Toronto — Day 4 — capsules
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).
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.
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.
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.
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