Sunday, December 14, 2014

Embarrassment of riches?

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2004)
On May 28th, 11 films opened commercially in Toronto, which I’d categorize as a mixed blessing. The Day after Tomorrow, Soul Plane and Raising Helen could take care of themselves, but the others were all niche pictures, and I seriously doubt you can tend to that many niches all at once. Some of the films had at least had their trailers playing regularly over the preceding month or more, but to the best of my knowledge Love Me if you Dare, for instance, just appeared out of nowhere. That weekend I went to see the four films dealt with below (I’d already seen, and written about, Young Adam at last year’s film festival), and the audiences were meagre in each case. But I know that even at this pace, many fine films remain unreleased here (just look at The New York Times’ listings on any given weekend), and I’m intensely grateful for places like the Carlton and Canada Square and the Cumberland. I just fear for their future, if the commercial releasing machine continues to treat its materials so haphazardly. During the film festival, we consistently sell out 9 am showings of crappy movies that no one’s ever heard of. Couldn’t we do slightly better at translating that commitment to the rest of the year?
Alexandra’s Project
Australian director Rolf de Heer’s project shows how an unhappy wife turns the tables on her self-regarding husband: on his birthday, arriving home expecting a surprise party, he finds himself alone and locked in, with only a video tape for company. Initially it looks like a titillating gag, but we know better – the only question is how bad it’s going to get. It’s essentially a two-handed film, with the additional handicap that the two actors barely appear in the same room, but it’s effectively creepy. And although de Heer may not quite be the David Mamet of Oleanna, he does a fair job of sewing ambiguity about which of the two is most unsympathetic – the root cause is certainly the husband’s complacency, but the movie establishes pretty clearly that he’s an Australian archetype, and her revenge may well seem disproportionate. It’s the kind of movie that will drive some to feel they need a bath, while leaving others more productively musing on the perils of sexuality. The ultimate neatness of the resolution, unfortunately, tends to emphasize the film’s contrivances over its politics.
This Irish tale of multiple overlapping storylines might almost be trying to be an Irish Pulp Fiction – it has the low life glamour, the shifts of perspective, the eruptions of violence, the colourful profanity – but seems oddly muted and lacking in real commitment (it might be a sad comment on how sleazy this urban genre has lately become that Intermission seems disconcertingly mild at times). Some of the strands – such as the self-mythologizing cop being trailed around by a director of fluffy TV shows who’s looking to expand into tougher material – are entirely bewildering; others have a real sweetness, but of a very familiar kind. Colin Farrell is the best-known cast member, but his presence doesn’t provide much of a lift. It’s always entertaining, but that’s more a matter of momentum than anything else – the fact that it concludes on a note of childish payback seems like the final evidence of its shallow purpose.
Jeux d’enfants
Released here as Love Me if you Dare, this French film by Yann Samuel is being marketed as a romantic Amelie clone (on the Internet Movie Database you can find a bizarre message board argument about whether or not the two films were directed by the same person). The premise sounds romantic enough: a boy and girl fall into a never ending game of ever-increasing dares, and of course their escalating attempts to humiliate each other hide their intense mutual attraction. The movie acknowledges early on that there’s a perversity to how they stick with this project, and that’s putting it mildly – by any rational standard, we’re watching two sick people engaged in monstrously sado-masochistic displacement. If you doubt this, wait for the ending, which I won’t reveal here, but which could well make you vomit and swoon simultaneously. This all surely drastically undermines the movie’s popcorn credentials, and although the picture has visual panache, it’s more sporadic in this regard than Amelie was. The leads Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard (who played Billy Crudup’s wife in Big Fish) are also slightly nondescript. On the whole though, if Jeux d’enfants were an entry in David Letterman’s “Is That Anything?” segment, I would have to declare with some confidence that it’s certainly, uh, something. 
Crimson Gold
The strongest of the four films dealt with here, Jafar Panahi’s Iranian film (written by Abbas Kiarostami) starts with a pizza delivery man shooting himself dead in the wake of a jewelry store robbery gone wrong, and then shows some of the events that brought him there. Several writers compared the film to Taxi Driver, and others evoked film noir more generally. These echoes (I don’t know whether they’re conscious influences) are there for sure in the detailed portrayal of a troubled psyche (a war veteran, bloated and seemingly slowed down from the effects of the medication he’s taking for an unspecified injury) slowly drowning in an urban landscape. But this is a specifically Iranian film, crafting a devastating portrayal of how that evolving society shuts out the figures on the margins. The streets of Tehran, as seen here, are crowded and unprepossessing, but behind the walls the film shows substantial wealth, and an increasing tolerant secularism (going hand in hand with Western-style neurosis) in personal behaviour.
The deliveryman’s exclusion from this circle – symbolized in particular by the jeweler’s condescension – sets the stage for his disintegration, but it’s not a simple matter of class hatred. The film’s at pains to show how he’s treated sympathetically at most stops, and thus attains a power beyond polemic, showing how subtle evolutions in the social fabric generate winners and losers with an inevitability that’s beyond easy solutions. Perhaps the film’s most disconcerting facet is the character’s stillness and fatalist stolidity, as if he knew his fate (just as the audience does from the first scene) and was just waiting to see how he’ll get there. It’s in this sense that the comparison to film noir seems most astute, although – in another of the film’s fascinating strands – Crimson Gold’s illustration of the country’s attitudes towards women suggests some distance to go until the attainment of a Stanwyck or Joan Crawford, or even a Marion Cotillard. On the whole, Panahi’s film is yet another highpoint in Iranian cinema’s incredible 15-year run.

Although I guess three out of four of those reviews might be termed “mixed,” readers will probably have realized by now that I’ll put constructively engaged disagreement ahead of easy approval any day. So I’d call that a great movie weekend. And I didn’t even see The Rage in Placid Lake or Superstar in a Housedress or Goldilocks.

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