Friday, September 09, 2011

TIFF - Day 1

Slow Action (Ben Rivers)

Kicking off my TIFF festival nicely was Ben Rivers’ Slow Action. A mock ethnographic documentary, the film is a strong test case in cinema’s ability to make images suggestive through mere context. For much of the run time here, we’re faced with landscapes of four imaginary “utopian” islands that don’t really exist as an amusingly deadpan narrator describes the cultures of the supposed indigenous people. It takes a force of imagination to will these people into existence, a feat somewhat assisted by the absurdity of the cultures, each of which seems to spring from an unearthed Baron Munchhausen tale (my favorite were the Elevenians, who worship holograms and communicate through trigonometry). The viewer is placed in a curious double-bind that lays bare the ethics of any such study. If we dismiss these absurd cultures we’re guilty of ethnocentrism. If we buy into the patently false claims of the narrators, we are being naïve. As the film unfurls, the ideal of a utopia becomes increasingly troubled, abstract, and subjective. Funny too.

Rating 64/100

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

This documentary about the morality of the death penalty struck me as being shockingly mundane, especially given its unusually-colorful director. Examining a triple homicide that is so bland it might have been picked for its sheer banality (to better shift the issue into focus), the film takes the form of an extended case-study. In practice, this means a work that is largely comprised of a series of interviews with the perpetrators, the victims’ families, and relevant law enforcement officials. Herzog’s style is functional at best, not markedly more accomplished than the police crime scene video he sometimes incorporates into the montage. One can surely read autuerist themes into the senselessness of the murders, I suppose, but I imagine one could do that for most any murder.

As a film about a controversial issue, it might flounder even more. Herzog adopts an emphatically anti-death penalty stance and largely refuses any other viewpoint. As such, there’s no particular moral development and little self-reflection (the director’s infamous voiceover is sorely missed here, replaced by bland on-screen text). The information that we receive as the film plays out does little to illuminate or challenge any preconceived stance the viewer might have on the issue. Sins of the father? Check. Victims of socioeconomic circumstance? Check. Tasteful emotional appeals from just about everyone? Check. Herzog, for his part, is respectful of his interviewees, almost to a fault, except when he relies on their local color to provide an easy laugh or two.

Rating: 39/100

From Up On Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki)

I have seen a few complaints that Studio Ghibli’s Arietty was a bit too down to earth to justify an animated treatment. Compared to the nostalgic and entirely realistic From Up on Poppy Hill, Arietty is downright surreal. Set in a glorified early 1960s Japan, the film involves the early romantic stirrings and political activism of a young girl, Umi. Umi’s questions about her family history are played out against larger concerns about Japan’s history, as much of the plot involves a bureaucratic decision to tear down a student center housed in an old building. Things are charming, as one would expect from a Ghibli production, and characters exude an infectious can-do spirit. Still, it would be disingenuous to fail to point out how predictable the film was. The second half of the film briefly threatens to shake things up by delving into bizarre territory, raising the specter of incest as Umi’s sexuality begins to emerge. Before long, however, Miyazaki has completely removed any complications from the scenario and the film ends up feeling overly idealized as a result. Essentially a mix of Only Yesterday and Kiki’s Delivery Service, but less enchanting than either. The few grace notes (e.g. a silverfish scurries by as Umi goes into the boys’ clubhouse for the first time) are the highlight here, but compared to the studio’s general output, this offers only minor pleasures.

Rating: 41/100

The Raid (Gareth Evans)

The impressive Indonesian film The Raid opens with a shot of a gun and a ticking watch, giving the impression that it will be something of a thriller. Instead, it’s a full-out action epic, with what is probably the best martial arts fight scenes seen on screen in the last few years. With a slim plot that seems entirely remake-ready, the film charges headlong into a series of elaborately choreographed face-offs between a SWAT team who are invading a kingpin’s illicit apartment building and the junkies and thugs who live there. Director Evans goes for the visceral here, emphasizing the brutality of each hit and frequently focusing on gory outcomes of fights. The film seems to alternate between flat out rumbles (many of which approach Romper Stomper's climax in scale and intensity) and more suspenseful moments. The latter are somewhat less successful, as is a decision to put a trio of extended dialogue scenes in the film’s back half, but this is undeniably kinetic and definitely the work of a filmmaker with incredible action chops.

Rating: 66/100

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