Rightwing Film Geek

Toronto 2012 capsules — day 8

POST TENEBRAS LUX (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, W/O)

This ups the number of theatrical films I’ve walked out on in my cinephilic life to four (the others being TULSE LUPER, SEVERANCE and MARKETA LAZAROVA), and gaining the distinction of being the first to provoke a walkout based on pornographic content in what is supposed to be a legitimate movie.

Which is a bit of a shame, because SILENT LIGHT was one of my 10 Best for the entire decade and the opening two scenes in POST TENEBRAS LUX make it quite clear that Reygadas has not lost his eye or his ability to create a sequence one little bit. In the first, a little girl walks around fields, apparently lost and mumbling words, for the whole day while stray dogs are running about and baying and barking and howling along with the wind. The second scene is the devil walking through a darkened bedroom while people sleep, only you’ve never seen Satan quite like this — an animated, near-featureless, solid-red shape giving off a dazzling glow while holding a non-animated briefcase in a dark, non-animated room.

But those images are also part of the tipoff to what was wrong with TENEBRAS even before the walkout — they both were acontextual and rather willfully obscure and they didn’t get obviously explained in the 30-40 minutes I watched of the film. Nor were they the only bits of obscurantism — everybody has been scratching his head since Cannes over an English schoolboy rugby game of which I saw the pre-match rituals. As the film progressed, it clearly wasn’t going to be a masterwork, just a collection of images that you respond to or not. In addition, Reygadas showed early signs of returning to his early fascination with grotesque sex and violence, reports of which kept me away from JAPON and BATTLE IN HEAVEN and contrary reports being the only reason I ever saw SILENT LIGHT in the first place. The devil shape had a rather prominent penis for no reason I could discern besides Reygadas showing how fearless he is (Is there a Mrs. Satan and some Satanic kiddos? Or does Saddam Hussein now flip?). Also another early scene showed a character viciously battering and choking a family dog, implicitly to death, and this is taken as normal by the other character on the family porch where it happens (not to speak of the several who likely would have been in earshot).

The scene that caused me to walk out takes place in a sauna the central couple is visiting, with dozens of naked bodies as the camera prowls around, making sure we see that those are real dicks, boobs, asses, snatches. It is lengthy (so you feel like you’re getting your nose rubbed in it), acontextual (so you’re wondering “what is the point of this?”), pretentious (the Hegel Room and the Duchamp Room? Really? Come off it, Carlos). The early part of the scene seems to include some of the men pulling a train on another man, offscreen with sounds, and asking others matter-of-factly if they want to join. The latter part involves the wife screwing another man in front of her husband, with her body still offscreen but the sounds increasingly realistic and louder (at the moment I left). Reygadas is just showing off.

At that point, the film I was seeing had become simple pornography and I don’t go to a film festival for that. I am not a prude, nor will I claim to be a better man than I am (everybody who reads this blog or follows my Twitter feed knows my sense of humor isn’t G-rated). I do not condemn the use of nudity or sexuality for a discernible purpose and with a (very) minimal amount of discretion and directorial tact, that invisible quality that tells me he knows that nudity and sex are not routine. I count as all-time favorites LAST TANGO IN PARIS, EYES WIDE SHUT and IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (the last of which includes scenes that are, by any reasonable standard, hard-core pornography). But here, I was just getting it shoveled in my face and the invisible Potter-Stewartish line of what I’m willing to tolerate was crossed.

CAUGHT IN THE WEB (Chen Kaige, China, 4)

Go read the TIFF Guidebook about this film, both the take out paragraph and the last paragraph of the Programmer’s Note, the former of which I reproduce here:

A young woman’s act of defiance becomes a flashpoint for controversy when a video of the incident goes viral, in this prescient drama about cyber-bullying from celebrated director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine).

As in everything, I am a hard-eyed, illusionless realist (as I typed this, I was disagreeing with a couple of orthodox Catholics about the limits and expectations of politics) … the purpose of these things is to sell the film in question and make it seem appetizing. But there is still such a thing as truth-in-advertising, and one of the many annoying things about the TIFF Guidebook is its tendency to grab onto anything mildly topical, especially the latest leftist cause du jour. If by cyber-bullying, you mean something like the Tyler Clementi or famous Facebook cases, CAUGHT IN THE WEB is not about cyberbullying. The video in question — in which a young woman refuses to give up her seat to an old man; she’s just received a fatal cancer diagnosis and is hiding behind sunglasses, hence the sobriquet Sunglasses Girl — doesn’t “go viral.” It’s broadcast on national TV because it was taken by an aspiring reporter (and then obviously does become grist for online discussions, just like Romney’s or Obama’s latest gaffes might) and the engine for much of the subsequent fallout is a careerist pursuit of second- and third-day stories by that reporter and others. CAUGHT IN THE WEB is about tabloid gossip, far closer to NETWORK or THE FRONT PAGE than to (2012’s) BULLY or the Clementi case (except maybe to the extent that bullies now become something of a public Emanuel Goldstein and the object of Excuses to Commit Sociology, like Sunglasses Girl does in the film. Which I doubt was what the TIFF Central Committee intended.)

Even as a semi-satire on tabloid journalism (as I typed this, Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” came up on my iTunes … swear to God), I don’t think CAUGHT IN THE WEB is terribly successful. The tone shifts between satire to tragedy requires a master’s touch and Chen doesn’t have it, especially with the broad acting he encourages. It’s also too damn long at 121 minutes and has way too much plot — the press learns of her affair with her Big Shot CEO boss, which leads to a whole new set of reverberations. “Money changes hands, and I forgot about it as it happened,” I have written in my notes. There’s lots of romantic intrigue I also hardly cared about —  Sunglasses Girl hires a bodyguard for her last days, and he has mixed motives.

Between this and Zhang Yimou’s A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP I’m also getting a vibe that the Chinese sense of humor is very different from ours in the West (I don’t have an “as I typed this” synchronicity here). I don’t specifically mean my sense of humor either … there are scores of Western films I don’t find funny but I usually quite easily recognize what’s supposed to be funny even if I don’t think it is. My Chinese-comedy sample size is obviously not large and it’s not so alien that I can never enjoy it — I did love KUNG FU HUSTLE, which pushes the freneticism into pure cartoon. But both Chen and Zhang in the early scenes of films that eventually become more serious employ a hyper-caffeinated freneticism for comic effects to a degree rarely seen here and which strikes me as “Too Much,” “Turned Up to 12,” etc. In the Zhang film, it’s more the performers, while CAUGHT IN THE WEB achieves the same effect via short cutting rhythms, smash edits and (within the limits of a relatively realistic contemporary film) frenetic motion and acting. It’s just so exhausting that the effect, for me, was of Chen stepping all over his own punch lines.

BARBARA (Christian Petzold, Germany, 6)

I liked this more than CAUGHT IN THE WEB, but it’s hardly a more enthralling film — indeed it’s quite emotionally and stylistically frigid, even withholding. Fortunately, those adjectives are the very subject matter of BARBARA, which is set in East Germany and centers on a woman, the titular character, who has asked for an exit visa from the Communist dictatorship and also has a West German lover. As a result, among other things, cars start cutting her off as she bicycles around the streets of the small-town backwater where she has been exiled to work as a doctor. Among her patients, for whom she lavishes suspiciously unusual care, is a girl who keeps running away from a socialist work camp. (I’m sorry buds … I don’t see how anyone old enough to remember East Germany’s existence could’ve been in any doubt where and about when this was set.)

Barbara is played by Nina Hoss, a marvelous German actress who seems to specialize, like a young Isabelle Huppert, in a certain understated interiorness. Her face is a marvel of emotional opacity, which she can make sullen or force to life without violating social cues — ideal for someone hiding her true opinions or emotions or plans from the necessity of keeping her head down. While this can make her come across as borderline wooden at times, all three of the roles in which I have seen her used this quality — in A WOMAN IN BERLIN, she was trapped in Berlin at the end of the war and had to negotiate her survival with the Russian conquerers, in JERICHOW, she played an adultress plotting murder against her husband. (I joked about the former film that it was the only thing that ever made me take seriously the radical-feminist claim that all sex under patriarchy is rape.)

The film moves resolutely, but at its own pace and rhythm that it keeps to itself, like its heroine. This tone makes BARBARA very much a slow burn escape-from-East Germany film … TORN CURTAIN this ain’t. Indeed, it isn’t even clear for a while that an escape plan is gonna wind up being the central third-act narrative concern and even when we get there, there isn’t really a set-piece chase … rinse and repeat previous aside. Instead, there is a psychologically resonant relationship with a fellow doctor who may be interested in Barbara but also might be an informant (that being life in “actually existing socialism”). In one fine “come clean” scene Andre describes a story about incubators that felt “wrong” to me and also sounded technologically implausible to an RN friend when I asked her about it. In another, he does a close reading on a Rembrandt painting (or a reproduction, I guess) that also throws the issue of deception and mistakes-that-aren’t-mistakes explicitly into the text. In another scene, the Mercedes-driving lover arranges a tryst in the forest and a Trabant-driving native passes by; the juxtaposition of the cars say everything that needs saying.

CAMP 14: TOTAL CONTROL ZONE (Marc Wiese, Germany/Korea, 7)

I was uncertain about this film for a long time. On the one hand, CAMP 14 undeniably packs an emotional wallop as a portrait of the North Korean gulag, mostly by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known born-there escapee (yes, people are born into concentration camps and held there for life). On the other hand (I thought), the film really doesn’t do anything not done by reading Shin’s account in print as I did earlier this year, though I forget where and can’t find it quickly. I eventually decided that there is something valuable to this film qua film, but even if in the end there’s isn’t anything else here but a litany of brutality … what a litany it is.

Huge chunks of my notes simply consist of quotes from Shin — “I hadn’t yet learned that you’re supposed to cry when your mother is executed”; “rats have soft bones, so we were able to eat everything”; “walking around North Korea (outside the camp), it looked like heaven — people freely laughing, joking, wearing clothes they liked”; “in the camp I had a pure heart.” Shin repeatedly says things that sound absolutely unbelievable, until you reflect on them. If one has no concept of family and has seen executions for breaking camp rules all his life, why cry? That IS an advantage for a food meat. Every society, no matter how crappy, has to be better than its prisons (that’d be why it’s a punishment to go to prison). He probably did, and that’s the most damning you could ever say about the Rousseauist dream of pure innocence, an undivided soul marked by one telos.

There is other material in CAMP 14 besides interview footage with Shin, much of which is him sitting at the bottom of a flight of stairs. There are two former North Korean prison guards, now in South Korea, both apparently successful and one seemingly downright well-off. Although they say they did what they did because they thought it was right and just, they differ from the Indonesians in ACT OF KILLING by seeming repentant though they do talk matter-of-factly. When asked whether suspects are tortured, one smiled (though more in a “what a silly question, white man” mode than a prideful one) and said “it’s normal.” Though CAMP 14 generally uses minimalist pencil-based animated sequences to depict scenes of Shin’s memories of the camp, it also has rare footage of a North Korean slave camp, taken by one of the two guards at the camp he commanded, a different one from Shin’s. There’s also a scene of a North Korean guard interrogating a prisoner that critics of first-world authorities are invited with deep sarcasm to watch (though I wondered why also there appeared to be blurred subtitles on it).

As for why CAMP 14 is a film … Wiese is no Errol Morris, but he puts silence and the physical presence of his interview subjects to good use. In most documentaries, raw interview footage is cut to the rhythm of the films shot, which requires the subject start talking pretty much at the start of the shot and that the shot end when the the sound byte is over. (And of course, in written accounts, every word follows the next.) Here, there’s at least 4 or 5 times where Wiese includes a lengthy, noticeable hesitance of at least several seconds of screen time in Shin’s reactions to his questions (and does same once with the guards). It’s as if they don’t really want to say what they have to be truthful. When asked about water torture, Shin waits seemingly forever before saying slowly “I don’t want to remember those experiences any more.” So strong are these dead moments that Wiese never actually shows anyone breaking down or crying (assuming he could have; maybe they never did and that’s the point too). The pauses say enough.

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September 18, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 7

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Mike Newell, Britain, 6)

In between this film and my next, I called my parents, and my father wanted to know what I had just gotten out of. I said “an adaptation of Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS” / “How was it?” / “Fine. Nothing special but it is what it is and good for what it is … an illustration of a classic novel.” / “Well … what’s wrong with that? If it’s good for what it is, it’s good, right?” Pauline Kael also defended literary adaptations as a genre, saying it’s a perfectly normal pleasure to want to see the films and plays we read in school illustrated and/or adapted with today’s actors. This latest version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a pretty faithful adaptation (it’s been years since I read it, but I can’t recall any major plot points or characters it doesn’t hit, though there are accordingly a few it underplays or underdevelops) and if it entertains while it’s on the screen and encourages folks to read Dickens, it has done the Lord’s work.

Still, the film got on the bad side of me early. The key to the whole yarn is the first scene, the meeting with Magwitch in the graveyard. Here is the famous sequence from the 1946 David Lean adaptation.

This film bollixed it up, or at least diminished it, in two ways. First, compared to Finlay Currie, Ralph Fiennes is barely intelligible behind a thicker accent and state-of-the-art (i.e., louder) sound mixing. That same state-of-the-art (i.e., louder) sound and mickey-mousing music also accompanies a smash cut to Fiennes’ face when Magwitch appears, giving the whole scene the feel of a contemporary horror film. I also thought Mrs. Joe was a bit much, but those were the exceptions. Despite being younger than is customary, Helena Bonham Carter was perhaps an obvious choice as Miss Havisham, but she can convince both as a weird old woman (all those Tim Burton films) and a young woman in a flashback to the infamous wedding day. I don’t understand the logic of turning Mr. Jaggers into a single-line Jew if you’ve cast Robbie Coltrane, but I was glad to have him in the role. And by the time Magwitch reappears, the film has recovered its footing, Fiennes has dialed it back a bit and he dominates the rest of the film.

During a scene of paying off debts, it occurred to me that GREAT EXPECTATIONS is the same ruffian-does-social-climbing story as BARRY LYNDON. But while Kubrick (can’t speak about Thackeray) tells the story of a consciously self-made man both profiting from and being defeated by chance, Dickens gives the opposite psychology – a man who arbitrarily and mysteriously gains gentleman status and then finds out it was a reward for a long-forgotten good deed. But then Dickens was some kind of Christian and Kubrick was not. It also occurred to me in the last 15 minutes of this film that there’s just a little much coincidence and “coincidence” and cross-cutting relationships here for my adult taste, though that’s largely what Dickens wrote – he was the Arriaga/Inarritu of the 19th century. Still, this new film gets across Dickens’ humor and class-based fun – the young lads’ punch-up “according the rules,” the Finches of the Grove party, lines like “it’s not generally the custom in London to put your knife in your mouth, for fear of the ants.” And it really delivers on the best scene is the book – the London reunion with Joe (here played with bone-deep class-consciousness by Jason Flemyng), where a snobbish Pip and a not-quite-humiliated Joe try to have a meal.

IN THE HOUSE (Francois Ozon, France, 8)

I obviously wouldn’t push this comparison too far, but IN THE HOUSE reminds me a bit of THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE and THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY. The Bunuel masterpieces were nominally about forever sitting down to dinner but never eating (with plenty of digression in the interim) and a relay race of plot points and characters that become nothing but digressions, never surviving contact with the next plot point or character. Neither film makes logical sense (An emu wandering through your bedroom while a mailman leaves a note? A cafe with nothing but water?), but what they were really about was the Old Master’s comfortable ease as a yarnmeister. His very confidence could hook you into a story or joke or “I dreamed this last night.” The two films are thoroughly entertaining divertissements on the story-telling process and I recommend them highly.

IN THE HOUSE shows Ozon, a much younger man than Bunuel, in a very similar mode. The nominal surface subject is a French teacher (Fabrice Luchini) fascinated by the journal assignments of one of his students, the star pupil who actually writes something worthwhile in a room full of “I hate pizza on Saturday and Sundays suck” essays and “I can’t bring myself to write about this movie. -30-” film criticism. He wants Claude (Ernst Umhauer) to keep writing about his friendship into another neighborhood family and advises him to get involved with the family to provide more material. The Plausibles don’t add up (Claude’s writing may profit by comparison with classmates, but he is no Stephen King, in Mike’s words). Still, Ozon is doing what Bunuel did … seducing us with his silky smooth style, his native wit, and a string that we just want to keep tugging, like the teacher does (we see enacted the stories as he’s reading them).

There’s more here than just an enjoyable romp. We see the stories enacted as the teacher reads them (sometimes Ozon tells us this in advance, sometimes not), and the characters act in a very broad register (what you need accompanying narration) but become subtly different as the stories progress. So when the teacher tells Claude to change his story, he’s not simply offering criticism, he is also, Ozon implies, living out his own fantasies. Kristin Scott Thomas again shows her flair for comedy (reiterated negatively in DePalma’s PASSION) in the outsider role of the teacher’s wife, playing both literature critic and struggling art-gallery curator (there’s big laughs at, among other things, her exhibit of dictator’s heads on blow-up dolls of naked women). Those scenes have nothing to do with the main plot – they’re just Bunuelian diversions – until a late turn that I’m not sure is entirely successful. But the last image – it’s practically cribbed from Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW – ends things on the right note.

REALITY (Matteo Garrone, Italy, 8)

When Mike D’Angelo said nobody at Cannes recognized, even en passant, the religious subtexts and themes in REALITY http://www.avclub.com/articles/cannes-12-day-three-gomorrah-director-matteo-garro,75387/ there are two options – (1) he is lying his lying ass off (even allowing for the editorial “nobody”) or (2) there were a lot of clueless critics at Cannes. And I very severely doubt (1) … I was speaking simply of logical possibilities.

On the surface, REALITY is about an Neapolitan fishmonger named Luciano (Aniello Arena) who tries out for the Italian version of “Big Brother,” but gets prematurely convinced he’s going to be on the show. He then proceeds to believe he (and others) are being watched at all times, gives up his possessions, stops engaging in petty scams, and otherwise acts in ways that could hardly more obviously parallel a Christian’s rebirth if Garrone had emblazoned “he’s found religion” on his T-shirt. The first and last images of the film are both God’s-eye views. The last narrative sequence breaks off from a Good Friday Stations of the Cross parade. And to mention couple details Mike didn’t … at one point, Luciano is explicitly told (and not by a priest) that “if you want to get into the house, you need to have faith and then you will.” Also, after the interview with the “Big Brother” producers, Luciano spoke in the way one does after a first sacrament, especially first confession (I speak as an adult revert) – “I told him everything and it felt so wonderful” I have scribbled down in my notes. Garrone underlines this by not showing the actual interview, following an old convention, somewhat based on the Sanctity of the Confessional, against showing it.

Since Luciano never gets on the show but the last scene shows him “succeeding” in getting onto the set, we clearly have a parable of delusion (or disillusionment, though I think the last scene’s tone makes that impossible). But what is the delusion … and this is where Mike and I part company (he’s a self-described “devout atheist”). The one thing the delusion can’t be is belief in a non-existent God for the simple reason that “Big Brother” really does exist in REALITY and people really did get on the show, albeit not Luciano. In addition, if God is a Dawkinsian “delusion” within the film’s universe but “Big Brother” serves a church-like function, then accounting for the existence of the actual Church in the film (and it DOES have a notable presence as itself: a Rosary scene early on, the Good Friday procession and a Jesus statue in the courtyard) becomes, if not exactly impossible, at least a bit awkward.

One could even, based totally on the film, have a Calvinist read that the delusion is Luciano thinking he is among the saved, rather than the damned (though I think that’s too clever by half). Instead, I think Luciano’s delusion is idolatry, that is to say, he grants religious status to something other than God/religion – a problem whether God exists or not. This take is consistent with every religious analogy in Luciano’s treatment of the reality show,” it accounts for “Big Brother” real existence (the Golden Calf had a real existence, as a golden calf), and it makes better sense of the Church’s presence in the film. With respect to the last, consider the Good Friday scene. Luciano, who had been shown at the earlier Rosary scene not to be a religiously devout man, attends the service, taken there by a friend who thinks it’ll help his craziness, but breaks away from it to break into Cinecitta and get on the “Big Brother” set. The film never goes back to the service. If the point were an equivalence between the show and the Stations, it would’ve been smarter to intercut the two, like Eisenstein did with the union men and the slain oxen. Instead, Garrone has one follow the other, which more suggests the show as a substitute for religion or a functional religion or a retreat from religion.

BEYOND THE HILLS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 8)

… though that 8 has the proverbial bullet on it as BEYOND THE HILLS has stewed wonderfully in my head these past couple of days. Before the festival began, I agreed with Mungiu-skeptic Michael Sicinski that on the basis of one film, Mungiu hadn’t yet deserved status as a “Master,” the program in which TIFF put this film (he also made the very good OCCIDENTAL, but the proverbial “nobody” outside Romania has seen that). BEYOND THE HILLS proves that 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS, which I had on my decade-best list, was no fluke and cements Mungiu’s status as a Master. A Master who is very obviously a pupil of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, sure, but DeSica was just as obviously a pupil of Renoir and nobody thereby disputes his status. Like the Belgian brothers, Mungiu combines white-knuckle tension and long takes with the seemingly contradictory virtues of careful composition and fastidious framing that uses the whole frame. HILLS was even one of two films I saw this festival that started with the ROSETTA shot – following a character from behind as she charges through a narrowly-framed environment. The character in this case is Voichita, one half of a female-friend pair (also the center of 4 MONTHS) meeting the other half at a train station. She is meeting up with Alina for a visit to the Romanian Orthodox convent where Voichita is serving. The pair were clearly lesbian lovers during Voichita’s secular life and Alina, who had spent the last few years doing menial jobs for money in Germany, has come with an eye to winning her (unwitting) friend back.

What follows is a tale of possible demonic possession or psychotic episodes, in which Mungiu, like in his portrayal of abortion in 4 MONTHS, leaves completely open a literal take that many Western European art-house directors (and most critics) would take pains to close off. One way among others he does this is by Trinitarian compositions that evoke God’s presence in a story that invites a religious explanation without insisting on it – typical of my beloved Romanian style of accreting details that are “just-so” and “telling-without-rubbing-your-face-in-them.” There are two consecutive conversations where the framing is so clearly the Trinity as authoritative that I began sketching during the film (see attached and forgive my appalling drawing; I’m a writer not an artist, plus this was in a dark theater). Those same rhyming shots also parallel religion and science as sources of answers and response to matters that aren’t strictly in either’s purview but in the overlap/between. And like in a Skandie-nominated scene in 4 MONTHS, another shot frames a crowded dinner where an abundance of happy guests chatting away crushingly frames people whose thoughts are miles away.

In HILLS, Mungiu convincingly creates a world so “lived in” that you accept it utterly. My only real complaint, in fact, is that he does this so successfully that the narrative drags a bit. This place is isolated and cold and in nearly every shot, indoors or outdoors, you see the characters’ icy breaths without anyone ever saying “it’s cold in here.” In a late scene, some nuns have to improvise a stretcher, and we see the characters/actresses actually build one from pieces of wood, from pretty-much scratch in real time (did I say long takes were awesome?). In an early scene, Voichita agrees to rub some medical stuff on her ex-lover’s body, after which agreement to do so Alina strips herself to the waist. She handles the chastity-vs.-charity matter with poise, neither rubbing the bared boobs nor flinching at them, as the Harris-Dawkins-Hitchens axis would think she “should.” There’s even explicit dialogue later, apropos another matter, about this distinction between “forbidden” and “improper.” When the nuns prepare the outsider for a first-in-a-long-time confession, as they go down a conscience-examination list of 464 sins, Alina ticks off each one without fail but with increasing resignation at each new number. So successfully does Mungiu create an out-of-time experience in a monastery where out-of-timeness is the very point that there’s really only one detail that unquestionably situates the film in the present day – the existence of cell phones (even the few vehicles we see aren’t latest-model). But neither are the monastery characters simple-mindedly superstitious (again, a distinction impossible for a certain sort of secular Westerner to imagine). When one of the nuns notes that the hens haven’t laid any eggs and that a black cross appears in a piece of wood, the head priest in charge impatiently dismisses “foolishness about signs” and patronizingly says “burn it” when asked what to do with the wood. All that said, I do have to note that, even as a Roman chauvinist who will happily and teasingly call Orthodox friends “schismatics,” I didn’t like how some of the Orthodox lingo was “westernized” in the subtitles – “Pascha” becoming “Easter” and the use of “Mass” (a Western term that Orthodox Anglophones do not use).

September 17, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 6

NO (Pablo Larrain, Chile, 8)

“They make movies to sell detergent. So why not a movie to sell peace.”
– HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR

Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras wrote that line, but one way we know they didn’t understand it is that their movie to “sell peace” bore no resemblance to movies made to sell detergent (and hence didn’t “sell” at all). Pablo Larrain understands that line, or at an absolute minimum made a smart political movie about people who did. Gael Garcia Bernal plays ad specialist Rene Saavedra, who stumbles into leadership of the marketing side of the “No” campaign, a liberal-left coalition of Chileans opposed to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had called a referendum on whether to grant him another eight-year term (“Yes”) or require him to step down and have multi-party elections somewhat later (“No”).

And so begins a rollicking political satire done in the style of 80s TV shows, 80s ads, 80s styles and even 80s political campaigns. I was hooked right from the credits, which present the name in simple block-character pastels but with the slight color shimmer of old or multi-generation VHS around the edges of each character. In the early scenes, the No campaign act like a bunch of college professors – debating the legitimacy of the election, calling each other “comrade,” and what tack to take in terms of “speaking to the pain we feel.” One even explicitly says “I don’t want to sell democracy as a product.” But they eventually decide to go with a “positive” campaign of uplift (exclusively so, for a while), the application of classic “mood” campaigns. The main visual theme is a rainbow, with each color signifying a party in the coalition and the main slogan was a happy jingle “Chile … l’alegria ya viene” (Chile … happiness is coming soon). The film was silent on this, but I have to wonder about the extent the “No” campaign, which Larrain faithfully represents, borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” theme. Even harsh facts are given a candy-colored sheen, as when “No” women sing a jingle about “no more disappearances”

I was turned onto this film by Mike D’Angelo review (http://www.avclub.com/articles/cannes-2012-day-10-cronenberg-meets-delillo-matthe,75718/) and a later personal recommendation. But in his Cannes review, Mike said he “looked in vain for a hint of contemporary relevance,” to which … huh? NO is absolutely timeless, a demonstration of some unknown cynic’s aphorism that “democracy is rule by publicity,” which is why contemporary relevance hits you in the face with every 80s-video, TV-shaped, perfectly-cheesy frame. Every two or four years, the US goes through this cycle of punch-counterpunch, and I couldn’t contain my laughter at an aside in NO about reporting on “the truth behind” people in the ads, from thinking of Joe the Plumber or Katherine Harris (Al Gore: “Do we have anything on her”). Romney and Obama campaign consultants right this very day are weighing the base-vs-swing voter strategy and the wisdom of going negative, including the unintended messages sent – only here the “No” folks are fretting over whether painting Pinochet as a brutal tyrant will instill too much fear, spread cynicism and depress turnout. Other favorite touches: difficulties the “Yes” campaign has making good ads because “all the artists are on the other side”; the “No” campaign’s use of a photo of a riot cop beating a street demonstrator (and no, it’s not at all what you’d think; call it a unity message); and “this looks like a picture postcard, nobody eats baguettes in this country … who cares, it looks good.”

One strength of this film, which I didn’t expect from the leftist Larrain, is that the “Yes” campaign, led by Larrain mainstay Alfredo Castro, isn’t shown to be a bunch of patsies. They respond to the “No” campaign by parodying it – truth be told, I laughed hardest at two of those bits (one takes place in a bed and the other rewrites the lyrics to the “No” campaign’s main theme, “Chile … L’alegria ya viene”) Indeed, when introducing the Skandies, Mike described me as a “Pinochet-admiring lunatic” (the adjective of which is not an exaggeration … here’s the obituary I wrote for another site … http://coalitionforfog.blogspot.ca/2006/12/augusto-pinochet-1915-2006.html) So, for someone like me to come out of NO humming “Chile … L’alegria ya viene” is some kind of miracle.

MUSHROOMING (Toomas Hussar, Estonia, 5)

This is the sort of perfectly competent, mildly diverting but finally unmemorable high-concept sitcom that fills slots in film festivals worldwide, in between the transcendent masterpieces you love forever and the idiotic shit that you so hate it’s at least memorable (see, AMERICA, GOD BLESS). Every country can produce these filler films and they’re so ubiquitous that half the time you’re really looking at them as national portraitures, the better to distinguish this Estonian one from that Bulgarian one you saw at TIFF (or was it FilmFestDC?) two years ago. In the better cases, though, there is at least one memorable performer or one OMFG sequence.

On those limited terms, MUSHROOMING is a perfectly fine film that nobody in North America outside film festivals or the local Sons of Estonia Haalle will ever see or need to see. Ethnically, the Estonians are cousins to the Finns, and if you’ve seen a Kaurismaki film, you’ll recognize both the physical ethnic types on display (stolid husky men with broad-but-small features on flat, fair-skinned faces, mixed in with thin punk or musical types, e.g.) as well as the national humor sensibility (glum deadpan losers in over their heads, though MUSHROOMING’s actors are a little bit broader than Kaurismaki’s). MUSHROOMING takes the premise of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, only it plays it for comedy, in part by having one of the hikers, Aadu Kagu, be a member of parliament be fleeing the press over a brewing financial scandal (he and his wife took a trip to Machu Picchu that he billed as a diplomatic fact-finder). You know that when the hikers hit upon an apparently deserted cabin, they are gonna learn someone lives here by spotting that day’s paper, banner-headlined “Aadu Kagu, Parasite.” There is, though, one very good scene, near the end, where Aadu faces the press for the first time. Let’s just say that the accompanying music is Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, making the whole thing play like a satirical take on THE KING’S SPEECH, and not exactly in the way you might obviously think. It’s one of the few non-obvious things on display.

PASSION (Brian DePalma, USA, 6)

Gawd, this movie is so stupid. And so ridiculously entertaining, often precisely when it is at its stupidest. No movie featuring an ass-cam ad for a cell phone(?) camera (?) (who cares?) is going for The Human Condition vibe. Nor is a movie featuring Noomi Rapace in a pull-back hairdo with bangs completely covering her forehead. Nor is a movie that remakes a (very good IM apparently alone O) three-year-old French film about two women by significantly upping the Sapphic Quotient.

Still, I wish DePalma would at least come across as trying harder for something with emotional heft in addition to baroque set pieces, FEMME FATALE being the measuring stick among his recent films. For one thing, Rachel McAdams is fatally miscast, or, the same thing really, the role has been fatally mis-reconceived from the French original. She plays a role first inhabited by Kristin Scott Thomas, a far superior actress who also has enough old-school wit to make lines like “you have lots of talent, and I made the best use of it” draw tossed-off blood; McAdams recites the identical line, with emphasis on “recite” and “line,” with an effect as far from “identical” as possible. McAdams is also more or less the same age as Rapace, while KST is a generation older than Ludivine Sagnier, which gave the original an ALL ABOUT EVE vibe that pays off handsomely thematically. And whereas in the French film, Sagnier was Sagnier, Rapace has all the sex appeal of a plate of lutfisk, and less life. Thus the first half of PASSION, before a murder is committed and which follows the French original fairly closely, is a failure.

You can literally see the moment PASSION goes “click” and becomes a fun roller-coaster ride – an ominous music cue, a smash cut to a closeup of Rapace, and a dramatic change in the lighting scheme. From that point, the movie is about nothing more than canted angles, heavy shadows, ominous music, split screens (it’s DePalma, of course). But what angles, shadows, etc. That it outdoes in logical retardation what was already a very silly plot is like criticizing the plotting in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE or AIDA or NORMA. Even the limited actresses actually help and I’d’ve been fine with replacing them with air dolls or lifesize puppets.

The film’s high point is undoubtedly a split screen sequence, in which one half of the screen is a murder the perpetrator of which we can’t see, and the other is the performance of a ballet, “Afternoon of the Faun” that looks into the camera and will later play a key alibi role. “Half” is a misnomer, because part of what makes the sequence so virtuoso is that DePalma varies how much of the screen each image takes, going from 50-50 to 80-20 to 30-70 back to 50-50 etc. But even beyond that, he varies the compositions and moves the camera in and out to take the best advantage of the space in each part, whether it’s a thin 10 percent sliver of the widescreen shape or a effectively-widescreen 90 percent. That sequence is the work of a master.

September 14, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Toronto 2012 — day 5 capsules

THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous; Denmark/Indonesia, 9)

“It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.”
— Alex, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

Is it possible for a man to cauterize his soul? That’s one of the themes of the greatest movie ever made and here is that rare political film that dares to try to match it. ACT OF KILLING looks into the abyss of organized brutality and yet looks up without having blinked. It’s so bold and truthful and unsparing that, yes, I would compare it to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and to THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS and, though it works in a different way, to Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the film that needed to made about the concentration camps was about the guards, not the prisoners. Here is that film.

It follows several members of an Indonesian militia group who were involved in anti-Communist pogroms that killed hundreds of thousands following a mid-1960s gradual coup that effectively replaced Sukarno as dictator. Though it’s in the documentary genre of “muckraking about past atrocities,” there are two huge differences here from such standard-issue films – first, there are no interviews with the prisoners or even IIRC any found or archival footage of the atrocities; and second, the guards are proud of their actions and have hired Oppenheimer and his crew to make a movie about them. Some of the men do change over the course of the film but only very slowly, and (in the most memorable case) by unintentionally almost quoting Alex. What even makes those moments feel earned – rather than the inevitable course of the film’s inevitable didactic humanistic lesson – is the contrast with the unregenerate militia members and the political environment of present-day Indonesia, which is (to put it kindly) not exactly post-war West Germany or post-apartheid South Africa.

I could have done without the cheap juxtaposition of McDonalds and shopping mall images with stats about the massacres or the Michael Moore touch of having people critique democracy while playing golf. I also don’t entirely trust a film about 60s Indonesia in which the word “Sukarno” is, to the best of my recollection, never mentioned. But the number of “I can’t believe I just saw what I saw” moments is simply through the roof and it doesn’t stop with the premise as I’ve outlined. So as to avoid spoilers, let’s just say there were moments – like a walk through a Chinese merchant market – when I wasn’t sure I was actually watching re-enactments. And then at least one – a visit to a village – when I was sure I wasn’t.

It isn’t all about the abyss; there is also comedy here – a lot of it, in a very black vein. The men sit around on the set, in obvious blood makeup/prosthetics, reminiscing about the IRL scenes they’re about to re-enact and debating the best methods of execution and what they learned themselves from the movies (Also, can we now cool it with the “depictions of violence don’t inspire acts of violence” talking point?) Looking at Oppenheimer’s footage (which sometimes resembles cheesy Bollywood musicals, over-the-top gangster footage), they love one surrealistic scene where a killed Communist thanks them for sending him to heaven. It’s not that this all functions as comic relief a la Shakespeare’s clowns or that it gains from juxtaposition with the more serious material (it doesn’t especially do either, actually), but it specifically grows out of the more serious subject – the militia members’ pride.

There is a scene called “Special Dialog” that I will take to my grave. It looks like the Indonesian equivalent of “Entertainment Tonight” or similarly fluffy show and while it’s memorably appalling that militia members are on it in uniform, what really make the scene is the interviewer, who talks about wiping out the communists in the same chirpy manner as one might discuss coming up with a great new martini recipe. What we’re seeing is not “banality of evil” a la Hannah Arendt, “dehumanization” or similar cant, but something far more chilling and eternally relevant – that anything (and I do mean anything) can be done with a good conscience. All a man needs is to believe something is right. These men were Suharto’s Willing Executioners, but unlike Hitler’s, they had the good fortune not to be conquered by foreigners while the blood was still wet on their hands.

The same “take-it-to-my-grave” quality also applies to an interview with one henchmen (whose name I didn’t catch) who, while driving, pours an ocean of scorn on war-crimes tribunals and the Geneva Convention. He’s gives the standard Realist critique of international law, which is rare enough in this kind of film, before sealing the deal. He says of the 1960s atrocities that “re-opening the matter would be a provocation to fight. And if the world wants perpetual war, we’ll be ready.” He’s not saying anything not made implicitly from the other end by the pardoning-immunity powers of post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Sometimes justice must be suspended for the sake of peace. And pointing to the ugliest of political truths: what gets loosely called “victor’s justice” is in fact, in every political instanciation, “justice.”

AT ANY PRICE (Ramin Bahrani, USA, 6)

If you only showed me the first half-hour of this film and stopped, I wouldn’t have been inclined to watch the rest of it … at any price … sorry, Scott #hackstamp. In one scene (I have it written on my notes “you just lost me, Ramin”) an Iowa farmer reads aloud a postcard from his son about climbing South America’s tallest mountain, and he stumbles over the pronunciation of “Mount Aconcagua.” Yuk yuk yuk. Isn’t the people in Hickville so stooooopid and uncultured. Nor had that practiced mistake been the film’s first such moment. (Ironically, later that day I heard a friend’s equally-phonetic name mangled by one of America’s most eminent leftist film critics, who regularly goes on “Red States is Backward” rants.)

But as is my custom, I stuck around and I’m glad I did, as AT ANY PRICE becomes something more as it accretes detail and develops the threads of what seemed for a while like a scattershot script. Though it’s an original script, AT ANY PRICE becomes unashamedly novelistic (if you take that as a criticism, stay away) with twists and turns that make into it a kind of “farm noir.” Test film for this film – did you like IN THE BEDROOM? Or MYSTIC RIVER – one element in particular from that film came from nowhere here, yet felt as utterly right as it did in the Eastwood.

Dennis Quaid plays a jerk of a seed salesman who’s family is falling apart. Quaid dominates the film and I thought for a long time that he was overacting. But he’s playing an overactor (if that makes sense). He’s cheating on his wife, the globetrotting son for whom he had hopes is unseen, and the other son (a surprisingly strong Zac Efron) has a ridiculous dream of being a NASCAR driver and wants no part of the farm. But everything is … great. The moment I turned around on this film was Efron’s big-race debut, which did not go the way I knew it was going to. A bit later, I finally wrote “OK, Ramin, you win” (I’ve only seen one previous Bahrani and though I liked GOODBYE SOLO quite a bit, it’s not at all like this). And that was at a scene where Quaid’s father gives a speech about how “times were so much simpler then.” AT ANY PRICE is a rare film that is about both realizing your dreams and being content with not realizing your dreams, in the same person. About nostalgia and false nostalgia, within the same environment.

EVERYDAY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 1)

I told taffybud Dan Owen on Twitter that, given the same cast and crew, either he or I could make a film every bit as good as EVERYDAY. That was not an exaggeration or a joke line. If THE TRIP had nothing to recommend it beyond Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden’s repartee, here is an equally episodic, intermittent film that doesn’t have Coogan and Bryden. I seriously can’t recall ever seeing a film that, once the premise had been set up, had quite literally nothing to offer and that the director gave so little indication of answering the most basic question – what is this film about? (I mean strictly among films by directors with major reputations). Winterbottom has always been hit-or-miss but he has made several very good films – TRISTAM SHANDY, THE TRIP, THE CLAIM, and my retrospective memory of 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. But I would love to see the shooting script (if, in fact, there was one) for EVERYDAY, which feels like a case study in how you cannot make drama up as you go along.

EVERYDAY covers five years in the life of Ian Ferguson, who is serving a long jail term with a wife and four children (ages 3 to 8, I’d guess) on the outside. The gimmick here is that Winterbottom shot the film intermittently over five years, so we actually see the actors age, most obviously the children (all real-life siblings). It’s something you can’t fake and it would make the film interesting … if there were any drama. Whatsoever. There are scenes of the kids in school, scenes of the wife at work, scenes of prison visits (“you’re the man of the house,” Ian tells a boy of about 6), scenes of him in jail, scenes of the lengthy trips to the prison. And none of it develops or grows. There is no artistry, imagination or shaping. It’s all chopped up into a minute or so not-even vignettes – with an ugly-ass hand-held video style to boot. There is a post-release bedroom confession by the wife that she’d had an affair with a man we see at the dinner table two or three times and come on to her once and get rejected. And the fight itself lasts maybe a minute. Flimsy setup. Little payoff. Rinse and repeat throughout. There is more prison drama in 5 minutes of OZ. More comedy in 5 minutes of PORRIDGE.

I wouldn’t especially care if the film wound up having nothing to say but “going to prison sucks, for both you and your family.” (I was attracted to this film as being about a working-class British family with the man in jail. I have four extended-family blood relatives who’ve gone to prison – and I don’t mean held overnight in the drunk tank or after a brawl or the like, but felons duly sentenced to hard time.) But if that’s all there is, you need better moment-to-moment texture than this. Hitchcock famously said “drama is life with all the dull bits cut out”; Winterbottom seems to think, on the basis of this film, that “life is drama with only the dull bits kept in.” EVERYDAY is nothing but everyday moments with only the time-lapse photo quality of seeing the kids age. Oh … to think what the Dardennes or Mike Leigh could have done with this premise.

FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG (Laurent Cantet, Canada/France, 3)

I had a similar reaction to this film as to AT ANY PRICE, only it starts out even worse and obviously doesn’t rebound nearly as well. The first hour or so of FOXFIRE is one of the most unbearable, unrelenting litanies of misandrist shit I’ve ever seen (I actually considered walking out, but the memory of the Bahrani was fresh. Plus, if college feminists couldn’t chase this “potential rapist” from watching a Take Back the Night rally, no mere film is gonna do the same.). As the subtitle suggests, FOXFIRE is about an all-female gang of juvenile delinquents, set in the late 50s, but Cantet is complicit himself in every manner of deck stacking. Not only does the narrator, who is not otherwise shown to be naïve or out-of-touch like in BADLANDS e.g., carefully relativize and legalese-ize the gang’s actions (“we committed what could have been called crimes”) but every single male victim is, in one way or another, made hateful right before he is victimized – the math teacher is mean in class, the uncle tries to take liberties, the make is cheating on his wife, the businessman is an anti-feminist reactionary, etc. Reverse the sexes in all the crimes and try to imagine the reaction this film would get, with all its legitimate robberies and careful planting of details showing the bitch was asking for it. This first hour at least of FOXFIRE is hate speech against men. No doubt about it. #fact

FOXFIRE recovers some as the group changes from a gang to a kind of commune (though it still finances itself through crimes against men, with the decks still carefully, if less one-sidedly, stacked). In that context, it becomes a bit of an anti-utopian disillusionment narrative against the death of a collarless Catholic priest who waxed nostalgic about the great revolution of 1917 — adolescent adolescence devolving into the realities of adulthood and the breakdown of teen solidarity. But like many such disillusionment stories, the film rambles on for way too long. Still, I liked the fact that the girls vote against integrating their group (somewhat offset the deck-stacking to contemporary audiences), not so crazy about the fact the group’s de facto leader Legs is the one who berates the others about the snub (offsets the offset). Within the confines of video, the dingy period environment is well-captured. The actresses make a seamless ensemble, though a little *too* seamless. Apart from physical types, really only two characters develop into individuals – the narrator Maddy (Katie Coseni) and the charismatic Legs (Raven Adamson). But their two fates … let’s just say – with respect to the latter, that it’s more deck-stacking misandry; with respect to the former, that the man who made TIME OUT does the same thing with the last scene here. To. Much. Lesser. Effect.

THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR (Ritwik Ghatak, India, 1960, 8)

This was my first Ritwik Ghatak film, and, at least on the basis of CLOUD-CAPPED STAR, he seems to form a bridge between the overtly populist Bollywood cinema of Raj Kapoor and his fellow Punjabis and the art cinema of fellow Bengali Satyajit Ray (the last being the only one of the three to find, relatively speaking, any audience at all in the West). On the one hand, CLOUD-CAPPED STAR has as much music as any Bollywood film, and is about as broadly acted – for good and ill. But the music numbers are either source music or just put on the soundtrack as expressionist sound, both more and less realistic than the “here’s an onscreen number” conventions dominant in Bollywood (and Hollywood).

But while CLOUD-CAPPED STAR, a secular martyrdom story about a responsible elder sister who sacrifices everything on behalf of her ungrateful family, has the same serious concerns and dark subject matter as Ray, Ghatak has much more taste for melodrama and comedy, and could have fit in at the Warners lot in the 1930s. Indeed, the famous last line had been almost the exact title of a Susan Hayward weepie. Ray wasn’t the subtlest director, but Ghatak makes him look like Dreyer. I laughed out loud at the punchline in the scene of a marital quarrel, in which Ghatak has a window from across the courtyard in the back of the frame. A woman always seems to be standing by that window just as things heat up; and the composition and the foreground characters notice her at the same moment. There are multiple layers of irony, none of them subtle – one clueless sibling says “some people suffer for their principles,” but referring to himself while Nita is in the image foreground.

As an image maker, Ghatak is more of a mannerist than any Warners director could ever be. One of the very first images calls attention to itself as deliberately and emphatically composed along multiple planes (shown here, image taken from Omar … http://omarsfilmblog.blogspot.ca/2009/11/meghe-dhaka-tara-cloud-capped-star-dir.html) – a gigantic closeup of Nita in sharp focus, with a longer shot of her brother Shankar sitting on the left and a dimly-seen train in the far background: the dramatic center, the personal antagonist and the social backdrop, all in order. And for a film filled with deep-focus shots, one of the most effective is one of the few where Ghatak uses a narrow focal depth and leaves much of the image out of focus – the conversation between Nita and her mother about how far apart they are. (Put that way, it sounds too obvious for its own good, but the contrast with makes it feel absolutely right.)

Ghatak’s soundtrack is a work of expressionist wonder, again placing himself between Bollywood and Ray. It’s not just the famous whip cracks, which start as Nita descends a staircase after seeing some bad news about a marriage proposal, but also a recurring sound effect that resembles as sci-fi “aliens are here.” It comes from nowhere and has no rational explanation except a correlative of Nita’s mental breakdown. There is also a recurring sound effect of cooking, which Jonathan Rosenbaum said in his intro was a “natural” sound effect. I suppose it is, but Ghatak uses it at one point with the sound cranked up to a Spinal Tap 12 while the image smash-cuts into the mother’s face as her family plans gang aft aglay. In the last 30 minutes, there’s barely a natural sound played at a natural volume in the film.

While the other performers vary wildly in register between Bollywoodish archetypal clowns and torn intellectuals – my mind over the past couple of days has run particularly hot and cold on Bijon Bhattachara as the all-seeing and wise but impotent and he knows it father – Supriya Choudhury’s performance as central character Nita is brilliant in a very odd and eccentric way. Early on, I was thinking “she’s too beatific, her face as placid and plastic as an Indian Doris Day.” Three words, Victor – Bait. And. Switch. Unfortunately, I think Ghatak piles on too many denouements in the last 20 minutes or so, and, ironically, his gifts as an image- and sound-maker made me think several times “OK, he’s found the last shot … up and out.”

One thing that genuinely puzzled me; and I have Indian readers. I’ve read more than once that CLOUD-CAPPED STAR is about the partition of Bengal, into a province of India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). How? I couldn’t even say for certain when the film takes place, and I’m morally certain there’s no textual reference for where exactly the film is happening. There are references to trips to or events in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay, but other than the absence of Britons (maybe) excluding the first of these options, there is nothing that requires the film take place in 1940, 1948 or 1955. Nor is religion an explicitly textual subject at any level, though I inferred from the names that the family is Hindu, or at least not-Muslim. But since the family itself doesn’t divide or have members marry outside the religion (like in Deepa Mehta’s EARTH) or anything comparable … help!!

September 13, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 4

LOIN DU VIETNAM (Alain Resnais, William Klein, Joris Ivens, Agnes Varda, Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker; France; 1967; 4)

I don’t know why people thought this film would play as uniquely horrible to me; I’ve seen far worse than this in the field of pinko propaganda documentaries. But I’ll go out on a limb here and say with a perfectly straight face that LOIN DU VIETNAM is not a significantly better film than, and shares many flaws with, Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: OBAMA’S AMERICA. One may refute that of course by applying an a-priori left-good/right-bad ideological standard, though in that case, there is no need to actually see either movie. And while LOIN may very well be effective preaching-to-the-choir (I’m sure as heck not the guy to judge it on that score), 2016 is demonstrably just as effective.

Like with D’Souza’s film, LOIN has little characterization and no drama. In LOIN, there are tendentious framings of issues like the D’Souza (Has America, more than France e.g., convinced itself that the poor are stupid? Is there polling data on this?). In LOIN, there are eye-rolling conspiratorial histoire(s) like the D’Souza (Are the poor, always and by definition, in the moral right, as the narrator says?). In LOIN, there are huge dumps of undigested talking-head material like the D’Souza (one section is nothing but a shot of Fidel Castro answering a couple of softball question, as if he was Shelby Steele or Paul Vitz). In LOIN, there is reliance on cheap emotional manipulation like in the D’Souza (footage of civilian bombing deaths looks the same in 1965 Hanoi as 1944 Dresden) and reliance on technological cheap shots like in the D’Souza (subjecting Fidel Castro to vertical roll, color separation, horrible resolution would have the same effect as doing it to William Westmoreland). In LOIN, inconvenient facts and context are ignored or downplayed like in the D’Souza (while World War II atrocities by Korean guards in Indo-China are carefully mentioned, the Soviet Union and Red China are more or less never mentioned, and not in any way that threatens to undermine the film’s “rich aggression against the poor” template for the war) I also didn’t appreciate the audience self-congratulatory laughs at Westmoreland’s claim that the US is not a murderous regime – if it were, the radiation levels at Hanoi would be getting down to habitable levels right about now.

LOIN also has some flaws of its own inimitable French-intellectual style – a bizarre soliloquy by one “Claude Ridder” while a hot chick lies silent on a couch/bed to provide confused or longing reaction shots, and a typically self-absorbed bit of talk-to-an-onscreen-camera meta-messing by Jean-Luc Godard himself. There’s also lengthy sequences of street demonstrations that (1) leave no doubt whatever that the anti-war movement was, in significant part, Communist (the French don’t think that’s such a bad thing so they have no incentive to hide it), and (2) confirm my belief that all such events, and the ensuing shouting matches, are mostly tedious and unhelpful. And if all this description makes LOIN sound like an unsorted mess … ding ding DING DING!!!!

Is there anything worthwhile if you don’t enter the theater wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt? Yes. The documentary footage from North Vietnam, including the making of impromptu bomb shelters in Hanoi, is interesting, and a sudden cut-to-black really is shocking. A sequence called “Johnson Cries” is a traditional Vietnamese clown pageant, with the make-up-covered street performers playing LBJ and an adviser and another called “Victor Charlie” plays a Tom Paxton anti-war protest song (it got a round of applause at the screening). Both the North Vietnamese clowns and Paxton have wit and artistry to their works – something the film-makers themselves should have absorbed.

ERNEST AND CELESTINE (Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, Belgium, 8)

There’s no fooling the audience in a kid’s movie — their reaction tells you with brutal honesty whether a film is working. The moment I knew ERNEST & CELESTINE had the audience hooked came during a scene where some ink blotches get timed and shaped to music. Despite the avant-garde sounding precept, a girl one row in front of me at a TIFF Family screening was waving her arms around in a kid’s idea of a conductor’s gestures. And the little girl was right to be hooked … I now regret missing A TOWN CALLED PANIC by this same Belgian animation team.

The story isn’t much — unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear, who live in parallel cities above and below ground, and each is threatened with community ostracism for this unnatural liaison. The animation is stylish, but in a deliberately low-tech way for a minimalist, hand-drawn retro look that resembles 50s/60s French movie posters. But this kind of film is entirely about the details – attitude, tone and asides that are often at their funniest when they are at their most irrelevant and irreverent. And on that score, ERNEST & CELESTINE is pure fun from beginning to end, with more than enough double entendres (in the broadest sense, not the sexual one) to amuse everyone. Like the original BABE, it’s both wise and wiseacre, and often at the same time; for example one early line from an elderly Rodentian authority figure tells Celestine “only in fairy tales can bears be friends with mice.” Also like BABE, it’s scary and funny, also often at the same time, as when Ernest has a lightbulb moment involving a roast chicken and some breadcrumbs.

But what I appreciated most was the irrelevant details, that reflect a pure whimsy and joy in world-creation worthy of the Warners cartoons. One joke about how mice in weight training do bench presses is both funny for the kids and (for adults who have much knowledge of the real world) macabre. But then it gets twice as funny when we see the bears do the same bench-press method, which is guffawed at because, well, there is no macabre element and They Did It Anyway. Another gag about how Celestine always manages to sneak her way back into Ernest’s cabin literally defies the laws of physics and, like half the Road-Runner / Wile E. Coyote gags, is funny exactly for that reason. ERNEST & CELESTINE doesn’t quite measure up to the best of Pixar but it easily matches everything else in the family-animation field and has equal virtues for … childless adult cynics.

THY WOMB (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines, 6)

Not sure I can really improve on Mike D’Angelo’s Twitter review of Mendoza’s 2008 film SERBIS: “Here’s an environment. Do you like my environment? Immerse yourself in the environment I offer you. That is all.” http://www.panix.com/~dangelo/nyff08.html Though since Mike gave SERBIS a not-recommended 40/100, to my guardedly-recommended 6/10 for THY WOMB, I guess I should at least try to. Still, it should be obvious in my initial joke that I am recommending THY WOMB entirely on that “do you like my environment” terms. The film is 80% ethnography to 20% drama, and anyone looking for a gripping story or unwilling to tolerate longueurs should stay the sex-act-euphemism away. Given my general aesthetic preferences, my willingness to overlook something I almost never would in a film from North America or Western Europe could be called Orientalism or exoticism. If so, so be it. I have never been to the Muslim areas of the southern Philippine islands – emphasis on the noun there … if memory serves, there are no roads in this film (certainly they are few and far between) and all significant transportation is by boat. And since I do not like to travel, one reason among others I like to go to foreign films is to learn stuff.

The plot of THY WOMB barely consists of more than “a woman, who is a midwife, is infertile, she advises her husband to get a second wife, he does so after solving some dowry issues, they have baby.” The ending is … for reasons I don’t want to spoil … enigmatic. To tread vaguely, it can read as horribly ironic. Or, if we take the world as portrayed here seriously, maybe not. These details create a whole world, an environment to immerse … [stop it, Victor, stop it]. The ritual slaughter of a cow and the selling of a boat’s motor both resonate heavier, precisely because the islands’ environment has been so meticulously set up. Selling a boat motor is like selling a bike in 1940s Italy in a way it wouldn’t be in the US, and cows are a precious commodity but even they have to be transported by boat (to awkward effect in one of THY WOMB’s best scenes). Also for example, we see an attack by armed guerrillas on the couple’s fishing boat, the remains of a shot-up Catholic church during another trip, and gunfire breaking out at another couple’s wedding (featuring an eye-opening method of gift-giving). And in all three cases, it was downplayed. For example, after the boat raid, the couple went home to dress the husband’s wounds; no authorities (what authorities?) were ever called and the attack was never referred to afterward. During the wedding, people start to panic at the sound of gunfire, but the wife yells out for people to calm down and continue dancing. It’s as if the environment is everything and even the characters themselves don’t want plot events to stop it.

WHAT RICHARD DID (Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland, 2)

… not much actually.

I quipped to a bud afterward that “it’s CRIMES AND MISEMEANORS shot in the style of a muted after-school special starring Chris O’Donnell.” He said that sounds interesting, and while I guess it might, in this case it is not, because WHAT RICHARD DID is flat, thin and underdeveloped in every way. There’s really only enough material here for a 10-minute short – spoilers ahoy, but really, this film is going nowhere, and the basic premise is the first of about three plot points (rinse and repeat what I said about exoticism regarding THY WOMB; sorry, Irish bourgeoisie). Nevertheless, that plot point occurs about 40 minutes into the film, which I’d normally count as spoiler territory and try to avoid – but believe me, I was looking since the title tells you to expect the central character to do something bad. One of the aggravating things about this film is that it spends so long showing Richard doing everything but shitting rose petals in such obvious counterpoint that you spend almost half the film twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the shoe to drop. Meanwhile, what you’re seeing isn’t interesting enough in a hanging-out vibe to compensate.

The titular character, a rugby-team captain graduating private school and with his adult life ready to start, gets into a drunken fight and what results would earn him a conviction for something like third-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. But only a couple of folks (also complicit themselves to some degree, and also drunk) know what happened to teammate Connor and the investigation isn’t looking in Richard’s direction. Hence my CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS comparison – can I live with the knowledge of myself as a killer. Not only is Abrahamson no Woody Allen (much less a Dostoevsky), but lead actor Jack Reynor can’t even begin to compare to Martin Landau. He’s appropriately attractive and has a winning personality but can’t deliver a torn soul. The spiritual wrestling here is to the real thing what WWE wrestling is to the real thing. The only real relationship is with his father (there’s a rote girlfriend and Richard’s undifferentiated mates), and there are only three real scenes about What The Film Is About after Connor’s death, one of them in a church.

Some of it is director Abrahamson’s fault – in one scene, Richard literally screams aloud, alone, for about a minute but the hand-held digital camera tries to get closeups as he lurches around the room. But it never succeeds, making the scene a (doubly) unfocused mess. In another scene, the rugby club toasts the dead guy Connor and the camera manages to catch every member of the club’s behavior, except the person we want to see (that would be Richard … for me anyway). And the ending … let’s just say that WHAT RICHARD DID gives us a perfect rugby head fake. In other words, it cheats. Like Richard did.

September 11, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 3

ME AND YOU (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy, 5)

I hope Bernardo gets to make another film because I do NOT want the last image of this man’s career to be something as nakedly and banally derivative as the 400 BLOWS endshot accompanied by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” ME AND YOU promises a lot more than it eventually delivers, but it does a good job of promising early, very much in a DREAMERS vein of two self-indulgent privileged assholes (half-siblings in this case) setting up a temporary utopia apart from the world, but parasitic upon it.

Jacopo Antinori and Tea Falco are attractive players and hold the screen well enough – I was reminded of a more aggressively sullen Jesse Eisenberg and Kate Winslet. There’s funny moments involving near simultaneous ring tones and I loved the score early on, even the Italian cover of “Space Oddity” (it sounds like Bowie himself). And ME AND YOU is gorgeous to look at, with enough orange pools of light, dust mites, and eccentric angles and movements to make me think Vittorio Storaro were still around. I especially loved a swirling shot that mostly looked up through a glass ceiling to the floor above.

But at about the hour mark, I began to get restless, as the script’s wheels begin to spin (or maybe, “bog down” … “spin” implies SOME movement and a working engine). It’s fine to have Antinori walk in a figure-8 pattern around two objects, as an armadillo had done earlier in a pet shop, but … Bernardo, it’s insulting to intercut the boy with “reminder” shots of the animal from earlier. Also, structurally, a problem with these isolated world / “Elvira Madigan” scenarios is that they really need to have the outside world intrude somehow, and that neither happens here nor much threatens to. And once the sister has set herself up in the idyll (the family basement), ME AND YOU doesn’t really create much conflict between the two of them, so the film winds up being about … not much really except some drug-withdrawal moments. The ending is also far too open-ended and irresolved for my tastes. Even that junkie angle makes the film play like JESUS SON without the loopy digressive interludes. Which is also to say … not much.

WHAT MAISIE KNEW (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, USA, 3)

What Victor knew is Henry James. And I can’t describe this film’s rotten soul without describing the resolution, so consider that your warning. But in one sentence – Henry James wrote a novel about the wickedness of divorce and/or parents (the novel’s allows for both non-exclusive interpretation); Scott McGehee and David Siegel made a film about the virtue of step-parents and the wickedness of birth parents.

The key is two major changes – Maisie’s fate and her age. The story of both works kicks in with a divorce in which the two parents (Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore here) share custody of a 6-year-old girl. Moore and Coogan are typically fine – Coogan getting a chance to play his self-absorbed tool persona in a dramatic context. But Moore’s greatness only allows her to stay afloat against a script that paints her as a complete bitch until she has to make a complete turn on a dime at The Big Confrontation scene at the end. In both film and novel, allowing for different particulars of the two eras (at this level of finding different-times equivalents, McGehee and Siegel have done a good job of adaptation) the two parents are head-thumpingly awful human beings, using Maisie as a tool against the other. In both works, both couples remarry, but here is where the changes start to happen, and not for any reason other than making this film the latest Holly/Indiewood salvo against the traditional family.

The first change is that Maisie is played by the same actress, 6- or 7-year-old Onita Aprile throughout, and as a result, the film has to compress the events of about a decade into at most one year. This means that Maisie’s character trajectory from naïve girl to self-aware teenager is completely gone. Aprile has the right face – semi-opaque as if she understands but doesn’t quite get what she sees. She is now essentially now a one-note character, putting all the chips on the parental characters and making the title rather misleading, or at least grossly underdeveloped for the title theme.

Which leads to the second and more damaging change — the absence of a dotty, silly servant named Mrs. Wix and how that affects the ending. In James, all four parents cheat, the step-parents with each other. In the film, the natural parents basically abandon Maisie and the step-parents (here played by Joanna Venderham and Alexander Sarsgard) only get together in the context of caring for Maisie when each gets left in the lurch by their spouses and only become a couple at the very end, accordingly softening James’s critique of parents and divorce and making an excuse for these step-parents. And at the end, James’s Maisie stays with Mrs. Wix, because she’s convinced that the newly together step-parents will fail, because of her experience and their corrupt circumstances. A novel about divorce, a corrupt marriage society and an adult growing into an understanding of love separate from marriage becomes an apologia for the post-modern family and a distasteful game of a child shopping for ideal parents – NORTH for the art-house set.

AMOUR (Michael Haneke, France, 9)

The World’s Best Pure Director is back after being on a two-film losing streak with me. I didn’t like either the unnecessary FUNNY GAMES remake and the risible “Nazism is bad” period piece WHITE RIBBON, and I had officially supplanted Haneke at the summit of my esteem with the Dardenne brothers. But with AMOUR, Haneke returns to the top of his form, with material ideally suited to it – a clinical, nearly one-set look at an elderly couple, Anne and Georges (astonishingly played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) as she has a stroke and slips into dementia.

Even if I didn’t know, there never would have been any doubt whose work this is – a heart in the mouth moment, a sudden act of unexpected violence, grueling subject matter, lengthy takes with few camera moves but much movement within the frame, rhyming compositions near the start and the end, the literal start with a bang that gets rhymed with a piano concerto that does the same, the fastidious attention to details of sound and decor, the splendidly enigmatic but explicable (to me anyway) final scenes (three head-scratchers here; the impossible scene, the pigeon, the final shot). The only new element, some folks have said, is a surprising auteurial affection for his characters and theirs for each other. Without denying that – the film after all is called AMOUR not MORT (something the very last shot underlines by indirection) – I’d also deny that Haneke’s teutonic moralism is absent. Look at the “impossible” scene and the judgmental fate it implies. At a minimum, this film is a tragedy, not the Haneke remake of a recent Clint Eastwood film I had been expecting and that AMOUR might be consumed as.

But let me just describe one scene for a sense of how much Haneke can pack into one element – a running tap. In an early scene Anne goes blank and nonresponsive while sitting with Georges at the kitchen table, and so he hurries (to the extent his own 80-ish body will allow) over to the tap to wet a towel. Because he is concerned, he leaves it running and that’s the loudest sound as he strives to revive her, the sound of running water an archetype for life slipping away. When that fails, he slowly hurries over to the phone two rooms away to call for help, but even as the camera leaves the kitchen the tap continues dominating the soundtrack, a reminder of the race against time. As he’s calling the number, the sound of the water suddenly turns off, startling both us and Georges. When he gets back to the kitchen, the conversation is based on the tap – Anne scolds Georges for leaving it running, the only thing she knows about the last several minutes. One effect has had four different meanings/uses in a couple of minutes of screen time.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR (Olivier Assayas, France, 5)

I suppose it helps to have as an entree into this film that you were part of The 60s Generation and/or think student radicalism and occupying stuff is awesome, man (this writer was cheering on the Paris cops in the opening scene, so … no). But even if you do, there is no excuse for this film’s dramatic shortcomings. If Assayas had deliberately tried to make a film that shows by negative example the awesomeness of CARLOS – and besides auteurial commonalities, the two films share some period, milieu and structural similarities – he couldn’t have done a heck of a lot better than SOMETHING IN THE AIR.

The first thing that’s missing from SOMETHING that CARLOS had in spades was a great crime/terrorism/“activism” set-piece that got its hooks into you and showed what this character was capable of and why he mattered. The OPEC raid might have been an impossible standard but even Carlos’s early attacks had more of an element of “build” to them, and the sheer number compensated. Here, we just get a demonstration The Pigs break up, followed by a graffiti attack and a Molotov-cocktail/flour-ing. There’s exhilarating flow in the first and some high stakes in the last, but not much else. The second thing missing is a dominating, charismatic central performance, one that structures and unites and pulls through an episodic AndThen-ist narrative. Edgar Ramirez would have won the Skandies best actor any year except Jesse Eisenberg’s SOCIAL NETWORK sweep; Clement Metayer is at best adequate as the Assayas proxy who’s the closest thing to a protagonist this movie has (at worst he’s downright boring).

Without set pieces or a strong lead character, Assayas reverts to a style I associate with films of his I dislike (DEMONLOVER, LATE AUGUST EARLY SEPTEMBER and LES DETINEES SENTIMENTALES), which have a weird, “backing-into” quality, in which Assayas seems to be trying to create a milieu or aura in which the narrative threads just happens to glance off each other and at the side of the screen. (Those were also the first three Assayas films I saw, so there’s a little part of me that doesn’t trust my memory of those films.) In SOMETHING, this bad effect is exaggerated by the fact that Assayas follows a half-dozen characters’ lives for several years in early 70s, which themselves only take up the first 20(?) minutes. As a result the film gets bogged down in repetitive Basil Exposition scenes, ticking off a “catching-up” checklist as you might do with your Christmas card.

So Assayas has failed to create characters and situations that matter, though his direction almost saves the film. Eric Gautier’s camera is so fluid you practically drink it in and is never not in the right place, always managing to catch the action even in a scene that is the archetype of chaos, the street riot. I especially approved of an early upward track with a slight downward pan as a woman was leaving the hero in the woods and tells him not to watch her leave – the new angle means we see her part but not whether he was looking. The repeated fire motifs brighten matters up and tie together some of this sprawling material. And I also heartily approve of “60s was a failure” / “radicalism was/is just a means to the real goal of scoring chicks” / “radicalism gets commodified” as themes. But in a better film.

September 10, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 2

RUST AND BONE (Jacques Audiard, France, 5)

I probably would’ve given this a 4 had I not then immediately seen the film I did – persuading me there are worse things in the world than an undisciplined, nonsensical script filled with superb actors and a director who at least knows what he’s doing. Audiard even sometimes manages an arresting image, such as the hazy-minded killer-whale attack that deprives a Sea World girl of her legs. And Skandies FYC: killer-whale reunion. Marion Cotillard gets the big Oscar-bait “where’s the rest of me?” scene (and she does well by it). But Matthias Schoenaerts is even better as her sorta-lover Ali, in a role that requires him to be a lovable brute who never asks us to like him and frankly does some despicable things. I haven’t liked either of the two films I’ve seen him in (BULLHEAD being the other), but he could be a great star.

But at the end of the day, RUST AND BONE is still basically a Jean Claude Van Damme movie – LIONHEART to be specific – in which a bulgin’ Belgian responds to a medical issue by making money in illegal bare-knuckle fights. As for the legless Cotillard, RUST compares unfavorably to DIVING BELL AND BUTTERFLY, in terms of putting you inside a handicapped person’s head … here, it feels rushed and pat, like just a minor speed bump or one of the broken noses or cuts Schoenaerts takes in his fights, before she becomes the collector of illegal bets at an illegal activity (handicapped women are SO well suited for that role, let me tellz ya). And no way, no how am I buying that any man has ever first bedded a woman, much less one he once offended by assuming she was a whore, with the line “so, you wanna fuck?” (If this actually works on you … you have my combox for your contact info.)  Other unmotivated or unbelievable actions abound – why would Stephanie respond to losing her legs by calling Ali, who is barely more than a stranger?; and why did Ali’s sister and brother-in-law … change their tune … so quickly near the end? Ali’s fight career (from a French Kimbo Slice to a world title fight) and Stephanie’s recovery both progress far too quickly for the amount of change we see in Ali’s growing boy. And the subplots of Ali’s son and Ali’s day job, which involves installing spy cameras, have been too thin to carry the emotional weight Audiard seems to want to give them near the end. It’s well-done French nonsense, in the limited sense that montages set to Katy Perry music and people doing The Wave is “French.” But still nonsense.

THE GREAT KILAPY (Zeze Gamboa, Angola, 1)

One of the most inexplicable choices for a major film festival I have ever seen. I’ve zero-zapped Toronto films like GERRY or MARTYRS before, but I can at least get why they were programmed. THE GREAT KILAPY may be the most uninspired film, at once utterly incompetent while maintaining a certain veneer of competence, that I think I’ve ever seen here. Besides making RUST AND BONE look good, I’m really considering whether I was too harsh on TABU, with which KILAPY shares a structural similarity – a first half set in Portugal, a second in Portuguese colonial Africa (though here the protagonist is a black member of the local upper crust rather than a Portuguese woman). Unless there was some African quota number to be reached, I can’t even imagine what could possess a professional programmer to think KILAPY was worthy.

To start with, the film is neither thrilling nor funny (#fact … certainly nobody in the audience laughed or gasped much). It’s a measure of KILAPY’s incompetence at basic dramaturgy, scene-building, pacing and tonal cues that I’m not certain whether the film was trying to be a comedy, a thriller, both or neither. KILAPY’s basic premise implies some combination of those elements – Joaozinho, the son of a well-connected Angolan, lives a wastrel life in 1960s Lisbon but falls in with independence activists and leftist radicals, while really only caring about money and sex. When sent back to Angola he gets a position in a bank, which he starts bilking to fund an MPLA activist friend and his own taste for Mercedes roadsters. You can see all the ways this basic skeleton might work – as a cynical demythologization, as a caper comedy, as a crime procedural, as a political awakening. But it just … happens. And lies there, with nothing even to indicate the film-makers even realize that they don’t know what they’re doing. There is exactly one scene that threatens to be good – Joaozinho’s father listening to an MPLA radio broadcast while his son enters the house. The rest is a whole lot of “AndThen-ing.”

Nor is KILAPY incompetent in an entertaining or crude way a la Ed Wood. Every scene is perfectly evenly lit, not a shadow or blemish or hint of grain in sight (except for stock footage “establishing” 1969 Luanda so mismatched it’s almost … almost … parodic). It so clean-scrubbed and plastic and false it looks like interminable footage of toothpaste commercials or fourth-rate telenovelas. KILPAY is for some reason narrated by a middle-aged white man who was witness to the very end of events (not that he gets involved in some key way … oh no) to a young black woman in the present day. Why he’s doing this, whether he succeeds, why it matters … dammit, I’ve already spent too much time on a film that nobody (other than the Portuguese, Brazilian, Mozambican and Angolan bureaucrats who funded it) is ever gonna see.

THE PERVERTS GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY (Sophie Fiennes, Britain, 7)

I could largely repeat what I wrote a few years ago about Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek’s THE PERVERTS GUIDE TO CINEMA a few years ago at Toronto (https://vjmorton.wordpress.com/2006/09/09/toronto-day-1-capsules/), only more so. IDEOLOGY repeats the formula, only more so – it’s 60 percent brilliant, 20 percent idiotic and 20 percent wtff? But as film, it’s compulsively and thrillingly watchable. Zizek himself has so much charisma and so non-pedantic, he’s such an astute film critic, and the film is such an editing and effects virtuoso act (e.g. you see Zizek liking on the TAXI DRIVER set, seen from overhead like Travis while wearing the same costume). In addition, IDEOLOGY is film sociocriticism of the highest order and Zizek is so blessedly free of the smelly orthodoxies of this benighted era that even its intellectual failures are (1) of the sort you feel privileged to say “but wait … that’s nucking futs!!!” and (2) inherent in the ideas to which Zizek has committed himself (primarily, post-communist leftism and Lacan psychoanalysis).

IDEOLOGY is also so thoroughly up my alley in terms of the intellectual fields through which Zizek is running (whatever the precise pattern he’s running). Zizek does a wonderful read on BRIEF ENCOUNTER, which happens to be the only film I ever gave to my shrink and insist that he watch, and how the Big Other is constructed. All-encompassing threats like the shark in JAWS are popular precisely because they can be filled with whatever the viewer wants (one thing I constantly keep in mind when reading film criticism). In this brutally truthful film, Zizek sees ideology everywhere, understands the importance of appearance, had me rolling in the aisles at his drinking a Starbucks, thrilled me with his (agreement with my) reads on the “Officer Krupke” number from WEST SIDE STORY, the Noble Lie in THE DARK KNIGHT and military discipline in FULL METAL JACKET, and he gives prime of place to subjectivity over “objective” material conditions (“how do we subjectivize our objective circumstances” in Zizek’s words, is, if it’s a meaningful question at all, the decisive refutation of classic Marx, though Zizek doesn’t act as if he realizes that).

And that last puts the finger on why I found IDEOLOGY almost as maddening as exhilarating (besides his carelessness with details. The journalist in me could pick all day at statements like “TAXI DRIVER is an ‘unacknowledged’ SEARCHERS remake”; “Dostoevsky never said ‘if there is no God all is permitted’,” and “the system of apartheid” in Rhodesia). But more importantly Zizek starts from commitments he cannot question within his own subjectivity and so as a result keeps painting himself into corners and a welter of contradictions. I could write for days on that, so let me just give one example. He argues, using images from THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST that Christianity is atheistic. Because, he claims, Christianity denies the Jewish God by answering the Job question, the unanswerability of which can ground God as the Big Other. But this Big Other “dies on the Cross” and now God guarantees meaning in the universe through His own act of sacrificial love. Given Lacanian psychology as a master discourse, against which religious claims are measured (as Zizek does), that does follow. But the nuttiness of “Christianity is atheistic” or “the only way to become an atheist is to go through Christianity” (that’s a different argument, BTW) doesn’t deter Zizek, and the obvious rejoinder – that love might itself provide a different, superior grounding for God; that Deus Caritas Est, as some recent book has claimed – is an idea that, on the basis of this film, has never occurred to Zizek. Of course, since he later says “we cannot know God’s will because God does not exist,” he’s not even careful with his own contradictions. But well, that’s Zizek. And this film.

FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, USA, 7)

Just christen me “The Grouch of TIFF 12,” since everybody I know seems to like this film even more than I do. And don’t get me wrong, give me a half-way developed ending and that grade goes up at least one and possibly two points. Which is a shame because until then, this may be Baumbach’s best film and all thanks and praise must go to, and glory be unto the name of, Greta Gerwig, who could become the Chris Eigemann of the 10s, dividing time between being Whit Stillman’s muse and Noah Baumbach’s (and rejuvenating their careers one hopes).

FRANCES is a tragicomic tale of brightly-dialogued and hyper-self-aware downward mobility, with one’s life measured out, not with coffee spoons, but with roommates and “prospect” jobs and apartment moves. (As someone who’s held basically the same job for 13 years, lived in the same place for 10 and been by myself for 20 … this is a world profoundly alien to me.) Gerwig plays a Brooklyn ballet apprentice (so I must ask: a dancer and … no sambola. Why, Greta … why???!!?) whose career hopes and ability to pay her share of the rent are based on becoming an official understudy, getting extra performances for Christmas season and general hopes to choreograph her own show. Her downward spiral, as she gets gradually reduced to being a summer RA at her alma mater, constitutes the main trajectory. The dialog and positioning among hypercompetitive people draws passive-aggressive blood as things are said with half an eye on their truth and half on their appearance. (Frances’ trip to Paris is what a Haneke comedy would look like.) This is a society as snobbish and appearance-obsessed as Balzac’s Paris or Wharton’s New York, both comparisons that these characters would blanche at because they’re so much beyond All That and have the degrees to prove it. The only constant in Frances’ life is her friendship with Sophie, which she repeatedly sabotages and re-establishes. And if I’m made FRANCES HA sound grim and self-serious … mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Like Balzac or Wharton, it’s tremendously funny account of status anxiety among the snobs.

But that ending … to everybody fawning over this film who doesn’t have an equally high grade for YOUR SISTER’S SISTER (and you know who you are): How is the montage that substitutes for a third act in the Shelton film any less lazy than the montage that Baumbach deploys here? After 82 minutes of Frances being her own worst enemy, of throwing away opportunities (and wasting thousands(?) of bucks in the Paris trip, e.g.) in the name of pride and appearance and self-conception, all of which I adore per se … how is the last 4 minutes possible? Frances turns from a hipster fuck-up to a reasonably effectual person on the turn of a dime. And it’s not anything that actually happens in that 81st minute – nothing happened there that hadn’t happened before. In addition, it’s not as if unmotivated and unconvincing denouements were a problem I haven’t been having with Baumbach’s last couple of films (which way MARGOT AT THE WEDDING and GREENBERG flip in terms of a character “taking a trip” is pure chance). To cite a journalistic aphorism – one is an anecdote, two is coincidence, three is a trend.

September 8, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 1

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SANS SOLEIL (Chris Marker, France, 1982, 9)

Despite the grade, this heady essay film isn’t perfect — it seems to be some sort of rule that every French leftist intellectual’s stream-of-consciousness has to contain at least three monumentally stupid pseudo-profundities, a quota Marker manages to meet (did you know the American “occupation” introduced puritanical sexphobia into Japan? I sure didn’t.)

But at some point, I quit caring. My jaw was on the floor more often than an overmatched fighter’s, as mind-boggling image piled upon Soviet-worthy montage and as expressionist sound mix competed for attention with technologically-altered footage that isn’t mere wankery. I have the word “wow” written out to the side about a half-dozen times – to scenes of faceless shadows passing bricks to one another without looking, Narita airport protesters turned into abstract shapes by “The Zone,” an endless single take of ticketing at Tokyo subway, people sleeping on train intercut to J-horror shots and then a woman waking up, the whack-a-”mole” game, the giraffe slaughter (not for the squeamish) matched to music that sounded like an electronic version of closing music from UGETSU, and a silly aphorism about Japanese TV watching you that gets illustrated by a progressively faster-rotating montage of faces and eyes almost making this absurd thought seem palatable.

Speaking of Soviet-worthy … Marker is a Commie, but even if you ignore all the filmic gorgeosity, this didn’t really bother me either, because he’s not blind to the failures of left-wing causes. He returns to the demonstrators having the same fight over an airport as they did 10 years ago “only now the airport is there.” He admires the post-60s generation’s spirit but not their utopianism. I also would cite this film’s material on the former Portuguese Guinea as a classic case of a Marxist losing his faith, or at least losing the optimism and confidence that, in its classic form, is intrinsic to Marxism. Not only does Marker underline the “what do we do now” problem all anti-colonial revolutionaries faced, but his (aestheticized) footage of a guerrilla attack removes all the cheap Che romanticism and he frankly acknowledges the bloody history of Guinea Bissau’s independence. In order to “keep the faith” as it were, Marker has to retreat to aphorisms like “history progresses by forgetting” and finally that history has only one permanent ally, “the Horror” (Indeed, I would argue from exactly those premises that there are therefore no such things as “progress” or “history,” but I digress.)

I have it in my head that I recently read about SANS SOLEIL being dismissed as “Chris Marker’s vacation footage,” which … I guess it is, in a sense (some of it is just as clearly found footage), but with editing and voiceover like this, it’s anything but unshaped. It’s also incredibly funny at times – three words: talking Kennedy mannequin. Also Japan developing “a cheaper, more efficient form of Catholicism.” Marker turns it all into a meditation on death, on cultures’ (Japan’s most of all) relationship to it, and on the ways the future relates to the past and vice versa. So naturally, one of the most breath-taking sequences concerns Marker’s love for VERTIGO and his tour of San Francisco. And in a fortuitous coincidence, because Hitch was withholding VERTIGO’s rights, Marker had to use still photographs to illustrate his points about memory and loss. Sound familiar?

Image

TABU (Miguel Gomes, Portugal, 4)

Anchovies are wonderful. Chocolate sauce is wonderful. This wheat beer I’m having right now is wonderful. Anchovies smothered in chocolate sauce and beer is not wonderful. In precisely that sense, TABU is not wonderful. TABU’s ingredients can be wonderful on their own, or on a pizza or over ice cream or with chicken wings. There are good reasons why films mixing certain things is taboo (sorry) and TABU illustrates some of them.

After a folkloric overture, we get one tonal mistake after another. The first part of TABU, “Paradise Lost” is a semi-absurdist comedy largely about three women – an elderly Portuguese woman Aurora, her black maid whom she suspects of putting curses on her, and her younger best friend who wonders about a missing daughter and whom the old woman asks to track down a man’s name, Gian Luca. The problem here is simply that the material is only theoretically funny, though if David Lynch’s deadpan ellipses and indulgences in weird bizarrerie crack you up, feel free to ignore me.

The second half, “Paradise,” is more successful than the first on its own, but it’s both a tonal misfit with the first and unsuccessful on its own terms because of what I’ll call “the gimmick.” Set in Portuguese colonial Africa (likely Mozambique but it’s not made explicit), the story follows a younger Aurora and her romantic involvements. But The Gimmick here is that there is no diegetic dialogue, the film instead featuring only shared voice-over narration and even letters between illicit lovers. The film is also in black-and-white, with the back half being in a grainier format; so it does look nice. And there is a Portuguese cover of “Be My Baby” that I will be trying to hunt down – TABU has its merits, no doubt.

The problem is that the back half is all intended to be hyper-romantic and swoonworthy (I mentioned THE ENGLISH PATIENT afterward to Kenji Fujishima and he said Gomes had cited OUT OF AFRICA in the Q-and-A, which I fled), but it is not, primarily because The Gimmick gets in the way. Depriving people of dialog turns them into abstractions and prevents any real emotional involvement. And while I can get intellectually that the gimmick is more like “memory,” it’s too distancing to move someone other than the actual rememberer. Similarly, the ending is clearly intended to emotionally slay you, and if I’d given a crap about anything that had preceded it, I may very well be counting myself among the slain. (In case it’s not clear, unlike with many bad films, I really can see how some people can [wrongly] think this film great.) As it is, I’m quite firmly alive and unslain.

September 6, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

My Toronto schedule

If it’s Labor Day weekend, this must be Canada. But first let me rant.

I went this year with the online ticket ordering, and I doubt I’ll do it again if I come back (which is by no means a certainty) because of an idiotic cockup in how it handles second choices. They apparently just assign them by priority without regard for time, which resulted in my getting more than one ticket for several time slots in the first few days. In addition, there’s several films I want to see but didn’t even try for — Refn’s DRIVE, Ramsey’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN and Almodovar’s THE SKIN I LIVE IN — because there was only one true public screening thanks to the festival’s loading up on $40-a-ticket “Premium Screenings” that my $700-upfront-for-50-films pass can’t even be used for at all. Do Canadians really call America “the land of bilk and money”? If so, here’s a good ol’ American Bronx cheer at’cha 8-d…… Another discouraging two-year trend has been the increasing dearth of weekday daytime screenings (and near-absence of morning ones) in favor of more at night and on weekends. I realize these times were “somewhat” less attended than others, but in 10 years and more than 400 films at Toronto, regardless of the time of day, I have never seen the kind of three-folks-per-row theaters that commercial multiplexes would still consider good business four days a week, minimum. And probably a majority of the films, even during work hours, have been packed.

Yeah, yeah … first-world problems, I know. And if I ever bitch about the Wi-Fi like Jeffrey Wells, just go ahead and shoot me. But I’ve always told non-cinephile friends that I go to Toronto every year because is the best film-festival in the world for ordinary folks, i.e., people without press badges or jobs in the industry. Obviously there’s the red-carpet juried affairs in Cannes and Venice, but those fests are not open to the general public, at least as far as actually seeing the films is concerned (as red-carpet props, we serfs are fine, apparently). That had never been the case with Toronto, which was round-the-clock awesomeness (plus a Godard show or two #ducks) open to everybody. When presenting ANOTHER YEAR in 2009, Mike Leigh said he loves to bring his films there because “it’s a people’s festival.” Every year for the last several, it has become increasingly less so.

OK … rant over. Here is my schedule, which is more in flux than usual thanks to the scheduling woes. Here’s the weird coding: a film title underlined means I’m gonna try to exchange or buy a ticket at the box office; a film title in italics means I plan to get into the rush line for last-minute tickets just before the screening; two consecutive films marked with an asterisk means I have tickets for both but they effectively play at the same time. In the last case, I now plan to see the first-named time but that may change depending on buzz. Strange that the only day I know I’m gonna see six films is the usually light first day (thanks to a 4 1/2-hour German project that consists of three narratively interlocking 90-minute films by different directors). Wait … three films for the price of one? Maybe TIFF isn’t so bad after all.

Thu, 8 Sept
noon DREILEBEN Jackman Hall
— “Beats Being Dead” (Christian Petzold, Germany)
— “Don’t Follow Me Around” (Dominik Graf, Germany)
— “One Minute of Darkness” (Christoph Hochhäusler, Germany)
600pm INTO THE ABYSS (Werner Herzog, USA) Ryerson Theatre
945pm THIS IS NOT A FILM (Jafar Panahi, Iran) Lightbox 3
midnight THE RAID (Gareth Evans, Indonesia) Ryerson Theatre

Fri, 9 Sept
200pm PLAY (Ruben Ostlund, Sweden) AMC 4
530pm BEAUTY (Oliver Hermanus, South Africa) AMC 2
530pm KEYHOLE (Guy Maddin, Canada) Lightbox 1
* 815pm GOOD BYE (Mohammed Rasoulof, Iran) AMC 6
* 930pm CHICKEN WITH PLUMS (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Perronaud, France) Isabel Bader Theatre
midnight GOD BLESS AMERICA (Bobcat Goldthwait, USA) Ryerson Theatre

Sat, 10 Sept
1000am THE ARTIST (Michel Hazanavicius, France) Lightbox 2
100pm A MONSTER IN PARIS (Bibo Bergeron, France) Lightbox 2
300pm GOON (Michael Dowse, Canada) Ryerson Theatre
400pm A SEPARATION (Asghar Farhadi, Iran) Lightbox 3
* 645pm AZHAGARSAMY’S HORSE (Suseendran, India) AMC 3
* 615pm MONSTERS CLUB (Toshiaki Toyoda, Japan) AMC 2
915pm BUNOHAN (Dain Said, Malaysia) AMC 2

Sun, 11 Sept
1230pm THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne, USA) Winter Garden Theatre
300pm MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Sean Durkin, USA) Ryerson Theatre
600pm IN DARKNESS (Agnieska Holland, Poland) Elgin Theatre
915pm MISS BALA (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico) Scotiabank 4
midnight LIVID (Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, France) Ryerson Theatre

Mon, 12 Sept
1100am RAMPART (Oren Moverman, USA) Elgin Theatre
200pm TWIXT (Francis Coppola, USA) Scotiabank 13 2
515pm FOOTNOTE (Joseph Cedar, Israel) Lightbox 2
930pm AMONG US (Marco Van Geffen, Holland) AMC 5

Tue, 13 Sept
900am THE LONELIEST PLANET (Julia Loktev, USA) Lightbox 1
1215pm YOUR SISTER’S SISTER (Lynn Shelton, USA) Lightbox 1
315pm SHAME (Steve McQueen, Britain) Lightbox 1
615pm ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) Lightbox 1
915pm A BETTER LIFE (Cedric Kahn, France) Lightbox 1

Wed, 14 Sept
915am DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (Whit Stillman, USA) Scotiabank 4
1215pm THE MOTH DIARIES (Mary Harron, Canada) Scotiabank 4
300pm ALPS (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece) Lightbox 2
730pm MICHAEL (Markus Schleinzer, Austria) Lightbox 2
930pm SLEEPING BEAUTY (Julia Leigh, Australia) Lightbox 1

Thu, 15 Sept
945am INVASION (Hugo Santiago, Argentina, 1969) Lightbox 2
230pm TRESPASS (Joel Schumacher, USA) Elgin Theatre
545pm THE LAST CRISTEROS (Matias Meyer, Mexico) AMC 3
745pm THE KID WITH A BIKE (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium) Isabel Bader Theatre

Fri, 16 Sept
930am OUTSIDE SATAN (Bruno Dumont, France) Lightbox 2
1145am HABEMUS PAPAM (Nani Moretti, Italy) Scotiabank 3
215pm LAS ACACIAS (Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina) AMC 2
600pm TYRANNOSAUR (Paddy Considine, Britain) Elgin Theatre
830pm THE OTHER SIDE OF SLEEP (Rebecca Daly, Ireland) Jackman Hall
midnight SMUGGLER (Katsuhito Ishii, Japan) Ryerson Theatre

Sat, 17 Sept
930am CORIOLANUS (Ralph Fiennes, Britain) Scotiabank 3
245pm MELANCHOLIA (Lars Von Trier, Denmark) Ryerson Theatre
615pm THE DEEP BLUE SEA (Terence Davies, Britain) Lightbox 1
900pm KILLER JOE (William Friedkin, USA) Elgin Theatre

Sun, 18 Sept
1230pm THE TURIN HORSE (Bela Tarr, Hungary) Lightbox 3
315pm THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD (Joshua Marston, USA/Albania) Lightbox 2
600pm GOODBYE FIRST LOVE (Mia Hansen-Love, France) Scotiabank 1
915pm THE LAST GLADIATORS (Alex Gibney, USA) Scotiabank 4

September 1, 2011 Posted by | TIFF 2011 | 6 Comments

My Toronto schedule

Labor Day has come and gone, so in honor of last year’s best film at the Toronto International Film Festival (and the best film to be released commercially in the US this year) — it’s mother-tiffing time. The schedulers have made several changes since last year — all of them bad IMHO.

(1) basically all the Gala premieres are now special-ticket only and thus can’t be bought with passes, which means that with a lot of the Hollywood tentpole films, there’s only one chance (in a couple of cases, none) to see it; (2) they’ve extended the festival a day into a second Sunday, which I’m gonna take advantage of, but might make The Festival Wall even harder; (3) they’ve gutted the weekday morning programming (devoting fewer than half the number of screens as previous festivals) and backloaded the festival in terms of sheer numbers.

As I said on my Twitter feed @vjmfilms, where I’ll have an instant reax to every movie I see, there is exactly one (1) film shown to the general public before 3pm Friday that looks like a more attractive experience than having my balls chewed off, and it has two (2) of the five (5) public screening slots in those two half-days (frankly, if I had seen the schedule before booking my plane and hotel, I’d have delayed my trip a day).

But TIFF is still TIFF, and even when it looks like down, it’ll be awesome task to see 40+ films. There Joe and some other Cannes prize-winners, there’s Mike Leigh leading a flurry of promising looking British films, there are a bunch of mouth-watering documentaries by the genre’s masters, there are major sophomore efforts by Affleck (really), Chomet and Dolan, there are returns to roots (and maybe form) by Ozon and Tanovic, and a couple of new films from still-perfect-in-my-eyes Romania (a country that frankly TIFF has not led the way on).

After the jump is what I have tickets for and so expect to see, with the proviso that good buzz can add films and bad buzz and tiredness can take them away.
Continue reading

September 7, 2010 Posted by | TIFF 2010 | | 6 Comments

Toronto capsules — day 10

(FOR NOW, rather than post nothing until I can get the last few capsules finished, and holding off on other stuff until I do … I’m gonna post the one capsule I have done and update both this post and add a top post linking here when the other four movies get done.)

PoliceAdjective

POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 8)

I’ve frequently said that if Friedrich Nietzsche could ever have seen Kubrick’s 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, I am convinced he would have cried out — “there is my philosophy on film.” Similarly, if his acolyte Michel Foucault could have seen POLICE, ADJECTIVE, he would have had the same reaction. And there is no question that, even if I’m wrong about the specific influence, POLICE is intended to be seen and understood as philosophical discourse (cue Mike’s hissing). The bravura last scene, which radically recodes everything that had gone before, makes at least a rationale for what I acknowledge are the film longueurs. That scene takes the form of a Platonic dialogue, only here, the role of Socrates is played by Vlad Ivanov, back to playing someone as utterly pragmatic as he did in 4 MONTHS. But this dialogue is not primarily about the search for wisdom (or even “language,” per se) but more on that anon.

POLICE, ADJECTIVE centers on a working-class undercover drug cop named Christi investigating what may be a hashish ring involving some high-school students, who seem to be Romanian bourgeoisie. But he’s not seeing more than personal use, which he doesn’t think is really worth busting a couple of teenagers over and marking them for life with a lengthy jail term. Though it takes the form of a “policier,” these parts of the film are extremely slow-paced and action-free — entirely observing and following, with basically no confrontation or even much talk. I got a little frustrated at times, but POLICE, ADJECTIVE is ultimately a film about how discourse (what Foucault called power-knowledge) represses experience and shapes what an individual sees as his conscience. And so the pacing of the previous scenes have to “deliver the goods” to us in something more like “real time,” i.e., in the form that Christi experiences, rather than in the conventions of theatrical time, which is closer to “discourse.”

Besides the observational sequences, the film also has several scenes that drop hints the relationship(s) among discourse, words and power is the ultimate topic. The very first scene involves Christi refusing to let a fellow cop on the “foot tennis” team because “it’s a rule” that if you’re no good at soccer, you stink at foot tennis, to which the colleague responds “where’s that written?” In addition, Christi’s new wife is a grammar teacher who sometimes corrects his usage (“it’s what the Romanian Academy says,” she explains). And she also repeatedly listens to a song Christi doesn’t like, and Poromboiu plays it all the way through while the camera watches him eat dinner in the next room, and then restarts it. Christi complains that the song’s lyrics make no sense, an example of his taking a form of discourse (art) at its most literal.¹ Also, Porumboiu fills up the screen two or three times with pages from Christi’s police report and reads them aloud. The scenes feel inert as they impart no information we haven’t seen, and they also feel reductive and bureaucratically plain. But that’s their function in POLICE, ADJECTIVE: to replace the experience we’ve had with an official discourse about it that will become the basis of everything that follows. In that last scene, Christi refuses to set up a sting, saying his conscience won’t let him. And the Socratic debate, which centers on the meaning of words, commences. The effects of words are extended to the logic of images, in the film’s very last shot, a coda of sorts about what will happen next, and which we never see (credit to Tweep James Hansen for spelling it out in exchanges with me, though I did get it).

As should be obvious, my love with POLICE, ADJECTIVE is intellectual and retrospective, and I’ve acknowledged sometimes getting a bit impatient with it as it unfolded. “There’s too many shots of him eating soup,” my notes say at one point. Porumboiu’s first film, 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST, also had trouble with me early, though more as a not-terribly funny comedy than for slackly-paced emptiness, until (also like POLICE, ADJECTIVE) it became essentially a one-room talking scene, there a Romanian TV talk-show that would give Alan Partridge nightmares. I’ll need to give POLICE, ADJECTIVE a second view to see if knowing everything makes the buildup less tedious. But for now, after having discussed the film, argued on Twitter, reread my notes, and written this review, my memories of POLICE, ADJECTIVE are entirely pleasurable. Oh, wait …
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¹ I forget the specifics, but Christi basically does the equivalent of taking a line like “my love is like a red, red rose” and saying, “how? Does it have thorns or petals, does it give off a scent, what’s ‘red’ about it?” Which (1) couldn’t more miss the point on artistic discourse, and (2) sets up the understanding of language that will be used against him later.

AirDoll

AIR DOLL (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 7)

text.

Hadewijch

HADEWIJCH (Bruno Dumont, France, 9)

text.

EnterVoid

ENTER THE VOID (Gaspar Noe, France, 4 — though really an 8 for style and 0 for content)

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OngBak2

ONG BAK 2: THE BEGINNING (Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai, Thailand, 5)

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October 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Toronto capsules — Day 9

Vincere

The wife that might have been

VINCERE (Marco Bellocchio, Italy, 7)

This film leaves no doubt about the reason for the Vatican’s sex rules … man, you do NOT want to get involved with those Italian chicks: they are murder if you cross them. In fact it even suggests a little-known cause of history. I’d wager that the reason Mussolini had to become dictator of Italy was that that was the only way to get this woman Ida Dalser, who claimed Mussolini married her and fathered their son, out of his hair (and if you’re wondering about Il Duce’s hair …)

More seriously, I was really taken by what was (vjm sheepishly turns red) my first exposure to veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio, whom Pauline Kael was mentioning in the 60s in the same breath as Bertolucci and Fellini. And now that I’ve seen this, I’m even more embarrassed. I realize Bellocchio isn’t of the same generation as Paolo Sorrentino, but I was reminded of Bilge Ebiri’s piece in New York magazine on Sorrentino as world cinema savior, because Bellocchio’s movie has the stylistic boldness and density that what Bilge calls The Cinema of Lack … well, lacks. Speaking of Italian national characteristics, Bellocchio’s editing and scoring have an operatic grandness and an emotional and sensual appeal that were really like a jolt of caffeine for a 830am show at a Festival of Lack.

Like a true theatrical virtuoso, Bellocchio gives his stylistic flourishes a quick and obvious but-never-stated meaning (Fellini is the master of this). In this case, it’s particularly apropos since fascism invented the modern art of politics as theater — a point Bellocchio makes by having fights break out at film screenings. As another example, a then-socialist Mussolini looks out on rioters in a piazza, only he’s just gotten out of bed and is naked. Dalser comes to wrap a blanket around him, for understandable reasons, but suddenly and before our eyes, it becomes a toga and before our eyes is born the idea of Mussolini as Roman emperor ruling over Mare Nostrum. The divinization of the state gets symbolized by a hospital visit to a wounded savior Mussolini. Similarly Bellocchio never tells us, though it’s clear to anyone with two eyes, that Dalser fell in love with Benito the Leftist, and clings to a memory of him even as he becomes more remote, both politically (as Italian fascism moves right and then allies with Nazi Germany) and personally (as he leaves her completely to asylums). Bellocchio underlines this by having Mussolini no longer be played by Filippo Timi but using only the Real Thing in archival footage — as if her private memory we were sharing must recede to the public man.

But man … that Italian woman. For all his stylistic bravado, director Bellocchio got the show stolen by actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Mrs. First Mussolini. Mike’s description of her from Cannes as “ferile” doesn’t do her justice — she’s obsessive and will not be denied, even in the face of sound prudential advice about going-along. It’s not simply grand yelling scenes, but the way Mezzogiorno’s body, gestures and words seem coiled even in relatively routine scenes. And then when she watches a certain silent classic, her tears are both salty and acidic. Indeed, looking back on my notes while writing this capsule, I’m thinking I may have underrated VINCERE.

TimeRemains

The comedy that might have been

THE TIME THAT REMAINS (Elia Suleiman, Palestine, 4)

I seriously considered not going to this film, because Suleiman signed the “Boycott the Festival” manifesto over the Tel Aviv program. I decided against it — “that would make me as bad as him,” basically, but you’ll have to take my word that this is not a “revenge” grade. I got the ticket in the first place because I really liked most of DIVINE INTERVENTION and thus unsurprisingly genuinely did not care for this film, largely because it’s simply not terribly funny. And not because war or occupation are somehow not joking subjects or can’t provide the makings of comedy, whether in Suleiman’s hands or anyone else’s; indeed, DIVINE INTERVENTION showed otherwise. Instead, we get sequences like the 1948 hunt for Suleiman’s father — he was a bombmaker — that are played like straight-up manhunt scenes involving Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones (though paced and timed way too loosey-goosey if we’re meant to take them as perils).

TIME gets better as it goes along, but it only once or twice really lets loose into the deadpan, absurdist, Tati/Keaton vein — what I value Suleiman for. Consider two details: (1) the still I lead this review with, which is an Arab-school choir that won a contest by singing Israel’s national songs. OK … but the scene doesn’t go beyond the premise. It doesn’t build or shade or develop, instead it just continues with the initial irony. (2) The neighbor of the Suleimans, who douses himself with gasoline and threatens suicide until Suleiman’s father comes by to calmly grab the matches out of his hands, in the manner one might grab them from a child. Again, it’s repeated two or three times, but doesn’t develop from one repetition to the next. Suleiman just doesn’t find new riffs for the chords he’s playing. Some of the scenes are funny — a tank gun; or Palestinian rioters and Israeli soldiers exchanging fire, viewed from on high in extreme long shot, only to stop when a woman with a baby walks through. But not enough.

TIME is also, I think, too personal for its own good, putting at its center flashbacks through the life story of Suleiman’s parents since the 1948 “Catastrophe” (that’s the very establishment of Israel itself, not its occupation of the West Bank, BTW). And also his own life as he grows up, played by several different actors at various ages, until played by Suleiman himself in present day. It’s not as bad as IRENE — it consists of well-taken photographs, e.g. But like the Cavalier, however meaningful it is to Suleiman, he hasn’t given *US* a reason to care unless we already walk in sympathetic to the Palestinian-Arab mythos of the last 60 years (which I very decidedly am not). There was one moment I flatly did not believe, when Suleiman as a boy was dressed down as a teacher who wanted to know “Who told you America is colonialist?” Given that this took place no later than 1969, if it really happened, it would indicates that international leftism/Marxism (which would provide the space from which to say such a thing then) is the prime influence on Suleiman, not Palestinian nationalism, which would not have provided such a space then since the US wasn’t Israel’s prime armer until the early 70s (indeed, it was the US siding with the USSR against Israel, France and Britain that forced the pullback on the 1956 Suez invasion)

NotFriend

The film that might have been, part 1

I AM NOT YOUR FRIEND (Gyorgy Palfi, Hungary, 4)

And I am not your fan, Gyorgi … in this film anyway. Unlike HUKKLE and TAXIDERMIA, which, even if you don’t like them (and the latter IS dislikable), are hard to forget, this Palfi movie is utterly routine festival filler not even worth hating and his direction really lacks flavor. I will probably have wholly forgotten the details of this film in a month, except for what I write now (even a week later, they’re mostly evaporated from my mind and I really haven’t too much to say).

It wasn’t always that way though. I thoroughly enjoyed the start of FRIEND, which uses the same “what’s really a TV show gets presented as if it were the start of our movie” gimmick as Brian DePalma’s SISTERS, only it lasts for much longer (10-12 mins, I’d guess) and the content of the shows have nothing in common. Here it’s a show about kindergarten-age kids at school interacting called “I Will Not Be Your Friend,” and the kids’ performances are spectacularly naturalistic and also realistic — they spend considerable time declaring who is and isn’t one another’s friends. And when the closing credits rolled, I began to think “huh,” and then the film explains itself — it’s a TV show made by one of the characters.

For a while too, I thought FRIEND itself would have an intriguing hook — it begins with one character, who leads to an event and another couple of characters that the film then starts following until another event introduces us to new characters, etc. — think Linklater’s SLACKER or Bunuel’s PHANTOM OF LIBERTY. But it turns out this is just introducing into a circle of connections that Palfi keeps bringing us back to continue the individual stories (some of the characters know each other; others don’t), like CRASH: PORT OF CALL, BUDAPEST. The stories concern romantic and sexual alignments and some petty crime, but are completely unremarkable, except for one, involving a death faked as a joke. It also leaves the kindergarten beginning behind, except for the jejune parallel that these adults act like children.

Enfer

The film that might have been, part 2

L’ENFER DE HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT (Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, France, 6)

I wish I could bottle the lengthy conversation I had after this documentary about a film-that-didn’t-happen, defending it against Josh Rothkopf of Time Out New York and Rob Nelson of Variety, both of whom liked L’ENFER much less than I did (and my grade is only a good-but-flawed “6”). I agree that it’s thin on details (for example, it doesn’t even mention once that Claude Chabrol later made a film based on Clouzot’s script) and there’s a lot of interesting critical and contextual matters that Josh and Rob think it ignores (I’d say “leaves implicit” and “trusts you to get it”).

Consider one subject: Alfred Hitchcock. The British and French masters have often been linked critically and there was a kind of one-upmanship/rivalry between the two of them. For example, Hitchcock’s VERTIGO and Clouzot’s DIABOLIQUE were based on books by the same pair of French authors. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac even wrote the book that became VERTIGO with Hitchcock in mind while DIABOLIQUE was being filmed.¹ I believe the word “Hitchcock” is never mentioned in the film despite the obvious ways the footage from Clouzot planned film (also titled L’ENFER, or INFERNO²) clearly borrowed from Hitchcock. But I didn’t think the film needed to spell that out — it was perfectly clear to me. The first words in my viewing notes refer to the images in Clouzot’s footage with “push Hitchcockian subjectivity to the pathological” and “Stewart’s dream in VERTIGO to end of all reason.” And the L’ENFER score, when it’s not sultry jazz, tips Bromberg’s knowledge to us by stylistically resembling Hitchcock’s favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann (“Not in the film, not in the film. You’re not on the screen explaining all this,” Rob was rebutting me then).

Consider another: the footage and the production history. Even those of us who like L’ENFER acknowledge that the film really only successfully serves as an excuse to see the footage Clouzot shot in 1964, but which had been sitting in film cans since, the property of Clouzot’s widow and unseen by outsiders. (And Bromberg told the exact same cliffhanger-tease at my screening as at Mike’s about persuading Mrs. Clouzot on the elevator, saying the film would finish the story — which it doesn’t. And all three of us were annoyed by that.) But the footage — just “wow.” It makes you weak in the knees and turns your legs to jelly thinking about what was in Clouzot’s head. The film’s story was about a husband’s pathological jealousy, which was going to be in black-and-white, with his fantasies about his wife (to have been played by Romy Schneider) shot in expressionist color, with filters, superimposed-images and surrealist touches. L’ENFER says Clouzot went wild with these shooting tests, mostly of Schneider, and his self-indulgence threw INFERNO off schedule almost right away and persuaded the money men (Americans who had given him carte blanche) to pull the plug after leading man Serge Reggiani walked off the set and Clouzot had a heart attack. L’ENFER gives no reason given why Clouzot, who already had completed a dozen films, would suddenly turn into such a putz, constantly reshooting the same scene.

Enfer2But again, I think the reason is perfectly clear from the INFERNO footage, though L’ENFER never says it directly — that Clouzot had fallen in love (or at least lust or obsession) with the Austrian-born Schneider, not a great thespian but a stunningly-gorgeous, iconic camera-object (imagine if Renee Zellweger ever opened her eyes). Throughout the INFERNO footage, and you can really get a sense of what I’m talking about from the trailer, it’s plain as day that she is being directed to seduce the camera — looking back into its eyes, giving it come-hither looks. And the shots are blatantly sexual — Schneider licking water off a transparency, blowing smoke into her nostrils, pursing her wide mouth and licking her lips, looking into the lens for what I will simply call the “iris shot” (Mike was taken by it too). I understand that there’s a perfectly good story-related reason for shooting Schneider this way — she’s acting out the husband’s jealous fantasies. But Clouzot’s sinking his efforts into this footage, shooting way more than he could ever use or needed for tests, surely shows that he became seduced himself. Indeed, since Clouzot was becoming obsessed with Schneider while Hitchcock was making THE BIRDS and MARNIE — there’s even more career parallels than we might have thought.
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¹ It’s hard not to read Hitchcock’s theory about Surprise vs. Suspense as a rebuke of DIABOLIQUE, one of the greatest “last-scene surprise twist” movies ever. And as a defense of Hitch’s own decision to ignore Boileau and Narcejac’s making Judy’s identity a last-page “reveal,” instead feeding the knowledge to the audience shortly after Judy is introduced.
² For clarity’s sake, I’ll refer to Clouzot’s film as INFERNO and Bromberg and Medrea’s as L’ENFER.

Nobody

The life that might have been

MR. NOBODY (Jaco Van Dormael, Canada/France, 2)

Imagine if Alain Resnais’ SMOKING/NO SMOKING had intercut its two realities, been told from a perspective of Arditi or Azema at age 118, not given any sense of the true gimmick, copped out on the central act of the film’s universe, and had one-tenth of Resnais formal chops. Doesn’t sound awesome, you say? Well … MR. NOBODY isn’t even that good.

The film’s main body, the hoary premise is an interviewer asks the 118-year-old Nemo Nobody to tell his life story and the film then flashes back through three possible lives that it insists for a time all happened, based on a key decision made by the hero as a boy. We know something isn’t quite right because motifs bleed through all three — a drowning death, dreaming the other ones, etc. The three “pasts” are wildly uneven — in one, he marries a manic depressive and Sarah Polley manages to give the one performance that interests, though I’m not sure it’s the right one for this movie (it’s certainly “manic”). In another, he marries an Asian woman and lives like a king — and that’s about as much as we learn. The quarreling scenes are shrill and over-the-top — though they made me appreciate those in I KILLED MY MOTHER even more. And in a perfect illustration of Polanski-era movie morals, bopping your stepsister is basically used as a joke.

Surprisingly, the world of the narrator at 118 is very different than ours since everybody is immortal and the narrator is the last mortal about to die, only on live TV. An intriguing world and premise, you say? Why, yes … except what would be the point, since the film chucks it away by turning that whole world into a red herring, and a pretty unbelievable and over-elaborate one at that. Why should this character see the world’s future this way? How is it supposed to have come about? Perspicacity at age 10? Reflection of some personal issue? But who cares about that kind of logic — I certainly wouldn’t if MR. NOBODY were in any way exciting, involving, insightful or in any way engaged my emotions (my viewing notes say at one point, after the line “my life was cast in cement with airbags and seatbelts,” “I am now so [effing] bored”).

I was angriest at the film’s final reveal, which had me madly scribbling “cop out, cop out” in my book. Nemo’s parents are divorcing and he has to decide whether he lives with his mother or his father. A wrenching decision obviously, and it eventually winds up playing the structural role that smoking a cigarette does in the Resnais films. But right after having told us a few minutes earlier that “every path in life is the right one” (a crock, but set that aside), Nemo decides that no path should be followed. He knows now (illogically if the 118-year-old’s future was all in the 10-year-old’s head … but again, never mind) what his life will be like under the various scenarios of whether he takes a train (i.e., goes with his departing mother) or stays at the platform (i.e., remains with his father). Only rather than do either of those things, Nemo simply runs off the platform. Are we supposed to believe this means he didn’t live with either parent? Or is it just a self-indulgent whine, refusing to make a choice between bad options (and in a divorce, “mom” and “dad” are your exclusive options) as if such refusal isn’t itself a choice or as if somehow refusing to acknowledge Hobson’s choices when they happen magically wishes them away. It basically reduces the film “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind,” only not written by Shakespeare and having no consequences.

September 29, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment

Toronto capsules — Day 8

Micmacs

MICMACS (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France, 8)

I don’t mean this as a slam when I say that you shouldn’t really need to see this movie to predict your reaction. MICMACS is as “typical” a movie for its director as any film I saw at the festival — it does exactly what Jeunet does: the Rube Goldberg devices, the elaborate scams, the weird characters, the obsession with junk, the baroque set design, the elaborate camera stunts, his stock company in the major supporting roles (Dominique Pinon, Yolande Moreau, Andre Dussollier and several actors whose faces but not names I recognized), the central role of fantasy, a genial tone of comic unreality, and impossible coincidences and planning. At the center this time, there’s a better actor and comic than Audrey Tautou — Dany Boon plays the hero Bazil, who lost his father to one weapons-maker and has lodged in his head a bullet made by another. Suitable for a comic down-and-out, Boon plays the role with a lot of Chaplin touches — a silent dance, fussy gestures, a happy-go-lucky attitude even when homeless.

Yet that confident prediction of mine, at least among my pals, didn’t pan out — several disliked this film while saying they liked AMELIE just fine or a lot. There ARE differences with AMELIE and they don’t favor this film; there’s less emotional heft in Bazil’s schemes than Amelie’s, there’s no character-as-director subtext, and the new film is less self-critical of its hero. The plot of MICMACS has a different spirit entirely: Amelie wanted to spread happiness while avoiding her own, while the motley crew that surrounds Bazil executes a revenge scheme against the arms dealers and brings down the companies. Thus MICMACS can come across as the most-discordant part of AMELIE — the attack on the greengrocer who bullies the mentally-slow boy — stretched out to the whole film.

So some of the dislike I do get, and obviously I agree that MICMACS is not as good (AMELIE is a “10” and decade-best contender). Still, I find “what Jeunet does” to be hugely entertaining even if he’s only spinning his wheels. Scenes like the airport arrest of the African smugglers (the “Jeunet is a racist” crowd will have some fun again) are so absurdly, impossibly overplotted and elaborate that this elaborateness makes them funny. Then there’s all the little touches and curlicues like “it’s salvaged gear, it can’t be perfected”; the way the heads of the two arms companies eat shrimp — different ways, both equal caricature; and the Sergio Leone homage at the end (though it might have been a mistake to introduce pictures of real human suffering in a confectionery film like this). But most of all … I got Jeunet’s autograph while the closing credits were rolling — recognizing him and finding the MICMACS page in the 400-page Guidebook while the theater was still dark.

IKilled

I KILLED MY MOTHER (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 7)

These are the words, starting from top: "Framing very ... 2 shots or ones at edges"; "single shots are centered symmetrically"; "sets look like sets"; "pictures hang ... couch ... pictures not above them when stand"

These are the words, starting from top: "Framing very ... 2 shots or ones at edges"; "single shots are centered symmetrically"; "sets look like sets"; "pictures hang ... couch ... pictures not above them when stand"

The director of this film has some learning to do. His framing is often amateurish and clumsy — either perfectly symmetrical or ostentatiously asymmetrical. And heck if I can understand the reality of a shot where people are standing, but above both the couch and the pictures hanging from the wall that still extends higher than they do (the image to the right is an actual shot of the notes I took watching the film; translation from my scribble is in the caption).

The director of this film is 19 years old. It is *scary* that I’m criticizing I KILLED MY MOTHER at this level of achievement

Now don’t get me wrong … I’m not giving this film an affirmative-action grade or judging it “for a student film.” Nor did I simply “find fault” to set up a joke. The 7-grade is based on the same scale as I judged every other film in this fest, and I stand by my words that Dolan’s direction is sometimes clumsy. But that first graf is the equivalent of saying of a high-school basketball phenom that his 3-point shot is erratic when he’s closely guarded — it’s true, and something that will have to get better. But. Still. I KILLED MY MOTHER is so well-written and acted, so emotionally honest and complex, and so clearly the achieved work of a super-talented auteur that these stumbles don’t hurt the film that much and they don’t matter at all when looking at the grand scheme of things — Dolan is scary good. The best “young first director” comparison I can think of is Steven Soderbergh’s debut film SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE — another low-budget, realistic, talky, psychologically-bloody relationship movie. And Soderbergh was an old fart of 26 when he blew away the Cannes Film Festival with *his* debut film.

Despite the title, no mother is killed during this movie — an early scene has the son (played by Dolan himself) lie about his mother being dead to avoid having to interview her for a class assignment (a later one shows a short-story school assignment with that title, but no hint of what it contains). Instead this is about a tempestuous relationship between a divorced mother and her (secretly gay) high-school junior son. Right from the very first scene, we sense Dolan’s ability to write cleanly and we see the strength of performances by him and the awesome Anne Dorval as his mother. The scene is basically a single take of the two sniping at each other as she drives him to school, and all the dynamics of the long-worn argument between two people who’ve had this out before — they fight about nothing in particular, then about very specific things, irrelevant events from the past are brought up, attacks and rebuttals based on role (“you’re supposed to be the mother here”). And then he gets out of the car and the mother says “have a nice day.” Put that starkly in a review, it sounds like a laugh line to the audience or an ironic “eff you” to the other character. But not in context, not one little bit — it’s too sincere and genuine. It’s more like the embodiment of “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em” (contained also in both the opening maxim from De Maupassant and the film’s closing image). That’s the relationship between mother and son as they go through a year of him hiding his boyfriend (and her finding out much earlier than she lets on), being sent to boarding school, playing off the father, him coming home one night drunk to tell her how much he really loves her, etc.

Nor is I KILLED MY MOTHER all plain-vanilla “couples fighting in the kitchen” — there’s also intercalary moments, slo-motion flights of imagination that remind one of the “Yumeji’s Theme” moments from Wong’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (even the music is similar). It never gets LA PIANISTE-style pathological, but the film is taken into new territory by two late scenes. One involves the mother on the phone to the school authorities (an applause-producing scene everywhere it’s played, though I found it pandering), the other has the son being driven by his boyfriend. In different ways, each character indicates that he’s become so accustomed to the relationship between them and its dynamic that they even act it out when around others.

Videocracy

VIDEOCRACY (Erik Gandini, Sweden, 2)

After this thin documentary, an ahistoric diatribe how stupid and pandering Italian TV put the man who runs it, Silvio Berlusconi, into political power, I stuck around for the Q-and-A because I had to ask the director something he clearly, based on the film, hadn’t thought through. This is how I put it, best I can recall:

I really think one thing your film doesn’t seem to address is the particulars. It seems to say that media power simplistically gets replicated into political power (“TV and power are one and the same here,” it says). But if that’s the case, why isn’t Ted Turner president of the U.S., Rupert Murdoch the prime minister of Australia, Conrad Black the prime minister of Canada. Nor is the larger-than-life tycoon as a public figure a new or unique type, either other men in Italy or men elsewhere (I had in mind men like Donald Trump or Richard Branson, though I didn’t name any). Why *this* man and why *this* country, now? I didn’t get any sense of that.

Gandini was clearly caught off guard, and he replied by saying “that’s a very good question.” He repeated that, before saying “I don’t know the answer,” before giving the audience-flattering answer that “perhaps it’s because people in countries like yours don’t let it happen, you’re vigilant.” Which is, of course, no answer at all … why couldn’t these other men I named have narcotized their political cultures with bread and circuses sex and celebrity, something Gandini has to believe (based on this film) Berlusconi is the only person ever to have thought of doing.

VIDEOCRACY had me suspicious about its intellectual suppleness very quickly, in a scene where it’s stated as a fact that a TV mogul can make anyone a star (I know the history of show business too well to believe that; as Samuel Goldwyn put it: “God makes the stars, it’s up to the producers to find them”). The film lost my trust completely when someone said of Berlusconi, “he has given himself immunity from prosecution.” Well, yes and no. Someone in the film later confirmed (“you go into politics and you can’t go to jail”) what I happened to know — that Italian law immunizes many top officials during their terms of office. And that is unremarkable comparatively, as came up during the Year of Monica in the US — the remedy against presidential criminality is removal from office by Congress; only then can a president be prosecuted. Very shortly after that, the film had me in total intellectual rebellion when it mentioned Berlusconi’s media holdings — “the only three commercial channels, when you add State TV to that, he owns 90 percent of the TV audience,” says the narrator. You don’t have to know crap about Italian politics to see the problem — Berlusconi only has even theoretical control over state broadcaster RAI when he is prime minister. Which both begs the question of how he acquired RAI (i.e., became prime minister) in the first place, but also leaves you scratching your head about what happens to RAI when the other party is in power. If you think monopoly ownership of media is a problem, it’s probably quite bad enough that one man owns all three commercial networks (the Wikipedia article on Berlusconi says they add up to 50 percent of the TV audience; presumably RAI has 40 percent), but Gandini couldn’t resist gilding the lily in such a patently dishonest way.

Did I mention “the other party”? Well … VIDEOCRACY forgot to. Really, the more I thought about this film, the more one-dimensional and overdetermined it became, and not because I’m an expert on the ins and outs of Italian politics. But I know enough to know that Berlusconi has been voted in and out of office several times over the past 15 years — something you would not know from this movie. Nor would you likely think it even possible, since VIDEOCRACY paints Italy as if it were some banana republic or oriental despotism under one-man rule or one-party elections. There’s also absolutely no context or even much sense of history (the basic dates of what happened when are not provided and the distinction between state and private TV is not kept clear). Again, you would not know from this movie that before Berlusconi’s entry into politics, Italy already had both really cheesy television (see GINGER & FRED) and the most corrupt, incestuous and insider-backscratch politics in Europe (see IL DIVO). Indeed, between IL DIVO, about an uncharismatic puppetmaster conservative PM (bad … corrupt), and VIDEOCRACY, about a charismatic media star conservative PM (bad … vulgar), I get the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” feeling. Which is made particularly aggravating by the whole film’s self-righteous leftist undercurrent about the vulgarity of the masses, underlined at the Q-and-A by the director himself saying, close as I can recall, “the left tries to think in terms of ideas and logic, and it doesn’t work, because Berlusconi thinks in terms of images and emotions” (a thesis this film refutes decisively by itself).

Like a good Marxist, Gandini simplistically conflates media ownership with politically-biased content, as if that were axiomatic. But in the one moment we see of Berlusconi himself actually speaking, he says critics of his media holdings “obviously have never turned on Italian TV. The outlets I own are among my toughest critics.” Plausible, given what I know about the US and British media. Is it false? Can’t really tell from this film because we never get any actual content analysis to rebut Berlusconi’s claim (if I were cynical, I would say the filmmaker deemed it unworthy of rebuttal). The closest VIDEOCRACY comes is someone saying entertainment shows are pre-empted or end quicker if Berlusconi has a TV appearance (this happens in the US too, and last I looked Obama doesn’t own CBS). And there is one unforgivable moment right after Berlusconi’s words that one might also mistake for a rebuttal — an admittedly ridiculous campaign-commercial song praising him to the skies. Well, OK … other than getting laughs from hipster audiences at the cheesy lyrics (“Thank God that Silvio exists”) and the Up with People style, what does that prove? Was this shown as regular programming or an ad “purchased” for free?; the film doesn’t say. At face value, it merely proves the utterly jejune fact that Berlusconi’s stations air his campaign spots, as if somehow they shouldn’t. Again, comparative analysis — US networks are forbidden by law from turning down ads from presidential candidates if they are paid the going ad rate, and barred from editing their content. And Obama still doesn’t own CBS.

Symbol

SYMBOL (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan, 7)

ColinGeddes

In the blue corner ... wearing existentialist girly-color and -pattern pajamas like the Japanese-segment hero ...

How to describe this very weird mostly-comedy? I tried on Mike “The Myth of Sisyphus as done in the style of a Japanese game show,” which is probably the best you can do in a phrase, though that doesn’t get across that for about 2/3 of SYMBOL’s length, about half of it is set in the world of Mexican wrestling. Indeed, in the only iPhone pic I took worth publishing, this is how Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes introduced the film — Matsumoto sent him the two parts of the costume to wear as apology for not being in Toronto since it was the week of SYMBOL’s commercial release in Japan.

The main body of SYMBOL (and eventually the entirety) focuses on a man in a white room, played by Matsumoto, a big comedy star in Japan. We don’t know why he’s there, nor does he — only that angels appear on his walls, sticking out like bas-reliefs, and then recede, leaving only their baby-boy-parts visible. When he presses down on one, he gets something, either useful or not, possibly helpful in getting out of the box (or not). He’s like a rat in a cage, only he’s a man, so he can figure out things a bit better. A bit. There’s basically no dialog (who is there to talk to?), which gives this segment a kind of Tatiesque quality of a man and objects he can’t handle. Only unlike Tati, Matsumoto frequently flies into reactions I can only describe as “Japanese game show,” which is never not funny when contrasted against the degree-zero style of the setting, premise and dialog. Some of the jokes are fairly obvious — he loses track of what button does what, and so he only gets soy sauce after he’s eaten his sushi — but it’s the anticipation and timing that are funny. SYMBOL eventually becomes more obviously like a Japanese game show, an escape-from-the-room so you can go up to the next level premise, like Donkey Kong. And at two or three points, the film “breaks” and gives us a TV-style preview detailing what Matsumoto will do as he smiles confidently on the full-screen chyron as if his plan to get out of the room were a game-show stunt or something on “It’s a Knockout.”

Unfortunately, the Mexican segment with which this is intercut is terribly conventional — schmuck dad prepares for big match — especially when compared to the wacked-out Japanese one. Worse, it isn’t really very funny — the Fallacy of the Vulgar Nun¹ is out in spades and the acting is atrocious. When you find out what the two segments have in common … how to say this vaguely to avoid spoilers … it makes the Mexican segment too long for what it basically becomes — a punchline to the Japanese story. And then … again vague … we get other segments around the world illustrating the same point that ARE timed more appropriately. Now that Mexican punchline IS inventive and absolutely hilarious, both in itself and in its sheer wtf-is-THAT-what-all-this-has-been-about-ness. But as Milton would say … “the ratio of length to payoff is too big.”

The film continues in a much-less funny mythopoetic vein as Matsumoto “advances” up the game’s stages. Dan Owen suggested to me a blasphemous take on man becoming God, which I couldn’t quite rebut, except to say that it’s less funny than the Camus-like futility of the early parts. But then we get Part 3, after Part 1 (The Education) and Part 2 (The Implementation), only this one is called “The Future” — and it’s back to the brilliant deadpan.
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¹ That is, “showing a nun or priest do things like curse, drink, smoke, discuss bodily fluids or drive recklessly is not inherently funny,” cf. “Fallacy of the Vulgar Granny.”

September 26, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment

Toronto grades — Days 9/10

Day 9
VINCERE (Marco Bellocchio, Italy, 7)
THE TIME THAT REMAINS (Elia Suleiman, Palestine, 4)
I AM NOT YOUR FRIEND (Gyorgy Palfi, Hungary, 4)
L’ENFER DE HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT (Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, France, 6)
MR. NOBODY (Jaco Van Dormael, France, 2)

Day 10 (now THIS is what a Festival Day should be like — even Noe’s failure is an experience I won’t forget)
POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 8)
AIR DOLL (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 7)
HADEWIJCH (Bruno Dumont, France, 9)
ENTER THE VOID (Gaspar Noe, France, 4 — though really an 8 for style and 0 for content)
ONG BAK 2: THE BEGINNING (Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai, Thailand, 5)

September 19, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | 1 Comment

Toronto capsules — Day 7

Partir

PARTIR (Catherine Corsini, France, 4)

The script for this adultery drama feels like the work of a high-school girl in her Feminist Creative Writing Collective — consciousness raising and denunciation of men and marriage, but with plenty of Sergi Lopez topless and other forms of adolescent sentimentality. Lopez’s character — a manual laborer working on a home-expansion project for bourgeoise Kristin Scott Thomas — even says he’s not surprised she fell for him “after spending all day with a hunk like me.” There’s even a scene, I am not kidding, of the two lovers — both married — naked in a sun-dappled field of waist-high grains and grasses … spreading some fertilizer.

Obviously such portrayals risk upholding the patriarchy, so every other element in the story has to contribute to wymyn’s lib, and the decks must be stacked for that purpose. And heck … Jayne Mansfield wasn’t as stacked as this movie’s deck. KST’s husband is a complete jerk — rude and patronizing to her, no good in bed but insists on getting it when he wants it (KST looks as bored in bed as I was in the theater). His interest in sex is purely patriarchal territory-marking. When she first tells him she’s fallen in love with another man, the only questions he asks is whether they had had sex and details/elaboration therein. And if you have seen a movie or two in your life, you know that after KST has asked for divorce, when she, Lopez, her son and his daughter pull into a gas station and KST goes to fill up, there’s gonna be some credit card issues. I know it reads like I’m making fun of the actors, but to be fair, they’re both quite appealing and do what they can with this script (unlike Yves Attal as the husband, who is given nothing but a set of hate lines).

This is a French movie about adultery and so “Madame Bovary” inevitably comes to mind, but Emma commits suicide, and we can’t have that in Our Enlightened Time. PARTIR strikes a blow for feminism by having this adultress kill her husband rather than herself. I’m sure the teacher beamed with pride as she congratulated the script and gave it an A for undermining Flaubert’s patriarchal ending.

Sharazid

SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY (Yousry Nasrallah, Egypt, 5)

As feminist morality tales go, this one is actually kind of okay. The title tells you you’re going to see some form of the basic “Tales of the 1001 Nights,” though not any of the famous stories — Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin, etc. Instead of a slave/concubine who every night must keep the Sultan’s interest in the next night’s story in order to avoid beheading, “Scheherezade” is a talk-show host on Egyptian TV who is being encouraged to avoid politics, the better for her husband’s career. So she does Oprah-like stories of the lives of ordinary Egyptian women, and finds out that that is no way to avoid politics.

As I say, it’s a better film than I expected and some of “Scheherezade’s” stories have elemental power and don’t fall into the trap of some recent Iranian films of portraying women as if ignorant of social rules. For example, the story of three sisters being used by the same man ends with one of the three women taking over the situation. In another, a woman unfurls a banner accusing a Cabinet minister of dishonoring her (this sequence also has the bloodiest portrayal of an abortion I have ever seen). The TV show isn’t relied on too much but director Nasrallah shoots it with some inventiveness, using tropes from talk shows themselves — stuff like monitor-created split screens between host and guest (I don’t remember how popular or widely seen it was, but the style reminded of Lauren Hutton’s late-night interview show from the mid-1990s.) “Scheherezade” also becomes part of the story, in a way I saw coming but only because I know the dramatic framing device of “1001 Nights,” the situation the original Scheherezade faced. If you don’t, it might pack a wallop. This is nothing more than OK festival filler … but the way this festival has been going, I’ll take it.

Leaves

LEAVES OF GRASS (Tim Blake Nelson, USA, 2)

Serves one useful function — proving what a genius Quentin Tarantino is and how people who criticize the “movieness” of his movies are missing the key role that postmodern style plays in his work — it’s not just movie-nerd immaturity.

At least I think that. And I’m certain that unless Tim Blake Nelson was trying for some Tarantinoesque mix of comedy and ultraviolence, I have no frackin idea what he was trying for. For the first hour, LEAVES OF GRASS is an innocuous (and not terribly funny, to me) comedy about mismatched identical-twin brothers, both played by Edward Norton. The concept is higher than (insert punchline when you read on) — one’s a buttoned-down Classics professor about to get a Harvard appointment; the other a tattooed hick who applies his IQ (actually higher) to developing and building the world’s most-sophisticated hydroponic pot-growing farm. The prof gets called back to Oklahoma, and there ensue switcheroos and resentments over abandoning hippie-mom (Susan Sarandon), the family and “plain foke lahk uss.” You can imagine Rob Schneider or Adam Sandler in this movie, and though Norton is an incomparably better actor who actually manages to create two persons, there’s only so much even he can do with this hackneyed material.

And then things get serious — way too serious for a featherweight sitcom. Talking vaguely to minimize spoilitude — the drug-dealer brother tries to fix some business in Tulsa and a violent shootout occurs in which several people are killed. There are two more violent scenes, one a multiple-death shootout and another involving a metal-tipped arrow impaling someone’s body (the 3rd movie with such a scene at this TIFF). And we’re not talking cartoon Bugs Bunny violence — this is serious 80s-Stallone cop-show stuff and we see gaping wounds, etc. Oh … and did I mention that swastikas get painted on a synagogue? And that they were done backwards (ho ho ho … aren’t they STOOPID in Oklahoma). Now I believe that any subject is appropriate for a movie — in the right movie. Stuff like this does not belong in the same movie as hayseed jokes like a TV anchorman saying on camera that “police are not sure whether the backward swastikas indicate a hate crime or, rather more implausibly, that Hindus were involved.”

How does this very ill-conceived film shine light on Tarantino? Because he can get away with a mixture of loopy comedy, shocking and gory violence, and a smart-aleck tone toward taboos (like … ahem … Jews during WW2) because nobody could mistake his movies as being (directly) about the real world. His movies and his characters are fundamentally based on movies QT has seen and those his characters have seen. The stylization makes it hard to take offense at anything “real” and makes it plain that his movies are about discourse. And while LEAVES is a comedy based on an unlikely premise, the film is made and acted in a naturalistic, straightforward way that indicates that we’re supposed to, at least provisionally, suspend disbelief and take this movie as somehow reflecting the real world. In which case, this is the offensive garbage in my opinion.

Mother

MOTHER (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 9)

Thank you, Mr. Bong Joon-ho for single-handedly redeeming what looked like it would be another crap day. As I write this with only the last-day Midnight showing to go, MOTHER remains the best film of the festival for me. And, like Bong’s MEMORIES OF MURDER and THE HOST, it’s a film that I think could find a decent and appreciative audience among ordinary American filmgoers. It’s an approachable, straightforward narrative in a conventional genre — like MEMORIES, it’s a crime-investigation story, though the two incompetent detectives are replaced by a crusading, slightly dotty woman out to prove her son’s innocence in the death of a local teenage girl (it’s practically a Korean version of a Perry Mason or an episode of “Murder, She Wrote”). It’s also funny at times, has a gallery of interesting supporting players and like the best crime movies is ultimately about more than whodunnit.

The central role is played by Kim Hae-ja, apparently the Harriet Nelson / June Cleaver of Korea. She’s maternal, faithful, slightly weird and never less than absolutely convincing, even when the story has her character cross some lines in defense of her son (he’s mentally slow and flies into a rage when anyone calls him “retard”). As a measure of how good she is, she comes across that way even for those like myself whose knowledge of her Korean TV persona is strictly second-hand. It’s her mannerisms, her worrywart quality and her total focus on her boy and his cause, even when he doesn’t want to pursue it. In other words — the perfect mother.

Bong handles the genre material expertly — he makes work suspense scenes like the mother hiding in the closet on an evidence hunt while watching the person she suspects of murdering the teenage girl prepares to seduce (rape? kill?) another girl. Even a scene as commonplace as the detectives dismissing Mother’s latest evidence find becomes new in his hands — there’s no berating her nor her triumphant declaration of having solved the case, just a video of someone doing something with her lips, then a technician coming in and saying mournfully “do you really want us to do a DNA test on this? Anyone can see it’s lipstick.” He really earns the last scene (this is not a spoiler), of people dancing on a bus viewed from outside as the sun sets and their shapes mere black shadows pulsing against the sky. Given the three scenes that have preceded it, including a chilling, heartbreaking one in which the mother and son are finally completely united, the bus image felt like the truest cinematic depiction of [a certain emotional phenomenon] I’ve ever seen.

Refuge

LE REFUGE (Francois Ozon, France, 3)

And I should gave a crap about this selfish, flighty, passive-aggressive using bitch because … ??? I know some of my very favorite movies have dislikeable protagonists, but this movie isn’t about that nor does it even acknowledge the natural reaction to a smackhead slut who tries to seduce the gay brother of the baby-daddy who fatally OD’d alongside her and who keeps the baby largely to spite that family only to abandon the newborn in the hospital with the brother and flee on the Paris metro. And it’s not as though the film really has anything other than her to be about — the vast middle portion of the film is like an Eric Rohmer film of her on August “vacances.” A character study is in real trouble if you spend every second of it wanting to punch the protagonist in the face, and the film doesn’t manifest any realization of that.

Um … I guess that last graf’s got spoilers, but I don’t care. Indeed, the ending is exactly where Ozon makes it undeniable how rotten this film’s soul is. He ends the film by having her read aloud on the soundtrack from the note she left at the hospital, while she looks into the camera. Occasionally, Ozon cuts back to the brother, and he’s not angry as a normal person would be. The note’s self-justifying tripe is read in a meant-to-be-sympathetic pleading tone — “I’m not ready to be a mother … You and the baby are the two most precious things in the world to me.” Both visually and orally, the end of this film is an apologia — no doubt about it. And I spit on it.

September 19, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment

Toronto grades — Day 8

MICMACS (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France, 8)
I KILLED MY MOTHER (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 7)
VIDEOCRACY (Erik Gandini, Sweden, 2 — ha ha, good one, Noel. Revenge for DETROIT METAL CITY last year?)
SYMBOL (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan, 7)

September 18, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment

Toronto capsules — Day 6

WarriorWolf

THE WARRIOR AND THE WOLF (Tian Zhuang-zhuang, China, 5)

Let me  blunt and say that Tian has never been much of a storyteller, even when he’s got incredibly dramatic material. Now let me be honest and admit that as a result I tend to admire his films more than I really love any of them — I much prefer Zhang Yimou’s TO LIVE to Tian’s similar THE BLUE KITE (I have not seen HORSE THIEF though). Here is an effort at a period wuxia film that starts with two Chinese Empire commanders in the Western nomadic regions that reminds one of Wong’s ASHES OF TIME in having jumbled-about chronology that mostly just confuses. Between that, the several title cards that bridge major narrative developments and a fairly complete lack of emotional involvement in the characters — this film is doing well even to get a 5/Variety-mixed from me.

As I said about VALHALLA RISING, if you accept these limitations and acknowledge that THE WARRIOR & THE WOLF does not have much in the way of story values despite having the form of a narrative, then you’re freer to enjoy what the film is — a gorgeous-looking, episodic mythopoetic tone poem (test comparison: what do you think of FELLINI SATYRICON?). The cinematography is awe-inspiring in a negative denial kind of way. Nominally a color film, much of WARRIOR, especially the battle scenes, looks like black-and-white shot through a blue-silver filter, making the warriors appear like shadow puppets. Practically the first color to pop off the screen is an orange fireball. So thoroughly has Tian drained primary colors from his palette that the blood flows onto the parched Gobi Desert floor already a kind of black-brown. I also liked how Tian handled the animal part of the story. Speaking vaguely to avoid second-act spoilers … he gets involved with someone in a manner that invokes an ancient curse that both will becomes wolves. I have it written in my notes “the only place this now has to go is to make them both wolves.” And that’s exactly what Tian does, producing easily the film’s most-memorable image — an enormous sandstorm personified as a gang of wolves burying the Emperor’s army … really. It’d be destined for all-time fame if the fanboys could sit through the rest of this admittedly often-tedious film. It’s that fawesome.

Informant

THE INFORMANT! (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 8)

OK … I’m awake now. After days of slogging through some bad films and fairly esoteric films that are sometimes worthy or even great but nevertheless more nutritious than fun … thank you, Steven Soderbergh for showing “here’s how it’s done” to the art-damaged crowd. There are better films at this festival, but I’m confident in saying there’s none that’s this purely entertaining. It’s also a return to form and pattern for Soderbergh — following up this spring’s quite good but arty and somewhat-offputting THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE with a straight-up funny comedy caper like this. This has been the pattern of Soderbergh’s career — whirlwind productivity alternating between arty films (experiments with digital video, tributes to Tarkovsky, etc.) and crowd-pleasing commercial films (the OCEAN movies and Clooney vehicles), sometimes in the same year. In 2009, he did it again, and both films are strong.

THE INFORMANT! bears a superficial resemblance to such corporate-espionage crusader films as THE INSIDER and THE FIRM and is a kissing cousin to Soderbergh’s own ERIN BROCKOVICH (from hexavalent chromium to ADM price-fixing), Only Soderbergh takes the risk, as the trailer shows, of making the film mostly as a comedy, having Matt Damon play the whistleblower as kinda stupid and foolish, comparing himself to characters in corporate-espionage movies, and doing things like looking to see whether he can spot the hidden camera thatthe FBI has planted at a meeting that’s about to begin. And if you know the real-life story he’s telling, there’s more than stupidity and narcissism to sully the hero. Damon is a perfect choice not only because who he generally is ensures instant audience identification before the rug pulling can begin (Soderbergh clearly learned from Hitchcock about the importance of casting a good-looking, charming star in this sort of film) — but he’s also got a boyishness that makes the mustache here a funny affectation and a hint that all’s not well upstairs and he’s got puppy-dog, eager-to-please mannerisms that make credible his belief in his objectively-wack schemes (among other things, he thinks that bringing down the top people at ADM will let him inherit the throne by default).

Soderbergh also directs the film, how does one say it … like a mofo, deliberately tarting the film up beyond reason, with ironic score choices like jazzy 70s TV-cop-show riffs, portentous and thus funnily-pretentious title cards (my favorite: “Tokyo” written in English characters but in the Japanese vertical layout). He also takes the risk of giving Damon a lot of voiceover, but it really works and isn’t a crutch because there’s almost no exposition in it — it’s all a stream of consciousness self-commentary that goes off in bizarre directions (like convincing himself that the TV networks have to rig the World Series to get the ratings, “and I’m not paranoid — that’s just what The Man has made you think”) or just goofball things that only a well-educated dolt could say (“why would anyone call someone Regina — it’s the capital of Saskatchewan”). I doubt Soderbergh’s personal politics are conservative, but THE INFORMANT! takes the anti-business cliches of the corporate thriller, follows them for a while, but in much greater detail undermines the hero as, among other things a criminal greedhead (“we have eight cars and three have never been used,” Damon’s wife says, in a hardship-pleading way, no less) and an inveterate liar. And here’s the part that really should please Starboard types — Damon justifies it all to himself throughout, the the bitter end and even after, by calling himself “the good guy” and comparing himself to Tom Cruise in THE FIRM — a brave truthteller being crushed by The Man. You will not see a movie this year that takes the piss out of Hollywood’s self-righteous anti-business discourse than this one. And few that are more plainly enjoyable.

BadLtHerzog

THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL, NEW ORLEANS (Werner Herzog, USA, 8)

When introducing the movie, Herzog said he needed to goose Nicolas Cage’s performance up a bit, or “as we say in German, he had to turn the pig loose.” To produce all the ham that’s in Cage’s performance, he probably had to turn three or four pigs loose. It’s so hammy, the movie can’t be shown in Israel. It’s so over-the-top that they’re not gonna bother with the pole vault at the next Olympics — the IOC just mailed Cage the gold. Spinal Tap hasn’t invented an amplifier with numbers that go high enough … I’m running out of jokes here, but what else can I do. Cage’s performance as a corrupt drug-snorting cop trying to solve a massacre in post-Katrina New Orleans is so deliriously over-the-top that it simply defies overt description. Consider the phrase “your boy ‘g’.” That is nothing on the computer screen, but Cage gets laughs with it every time. Trust me.

And Cage’s performance IS the movie — if you go with it, THE BAD LIEUTENANT is one of the funniest, most purely entertaining effed-up movies you’ll ever see. If not or if it were in 99.99999 percent of movies ever made, it may be the worst performance ever. But this is a movie where Cage cuts off a nursing-home patient’s oxygen machine while he’s high on crack to get her nurse to spill some info, and he leaves by telling the old woman, “think of your grandkids, you’re sucking up their inheritance. People like you make me sick — you’re the fucking reason this country is going down the drain.” This is a movie where Cage has a lucky crack pipe. This is a movie where Cage says “whatever I take is prescription, except for heroin.” This is a movie where Cage emerges from behind a door — using his electric shaver. If Cage shows even the slightest restraint, the movie falls apart on its absurd and thin storyline and lack of interesting supporting characters.

But Herzog has the right absurdly over-the-top and unbelievable story — at the end, everything just works itself out as if by magic, a magic so overt (about four characters walk up to Cage’s desk one right after the other to announce that plot threads have been suddenly tied up) that you can be confident that you’re living with the movie not at it. The movie had everybody at the Ryerson audience howling with laughter, and Dan Owen told me that he looked several times at Herzog, who has gotten more restrained performances from Klaus Kinski, sitting in his seat during the screening. According to Dan, who had a perfect sightline, Herzog had a big grin on his face through the whole thing, rather than going “vie ist everybody laffing … stop laffing … I am zuh aussor, I outrank you.” At one point, Cage says “shoot him, his soul’s still dancing,” and Herzog thoughtfully provided us with someone breakdancing next to the body. Oh, this movie is deliberate, and Cage’s performance is deliberate — no doubt about it. Indeed, breaking into helpless giggles several times while writing this capsule and reviewing my notes, I’m thinking I may have underrated it.

GoldenAge

TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE (Cristian Mungiu / Ioana Uricaru / Hanno Hofer / Razvan Marculescu / Constantin Popescu; Romania) average: 6.6
Directors not specifically matched to the shorts: “The Legend of the Official Visit” — 8; “The Legend of the Party Photographer” — 7; “The Legend of the Chicken Drivers” — 4; “The Legend of the Greedy Policeman” — 6; “The Legend of the Air Sellers” — 8

It isn’t easy to write cleanly about an omnibus film. And even harder when none of the films are identified by their directors in the credits (or anywhere else) and when the film is being shown digitally, the order of its five shorts jumbled randomly. I’ve have identified the titles of the five and the order in which I saw them — Your Mileage Will Vary. I think this order works though and I’d recommend the distributors use that one because the weakest is in the middle and the strongest two came first and last. Noel and Mike, even though they liked the film less than I, were in general agreement about which pieces were the best and weakest.

The films are all set during the Communist Ceaucescu-era and tell stories that apparently were popular black-humor urban legends in Romania at the time. The “what we did then” premise and the comic tone would give the films a nostalgic feel if the stories weren’t so pitch-black (they went over like gangbusters with the large Romanian contingent at the theater). All also have closing title cards that (except for #3 — “Chicken Drivers”) try to one-up or give a “capper” to the story — “it is also a legend that —.” If you’ve seen some of the Polish and Czech films of the 60s — early Polanski, early Forman, Menzel — this is very much in that vein. Again the third one aside, they’re also very well done — sharp and funny throughout, not just the setup to a “Twilight Zone” recoding punchline, though the biggest laugh in the movie is the punchline to #1 (“Official Visit”) which also works as a metaphor for Communism itself and how it survived — speaking vaguely: everyone was on board.

Only the fifth (“Air Sellers”) really makes much of an effort for thematic heft and/or heart beyond the black humor though, making explicit cinematic reference to BONNIE AND CLYDE and how this couple at the center, who also fell in love during their time as criminal scammers and first bonded over a stolen car, were engaging in the only form of rebellious theft open to them in 80s Romania rather than 30s Texas. The scam itself is so absurd and thus funny that you can hardly believe they’re getting away with it. And like Bonnie and Clyde at the end … well … again, something like that, adjusted into 80s Romanian. Even the other films are not simply kicking a 20-year-old dead dog, as someone (I forget who) has suggested. Both at least #1 and #2 (“The Party Photographer”) are about petty officialdom and arbitrary orders and the length to which subordinates go to obey them and to adapt to them — something that exists in all corporate entities (admittedly, some more than others, government more than most, and “actually existing socialism” most of all). For personal reasons, #2 also appealed to me because it’s set at a newspaper and has the line “stop the presses!” actually an obsolete phrase.

Easily the least successful is #3 for several reasons — it’s the least funny and most earnest (among other things it has the only sincere title card about the hardships of Communist Romania), it has the least-venal protagonist (ironically Vlad Ivanov, the ruthless abortionist from 4 MONTHS, who most definitely should not stare into space or be photographed from behind in a hangdog pose), and it’s the only one whose end aims for happy rather than mordant.

September 18, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | 3 Comments

Toronto capsules — Day 5

SeriousMan

A SERIOUS MAN (Coen Brothers, USA, 1)

After the happy accident of BURN AFTER READING, the Coen Brothers are back to their usual comic form with another snarky cartoon minstrel show, a contemptuous put-up job that looks down on its characters and the caricatured world they inhabit for no discernable reason, and here manages to add “profoundly stupid and borderline blasphemous.” Very early in my viewing notes (the previous scrawls refer to the next-door neighbors going hunting), I have it written “why am I so not liking this.” And on a few day’s reflection, I realized it was because of the tonal and plot resemblances to my all-time least favorite Coens’ film, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU (the overdone minstrelsy, ending with a natural disaster that has theological implications), and the way that the central character, a Job figure, was too put upon for anything resembling believability, sense or even funny stylization — every person around him is one-note and played in an extremely shrill chord. And the Coens’ baroque writing and directing style manages to turn it all up to about 12.

The contempt oozes off the screen — the first thing we learn about a certain character is that he gets pus drained from his neck regularly (and sure enough, guess what he’s doing on first viewing); the daughter does nothing but complain about bathrooms but in a way that doesn’t want the bathroom just the complaint; one of the very first things we see is a doctor smoking (cue audience laughter, prompted by how the Coens have him play the scene); there are two Asian characters that had me thinking “you know, maybe Ryan was right about FARGO”; the next-door neighbor just glowers suspiciously and do nothing but act “Minnesota caricature” like deer on the car roof on Hunting Day (but with none of the sense they had in FARGO); there’s an enormous lecture-room blackboard filled to the edge with equations  “proving” the uncertainty principle that is 20-feet high (i.e. unusable); when the son walks into a family dinner, they are all slurping soup loudly (what Americans do that). Basically, I just wanted everyone on the screen to stfu.

Then we get to the film’s attempt at profundity, in telling a Job-like story set among late-60s Minnesota Jews, which manages to make Woody Allen look like a sage and almost makes me want to convert to Judaism so I’d have the right to spit on the Coens for dishonoring “our people.” There’s nothing wrong with the concept — the Job problem and the apparent absence of God will be with us forever — but the execution and resolution indicate the Coens just can’t turn off the snark. One rabbi tells the Job-hero a parable about a Jewish dentist so absurd in its premise (Hebrew characters carved into the inside of a Gentile’s teeth) that you can’t take seriously the supposed moral of the story (“try helping people, it can’t hurt”; and that the dentist eventually stopped looking). Another rabbi tells him “God doesn’t owe us answers, the obligation goes the other way,” which is warmer and in fact the final answer the Old Testament Job gets, but the Coens indicate they don’t take it seriously by having their “Job” essentially repeat the initial question. We also get a different and IMHO the real answer  to the “Job/theodicy” problem, where the hero’s brother flees to Canada with “Job’s” help and tells “Job” tearfully as he departs that God has given him nothing, but given “Job” everything. Or more colloquially, “the grass is always greener”; or more Christianly, we all bear the Cross but only feel our own). But then the Coens piss on that by having the Christian family next door shoot the two while hunting “great son … there’s another Jew, get him” and having it all turn out to be a dream. The film concludes but upping the blasphemy quotient by having the son’s go through his Bar Mitzvah ceremony through a drug haze and then getting to meet a hugely profound rabbi that won’t speak to the father, only to have the rabbi recite Jefferson Airplane lyrics to him (“when the truth is found to be a lie” … hmmm), and conclude “just be a good boy.” As anything that any serious man would say, “be a good boy” is profoundly stupid. Any serious man knows that this is one ginormous question-beg — it presupposes the actual answers religion and philosophy provide and which are the points in dispute — “what *is* good” and “*why* be good.” In the Coens hands, 5,000 years of Jewish thought gets reduced to a fortune cookie.

GetLow

GET LOW (Aaron Schneider, USA, 3)

It’s bad enough that a film is bad. But how can a writer-director making his debut produce something this staid, this calcified, this “late period“? Dan walked out and Jason and I both nodded off for a bit (neither of us missed anything; the film is that transparent and obvious). It’s a classic valedictory tale — old man sees death, and decides he wants to attend his own funeral and hear all the bad things people had to say about and then have his own say too (wanting to avoid a bad eulogy was the moral George learned in an episode of “The Jeffersons”). The minute you see Robert Duvall as an ornery old cusser who shoots visitors you know there’s gotta be some hidden wound, some secret heartbreak, some injustice at the heart of his ostracism. And when an old woman from the past comes into town from years away, whaddya wanna bet she has some connection with the old tiger and that he’ll turn into a pussycat around her (though there has to be a time of trial and quarrel before the cathartic revelation). The physical plant is well-reproduced and Duvall is never not good — but the direction lacks flavor, and the script is made of mediocre — basically an Identikit movie, made of plots and characters pasted in from other movies.

AliceCreed

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED (J Blakeson, Britain, 9)

To be perfectly honest, I fear I may be overrating this, as I had just seen two dogs in a row and hadn’t been having a good festival. And it is definitely in my aesthetic wheelhouse: plotty, tight, tension-filled and largely following the classic Aristotelian unities — TAPE meets A SIMPLE PLAN, I quickly IM’d a friend. The first words in my notes are “grabs you right away,” with a scene of two men shopping for a bunch of stuff, cut as quickly and methodically as their shopping. Then they set up shop and it quickly becomes clear that what they’re doing is setting up a kidnap plan, converting a van and an apartment into the perfect crime scene — buying yards of soundproofing material and then stapling it over every inch of the walls. The plan is as methodically worked out as the film itself; the film’s and plan’s styles are spare, but direct and blunt.

ALICE CREED basically a one-set, three-handed stage play (actually two sets — the action goes somewhere else, though just as enclosed and claustrophobic as the apartment, for the climax) between two kidnappers, jail mates out to commit the perfect crime and retire on the millions in ransom money, and their victim, who starts out (as she should … sorry, feminists) as basically an object, albeit a loud and uncooperative one but then becomes an agent and by the end, the drama’s fulcrum. Like TAPE, though with less nauseating handheld-in-an-enclosed-space camerawork, ALICE CREED is about two men competing for the loyalty of one woman. But it’s more than that , though I have to talk vaguely because the movie’s greatest pleasure is the twists and turns of its plot. ALICE CREED is also about the viewers’ loyalties and identification too — like most crime movies, it starts with the abstract criminal plan and thus with the criminals, then shifts ID to the victim when he becomes concretized. But what happens when the three begin to interact is that she becomes less sympathetic on a couple of counts and some reveals about events of the past recode what we see.

I can talk about the actors though — all three superb in their different ways. As the kidnappers, Eddie Marsan (whom I saw two people in line away from me later in the festival) and Martin Compston are well-cast and look right — Marsan’s weaselly face and aggressive manner, and Compston’s fresh-faced but wannabe-tough guy establish the dominant and recessive partnership right away even before some of the reveals. Compston has the same Glaswegian wit I loved from SWEET SIXTEEN (my favorite line in the movie: “wit can ah say; mah shite disnae stink”). So when a certain ironic event happens (it involves a bullet) and Compston collapses onto the floor and laughs in gallows irony, it actually works because of who he is, despite what I said re BIG DIG about not liking onscreen laughter. As for Marsan, he is capable of being more threatening than he was in Leigh’s HAPPY GO LUCKY without as much spittle. The title role is played by Gemma Arterton, and it’s impossible to say on this basis whether she can act with any subtlety — she only really is required to do two things and both in very high registers of terror — plead and be angry. But she does deliver. Literally.

SoulKitchen

SOUL KITCHEN (Fatih Akin, Germany, 6)

This may sound like damning with faint praise, but SOUL KITCHEN is basically the world’s greatest 12-inch-single remix of episodes of “Alice” — which is both its strength and its limitation. The film even invites the comparison — I don’t know how consciously; it’s also the style of blaxploitation — by having the credit style and opening music conspicuously come from the 1970s. Seriously, this story about a Greek’s effort to run a restaurant in Hamburg so resembled “Alice” in the multiple character-plot strands that I began mentally ticking off real “Alice” episodes — Mel losing the restaurant in a poker game; Mel wanting to get out of the business and sell the diner, leaving Alice, Flo and Vera out in the cold; Mel being incapacitated by a back injury; the women learning to cook without Mel around; Mel hiring a new chef to upscale the menu; a private party wrecks the diner; threats to close the diner by health inspectors. Every one of those is an actual episode from “Alice,” plus such recurring themes as Flo’s romantic issues, a dessert made with an aphrodisiac, the motley crew taking on The Man and so on.

But as I say, I mostly mean this as praise, if limiting praise. SOUL KITCHEN knows it is derivative and sitcommy and has as much fun with its “remix” as you can expect with such a movie. The upscaling chef is a comic delight, and I wish there had been more of him particularly — we’re introduced to him at another restaurant refusing to heat gazpacho as a blasphemy against his cooking and he has a way of expressing himself with knives. The movie’s best scene involves him taking a simple diner-fried meal and before the owner’s eyes, repackaging just a fraction of it as haute cuisine that’ll sell for 45 euros (mixing mayo and ketchup was the capper). And don’t worry — everything turns out happily in the end, even after I wrote in my notes “this is basically a movie of defeat.” The film also works as “food porn” — luxuriating in the sight of banquets and meals being prepared and whatnot. Speaking of sex, the thread about a food aphrodisiac is the essential plot behind LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, a Mexican film from the early-90s that was one of the biggest foreign-language hits ever. And make no mistake, this movie also is a crowd-pleaser (I’ve overheard three strangers in lines or in audiences saying it was their favorite film of the festival. If SOUL KITCHEN is handled correctly by the right distributor, it will be (not “could be”; “will be”) the biggest foreign-language hit of whatever year it comes out.

DogTulip

MY DOG TULIP (Paul & Sandra Fierlinger, USA, 3)

A couple of years ago, an estrangement began (there were later causes too) between myself and a Christian critic over the announcement that ZOO, based on a notorious fatal case of horse sexual abuse, would play at Sundance. I defended the notion that one could make a worthwhile film about excessive or obsessive love between humans and animals (not necessarily that Robinson Devor did make one — we were all operating in a critical vacuum, a key part of why I saw his post as sheer demagoguery). One of the films I cited was WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU, based on a J.R. Ackerley novel about a man’s dog whom his gay lover comes to see as representing him while he serves a prison term. So I was excited at the possibility of a film from another Ackerley novel on a similar topic. MY DOG TULIP is also set in post-war Britain, and also centers on an Alsatian and on its relationship with the owner, the narrator of the film. Christopher Plummer narrates very well, but in a way that’s too dry, charming and witty for the film’s eventual own good — more on that anon.

The animation was interesting in a low-tech kind of way; the drawing is resolutely two-dimensional and keeps the look of paper-and-pencil sketches (though it was actually entirely done on computers with no actual trees having to give their lives for this project). Indeed, the look is even more radically stripped down to a schoolboyish few lines on lined-paper for the several “imagination” scenes. The style is resolutely that of early 20th century Britain, appropriate to the setting, and reminding me also of the illustration style of the British kids books I had as a boy — Paddington Bear, Puffin editions of Milne or Edward Lear.

But what an unclean experience. The content of the two works really left me irked, and a programmer buddy told me his wife also loved WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU and sought out this book on that basis, and had the exact same reaction — that it’s nothing more than a very adolescent obsession with bodily functions. You could imagine Beavis and Butt-head being asked to write about owning a dog and producing something like this. Most of the movie (and I assume the book too), and I’m not exaggerating when I say “most,” centers on rituals surrounding peeing, crapping and mating — mostly the dog’s and the narrator’s fascination thereat, though we’re helpfully told of the epiphany of Tulip becoming as interested in his human urine. Nor is it simply the story, it’s also details in the drawing like showing a randy maid with two large curves under her chest or showing Tulip (a female) with eight such curves (the drawing is sufficiently stylized and low-tech that realism is no excuse). And when the narrator described using Vaseline to facilitate Tulip’s receiving the attention of a male Alsatian, I pretty much checked out of the movie. Not necessarily because of crassness or crudeness, because MY DOG TULIP isn’t exactly either — I am not an easily offended person and I might have enjoyed a bawdily-toned openly X-rated cartoon like FRITZ THE CAT.  But because the dry narration and understated animation, when combined with a schoolchild’s focus on clinical discussions of sex and waste, frankly creeped me out. Because the people making it are not schoolchildren. The book/film have the aura, not of watching a porn movie, but of looking at a flasher walk down the street waiting to strike or of sitting on the lap of an old man in a raincoat. You just feel more weirded out the more charming and apparently-witty the descriptions become, like how the subject of an unsuccessful effort to mate Tulip “is one that requires no further enlarging upon.” Enlarging? Huh-huh, huh-huh. Yeah … hehehehe … He said “enlarge.”

September 17, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Toronto grades — Day 7

PARTIR (Catherine Corsini, France, 4)
SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY (Yousry Nasrallah, Egypt, 5)
LEAVES OF GRASS (Tim Blake Nelson, USA, 2)
MOTHER (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 9)
LE REFUGE (Francois Ozon, France, 3)

September 17, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment

Toronto grades — Day 6

Now this is the kind of day a film festival should be:

THE WARRIOR AND THE WOLF (Tian Zhuangzhuang, China, 5)
THE INFORMANT! (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 8)
THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL, NEW ORLEANS (Werner Herzog, USA, 8)
TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE (Cristian Mungiu / Ioana Uricaru / Hanno Hofer / Razvan Marculescu / Constantin Popescu; Romania) average: 6.6, directors not specifically matched to the shorts
“The Legend of the Official Visit” — 8
“The Legend of the Party Photographer” — 7
“The Legend of the Chicken Drivers” — 4
“The Legend of the Greedy Policeman” — 6
“The Legend of the Air Sellers” — 8

September 16, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment

Toronto capsules — Day 4

DorianGray

DORIAN GRAY (Oliver Parker, Britain, 4)

A few years ago, I gave Skandie points to Oliver Parker for the script of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, even though I had said everything that he did to the play was a mistake. When someone took me to task for this (my memory tells me Noel Murray or Donna Bowman), I said “the category is ‘best script,’ not ‘best adaptation job.’ Parker was working with the greatest comic play ever written in English, and most of that is intact and it’s thus one of the year’s best scripts.” Here, Parker has done something VERY different. Not only is every change he made to an Oscar Wilde work again a mistake, but there’s an overarching vision change and some major additions to the novel. In other words, he finally succeeded in truly effing it up.

What Parker has done is make “The Picture of Dorian Gray” as a pretty straight-up horror movie — complete with creepy, portentous score, lengthy zooms up to doors that a character is about to open not knowing what lies behind it, shrouding a piano as if it were a coffin. The novel’s eponymous picture not only ages and gets disfigured, but even has maggots crawling out of it, and comes to life and roars off the canvas in partial 3-D when threatened. And if DORIAN GRAY’S NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sounds like a good idea for a movie, Parker pulls it off, I guess. I know that the novel has its gothic elements, but pushing those elements into this territory just make the whole work come across as trivial — underplayed or ignored are such minor matters in the novel as the poisonous French book (probably Huysmans) and decadence, and Wilde’s critique of them.

Parker also added, for Rebecca Miller I assume, the character of a daughter to Lord Henry whom Dorian maybe kinda falls in love with when he returns to London after 25 years of debauchery on the continent (the scene of Dorian’s return to a society party where everyone else has suddenly aged decades since our last view of them, but he still looks like Ben Barnes, is one of the few things that work in the movie). But I suspect adding the daughter character allowed the audience to root for Colin Firth at the end, contrary to the novel, where he’s the devil in a  Faust template. It also permitted a final suspense-action showdown — because we all know Oscar Wilde needs that — involving Dorian, Henry and her fighting over a key to the attic where the painting is kept. And again, what this costs the film, by giving Dorian a different set of motives near the end, is downplaying one of the novel’s most important but least fashionable themes — the repentance arc.

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VALHALLA RISING (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark/Britain, 6)

Like a Chinese movie I saw earlier today, this is very much an “it is what it is” take on the film. If you go in expecting a Norse saga, VALHALLA delivers that, for both good and ill. Refn composes images of windswept braes and crags, complete with dirt and wind and fog. The film largely takes place in northern Scotland and it looks right (if not exactly “good” … these aren’t pretty images at all). The music is funereal electronica, which is dramatic and appropriate, but also a bit offputting as music. The dialog is also as spare, declamatory and stylized (though not “eloquent” or exactly “quotable”) as an ancient saga — my favorite example: “We claimed this land in the name of Our Lord” / “How did we do that?” I must add that I found a Norse saga in which the Christians among the Vikings all speak in Scottish accents to be a little odd, though I eventually accepted the idea once I realized the film’s early scenes are set in Scotland (I walked in a few minutes late).

There’s also plenty of violence and an invincible hero at the center of it. He’s called One-Eye and played basically without dialogue by Mads Mikkelsen from Refn’s PUSHER trilogy, though he’s probably best known as the villain Le Chiffre in CASINO ROYALE. VALHALLA basically tells his story which begins with him, as in the still I used, as an enslaved gladiator-type fighter who, while chained to the pole, still took on two not-thus-constrained champions of a rival chieftain, and killed them both. He’s too dangerous to ever be freed, so he has to fight this way. The still is also typical of the film’s image style — lots of shots of heroic men framed against the sky or the mountains. A lengthy central sequence involves One-Eye helping several Christian Vikings on a quest to retake the Holy Land, only the entire journey the ship is surrounded by fog and it’s not obvious where they’re going — there’s a Hitchcockian LIFEBOAT quality in the dynamic among the seven or eight men in the boat, including a little boy One-Eye has adopted (or is it vice versa) and has made clear he doesn’t want harmed.

There’s a Herzogian quality to the last third of the film — to say more about what film would say too much I think. It’s not a great movie by any means — TIFF bud Dan Owen found it tedious — but it does deliver the goods if you want a chilly windswept Norse saga of heroes on a quest.

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THE ROAD (John Hillcoat, USA, 7)

This is also the story of people on a quest, though it couldn’t be more different from VALHALLA RISING. In this tension-filled picaresque, there isn’t really a destination that makes sense; the father-and-son team in a post-apocalyptic world are headed for the sea, though it’s not clear why getting to the sea would provide either refuge or easier food. It also has more on its mind — man in the Hobbesian state of nature, the lengths to which parents go to protect their children, and the nature of conscience.

It’s a heady brew all right, though THE ROAD seems more popular among people who haven’t read the Cormac McCarthy novel (which number includes me). Perhaps that’s because besides losing the prose style (voiceover simply doesn’t suffice), you also lose the suspense and the gnawing discomfort of a world where death lies around every corner. It’s not clear what exactly has happened — why civilization has collapsed and we’re basically dealing with the last few men on earth — but the film lays on the details efficiently and deftly. Money is ignored (what does “exchange” mean outside the context of civilization); the need to avoid cannibals makes suicide a sufficient likelihood for a father to show his son how to point the gun into his mouth properly.

Still all the talk within the film aside, and also leaving aside the utterly bleak landscapes with the barely-recognizable shadow of what was once civilization, I was surprised how little violence and how few gang-cannibal appearances there actually are, which is the entree into the first theme I was surprised by — the difference in the moral views of the father and the son, which are almost the opposite of what I expected. In one scene, the father finds an old can of Coke that survived years in a long-abandoned machine — apparently, the boy, who looks about 8, has never drank a soda and in another scene, dad observes that “you must think I come from another world,” meaning the civilized world we know. In other words, this “state of nature” world is all the son knows. And yet, it is the father who has the savage morals that Hobbes described as rational in the state of nature, while it is the son who thinks exactly as Hobbes predicted he should not.

In such scenes as the old man played by Robert Duvall, the thief near the end, the little boy in the town (was he real?) — it is the son who displays the milk of human kindness, the more-trusting nature, the lack of what Hobbes calls “diffidence” (that is, uncertainty about others’ intentions is reason to assume the worst, because the cost to oneself of guessing wrong is thereby minimized). In contrast, it is the father who acts with pre-emptive violence, and takes the slightest risk as reason to move on — most particularly in the one idyllic scene the movie has, when the pair come across a time-capsule island of food, shelter, hot water and other creature comforts (conservatives will appreciate the exact nature of this idyll). Dad hears, or thinks he hears people and a dog — and immediately abandons the place because “we’re not safe here.” But then, that’s can be viewed also as the responsibility of being parent — paranoia about anything that might harm your child, even if it probably won’t, because “I’d never forgive myself if I let anything happen to you,” a view shared by approximately 0.0000000001% of the children in question in human history. Also, perhaps knowing what has been lost with the end of civilization, as the father does and the son does not (“this is called shampoo,” he says), makes one more jealous about preserving the little one does have, while having spent your whole life scavenging for the equivalent of M&M pieces under the couch has made that your normal. On this take, THE ROAD would be saying that what Nietzsche mocked as slave morality is actually natural and even pre-cognitive — at several points in their quarrels, dad says “why do you wanna do X” and the son would say “I just do” — while it is experience and history that lead to other values.

The film has flaws — primarily an overly sentimental mickey-mouse score during the last reel, most especially the next-to-last scene, where it’s so spectacularly inappropriate that I was reminded of some of those South Korean movies. And I’m not sure how well it might stand up to a second viewing, given how central how unexpected-threat is to the narrative tension. But I enjoyed it more than I expected given the mediocre buzz.

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BIG DIG (Ephraim Kishon, Israel, 1969, 8)

Really glad that this was the City-to-City film I chose to see — BIG DIG (also known as BLAUMLICH CANAL) not only is an utterly apolitical film (there was no mention at all of the fuss surrounding the program), but also an expertly-done vaudevillian farce of a kind that we rarely sees today and I doubt we could see because the preconditions for it don’t exist.

In the tradition of classic farce, it begins with a single illogical, unlikely event — in this case a man escapes from the insane asylum, steals a jackhammer and at dawn one day starts tearing up Tel Aviv’s busiest intersection. And then it follows the repercussions with perfect logic — through a large and uniformly excellent cast of pettifogging bureaucrats, glory-hogging bureaucrats, glory-hogging politicians, election-obsessed politicians, martinet policemen, mindless manual laborers, townsfolk who take advantage of the situation, townsfolk who are hurt by the situation (including newlyweds who just want peace and quiet for … well … you know), demanding fathers-in-law, sexy secretaries who can’t type, and more.

Like THE ROAD, the end doesn’t quite come off. Or rather, it’s a perfect capper, but instead of “and here’s what Tel Aviv did with this impossible situation” as a short punchline, BIG DIG tries to make it into a new sequence, and it just goes on too long, Plus I really don’t like for comedies to have the characters laugh onscreen at the last joke (though this one actually is quite funny it still comes across as self-congratulatory). But there’s too much to like hear to complain. Several wonderful montages are cut like I like — quick, direct and blunt — a tea-drinking meeting, a phone call to the national government, a sabotage plan being carried out. Other scenes take a single idea and push it into insanity. For example, Transportation Department flunkey Ziegler — eager to gain a promotion, impress his fiancee and prospective father-in-law, and protect his boss like Smithers does Burns — tries to sneak into a rival department to steal some plans. He sneaks in dressed like a movie private eye, only to find that the department doesn’t exactly react to him as expected.

The key is the performances. Starting with Bomba Tzur as the asylum inmate, the cast all know how to handle farcical acting and situations. Tzur combines the body and gait of Zero Mostel with the innocent viciousness of fellow mute Harpo Marx. In one scene, the neighborhood families explain to an Israeli court the noises they have to put up with, and the six or seven perfprmers — all middle-aged or old — each start repeating a sound of some major piece of equipment until they all blend into a fugue of city noise as convincing (and therefore funny) as the real thing. One can’t help think of the major role Jews have historically had in vaudeville and theater, and then in later standup comedy throughout Europe and the U.S. (though I’ve been told in several different contexts that Israeli culture is very different from diaspora Jewish culture). And then one wonders (well, I do anyway), where are the performers with the training and experience necessary to do this kind of material today? And where could anyone develop such chops in a world where live theater is weaker than ever, vaudeville is dead, and TV is being de-sitcomized in favor of reality TV and other non-performed shows?

September 15, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | 3 Comments

Toronto grades — Day 5

Putting up an early version of this to get word out on a change of schedule, an unexpected find and what will be my least favorite film of the festival, unless I’m trapped in my own version of Job.

A SERIOUS MAN (Coen Brothers, USA, 1)
GET LOW (Aaron Schneider, USA, 3)
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED (J Blakeson, Britain, 9)
SOUL KITCHEN (Fatih Akin, Germany, 6)
MY DOG TULIP (Paul & Sandra Fierlinger, USA, 3)

September 14, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment

Toronto capsules — day 3

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VISION (Margaretha Von Trotta, Germany, 2009) — 4

Downgraded from my initial reaction because looking over my notes, it was clear that there wasn’t very much right about the movie — there just was nothing wrong with it in the way I had feared. VISION is a respectful (in one sense) if ultimately too respectful (in another) biopic of the medieval abbess, mystic and musician. The first sense of respectful is that it takes religious vows, visions and authority seriously and doesn’t overplay the ways that Church matters relate to politics and personality. I’m too inexpert in the specific history to say if there was hanky-panky in the details, but it felt like a seriously historical work with just one or two relatively mild hat-tips to Our Much More Enlightened Time, primarily an excessive interest in corporal mortification.

One shoe I was particularly happy not to see drop was the L-word. I can’t speak to the details but particular attachment between individuals has always been a potential problem in religious communities, a point of which they are well aware and know to strive against. That becomes an issue between Hildegarde and an aristocratic family’s daughter — on both tends at different times. And the film handles that plot thread without sexualizing it even subtextually.

But at the end of the day there just isn’t terribly much to recommend in this movie. There’s practically nothing about Hildegarde’s music, and she’s only the earliest known female composer in the Western canon. There isn’t much about Hildegarde’s visions — they’re described a few times but neither concretized nor dissected in any theological detail either for interest or uniqueness. Perhaps the film’s low point is a denunciation of Hildegarde’s visions that just comes across as Partriarchy Being Mean to the Girl (I remember listening to her descriptions of the visions and I could see some potential red flags — along with reasonable defenses).

But really what hurt the film most is the inherent problems that biopics that attempt to cover long periods inevitable have. Event B must follow Event A because it happened that way, not because it is dramatically interesting. You get all the “This Is Your Life” scenes that are mere ground-covering, included because they happened, as if Von Trotta were substitute-hosting Medieval Week for Eamonn Andrews. There’s elements of a great story here but it all gets rushed (the ending is particularly abrupt and matter-hanging). I think first of the quarrel over moving the nuns to a new cloister away from the monks — on the evidence here, that could have made an interesting film all by itself. As it is, it’s just a too-quick lick and a promise.

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MY TEHRAN FOR SALE (Granaz Moussavi, Australia/Iran, 2)

And I’m not buying it. A high grade for this movie would just be the equivalent of turning your Twitter avatar green or wearing some awareness ribbon (if any colors are left). This is the sort of “relevant” “political” movie that festival audiences eat up, and it actually does succeed in not being terrible early on — the first scene in particular, even though it’s cutting between three sites, could have passed for a documentary and is deftly edited (the first cut in particular is quite violent). But it quickly settles into its mode — didactic and pandering to left-liberal Westerners’ conceptions of themselves. Here’s a typical snatch of dialog, between the female main character and her Australian-citizen boyfriend — both Iranians by birth an ethnicity; “I didn’t realize Tehran was so big” … “it was different during the war, there were air raid sirens while the world looked the other way.” There’s some silly attempts to parallel Australian immigration/refugee authorities and the Iranian theocrats, and aesthetically, the film isn’t much to look at — some scenes look like video mudslides without the apparent excuse of having to shoot guerrilla-style in a hostile country (I actually DON’T know the film’s production history though).

Then we get to the movie’s central character, a female author/dancer/artist who comes across as engineered to win our approval in the West. But to put it brutally, if I were Ahmadinejad or the mullahs, I’d appreciate this movie being the face of Iranian opposition. If you wish to argue that Western influence will lead to shacking-up, drug use, AIDS, casual abortion, bad pretentious modern dance, and music that makes Joe Cocker sound tuneful and euphonic — this movie will confirm that. And at the end, instead of the woman’s patriotism being affirmed in a way that undermines the regime (the comparisons with Panahi’s OFFSIDE are crushing in every conceivable way, but that one most of all), we get her listening on her iPod to the Iranian equivalent of Complaint Rock (“I see no green fields if hope in this waste land”) and a series of guttural screams at Tehran from a hill.

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IRENE (Alain Cavalier, France, 3)

To anyone who thinks that Von Trier making a depression-therapy movie was too personal and self-justifying to produce a work for public view: I invite you to look at this movie, but as a critical compare-contrast exercise (obviously not because it’s really a good movie). You feel kinda guilty dumping on IRENE or a movie like it because it’s so obviously so personal for the filmmaker. Upon the death of his mother, Cavalier looks through some old papers and comes across his diaries from the 1971 and 72, the year surrounding the death of his wife. This film is the resutling tribute to her. That’s sacred ground. And if I were a friend of Cavalier and he had made IRENE as a private exercise, I’d feel compelled to pull my punches if we watched it together (and I might have an objectively different reaction too). But I’m not and he didn’t.

The basic first-degree problem with IRENE is that it looks awful. Even by video standards, it looks awful — muddy, unlit, blurry, unfocused. In one phrase, just incompetent — you would never guess from IRENE that it was made by a successful director with more than a dozen features under his belt, who has worked with Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, and who had one of his films placed on the Vatican list of Significant Films. Even apart from that, nothing much is added by the jumbled essayistic structure, or by the camera’s usual subjective narrator POV with Cavalier giving a near-constant first-person voiceover, or by Cavalier’s repeated filming of himself and/or himself-shooting. This film really made me appreciate more in retrospect a personal essay film that I saw here last year, Agnes Varda’s LES PLAGES D’AGNES. Where Varda’s self-absorption was charming, self-aware and often quite funny, here I found the self-display actively aggravating. We see a breakout of shingles on his body (why); we get some fairly descriptive descriptions of how Irene acted in bed (I’m a big boy, but I just cringed); and the voiceover is often little more than musing aloud and sometimes is quite literally nothing but repetition of the image. At one point we come across a door that says push, and the voiceover, in French but subtitled for extra redundancy, says “door says ‘push.’ And so push I do” as the door opens and the camera goes through … I am not exaggerating.

In fairness the film does get better as it goes along, focusing more on Irene and less on Cavalier — we get more of a sense of who she was, why he loved her (and sometimes didn’t), more about the ups and downs of their marriage. The last line brings the movie back to the beginning and ties up that Cavalier learned about two women, not just one, while making this movie. In the best scene in the film, Cavalier describes a memory of laying his head on her lap, both naked. At that point, he shows Irene’s face for the first time in the movie, as part of a photo he took of her and the family dog, the animal sick and just a few days from death. In that photo, the dog is resting his head in the same position on her lap that Cavalier mentions being in himself. And Irene is wearing on her face the same expression Cavalier remembered seeing from that same position himself. It was a frog-in-throat moment and almost made up for the descriptions of her orgasm technique. Almost.

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THE WHITE RIBBON (Michael Haneke, Austria/Germany, 4)

Al Pacino finally won a best actor Oscar for SCENT OF A WOMAN; Carol Reed finally won a best director Oscar for OLIVER!; Kate Winslet finally won a best actress Oscar for THE READER. And this year Michael Haneke finally won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.

I take no pleasure in writing that Michael Haneke — one of my cinematic gods, a man for whom I reserved a spot on my Skandies decade Top 10 films, the man I casually refer to as the world’s greatest pure director — has made a mistake. THE WHITE RIBBON is overlong, overcooked and overt in the service of some ideas that are quite stupid. Apart from being in German, from a certain moralism and from looking glorious in black-and-white — there is no internal reason to think Michael Haneke made this movie. There’s some real headscratcher choices — this movie has the first European 1910s Semitic-looking teacher whose father is a tailor and doesn’t (that I recall) go to church — but nobody thinks to ask whether he’s Jewish. There’s a couple of particularly atrocious play-to-the-audience juxtapose edits midway through the film that killed its chances with me — one from hitting a sour music note to a pig grunting; the other from a boy’s embarrassed confession of self-abuse to the sounds of joyful fornication involving one of the town’s society pillars.

There is none of Haneke’s formally chilly style, no distinctive [gasp!] moments like the rewind button in FUNNY GAMES, Majid’s final cut on CACHE, or Benny making a video in … There’s even, as if to remind us, the killing of an animal — but it’s offscreen and telegraphed from the far side of Danzig rather than shot and edited a la Haneke. There’s even a plausible audience identification figure, and he (I am not kidding) has a voiceover to encourage us to identify with him? Is there no limit, even in the age of “Scrooge McDuck is really sexy”? Further, the moralism in the film is directed entirely at (some of) the onscreen characters — there’s nothing discomforting either in implicating the audience either directly (in FUNNY GAMES and the metacinematic material on other films) or indirectly through judgment of plausible onscreen proxies. These characters are all Germans from 100 years ago — it’s too safe to sniff at them, but that’s all we can really do.

What happened? I didn’t mean those opening comparisons simply to be snide about “career awards.” All three, plus THE WHITE RIBBON, whatever else may be said of them are clearly awards-bait movies/performances. Although it isn’t in fact, THE WHITE RIBBON feels like a literary adaptation and is certainly Haneke’s attempt at a Tradition of Quality movie. It’s also about Germans with material that invites, both from within the film and from the auteur himself, dissection as a Nazism allegory — they love that in Europe, and heck, it might even bring Haneke to the Oscars (this is Oscar bait on ‘roids if Austria or Germany should choose to submit it).

Which brings me to the other problem with this movie — a huge one. THE WHITE RIBBON is fundamentally pushing a really dangerous and self-righteous historiographical error — hindsight teleology. This is a popular (because comforting) error in the study of German history — to view German history as a set of logically-aimed events paving the way, inevitably or inexorably, toward the Third Reich, as if that was Germany’s historic telos. Yes, Nazism was historically conditioned and came about when it did because fortuna was favorable. But it is arrant nonsense, Herr Doktor Haneke, to give us corporal punishment of children, distant fathers, small-town gossip (what 1970s French tyranny was having its seeds sewn in LE CORBEAU), anti-masturbation obsession (I wish I were kidding), child viciousness towards the handicapped, men who tire of their concubines, attacks on cabbage patches (this stupid film even TELLS us there’s a doggerel verse for when it happens, i.e., it’s a historic commonplace) and authoritarian education of which Paolo Freire would disapprove — to give us all this as precursors of Nazism or (vjm rolls his eyes) terrorism. Those things you show, Herr Haneke, were all quite present all across Europe and the Western world, and in every case but one, Nazism wasn’t the result. And then to set it all on the eve of World War One makes it double pferdscheisse, Michael, because there were too many and much larger intervening events to put much historical stock in the trifles you present. If World War I had gone differently, Nazism as a mass movement doesn’t even make sense. If, during that war, some Tommy’s bullet had zigged rather than zagged near an unknown German corporal, well … Some form of German fascism would have formed, of course, and it might even have taken power at some point (thanks to minor things like the reparations burden, the French Ruhr invasion, the Great Depression). But without a charismatic demigod with millennialist ideas and a certifiable mental illness, there is no reason to believe it would have been any nastier, either to Germany or its neighbors, than were the fascist regimes of Argentina, Spain, Portugal or Italy.

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WILD GRASS (Alain Resnais, France, 8)

Dear Piers Handling:
Did you actually see this movie before writing in your description “Although the film is light, comedic and frothy, it is never silly”? If you did, could you please provide an example of a movie you DO think is silly along with some idea of why you think it is so? Cuz see, this may be the silliest (and I really do mean that in a good way) film I have ever seen. This is a movie where a woman calls the police to tell a stalker to lay off after he’s slashed her tires (and thoughtfully left a note), and then calls the stalker *herself.* This is a movie where a title card reads “The End” as a couple kiss and the score swells to a crescendo … and then the movie continues with the same characters and others for another 4-5 minutes (I’m guessing). This is a movie where a stalker meets his victim’s coworker and they have sex practically right away. This is a movie that ends with a total impenetrable non sequitur, after a transportation accident that’s not shown and where the only reaction shot belongs to someone worried about state regulations and identifying marks. WILD GRASS starts out with an image of grass popping through concrete, discontinuously and unpredictably and returns to that image to explain its narrative structure. It could not more clearly set itself up and play itself out as a surrealist-dada prank movie, where illogic is followed with increasing rigor until by the end, it’s absolute … silliness to no other end.

Dear Mike D’Angelo:
Your review from Cannes indicates that you totally got this movie and even its bases for going the way it did. So why the perplexity? If you didn’t find the film’s increasing bizarrerie funny, that’s fine — there’s nothing to say. But the film sets up its illogical logic fairly and clearly (you even use the “Dada” word yourself), and follows through on it as it grows increasingly detached from reality (as I think I explain in the letter to Piers). It’s kinda like how in SMOKING/NO SMOKING, Resnais made two scenarios starting with the opposite overt acts of the title until, the butterfly wings having grown into a hurricane, the same set of characters are in completely different realities. You even got the subtext about Resnais pointing out how bizarre the behavior in romantic comedies really is — in fact the more I think about it, the more I think Resnais is taking the piss out of the American romcom. So substitute PLAUSIBLE and ROMCOM for SMOKING and NO SMOKING, and see this film as NO SMOKING alone. It’s the same idea really. And the last shot is the perfect capper — it has to be from a character never before seen, saying something that doesn’t make sense as referring to anything in the movie, and doesn’t make a whole lotta sense per se. It’s the only place the movie had left to go.

Dear Jeremy Heilman:
Maybe our laughter was feeding off each other’s (happens at comedies), but it sounded to me like we were enjoying WILD GRASS more than anyone in the theater. That can’t be. Surely we weren’t the only ones to notice how finely modulated between sanity and insanity, and between id and superego, are the performances by expert farceurs Sabine Azema and Andre Dussollier. Surely we’re not the only people to swoon at Eric Gautheir’s gorgeous cinematography — his splashes of color and pools of anti-realistic light, and all the crazy dentist montages, etc. Surely we’re not the people who can be tickled to death by a movie that doesn’t go exactly where you know it’s going in the first 10 minutes. Surely we’re not the only persons never sure whether you’re laughing at gags or jokes per se but at the cleverness of a film’s sheer inventive illogic. Surely.

September 14, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment

Toronto grades — Day 4

MASS (Jesus Christ, from East to West, from age to age, 10)
DORIAN GRAY (Oliver Parker, Britain, 4)
VALHALLA RISING (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark/Britain, 6)
THE ROAD (John Hillcoat, USA, 7)
BIG DIG (Ephesim Kishon, Israel, 8)

September 13, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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

Toronto Day 1 grades

AN EDUCATION (Lone Scherfig, Britain, 2009) — 3
ANTICHRIST (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2009) — 9

September 11, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment

Toronto’s ugly side

I suppose I should say something about the political controversy roiling the film festival — the boycott over the inaugural City-to-City program featuring films from and about Tel Aviv.

Canadian filmmaker John Greyson has pulled his film COVERED from the festival, and a group of about 50 celebrities, artists and “activists” ranging from Jane Fonda and Danny Glover to Slavoj Zizek and Naomi Klein signed “The Toronto Declaration” objecting to the City-to-City prorgam. Their public letter denounced Israel as an “apartheid regime” and called the program a whitewash.

Continue reading

September 10, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | 1 Comment

My Toronto schedule

OK … it is September and that means time for Victor’s Insane Annual Vacation. Got my results from the lottery earlier today, and it was … sweeeet. I am nearly certain I got all my first choices, and I know I got everything I feared I might not: a notorious Lars Von Trier film on the first night (there’s few screenings Thursday evening and so they always fill up early), the high-profile Cannes winner by Michael Haneke, and films by Hollywood/Toronto auteur royalty like the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh and Atom Egoyan.

I was surprised how many films with apparent religious themes there were this year, and I scored tickets to several that looked like they could be interesting — AGORA, VISION, HADEWIJCH — despite the TIFF Guidebook’s best efforts to chase me away (which it succeeded in doing so with LOURDES: check out this walkoff and ask yourself if the equivalent contempt toward another group would pass muster in the Sensitive Socialist Republic of Canuckistan). I manfully resisted the Charles Darwin biopic (titled CREATION no less), and I wrote off Michael Moore sometime before the premiere of FAHRENHEIT 9/11. But what would a festival devoted to the finest in the art of the cinema be without a Russ Meyer homage called (I am not kidding) BITCH SLAP.

Anyway, here is my schedule, always subject to change if good buzz elsewhere, particularly from Telluride and Venice, requires. And to drops from tiredness and/or poor buzz.

Thu, 10 Sept
600 Ryerson AN EDUCATION (Lone Sherfig, Britain)
900 Ryerson ANTICHRIST (Lars Von Trier, Denmark)

Fri, 11 Sept
915 Scotia1 LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
1230 Scotia1 FACE (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France)
330 AMC7 IF I KNEW WHAT YOU SAID (Mike Escareal Sandejas, Philippines)
515 AMC2 SAWASDEE BANGKOK (Wisit Sasanatieng / Aditya Assara / Kongdej Jaturanrasame / Pen-ek Ratanaruang; Thailand)
945 Scotia1 DOGTOOTH (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)

Sat, 12 Sept
915 Scotia1 VISION (Margarethe von Trotta, Germany)
1145 AMC7 MY TEHRAN FOR SALE (Granaz Moussavi, Australia/Iran)
230 AMC4 IRENE (Alain Cavalier, France)
515 Scotia1 THE WHITE RIBBON (Michael Haneke, Austria)
900 Scotia1 LES HERBES FOLLES (Alain Resnais, France)

Sun, 13 Sept
1230 WinterGarden DORIAN GRAY (Oliver Parker, Britain)
230 Ryerson VALHALLA RISING (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark)
530 Ryerson THE ROAD (John Hillcoat, USA)
930 Varsity4 BIG DIG (Ephraim Kishon, Israel, 1969)

Mon, 14 Sept
900 Scotia1 A SERIOUS MAN (Coen Brothers, USA)
noon Ryerson GET LOW (Aaron Schneider, USA)
215 Scotia1 THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED (J Blakeson, USA)
500 Scotia1 AGORA (Alejandro Amenabar, Spain)
900 Varsity2 MY DOG TULIP (Paul & Sandra Fierlinger, USA)
midnight Ryerson BITCH SLAP (Rick Jacobson, USA)

Tue, 15 Sept
1100 Elgin CHLOE (Atom Egoyan, Canada)
100 Scotia3 THE WARRIOR AND THE WOLF (Tian Zhuangzhuang, China)
300 Ryerson THE INFORMANT! (Steven Soderbergh, USA)
600 Ryerson BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (Werner Herzog, USA)
845 AMC3 TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE (Cristian Mungiu / Ioana Uricaru / Hanno Hofer / Razvan Marculescu / Constantin Popescu; Romania)

Wed, 16 Sept
945 Scotia2 PARTIR (Catherine Corsini, France)
1215 Scotia2 SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY (Yousry Nasrallah, Egypt)
400 WinterGarden LEAVES OF GRASS (Tim Blake Nelson, USA)
600 Elgin MOTHER (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
900 Ryerson LE REFUGE (Francois Ozon, France)

Thu, 17 Sept
900 Scotia1 THE DAMNED UNITED (Tom Hooper, Britain)
noon Ryerson MICMACS (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France)
345 Scotia2 I KILLED MY MOTHER (Xavier Dolan, Canada)
530 Varsity8 MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (Werner Herzog, USA)
745 Bader ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLOND HAIR GIRL (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)
midnight Ryerson SYMBOL (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan)

Fri, 18 Sept
830 Scotia2 VINCERE (Marco Bellocchio, Italy)
130 Scotia2 THE TIME THAT REMAINS (Elia Suleiman, Palestine)
400 Cumberland1 I AM NOT YOUR FRIEND (Gyorgy Palfi, Hungary)
615 Varsity4 L’ENFER DE HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT (Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, France)
900 Ryerson MR. NOBODY (Jaco Van Dormael, France)

Sat, 19 Sept
900 Varsity4 POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
1230 Scotia4 AIR DOLL (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
400 WinterGarden HADEWIJCH (Bruno Dumont, France)
700 AMC9 ENTER THE VOID (Gaspar Noe, France)
midnight Ryerson ONG BAK 2: THE BEGINNING (Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai, Thailand)

September 1, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | 3 Comments