Saturday, September 10, 2011

TIFF - Day 2

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Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (Rithy Panh)

This documentary about a Cambodian Communist who oversaw the deaths of over 12,000 citizens during the Khmer Rouge genocide is important and powerful if somewhat diluted by its run time. The film opens with a Pol Pot speech playing out over a montage of documentary footage, but what follows is largely a single extended interview with the titular Comrade Duch. Over three decades after he oversaw an unfathomable atrocity, he’s mellowed into a startlingly reflective, soft-spoken old man. As such, the movie comes across at times as offering him a platform for his apologies and justifications. This would be immoral, to be sure, and Panh by allowing the man to speak allows him to largely indict himself. When he reveals that he’s converted to Christianity because it offers the hope of forgiveness, the reaction is one of disbelief. Panh doesn’t rub our noses in the horrors, offering only scattered images that he intercuts infrequently throughout the interviews and a few recreations of the torture methods used. These are appropriate, as Duch’s key role was one of education, instructing and brainwashing children in the ways of effective torture. Absolutely startling and gut-wrenching at times, yet somewhat tempered by the sheer scope of the genocide it’s trying to portray. The second hour of the film, which shows Duch poring over reams and reams of meticulously kept records about the actions at S21, where he was head, grow somewhat numbing after a while. Like those records, this is an important historical document, no doubt, but as cinema I think it’s held to an even higher standard.

Rating: 52/100

whiteonwhite:algorithimicnoir (Eve Sussman)

My review of this will on some level be useless to anyone else, as this algorithmically generated film will be different for anyone who watches it in the future. In it, a series of over 3000 film clips and voice over recordings are shuffled together, resulting in an international detective movie that never resolves itself into a coherent narrative. For me, this is less troubling than it might sound, as I can scarcely follow the intricacies of the plotting in your average Bourne movie. For those less likely to tune out plotting, I expect Sussman’s experiment will still have plenty to offer. Her exercise puts the generic in genre, showing how coded the experience of watching spy movie is in the first place. The cool, professionally shot images each evoke something just out of reach. Also visible, on a side screen in the installation are the code commands that call up the random clips. With metatags like “walking” “anxiety” “phone” and “writing”, several things become obvious. First, most films could be broken down so vaguely and incorporated into this mix. Second, the ability of voiceover narration to tie images together is never to be underestimated. Third, the establishing shots, which come between voiceover segments are nearly as potent as the dialogue in creating the impression that this randomness is building toward something. Ultimately fascinating (I could happily spend a few more hours with it) and a true testament to theorist Lev Manovich’s assertion that in the digital age the interface programmer might supplant the director as the leading creative force in cinema.

Rating: n/a (but awesome)

Restless (Gus Van Sant)

As twee and unsufferable as the reviews from Cannes suggested (certainly can’t blame high expectations this time), this emo teen romance is actively annoying instead of affecting. Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska play two too-cute teens with a morbid fascination with death. The question of how young adults handle death when it rears its head is potentially fascinating (see Elephant), but the treatment here insists that they do so by retreating further into childhood. As such, Restless is an endless series of scenes in which the two doomed young lovers play act (pretending to meet his dead parents at their grave), trick-or-treat, attend children’s sporting events, and so on. Sincerity itself is not a problem, but the terrible dialogue that is peppered throughout this script (“I like your cracker house” is her first pick-up line; the moral?: “death is easy, love is hard”) simply cannot be taken seriously. Van Sant should be ashamed, really. Harris Savides’ photography is the lone saving grace.

Rating: 28/100

Keyhole (Guy Maddin)

You might have a general sense of what to expect from Guy Maddin at this point, yet he’s a consummate risk-taker at the same time. His sexualized homages to film genres of old always walk a high-wire act between absurdity and inspiration. It’s my sad duty to report that for the first time in over a decade, he hasn’t pulled off one of his stunts. Keyhole starts promisingly as a mix of gangster film, old dark house thriller and paean to Homer’s Odyssey. The opening hail of literal machine-gun montage truly impresses, but sets the stage for a movie that entirely fails to live up to any expectations it creates. All of Keyhole takes place in one very ornate house, as Ulysses (Jason Patric) must ascend to his wife’s bedroom to reclaim her. The reference to Homer’s poem is obvious, but it still scarcely makes sense given that the film that follows takes place in a blatantly non-Homeric (though very homoerotic) fashion. Psychobabble is made literal, as the house is filled with ghosts who Ulysses must overcome to reclaim his mate. Cocks grow out of walls and the golden fleece is none other than a patch of pubes. The climax sees the characters literally regressing their home to an earlier state. This all sounds stupid and perhaps vaguely chuckle-worthy, I’m sure, but in practice it’s dreary. The tone of the film is monotonous and repetitive, and Maddin’s trademark playfulness is in generally short supply. There were a few clever moments, I suppose, and Maddin has a real ear of classic gangster talk, but this was a massive disappointment that I can’t imagine pleasing much of anyone.

Rating: 33/100

Good Bye (Mohammed Rasoulof)

While Rasoulof’s recent political persecution makes Good Bye a particularly brave film to make, it is somewhat less powerful than it could be. Telling the story of a woman who chooses to have a child because it will increase her chances of obtaining a visa to flee Iran, the film invokes comparison to the work of the Dardenne brothers. Like a mix of La Promesse and Lorna’s Silence, Good Bye focuses on transactional detail to the extent that the heroine’s pregnancy becomes another bargaining chip. Unfortunately, the comparison does Rasoulof few favors. While he mixes up the typical Iranian style somewhat with tight compositions and an expressively dark lighting scheme, his predilection for long takes (as opposed to the Dardennes’ jump cuts) makes the film a slog where it should be suspenseful. With the exception of one virtuoso shot that sees an apartment raid grow increasingly horrible and absurd, it seemed that Rasoluf would have benefitted from tighter editing. Coupled with a narrative structure that senselessly withholds key information from us, the film feels like an odd mix of art house film and thriller. Another problem lies with Leyla Zareh’s lead performance, which is too withdrawn for this type of film. I can’t tell if Rasoulof was after cultural verisimilitude (here’s where I profess to having no knowledge of how women in Iran act) or what, but she gives us too little (as opposed to, say, Lorna’s frequent histrionics). If this sounds harsh, rest assured that this is an extremely solid and detail oriented political film. It just seems a few snips from greatness.

Rating: 57/100

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