Toronto 08 — Day 3 capsules
ZIFT (Javor Gardev, Bulgaria, 2008) — 5
Roommate Robert Parks talked me down a bit from my initial skepticism about this black-and-white film, which has weaknesses as plain as a Balkan shit joke. It’s obviously overdone stylewise, it obviously takes the kitchen sink approach. But I don’t think a film this … accomplished, in its way, can be as easily dismissed as Michael Sicinski does. There’s more to ZIFT than post-Commie misogynist Guy-Ritchie posturing. For one thing, I’ve had friends from Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia tell me that broadness, extensive vulgarity and obsession with sex (sample: “instead of using your ass to think with, why not play a patriotic song with it”) is a feature of all Balkan humor — pre-, during- and post-Communism — as opposed to the drier Polish-Czech style of Commie-era humor. Also, Gardev is parodying two different things — film noir and Soviet kitsch — that are both hyperstylized, over the top and covers for brutishness. Soviet kitsch in particular was notorious for not leaving anything to the imagination or un-pounded-in. So surely bluntness is to be expected and even demanded. There’s ideas and ideals here — a kind of brutish pessimism that is in fact also the worldview of film noir — sometimes badly and always baldly done though they may be. For an example of what the film does right, look at the scene where the protagonist prostrates himself before the rebuilt Sofia, right after a confessional encounter in a church (it has the power of Winston Smith learning to love Big Brother). For an example of what the film does wrong, look at the intercutting of a sex scene between two humans and footage of preying-mantis sex, with a voiceover helpfully explaining the linkage. For an example of what the film apparently does wrong but which I can’t dismiss, consider the GILDA song ripoff scene, which features an actress in an identical black dress but who is neither singing nor acting in the sexual way Rita Hayworth was. But who is also singing a different-themed song — “put the blame on the moon” — to a much slower tempo and a different arrangement. Whatever else might be said of that scene, it is not a failed attempt to achieve what Charles Vidor and Rita Hayworth did.
LAST STOP 174 (Bruno Barreto, Brazil, 2008) — 8
I was prepared to dislike this movie as an unnecessary desecration in a world where the great BUS 174 already exists. I wouldn’t have seen it at all had a high-buzz title been playing at this hour. But to paraphrase Chris Berman — This. Is. Why. We. Watch. The. Films. LAST STOP 174 grabbed me and won at least my confidence right away with two crime scenes — one of a baby being stolen by a drug dealer from his junkie mother, the other being a boy finding his mother’s dead body in a restaurant robbery. Both scenes are taut, brutal and without a shred of sentiment. Though I still think BUS 174 is the better film, Barreto and (more importantly, I think) writer Braulio Mantovani find a way to give interest to a fictionalization of hijacker Sandro’s back story: via the Dickensian move of creating two characters named Sandro in the Rio slums and having their fates intersect. Mantovani also wrote CITY OF GOD and the upcoming ELITE SQUAD, making him apparently Brazilian Cinema MVP. And what those three films have in common (and BUS 174 too) and what was absent from LINHA DE PASSE and so many other social-realist slum-set movies, is that Mantovani-written films do not sentimentalize their criminal protagonists: one exhibit being the scene late in LINHA DE PASSE where the criminal brother hijacks a rich Brazilian’s SUV but neither takes the vehicle nor his goods, instead chasing him away (the wuss!!!) after making him answer “do you see me” (and then walking away himself). It’s crime as social protest, which is bovine scatology. Mantovani’s criminals (and policemen) are the product of a brutal world where morality is a vice, but they are also brutal in their own right and by their own choice. “Most criminals are deprived” and “most deprived people are not criminals” are both true statements, but only the first is guaranteed to be remembered in the typical liberal-leaning “poor criminal” movie. Sandro is both a victim and a victimizer — and mostly of people who are just as much victims as himself. My favorite scene in LAST STOP 174 has Sandro rob a minister (BTW: it’s intriguing that in both this fest’s Brazilian movies, religion plays a significant role, and in both cases, it’s evangelical Protestantism, not Catholicism). What this scene understands deep down, and dramatizes, is something that foreign-policy doves will never get — not merely that force works, but that force is a matter of will, not means. One who is not feared can never plausibly threaten. In all these ways, Mantovani, in LAST STOP 174 and elsewhere, gives us “both/and” rather than an uplift of liberal saccharin.
FLAME AND CITRON (Ole Christian Madsen, Denmark, 2008) — 4
Now to completely contradict myself — I think this film is a thinned-down rehash of BLACK BOOK, but one that manages to drag out and overstay its welcome. It goes on about 20 minutes too long, stringing out the set pieces and confrontations — was one thing about the last scene involving Citron believable?, was how they managed to escape a Danish police roundup believable? But the specifics surrounding Carice Van Houten’s performance and “insider” role at Gestapo HQ are set aside, FLAME AND CITRON centering instead on its eponymous central characters, both assassins for the Danish Resistance. But other than that, the elements are the same: compromised Resistance figures, not-so-bad Germans, botched or incompetent Resistance actions. It’s often effective, mind you. But the physical contrast between the two assassins comes across as too cutesy, like Mutt and Jeff, when it’s actually realized on the screen. One general point worth making about films today. During the post-film Q-and-A, Madsen said he doesn’t like “heroes unsprinkled” with flaws, and that he wanted to show heroes not acting heroically. Prescinding from the specific example of the WW2 resistance used here and in BLACK BOOK … is there anything more commonplace, easier, less brave and more cliche in this day and age than that sort of “sprinkling” of heroism, demythologizing the past, showing hero’s flaws, etc. It long since ceased to impress me, per se. “There’s no just or unjust any more, only war” is one line too many.
HUNGER (Steve McQueen, Britain, 2008) — 9
More than any other film here — good, bad or indifferent — I am curious how well this film will do on US screens. It’s a Northern Ireland “Troubles” movie, about the 1981 hunger strike by IRA terrorist Bobby Sands, and that genre usually manages to pull them in. But HUNGER is also a stylistically eccentric movie, albeit a brilliant one. For one example, it starts with a prison guard for about 2-3 minutes, who brings us to one IRA prisoner whom HUNGER follows for about 3-5 minutes, who joins another IRA man for the movie to follow the two of them for the next 15 minutes or so. Then we get a scene involving a bunch of the terrorists, which, apparently incidentally, produces our first glimpse of Sands, perhaps 25-30 minutes into the movie. For another, the first act (and this film segments itself into three acts as clearly as anything not involving a curtain ever has) has very little dialogue, but then the second act is like a free-standing one-act play between two characters who sit at a table and talk, for what feels like 20-30 minutes. And then we get the third act, which is the hunger strike that is the film’s selling point (finally). It’s a constant pleasure, though it’s not a conventional one, to follow a movie that you can’t figure out and aren’t ten steps ahead of, even when you already know the basic story as I do. Visually, the film is simply astonishing and confident in ways few first-time directors are. A quick example from the very beginning: we see a man eat his breakfast, not from the usual POV but via a closeup of crumbs falling on his lap napkin, with the sound of toast crunching on the soundtrack. OK, that avoids cliche, but more importantly, by using such a low view early, it sets up and makes it not an affectation the “rat’s eye POV” for a scene a minute later where it’s absolutely essential psychologically. The sequence and juxtaposition, more than the angles per se, show McQueen has “seen” and “heard” his movie before he made it (his expressive use of sound is simply sensational throughout).
Other reasons I like HUNGER so much: (1) similar to my praise for LAST STOP 174, are that it neither pushes the easy-but-false Troubles-history buttons that never fail to aggravate me nor does it sentimentalize the IRA (the few scenes outside Maze prison should disabuse all the Irish pub bravado of North Americans); (2) the feces-smeared prison walls are made into works of abstract expressionism, which is both inherently visually arresting but also dramatically believable (what else can guys with nothing else to occupy them do once they’ve decided to desecrate the walls that way); (3) while it isn’t an apologia for rubber-hose tactics, HUNGER makes it quite clear how difficult they are to avoid, most particularly in a scene of barbering, when dealing with determinedly obstreperous prisoners (and thus how stupidly demagogic it is to show a picture and point); (4) the second act consists of a lengthy semi-debate between Sands and a priest-friend (we’ve already learned that these “Catholic” terrorists are hardly religious) that shows the priest giving as good as he gets while realizing at the end that some things are not in his hands. But at the same time, the scene shows McQueen (here’s that concept again) having the directorial confidence to turn this film over to his two actors, if that’s what is required, and not try to tart it up for the sake of showing off. And like the directorial choices above, it reinforces our confidence in him, that when he’s being showy, he’s not doing it to show off.
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