Rightwing Film Geek

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.

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

TIFF — Day One

Before I begin this madness, I should note that all films are rated on a 1-10 scale

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S21, THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE (Rithy Panh, France/Cambodia, 2003, 7)

Jean-Luc Godard once said that the film about the concentration camps that needed to be made was one about the perpetrators, not the victims. This film demonstrates that in both good and not-so-good ways. S21 takes its name from a Phnom Penh prison (actually, the title comes closer) and interviews two of the only seven survivors, plus several of the guards.

It’s a bit like an informal version of post-Apartheid South Africa Truth Commission. It’s not an especially political film — a few quick title cards within the first minute take us to the day the Khmer Rouge took power; there is no detailed examination of Khmer Rouge or communist ideology; nor does the film even broach matters of who supported the genocidal regime (Red China, mostly) and acted as its cheerleaders abroad (Chomsky and some of the more-usual usual suspects). The survivors material, the conversations between the two, come across as staged for our benefit. More important, what they say isn’t terribly interesting, simply because, however amazing or grateful their existence is, they come across as didacts spouting platitudes we’ve heard a thousand times in a hundred Holocaust films — “reconciliation is impossible,” “why talk at all?” that sort of thing.

The guards, though, provide the material that makes S21 a worthy and important documentary. The filmmakers take the guards to S21, which is still standing in a museumy kind of way (the numbers on the walls designate places the inmates were chained to the walls, like bed numbers without beds), and the guards re-enact what they did, sometimes to the only political content of the film (the re-playing of Khmer Rouge revolutionary songs, the height of 70s Commie kitsch.) And the film takes on a surreal tone, as the ex-guards are convincing — perhaps a bit too much. One particularly brilliant shot lasts about five minutes as the camera crawls into, out of, and looks through the bars of, a massive holding cell, while the guard re-enacts his methods of dealing with the prisoners. I let out a slight giggle as I realized that he was saying the kinds of things a crabbed schoolmaster does to keep the kids in line “don’t move, if you do, I’m coming inside,” and of course, I was instantly ashamed of my giggle since the punishments go far beyond “six of the best.”

Some viewers criticized the film afterwards as soft-pedeling the guards — not asking any really probing questions of them. That criticism is obviously correct as a plain description of the film, but I think the film was after something else — showing the mechanics of genocide. That kind of questioning would have short-circuited that goal by preventing the guards from showing their behavior yes, but also their attitude — they’re neither abjectly apologetic nor unreconstructedly proud. They vascillate between the poles and middle ground, also giving such (true as far as they go) reasons as their being under orders and their being youths (one even cites the latter as the reason the guards raped all the female prisoners). But they also say something the absence of which always bothers me in Holocaust literature. Several guards say they could kill inmates with no qualms because they believed they were CIA-planted saboteurs, parasite enemies of the Glorious Kampuchean People’s Revolution and all of that. Exactly. They did it because they thought it was the right thing to do; it really isn’t any more complicated than that. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen could have given this film an alternate title: POL POT’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS.

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DISTANT (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2003, 5)

The back of my mind suspects that fellow TIFF-geeks Mike D’Angelo and Scott Tobias (see links at right) had some secret bet about what I’d think of this film, a highly-anticipated multiple prize winner at Cannes. Each seemed particularly eager, both before and after the film, to convince me that I’d like DISTANT less than I did (Mike) or more than I did (Scott). But I’m neither neither fire nor ice, just in the middle … like lukewarm water.

The basic narrative is an Istanbul version of “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” only here they’re cousins Yusuf (country) and Mahmut (city). I can’t fully embrace this film because it’s made in The Official Cinematic High-Art Style Of Contemporary Ennui — long shots, little dialogue, static framing, expressionless acting, not much happening at some points, and even less than that at others. I like some films made in this style (the works of Tsai Ming-liang, e.g.), but a little of it really does go a long way with me. In addition, the two lead actors are basically hangdog schmucks, posing in glum expressions of boredom throughout (whatever else might be said about Tsai, his actor Lee Kang-sheng is no hangdog). And frankly, I got fairly bored by DISTANT at several points, but every time I start to say how much that annoyed me, I remind myself (or am reminded by Scott) of a number of extremely funny sight (and sound) gags that leaven this hunk of ennui. I won’t even allude to them since some are dropped into the flow of the shot, sometimes so suddenly that that the unexpected suddenness is part of the joke, like the ad parodies in the ROBOCOP films.

In addition, there’s the film’s pure cinematic style, which is little short of breathtaking. Ceylan, a former still photographer, can compose and layer a static shot like nobody’s business. In the particularly fine opening shot, he divides a natural landscape into three distinct spaces (while a sliver of action goes on), and then he does a 90-degree pan to a different, but equally well-segmented landscape. Ceylan also has the mother of all sound designers, and he uses subtle wind chimes and ambient noise to in some cases even create action, and at one point even having a train run over you apparently from behind (I don’t recall that effect used so conspicuously and effectively since the opening chopper whirring in APOCALYPSE NOW … see this film in a good theater if you can).

And writing that “see this…” recommendation, I begin to think that “5” is too harsh, and I need to see it again, and … but still. That piling on of boredom and those inert characters are just finally too much. There is a scene late in the film where one character surreptitiously watches his beloved leave Turkey with someone else. I think it’s meant to be heartbreaking (like BRIEF ENCOUNTER and THE END OF THE AFFAIR). I didn’t give a damn.

September 5, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment