in my eyes for most of the rest of the movie. God is dead. Hip irony has won. The Coen Brothers are masters of the universe.

But that very art-house faux-sophistication redeemed a different bad film experience, this one involving print quality. During the flurry of Peter Greenaway releases in 1990-91 after the notoriety of THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER, I saw A ZED AND TWO NAUGHTS (a movie so mannered it makes COOK look like a cinema-verite doc) at an Austin, Texas arthouse. At a certain point, the film jumped so that each image consisted of the bottom half of, say, frame 1000, at the top of the screen with the top half of frame 1001 at the bottom half of the screen. There was a black bar in the middle maybe 10 percent of the screen depth. (I hope that makes it clear what we were seeing.) I decided relatively quickly that it wasn’t intentional. I entertained the thought that maybe it wasn’t a mistake, but this film, even more than COOK, THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT or DROWNING BY NUMBERS consisted of frame after frame of stunningly composed still lifes. It just didn’t strike me that Greenaway, unlike say an Andy Kauffman, would split the image in half bass-ackwards that way. But since I was hating the movie anyway, I decided to have some fun and see if anyone else noticed the emperor’s clothes. It took at least 5 minutes before anyone piped up.

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* Point of Personal Privilege: Why the there-referred-to McNamara line in THE FOG OF WAR is retarded. “Nations with similar values” doesn’t mean anything. Looking at how nations lined up vis the U.S. on the Iraq War — setting aside Britain and France (they’re special culture-driven cases). By what standard is Canada (opposed) a “nation with similar values” but Australia (supportive) not? By what standard is Germany and Belgium (opposed) “nations with similar values” but Spain or Italy (supportive) not? Russia, but not Poland and Bulgaria? Turkey but not Kuwait? And if the UN’s gonna get into the act, nothing would be done on anything at all without the approval of Communist China, about whose “similar values,” the less said, the better. Looking at the European and Commonwealth nations named above, with the Anglo-frog exceptions — support entirely turned on whether the government in power at the time was left-led (in which case it opposed the war) or right-led (in which case it supported it). Support for the was pretty much a partisan affair (and this was so in the US too). “Nations with similar values”? My tookus.

September 6, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s Toronto Time

I make my annual pilgrimage to the Toronto Film Festival starting tomorrow, and one person at work already has asked me specifically whether I’ll be seeing the Bush assassination movie.

I had DOAP on my initial, broken-down-by-days short-list, and I have the scheduling notes to prove it. There are some plot resemblances to THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, so using an assassination (attempt) on a current named political figure as a fictional premise doesn’t per se trouble me (but more on that anon). And the style/premise — a muck-raking “documentary” set in the future tells the real story of what happened in the Bush Assassination — resembles the great ZELIG, which I think is one of Woody Allen’s two or three best films. In a different world, this is a movie I would, in principle, be interested in.

Unless Noah Cowan’s description is completely bollixed (which would not be unprecedented … in fact in some cases, I’m downright hoping for it), I can’t imagine wanting to see this film at this festival. Most unconvincing line in Cowan’s description — “The film is never a personal attack on Bush; Range simply seeks to explore the potential consequences that might follow from the President’s policies and actions.” Reminds me of George Will’s description of how a negative-campaigning candidate defends his ads: “I am not being negative, I am merely alerting the public to my loathesome opponent’s squalid voting record.”

I won’t relate the specific examples until Bilge puts up my Worst Moviegoing Experiences on the Nerve Screengrab blog, but I have had enough “lone Celtic supporter at the Rangers end” moments to know how art-house and film-festival audiences will consume DOAP which will inevitably color my reaction. At Toronto, “Fidelista” is a term of praise (just read this and weep) and Bush Derangement Syndrome and Christophobia are normal. First example to pop into my head from this year, go to the listing for AMAZING GRACE and ask yourself how you would know, other than a vague and unspecified reference to “man of the cloth,” whether religion might be involved and (more specifically) how, and what the title might refer to (you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a reference to how hot the chick in the picture is).

In this time, at that context, DOAP will be consumed as a masturbatory fantasy and I wouldn’t put a round of applause or cheering. Maybe someday, alone, after the film has died its death and nobody remembers how Karl Rove tried to turn Valerie Plame over to Osama bin Laden in exchange for campaign contributions to pay off Katharine Harris (that IS what he did, right?), I’ll see DOAP Not now.

I dunno why this film hasn’t gotten as much flak. But if DOAP is inherently and a priori distasteful, it’s hard to see why a film called HOW I PLANNED TO KILL TONY BLAIR wouldn’t be. Still, while I’m pretty much past the point of interest in anything the artist/bohemian class thinks it has to say about politics, I will be going to see at least one political doc. THE DIXIE CHICKS: SHUT UP AND SING has the potential to be a HARLAN COUNTY USA (director Barbara Kopple, plus my unfamiliarity with the Chicks’s music, is why I’m interested) or the few minutes of FAHRENHEIT 9/11 that I managed to endure when I finally broke down a few months ago and it was playing on a free channel (Sundance). When I know the personages involved, I try to pay as little attention to the descriptions in the Festival Guidebook, so I’ll approach DIXIE CHICKS with the guarded optimism that is obligatory.

As for my schedule, this year was one of the worst for not getting my first choices — I must have drawn a bad box. For the couple of days, i.e., opening weekend, I mostly got second-choice films (though mostly pretty good ones) and overall missed more than a half-dozen of my first choices.

I didn’t get the single to-the-general-public morning screenings of Gala presentations and likely fall awards-bait VOLVER by Almodovar and Inarritu’s BABEL, the former of which I’m more bummed about and will consider going into the rush line to see if I can get a ticket. After all, Almodovar has reportedly managed to get a tolerable performance from Penelope Cruz, acting in Spanish again and who, like Sophia Loren (a previous generation’s favorite Latin sexpot), is much better in her native language.

Some of the other not-gotten 1st choices, all of which I’m considering rushing:
● There is much anger in me when I not getting much ticket to important Kazakhstani cinema. Will start and joining with campaign against racist film making many funs of great country Kazakhstan.
● I should have known that the title THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA would just be too attractive to too many, even (especially) to those with no knowledge of Slavoj Zizek (apparently playing a Michael Palin-like guide). I hope they choke on the Lacanisms.
● Why the heck would a Kore-eda film (HANA) be a big buzz item? I thought NOBODY KNOWS was a masterpiece, but it was not a crowd-please at all. And while it did win a general release, it flopped.
No Maddin 06. Like with the Kore-eda I hope it’s because a great filmmaker is finally winning an audience, but man, this would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience — seeing a silent film with an orchestra, which includes a sound-effects team, a singer and a narrator. The kind of screening a festival is made for.

But I can’t complain too hard. Here is my schedule of the films I got ticket for, and it’s a good mix of foreign and English, my favorite auteurs and buzz titles, austere and popcorn, and a few blind stabs in the dark — exactly what a festival is about:

7 Sept
02:00pm The Magic Flute (Kenneth Branagh, Britain)
09:00pm The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany)

8 Sept
09:00am 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)

Dunno why I got both my 1st and 2nd choices for this time … will sort out later

09:30am The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, Canada)
11:45am Requiem (Hand-Christian Schmid, Germany)
03:00pm Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
06:15pm A Grave-Keeper’s Tale (Chitra Palekar, India)
09:00pm Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show (Ari Sandel, USA)
midnight The Host (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

9 Sept
09:15am La Tourneuse de Pages (Denis Dercourt, France)
noon The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, Britain)
03:00pm The Fall (Tarsem, Britain/India)
06:30pm Half Moon (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran)
09:15pm Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

10 Sept
03:15pm Born and Bred (Pablo Trapero, Argentina)
06:30pm Offside (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
08:45pm Cashback (Sean Ellis, Britain)

11 Sept
09:30am All The King’s Men (Steve Zaillian, USA)
noon For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, USA)
03:30pm 10 Items or Less (Brad Silberling, USA)
06:00pm Fay Grim (Hal Hartley, USA)
09:00pm I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan)

12 Sept
09:00am Takva – A Man’s Fear of God (Ozer Kiziltan, Turkey)
11:45am The Pleasure of Your Company (Michael Ian Black, USA)
03:00pm Coeurs (Alain Resnais, France)
05:30pm Outsourced (John Jeffcoat, USA)
midnight Trapped Ashes (Joe Dante, Ken Russell, Sean Cunningham, Monte Hellman, John Gaeta, USA)

13 Sept
09:30am Dixie Chicks – Shut Up and Sing (Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, USA)
noon Mon Meilleur Ami (Patrice Leconte, France)
02:30pm Little Children (Todd Field, USA)
04:45pm Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka “Joe,” Thailand)
09:00pm Grbavica (Jasmila Zbanic, Bosnia)

14 Sept
noon Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella, Britain)
03:00pm The Fountain (Darren Aronovsky, USA)
06:00pm King and the Clown (Lee Jun-ik, South Korea)
09:30pm Red Road (Andrea Arnold, Britain)
midnight Severance (Christopher Smith, Britain)

15 Sept
09:45am A Few Days Later (Niki Karimi, Iran)
12:45pm The Island (Pavel Lounguine, Russia)
03:00pm Seraphim Falls (David von Ancken, USA)
09:00pm Belle Toujours (Manoel de Oliveira, France)

16 Sept
08:45am The Dog Problem (Scott Caan, USA)
noon The Banquet (Feng Xiaogang, China)
04:45pm Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, USA)
09:00pm Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland)

September 4, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Idiocrats at Fox

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Mike Judge’s long-awaited second live-action feature, IDIOCRACY, debuted last weekend. What, you didn’t know that? Did you get the memo? You must live in such out-of-the-way hix nix towns as New York, Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston … y’know … cities where people wouldn’t “get” Mike Judge and where OFFICE SPACE tanked because his scathing satire on work and bureaucracy was completely alien to them. Remember that moment in SPINAL TAP when the manager tells them the Boston gig fell through because it’s not much of a college town? That was awesome.

My bud Bilge at Nerve.com excoriates the suits at 20th Century Fox (over and over) for dumping IDIOCRACY, and for what sounds like really good reasons like messing with Judge’s cut, and sitting on it for two years before dumping, etc. So, the film came with the aura of failure, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two stats suffice — (1) as I type this about 845pm Monday, the new Mike Judge film on opening weekend still doesn’t have five IMDb votes; (2) if you go to the Fox site, there is no mention of IDIOCRACY. At all. Really.

Now I’m a pretty hard-core realist when it comes to selling movies and I don’t think studios have any obligation to lose money or throw good money after bad. I’m not under any illusion that Judge has made a potential gazillion-dollar blockbuster. And it’s certainly possible that Judge made a stinker (Homer nods; Hitchcock made THE PARADINE CASE, etc.).

But do American studios any longer know how to market a small movie to a niche audience, except through their boutique divisions like … um … Fox Searchlight? “Un Film de Mike Judge,” “from the creator of OFFICE SPACE” [or BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD or KING OF THE HILL] has got to be worth enough tickets to make at least a half-ass push worthwhile. OFFICE SPACE wasn’t a big hit (Fox didn’t do very well by that film either, but I was able to see it in Augusta, Ga., fercryinoutloud), but subsequent word of mouth has turned it into one of the defining cult films of its era.

lumberg.jpgRight now on my IM system at work (and I swear this is a coincidence), the public greeting reads “Remember to put the cover sheet in your TPS reports.” Others on my menu include “Where’s my stapler” and “yeeeeah … welllll … I’m gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there on that one.” Another person at work has his public message right now as “sounds like a case of the Mondays” and others on his menu have included “did you get that memo.” There’s at least a half-dozen people in the newsroom with whom I regularly exchange OFFICE SPACE lines. And it’s not a slam at any particular workplace or supervisor — OFFICE SPACE is golden to anyone who has ever worked in a bureaucracy.

Do the suits at Fox realize what kind of Cult Status all three of Judge’s major works have? All have their own universe of devoted cultists. The rewards come later than opening weekend of course, and they require patience because they depend on word of mouth, so they won’t affect the quarterly balance. But the DVD sales and multiple editions “with flair,” etc. do come and in a veritable torrent by the standards of two, three, or four years later. And it’s not as though Judge’s movies cost $200 million to make. But Fox still can go through the motions for MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND and JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE (info still on the front page at the Fox Movies site) and let’s not forget the upcoming masterpiece THE MARINE starring beefcake model/pro wrestler John Cena. So if THE IDIOCRATS isn’t the absolute indisputable worst movie of the year, or ever, this treatment is absolutely unconscionable.

judge.jpgAnd it’s an insult to the artist who created BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD and OFFICE SPACE and who (most inexplicably of all) has gotten good ratings for Fox TV with his KING OF THE HILL. One wonders why Judge would continue to have a relationship with Fox TV after this shitty treatment. Maybe a key is Judge’s personality, at least as portrayed in this profile in the June issue of Esquire. He doesn’t seem like the intransigent, self-destructive perfectionist, like a Tarkovsky or a Dreyer. I don’t blame him, by any means, and it may very well be that the personality portrayed in Esquire is the beaten-down one of a dog that’s taken one too many whippings. Or at best, he’s triaged THE IDIOCRATS in the hopes that playing ball and not being difficult, things’ll be better next time.

September 4, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

A planned, wanted child

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THE CHILD (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium, 2006, 10)

I made in one of the comboxes below the admittedly counterintuitive point that contraception causes abortion (the contrary relationship is taken as an uncontroversial fact among the Rutting Animals Death Cult). Basically, like any act, contraception presupposes a will willing to engage in it. In other words, it creates the contraceptive mentality, which teaches people that they can and should have sex as a form of recreation untied to marriage and reproduction. The uniting of bodies untied from the uniting of souls. Thus is created “the need for abortion” and the very category “unplanned pregnancy.” Griswold came before Roe, not after, and historically, every country that has accepted contraception as morally indifferent has gone on to do the same for abortion. Every one (even healthy Catholic cultures like Poland and Ireland). And since my problem is one of soulcraft, I am unimpressed by next-state-over or same-time-next-year social science studies. Sure, given the contraceptive mentality and modern sexual morality … higher rates of contraception use will produce fewer abortions. But the “givens” are the problems.

Now, what does that little excursion into Catholic morality have to do with THE CHILD, a small obscure Belgian art film which I think the best movie of the year so far (so, you HAVE to see it, Donna)? It’s not as though I have any reason to think it would win the agreement of the Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, who are among the world’s greatest filmmakers but from all appearances seem like secularized Catholic eurolefties (more on that below).

THE CHILD is now out on home video, so you can now see it even if you don’t live in one of the few US cities that saw the 2005 Palme D’Or winner and thus one of the most-important films in the world for that year (grrr). And hopefully you can see why, though home video hurts THE CHILD more than I might have thought. Like with their last film THE SON (a mere #3 on My Ten best list for that year), this film is spare and has few plot points, at least at the beginning, where the “plot” is mostly contained in minute details of behavior and gesture. Tread carefully.

The austere style of THE CHILD is the familiar Dardennes style. The seemingly hand-held camera constantly follows the protagonists Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah Francois) as they rush through life heedlessly, like young lovers. There is no music score, rather a noisy-but-incredibly-precise natural sound mix — cars on the street, honking horns, passing voices, footsteps, even money being counted. It all produces the brothers’ usual mix of intimacy, immediacy, and (this last a little less so than THE SON) claustrophobia. It’s a mannered style, but it creates an intense, urgent realism — following two people you know. The sky seems constantly overcast, only natural light is used, and the outdoor sound mix emphasizes the wind, so THE CHILD always feels cold. I mean “cold” literally, not in the sense of “emotionally frigid.” You know you’re in the hands of geniuses when you remember what the weather was like in a movie and you felt that weather.

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Unlike the Dardennes’ three previous films, THE CHILD’s opening shot does not introduce us to the main protagonist. Instead, Les Freres Dardennes introduce us to Sonia, carrying Jimmy up an apartment block’s stairs — she’s apparently just out of the hospital. And she finds out that Bruno has sublet the apartment. He needs the money. For a hat. Bruno is a petty criminal who uses the somewhat-older neighborhood children to commit purse grabs, fence goods — whatever he can do to make money. Other than get a job. “Only fuckers work,” he says. And money goes through his fingers like water. When Sonia shows him their baby, he is hardly interested. When she first sees him, she has to call him several times to get his attention. He takes the baby Jimmy in his arms, but look (like in the still attached to this paragraph) where his eyes are pointing — never on his son, whom he holds like one of those baby-sized wrapped salamis, but usually on the latest scam, or playing lookout. Sonia has to remind him to kiss Jimmy goodnight — we’re talking the first day he’s seen his son, now. But in the scenes in the opening act with Bruno and Sonia together, they act like frisky puppies, wike two widdle kids in wuv. Like I noted with THE SON, it is amazing on repeat viewing how much the Dardennes tell you without seeming to tell you. All sorts of motifs are carefully set up — a jacket, a motorcycle ride, a pram, casually tossing away a will from a lockbox, then the lockbox once it’s empty.

Now the SPOILERS come …

But again, like with THE SON, at exactly the moment when the world has been established, the major plot point in THE CHILD happens. Bruno sells Jimmy to a black-market adoption agency. For a lot of money. And for some inexplicable reason, Sonia faints. “We can have another,” he assures her.

Then things get really hairy.

I can’t top Mike D’Angelo’s “at [this] point breathing becomes a luxury” line. That’s because THE CHILD grabs you like an expert wrestler’s choke hold and is about as likely to let you go. The scene of Bruno handing over Jimmy makes as eloquent a case for aesthetic minimalism as I’ve ever seen — the buyers are never seen except in offscreen sounds; the building is deliberately stripped bare; the only image we see in most of the shots is Bruno’s face — nervous, but more from impatience and fear than guilt. The closing hour of this movie is like a nightmare of making the worst mistake you ever made and then running around trying to right that wrong. Bruno is able to get Jimmy back, but now he’s in debt to the baby-smugglers. Sonia has told the cops, so he has to invent a story for them. And try to get back in Sonia’s good graces. While setting up some new crimes. The Dardennes and Renier have done such a great job of creating their world that we actually root for this thoughtless but-now-desperate cretin to get things straightened out. It all comes together in a cops-and-robbers chase scene that puts every Hollywood multimillion superproduction to shame in terms of sheer heart-in-the-throat urgency, and where the decisive protagonist turns out to be the temperature of the water (remember how I noted how “cold” THE CHILD felt? That was deliberate.)

What does all this have to do with contraception? On the surface, nothing at all. The c-word never comes up, any more than “God” does in THE SON. But consider the very simple fact of the film’s central act — selling a baby. Why does Bruno do it? From his perspective, why not? That is one what one does with things, after all — trade them in for cash or a commodity you’d rather have at that moment. I’m not alone in noting that the child is nothing more than a commodity for Bruno, and so he sells it more from diffidence than flambuoyant Snidely Whiplash “Evil.”

From Scott Foundas in Variety:

in the world of “The Child,” everything, even a human being, is potentially salable merchandise.

From Manohla Dargis in the New York Times:

For Bruno, Jimmy has no meaning beyond what he brings on the market.

From Mike D’Angelo in Las Vegas Weekly:

the ruthlessly pragmatic Bruno regards his son as little more than a novel form of currency.

Many others have noted that point — it is not difficult to get. But why is Jimmy a commodity to Bruno? Everything else is a commodity to him, sure, but commodity exchange is older than civilization and not a feature unique to capitalism or euro-socialism. And most people throughout history generally haven’t seen their children as commodities. I’d suggest that Bruno’s final reduction of even human life and the union that produces it to commodity terms is simply the logical end of combining consumerism and sex as just two forms of pleasure-seeking.

The Dardennes are post-Marxists. Though he isn’t well off, Bruno has no class-consciousness and does not reject consumer capitalism. He wants it, and on his own terms — hence his renting an expensive convertible for the day to tool around with Sonia after carefully wedging Jimmy’s child seat into the back (there’s metaphor packed in there). Similarly, Bruno views life not as something sacred and greater than our wills (hence his diffidence toward Sonia and Jimmy), but as one more experience at the same level as any other and thus only explicable and value-able in rationalistic (i.e., commodity) terms. Probably learned from the 60s Generation that we should live for today and don’t worry ’bout tomorrow (“what’s the point of holding onto money?” he says). When I saw THE CHILD for the second time, it was with a friend who had just had his first daughter, and I joked with Mark “so … this makes you wanna sell Fatima.”

In the world of today, parenthood (and thus sex) is no longer a calling, with the religious connotation of that term, but a self-conscious “choice” that, with the language of “lifestyle” and the notion of “planning” parenthood, which is the logic of rationalistic consumer capitalism (“choosy moms choose Jif” and all of that). When a child is a “choice,” then children logically will be treated as the consumer goods that we also choose. When a consumer good is defective, you get rid of it. When you don’t want a consumer good, and act against it, attempts to make you “buy” it are a threat (the high-pressure salesman, say). Value is money. And so when you can trade a good in for more money than it’s worth to you, you’d be a fool not to do it. Hell, “we can have another.”

Very simply, what is missing until the very end and the coda, is love, a true communion of persons (Father Martin Fox explains what this has to do with contraception) — the kind that can bring new life. Bruno can hardly be said to love either Sonia or Jimmy. The only time he says he does is during Sonia’s rage in the second act, when he’s pleading with her to let him back into her apartment. Sonia correctly tells him that “I love you” is just a plea (and in fact it immediately does become a plea that he’s hungry and broke). For Bruno, “love” becomes an action at a very particular later moment which doesn’t actually involve either Sonia or Jimmy — when he dies to self by hampering his chance to get away for the sake of another son, a pre-teen who steals for him. And then, when he gives himself up to the cops. Now, expiation and calvary can begin. As U2 put it “if you wanna kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel.” All of which is why the coda, of Sonia visiting Bruno in jail and a tearful and partial reconciliation, is not a mistake. Like an organist keeping his foot on the pedal, the Dardennes aren’t playing a “tacked-on” new note at all, just extending the last note for one more bar.

This is also the logic of the Dardennes’ other movies — all four of their fiction features widely seen outside Belgium are about people who in the last scene learn to love someone outside themselves (I am somewhat indebted to Father Bryce Sibley for this point apropos of THE SON and LA PROMESSE). In THE SON, it’s coming to forgive a tormentor. In LA PROMESSE, it’s expanding one’s circle of love beyond family to community. In ROSETTA, the look she gives is her first abandonment of total self-reliance. In THE CHILD … well, that’s what the rest of this bloviating has been about. Father Sibley asked me what I knew about the Dardennes’ religious background. “None, as far as I know,” I told him at the time. But here is something very suggestive from an interview the brothers gave Dennis Lim for the Village Voice:

Q: Your films are often parsed as spiritual allegories. Were you raised Christian?
JPD: Yes, a strong Catholic upbringing, until we were in our teens and rejected what our father had imposed on us. But despite the coercive, puritanical elements of religion, our education taught us to acknowledge other people as human beings. We were forbidden to watch TV or movies, though—our father thought they were the devil incarnate.

Jean-Pierre says they’ve fallen away, and I have no reason to disbelieve him per se. But as has been noted with such Anglo-American film-makers as Hitchcock, Capra and DePalma, the Catholic “AfterImage” remains in the Dardennes’ imaginations. One might expect the fallen-away brothers to be repulsed (if they understand English and ever read this) that someone like me loves their movies so much and sees them through the lens I do. But somehow, I think the afterimage in their work is so strong that they might be tickled at having it pointed out to them.

September 4, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

   

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