Rightwing Film Geek

Toronto capsules — Day 2

LikeYouKnow

LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 5)

I’ve only seen four Hong films and he’s starting to come across to me as a specialist — a man who knows more and more about less and less. Which is often fine with me (see Tsai capsule next), except that I didn’t get any sense from this movie of what was the take-away — why am I watching THIS set of variations, THIS riff off the familiar Hong chord. We have a bifurcated story, the second half repeating the first, centering on a self-centered jerk male. Only here he’s a commercially unsuccessful film director, and that gives the film snap for a while — the first half is set at a festival where he’s (lackadaisically) judging, and the second on a lecture to a film class at his old college (equally lazy). Hong’s stylistic chops — a less rigorous variant of the master-shot style, with judicious use of pans and zooms — are there, and the film is often quite funny, albeit less so than NIGHT AND DAY, about the protagonist’s cluelessness. There’s an uncomfortably hilarious scene that becomes twice as funny when Hong reveals it’s a dream. But the story collapses too much into self-indulgence that feels like autobiography and edging some into exhibitionism. There’s no real payoff other than “this guy’s a dick” and “wow, he sure seems like a Hong selfportrait.”

Face

FACE (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 8)

A return to form for Tsai in my opinion, though I understand why it got critically savaged at Cannes — I can see a French reaction of “how impertinent” to a movie where a Taiwanese bids his own country farewell, tries to assimilate himself into French cinema, and implies that the greats of French cinema are without honor in their own country. Ironically, a buddy I talked to that day said, not prompted by this movie, that French youth today know about their country’s cinematic past, but not its present — ‘you mention Desplechin or Assayas or Chereau, and they draw a blank.”) To reverse INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, France is no longer a country where they respect great film artists. Fanny Ardant is first seen trapped behind metal gates and then at a graveyard; Jean-Pierre Leaud is a sleeping bum at that same graveyard; there us a scene where Ardant, Nathalie Baye and Jeanne Moreau appear at a banquet without knowing who invited them, just the three of them there, and nothing happening; and another actress obsessively black-tapes first her window and then her mirror, shutting out the world and then herself until there are just two tiny dots of light on the black screen (and then these are methodically taped over). Tsai also indicates an intent to leave Taiwan behind by returning to the family of his last half-French movie WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? — fish tank and all. That 2002 film started with the death of alter-ego Lee Kang-sheng’s father, and here Tsai kills off the mother. In addition, the musical numbers in this movie are now European, and Tsai tries to graft himself onto French cinema in other ways — Ardant reads a book on Truffaut sitting next to the mourning portrait of the mother; Leaud and Lee have a conversation of nothing but auteur names as a bird flips between the two men’s fingers; and Mathieu Amalric has a typically awkward Tsaiesque gay scene with Lee.

The film is a bit too long IMHO. The first hour is incredibly funny — Lee Kang-sheng vs. a water faucet is never not hilarious. But the second half drags with some material that just seems weird, though not in ways unfamiliar to Tsai devotees (I can’t imagine this movie appealing to any but his current fans — it’s too hermetic and self-involved). You have a woman making out with Lee through plastic tarp and covered with tomatoes, Lee looking at a lesbian three-way while trapped in a bathtub, a man with a face completely bandaged over except for the nostrils, and a dead woman reappearing to eat fruit. And if you ever wanted to see Fanny Ardant lug around a stuffed deer head, you may never get another chance.

Tsai also updates his signature style somewhat, as if trying to adapt to the jazzier, more free-form French New Wave style — though understand that every statement that follows in this graf is strictly relative — this is still Asian Master Shot style. *But* … Tsai’s shot length is shorter in this movie than it ever has been; he actually tracks his camera for the first time I think ever (though there’s a break-the-4th-wall joke in that shot); he pans slightly two or three times; and he does a lot more with exposures, misleading angles, mirrors, complex image composition, multiple layers and internal framing, and other camera tricks than he usually does. For the man who practically defines Degree Zero style, this is a very loosely styled movie.

Alas it ends unhappily (and this is not a spoiler) … the last shot returns to the scene of the last shot of WHAT TIME? That earlier movie got the biggest animal laugh ever … a fish hits the high point of the comic-anticipation arc. This time, by the end, there’s only Tsai trying helplessly to get Lee to have a deer hit its cue.

IfIKnew

IF I KNEW WHAT YOU SAID (Mike Escareal Sandejas, Philippines, 3)

After a morning with Hong and Tsai, I thought I might want something light and frothy. I decided a musical might be fun, and I’ve never seen a Filipino movie of any kind (sorry, Froilan). Alas, there are standards even for froth and this film is just amateurish in every way. I understand that quick shooting on video is SOP in the Philippines. But there have been a few advances in the technical state of video in recent years; this film looks like video ca. 2000, i.e., looks like ass. (Except when it looks like recent Michael Mann night scenes, albeit without thematic or aesthetic point and still mystifying when the other scenes all have that blurry-mud background.) As for the music and dancing … let’s just say Bollywood isn’t anxiously looking over its shoulder. Heck, Disney theme parks aren’t looking over their shoulder … though perhaps they should because the closest aesthetic comparison I can make to this movie is a Disney afternoon series — about a tamely delinquent teenage girl sent to a deaf camp to avoid school expulsion and she falls for the clean-scrubbed deaf boy who heads up the dance troupe. The pop music is cotton candy but played straight as the stuff of rebellion; the dancing is a lot of people moving around and moving their limbs around. The “author’s message” scene is even made literal — the deaf school’s headmaster appears on a TV talk show and a clip has him say how wonderful and capable deaf people are. Nobody is ever in danger — even in the two gang scenes, one of which is just a short chase, and the other just brings to mind one of the commercials playing before the films at Toronto: “They dance. They fight. They dance-fight.”

Sawasdee

SAWASDEE BANGKOK (several directors, Thailand, avg. 5)

Sightseeing (Wisit Pasanatieng, 7)
Ok Makham (Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, 4)
Silence (Pan-ek Ratanaruang, 4)

Of the three shorts in this omnibus feature I think I have a right to judge, only one of them really works. (I had to take an inconvenient call and missed the last 6 or 8 minutes of Bangkok Blues by Aditya Assarat, so to be fair I’m ignoring it officially, though it wasn’t impressing me to that point.) But it’s hard to hate even the two that don’t work because in an omnibus, if one piece is sucking, you know it’ll end soon and so you can’t really resent it. Bangkok’s Thai name (an unwriteable thing that makes “Apichatpong Weerasethakul” look like “Joe”) include the moniker “City of Angels” and that’s the common thread uniting all three shorts, though only the Wisit is explicit about it. He tells us up front that his story about a guardian angel watching over a blind homeless girl who lives under a bridge and has never seen Bangkok. The lead actress overplays it a bit — her character is blind from birth, but she acts like a sighted person trying to find his glasses in a dark room. But the angel describes a fairy-tale city far from the real world — this segment, to quote Blanche DuBois, is for those who don’t want realism, but want magic. And eventually she does see Bangkok as the magic city the angel describes. It’s a lovely sad magic-realist tragedy. The other two have the same basic problem of being “Twilight Zone” episodes. Each involves a chance encounter — between a prostitute and a country boy in the Kongdej and a party girl and a homeless bum in the Pan-ek. Each is barely believable as it’s running — the former a low-rent version of BEFORE SUNRISE, the latter featuring a caricature of a rich nightclubber (both include awkward references to a 2006 coup attempt that add up to zero combined effect). And then both have a major character turn out to be a ghost or disappearing angel of some kind (the Kongdej is explicit about this and this makes it slightly the better of the two; the Pan-ek less so). But in neither case does The Prestige add or deepen anything. The endings both felt tacked-on, as if reaching for the uncanny and only grasping the undercooked.

Dogtooth

DOGTOOTH (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 7)

Now THIS one, on the other hand, pushes “uncanny” about as far as it can go, with superb formal control and weirdly effective zombie performances from a kind of Bizarroworld (the elder sister is particularly fine). But I’m afraid I do insist on having some idea of what’s on a film’s mind. Don’t get me wrong, I heartily recommend this movie and it’s a pleasure(?) to watch from moment to moment. This is one of the best-made movies at this festival — of that I am morally certain. Lanthimos has Haneke’s formal control, Scorsese’s knack for the sudden violent gesture and Lynch’s way with taking absolute weirdness at face value. He sets up this hermetically sealed world of a family that has lived its entire lives behind a wall, with only the father ever venturing outside. The children know the world of their home, and the outside world only as the threats described to them by the parents. It’s like Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL crossed with Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE.

Repeatedly, Lanthimos grabs us with some weird detail of the spell this father has cast over the family and how it works because the simplest of questions presupposes knowledge the three children don’t have — for example, the planes they see up in the sky often crash into their yard, only as toy planes the size of what is seen in the sky by the children (now, really young adults — there’s some fairly explicit sexual rituals). If you don’t know or have explained perspective or geometry, why should you not believe that those are the same planes? Also, there are little details that the director doesn’t explain because it would be redundant and he trusts us to pick them up — for example, there is an out-of-nowhere stabbing among the siblings that is handled as if it were a scraped knee (I got one of those walking back to my hotel after the film). Then later, bandages start showing up without explanation. And sometimes, Lanthimos pointedly doesn’t go for the obvious even when he seems to set it up — for example, we see one of the girls mutilate her dolls with scissors. Later, she is clipping the father’s toenails and frankly I was waiting for the other toe … er, shoe to drop (Lanthimos even gooses us by having the father say “be careful of the little toe.”)

There is not a flaw in the execution here except for how the films ends and what it means. I will be vague about the ending but let’s just say a serious rupture takes place and the film just ends without even broaching the consequences, either for that person or others in the movie. Further, nowhere do we ever get any idea of what motivated this — who are these people and why did at least the father and mother set things up this way: are they religious types fleeing secular decadence, hippy paranoids fleeing the black helicopters, commune-ists sealing out bourgeois influence. Is it a metaphor for a religious theocracy like Iran or a commie satrapy like North Korea. There is no data on which any critical speculation could even possibly reflect anything other than the critic’s pre-existing prejudices. Still … I’d be happy to look at this movie again or even reconsider my grade resight-unseen if someone can explain to me persuasively what it all means.

September 12, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | 2 Comments

Toronto grades — Days 2/3

(Update: May as well get the first crushing disappointment out of the way early.)

Day 2
LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 5)
FACE (Tsai Ming-liang, France/Taiwan, 8)
IF I KNEW WHAT YOU SAID (Mike Escareal Sandejas, Philippines, 3)
SUWASDEE BANGKOK (omnibus, Thailand, 5 average; Wisit, 7; Kongdej, 4; Pan-ek, 4)
DOGTOOTH (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 7)

Day 3
VISION (Margaretha Von Trotta, Germany, 5)
MY TEHRAN FOR SALE (Granaz Moussavi, Australia/Iran, 2)
IRENE (Alain Cavalier, France, 3)
THE WHITE RIBBON (Michael Haneke, Austria, 4)
LES HERBES FOLLES (Alain Resnais, France, 8)

September 12, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | 2 Comments

Toronto capsules — Day 1

Education

AN EDUCATION (Lone Scherfig, Britain, 3)

If the title A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION hadn’t already been taken, they should have given it to this movie. It’s a surefire contender for an Audience Award, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Every carica…er character is one-dimensional and all the points are well spelled out. As is obvious from the title and my Flaubert joke, it’s in the form of a Bildungsroman, only it really isn’t — its values are those of self-indulgent anti-Bildung for most of its length — the parents are stupid easily-fooled bourgeouis, the teacher is a repressed antisexual tyrant, the headmistress is an anti-Semite (why, Emma … why?). And when you’re rich, sophisticated and handsome and travel to West End jazz clubs and Paris, then minor things like cradle-robbing, theft, grifting and race-baiting real-estate scams can be overlooked. And I don’t know about you, but when I have illicit affairs with 16-year-old girls and are driving her around in my car, I always leave letters addressed to me and my wife in the glove box next to our favorite cigarettes. To make matters worse, the film doubles down on its characters’ self-indulgence with its own self-indulgence — a shameless and anti-believable last five minutes that undo every possible consequence, restore the status quo ante the start of the movie and thus leave the film with essentially having had no stakes whatsoever. It’s the equivalent of pushing a reset button as though life comes with one. Ick. And I hope Sally Hawkins was well-compensated for her unwritten one-scene turn as Wronged Wife, accessorized beautifully with a Victim Son.

Antichrist

ANTICHRIST (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 9)

Hypnotic. If I had to write a one-word review of this film, that would be the one. I knew this film would live up to my expectations in a scene where therapist husband Willem Dafoe says “close your eyes … and imagine” to wife Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is going mad with grief over the death of their son. I closed my eyes too and sank into my chair too, and it was as if Lars was semi-hypnotizing me too.

Lost in all the controversy and misogyny charges and countercharges is that quality of the film — its superb formal control casts a spell over you and plays you like a piano through one of the most radical tone shifts in movie history (it’s a structural kissing cousin to the great Japanese movie AUDITION). Von Trier made this film as a way of struggling with his own depression (more on that anon) and every frame looks it. The hypnosis effects (and dream effects) are legion — slow motion, fog shrouded scenes, silent scenes, scenes repeated, talking animals, obviously symbolic details like an animal still-birth. One thing Von Trier does several times to great effect is to repeat an image though first in a stylized mythopoetic dream style, then second in a more realistic mode (think a bridge or “She” lying on the grass), usually to underline the gap between the beauty of theory and reason on the one hand and the much messier, dirtier experience of actual embodied beings. Even people who don’t like this film acknowledge that it’s made masterfully.

It starts out with a black-and-white overture — shot like a perfume ad but so as to establish an impossibly idyllic state of innocence, shattered by the boy’s death. Then we see scenes of Defoe trying to help Gainsbourg “work things through” in scenes of psychological gamesmanship, like an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama involving a therapist and patient (you can easily imagine this part of the film recast with Gunnar Bjornstrand and Harriet Anderson). Only what’s really happening (as Von Trier repeatedly foreshadows) is a slow burn into the unrepressed id of a horror-movie third act. But what’s remarkable in retrospect is how many horror tropes Von Trier used even before the notorious “torture porn” scenes. It’s all done with such gravitas and style though that comparisons with trash like the SAW movies couldn’t be more misplaced — Brakhage-like nightmare forests that look like jagged shapes wailing guttural despair from the center of the universe; expressionist sound design (you’ll never hear acorns quite the same way again) with portentous music and anti-realistic sound effects resonating in space as if the film were itself own echo chamber; and several heart-in-the-mouth “Boo!” moments (the fox, the pyramid, the washtub). Unlike horror trash, this isn’t done to entertain: you really get the sense that Von Trier means it all (the audience I saw this film with was rapt and nobody stirred during the credits). And through the slow catatonia of the first part and the violence of the second, wants the audience to share his experience of depression. Which is why only an idiot would criticize the last part of this movie is either too violent or illogical — that IS the logic of depression; the repercussions have to go too far and have to be randomly inflicted on self and other.

But does it wind up meaning anything? I think it does and I think the title both is and isn’t misleading. It certainly doesn’t refer to the biblical figure from Revelation. Nor does it (as I was kind of expecting) really play as a straightforward hell portrait — there’s no reason for the two-sided dynamic between the couple, e.g. What I’m leaning toward instead, I think, is that this film is merely a raw production of Von Trier’s inner depressive state, which in theological terms would be Gnosticism — that creation (the world) is evil, the work of the devil. Von Trier has an impish reputation, but I think (as someone who’s felt really a soul connection with Von Trier since seeing BREAKING THE WAVES in 1996, just a few years after my his conversion and my confirmation) — that he’s really being more honest and blunt than he lets on. That he uses his Biggest Asshole in the World persona as a way to say what he thinks and duck it at the same time. This really is as simple as a depression movie — a portrait of how the world looks from the black pit. As someone who’s suffered from depression (to one degree or another, with varying levels of knowledge thereof) for most of his life, I can say with authority that it’s very easy when you’re in the utter depths to see the world itself as evil, irredeemable, hellish and write it all off. It’s also very easy to see your therapist or therapy as the cause of it all (that’s probably, ultimately, why I stopped going). And, to judge from this film, Von Trier clearly has no use for therapists — Defoe plays He as a self-centered, unethical, controlling jerk. Yet despite the personal connection I had with the material, I wasn’t as *moved* by it as I thought I should have been. The film doesn’t have a character like DOGVILLE’s Grace or WAVES’ Bess. It therefore resists emotional involvement because “identification” in the usual sense is impossible — the only two people in it are a dick and a nut.

September 12, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | 2 Comments