TIFF Capsules — Day 10
CALIFORNIA DREAMIN, Cristian Nemescu, Romania — 6
Of the four recent Romanian films I’ve seen, this is the one that comes closest in style and tone to the East European black-comedies of the 60s (Munk, Forman, Menzel, etc.) — a bureaucratic snafu, an arbitrary decision-maker, allegorical plot, a lot of people waiting around, and establishing a temporary idyll while “the papers are being processed” offstage. With a group of American soldiers trapped in Romanian Nowheresville on their way to Kosovo, you get a range of reactions and interactions, all of them at least bordering on the cynical. I was also floored by the black-and-white flashback to the 40s, which explains exactly why some of the people behave as they do. Compared to the northern part of ex-Commie Europe though, Balkan humor, or at least the behavior of the characters, is a bit less dry and bit more blustery. DREAMIN is a funny delight, but it just went on for too long for the premise and the episodic structure eventually wore out its welcome. I can’t help but think Nemescu would have tightened it up some if he hadn’t been killed in a car accident.
ANGEL, Francois Ozon, Britain/France — 8
I may need to take another look at Todd Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN, to which I had a decidedly mixed reaction, because I so thoroughly enjoyed this movie, which succeeds on exactly the terms that HEAVEN’s fans say it did. A sort of female bildungsroman about a teenage dreamer who becomes a writer of cheap romances and then Britain’s biggest literary star, ANGEL isn’t in any way a parody or a pastiche or a travesty of the 30s/40s woman’s picture. It is simply an example of it, a re-creation of it — outdated conventions and all (complaining about the obvious rear-projection, as does the lead review on the IMDb as I write this, utterly misses the point). And given the subject matter and the central character, this is an entirely appropriate stylistic choice. Like Blanche DuBois, Angel doesn’t want realism, she wants magic. ANGEL is in color — a garish and stylized look by contemporary standards; not so much by the standards of the color available in the 30s, but Ozon is at least nodding in that direction. But in every other respect, you can imagine MGM of the 30s putting out this movie, with Norma Shearer or Joan Crawford or Greer Garson in the lead (even to the lead actress being too old for the early, teenager scenes). You can hear the ghosts of Franz Waxman or Dmitri Tiomkin on the extravagantly romantic, mostly-strings score. The honeymoon is presented in a montage of “around the world” scenography (obvious back-projection again). The sets are deliberately opulent (per the “Tiffany studio” rep) to the point of unbelievable if ANGEL were in any way trying to be realistic or even contemporary, but which by their very stand-out quality, sustain both the illusion of a re-creation and the reflection of a soul who doesn’t want realism. In the same vein, what makes Romola Garai’s performance in the central role so awesome is that she stakes out her own ground within this stylized genre. Garai in no way imitates Bette Davis or some of her particular mannerisms. She simply acts herself but in a manner that recalls Davis, and her character is as much a self-centered dynamic asshole as anything Davis ever created. Like Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE, Garai is clearly having a ball playing an unredeemed bitch in the early scenes and then, when the character starts to suffer as the genre demands, she’s just as self-assured in her pleadings. There is simply no substitute for conviction.
THE SUN ALSO RISES, Jiang Wen, China — 5
When you start training in submission wrestling or jiu-jitsu, the first thing you’re told is that submitting or “tapping out” is part of the game. If you’re caught, you’re caught; and “only wimps submit” is not an attitude you can take. In the analogous spirit in the matter of film criticism … I now must tap out to a sunk-in arm bar. I wimpishly admit that I have no effing idea what this movie is about. It’s got something to do with the Cultural Revolution, and there are stretches of 10 or 15 minutes when it almost makes sense. There seem to be a couple of plot lines, one involving a professor and a film screening of Maoist propaganda, and another involving a crazy mother who climbs trees. I almost hope that Jiang just made it deliberately obscure in order to confound the Chi-Com censors. What makes SUN tolerable is that it’s so gorgeous to look at — the high-contrast images with the colors saturated up to 11 (especially on the orange-red, as if the whole film was shot at Roland Garros tennis stadium). It’s also often quite funny or bizarre (particularly in the mother character, throwing sheep down trees). But seeing SUN was like watching a coloratura opera in another language, without titles, without having read the book. You admire the virtuosity for a while and remind yourself to “read the book next time.” But in the end, you can’t embrace it.
MY WINNIPEG, Guy Maddin, Canada — 8
The key word here is “my.” This is the most humorously self-absorbed “City Symphony” movie since Fellini’s ROMA, and any resemblance between this film and the actual capital of Manitoba is purely coincidental and quite probably actionable (“10 times the suicide rate of any place in the world”? Really?) I was stunned when I saw on the credits that the Documentary Channel had helped finance this film — eccentric, brilliant and side-splittingly funny though it is. Some of the history recounted has a basis in fact — but everything in Maddin’s hands becomes raw material for his wack imagination, maybe the greatest comic mind working in the movies now. For example, I have no doubt that some sort of accident at a Winnipeg racetrack really did kill some horses. I rather doubt that the horses fell into the river, instantly freezing them to death. And I’m positive that the frozen-in-death heads did not remain above ice all winter and become a kind of decorative statuary attraction for Winnipegers. In this, MY WINNIPEG is like the greatest ever segment of David Letterman’s “Brush with Greatness” — absurd comic embellishments off real events that we’re not supposed to believe, but told with a straight face because it’s so much more enjoyable that way. In a similar vein, this gives a reason for the use of the usual Maddin style — a fevered, impressionistic look, silent footage (a copious voiceover narration here, though) and a “looks 70 years old” quality. It’s part of the “straight face,” given how old some of the history is. Maddin also makes the film intensely personal, after his fashion, by re-creating certain episodes of his 60s Winnipeg childhood, but
his now 80-something mom playing herself (not so, though this is what is said during the film; see comments), hired actors playing the others in his family. And using a chihuahua to play the family’s boxer-pup (or was it the other way around). And remembering the world’s most absurd TV show (to describe it would spoil it) — “The Pride of Winnipeg.” Writing this capsule, I’m already starting to convince myself I’ve underestimated MY WINNIPEG. One complaint though: there was not a single mention of Winnipeg’s second-greatest artists, the Crash Test Dummies, so stunned that I left the theater asking myself “Hmmmmm?”
JUST LIKE HOME, Lone Sherfig, Denmark — 3
I want to finish this quickly, so I can get to some of the posts and updates I’ve put off. So it’s hardly worth mentioning this completely forgettable sitcom, which, if it hadn’t been in Danish (or at least not in English), would never grace an important international film festival. The minute you see that one of the characters is an uptight Christian virgin, the only question is “whom will she bed by the movie’s end?” This being Scandinavia, it can be literally anyone for all it matters. This also being Scandinavia, she and the rest of the women will also get a chance to see every man in town naked.