Rightwing Film Geek

TIFF Capsules — Day 7

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IT’S A FREE WORLD …, Ken Loach, Britain — 5
This is mostly Loach in his “good” mode, staying off his soapbox and with the leftistical pinko points being made by the events rather than speechifying. Unfortunately, he didn’t make a very good film in his “good” genre. He does, typically, get a great central performance from the unknown Kierston Wareing as a worker for a labor-recruitment agency named Angie who loses her job and decides to start her own immigrant-employment service. She’s smart, wily and has an entrepreneurial spirit — a kind of Anglo-Saxon Rosetta with more about her head. What makes Angie so compelling is that the second-level character touches are all there — her defensiveness toward her father, say, and the fact that she does try to help people. When it’s not against her interests, that is. There is also one terrific “character” turn, by Raymond Mearns as the Glaswegian bartender Andy, whose “yooz wummun” speech is just a joy to listen to for its working-class tinfoil-hat quality.

But, and this is about the last thing one would expect to say about a Loach film, the script really isn’t sufficiently focused. Subplots like the Polish boyfriend just sort of peter out. And there is a crime that takes place in the next-to-last scene that is simply ridiculous — both narrativewise (it happens out of nowhere, but is resolved far too quickly and the scene ends on a line that the Coen Brothers blew away in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) and detailwise (a criminal would hardly give *this* speech under *these* circunstances; plus it’s as economically silly as most Loach soapboxing). And that’s it, plus an obviously symmetrical coda; the film doesn’t so much end as stop. And the bad Loach occasionally rears his head, e.g., Angie asks an Iranian family why the had to leave and the only thing clear in the sound mix is the father blaming the US overthrow of Mossadeq in 1953. The man and wife in this family look to be in their 30s.

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THE LAST MISTRESS, Catherine Breillat, France — 4
My favorite Breillat so far, but that really is saying only that THE LAST MISTRESS didn’t want to make me claw my eyes out (ROMANCE made me want to mutilate myself in other ways). The big-budget period piece (an adaptation of a Barbey d’Aureville novel about an aristocratic marriage and a Spanish prostitute whom the man can’t let go of) does somewhat rein in Breillat’s perversity or pervertedness. And she has an interesting theme — how hatred and jealousy can fuel romance and (especially) sex. There’s a scene in which a character slashes another across the face that draws blood in more ways than one. But remember when I said “somewhat rein in.” Somewhat. Asia Argento still cannot act, but she have very large and round boobs, a fact of which Breillat constantly reminds us. While showing Roxanne Mesquida’s flat chest for comparison. The pervs and the feminists will no doubt form a Coalition of the Willing around this film.

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ATONEMENT, Joe Wright, Britain — 9 (changed from 8 )
Organizing my notes for this, I realized just how strong ATONEMENT is and how completely brilliant is the third act, hence the upgrade. Saying why this film is so great will require giving away the entire plot. I profited immensely from going in knowing nothing of the novel (something Wright’s first film obviously had no hope of) and having at least forgotten about a certain member of the cast (brainlock from seeing 5 films a day does have its advantages). ATONEMENT opens in theaters shortly, so I’ll speak vaguely. The film is segmented into three easily definable acts. The first, set in a 1935 British manor, is great. The second, following several characters from the first act through the years of World War II, is pretty good but we’re starting to feel things get rote. The third act is a mind-blower that turns the whole movie inside out.

The first contains most of the virtues people will expect — Keira Knightley will get most of the praise (and hopefully a cheeseburger) as Cecilia, but James McAvoy as the social-climber/gardener Robbie persuades me for the first time that he’s something more than a boyish face. The two have an incredibly erotic sex scene while hardly taking off any clothes (they’re in the manor library … appearances, people), while bathed in not-quite expressionistic dark shadows. And the kids are the best of all, note-perfect in their desires to be more than kids. Saorise Ronan as aspiring writer Briany, Cecilia’s sister, and Juno Temple as Lola both think they are more mature than they are (milked for comedy in Lola’s case) and both make the mistake of their lives, in different cases. By the second act, Briany now played by TIFF Acting MVP Romola Garai, has come to realize her mistake but the war effort and residual anger block her efforts to come back to terms. This contains a shot, of the evacuation at Dunkirk that’s already causing sneers and unfavorable comparison to CHILDREN OF MEN. But I didn’t “spot” its length (maybe because I wasn’t primed to), plus it’s more of a look-around within a defined space shot, more in common with the opening shot of THE PLAYER than CoM.

The third act. I will come back to this capsule later (and edit accordingly) … probably when the fest is over. But there will be SPOILERS aplenty. Suffice to say fernow that the last shot, of a cottage on the white cliffs of Dover is absolutely gorgeous. And absolutely heartbreaking.

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A GIRL CUT IN TWO, Claude Chabrol, France — 4
I have to come clean and admit that Chabrol just may be a blind spot of mine. I have seen about seven of his films but have never really been blown away by one (LE BOUCHER came closest). This film has a few funny epigrams like “Old age is when you start saying ‘I never felt so young’,” but it passed before my eyes for 100 minutes without leaving a single emotional mark on me. It’s not awful; professionally done in every way, the events happen, the plot resolves itself, the movie’s over and I’m left shrugging. I think it may be that Chabrol is neither a distinctive stylist nor a great story-teller nor does he have a body of work strongly united by theme or genre (all my favorite directors have at least one of those; most more). Or perhaps that GIRL, like many of his movies, has events that center on a murder and so can sound like some kind of semi-thriller. But the pacing and tension are just too tepid for GIRL to be considered anything but a failure on those genre terms.

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September 15, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 3 Comments

Toronto — Day 4 — capsules

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THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (Ken Loach, Britain, 2)

What utter hatriotic crap. BARLEY lost me from the opening scenes, where the British soldiers act with an over-the-top unsubtlety that Mack Sennett would have rejected from his Keystone Kops. I don’t mean to be an absolutist, but these first half-hour performances are objectively bad and there are not two sane opinions about that. The line “I’ll make your mother suffer” is said with such a snarl and such a toff accent that I couldn’t suppress laughter at it, and from the point the film just became impossible to take as anything but a tendentious thesis statement. What makes the portrayals worse is that there’s no prior context to any of it. It comes from nowhere in the film, and a Martian who saw this film could be forgiven for thinking than the British were Venutians who landed in Ireland for the fun of kicking the shit out of the stupid, drunken Paddies. The notion that the Irish or Ulster Protestants might have had something to do with either British soldiers’ presence or the 1922 Free State treaty and the division of the island is quite literally never even alluded to (and not because the latter set of topics never come up). Or that those people even exist. Loach redeems himself some in the latter half of the film, as the history dictates a change from Catholic Irish-vs.-British to an Irish internicene war. But I quickly began hating BARLEY too, though for entirely different reasons. At that point, the Communist Loach can’t resist depicting the Irish independence movement as a remnant holding the true faith of a one-party socialist state, a democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants (that WAS what “The Wild Colonial Bhoy” is all about, right?) vs. the sellouts whose dick and balls are in the control of the king (that’s what the central character says). Every deck is stacked, every scene develops a thesis, and it has all the objectivity and subtlety of an Al-Jazeera report. What BARLEY needed to have any interest was something like the famous sequence in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS where the three female guerrillas are shown quite deliberately and quite collectedly planting bombs in civilian places for the sake of killing French civilians. But that’s the difference between an artist (Pontecorvo) and a hack pamphleteer (Loach).

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THE FALL (Tarsem, Britain/India, 7)

An improvement over THE CELL certainly, though I liked that one too. Tarsem delivers the same giganticist baroque fantasies as imaginary depictions, only with a much better “present tense” premise. To steal a half-line from my friend Josh Rothkopf, it’s like STRANGER THAN FICTION meets THE PRINCESS BRIDE, with an injured silent-movie stuntman telling stories to a little girl with a broken arm to pass time in the hospital. And win her trust for other reasons. (Instead of J-Lo helping Vince Vaughn track a serial killer’s victim.) There’s real tension in the “present tense,” as each of the two principal characters has a different agenda, with some of the premise of THE 1,001 NIGHTS. Though everything we see is plainly how the little girl imagines things, each character’s agenda slops into the tale-telling (each character in the fairy tale has a clear real-world analogue: think THE WIZARD OF OZ) and even interrupts the story. My favorite touch in that vein was how one of the heroes in “the story” was an Indian, with the voiceover refering to “a squaw” and “a teepee.” But the girl is Persian, so they are shown as a Bollywood-style devi and a Taj Mahal-like castle. THE FALL is also a tribute to the movies themselves as stores of fantasy that people, especially children, need. It opens with a memorable image — a silent-film scene (though the lush range of shades more resembles a current-day perfume ad) set to Beethoven’s 7th and featuring a horse hanging from a suspension bridge by a crashed train. We later figure out what it means when the film closes with a lengthy montage of famous silent-film stunts, but which the actor Lee Pace stands for all the silent-film clowns, now that he’s recovered both body and soul.

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HALF MOON (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran, 5)

This is not a bad movie, and some people might think it great — it just isn’t really in my wheelhouse. I don’t have a particular stake in Kurdish cultural nationalism and no prior appreciation or knowledge of Kurdish music, and I think the film assumes too much of a non-Kurdish audience. But as I say, HALF MOON has definitely got some merits as a film — it’s a kind of anti-picaresque, following the patriarch of Kurdish music Mamo as he takes his group to a concert engagement. It’s a universal story, certainly — it could be a college fraternity band going to Daytona Beach for a Spring Break gig (with hijinks to follow). Only these are Iranian Kurds, and the show is in Iraqi Kurdistan. Also Kurdish music is frowned on by Iran’s Islamist government because it uses female singers and male musicians, thus requiring a disapproved mixing of the sexes. So these are very different “hijinks” — it wouldn’t be an Iranian movie though without at least one scene of a woman trying to hide from authorities. And there are plenty of moments of comic relief and some nice imagery — especially of an all-female-singers town-in-exile cut out of the side of a mountain. But what makes HALF MOON an anti-picaresque is that the group disintegrates along the route, has to change paths, split up several times (and not always completely reuniting). As if a tight journey with closure is not the Kurdish story for now.

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WOMAN ON THE BEACH (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 9)

From the very earliest moments, Hong makes it clear that this movie will be his attempt at an Eric Rohmer film, rather than some of his stranger mind-fuck material (which I have not seen, partly by choice). And he succeeds in making a great film that the French master would have been proud of — a precisely observed, finely-detailed miniature of a romantic comedy on the battle of the sexes. The resemblance to Rohmer is the basic scenario — going off on vacation, arriving at a beachfront resort, lengthy conversations over meals about theories of romance and the acting out therein. But it’s also in the way, to quote Rohmer about his own MORAL TALES, that WOMAN is less about what people do than what they think about while they’re doing it. The initial three lead characters — all people who work in the film industry — all play thoroughly-discoursed conceptions of themselves. It turns out that what they most fear in others is the characteristics they have, or that they like others for their unadmirable qualities. Like Rohmer, WOMAN is often very funny in a subtle, ironic way (the only moment of honesty we get from one character is when he is on bed with his mate, but fully clothed). Or in a broad way — there are jokes about the equipment of Asian males here (though it’s not gratuitous; nothing here is; it comes back later). Still, WOMAN is just as clearly Hong — the same situation of the male jerk and a romantic triangle; the same two-part story, with the second half in some way recapitulating the first. It also makes no pretentions to being even slightly realistic — there are only about 8 speaking parts, and the beach resort is empty except for them. And don’t think anybody — even a dog, or two joggers who play no role in their scene — will appear by accident or not for at least a second time. The style is as precise as usual for Hong — pointed use of zooms and pans in a mostly master-shot film. The beach images are cold and acetic rather than warm and inviting, with a lot of metaphor packed into such details as a calf muscle, a dog, a stuck car, finishing a script, an obsession with obsession and more — all of which makes this film about a repetitive auteur feel like a rather discomfortingly honest self-portrait.

September 12, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Honorable Mentions

These were the films that just missed my Top 10 for 2003.

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GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (Peter Webber, Britain) — It’s hard to say what’s most drop-dead gorgeous thing in this movie, Eduardo Serra’s cinematography, Ben Van Os and Cecile Heideman’s art direction or Scarlett Johansson’s face. All three superbly-controlled surfaces seem to do nothing, yet inspire by their mere calm existence. And they evoke and create a world with no artificial light, no mass-produced goods and a servility that can see beyond herself. Misses the Top 10 because Colin Firth as Vermeer gives the weakest performance of his career (oh … to transplant Michel Piccoli from LA BELLE NOISEUSE) and the film doesn’t offer much more than those three swoonable objects. Actually, that’s not quite true, Tom Wilkinson and Judy Parffitt are pretty good as the randy benefactor and the domineering mother-in-law, but they’re roles any middle-aged British character actor could do in his sleep.

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (Vadim Perelman, USA) — I’ve written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 for reasons stated there — I just never quite fell in love with it.

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DOWN WITH LOVE (Peyton Reed, USA) — This overthetop, overacted, overdecorated, overcostumed, and oversplitscreened homage/re-creation on the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies was the year’s tastiest bon-bon — with pastels that a Castro Street interior decorator would have found excessive. Last year’s Sirk-homage FAR FROM HEAVEN unintentionally showed how difficult it is for a re-creation to keep a straight face under all that artifice. But in an exaggerated comedy, unlike a weepie, such periodisms and incongruities contribute to the fun. I saw DOWN WITH LOVE a couple of days after watching PILLOW TALK, and it helps to have one of those films fresh in your mind. Misses the Top 10 because the last 20 minutes of the movie (roughly, after Renee Zellweger … um … gives a monolog) just isn’t very good or inspired; they’re tying up plot threads. But stay through the closing credits (or best of all, look at the DVD extras) to see Renee and Ewan MacGregor sing “Here’s to Love,” the best scene in the movie and one of the year’s best. Oh. And memo to the Academy: *This* was Renee’s best performance last year (insert grumble about Oscar ignoring comedies.)

phonebooth.jpgPHONE BOOTH (Joel Schumacher, USA) — Nearly every thriller will hype itself with the word “Hitchcockian,” causing film geeks to roll their eyes, but this is one that understands the details of The Master’s style. You can actually be familiar with ouevre and imagine Hitch making PHONE BOOTH. Naturalistically and logically, it doesn’t makes much sense, but I’m not certain it’s really supposed to, like NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The reliance on the villain having supernatural knowledge, the fact that it takes place in a “booth” and the voice on the phone demanding an admission of wrongdoing tells me there’s something else going on here, something that Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer were the first to note about Hitch. Works also as a showcase for director Schumacher (yes, really), who somehow manages to keep the basically one-set film visually alive under very constrained circumstances, like in REAR WINDOW or ROPE. Colin Farrell has an easy, meaty role to play, and though he isn’t exactly great, he’s like Patriots QB Tom Brady — doesn’t have the glowing stats but wins the game mostly by not messing up or fumbling the film away. Actors are cattle, etc. Misses the Top 10 because … well, Hitchcock would have made it better.

DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (Guy Maddin, Canada) — I’ve written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 because, fun though it was, I found my admiration a bit more distant than I prefer.

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SWEET SIXTEEN (Ken Loach, Britain) — When leftist director Loach hasn’t got politics on (the foreground of) his mind and makes kitchen-sink portraits of working-class urban Britons, he is quite a filmmaker, particularly as a director of actors. He gets a great central performance here from the nonprofessional Martin Compston in the role of Liam, a (smart and tough) juvenile delinquent approaching adulthood — naturalistic, funny, exuberant, defiant, and determined (in both senses). Maybe it takes a Scot to appreciate the exchange: “We’re just trying to keep your customers satisfied,” “You’re a right wee Simon and Garfunkel, you” “well, here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson” (looking at it on my computer screen, I see that it just doesn’t *read* funny. Spoken in Glaswegian patter, it’s hilarious. Trust me.) Misses the Top 10 because the film stacks things too much in Liam’s moral favor. Theo first made this point to me at Toronto, but I became convinced on second viewing during (being purposely vague to avoid spoilers) a stabbing scene — which isn’t really a stabbing scene. Between this and MY NAME IS JOE, Loach should make more films about Glasgow and fewer about Chile.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment