Saturday, September 15, 2007

Prize Winners

L'Amour cache (Alessandro Capone) 20

Mutum (Sandra Kogut) 59

XXY (Lucia Puenzo) 41

Festival prize-winners:

Audience Award - Eastern Promises (which contains the best scene in any film I've seen at the festival this year)
Runners-up: Juno (ridiculous) & Body of War

Best Canadian Film - My Winnipeg

Award for Artistic Innovation - Encarnacion (Rather inexplicable, as this is little more than a sensitive soap opera)

FIPRESCI Award - La Zona

Discovery Award - Cochochi

For the record, my personal choice for Best Film is Cassandra's Dream, and the best performance I've seen at the festival this year is Anna Faris' turn in Smiley Face.

Nearing the final stretch...

Import Export (Ulrich Seidl) 69

Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings) 14

Weirdsville (Allan Moyle) 55

Les Bons Debarras (Francis Mankiewicz) 69

Smiley Face (Gregg Araki) 72

Friday, September 14, 2007

Day 9, Take One

Glory to the Filmmaker! (Takeshi Kitano) 57

Encarnacion (Anahi Berneri) 37

Corroboree (Ben Hackworth) 50

Fast, worthless comments

The 9:00 a.m. screening right around the corner demands I keep this short.

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog) 64 [This Antarctic travelogue is somewhat shapeless, but it's filled with plenty of visual wonders and Herzog's great, deadpan sense of humor. The moments where he cuts off his verbose interviewees and summarizes their tales in voiceover were particularly awesome.]

Eat, For This is My Body (Michelange Quay) 17 [I generally love Matthew Barney's movies, but watching this I think I understood how those things play to people not at all in touch with the guy's sensibility. I am pretty sure this film is not rooting for racism, but given the miscalculated imagery, I can't really be sure.] [Note to Mike: Sylvie has extended nude scenes.]

Iska's Journey (Csaba Bollok) 28 [The second Hungarian orphan movie I've seen at Toronto this year, with pretty much none of the redeeming qualities of Happy New Life. That film was formally adventurous, while this is completely pedestrian from that perspective. It's too uninvolving to be particularly effective as a message movie to boot.]

Christopher Columbus, The Enigma (Manoel de Oliveira) 68 [This chipper tour guide of a movie is hands-down the most pleasurable viewing experience I've had at the film festival this year, but it's also the one thing I've seen this year that failed to incite audience applause at the end, so I suspect that description says more about me than de Oliviera's work. Nonetheless, I had a smile plastered across my face throughout. The good cheer present here, the casualness of the filmmaking, and the pleasing portrait of enduring love, really took me in. I really have to dig into this dude's back catalog someday, because all of his late works charm the heck out of me.]

Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung) 36 [I remember that when I was prepping for the festival, I read the Cannes buzz on this one, which raved about how despite a Korean-American director, the film managed to capture the feel of native African cinema. I should have remembered that much African cinema is rudimentary and visually dull.]

The Devil's Chair (Adam Mason) 27 [This is an obnoxiously written, stupidly twisty, digitally shot, splatter film that ultimately cuts away from the gore when we want to see it most. Boo.]

The Rest of Day 8

Avant que j'oublie ( Jacques Nolot) 44 [I almost want to chalk my take on this one up to festival fatigue, since I absolutely adored the opening and closing shots, and found much of what came between downright amusing. Following the pathetic exploits of an aging gay Parisian writer, the movie has both a sense of wit about the sad predicament of being old, homosexual, and alone, and a sharp eye for the sorts of practical details that fill up his days (e.g. discussing the price of hustlers with his friends or beating a traffic ticket after an embarrassing bathroom-related accident). Similarly sly is the way the film, so centered on transactions throughout, equates its protagonists therapy with his romps with his tricks. Ultimately, on Day 8 of the Festival, sitting the film's endless dialogue scenes was a major test of patience, with little of the visual assurance that I dug in Nolot's Porn Theater.]

The Girl in the Park (David Auburn) 39 [This first feature from the playwright who brought us (the completely solid) Proof is disappointingly sketched, if perfectly harmless. Featuring a somewhat tough to stomach turn from Sigourney Weaver, the film concerns the psychodrama that arises when a bereaved mother returns to New York City 16 years after her child disappeared. When a young woman (Kate Bosworth, whose two different colored eyes should pretty much settle the debate), about the age that her daughter should be, enters her life, the sad mommy begins to suspect she's been reunited with her kin. The entire thing hinges upon a few stupid contrivances, with it becoming quite clear that any resolution will disappoint on some level. Auburn's screenplay, without a performance as powerful as Gwyneth Paltrow's was in Proof, creaks loudly with each new development.]

Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-sheng) 66 [Decidedly an improvement over The Missing, Lee's debut film, this finds the actor-turned-director still in territory that should feel familiar to those who have seen his work with Tsai Ming-liang, albeit with a jauntier tempo than his mentor's work. As the title implies, one of Lee's major concerns is how lust serves to stave off urban sadness, and the theme is presented through a series of comic set pieces featuring exotic food, suicide hotlines, streetside strippers, and acrobatic intercourse. Surprisingly funny, given how depressing the subject matter appears to be, the movie would likely be seen as some kind of more approachable career breakthrough had Tsai himself made it.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A link and an rating...

This is an amusing pan of Alan Ball's horrendous Nothing is Private, but it is probably too kind to the film:

Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-sheng) 66

Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen, 2007)

Not the shock that Woody's other thriller, Match Point, was, but also not much of a downgrade in quality from that career high point either. This tightly-knit London-set drama about two brothers living beyond their means is closer in spirit to Claude Chabrol's work than Match Point (which felt like modern-day Henry James), meaning its glides between satire and suspense almost imperceptibly throughout. The script is wickedly conceived, with a Philip Glass score slyly underscoring the inevitability of it all. It is odd that between this and Match Point, Allen suddenly seems to have developed a class consciousness, but the film is nonetheless convincing on that level. Ultimately, it's distinctively his work, because it has at its center a comic engine of self-justification ironically highlighting the inconsistencies between what people say and what they do.

Rating: 78/100

Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike, 2007)

You can never know what to expect from prolific Japanese cult director Takashi Miike, but here he's working pretty clearly within genre boundaries. The genre in question, as the title implies, is samurai spaghetti western, and he finds a tone here similar to Kill Bill, situated somewhere between homage, mashup, and parody. Appropriately enough, Quentin Tarantino shows up here, in a small role, and sets the tone from the start, delivering his lines in amusingly broken English. What follows borrows Yojimbo's plot and uses it to present a series of goofy backstories, oddball characters and exciting shootouts. There are some slow patches here and there, but this is easily Miike's best big-budget effort to date.

Rating: 64/100

Naissance des pieuvres (Celine Sciamma, 2007)

The French seem to tell coming-of-age stories more effortlessly than anyone, and this proves no exception. Delicately and shrewdly navigating the power plays that take place between four teens, the movie quickly abandons its synchronized swimming metaphors to dive into the murkier waters of young lust. It's a film filled with moments of stymied passions and desperate gestures (at one point, the heroine gnaws at an apple core that another girl discarded, hoping to kiss her by proxy). In the typically French style, little is resolved, but everyone's left a bit wiser at the end.

Rating: 67/100

Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007)

A huge improvement over Noah Baumbach's breakthrough The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding is proving to be nothing if not divisive at this year's festival. Completely willing to alienate its audience through prolonged exposure to its unlikable, but human, cast of characters, the movie plows past its initially comic premise into Bergman territory with its honest and unflinching exploration of its characters' foibles. At one point, Margot (Nicole Kidman, perfectly cast), the titular author and sister, slaps her son, and the camera immediately cuts. Most of the edits in this tightly constructed serio-comedy have that kind of sting, though, which is precisely why reactions are so uncomfortably mixed.

Chronicling a few days during which two estranged sisters reunite for a wedding, the movie achieves a level of intimacy that's extremely rare in American cinema. Baumbach details his characters as acutely as his unflinchingly blunt heroine does, diagnosing and announcing their faults, no matter that such honesty grows to be less than pleasant. The sharp, incisive screenplay gives the ensemble a group of flawed, thought-through characters, and the cast runs with the opportunity.

More exciting, though, than the screenplay's accomplishment, is Baumbach's work as director. For the first time, it seems that he's conceived a film as a piece of cinema first and as a screenplay second. Throughout the film, startlingly poetic images show up on the screen, without ever negatively affecting the closely observed, dimly lit mood that dominates. Casual shots, such as one of a piece of lipstick-smeared toilet paper in the toilet, find visual metaphors for the anxieties that dominate this distinctive and razor-sharp film.

Rating: 74/100

Capsule Catch-up

Across the Universe (Julie Taymour) 59 [Julie Taymor, with the full catalog of The Beatles at her disposal, churns out a somewhat disappointing and pedestrian musical. It's not the cliches of the story or the Disneyfication of the '60s that rankles here so much as it's the general feeling of missed opportunity. The songs she has are some of the most tuneful and lyrically vivid in existence, yet the onscreen action that accompanies them is more often than not ridiculously literal and straightforward. It thankfully doesn't become an exercise in kitsch at any point, and the film is not without its strengths, but it rarely builds in power. The two leads (Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess) are ridiculously charismatic, and one or two moments, such as the "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" number (here a poignant, casually choreographed ode to lesbian longing) hint at the potential. All in all, it's a good deal better than the recent '60s-era musicals Hairspray and Dreamgirls, but I am fairly positive that few will fondly remember it once Todd Haynes' Dylan extravaganza I'm Not There hits.]

Jellyfish (Shira Geffen / Etgar Keret) 51 [This routine multi-character Israeli drama has a lighter, more comic touch than ensemble pieces usually do. That helps, as the genre fails more often than not, but also proves a mild hindrance, since the overall lack of ambition leaves things feeling slight. Ghosts of Israel's past flit by (the Holocaust and Syria are name checked), but they are given equal weight as minor personal dramas such as an adult's memory of a parent's white lie about the ice cream man. Keeping in tone with the rest of the film, the wounded souls among the cast don't find total emotional reconciliation so much as they have their awareness about perspectives other than their own raised at the climax.]

The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin) 60 [This low-key comedy tracks an Egyptian Police band that gets waylaid on their way to a concert in Israel. It finds a peculiar tone that is, as one actor says near the end, "neither happy nor sad". Charmingly charting the loneliness both of the displaced Egyptians and the Israelis who reluctantly host them for a night, Kolirin evades mawkishness at most every step, largely thanks to two solid lead performances courtesy of Ronit Elkabetz & Sasson Gabai. By turns funny, poignant and clever, it is a clear crowd-pleaser.]

Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer) 62 [One could complain that the stunts here aren't as athletically impressive as in some silent comedy classics, just as one could rightly gripe that the Plonk persona lacks the rich pathos of, say, Keaton. That would be churlish, though, since this is so much better, both in spirit and execution than anyone had any right to suspect. It is probably the best film I've seen from director Rolf de Heer, which isn't necessarily saying a lot, but it does confirm my suspicions that he might not be more than a competent technician -- a recycler of other director's better ideas. Here the sensibility, the jokes, and the music all lifted part and parcel from great films of the past, much to the overall success of this attempt.]

Happy New Life (Arpad Bogdan) 47 [The grade, a 47, is actually kind of harsh, even though this thing has obvious weaknesses. It's apparent from the start that Bogdan is a gifted visual stylist, using his digital camerawork to play with light and nightscapes in fresh new was. The circular narrative is the source of most of the problems. Bogdan's style, promising as it might be, is not enough to fill the gaping hole where the content should be. The premise, in which an orphan begins a search for identity, for which no answers might exist, is good, but it's scarcely developed beyond that point. I'll definitely check out the director's next film, but this reeks of unfulfilled promise.]

Day 7 Ratings

Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen) 78

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog) 64

Eat, For This is My Body (Michelange Quay) 17

Iska's Journey (Csaba Bollok) 28

Christopher Columbus, The Enigma (Manoel de Oliveira) 68

Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung) 36

The Devil's Chair (Adam Mason) 27

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Rest of Day 6

Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer) 62

Happy New Life (Arpad Bogdan) 47

Naissance des pieuvres (Celine Sciamma) 67

Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike) 64

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mid-Day Update - Day 6

Across the Universe (Julie Taymour) 59

Jellyfish (Shira Geffen / Etgar Keret) 51

The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin) 60

A few comments I missed the first time...

No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers) 68 [Crackerjack action scenes (doubly effective because there's no music during them) are the main attraction here, with the world-weary profundity and sudden craving for self-importance striking me as somewhat irksome and half-formed (what, exactly, is being referred to by the "dismal tide"?). Suddenly, the thematic material that's powered so many of the Coen's work (i.e. tounge-clucking at the moral decay in the world) is laid bare here in a few scenes so straightforward, that I found it tough to take them at face value, given the Coens' track record as ironists extraordinaire...

Highlight of the film for me was this: Brolin's Texan loses his hat and boots in a gunfight. Two scenes later, he's getting his costume back, once again sinking in to the Coen Bros. world where people are defined by their grotesque outfits as much as anything they say or do.]

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik) 54 [All day, I've had people coming up to me shocked at this rating. Sorry, dudes, but I just don't get what y'all are responding to here. For the most part, there's little here that's bad, but I have just as hard a time finding anything that I really love either. One or two shots are gorgeous (e.g. the shot of the masked bandits standing in the trees on the night of the last train robbery), but there's so little here that feels fresh. I've seen better Jesse James movies (such as Sam Fuller's), and many po-mo westerns which were less restrained by self-conscious artistry. Not even the acting particularly impressed, I'm afraid, with the two leads giving performances filled with mannerisms and tics. Someone, please explain the hype... Until then, I'll stick with something like Penn's The Left-Handed Gun, which covered all of this ground, 50 years ago, much more thoroughly, in much less time.]

Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy) 51 [The mix of '70s-era "realism" and current-day movie gloss never comes off here, I'm afraid. The movie tries to be downbeat and morally murky, but it's bitten off more than it can chew. Nothing particularly impressive on any level, as far as I'm concerned, though it goes down easy enough.]

The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin) 62 [I am really glad I caught this, partially because it goes right in so many places where The Visitor went disastrously wrong. I've heard a lot of complaints about the contrivances and coincidences in the script, but they're kind of the point behind the thing. I think I read the thought somewhere that Akin is inventing new narrative forms that reflect the new kinds of relationships that are emerging in our globalized, cross-cultural world. Whoever said that is dead on... This is unabashedly melodramatic, but it's, refreshingly, not very stupid at all.]

Erik Nietzsche The Early Years (Jacob Thuesen) 29 [The fictionalized autobiography of Lars von Trier's film school years sounded good on paper, but in practice it's categorically awful. I mean, I can appreciate how the movie charts an innocent artist turning into a confirmed cynic, but nothing about the movie feels particularly honest. It was clearly written by the cynic, and not that young idealist. At least there were a few snippets of homemade shorts that von Trier directed as a child to keep it from being a total wash.]

Nothing is Private (Alan Ball) 7 [I guess this is touchy subject matter, but I wasn't offended on any level, except perhaps an aesthetic one. Seriously, this film, which plays like an equally misguided, comic version of Crash, is the most horribly miscalculated thing I've seen in recent memory. Two hours of pubic hair shaving, menstrual jokes, and child molestation, capped off by a completely unquestioning attitude toward the characters who most need to be criticized. If nothing else it demonstrates how good a director Sam Mendes must have been to turn American Beauty into something watchable.]

Ex Drummer (Koen Mortier) 46 [I guess this is basically a third-rate version of Trainspotting, but it's pretty inventive throughout, and it's not afraid to indulge in its extreme side. I didn't find it funny, per se, but I kind of appreciated how gleefully misogynist and nihilistic it was willing to be for its own sake.]

Les Chasons d'amour (Christophe Honore) 43 [I don't even like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, so I sure as hell am not going to dig a half-assed homage with arbitrary gender swapping and a wretched score. The last 30 seconds were nice and mature, though. "Love me less, just love me a long time".]

Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway) 64 [I'm sure at least half of the jokes (or "jokes"... it's Greenaway directing, after all) flew over my puny little mind, but this biopic of Rembrandt seemed more approachable than usual for the director. He's showing the construction and deconstruction of one of the great painter's greatest works, explaining the hidden symbols that dot the work, turning the investigation into a fairly compelling mystery plot. Definitely enjoyable if you're at all predisposed toward the guy's work, but probably equally torturous if you're averse.]

Chaotic Ana (Julio Medem) 39 [In the last scene of this, that crazy Ana poops in someone's face, so she can taunt him into bashing her head in with a lamp, thereby fulfilling a 2000 year old destiny. That didn't make much sense to me until I remembered the first scene, in which a dove poops in the eye of a hawk, only to be torn to shreds.

Then I remembered the second scene, in which that oh-so-chaotic Ana is dancing at a rave, and suddenly reaches out into a crowd, only to find a giant horse penis, which begins ejaculating all over her.

No fucking clue here, either, folks...]

The Rest of the Day 5 Ratings...

Juno (Jason Reitman) 48 [A film this glib and facile deserves a quip just as glib and facile... It's Gilmore Girls, but pregnant.]

Unfinished Stories (Pourya Azarbayjani) 24 [Iran still awful for women, Iranian filmmakers apparently getting worse. Some insanely ugly DV to boot. If you ask me about this at next year's fest, I'll probably have no clue what you're talking about.]

The Savages (Tamara Jenkins) 73 [Tiny in scale, but at the same time kind of note-perfect. It's poignant and funny in all of the right places. I don't remember ever liking Laura Linney this much in anything.]

Forever Never Anywhere (A. Svobosa) 61 [The first of my "stuck in a car after a crash" double-feature, it's snappy and funny, even if it's a bit disposable. It has a dark, distinctly Austrian sense of humor that serves it well enough to make its gimmicky premise sustainable at feature length.]

Stuck (Stuart Gordon) 76 [Best of the fest, so far, this finds Gordon again in the nasty mode he's been developing in movies like Edmond and King of the Ants. I love how it refuses to sell out with any late-breaking developments of morality, and the general lack of ambition allows it to function as pretty pure entertainment. I don't think I'm alone in my love for it, for the record... The crowd went bonkers for it too.]

Monday, September 10, 2007

Day 5, So Far...

No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers) 68

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik) 54

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)

There's no doubt while watching Ang Lee's Lust, Caution that you're in the hands of a supreme filmmaker. Clocking in at about 160 minutes long, this espionage thriller set in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation has scarcely a second of wasted time. Extremely talky, it's never less than spellbinding to look at. Furthermore, even though Lee downplays action, he infuses even the most outwardly mundane sequences, like that of the opening mahjong game, with the graceful, fluid camerawork of a Crouching Tiger fight scene.

Telling a politicized tale of sexual repression, Lust, Caution focuses on Wang Jiazhi, played by Wei Tang in a wholly accomplished performance that feels like as much of a breakthrough as Zhang Ziyi's CT,HD turn was a few years back. A young student turned revolutionary spy, she engages in an extended undercover stint in which she attempts to set the traitorous, but careful, Yee (Tony Leung) up for an assassination attempt. Leung remains elusive for most of the film's duration, and a large portion of his performance is delivered through a series of sex scenes that demonstrate just how sadistic a traitor he is playing. Several Hitchcock references are made during the movie, and the obvious touchstone is his Notorious, which definitively covered this ground.

Despite its epic runtime, Lust, Caution is a straightforward, laser focused narrative with an intimate scale. Most of the film is spent questioning to what degree a person can separate personal feelings from political ones. This theme emerges early on as the youth group joins the nationalist cause through a mix of genuine want to help their motherland and peer pressure. Lee keeps probing it throughout, mining considerable drama from the central question of where Wang Jiazhi's loyalties lie. It's worthy stuff, delivered with all of the class one would expect from one of our most consistent and exciting moviemakers.

Rating: 66/100

Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2007)

Advance word reported that George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead, the latest in his epic horror franchise, used the gimmick of presenting all action as if it were recorded by the characters in the film. That knowledge prepared me for the worst, given the number of post-Blair Witch genre films that have done little with the conceit. Shame on me for doubting the great Romero, though. One of the indisputable masters of the genre, he has amassed a body of socially conscious, genuinely frightening work. Through its clever advancements of the zombie genre and its consistently surprising series of set pieces, Diary of the Dead earns the right to stand alongside anything that Romero has made.

A re-imagining and updating of the original Night of the Living Dead, Diary follows a group of film students who are on location in rural Pennsylvania when news reports hit that the dead are now walking the earth. Slyly commenting on just how media-saturated today's youth are, the initial response that these kids have to the news is to make a documentary about the events. Skeptical of traditional media, the film celebrates bloggers, MySpace publishers and all forms of DIY reporting. Many of the limitations here feel like assets, given then way that Romero presents what we see as the home-edited, internet-posted work of a film student with a social conscience. Judging by the jokes, such as those featuring a deaf Amish man, that would feel right at home on YouTube, it's clear that Romero is as in touch with the times as ever. Alongside his biting Land of the Dead, Diary presents powerful evidence that Romero might be the American filmmaker most tapped into the new hypocrisies and fears of the post-9/11 era.

That's not to suggest that Diary of the Dead is so socially conscious that it forgets that it's a horror film. To the contrary, the new stylistic approach seems to re-energize the filmmaker, leading him to invent an endless series of scares as the young documentarians move from one zombie-infested disaster area to the next. If the prevailing sense of dread that so distinguished the original never materializes, it's only because Romero's ambitions are far greater here. He reasserts himself again as the definitive expert of his subgenre (one hilarious bit reasserts that the undead shouldn't run in movies) and delivers a wholly original entry in a series that might have seemed to have said it all already.

Rating: 72/100

Day 4 Ratings

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee) 66

Ex Drummer (Koen Mortier) 46

Les Chasons d'amour (Christophe Honore) 43

Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway) 64

Chaotic Ana (Julio Medem) 39

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, 2007)

Oddly enough, having now seen two films by Japanese director Naomi Kawase, I can say that the filmmaker that she most recalls for me is master animator Hayao Miyazaki. Like his animated films, Kawase's live-action work has a meditative outlook, allows space for the pleasures of nature, and is deeply immersed in Japanese culture. The Mourning Forest, Kawase's latest, strikes me as a mild disappointment after the revelatory experience that was her Shara, but, whatever its shortcomings, it certainly doesn't betray the sensibility that I so admired in that masterpiece.

Things start promisingly. The pre-credits sequence, which cross-cuts between a funeral procession, ritualistic preparations, and impressive landscape shots while a minimalist piano score builds, is no small achievement. Once the film begins proper, the movie finds itself still on sure footing. As we're introduced to a group of residents and caretakers in a senior citizens' community, Kawase starts introducing a series of philosophical concerns, setting up the journey that fills the second half. Life, death, mourning and guilt are the topics at hand here, but what's refreshing is how the director manages to bring up such subjects while not denying her characters a sense of spontaneity or pleasure.

Even though it's less strikingly casual than Shara was, Forest is structured so that it has plenty of room to breathe. At the film's end, it is revealed to have been pretty deterministic, but it never feels that way while you're watching it. Repeated like a mantra throughout are the words "There are no formal rules, you know". They clearly seem to inform Kawase's stylistic approach. She's partly such a strong filmmaker, even when working in a decidedly minor scale, because she's able to recognize the difference between being sentimental and simply being alert to emotions like love, fun and loss. Ultimately, The Mourning Forest is not so much flawed as it is unable to create a very powerful impression. One or two scenes, such as a river crossing in a downpour, are exciting, but the exceptionally contemplative nature of the film makes it a long, somewhat dull wait for cathartic release.

Rating: 56/100

Day 3 Ratings

The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase) [56]
Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy) [51]
The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin) [62]
Erik Nietzsche The Early Years (Jacob Thuesen) [29]
Nothing is Private (Alan Ball) [7]
Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero) [71]

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Day 2 Roundup

One Hundred Nails (Ermanno Olmi) 43 [Purportedly Olmi's final film, this conflicted saga is a less than stellar note to end on. Bipolar in the extreme, this attempts to be both a philosophical discourse about the role of acquired knowledge in our pursuit of happiness and a crowd-pleasing feelgood comedy in which a professor abandons his title, money, and home in order to shack up with a group of lovable squatters. As the former, it works well enough, but the latter is a constant distraction. It's pretty clear that Olmi has acquired some knowledge from middlebrow crud like Waking Ned Devine, much to the detriment of my pursuit of happiness.]

Disengagement (Amos Gitai) 49 [For about an hour, this is an unmitigated disaster. Its extended first act features Juliet Binoche as a slightly unhinged Parisenne who has recently lost her father. When the film later relocates to the Gaza strip, taking her character on a quest to find her estranged daughter, it improves considerably, even if Binoche seems to be suddenly playing an altogether different person. No longer a chamber drama, it becomes more recognizably Gitai's work, presenting the Israeli political situation as a barely navigable morass of checkpoints. The long takes that show scenes of mob near-violence dominate the movie's second half and redeem the enterprise.]

The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy) 28 [As Good As It Gets for Post-9/11 America, with mediocre performances.]

Frontiere(s) (Xavier Gens) 34 [This Gallic gorefest is not half as inventive or gruesome as most of this year's homegrown torture porn, to be honest. For all of the intimations of cross-breeding, for example, nothing here comes close to the truly horrific opening of The Hills Have Eyes Part 2. Not an entirely bad time at the movies, though. Though they might be sporadic, there are highlights, such as the bits with the crazy Nazi.]

The Banishment (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2006)

I wasn't a fan of The Return, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Golden Lion-winning debut film, but it had its ardent admirers, which raised expectations for The Banishment, his second, considerably. Unfortunately, it's tough to imagine that even Zvyagintsev's biggest fans will fully embrace this leaden, empty-headed misfire. Things start promisingly, with an expertly shot sequence in which a car races from the country to the city. As soon as the film's family-driven drama becomes clear, however, the accomplished widescreen lensing emerges as the only real asset. Almost embarrassingly portentous, the plot mostly concerns the aftermath that occurs when a wife reveals to her husband that she's carrying a baby that's not his.

Konstantin Lavronenko, who plays Alex, the husband, inexplicably won the Best Actor prize at Cannes this year. His performance is almost entirely interior. Combined with a script that doesn't ever adequately flesh out his (or anyone's) character, the impression that he most often gives on screen is that of a man thoughtlessly staring off into empty space. The film fares better as visual feat than drama, to be sure. Two shots, which happen to be the two most striking in the film, are fully indebted to Tarkovsky. The first explicitly recalls the extended, behind-the-car tracking shot in Solaris, while the second, which is a long camera track looking into a mud puddle, seems to nod toward similar shots in Stalker.

Much like Tarkovsky, Zvyagintsev also fills his work with Christian symbolism, pushing the story vaguely into the realm of allegory. Unfortunately, the effect is more heavy-handed and reductive than a way to deepen the resonance of the ultimate tragedy. Crosses dot composition frequently, and in one moment that's far too on the nose for its own good, a young girl reads a passage from the Bible on the importance of love, giving the film a moral that totally reduces the potential audience response to character actions. Furthermore, since the character behaviors are psychologically implausible in the extreme and because the plot is predicated upon inane contrivances, The Banishment fails to connect even on a surface level. For now, the best that can be said about Zvyagintsev is that he seems like he could potentially be a master filmmaker someday, even if he's still not made a good movie.

Rating: 29/100

You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007)

You, the Living, distinctive Swedish auteur Roy Andersson's latest comedy of despair, doesn't stray far from his usual work, appearing to be cut very much from the same mold as his Songs From the Second Floor, despite the fact that seven years have passed since that film's release. Comprised, as usual, as a series of creaky tableaux, the film chugs along with an amusing, deadpan sensibility that sees its cast of pallid, depressed miserables endure the agony and disappointments of modern life. Andersson creates a decidedly artificial world, and it is at its funniest when it is most hermetically sealed off from reality. For example, one episode featuring a despairing daughter and her senile mother cuts too close to the bone to inspire many chuckles, even if one can abstractly grasp the comedy that arises as she unsuccessfully begs her ailing mum to recall her childhood miseries.

Unfortunately, after a jaunty, semi-musical first half-hour, despair becomes the prevailing emotion. By the one-hour mark the returns have diminished pretty severely. The deliberate pacing, which actually served the comedy well in the early scenes, becomes something of a liability as the laughs becomes more sporadic. The dull, dingy pastel color scheme becomes increasingly suffocating. The vignettes become ever more mundane. The injection of political commentary into the pastiche does little to shake the feeling that this is a live-action cartoon. What Andersson achieves here is occasionally funny in the same way that Jacques Tati's movies are funny, but it rarely manages that master's level of visual complexity or wit. Nonetheless, despite any shortcomings, this is not a work to be ignored. Andersson's detailed, largely static compositions beg to be seen on as big a screen as possible. To complain that his skits are difficult or boring to sit through because they seem too close to the pain of daily life is to pay them some kind of a compliment.

Rating: 55/100

Mother of Tears: The Third Mother (Dario Argento, 2007)

First a few words about the screening...

Surely by the standards of Toronto's Midnight Madness audiences, a new film from horror maestro Dario Argento is an event of the highest order. Few venues anywhere could offer a group of genre fans so excited and so devoted, so the energy at the start of the show was electric. Dario Argento, and his daughter and leading lady Asia were both in attendance, which only contributed to excitement levels. She thanked her father for making her the freak she is. He, clearly in an emotional state, didn't have much to say, but when Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes let it slip that it was Dario's birthday, the crowd serenaded him with a rendition of "Happy Birthday".

Thankfully, after all that buildup, the movie itself did not disappoint many. The third entry in Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy, it immediately presents the director in good form. An early, astonishingly brutal disembowlment scene sets the gruesome tone at the start, and Argento rarely lets up from there, creating a chaotic thrill ride of a movie. Lacking the self-conscious artistry of many of his earlier, and finer, films, Mother of Tears: The Third Mother finds Argento in balls-out entertainment mode. He includes a plot only insofar as it will move the audience along to the next gory set piece, filling most of the screen time with chase scenes, bloody slayings, and mayhem-laden montages.

A follow-up to the genre classic Suspiria and the somewhat lamentable Inferno, Mother of Tears traces the exploits of a young scholar who, after unwittingly unleashing a long-hidden evil, discovers that she is the only one who can stop the malicious third mother, the final in a trio of witches that operate like the Three Fates, and represent an incarnation of chaos. Ultimately, the story is beside the point, though. Argento's movies often use the supernatural to justify a certain illogic, and the approach here is no exception. Scenes play out with little regard for overall coherence, always striving to maximize effect in the moment. The director employs nearly his entire bag of tricks to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, from shock cuts and loud chords on the soundtrack, to performances that devour the scenery, to a wicked little monkey that terrorizes the heroine.

Ultimately, enjoyment of Mother of Tears requires some degree of complicity in the director's game. This film is obviously not as classy as many of Argento's best. It rarely feels eerie, and instead goes for shocks. That shift might come as a letdown to a devoted few, but even they could never accuse Argento of doing things halfway here. He goes deliriously over the top and carries us with him.

Rating: 64/100

Friday, September 07, 2007

Not much to see here...

You, the Living (Roy Andersson) 55
The Banishment (Andrey Zvyagintsev) 29

Day 1 Grades

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg) 74 [This London-set Russian mafia movie is clearly a step down from Cronenberg's last two films, and it feels like more of a work for hire than usual, but at the same time it's thematically coherent, making it feel like an obvious entry in his body of work. Too plotty for my tastes, it also lacks the broad iconography that made A History of Violence so powerful, yet it's filled with one intelligent directorial choice after another. I suspect it will be more successful than most of Cronenberg's films with the mainstream, but that doesn't really imply that it's a betrayal of his values. In any case, one action scene, late into the film, is destined for classic status.]

Starting Out in the Evening (Andrew Wagner) 38 [With its character-driven plot, its unattractive digital photography, and its spare, sad musical cues, this literary May/December romance film is clearly in Sundance territory. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the actors fail to generate much from the script they're given, and the third act is a hopelessly extended series of catharses. The occasional good line does slip out (e.g. "I can accept that he's going to die... I just can't accept that he'll be dead forever."), but, really, it's slim pickings.]

The Mother of Tears (Dario Argento) 64 [The best thing Argento's done in years, which isn't saying much, this finds him sacrificing most of his artistic pretensions, and shifting into balls-out entertainment mode. The plot, which features Asia Argento as a reluctant white witch battling evil in a Rome gone mad, is clearly an excuse for a series of imaginative, gruesome set pieces. Extremely gory, and extremely fun (especially with the Midnight Madness crowd), it's closer to a return to form than I would have suspected.]

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Beyond the Years (Im Kwon-taek, 2006)

Beyond the Years is veteran South Korean director Im Kwon-taek’s 100th film. Surely such a mammoth filmography must be chock full of variety, but based on my limited experience of his work, it seems that his specialty lies in telling the stories of Korean folk artists. More specifically, he seems focused on pansori singing, which is a genre of Korean folk music that combines simple drum beats and throat singing. To people who aren’t Korean, it’s an acquired taste, to be sure. Fortunately, Im’s devout attention to his performers has a way of making the style seem like high art, even to outsiders. Having seen Im’s previous films Sopyonje and Chunhyang, each of which prominently featured pansori singing, I was prepared both for Beyond the Years’ meticulous attention to its pansori performances and its classy, yet somewhat dull, presentation.

A determinedly old-fashioned melodrama, Beyond the Years explores the fragile bonds that exist between pansori singer and drummer, seeing them as exceptionally noble yet fraught with ceaseless difficulty. Im presents the lives of his singers as a chronicle of adversity. Poverty, blindness and endless sacrifice are the price that these people pay for their art. With no small degree of sincerity, the director uses a flashback structure to detail the lives of a brother and sister who once performed together, yet have drifted apart. Well before the closing image of two cranes flying together in the sky flits across the screen, it’s patently obvious that Im views this bond as a noble one, and has nothing but distaste for the country, which has little place for art or beauty, given its constant upheaval.

Shot in autumnal hues to reflect the cultural glory of a bygone day, Beyond the Years suggests, rather simplemindedly, that purity of heart and endless practice are the keys to a great performance. Despite covering decades, the film scarcely shifts its attitudes toward its characters, suggesting, as the title does, that pansori is an art form that can weather the ravages of time. As a viewer, I felt that the unfettered devotion was questionable, but perhaps that is a problem of perception. Beyond the Years is one of the rare foreign films that makes me feel like I am too divorced from the culture in question to appreciate any subtleties on display. Sincerity is perhaps harder to translate than cynicism, and there’s no question that Beyond the Years is sincere.

Rating: 42/100

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Lottery Results

After much anxiety, the box office has e-mailed me my lottery results. I did exceptionally well, getting every film I asked for, with the exception of Atonement. During that slot, I will be seeing In the Valley of Elah instead.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Chacun son Cinema (Various, 2007)

Thirty-three directors contributed three-minute shorts to create Chacun son Cinema, a better than average omnibus film that was commissioned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival. Given its roots, it might seem somewhat awkward to have it presented in Toronto. I'd disagree, though, as there are several good reasons to see it at TIFF:

  • It’s just as much as celebration of cinema in general as it is of Cannes as a phenomenon. Youssef Chahine’s contribution excepted, these shorts see cinema as a global, collective experience, and celebrate the experience of watching movies worldwide. Given the international nature of TIFF, the vibe is entirely appropriate.

  • Many of the directors who participated (nine by my count), also have a feature showing in Toronto this year. This tally is actually higher than the five directors who had features playing at Cannes this year. (It could be higher still, if TIFF programmers were able to secure Assays’ Boarding Gate or Wong’s My Blueberry Nights. Alas, that was not in the cards.)

  • Unquestionably, two of the strongest entries come from Canadians. Atom Egoyan’s strangely eerie Artaud Double Bill presents a possible vision of a future cinema, in which the primacy of the theater can be overcome with technology. David Cronenberg’s dark At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World is exactly as described, but funnier than one would expect, given the title.

  • Beyond those Canadian shorts, there are several others that I would classify as excellent. The Coen Brothers (who bring No Country For Old Men to Toronto this year) deliver what’s probably the most obvious crowd-pleaser of the bunch with their uproarious, but dead-on, World Cinema, featuring Josh Brolin as a cowboy who’s trying to decide whether he should see Renoir’s The Rules of the Game or Ceylan’s Climates. The Dardennes Brothers, longtime devotees of Robert Bresson, effectively pay tribute to that master with their microcosmic morality play In the Darkness. Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien (also presenting The Voyage of the Red Balloon this year) doesn’t disappoint with The Electric Princess House, which feels entirely in step with his work in its examination of film’s relationship to time.

  • Ultimately, everyone who sees this collection of shorts seems to have a different set of favorites. Just because I found the Salles to be too cute by half, the Gonzalez-Inarritu to be hilariously clichéd, the Van Sant to be self-parodic, or the Cimino to be intolerable, doesn’t mean that you will. The experience of watching a few dozen shorts in quick succession, and discussing which ones you liked best with friends, is pretty close to the ideal TIFF experience. Don’t be surprised if a consensus never emerges from those debates, though. To Each His Own Cinema, indeed.

Rating: 56/100

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Preliminary TIFF Schedule

This is all very dependent upon my luck with the ticket lottery, but my festival itinerary will likely look something like this:

Thursday, September 6
16:00 - Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg) [press]
20:00 - Starting Out in the Evening (Andrew Wagner) [V1+6]
23:59 - The Mother of Tears (Dario Argento) [Ryerson]

Friday, September 7
9:15 - You, the Living (Roy Andersson) [S4]
12:30 - The Banishment (Andrey Zvyagintsev) [S1]
16:00 - One Hundred Nails (Ermanno Olmi) [S1]
18:00 - Disengagement (Amos Gitai) [V8]
21:15 - The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy) [Ryerson]
23:59 - Frontiere(s) (Xavier Gens) [Ryerson]

Saturday, September 8
9:45 - The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase) [S4]
12:00 - Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy) [Ryerson]
15:30 - The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin) [S4]
18:30 - Erik Nietzsche The Early Years (Jacob Thuesen) [S2]
20:45 - Nothing is Private (Alan Ball) [Ryerson]
23:59 - Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero) [Ryerson]

Sunday, September 9
9:15 - Lust, Caution (Ang Lee) [S2]
12:30 - Ex Drummer (Koen Mortier) [S14]
15:30 - Les Chasons d'amour (Christophe Honore) [S2]
18:00 - Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway) [Elgin]
21:15 - Chaotic Ana (Julio Medem) [Ryerson]
23:59 - Vexille (Fumihiko Sori) [Ryerson]

Monday, September 10
9:00 - No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers) [Ryerson]
11:00 - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik) [Elgin]
14:30 - Sad Vacation (Shinji Aoyama) [S4]
17:00 - Unfinished Stories (Pourya Azarbayjani) [V2]
19:00 - The Savages (Tamara Jenkins) [Bader]
21:00 - Atonement (Joe Wright) [Elgin]
23:59 - Stuck (Stuart Gordon) [Ryerson]

Tuesday, September 11
11:00 - Across the Universe (Julie Taymour) [Elgin]
14:30 - Jellyfish (Shira Geffen / Etgar Keret) [C1]
16:15 - The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin) [S2]
18:45 - Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer) [V2]
20:15 - Happy New Life (Arpad Bogdan) [C1]
21:45 - Naissance des pieuvres (Celine Sciamma) [S14]
23:59 - Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike) [Ryerson]

Wednesday, September 12
9:00 - To Love Someone (Ake Sandgren) [C2]
11:00 - Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen) [Elgin]
13:45 - Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog) [V8]
15:30 - Eat, For This is My Body (Michelange Quay) [C2]
17:45 - Iska's Journey (Csaba Bollok) [C1]
19:15 - Christopher Columbus, The Enigma (Manoel de Oliveira) [V8]
21:00 - Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung) [C2]
23:59 - The Devil's Chair (Adam Mason) [Ryerson]

Thursday, September 13
9:15 - The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen) [S2]
12:00 - Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach) [Elgin]
15:30 - Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-sheng) [S4]
19:00 - Avant que j'oublie ( Jacques Nolot) [S2]
21:30 - The Girl in the Park (David Auburn) [V8]

Friday, September 14
9:00 - Glory to the Filmmaker! (Takeshi Kitano) [V8]
11:15 - Encarnacion (Anahi Berneri) [V5]
13:00 - Corroboree (Ben Hackworth) [S3]
15:30 - Import Export (Ulrich Seidl) [S4]
18:45 - Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings) [Ryerson]
21:30 - Weirdsville (Allan Moyle) [Ryerson]
23:59 - Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto) [Ryerson]

Saturday, September 15
9:15 - Les Bons Debarras (Francis Mankiewicz) [V6]
11:45 - Smiley Face (Gregg Araki) [Bader]
14:30 - L'Amour cache (Alessandro Capone) [V3]
16:00 - Mutum (Sandra Kogut) [V5]
17:30 - XXY (Lucia Puenzo) [V2]
20:00 - My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin) [Bader]
21:15 - It's a Free World... (Ken Loach) [Ryerson]
23:59 - A l'interieur (Alexandre Bustillo / Julien Maury) [Ryerson]

Monday, August 27, 2007

California Dreamin' (Endless) (Cristian Nemescu, 2007)

Cristian Nemescu was posthumously awarded the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section for California Dreamin’ (Endless), his first and only feature. Alongside Cristian Mungiu’s Palm D’Or win at this year’s festival, it represented the crest of what’s being referred to as the Romanian New Wave. Over the last few years, the country’s output has captured the attention of festivalgoers, who have declared it a hotspot of world cinema. That being said, it’s unlikely that many will find California Dreamin’ (Endless) to be the most impressive movie to come from Romania over the last few years. It’s a strong film, but it happens to be in stronger company.

Set in 1999, the movie follows what’s euphemistically referred to as a U.S. Peacekeeping mission. As a small group of American soldiers are forced to stop at a tiny town’s train station, the film begins introducing a barrage of characters. A lot of balls are kept in the air here, as the audience meets the American troops, the rascally station agent, his daughter (who hopes to run away with the troops), her schoolmates, the conniving mayor, and a group of protesting gypsies. The townsfolk devise a plan to restage their centennial in order to lure American investment to the country, then later try to use the U.S. military might to stir an uprising. The finale brings all of these groups together, and the cross-cutting between the different characters becomes less problematic as the film picks up speed. For a while, though, the plot is difficult to get into because of how busy it is.

California Dreamin’ (Endless)’s creator died before the editing of the feature was completed, and it shows, especially during the first hour. Sloppy and perfunctory, the expository scenes feel hopelessly overextended for what seems to be a simpleminded and overly cynical look at buffoonish characters. Boorish American troops are contrasted against hopelessly naïve Romanian villagers, who try to entertain and swindle them as they are held captive by a bureaucratic snafu. Thankfully, the remaining 90 minutes puncture that setup, shifting these character dynamics in unexpected ways. Eventually each of the characterizations deepens, finding a happy medium between comic and realistic extremes. The film also gradually takes on a satirical, but grounded, vibe, acquiring more sting than one would initially expect. When it’s all said and done, it’s obvious that the complicated plot has been working overtime to set up a tragic conclusion, which is surprisingly effective in tying up all of the storylines.

Nemescu’s film is strong enough that it can be considered genuinely unfortunate that his career has been cut so short. He creates some fine visual moments, here, despite a general predilection for realism. California Dreamin’ (Endless) ultimately reveals itself as a surprisingly ambitious debut. Although it starts out taking cheap shots at its characters, it cannot be accused of this by the end of its runtime. By the time the caustic ending unfolds, Nemescu has presented both a world-weary outlook toward the country’s complicated past and an almost startling role-reversal in which the Americans, and not the Romanians, are revealed to be the naïve ones. There’s no doubt that California Dreamin’ (Endless) could do with some editing (indeed, the parenthetical in the title refers to its unshaped state), but there’s just as little doubt that Nemescu’s work is pretty worthy as is. When a foreign film this accomplished strikes you as somewhat second rate, you can definitely take it as a sign of a healthy national cinema.

Rating: 58/100

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Buzz In Action

Less than two hours ago, individual tickets for Galas and Special Presentations went on sale. Individual tickets for popular films always go fast at Toronto, and there's been a flurry of sell outs already. Here's what's already gone:

Rendition (Gavin Hood)
[Starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep]

Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy)
[Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton]

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
[Starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel]

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Shekhar Kapur)
[Starring Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, Geoffrey Rush]

The Jane Austen Book Club (Robin Swicord)
[Starring Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Hugh Dancy]

Sleuth (Kenneth Branagh)
[Starring Michael Caine, Jude Law]

Across The Universe (Julie Taymor)
[Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess]

Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen)
[Starring Ewan MacGregor, Colin Farrell, Tom Wilkinson]

Cleaner (Renny Harlin)
[Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Ed Harris]

Reservation Road (Terry George)
[Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino]

The Walker (Paul Schrader)
[Starring Woody Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Ned Beatty]

Closing The Ring (Richard Attenborough)
[Starring Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Mischa Barton, Gregory Smith]

These films, which will mostly be out before the end of the year, are hot enough that people are ponying up $37.50 for the opportunity to see them early. These are the sort of movies that I generally skip myself in Toronto, since my tastes tend toward to the obscure, but it's always interesting to see what the public-at-large is eager to check out.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The rest of the slate...

Today's announcement finalized this year's TIFF slate. After last week's 73-film blowout, anything would likely seem underwhelming. The most recent slate certainly didn't wow me. Added were two by Wayne Wang, a new film from Michael Moore, Demme's Jimmy Carter documentary, and the latest from De Palma, Zia, Sachs, & Lumet (each of which were already confirmed for the New York Film Festival) . Surely each of these movies has their audience, but I'm hardly dying to see any of them at TIFF.

The most pleasant surprise, from my perspective, was Wang Bing's 184-minute Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, which will certainly present some scheduling challenges, should I choose to see it.

I'm hardly complaining, though, narrowing the existing list down to the 50-odd films I'll watch will be a daunting task.

Flash Point (Wilson Yip, 2007)

While watching the flurry of nigh-incomprehensible cuts in the fight scenes of Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum, I worried that the prevailing trends toward hyperkinetic editing might mean that the days of impressive chop-socky choreography were on the wane. Luckily, Wilson Yip’s Flash Point shows that that’s not yet the case in the world of HK action films, where more restrained filmmaking and more impressive athletics still reign and entertain. Near the start of Flash Point, which stars Donnie Yen as a police officer who has irked Internal Affairs because he’s too rough on criminals, we’re shown a scene in which his character is reprimanded for his rough handling of a felon. He’s threatened with suspension if he doesn’t tone down his brutal behavior. He grudgingly complies, and as a result much of Flash Point’s run time is spent waiting for him to snap. It takes about two-thirds of the film’s length for it to happen, but when a bad guy injures a child, Yen finally goes ballistic, unleashing a flurry of violence in time to salvage the film somewhat.

Set in Hong Kong before the 1997 Handover, Flash Point is strikingly shot, even before the fighting begins. Yip employs a bright color palette and a strong sense of humor throughout, making the wait for the action less painful that it otherwise might have been. Nonetheless, there’s far too much in the way of routine characterization here. Eyes will likely glaze over during the densely plotted first hour, in which a romantic subplot, and some unintriguing undercover intrigue are deployed to little effect. In many respects Flash Point is the same film as Yip’s SPL, which also starred Donnie Yen, although the Yen’s mixed-style fighting doesn’t quite have the same impact here as it did there.

Still, the final half hour the film is not exactly disappointing. Beginning with a bloody fight inside an elevator, the final act of Flash Point features a series of inventive, well-choreographed set pieces. Once the movie kicks into high gear, it rarely lets up. The face-offs are filled with brutal limb-busting. Even the gunplay is more kinetic than usual. Perhaps the most impressive displays of athletics are showcased during the training clips that accompany the closing credits, though. Ultimately, Flash Point is a solid if unspectacular entry in the Hong Kong action genre. Fans of the genre will likely leave it satisfied, although it's not as likely that they’ll feel satisfied the whole time they're watching.

Rating: 49 / 100

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Schindler’s Houses (Heinz Emigholz, 2007)

A filmic study of Rudolf M. Schindler’s Modern American architecture, Heinz Emigholz’s Schindler’s Houses delivers exactly what the title promises. Filmed in 2006, the work looks at a series of 40 houses built in during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Although the buildings themselves are generally well-preserved, it’s apparent that the environments in which they were built have radically changed. The visual representation of this reality is one of the film’s prime pleasures. In many cases, Schindler’s clean designs and minimalist aesthetics have been plunged into the chaos of modern life. This is made most apparent in the establishing shots that introduce each house. As the camera cuts and delves inward with each subsequent shot, the viewer is made to understand the homes as a sanctuary from the busy exterior world.

After a brief opening voiceover, in which the director opines on the merits of ascribing ownership to a piece of art that has to also function in the real world, the film's soundtrack is comprised only of the ambient noises of the environments in which the houses are found. Emigholz’s editing strategy is snappier than one might expect to find in a landscape film. The images flit by relatively quickly, usually spending between five and ten seconds on the screen before giving way to the next. While the steady rhythm that Emigholz sets rarely changes, it provides less than adequate time to appreciate many of the details of these structures. Perhaps the director’s approach is necessary, since 40 houses are looked at in a period just under two hours long, but it makes the film less contemplative than intellectually stimulating. With each new shot, angles and perspectives are shifted, requiring viewers to reorient themselves. The movement of the camera from one setup to the next conspires to give the viewer a sense of the flow of the surveyed spaces, even though the camera itself remains static while filming.

Avant-garde filmmaking at its best provides viewers with new ways of seeing the world around them. When a camera lingers on an object that our eyes might normally flit past, it has the effect of focusing our attention and encouraging meditation. Emigholz’s spotlight on Schindler’s work in this film (the 12th in the director's twenty-five chapter Photography and Beyond series) continually questions the relationship of functional art to the environment in which it is used, while paying due respect to Schindler’s achievements. Although sightings of humans are rare in this piece, they haven’t been banished from the screen. At one point, we see a repairman repainting a doorway in one of Emigholz’s creations. At another we see none other than filmmaker Thom Andersen working at a desk. The reference is not exactly flattering to Andersen, whose own landscape documentary, 2003’s Los Angeles Plays Itself was a far more ingratiating and pandering examination of the Los Angeles landscape than Emigholz’s latest.

Rating: 55/100