Toronto – Day 2 – capsules
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.