Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang)

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang) 53 – Although director Tsai Ming-Liang’s nationality is generally considered to be Taiwanese, Malaysia is, in fact, his home country. With I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, his latest work, the director for the first time shifts the locale of one of his films to Malaysia, though the difference has surprisingly little effect on his approach. Although the tiniest bit warmer than the usual Tsai outing, Sleep is still largely an examination of modern alienation (specifically here the alienation of being in a foreign country), shot through with the director’s typically rigorous style. In what may be a slight case of diminishing returns, Sleep does less to extend the director’s body of work than to reinforce it. With fewer humorous moments than usual to lighten things up, the film’s slow pacing takes more of a toll than in most of his challenging works.

The plot, slim as it is, has two separate strands. The first follows a homeless drifter (Tsai standby Lee Kang-sheng) who is beaten by hustlers and falls under the care of another illegal squatter. The second observes a comatose man (also played by Lee) who is cared for by a waitress. These two situations are contrasted with one another, the former a sheer act of altruism, the latter essentially performed under duress. As the film continues, the underlying sense of sadness in both plots builds, with the first culminating in a state of unrequited homosexual love and the latter resulting in a state of requited, but unwanted, passions. Tsai uses his trademark water metaphors and other visual cues such as the presence of gasmasks to extend these personal stories into a more wide-ranging portrait of a dissatisfied society. His insistence on a morose tone is appropriate, given the desperate conditions of his characters, but it is so unremitting here that it sometimes feels forced upon what is at least one half of a love story.

Tsai’s style is essentially written in stone at this point, and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone hardly challenges it. With expressive use of the abandoned building that serves as the film’s primary setting, he turns almost every shot into a reminder of his characters’ interior loneliness. From the spiraling, dark staircases that resemble Escher drawings, to the giant pool of water that lies in the center of the complex, Tsai here is as visually adept here as ever, right up to the film's peaceful final shot, which shows the reconciled characters drifting into slumber.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Minor Update

2:37 (Murali K. Thalluri) 45 - Uncomfortably close to Gus Van Sant's Elephant, this debut makes major missteps, but is still fairly decent. Thalluri includes all of the Afterschool Special subplots that Van Sant left out of his film, encouraging the audience to guess which of the young cast will be the ones to commit suicide. The opening clearly sets the film up as a whodunit, with the “it” being suicide. That treatment might be offensive to some, but it didn’t much bother me. More galling was the director’s attempt to copy Van Sant’s style in total. With the same overlapping time structure, similar behind-the-back tracking shots, and an ethereal score, 2:37 feels like the work of Van Sant phoning it in. The most enlightening moment was when one character, meant to be utterly reprehensible, describes the risqué story he’s written by saying, “I wanted it to be controversial and different so I could win.” I suppose that was Thalluri’s aim here, but Van Sant doesn’t have to start sweating any time soon.

Nouvelle Chance (Anne Fontaine) 39 – One day we might look back and realize that Fontaine’s series of seemingly minor, understated, classy little films has added up into a major career… but I kind of doubt it. This time, she’s creating a knowing comedy (all of her films, no matter how shallow, present themselves as “knowing”) that follows as an aged actress (Madame de… herself, Danielle Darrieux) is pulled out of her rest home and is asked to perform in a small play. The script mostly examines aging and friendship that grows in spite of age. Fontaine treats Darrieux reverentially, making the film feel like an encore performance from a French national treasure. There are scattered moments that justify everything (e.g. when the three principals listen to an old recording together and Fontaine lets her actors’ eyes do all of the acting), but this is slim stuff indeed.

Summer '04 - 63
Rescue Dawn - 61
10 Items or Less - 58
Fay Grim
- 67
Reprise - 38

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Grades so far...

Since I'm doing a lousy job of updating this year (honestly, there's just so little time allotted in my schedule), I'll give all of my grades for the fest so far (except the shorts):

Taxidermy - 81
The Lives of Others - 73
The Man of My Life - 70
12:08 East of Bucharest - 66
Falkenberg Farewell - 58
The Host - 56
7 Years - 52
Chacun su nuit - 49
Hana - 48
The Page Turner - 46
Rain Dogs - 46
2:37 - 45
The Bet Collector - 40
Nouvelle Chance - 39
The Magic Flute - 37
The Fall - 32

Friday, September 08, 2006

Quick Update

Since I don't seem to be pounding out those long reviews, let me give a few snippets...

HANA (Hirokazu Kore-eda) 48 - Kore-eda's least impressive film, I think. It's a samurai comedy that features the villagers in a 1700s tenement working together as a community. Favoring companionship over revenge, the film is certainly humane, but it's also mundane. It's probably the director's most audience-pleasing work to date, unless you are the part of the audience that includes me.

The Lives of Others (Florian von Donnersmarck) 73 - Proof that middlebrow does not equal bad, this gripping drama set during Eastern Germany's Communist days becomes thrilling in its mundaneness. The film is stylistically identical throughout, but that only adds to the atmosphere generated. There are audience-pleasing missteps from time to time, but more often than not they lead to an unexpectedly fierce development. This is a great debut.

12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu) 66 - Yet another great film at this festival about Communism... This one is divided cleanly into two parts, the first a droll picture of life in Romania, circa 2004, the second an extended broadcast of a hilarious but thought-provoking local television progam. The film questions the idea of a shared history by offering a series of conflicting viewpoints (via the television show's call-in component) worthy of Rashomon. The second half is a politically charged running gag that recalls the splendid last third of Crimson Gold.

That's it for now... :)

Taxidermia (György Pálfi)

Taxidermia (György Pálfi) 81 - Following his captivating, yet somewhat inscrutable Hukkle, Hungarian director György Pálfi delivers something of a mad masterpiece with his second film Taxidermia. A warped allegory of 20th century Hungarian history, the end result of this film is perhaps best described as Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Three Times as directed by stop-motion animator Jan Svankmajer. With a triad of cockeyed love stories, the Pálfi exaggerates and mocks the changes in attitudes that occurred as Hungarians moved out of Communism. Though the film uses extremist visuals that are likely to alienate the average viewer on some level, the end result is one of those rare must-see movies that many simply won’t be able to finish watching.

The most remarkable thing about Taxidermia is that it manages to feel so certain of itself throughout. Despite a non-stop phantasmagorical array of horror and perversity, nothing in the movie seems gratuitous. Pálfi’s vision remains so comprehensive and convincing that it justifies everything that he puts his audience through. He presents graphic vomiting, explicit masturbation, animal slaughter, human dissection with the same matter-of-fact, almost noncommittal detachment with which he seems to regard his characters. The end result is expertly, even excessively, controlled, but downright fascinating. His absurdist fable examines shame inherent in a violently repressed society, the sad spectacle of Communist celebration and the self-destructive navel-gazing of modern times. To dismiss his film as merely a freak show is to reduce it, even if it certainly qualifies as one on a surface level.

Taxidermia, if not necessarily the best film of the year, is quite likely to be the most distinctive. It’s a thoroughly profane film that boldly risks alienating its audience at every turn, but there were surprisingly few walkouts at the screening I attended. Pálfi’s surreal string of set pieces is too unique to walk away from. Taking the audience through three demented generations of depravity, he centers on a theme that critiques the commoditization of the flesh. It’s clear by the end of Taxidermia that Pálfi’s attitudes toward his characters exists not because he is inhumane, but because they, in their responses to their own repression, are twisted into beings that are no longer recognizably human. With a great deal of wit (the pecked pecker was a highlight), but no drollness, he crafts a film that truly stands alone. Although Pálfi expends much energy in Taxidermia skewering the concept of Hungarian national pride, his major accomplishment here is undoubtedly cause for considerable pride from his homeland.

The Magic Flute (Kenneth Branagh)

The Magic Flute (Kenneth Branagh) 37 -Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute comes on strong – maybe too strong - starting with an acrobatic faux tracking shot that uses CGI techniques to introduce us to the film’s fanciful, anachronistic setting. With much gusto, Branagh’s camera bobs and weaves throughout a World War I-era battlefield, swooping into the sky and into the trenches with equal ease. It’s a sequence that ignores any constraints that reality or practicality might have placed upon the filmmaker, using digital imagery with the kind of verve that has defined the newest films by such technically adept directors as David Fincher and Robert Zemeckis. Branagh’s not the likeliest candidate to deliver this sort of bravado start, but despite a bucketload of subpar effects (Branagh clearly doesn’t have the budget of a Fincher or Zemeckis film) it does effectively establish the outsized tone of what’s to follow.

What it is that does follow, however, is not quite as inspiring (or perhaps surprising is a better word…) as that opening shot. Though all of The Magic Flute has a certain degree of visual acuity guiding it, it never again bothers to shoot for greatness. Branagh has altered the setting of the Mozart’s work and has translated the book into English, he stays pretty true to the opera’s story, relaying its relative blandness without enough of the energy that he had in the film’s opening. Obviously, the opera that serves as source material has stood the test of time, so my relative indifference toward it might put me in a minority opinion (I am fairly indifferent to Bergman’s filmed version as well). That being said, I don’t think anyone can deny that the opera suffers somewhat due to the relative tiresomeness of the leads. These two star-crossed lovers alternate between exploding with romantic rapture and wailing on the verge of suicide, with little shading in-between.

Mozart himself must have on some level suspected that his protagonists were sticks in the mud, because he counterpoints their romance with a tongue-in-cheek comic relief couple. Branagh does a much better time in relaying their courtship, thanks to a strong comedic performance courtesy of Benjamin Jay Davis, who plays the bird loving Papageno. These funnier scenes more closely match the overdone candy color shadings that Branagh has chosen to employ, and as a result they become the film’s most emotionally interesting moments. These sequences rely on mugging for the camera (everyone still does stage acting, even though the film doesn’t feel especially stagy otherwise) and animal reaction shots for audience reaction, but at least they manage to stimulate audience reaction. The rest of it is somewhat inert, and never quite congeals into a cohesive vision. Branagh doesn’t ever quite justify the WWI backdrop, but in an entire film so weird and haphazard, that’s one of the smaller complaints.

Just some ratings for now...

The Magic Flute (Kenneth Branagh) 37

HANA (Hirokazu Kore-eda) 48

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) 73

Thursday, September 07, 2006

In-Flight Reading

Not TIFF related per-se, but on my flight up to Toronto this morning I finished reading David Thomson’s new book “Nicole Kidman”, a paean to one of our time’s preeminent movie stars and actresses. Despite a chronological structure, the book is rambling and somewhat haphazardly composed. Within the same chapter, Thomson is likely to move from a critique of a given film, to a dissection of Kidman’s private life (or at least her private life as Thomson pictures it), to an imaginary casting session in which he places Nicole in a movie that she never made. The sum effect is a book that feels less academic than it might otherwise be, but Thomson readily confesses that his topic here is the status that Kidman, and those like she, hold in the minds of moviegoers as much as it is Kidman herself.

As such, Thomson, whose “A Biographical Dictionary of Film” established that he is one of the best film writers when discussing actors, spends way too much energy trying to get at the essentially indescribable relationship that we have with the projected image. At every turn, he aims for objectivity, even though he’s clearly (and rightfully so) smitten with Kidman. The resulting tome is far too conditional to qualify as a hagiography (he too often takes Kidman herself to task for failings in films that had little to do with her own talent), even though one can’t help but feel that Thomson would just as soon drop the pretense and rave about the actress.

Whatever indecision might plague Thomson, however, only helps further the point that Kidman, an actress who drops out of the sequel to Dogville to shoot Bewitched, is herself a frustrating, contradictory figure. At its best, “Nicole Kidman” takes this incongruity head-on, questioning whether the actress’ choices are a function of her insatiable desire for power, her need to be adored, her legitimate engagement with some questionable material, or her survival instinct. With very little input from or access to Kidman, Thomson, doesn’t quite settle on an answer, instead projecting his own perceptions and desires into his analysis of his subject. Somehow, for someone who seems as untouchable as Nicole Kidman, the approach feels right.
Oh, and it looks like I have time to squeeze in Kenneth Branagh's The Magic Flute this afternoon.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

My proposed festival schedule...

This morning's new availability of several films that I missed in the lottery means that I've filled in several of my schedule's previous gaps. Now things don't really look bad at all.

I've lost Ten Canoes, which was replaced with Telluride buzz-object (and likely Best Foreign Language Film Oscar contender) The Lives of Others. I'll be seeing one of the Wavelengths programs instead of Little Children (which releases next month anyway). I haven't been able to score tickets to Borat, D.O.A.P., The Brand Upon the Brain! or Penelope. I think I can happily live with those losses.

I am still thinking about adding the Midnight movies All the Boys Love Mandy Lane or The Abandoned to my schedule if I get the slightest hint that they're decent.

All in all, I have a pretty decent festival ahead of me, I think. Here's how it will play out:

Thursday, Sept 7
6:00 PM HANA (Hirokazu Kore-eda) Varsity 8
9:00 PM The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) Elgin

Friday, Sept 8
9:00 AM 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu) Paramount 2
11:15 AM Taxidermia (György Pálfi) Paramount 2
2:30 PM 2:37 (Murali K. Thalluri) Paramount 1
4:00 PM Nouvelle Chance (Anne Fontaine) Paramount 2
6:00 PM The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (Ann Hui) Ryerson
I intend to swap this for Born & Bred or Khadak
9:00 PM L'Homme de sa vie (Zabou Breitman) Paramount 1

Saturday, Sept 9
9:15 AM La Tourneuse de pages (Denis Dercourt) Paramount 4
11:45 AM The Bothersome Man (Jens Lien) Paramount 4
3:00 PM The Fall (Tarsem) Elgin
6:30 PM Wavelengths, Program 2 (Various) Al Green Theater
9:00 PM Chacun sa nuit (Jean-Marc Barr, Pascal Arnold) Paramount 1

Sunday, Sept 10
9:00 AM The Bet Collector (Jeffrey Jeturian) Cumberland 1
11:30 AM Rain Dogs (Ho Yuhang) Cumberland 1
1:45 PM 7 Ans (Jean-Pascal Hattu) Cumberland 2
3:45 PM The Host (Bong Joon-ho) Paramount 2
6:15 PM Falkenberg Farewell (Jesper Ganslandt) Cumberland 2
9:30 PM Summer '04 (Stefan Krohmer) Cumberland 2

Monday, Sept 11
10:15 AM Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog) Paramount 2
12:15 PM Reprise (Joachim Trier) Paramount 4
3:30 PM 10 Items or Less (Brad Silberling) Elgin
6:00 PM Fay Grim (Hal Hartley) Ryerson
9:00 PM Wavelengths, Program 5 (Various) Al Green Theater

Tuesday, Sept 12
9:30 AM Away From Her (Sarah Polley) Ryerson
12:00 PM Bonneville (Christopher N. Rowley) Ryerson
2:00 PM Cashback (Sean Ellis) Paramount 4
4:30 PM Copying Beethoven (Agnieska Holland) Paramount 2
7:30 PM Hamaca Paraguaya (Paz Encina) Cumberland 1
9:00 PM The Half Life of Timofey Berezin (Scott Z. Burns) Isabel Bader Theater
11:59 PM Trapped Ashes (Various) Ryerson

Wednesday, Sept 13
9:15 AM STRIKE (Volker Schlöndorff) Varsity 2
12:00 PM I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming Liang) Paramount 1
3:15 PM Bliss (Sheng Zhimin) Cumberland 1
6:00 PM Golden Door (Emanuele Crialese) Elgin
8:30 PM Nue Propriété (Joachim Lafosse) Paramount 2
11:59 PM S&MAN (JT Petty)

Thursday, Sept 14
9:15 AM Daratt / Moekgo and the Stickfighter (Mahmat-Saleh Haroun)/ (Teboho Mahlatsi) Paramount 4
12:00 PM Black Book (Paul Verhoeven) Ryerson
3:00 PM The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky) Ryerson
5:15 PM Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa) Varsity 2
8:00 PM White Palms (Szabolcs Hajdu) Cumberland 1
11:59 PM Severance (Christopher Smith) Ryerson

Friday, Sept 15
9:15 AM Day Night Day Night (Julia Loktev) Cumberland 2
12:30 PM Grbavica (Jasmila Žbanić) Cumberland 1
2:30 PM Summer Palace (Lou Ye) Cumberland 2
5:00 PM The Book of Revelation (Ana Kokkinos) Varsity 1
9:00 PM Belle toujours and Fantasmas (Manoel de Oliveira / Lisandro Alonso) Cumberland 2
11:59 PM Princess (Anders Morgenthaler) Ryerson

Saturday, Sept 16
9:30 AM Exiled (Johnnie To) Ryerson
11:45 AM Flanders (Bruno Dumont) Isabel Bader Theater
2:45 PM Invisible Waves (Pen-ek Ratanaruang) Paramount 4
6:15 PM Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (Takashi Miike) Cumberland 2
9:00 PM Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki) Ryerson
11:59 PM Sheitan (Kim Chapiron) Ryerson

Monday, September 04, 2006

Venice, Still in Full Effect

One of the most exciting parts of TIFF for me is always watching as buzz develops and films that were unknown quantities a few days earlier suddenly become absolute must-sees for practically everyone or become, like Tideland last year, seemingly universal objects of scorn. Certainly, this year's pre-fest buzz champion is Gabriel Range's D.O.A.P., which I intended to see at Toronto, but found myself shut out of once the word got out on the street. Maybe I'll get a ticket, and maybe not, but it goes to show how powerful word of mouth becomes in the TIFFmosphere.

Even though TIFF is just around the corner, many of the most anticipated films at the festival are going to be showing at Venice first over the next few days. I'm always eager to see which films in Venice competition claim prizes, since that announcement comes once TIFF is in full-swing. In any case, here's the remaining Venice slate:

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang)
The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky) [Initial buzz is pretty deadly!]
Falling (Barbara Albert)

Sept 5
Dong (Jia Zhang Ke)
Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho)
The Untouchable (Benoit Jacquot)
The Missing Star (Gianni Amelio)
Bobby (Emilio Estevez)

Sept 6
Rain Dogs (Ho Yuhang)
Inland Empire (David Lynch) -- Unfortunately not at TIFF, but at NYFF next month.
Exiled (Johnny To)
Suprise Chinese Film - I'm not quite sure what to expect here.

Sept 7
Quei Loro Incontri (Jean-Marie Straub, Danielle Huillet) -- Not at TIFF either, but surely intriguing for cinephiles.
Nue Propriete (Joachim Lafosse)
The Magic Flute (Kenneth Branagh)

Sept 8
Belle Toujours (Manoel de Oliveira)
Golden Door (Emanuele Crialese)
Bugmaster (Katsuhiro Otomo)

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes)

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes) 56 - Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema features the entertaining pontifications of pop philosopher Slavoj Zizek as applied to a slew of film favorites. Less overtly sexual and decidedly more thoughtful than its salacious title might imply, Fiennes’ film takes a decidedly psychoanalytical approach to understanding cinema. Zizek’s Slovenian accent seems perfect for delivering his Freudian interpretations, and he’s thankfully not just presented as a talking head. Rather, he’s shot in poses that almost integrate him into the films that he’s discussing, seemingly theorizing from within the films themselves. Those theories are hardly radical, but they are well organized, and more often than not intriguing. Zizek discusses cinema as a form of conditional belief. He tries to understand why we will ourselves to believe and be affected by the flickering images on the movie screen. Repression and transgression are the key themes of the films that he studies. In talking about this personal canon, Zizek astutely discusses the complicity on the part of the audience, the filmmakers who encode things to express what cannot be otherwise spoken about, and the fictionalized characters, who are almost inevitably cross over into a nether region of the subconscious. Fiennes uses a Rorschach blotch for some of her scene transitions, and Zizek tries to turn every scene that he examines into an opportunity to examine our collective subconscious.

Guide’s biggest failing, though, is that practically every film included in its line-up could be considered a favorite. I couldn’t help but wish there were a few obscure films being discussed. Zizek sticks mostly to films that have already had volumes written about them. Hitchcock or Lynch’s films provide subject matter for examining this subject matter, but they’re also perfectly obvious choices. By focusing specifically on great films he’s able to more concretely make his points, but it’s difficult to imagine many cinephiles who don’t already understand that Lynch is largely concerned with overbearing parental figures and that Hitchcock is obsessed with sexual repression. Zizek moves beyond those obvious classifications, to be sure, but I was rather shocked that out of the long list of films surveyed, I have only failed to see one (Russian musical Kubanskie Kazaki, for the record). While the accessibility of the films chosen might mean that this film can introduce neophytes to film theory, one can’t help but feel that Zizek could have dug a little deeper into the vaults.

Guide clocks in at about 2 1/2 hours, which is certainly not an insignificant amount of time, but it’s possible that it will leave you wishing for more when it’s done. Even if it might not be art on its own terms, this type of cinematic essay is an ideal form of film criticism, since it can actually show film grammar instead of merely describing it. Similar to Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself or Godard's Histoire(s) du cinema (the best I've seen in the genre), it is likely to broaden your understanding of the films it covers, or at least stir some fond memories of your favorites. Taken as a whole, Zizek’s work here justifies itself. Even though some of his analysis is so textbook as to feel like common knowledge, his choice in film clips to back up his assertions is impeccable. When he’s firing on all cylinders, such as when he examines a series of voyeuristic characters peering through cracks or when he turns his analytical powers on Psycho, he brings new life to the films he discusses.

Election 2 [Triad Election] (Johnnie To)

Election 2 [Triad Election] (Johnnie To) 61 - I've seen far too many action movies over the last few years that ended with an ineffective cliffhanger that advertises the next installment of the franchise more than it instills any sense of excitement. Thanks to its slam-bang third act and its jaw-dropping closing scenes, Johnnie To's Election managed to be one of the few finales that resulted in me actively anticipating its follow-up. If Election 2 doesn’t exactly surpass its predecessor, it at least delivers on the promise of moral decay that its predecessor deemed inevitable. Election 2 opens lakeside, in order to bring to mind the first film's unforgettable waterfront finale. It starts, two years after the first chapter’s end, with Jimmy (Louis Koo) pitching a business plan to legitimate businessmen, and not to other gangsters. The suggestion that what passes for lawful business might be more profitable, and more corrupt, than crime, no matter how organized, is the central theme in this sequel.

In this movie, despite a prosperous time since the last Chairman election, plotting and backstabbing once again define the transitional period that the changing of the guard prompts. It takes To about half an hour to set up the political machinations that will define subsequent events, but once he does this, the director unleashes a series of effectively realized scenarios that thoroughly demonstrate the thuggery of the Triad. Much like its precursor, Election 2 feels like a HK version of The Godfather. Individual elements, like the Brandoesque presence of Uncle Teng (Wong Tin-lam), and the overall emphasis on the gangsters’ morality play into this familiarity. That’s not to say, though, that To is ripping off Coppola. He certainly adds his own strong stylistic touches here, such as his eerily empty cityscapes, his restrained approach to screen violence and the return of the same propulsive cowboy music that marked the first film. As in Election no gun is fired during Election 2, though now the novelty has slightly worn off, making the absence more conspicuous than distinctive. However, that’s one of the few returning devices that fails to please a second time in this worthy extension of the original. Perhaps most impressively of all, like the first movie, it disturbingly underlines the notion that the authorities prefer the organized chaos of the Triad’s system to the alternative. This disturbing social order, both inside and outside the Triad, is the series’ defining characteristic. Because of its emphasis, this installment satisfies, even if another sequel feels inevitable.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee)

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee) 62 - With a wide-ranging, four-hour canvas to work on, Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts has plenty of time to paint a complex portrait of the unfortunate combinations of events that led to our country’s greatest national disaster, Hurrircane Katrina. Lee begins, appropriately enough, by stressing the inexact nature of nature. He tracks the progress of the storm and the thought process of the New Orleans citizens who rationalized their decisions to stay in the city despite a mandatory order to evacuate. For most of the first hour of this mammoth movie, the drama of the storm itself is focused on. Lee captures the horror that accompanied the realization that the levees protecting the city had broken and details the deteriorating conditions inside the Superdome, which served as a makeshift shelter. At the end of the first Act, however, George W. Bush is first shown, and director begins to examine how a natural disaster turned into a catastrophe of decentralized authority and poor decision-making.

Throughout his first two Acts, Lee captures the unfocused rage and confusion that resulted from the general lack of communication and the slow Federal response to the disaster. There are times when the effort to turn every single aspect of the events into a travesty with villains behind them seems excessive, as typified by musician Terrence Blanchard’s vague suggestion that “somebody needs to go to jail,” but Lee doesn’t seem to have any specific target in mind himself. Though hindsight is obviously 20/20, Lee includes testimonials that lay blame at nearly everyone who should have been responsible for New Orleans citizens (perhaps rightfully so). Even though he’s not seen or heard from during the film, Lee’s own unfocused rage clearly shines through. That being said, there are sound bites that are included here that would have been best left on the cutting room floor. For example, when Michael Eric Dyson, an African American college professor and author, stupidly compares the disorganized evacuation efforts to the slave trade (!), Lee greatly cripples the perfectly tenable argument that racial bias was responsible for the extended suffering of those who chose to remain in New Orleans.

Giving a voice to so many disenfranchised people is admirable, and there seems something vaguely immoral about suggesting that Lee cut some of their comments out to better his film. Still, the counter-argument that his imperative as an artist, which is to produce the most effective work possible, should come first is more persuasive. By the end of the third hour, the platitudes that people utter to try to put into context the destruction and their sense of rage begin to blur together. Scenes like Blanchard’s tearful return to the city with his mother after the fact feels almost insignificant given the larger context. Blanchard’s presence is not all in vain, however. The New Orleans native’s score, despite so often being a detriment in Lee’s other films, is perhaps the director’s greatest asset here. Blanchard’s magisterial soundtrack justifies the use of the work requiem in the film’s title and truly seems to articulate the widespread, confused anguish that the storm caused.

Levees’ second half, which focuses on the aftermath of the storm, is more relevant than what came before. The stirring montage at the start of Act III says as much as any trio of interviews that Lee included to that point, and the most compelling segment of the film, which quickly follows, shows the disillusionment that New Orleans residents and displaced ex-residents now feel toward their hometown. This sequence powerfully demonstrates the negative impact on the city’s community, and sets up an indictment of the sorry progress that the city is making on its road to recovery. Perhaps best encapsulated by graffiti that reads “Hope is not a plan,” the second half of Levees is a call to arms. As Lee begins to examine the desolate New Orleans public school system, compares Louisiana to a colonial territory, exploited by corporate interests in richer states, and focuses on the questionable reconstruction of the levees, he productively stops placing blame about the past and suggests areas that demand attention here and now.

Family Ties (Kim Tae-Young)

Family Ties (Kim Tae-Young) 32 - Kim Tae-Young’s Family Ties is a muted relationship drama told in three distinct segments. With naturalistic camerawork, a stripped down plot and reasonably unaffected performances, the film hardly begs the audience to love it, but it has a calm sensitivity about it that would be more welcome if only its insights into the ways that obligations weigh upon family members were more probing. The story begins as Mira (Moon So-ri) receives a phone call from her estranged brother Hyung-chul (Eom Tae-woong), informing her that he’s planning to return home to visit. Although she’s initially excited at the prospect of the reunion, when he shows up with an older woman, expecting his sister to put them both up, the gathering gets off on the wrong foot. In this, the best of the movie’s three sections, Kim exploits the inherent tension in the situation to make a larger statement about the tolerance expected when dealing with family members. Moon So-Ri, probably the best young Korean actress working today, is a beguiling presence here, as always, even if her performance pales in comparison to her similar work in Sa-kwa.

The following two segments similarly, if less successfully, study strained interpersonal interactions. In the second, a restless young woman who wants to leave her family and move abroad is made to confront her demons when her mother falls terminally ill. The third plot deals with the outcome of a young relationship that’s been strained by promiscuity. Although the elements of these plots are trite material to Western audiences, they likely hold greater social significance for South Koreans. The film’s concept, which examines familial bonds as they are pushed toward their breaking point, is inherently dramatic, and the film’s female leads are each a bit more unlikable than might be expected in a drama of this type. Nonetheless, because of the general lack of insight, this is the stuff of soap operas, no matter how handsomely mounted it is. The last twenty minutes, which bring the characters together, are funny and stand in stark contrast to the self-absorbed stories that came before. For the bulk of its runtime, though, Family Ties is not especially involving, although the setup, which entails a tricky time structure and a not-too surprising level of relatedness between the three plot strands, ensures that patient viewers will at least be rewarded with a conclusion that ties the stories together on more than just a thematic level.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach) 65 - Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley turned some heads this year when it was announced as the surprise winner of the Palm D’Or at Cannes, but for its riveting first seventy minutes, it’s likely that viewers will wonder why there was any fuss at all in choosing to award the film. Set in 1920’s Ireland, Loach’s latest work starts strongly. It begins by establishing an idyllic backdrop and almost immediately smashes it with the arrival of a group of extraordinarily aggressive British troops. After an unjust murder is committed, Damien (Cillian Murphy), a doctor who was about to leave for London, commits himself instead to the Irish Republican Army’s attempts to drive the British from their country. From that point on, the film launches a series of impressively taut set pieces that detail the terrorist attacks and countermeasures that the soldiers execute. Throughout the first half, by stressing the Army’s covert operations, Loach generates tension in nearly every scene, resulting in a film that seems to merit comparisons to great political nailbiters like Melville’ss Army of Shadows and Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke. Two or three scenes manage a forceful, punch-in-the-gut quality that wholly crystallizes the clear-minded sense of purpose that Loach strives for throughout. It’s to the film’s credit that Loach directs with such righteousness that it’s almost impossible to keep in mind during the film’s first half that the events that are dramatized took place eighty-five years ago.

After the midway point, however, Loach begins to lose his masterful grip over the film. When the possibility of conditional peace with the British divides the Irish rebels, Barley settles into a series of scenes in which characters take turns speechifying, ensuring that each point of view among the rebels becomes abundantly clear. Though the film never completely runs out of steam, Loach fails to hit the grace notes that he seemed to effortlessly achieve earlier on. Starting with a scene in which a woman is forcibly shorn by British troops, Loach actively courts outrage from the audience, instead of merely conveying a sense of anxiety. The result is dull in comparison, no matter how politically justified it might be. There’s hardly a single significant British character in the film, but that scarcely matters. It’s obvious from the start that Loach is not trying to be fair-minded here. What is more problematic than the treatment of the Brits is the film’s development of its Irish contingent. The majority of characters are obvious political mouthpieces, which is acceptable, if not ideal, since it’s likely that in tumultuous times politically committed people push their personal lives aside. More troubling, however, is the script’s melodramatic attempt to stir up drama when two Irish brothers are put at odds with one another. This creaky old device oversimplifies the internal conflict of the IRA and generates little emotional involvement to boot.

King and the Clown (Lee Jun-ik)

King and the Clown (Lee Jun-ik) 57 - The sumptuous production values on display here almost offset the distinctively Korean combination of body humor, torture and high tragedy in this period drama. It somehow became the all-time box office champ in South Korea, which is surprising because although the film holds the attention well enough, it hardly feels like a world-beater. One interesting element is the portrayal of the bawdy plays that the troupe of performers performs throughout the film. Starting as an outlet for the people, and then the repressed king, allowing him to express what protocol prevents, they soon become representative of unhealthy obsession. It's not quite clear where the audience is supposed to place them, exactly, when it's all said and done. The pacing is slightly harmed by the seemingly obligatory two hour Korean movie runtime, but aside from that and an ending that's a bit overemphatic, there's little else here that belies the director's sure hand.

Election (Johhny To)

Election (Johhny To) 63 - Hong Kong-based action director To takes a more contemplative approach this time out, downplaying the action (there's no gunplay at all) to focus on the power play that occurs as a new triad boss is selected. The process of election itself is finally seen as a token, much like the ceremonial baton which designates power. The complicity between the police and the triads is astutely observed. The film is slick and cynical, yet intellectual enough to recognize that although democracy might be a sham, it serves an organizing purpose. The series of twists at the end sets up the sequel perfectly. This is good stuff, even though I am less convinced than most that it's a return to form for its director (there was nothing wrong with his PTU or Breaking News).

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Proposed Film List

Assuming that the lottery situation works out, here what I plan to see this year:

2:37 (Murali K. Thalluri)
7 Ans (Jean-Pascal Hattu)
10 Items or Less (Brad Silberling)
12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Away From Her (Sarah Polley)
Belle toujours (Manoel de Oliveira)
The Bet Collector (Jeffrey Jeturian)
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (Takashi Miike)
Black Book (Paul Verhoeven)
Bliss (Sheng Zhimin)
Bonneville (Christopher N. Rowley)
The Book of Revelation (Ana Kokkinos)
Borat (Larry Charles)
The Bothersome Man (Jens Lien)
Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin)
Cashback (Sean Ellis)
Chacun sa nuit (Jean-Marc Barr, Pascal Arnold)
Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa)
Daratt / Moekgo and the Stickfighter (Mahmat-Saleh Haroun)/(Teboho Mahlatsi)
Day Night Day Night (Julia Loktev)
D.O.A.P. (Gabriel Range)
Exiled (Johnnie To)
Falkenberg Farewell (Jesper Ganslandt)
The Fall (Tarsem)
Fantasmas (Lisandro Alonso)
Fay Grim (Hal Hartley)
Flanders (Bruno Dumont)
The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky)
Golden Door (Emanuele Crialese)
Grbavica (Jasmila Žbanić)
The Half Life of Timofey Berezin (Scott Z. Burns)
Hamaca Paraguaya (Paz Encina)
HANA (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
L' Homme de sa vie (Zabou Breitman)
The Host (Bong Joon-ho)
I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming Liang)
Invisible Waves (Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki)
Little Children (Todd Field)
Nouvelle Chance (Anne Fontaine)
Nue Propriété (Joachim Lafosse)
Penelope (Mark Palansky)
Princess (Anders Morgenthaler)
Rain Dogs (Ho Yuhang)
Reprise (Joachim Trier)
Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)
S&MAN (JT Petty)
Severance (Christopher Smith)
Sheitan (Kim Chapiron)
STRIKE (Volker Schlondorff)
Summer '04 (Stefan Krohmer)
Summer Palace (Lou Ye)
Taxidermia (György Pálfi)
Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer)
La Tourneuse de pages (Denis Dercourt)
Trapped Ashes (Various)
Wavelengths Program 2 (Various)
White Palms (Szabolcs Hajdu)

I am bummed that I couldn't slot in: Time / Zidane / The Banquet / The Fall / Dong / Red Road / Paris Je T'Aime / The Caiman / The Missing Star / After the Wedding /Glue - A Teenage Story in the Middle of Nowhere

Friday, August 25, 2006

"Your Blogs" on the TIFF Web Site

The official Festival Website has a cool new feature this year for festival-goers to list their own blogs on the site. The blogs that have been added so far can be found here:

I'm still working out what I'm planning on seeing this year, gathering information on the scads of films that I knew nothing about next week.

Still, the top ten movies that I'm most excited about heading into the festival are:

1. Fay Grim (Hal Hartley)
2. Flandres (Bruno Dumont)
3. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang)
4. Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)
5. The Host (Bong Joon-ho)
6. Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki)
7. Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa)
8. 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu)
9. Taxidermia (György Pálfi)
10. The double header of Fantasmas (Lisandro Alonso) & Belle Toujours (Manoel de Oliveira)