Rightwing Film Geek

TIFF Capsules — Day 8

DR. PLONK, Rolf de Heer, Australia — 6
The titular 1907 scientist discovers that the world will end a hundred years hence and so develops a time machine to get the proof and/or warn the then-present. Since it’s done in the style of a silent comedy, or more specifically a not-quite-so-frenetic Mack Sennett, this silent-film fanboy was ready to adore DR. PLONK. And there IS a lot of stuff to like here: a charming dog with a ball fetish to end all ball fetishes, the deaf assistant, Dr. Plonk’s chalkboard with not-quite-brilliant scrawls (“c² = e/m”), and my favorite gag was the way Dr. Plonk handles the TV salesman. But I quickly realized I wasn’t laughing as much as I should have been, and it’s because writer-director deHeer does little “shading” or “building” the gags. Let me give one example: whenever he gets a good idea, Dr. Plonk pulls out of his pocket and displays to the camera a glowing lightbulb, not attached to any socket or other visible power source. In the course of the film, he does this maybe six times or so. But that’s only funny the first or second time. If Chaplin or Lloyd were to have done this, they would have had something unexpected happen during or because of the gesture, rather than just rinse-and-repeat. And not much is really made of the 1907-2007 contrasts, other than a funny bit about trying to visit the Australian prime minister. DR. PLONK is more an great stunt done passably than a great movie.

RECLAIM YOUR BRAIN, Hans Weingartner, Germany — 0
I should have reclaimed mine by walking out of this vile bag of stupid, self-satisfied, self-righteous, audience-fellating garbage. Weingartner said in his intro at the festival that the “TV rating system does not reflect intelligent people like us,” which got my back up right away. “Us”? And then, the very first dramatic scene is so over-the top — imagine this PJ O’Rourke essay as adapted by someone who didn’t realize O’Rourke is a humorist — that the only question really left was how much I would hate RECLAIM YOUR BRAIN. Quite a lot. A supposed satire about the dumbing effect of television and a plot by a ragtag group to electronically rig the ratings and turn Germany in a few months into a nation full of “intelligent people like us,” it really increased my admiration for movies like SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS and IDIOCRACY, which handle some of the same subject matter, but without the smarmy adolescent superiority. This is the sort of movie where two guerrillas try to steal a ratings box and “turn” the security guard chasing after them by sheer dint of persuasion. This is the sort of movie where PERSONA and ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL are put forth as ideal programming, but which has several happy, sappy montages of the New Intelligent Liberated Germany scored to happy, sappy pop music that I don’t recall Bergman or Fassbinder having a jones for. This is the sort of movie that thinks capitalist advertising causes people to consume willy-nilly for the sake of consumption (what caused Roman vomitoriums or “Madame Deficit” then???). It is even the sort of movie where at one point a character notes that “we don’t want to change the ratings too quickly, it’ll attract suspicion” but then later, the characters will huddle around a computer to watch the hacked “real-time ratings” for one network drop by three-fourths in 15 seconds.

DAYS OF DARKNESS, Denys Arcand, Canada — 8
According to Mike, nobody liked this movie at Cannes (and nobody in my circle at Toronto even as much as saw it). I will freely admit that DARKNESS profited enormously from both my seeing it immediately after that piece of scheisse and also from comparison with Arcand’s BARBARIAN INVASIONS, which I rather disliked. DARKNESS shares some thematic similarities with both films and even a narrowly topical resemblance to INVASIONS. But the difference is in the perspective — instead of INVASION’s insufferably smug circle of intellectuals, DARKNESS follows a single protagonist who works in the bowels of that kafkaesque P.C. behemoth that Quebec calls a government. He’s a nobody in his family (his wife is even a Realtor, shades of AMERICAN BEAUTY), he’s bullied at work, where he cannot do anything to help the people who come to him with serious woes. And, like Walter Mitty and Billy Liar, he escapes into fantastical dreams that Arcand presents as black-out comedy sketches. That never quite avoid sex. Arcand presents Quebec as choking on a suburban hyper-modern bureaucratic impersonalism that has arrogated everything and its meaning unto itself. There is a “real-life” scene involving a tribunal over the hero’s use of the word “Negro” that is funny enough but probably is far wittier in French. A lengthy sequence involves a weekend among medieval impersonators (Society for Creative Anachronism types) which the hero says is about “people who just want order and faith.” But, eventually, the only thing left to the hero is to withdraw. TS Eliot said he’d show us fear in a handful of dust (and the Waste Land’s dust is choking the city at the start of the movie) and Arcand shows us the meaning of life in an apple. In other words, this is the right-Romantic “Gemeinschaft” critique of capitalism and modernity (which is incompatible with anything smacking of Marxism or anything leftist): “Crunchy” Rod … see this movie.

SECRET SUNSHINE, Lee Chang-dong, South Korea — 8
I wish I could have just worn a mike and recorded the beer-sodden (on my end) conversation I had with J. Robert Parks on Friday night, so I could post that here as a Podcast. I admired SECRET SUNSHINE much more than Robert does, though the film’s virtues are fairly self-evident: a bravura central performance by Jeon Do-yeon as Shin-ae a newly-widowed mother hit by tragedy as she moves into her late husband’s hometown, and an understatedly-comic turn by Song Kang-ho as Mr. Kim (something needed in a movie where the central character is so BIG and goes through such wild emotional swings). We agreed on all that, where we disagreed and what we mostly discussed was the presentation of Christianity in SECRET SUNSHINE.

After a tragedy, Shin-ae finds her way into a church, an evangelical Protestant group with a strong charismatic bent. At the healing service she wanders into half-unawares, the minister lays his hands on her (the rest of him is offscreen … the perfect framing) and it’s as if 16 tons of coal are off her shoulders. This scene is presented straight and without irony. She joins the church and seems content and at peace. But then tries something heroic, which I won’t spoil, but which turns her against the church and into the remoter edges of sanity. I wouldn’t agree with Darren Hughes that SECRET SUNSHINE is “the truest depiction of evangelical Christianity I’ve seen on film” (I’ve seen THE APOSTLE, and even, in a movie that has more in common with SECRET SUNSHINE, TENDER MERCIES). But Lee does get a lot right, including the physical stuff like the songs (no “Dies Irae” in a low-church setting or “Ave Maria” among Protestants, say), the parking arrangements, and the ways that this church provides community and love to those who badly need it. And Mr. Kim, who joins the church simply to pursue Shin-ae, eventually becomes a reasonably contented member.

Even the warts Lee shows in the church, or rather in this church, are not things Christians (or even evangelicals like Robert) are blind to — starting with a certain spiritual immaturity that, while admirable because it grows from a boundless faith in the Holy Spirit, would encourage the spiritual equivalent of fighting for the world title after winning the Golden Gloves. (And as a Catholic, I have no difficulty with noting how the evangelical once-and-for-all soteriology encourages rashness even in non-salvific or more-secular things; indeed I count this as one of the film’s strengths in its depiction of Christianity.) Even if Robert is right … back me on this one bud … there can be no questioning Lee’s basic receptivity and seriousness, his sincere desire to explore a milieu or phenomenon in its fullness — a religion relatively new to Korea but rapidly-growing. We’re not talking Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, in other words.

One reservation: the film should have ended … I will be vague … as the heroine walks down the street, saying “help me.” Instead there’s a really dumb coda in which a certain action is used as a metaphor for “striking out on one’s own / thinking for oneself.” Except that the action used is one that there are very good natural reasons most people have others do it for them. Which undermines whatever point the coda would have to have to justify its existence.

A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE, Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan — 6

A half-dozen kids make up the entire elementary school in a small Japanese village but a boy comes from Tokyo to study in the top grade, joining the class with the girl who’s the leader of the pack but about to become a teenager. If I had to sum up GENTLE BREEZE in a single word, it would be “sweet.” There isn’t much plot tension exactly, but Yamashita creates a mood more than anything — one of easy happiness without saccharin uplift. The children form a group and love one another rather than the sort of cliquish wiseacres — going to the beach together and even inviting the new boy along lest he feel left out. When GENTLE BREEZE stays with the environment of the children, it is superb and filled with “just so” moments of recognition — I had memories tickled of being afraid to take “The Rock Way” home from St. Lawrence’s Primary when someone told me it was haunted. Even though I never believed in ghosts, exactly. There’s another moment when the youngest girl hugs the eldest, who is a bit of a mother hen to the group without being bossy, that is frog-in-the-throat territory. In his setup, Yamashita deliberately invokes Ozu-style framing to emphasize that this village hasn’t changed much since Ozu’s time. But high-school and the class trip to Tokyo beckon, where the heroine finds out some things about the new boy. GENTLE BREEZE has some very funny comic moments, my favorite being the discussion of the ethics of kisses and handshakes that is far removed from the world of Britney and Lindsey as imaginable. But good as the parts are, they never really come together and the film does drag, grooving on its sweet a bit much for my tastes — as a result, it sometimes feels as slight and inconsequential as … well … a gentle breeze in the village (sorry).

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September 22, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Toronto – Day 2 – capsules

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12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 6)

This comedy, in the blackly cynical vein of the Soviet-era East European political satires (early Forman, Munk, etc.), doesn’t really get cooking until the three principal characters all have finally gathered at the TV station for the talk show on whether there was a revolution post-Ceaucescu in their small town. The title refers to the moment when Ceaucescu abdicated, and where everybody was when the defining event of present-day Romania occurred (I type this on September 11). And the first 40-50 minutes or so of 12:08 are fairly routine semi-comic miserabilism as everybody goes through their pre-show day, which I found only intermittently funny. But then the show begins, and it’s a total hoot. The visual poverty and monotony of a low-budget small-market TV show causes the eyes to wander and thus alight on the gags as they happen (the best and most perfectly-timed one … I will be vague … involves origami). The show’s host babbles about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and watching him is like watching Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge try to keep face on KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU as the wheels come off around him and his self-importance is ground into the dust; the professor’s account of his revolutionary heroism is stripped bare (curiously, he never abandons it); the old man is the character who survives the glare of TV best, but he’s the one with the fewest pretentions, saying he wanted the $100 Ceaucescu had promised. The film’s moral: “enjoy the snow today; tomorrow it’ll be mud.”

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REQUIEM (Hans-Christian Schmid, Germany, 4)

My friend J. Robert Parks told me that this movie, which I already knew told the same story as THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, was more like one of Werner Herzog’s “madmen” movies. Certainly “you can’t choose what God has in store for you” is a theme I’d groove on, and it’s certainly got a simple and powerful last shot, making it clear that the film is not about exorcism per se, but a Pilgrim’s Progress of lead character Michaela’s soul toward accepting martyrdom. The problem is that I didn’t find Michaela’s “touchedness” to be remotely interesting. Maybe she should have tried to conquer the Amazon or drag a boat over a mountain, instead of just living the life of an ordinary first-semester college student. She’s also a bit of an ugly duckling, and an epileptic who stops taking her meds. With fairly predictable results. She’s a religious woman, so she takes this be possession, but I don’t think REQUIEM is nearly as ambiguous as Robert does about whether she really is possessed. Its style is naturalistic, which tends to privilege natural explanations, and simply taking it as I did leaves no “gaps,” no “inexplicables.” I’m not asking for the EXORCIST “would you like some pea soup” scene, but couldn’t there be at least one scene that involves something a little supernatural, a little strange? Particularly when the film pointedly shows her pouring her pills down the sink and “times” most of her worst bouts of insanity with perfectly mundane causes for stress like having a college paper deadline.

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CLIMATES (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 9)

This movie had me from the pre-credits scene. It takes place among some ancient ruins. There’s a man and a woman (played by the film’s director and his real-life wife, Ebru). They talk a little, but mostly seem bored, with themselves and with each other. The woman appears in a lengthy closeup in which her facial expression changes over about a minute from indifference to sadness to tears. And then a fly buzzes in her hair. CLIMATES has the feel of a Bergman movie — one of the first post-credits scenes is of the central couple and a pair of married friends, and it rivals the dinner-foursome scenes from THE PASSION OF ANNA or SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE for how whole universes of anger in swallowed in a glass of red wine. When an insect hits its cue, you know you’re in a the hands of a genius director. Although sometimes he is just showing off (the cigarette, e.g.), there can be no questioning Ceylan’s formal chops. There isn’t much drama, in the narrative-arc sense, in CLIMATES because these are two people who are what they are. Here, “character is destiny.” They’re made for each other, and not in a good way — each knows the other well enough to know when he’s lying, but also not to push the issue; each is as emotionally careless as the other. They’re apart for the middle half of the movie, but not to any great revelations or changes. Character is destiny. But see this movie in a theater, where you can really appreciate how careful and how deeply subjective is the film’s sound mix, and what an eye Ceylan has for using composition, depth of field and focal length to tell a psychological story, one of two people who, like the couples in LA NOTTE or 5×2, can neither be together or apart happily.

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A GRAVE-KEEPER’S TALE (Chitra Palekar, India, 3)

Though I really like the Hindi pop cinema of “Bollywood,” I’ve not been a great fan of what I’ve seen of India’s “parallel” or art cinema, and it finally occurred to me why when watching this movie. For one thing, they cover a lot of thematic ground that can’t help but look outdated to this Western firangi. In TALE, DAY OF WRATH becomes a stock feminist morality tale and a screed against “superstitious religion,” by way of THE CRUCIBLE (there’s some Cassandra myth, too). For another, the acting styles tend to be just as artificial, albeit in a different way, as Bollywood’s song-and-dance extravaganzas. In TALE, the gorgeous Nandita Das acts the title role as if she’s on stage — strident, “gesturey” and obvious (if not exactly “loud”). But while “Bollywood” movies are about as unrealistic as it gets, much of the parallel cinema makes a neorealist show of being about important matters. In this declamatory, voicey acting style. Oil. Water. TALE is also not well-structured and kinda illogical, with about half the movie being a flashback to the origin of this “ghoul,” which is a “she’s your mom” tale, told by a character (dad) who has no reason at that moment to tell it (to son).

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VINCE VAUGHN’S WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW (Ari Sandel, USA, 5)

For the first 15 minutes or so, I thought this was going to be a real dog. For example, there was a scene of Vaughn, Jon Favreau and the whipping boy from DODGEBALL, and they’re improvizing a scene on stage in Hollywood. Only the director keeps cutting away from the scene to interviews and voiceovers of Vaughn and Favreau explaining what was happening (which was perfectly clear, BTW). But the film recovers some as it finds its shape — it’s really more an account of the tour than a film of the four performers’ standup comedy acts, which we never see for more than a minute or so of clips at a time. The comparison to Spike Lee’s ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY — which gave each performer about an uninterrupted 20-25 minutes with some intercalary material between each man’s whole set — is really not favorable. A standup comedian needs to build and get the audience in his hands. Still, I understand Vaughn’s motives for making this film this way. There WAS some drama on the tour — e.g., Katrina and Rita forced some changes in the schedule and one of the biggest laughs comes at a visit to a refugee shelter where the comics visit, along with the painter guy from THE WEDDING CRASHERS. Also, Vaughn’s comics — Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst and Sebastian Mansicalco — are all relative unknowns (one even still has a day job), while Spike had performers who were all superstars, at least among black audiences. So Vaughn introduces us to them in the usual ways — giving bio stories, interviews with the four, meeting the family on tour, and cutting to relevant parts of that man’s routine. In fact, had the film-makers gone the Spike route and filmed a pure concert film, this film would have made a kick-ass “Making Of” supplement on that film’s DVD release. As a movie on its own … not so good.

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THE HOST (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 8 )

Just about as much exhilirating pure fun as you can have with a monster movie, with THE HOST showing that it’s still possible to make a monster movie like they did in the 50s and 60s, the film the JURASSIC PARK series should have been. It’s funny without being intentionally campy. While being scary and gripping, with a well-designed monster. And being visually inventive and knowing exactly how to frame a shot for maximum shock (or laugh) value. The lengthy scene of the monster’s first attack on the beach is hereby given a “For Your Consideration” plug for year-end award polls (hint, hint). There’s also a quarrelsome family that makes the film, kinda like SHAUN OF THE DEAD only not quite as tongue-in-cheek, largely a comedy for long stretches … my favorite such scene being the exchange in the car, where someone notices he’s not mentioned in news reports. My only real complaint is that THE HOST gets kinda flabby in the third act, largely forgetting the comedy and becoming semi-serious. And it’s not clear from the coda who has (else may have) survived. But generally, this is Midnight Movie catnip.

September 11, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment