Sunday, August 24, 2014

2009 Toronto Film Festival Report - Part 6

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2009)

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)

This won the Palme d’or at Cannes this year, and it’s a rare year when I don’t think much of anyone disparaged the choice. Haneke is a stern taskmaster, sometimes giving the sense that he intends his films as strong medicine for our fuzzyheaded engagement with history, culture and the world. His best known film Funny Games is a violent drama about a bourgeois family disrupted by thugs, designed both to masterfully push your easy-response buttons and to shame you at your capitulation; recently he remade his Austrian original for Hollywood, which might theoretically have led the project a greater heart-of-the-beast resonance, but instead just seemed rather forlorn. Sometimes, as in The Piano Teacher perhaps, the films’ shudder value tends to overshadow all else, but Cache and Code Unknown, among others, are superbly original, multi-faceted examinations of our modern condition.

The White Ribbon is one of his most mesmerizing works, although at face value one of the more conventional viewing experiences. In 1917, a small German village starts to experience an unsettling series of strange accidents, tragedies and brutalities; some of them explicable, others not. The community has few reference points beyond its own boundaries: much of the commerce flows from the local baron, whose feudal presence reigns over everything; the church goes unchallenged; marriages are still negotiated through the parents. Beneath this of course, much is hidden, but Haneke (who shoots the film in pristine, awesomely controlled black and white) is extraordinarily subtle in what he reveals. His narrator, the local schoolteacher, invites us at the start to read the narrative as a contribution to understanding events that later happened in the country, but for example there’s no anti-Semitism or explicit signposts toward subsequent complicity. The film depicts both benevolence and malignity; ultimately one can grab at Haneke’s masterfully arranged threads and ambiguities and come away with a feeling of closure and compartmentalization, or else conclude that almost nothing has been resolved or mitigated. In this sense, the film brilliantly evokes the tangle of perspectives, from certainty (even if hypocritical and manufactured) to despairing, that underlie war, or indeed any national purpose.

The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh is surely one of the luckiest of all directors, approaching filmmaking as (in Orson Welles’ phrase) the biggest train set a boy ever had; sufficiently connected to get financing for movies representing little more than whims; a fast enough worker that there’s always something new in the pipeline to distract from recent under-achievements (already this year he’s released the highly impressive, brave Che and the lightly provocative The Girlfriend Experience). If there’s a connecting theme to his work, it might be an interest in networks of control and idealism, an admittedly big tent notion accommodating tales of scrappy underdogs like Erin Brockovich, grim social analyses such as Traffic, or even the precision-engineered Ocean’s 11 narratives. You can fit The Informant! – which has already opened commercially (I actually saw it after the festival) - in there too. In the early 90’s, a high-ranking but (let’s say) flaky corporate executive spies on his colleagues for the FBI, collecting evidence on price-fixing schemes, naively believing he’ll be lauded as a crusading hero and his rise within the company will continue unchecked; well, it doesn’t turn out that way.

Soderbergh shoots the movie in a brisk off-the-cuff style, rather mysteriously plucking some stylistic elements from the 70’s; it’s being marketed as a comedy, although the extent to which it’s relatively light might also be a measure of its toothlessness. Ultimately it’s a moderately interesting narrative and main character, but a flat piece of work overall, not leaving you with much to ponder afterwards. Maybe Soderbergh just makes it too easy to reach for this analysis, but beyond settling on a few broad-brush strategies and gimmicks, you wonder whether the material ever received his sufficient creative investment.

Bright Star (Jane Campion)

Campion’s first film in six years continues her interest in feminine self-determination and sexuality, but without any of the provocations of The Piano and In the Cut; it’s an immensely surprising and moving work (also now playing commercially – I saw this afterwards too). It chronicles the brief 19th century romance of poet John Keats and seamstress Fanny Brawne, and even though the film is Campion’s most delicate and ethereal, it might also ultimately be her most intense (in the same kind of way that Scorsese claimed at the time, perhaps a bit over-conceptually, that The Age of Innocence was his most violent work). Between Keats’ physical weakness, Brawne’s lack of worldliness, and the constraints of the times, there’s barely a hint of sexuality; it’s as if they channeled all their possibility into the creation of a shared sensibility, a heightened sensation of the present moment (“as if I was dissolving,” as Keats puts it). Campion’s finesse is dazzling, retaining objectivity while allowing full rein to the expressive possibilities of butterflies, cats and English lawns.

At the start of the narrative, Brawne is something of a fashion innovator, and more economically successful than Keats, but this seems to dissipate as the film goes on, suggesting the inherently regressive aspects of a great love. The frequent discussion of financial constraints, and the character of Keats’ much more grounded and rough-edged best friend dispel any sense that the film can only idealize creativity (one of its most charming elements is Brawne’s failure to grasp much of Keats’ work); yet in the end it’s as blissful a work of commemoration as you can imagine. The entire cast is ideal, but Abbie Cornish is particularly exquisite as Fanny.

And Overall…

Well, as always, I can only comment on my own little piece of it, but I had a good Festival. My test for that is pretty straightforward – it means I saw far more good movies than bad, and the scheduling fell nicely into place (nowadays I don’t really like to see more than a couple of movies a day, and I also like to confine it mostly to the daytime, so you see I operate under self-imposed constraints). Among my greatest pleasures: Les herbes folles, Hadewijch, Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot, The White Ribbon and perhaps most of all Claire Denis’ White Material. Enter the Void wins a pennant for unduly occupying your mind once it’s over.

I saw no celebrities, went to no parties or other events…just saw mostly foreign movies, and made sure still to get my exercise and not to let my diet slip (that’s the Dr. Jack prescription for healthy movie going folks). The higher-profile side of it seemed like the usual mixed bag: George Clooney obviously nailed every step, but Megan Fox’s

Jennifer’s Body was the emblematic example of a movie with immense festival heat, but leaving barely a footprint in the world thereafter. And where did all the buzz go during the last four days anyway? Talk about excessive front-loading. And as I wrote earlier, the Festival didn’t deserve all that nonsense about its Tel Aviv tribute. Still, that all fell safely into the no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity quadrant. Overall, seemed like a hit to me!

Friday, August 15, 2014

2009 Toronto Film Festival Report - Part 5

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2009)

White Material (Claire Denis)

Denis is plausibly having the best current run of any European director – L’intrus was almost overwhelmingly evocative and complex, and Vendredi soir and 35 rhums are the most beautiful miniatures you’ll ever find (most damagingly for Toronto’s reputation as a promised land of cinema, none of these received a regular release here). She tells great, vibrant stories, but isn’t at all constrained by conventional notions of structure or pacing or narrative linkage. Her movies aren’t merely jigsaws though, like so many now, in which the temporal jumble eventually reveals an essentially simple concoction; it’s rather that she thrives on possibility and inter-connection, and simultaneously hears the displaced butterfly as clearly as the oncoming train. She’s portrayed Africa before (she grew up there), and returns now to depict the last days of a white-owned coffee plantation, as an unnamed country swallows itself up in blood and lawlessness. Isabelle Huppert plays the operation’s main engine, refusing to acknowledge danger, pushing grimly on while the rest of the family plots to get out or simply loses its bearings.

This is grandly suited to Denis’ immense strengths: every detail of the family’s existence embodies a differentiation that’s historically unfair at its core, and yet they now embody continuity and tendering and economic contribution where the social movement only brings waste and pillage; the mournfully beautiful African spaces have never appeared so intensely menacing and unknowable (the title indicates how the family finds itself increasingly dehumanized, less participants in events than historically-charged chattels, and existentially periled by the knowledge that if expelled from this country, they have no natural home now in mainland France). Denis’ film has no imposed speechifying, but bakes the tensions into its very core; it’s a million miles removed from movies that complacently deny Africans their own stories by focusing on a white protagonist, because the traumatic transition depicted here is so resonant as a portrait of broader historical legacies strained beyond sustainability. As always with Denis, the flow of images – immensely evocative of the lived-in reality while uncannily lighting up the thematic layers below – is peerless.

Soul Kitchen (Fatih Akin)

Akin’s The Edge Of Heaven was one of the stronger recent examples of the jigsaw storytelling technique you see everywhere now, but the constant reliance on coincidence rather wore out my welcome for it, particularly compared to his brilliant, scalding breakthrough Head-On. Akin is German, of Turkish ancestry, and his films keep a boot in both cultures; he’s at the vanguard of the new Zeitgeist-busting European cinema that burns across borders and genres. The new film’s title suggests an explicit American influence, also evident in the movie’s brassy title design and music score; to be honest though, the movie feels most American in its relative simplicity and lack of ambition. The central character is Greek this time, running a greasy spoon type restaurant in a flavourfully renovated Hamburg waterfront space; when he upgrades the menu with the help of a highly-strung chef, the schnitzel-loving clientele deserts him, until he catches a new wave and becomes the hottest spot in town. He’s also helping out his petty criminal brother, trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with a more bourgeois woman, and fending off a scheming developer with designs on the property.

Nothing about the way this plays out is remotely surprising – the American remake can proceed apace with just the most minimal script tweaks – but Akin keeps it vibrantly buzzing along, cooking up a good overall aroma. The movie doesn’t push the point, but makes it clear that the spine of German society (the easy money and the sense of entitlement) still belongs with the old stock; for immigrant cultures it’s a tougher climb, which is not to say it can’t be done. Without any mention of the economic crisis though, the movie’s vision of entrepreneurism already seems a little abstract: aren’t those new-gourmet restaurants, full of young arty types, a prime symbol of an unsustainable bubble?

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Werner Herzog)

There was a time when Herzog was a crown prince of art cinema, prodigiously generating varied chronicles of extremity, benefiting immensely from the copious legends of his personal fearlessness and eccentricity. He lost his mojo somewhere in the 80’s but regained it a bit with the documentaries Grizzly Man and the Oscar-nominated Encounters At The End Of The World, and now he turns up at the festival with two new fiction films! Bad Lieutenant, which I left for later, is by all accounts the better of the two. This other is a thin work, a psychological suspenser of sorts about a man who loses his marbles, kills his mother, and holes up in his house with two hostages; detective Willem Dafoe pieces together the back-story. Judged as a genre exercise, it’s quite slapdash and underdeveloped; seen as an examination of (let’s say) esoteric behavior, it’s largely arbitrary and opaque.

Unless, that is, one muses (as many have) on David Lynch’s credit as executive producer, perhaps suggesting a rare bastard child of mismatched auteurs. Sometimes the movie definitely seems like it’s working toward a Lynch-like mythology (what do all those ostriches mean?). But although it has an occasional Lynch-like lack of naturalism, it has none of his depth of texture or complexity of behavior – Lynch wouldn’t even allow a home movie of his to come out so visually and aurally flat – so I guess we should take his involvement as a tease. Anyway, it’s not saying much for Herzog’s latter-day skills when the very possibility of someone else’s vague contribution to his movie is more interesting than what he brought to it himself.

Face (Tsai Ming-Liang)

Another tale of decline…Tsai has made some wonderful, revelatory films about alienated Taiwanese youth, gradually developing a distinctive set of personal codes: dank and often flooded interiors; ornate musical inserts, their bright sentiments contrasting ironically with the grim surrounding reality; fish tanks; mysterious, furtive encounters. This was once thrilling as both style and content, but increasingly feels either like a narrow variation on ground already traveled, or else like a questionable variation to expand his range. Face is a bit of both, meshing his familiar iconography with a vague chronicle of a Taiwanese director making a film of Salome in Paris; the film explicitly pays tribute to Francois Truffaut, casting key actors from his life and career such as Jean-Pierre Leaud and Fanny Ardant. The Festival program book calls it Tsai’s “most stylistically inventive work to date” and says it’s about “how images can function as both facades and works of art.” Well, maybe so, but there’s hardly anything inherently revelatory in that subject, and while the invention is sometimes quite mesmerizing (the book correctly cites a remarkable climactic dance sequence), at other times it’s barely distinguishable from visual and thematic gibberish. Sadly, watching Tsai’s films now almost feels like a chore.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

2009 Toronto Film Festival Report - Part 4

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2009)

Life during Wartime (Todd Solondz)

Solondz’ film is a continuation of his earlier Happiness, with the same characters but different actors; since there can’t be much of anyone around who still gives a damn about Happiness, the very concept drips with both self-regard and desperation. Some of the greatest directors alive clearly draw on a relatively narrow vein of experience and/or preoccupation, and so does Solondz, except you get the sense his experience is all based in a conventionally miserable childhood and his preoccupations all revolve around snide fantasies of getting even. Therefore the most appealing characters here are merely unfulfilled and pathetic; the rest of them are sexual deviants, or at least suspected of it. The comedy turns on (for example) a lonely mother telling her 12-year-old son how her new lover made her wet, or on the son calling her a bitch, or on Allison Janney’s bare breasts (or perhaps that was meant to be gritty, I don’t know). Maybe that makes it sound entertaining, and I won’t deny this snotty stare of a film doesn’t carry a certain fascination, but among so much great work at this year’s festival, it’s a nothing. The closing insight is that “in the end China will take over and none of this will matter,” but as far as the content of Solondz’ film is in question, we need hardly wait that long.

Le refuge (Francois Ozon)

Ozon’s films put you in mind of short stories rather than novels: literally because they’re usually fairly brief, but more broadly because they tend to focus on a few characters and on a bet-the-house structuring premise that might either break new ground or else flounder embarrassingly. I loved his 5 X 2 (the break-up of a marriage told in five reverse-order sequences), but his most famous film The Swimming Pool squandered its dazzling fabric on a tired meta-reality premise; his last movie Ricky, about a boy born with wings, was generally regarded as a bust, and certainly sounds like it. In The Refuge, after her boyfriend died of an overdose, a young woman retreats to a borrowed beach house, where the dead man’s brother comes to visit her. Ozon is always good with actors, and there’s a typically alluring air to the interactions here. It’s all about the ending though, a double whammy representing I believe her delayed waking from shock and self-absorption and reemergence into the possibility of meaningful (which is to say, messy) interactions, where she defines herself rather than having other things (men, drugs, pregnancy) do it for her. It may be largely subjective whether this strikes you as a brilliant psychological coup, or rather as one of those only-in-the-movies elevations of bizarre or perverse behavior. It’s reasonably stimulating as such, but unfortunately it does increasingly seem to me that Ozon’s movies – for all their qualities - basically just aren’t that necessary or important. A nice throwaway moment here seems momentarily to be taking the movie into Eric Rohmer territory, before categorically veering away again.

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe)

In the church of cinema, Noe is a raving new-age prophet; shunned by most, perhaps blindly adored by some, but then who knows how much comparison-shopping they’ve carried out? His last film Irreversible remains notorious for its brutal extended rape sequence, although I also recall its final love scene as being surprisingly tender. The movie was structured in reverse chronological order (like Ozon’s 5 X 2…any more of this and it’ll be old hat) and Enter the Void sets out to raise the conceptual stakes in a couple of ways. It’s told mostly from its main character’s subjective perspective – we view everything in the movie through his eyes or else from a point behind his head, clearly seeing his face only when he looks into the mirror. Oh, and for most of the time, he’s already dead, so we’re actually tracking his spirit, or his continuing essence, or however you’d put it.

The character is a young American drug dealer living in Tokyo, living with his stripper sister; he’s shot early on during a police raid, and the movie then tracks the event’s present-day aftermath while also flashing back to illustrate their tragic upbringing. It’s a very Oedipal creation: Noe recreates a primal scene of the kid walking in on his parents, the relationship between the siblings has incestuous undertones, and there’s a recurring image of sucking on the breast. Virtually all the characters are sad spectacles of one kind or another, adding to an overwhelming feeling of trauma and turmoil. It doesn’t feel like anything you’ve ever seen before – the camera swoops into abstraction and murkiness before clawing onto something recognizable, then gets pulled away again, at times effectively suggesting a tortured, disembodied consciousness perpetually fighting its way out of the darkness.

At times it’s most engrossing, but you’ve mostly got the idea after an hour or so, and then it goes on for ninety minutes more, becoming increasingly familiar and repetitive in its rhythms. I’ve seen it compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey – one of Noe’s characters refers to death as “the ultimate trip,” the same phrase used to advertise Kubrick’s film in one of its re-releases – but Noe’s merry digital splattering doesn’t feel remotely like Kubrick. On the other hand, Enter the Void is indeed probably best enjoyed as sensual abstraction: the narration is just familiar sleaze (its complete lack of distinction is actually rather surprising), and the metaphysics make no more sense than a viewer might choose to find in them.

Honeymoons (Goran Paskaljevic)

This movie left me almost more heated up than I could bear. Ironically titled to say the least, it has two separate but complementary stories of young couples – one Albanian, the other Serbian – seeking to enter Europe, their progress stalled in each case by suspicion and paranoia. Their home cultures basically resemble raucous, grating hellholes: the older men are sad and broken, the younger ones are vicious bigots; women barely have any meaningful role at all. Any moderate thought, or such sissiness as preferring beer to the more proletarian drink “raki,” is likely to get you beaten up; another race war seems barely held at bay. The nouveau riche, from the little we see of them, bleed complacency. Those who try to improve their lives by getting out only break the hearts of those left behind, and then in the eyes of the European gatekeepers, Albanians and Serbians form a barely differentiated threatening rabble, undeserving of even minor niceties.

The program book says this is the first Albanian-Serbian co-production in cinema history and says it “reconciles the two nations by pointing out their similarities rather than their differences,” but it struck me less as reconciliation than a mutual scorching. Maybe it’s that I’m just not temperamentally suited to the cultures depicted here, but I could barely take it – I basically had nothing left with which to make an aesthetic assessment. I guess this makes the movie a success, but I would probably have been happier to watch a relative failure. I mean of course a nice Ozon-type failure, not a Solondz-level crap-out.

Monday, August 4, 2014

2009 Toronto Film Festival Report - Part 3

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2009)

Agora (Alejandro Amenabar)

Amenabar, whose last movie was the Oscar-winning The Sea Inside, delivers here a tailor-made gala presentation – an old-fashioned decline of the Roman empire epic bursting with eye-popping sets, beautiful destruction, grand-scale human mayhem and an adequate dose of intimate tragedy. And, of course, as much contemporary resonance as you want to find in there. It’s set in 4th century Alexandria, a formerly peaceful, non-doctrinal centre of learning and reflection, as militant Christianity – embodied here largely by violent, boorish agents of mass destruction - tightens its grip on the centers of power. The key protagonist, played by Rachel Weisz, is a pioneering science geek obsessed with understanding the earth’s relationship to the stars, her position increasingly perilous because of her gender and clarity of thought. The various main male characters are all studies in weakness and capitulation of one kind or another, which you might think sounds pretty prophetic too; it would likely be more conventionally satisfying as drama if there were a Russell Crowe type in there somewhere, but maybe that absence is part of the point.

The film doesn’t really advance much on the genre; in particular, the use of English dialogue and a fairly modern vernacular (“perhaps I’m completely raving,” concedes Weisz at the moment of her key breakthrough) seems increasingly distancing now (especially after Tarantino’s highly effective critique of genre language conventions in Inglourious Basterds). Amenabar uses digital technology’s enhanced visualization possibilities very well when he’s anchored in physicality, but also bakes in too many questionable, clich├ęd flourishes (God-like shots that zoom directly from outer space to an interior close-up, that kind of thing). It works just fine though as an unashamed button-pusher, especially if like me you see virtually everything nowadays as a representation of how mankind long ago became a condemned property but just keeps slapping on the paint.

Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira)

De Oliveira is 100 years old, and still making just about a movie a year (he really hit his stride in his 70’s), although they’re seldom easy to see outside film festivals (the Cinematheque has a season of his work this fall however). His latest is just over an hour long, and it’s not really a major work: a slight anecdote of an accountant’s love for a woman he spots standing in the window across from his office, and his difficulties in winning her hand. I use that turn of phrase because it’s that kind of film, possessing a highly engaging old-fashioned courtliness. One never knows how much flows from the translation, but how many pictures set in the present incorporate phrases such as “Can I call you Miss?,” “What a beautiful fan,” and my favourite: “Commerce shuns a sentimental accountant”?(!)

The story isn’t overtly surreal, but the spirit of Luis Bunuel seems to haunt the movie (one of de Oliveira’s most recent films, Belle toujours, was a sequel of sorts to the master’s Belle de Jour). The framing device, of the protagonist spilling out his story to the woman beside him, recalls Bunuel’s last work That Obscure Object of Desire; so does the broader trajectory of thwarted desire, and the prevailing air of stripped-down, cultured (if slightly lost-in-time) elegance. The film’s ending is somewhat abrupt, like a sudden harsh waking from a dream, but how many filmmakers in their second century could leave you wanting (and, since he’s reportedly already embarked on another picture) fully expecting more?

Vengeance (Johnnie To)

I’m not very familiar with the Hong Kong action genre and can’t get far for instance on debating the relative achievements of John Woo vs. Tsui Hark vs. Johnnie To. Certainly I can see the artistry there, but it’s just not that high on the list of what personally excites me about cinema (much like how Cirque de Soleil isn’t my preferred night at the theater). To’s latest has the significant differentiator of Johnny Hallyday as a Paris restaurateur with a shady past, in search of who wiped out his expat daughter’s family; he also has an increasingly faulty memory, eventually placing the movie into quasi-Memento territory. Under the circumstances, he gets to the heart of things very quickly (it helps that all the local hit-men ultimately seem to work for the same guy), and it’s mostly pretty conventional, although always entertaining, and with a few let’s-shoot-for-the-fences compositions (for example a shoot-out making memorably choreographed use of compacted trash bundles). Hallday’s character, named Frank Costello, seems designed to evoke Alain Delon in Melville’s classic Le Samourai, but it doesn’t come off (I guess there’s more to it than wearing a trench coat and not saying much). I’m sure it could have been better, but I guess I would have preferred the de Oliveira movie no matter how good it was, so why carp.

Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont)

Dumont’s films are modern pilgrimages, fascinated both by squalor and by the possibility of transcendence, resisting normal notions of cinematic beauty and identification. His people, seldom embodied by traditionally great actors, are equally likely to expose their genitalia or to levitate off the ground. There’s no doubt about his seriousness, but since L’humanite ten years ago (which caused a minor scandal when it won some top prizes at Cannes) he’s become a marginal figure, often perceived as rather comically self-important. Hadewijch should remedy that a little, if only because it consciously seems like a partial gesture at reconciliation. A young girl, played by Julie Sokolowski in perhaps the best performance in all Dumont’s films, is in love with God, but she’s rejected from a convent when the others perceive her self-punishing behavior as a form of egotism. She drifts unhappily through the world outside before meeting an equally devout Muslim man; although she doesn’t share his faith, he gradually persuades her that God can only embraced by acting in the world, which - within the framework he holds out for her - leads her towards terrorism.

The film is engrossing and persuasive, primarily because the character makes such blinding sense: she’s from a privileged background, with seemingly well-meaning but absent parents, and an underdeveloped sense of her own sexuality; her love for God is beyond doubt, but it doesn’t appear to be theologically complex, which of course makes her (like hundreds of thousands before her) potential fodder for earthly ambitions. But Dumont is careful not to stereotype the Muslim perspective either, and the lack of easily identifiable “evil” or cynicism makes Hadewijch much more disquieting. The ending too is surprisingly gentle by his standards, quietly reestablishing the more mundane vessels and events in which the devout might sense and draw strength from divine presence and purpose. All of that said, and for all its qualities, I could easily imagine sterner critics than myself once again dismissing the whole thing as a somewhat gauche cartoon.