Rightwing Film Geek

Toronto 08 — Day 10 grades

ADAM’S RESURRECTION (Paul Schrader, USA, 2008) — 3
EDEN LOG (Franck Vestiel, France, 2008) — 5
WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU (Brian Goodman, USA, 2008) — 6
CHOCOLATE (Pracha Pinkaew, Thailand, 2008) — 7

September 15, 2008 Posted by | TIFF 2008 | Leave a comment

Toronto 08 — Day 7 capsules (part 1)

(Because Day 7’s six capsules included the two longest and most involved by far, I decided to break the day into two parts for blog readability’s sake.)

HAPPY GO-LUCKY (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2008) — 8

Very early on, central character “Poppy” gets the ultimate symbol of cinematic misery imposed on her — her bicycle is stolen. But her only visible reaction is to make Italian lemonade, saying she “didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to it.” And the title sequence — both in its choice of music and its frame-shifting strategies — put me in mind of one of those Doris Day romantic comedies from the early-60s. So, Sally Hawkins as the titular HG-L High-On-Life heroine Poppy is a bit of a “dafty” or a “doo-lally-sally” who speaks without thinking (a type I was quite familiar with among working-class Britons). Mike says his reaction was repulsion at her relentless chipperness followed by an exercise in Leigh chastising his audience for being so repulsed. I had the almost perfectly 180-degree reaction — that we don’t find her offputting so much as unrealistic and un-grown-up (more on all that shortly), and that the film is about pushing her to the point where she finally has to … I will speak vaguely … use force, impose herself and act like an adult.

The central relationship in the film turns out to be between Poppy and her driving instructor Scott, played by Eddie Marsan, and I think one’s reaction to HAPPY GO-LUCKY turns on how one reacts to this character. Four or five lengthy scenes in this episodic movie involving Poppy and him in the car. Scott is a boor in many respects, and by the end he’s completely gone off the rails, partially as a result of starting to fall in love with Poppy, who represents everything he detests. But mixed in with some of the bizarre rants (my favorite involved tinfoil-hat talk about the height of the Washington Monument), he says some uncomfortably true things about Poppy — the only character in HAPPY GO-LUCKY to do so, in fact: “all I ask is that you behave like an adult,” he rants at her after one of her do-lally jokes while driving. And by the end of HAPPY GO-LUCKY, Poppy has had to use force and threat against him, had to act in the “toughlove” way the therapeutic society rejects as patriarchal violence. I think Leigh has made a movie about the damage from the collapse of patriarchy (though as I acknowledged to Mike in a personal discussion, if he did so, he did so almost certainly inadvertantly). There is a discussion involving Poppy and her girlfriends in which they note there are no good men around, or if they are they’re hiding or “haven’t got the balls” to appear. And indeed, there is not an attractively effectual male in this movie — Marsan’s anger representing pre-therapy masculinity in a post-therapy world; Poppy’s brother-in-law, a childlike father-to-be who seeks or subverts his wife’s permission to play video games; Popp’s pupil who bullies the other kids because he’s abused at home by his mother’s live-in boyfriend; that (offscreen) boyfriend, who is not the child’s father, natch; the (offscreen) lover of the flamenco dancer. The only possibly attractive male character is Poppy’s late-acquired boyfriend Tim. The problem dramatically is that Samuel Roukin’s performance and/or Leigh’s conception of the character, while not bad per se, is utterly bland and uninteresting in the presence of dynamos like Scott and Poppy. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is a (kind of) romantic triangle, but with one iddy-biddy teeny-tiny leg (imagine a HIS GIRL FRIDAY in which Ralph Bellamy gets Roz Russell — only more so). On the other hand, if Tim is intended to represent a “happy ending” in this respect, then Leigh also badly miscalculated the ideas he was playing with. To put it simply and crudely, if traditional masculinity has collapsed, then a social worker who fornicates on the first date is only more of the same.

But there are flaws in this generally great film (I haven’t even mentioned the funniest scene — involving Poppy’s taking flamenco lessons from a dance instructor who really gets INTO the dance’s emotions), and they are Leigh returning to his some of the tics that drag down even his best films. After making the best-acted film of his career in VERA DRAKE, the one-scene really-overcooked wtf? performance makes its return — a rambling homeless man in this case, joining the guy who never opened his eyes in CAREER GIRLS at head of the Hall of Shame. And the anti-climactic coda that half-heartedly reconciles the last scene with the status quo antebellum (think LIFE IS SWEET, ALL OR NOTHING or SECRETS AND LIES) also makes a comeback. And while I think Marsan’s performance is brilliant, I well understand that some sane people (see Mike above but also Michael Sicinski) see the performance as way over-the-top. Which it is in a way, but does not account for how carefully it builds from one week’s lesson to the next, as his own motivation shifts. We’re seeing the all-heterosexual version of Gay Panic on display here, and subtlety is not what’s called for.

A CHRISTMAS TALE (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008) — 8

The actual title for this film could just as easily and accurately be translated “A Christmas Story,” but anybody who expects anything resembling Ralphie’s boyhood memories will be disappointed. This is the family gathering from hell. A passive-aggressive (but not too passive) matriarch with an anti-Semitic streak¹ to boot is dying of some form of cancer that requires a transplant, and the only compatible donor in the family is the semi-estranged son, until one of her grandchildren turns out to be compatible, too. That grandchild is of course the son of another sibling, a woman who despises her mom-compatible-in-this-way-only brother, and this is both a literal bone of contention and a metaphor for all the bones strewn about this graveyard of a family (and one of the most important characters in this family dynamic is in a literal graveyard.) There are other family members gathering for the Christmas reunion, all of whom resent the other family members (or hate one or two in particular), and lots of brittle bitchiness ensues. A CHRISTMAS TALE is enormously entertaining along those lines, like ALL ABOUT EVE or something by Baumbach or Stillman. But what keeps A CHRISTMAS TALE from greatness, though it is my favorite Desplechin so far and is superb in every aspect of execution, is that this is a family that fundamentally is happy in its unhappiness. It doesn’t really feel like much is at stake, as all the characters are content to go through their motions, having found their bitchiness groove. The punches don’t land or are soft, in other words. Leigh makes many more mistakes in HGL than Desplechin does, but despite the same 8-grade, I found his film more vital and intellectually arresting. And one late plot point is literally straight out of ST. ELMO’S FIRE and the reaction of [Ally Sheedy] is, though different here, scarcely more believable.

But this review is already sounding too negative, so let me backtrack to “superb in every aspect of execution.” Desplechin gives the film an elegiac feel with faded pictures and such old-time devices as iris shots, and with choices of details like a harpsichord on the score during a key make-out scene. He uses extra-cinematic devices like (1) family members reading letters to one another to the camera, as if they’re pleading for others (i.e., us) to side with them in family quarrels; (2) having the kids stage a Zorro play, during which every cut to the other family members in the audience draws blood; and most memorably (3) revealing the family backstory via a puppet show. And Desplechin may be inviting us to take a jaundiced view of the very “family reunion haunted by ghosts from the past” genre and narrative, through a character reading aloud from the preface of Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals,” to the effect that seeking after oneself can get in the way of genuine knowledge (though Nietzsche was speaking of “we knowers,” which it’s not clear that anyone in A CHRISTMAS TALE or its audience would be).

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Danny Boyle, Britain/India, 2008) — 4

I dropped a couple of films (neither of which I was terribly interested in) for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE based on strong buzz from Telluride — and what a crushing disappointment, made more crushing in recent days by this film’s winning the Audience Favorite Award (since Toronto is not a juried fest, this is its biggest prize). The central character is poor Bombay slum kid Jamal, who manages to reach the final question on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” leading to suspicion he cheated. The movie cuts between his life story and that TV episode, which each biography chapter explaining how he came into possession of a certain bit of knowledge that enabled him to answer a Millionaire question. Of course, once you’re aware of this gimmick, the film becomes as predictable as a litany and about as entertaining. In fact … it’s worse. Lots of films begin with their conclusions, but (often) in order to lead us along a journey that is the real point of the picture. In the best such cases (my first viewing of SUNSET BOULEVARD), we even forget we’re watching flashbacks to a conclusion we already know. But the structure in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE spoils even that possibility, because every sequence along the way has to lead us back to the end, intermittently throughout. There are absurdities aplenty in the appearances and reapparances of The Girl and in the film’s never actually explaining HOW he got on the show in the first place (particularly if he is as uneducated as portrayed). Even as a picaresque, Jamal’s life story is absurdly … well … representative, as if Jamal is supposedly a cross-section signifier embodying everything important about India. His experience covers Bollywood, anti-Muslim pogroms, working at a call center, the Taj Mahal (though Agra is more than 700 miles from Bombay). And the final scenes had me spitting contempt at the screen — not because it ends happily (nobody could expect otherwise) but because, (1) I knew what the question would be right from the beginning of the film when it first comes up (and it is not believable that *this* question would be the final question on Millionaire; it’s at pre-32,000 level, even for India); (2) the plot twist that allows Jamal to answer the next-to-last question is completely, no-way-no-how-Im-buying-it unbelievable, and (3) even if it were to be the case, “Regis” would know better than to act as he does onscreen. It’s pure writerly contrivance from beginning to end. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE begins with the four-choice question something like “how did he get this far on MILLIONAIRE — he cheated, he was lucky, he was a genius, or it was written.” The answer the film gives us at the end is D, which is certainly true, but not quite in the sense that I think the film meant.
¹ Linguistic aside question #1: For anybody who speaks French — was “my little Jew” ever the ordinary French term for the elbow phenomenon we call a “funny bone” in English?

September 15, 2008 Posted by | Arnaud Desplechin, Danny Boyle, Mike Leigh, TIFF 2008 | 3 Comments

Toronto 08 — Day 7 capsules (part 2)

LES PLAGES D’AGNES (Agnes Varda, France, 2008) — 6

The genre of autobiographical reminiscence, particularly a film in which the autobiographer appears frequently onscreen, can often collapse into preciousness or self-indulgence. This one mostly doesn’t, partly because Varda herself has such an engaging, attractive personality, but also because the theme here is of obsolescence, including one’s own (Varda’s charm prevents the latter from collapsing into whinging like Terence Davies does in OF TIME AND THE CITY). Not only is the beach the very image of something that erodes, but Varda gets a neat structuring metaphor by ending segments by facing the camera and walking away, backwards. She also constantly frames photos within the photo of itself (see the original MEMENTO video box for a sense of what I mean). Both devices specifically situate the film as a backwards trip in time about memory. Varda visits shooting scenes from her films (shameful confession: I’ve only seen CLEO FROM 5 TO 7) and key places in her life and memories, and she recreates some of both. The re-creations make clear that LES PLAGES D’AGNES is a semi-absurdist cinematic riff on the theme of “you can’t go home again”: (1) her childhood home is now in the hands of an investor in model train sets; (2) she has children re-enact scenes their parents did in her first film LA POINTE COURTE; (3) the re-created scenes often have transparently fake “sets” and “props” (the Citroen 2CV that Varda is shown “driving” is hilarious); (4) she re-creates a beach in the middle of the street. The funniest moments in the film belong to Chris Marker (to say more would spoil the utter originality of the appearance by the famously reclusive director).

Varda also portrays herself as the woman who wasn’t there, joshing that her family was out in the country the day Paris was liberated and that she was in Los Angeles in May 1968. She also plays up her old-fashionedness, bordering on obsolence in several ways. She buys a Liege plate for the Dardenne brothers at a junk sale, shares clips from a film about “Mr. Cinema” as someone dying and ignored, and portrays herself at the end, without self-pity, as literally living in the world of cinema, i.e., in a house whose walls consists of strips of film hung like a door curtain.

But Varda’s living in the world of cinema puts some 900-pound elephants in the room that she completely skips over and which prevent me from embracing PLAGES fully. Varda mentions, and does so entirely en passant, how she went off to China in the 1950s to photograph Mao’s peasant revolution, and then went to Cuba in the early 60s to do the same for Castro’s sugar-cane harvest. If she has ever had a second thought about either odious regime, she hid it completely. In a genre other than autobiographical reminiscence, silence about one’s past sins is usually appropriate. Not in this film. And not in a film that specifies how “shameful” was the deportation of France’s Jews by the Vichy regime. Since Varda doesn’t even attempt an apologia for doing her trips, cluelessness on her part that there might be legitimate issues to address is the only rational explanation. Particularly since Varda also takes pains to make clear how radical are her own pro-abortion views¹ — she not only signed a famous “I had an abortion” manifesto in 1971, but she contemporaneously denounces anyone “who would judge” any such woman.

REVANCHE (Gotz Spielmann, Austria, 2008) — 9

WARNING: Many spoilers — I tried, and wrote a bit vaguely in places. But there was no way to discuss this film and its themes without largely telling what happens and perhaps spoiling some of the effect.

The first shot of REVANCHE is of calm water, suddenly disturbed by what looks like a stone being thrown into it, creating ripples. This is the final decisive act in the film, we learn later. REVANCHE is like a mirror remake of a certain modern classic, only the trajectory happens to a criminal rather than to a cop and don’t click here to learn what modern classic I’m thinking of if you don’t want REVANCHE spoiled, or at least diminished. One of the greatest pleasures of REVANCHE for me, knowing very little about it, was that for the first 30-40 minutes or so, it seemed to be a crime movie set in the world of Vienna prostitution. There’s a graphic early sex scene that I feel obliged to warn about for reasons that soon will be obvious given the terms on which I’m recommending this film. But then after the central crime the film had been heading toward, it went in a completely different direction and came out as one of the most spiritually profound movies (the German tagline means “whose fault is it if life doesn’t go your way”) and among the best directed and acted I’ve seen in recent years. To compare the world’s best-known Austrian director, REVANCHE has Haneke’s trenchant moralism without his determinism.

Johannes Kirsch plays Alex, a petty criminal whose boss runs the whore house where his secret Russian girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko) also works. They both want out of the life and so he plans a bank robbery. I’m gonna talk vaguely, but I have to give away some details, so consider yourself warned. The robbery is botched and Alex takes refuge on the family farm with his father, a traditional old man who says his son, who already has served time, had ruined himself by going off to the big city. While hiding, Alex learns of a local cop Robert (Andreas Lust), with whom he has done business, lives in the next farm over with his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), whom Alex wants for a complicated set of motives. Those are the basic plot elements and you can start reading again.

REVANCHE bears some resemblance to FARGO: wood chopping plays a role and a wild sex scene ends with a cut to something banal and routine. But most importantly, both plots play out in a way that leaves the MacGuffin completely out of the picture. Nobody alive at the end of FARGO knows where the ransom is or even that there is money to be found; only one character alive at the end of REVANCHE knows the whole story of the principal love-triangle relationship. And that character becomes maybe the unlikeliest Christ-figure you’ll ever see in a movie, if for no better reason that the character is never especially set up as One, isn’t sinless at all, and because the burden of carrying the sins of all becomes not a burden instead something as beautiful as life itself (a couple of days ago was the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross).

Nor is that analogy “Victor reading his ideas into the film” as I’m quite prepared to admit about what I said on HAPPY GO-LUCKY in the post above may well be. More than any other movie I can think of, REVANCHE is filled with signifiers of religion, but as a part of ordinary lived experience rather than as the subject matter per se, present everywhere but visible nowhere. Alex’s father has a Sacred Heart portrait and a memorial prayer card for his dead wife on the wall; crucifixes and crosses are part of the ordinary adornment, even in a bank; characters pray at appropriate moments (the devout often, the not-so when in crisis); and the last shot of the film has trees sagging with fruit (a biblical metaphor par excellance, particularly considering what we just learned). The religious imagery is also used dramatically in obviously deliberate ways. For one example, Alex’s elderly father says he is confident he will soon (meaning, in Heaven) meet his wife, who is the subject of the memorial prayer card on the wall, and then Spielmann cuts to a photo of someone Alex has lost. But without the religious context of the other photo, all he can think about is revenge.² For another example, in one scene, the camera follows a character riding a motorcycle along a twisty road through an Austrian forest, and then when the road reaches a sharp right-turn-only point, coincidentally(?) at a crucifix, the motorcycle goes on but the camera stays to contemplate. At that site, the central plot point happens. The way the plot is eventually resolved removes all doubt about the fundamentally religious orientation of REVANCHE — the resolution is not a shootout, but rather two appeals to conscience, one made wittingly and one unwittingly: the unwitting one eventually being the more powerful because it urged the listener to stand outside himself and not just listen to his feelings, however real they may be as feelings. The unwitting one also, by indirection, demonstrates that even revenge itself requires a moral context, a moral justification to be coherent. I.e., there’s a reason, however bad, to kill the man who murdered a family member; there’s no reason to kill somebody over an accident that was one’s own fault in the first place.

Spielmann’s direction isn’t as flashy or obviously “direction” as Haneke’s but it’s perfect in its own way, as a simple knack for making the right choices. When a woman asks her policeman husband about events at work that we’ve already seen, the cop has his back and head toward us, while the wife is turned toward us, at maybe a quarter-profile. The conversation goes on for about maybe a minute , but without a cut because there’s no dramatic need to see the cop’s face (it also emphasizes his grief-shame) since the drama in this scene at this point in the movie is on her face. Mike also has already talked about Alex’s wood-chopping scenes, which take place while a buzzsaw is running. The aggression in the ax wielding, combined with the noise of the whirring (though let’s just say the buzzsaw is not used like the wood chipper in FARGO is), is as if Alex is making a substance of menacing sexual anger (he even smokes a cigarette after one series of swings). And … spoiler warning … that menace comes into being in a scene played out in shadow with the lights off. A scene of sex as angry revenge, and there’s exquisite irony, on multiple levels,³ in what happens from that encounter.

MARTYRS (Pascal Laugier, France, 2008) — 0

Yeah Alex, I probably shoooda known better. And Wazowski, you’re about two points too generous. This is a vile, ugly movie that stains the soul of anyone who sees it and especially those who apparently enjoyed it. Seeing it with the Midnight Madness audience that was whooping it up when it did was profoundly and deeply dispiriting. I think MARTYRS, or rather the approving reaction it won, officially ends my interest in Midnight Madness, at least with respect to horror films (comedies and martial-arts films are still A-OK). MARTYRS is a movie that very early on shows a character massacring a family of four with a shotgun and when the last “kill” was made (against a victim for whom it was impossible for the killer to have any grievance), the audience applauded wildly at this pornographic climax that they were getting off to themselves. Then later, when it turns out that one of the victims wasn’t really dead, the killer goes on a rampage with a hammer and crushes the skull. And I don’t mean “breaks”; I mean “crushes,” complete with breaks, squishes, further blows, more breaks, more squishes. It’s over, the woman on top is panting, and the Ryerson audience starts cheering again, getting off on its own brutalism. Of course the massacre that occupies much of the first half of the film takes place on a rainy day, to give the fanboys boner-inducing views of the two central characters, both women, running in their wet T-shirts. Then, when the killer in the first part (an abuse victim) is killed, her friend (who helped cover things up) becomes the central character and MARTYRS becomes even more distasteful, subjecting her to a series of tortures that end with her being surgically flayed. Not content with pornographic violence as victim-reversal empowerment, MARTYRS turns to pornographic violence as an empty ritual, at the end tarted up as a scientific study of religious ecstasy. She’s tied up a metal machine that forces her into a crucifix pose and at the climactic flaying, the camera goes inside her eye for the light show from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or for Heaven or for something. “Since there is no god, we can only study the effects of martyrdom through deliberately meaningless pain” is the point, I guess. When the “heroine” whispers her insights on what she saw to the scientist in charge of the experiment, the scientist kills herself rather than repeat it. The final title card defines a martyr (correctly) as a witness. Yes, but a witness to what? Imagine St. Paul responding to the road to Damascus by killing himself for a sense of how blasphemous the ending would be if it were possible to take this piece-of-shit film at all seriously. One more thing: The scientist’s apologia early in her involvement says that since there is now so much suffering, people can no longer be moved by it, which had me rolling my eyes as a description of today, particularly in the wealthy-West context of this movie. In fact, the opposite might make a more-provocative and at least not absurd-on-its-face claim: that “torture porn” is so prevalent because Americans and Europeans live such insulated suffering-free lives and consider that our right.
¹ While the fact there are separate issues surrounding the legal status of the act, issues that might make “pro-choice” at least not incoherent on its face as a political stance, when one says that nobody should even judge an act, he is objectively saying that the act is a good thing. Hence “pro-abortion” is the accurate term.
² Linguistic aside question #2: For anybody who speaks German — what is the ordinary German word for “revenge.” Several times in the film I heard “Rache,” which I knew from Sherlock Holmes “A Study in Scarlet.” But I never heard “Revanche,” though some-but-not-all online German dictionaries (and my hard copy) all list it as meaning “revenge.” Is it obsolete, a foreign-to-German affectation or something else?
³ Linguistic aside question #3: For anybody who speaks German, does the phrase “shooting blanks” have both the meanings it does in English — the literal “unloaded gun” and the metaphoric “male infertility or impotence.”

September 15, 2008 Posted by | Agnes Varda, Gotz Spielmann, Pascal Laugier, TIFF 2008 | 2 Comments