Saturday, September 1, 2007

Competition Heat in Venice

Well, well, well...

Four of the major films at VIFF have already been screened and there seems to be a leader already. While the opening night film - 'Atonement' garnered very strong reviews, another film has blown into town to sweep everyone away - De Palma's 'Redacted'.

"Harrowing", "Emotional", "Cathartic", "Shocking", "Sensational" and simply "Great" are just some of the laudatory remarks coming from the media. The film apparently stunned the audiences with its extreme power and gut-wrenching depiction of explicit violence. Reports of a ten minute standing ovation confirm that this is a clear front-runner for the prize. It also helps that this is perhaps the most politically edgy film among a whole bunch of very politicized pics in Venice. If one were to look at the winners of Golden Lion for the past decade a clear pattern emerges. Films with a strong agenda and relevant "messages" had won the day and this year can't possibly be any different. De Palma is also one of the few great filmmakers in the world who has never won a prestigious festival prize in his career, so maybe Venice will be able to "atone" for that come next week.

Regardless of the relevance of De Palma's film, I'd still like the festival to award the most artistically ambitious picture in the competition. Greenaway and Haynes? Maybe not.

Ang Lee's film has fallen behind for some reason. The reactions have been strangely lukewarm. Kenneth Branagh's new version of 'Sleuth' is a reportedly a mild, if accomplished, entertainment. Then there is the George Clooney starrer 'Michael Clayton'. We know what suit George was wearing at the premiere but we couldn't find anything on the film itself.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Venice... oh... Venice

It seemed only yesterday when I stepped off the train and stood in front of a mirage known as Venice. Perhaps no other city in the world can sustain an image of a fairy-tale with so many tourists swarming through its every single crevice. The fact that it is also home to the world's oldest film festival is only apt - its like living a dream within a dream...

It helps of course, that Venice International Film Festival has consistently showcased the very best in world cinema, putting art one step ahead of scandal (the reverse is certainly truer for Cannes). While it might be slightly conservative in its tastes, VIFF's selections are always reliable for their high quality and supreme merit.

This year is no exception with a slate of 22 pictures from some of the greatest filmmakers around the world.

Here's the list.

Atonement by Joe Wright

The Darjeeling Limited by Wes Anderson

Sleuth by Kenneth Branagh

Heya Fawda by Youssef Chahine

Redacted by Brian de Palma

The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford by Andrew Dominik

Nessuna Qualita Agli Eroi by Paolo Franchini

Michael Clayton by Tony Gilroy

Nightwatching by Peter Greenaway

En la Ciudad de Sylvia by Jose Luis Guerin

In the Valley of Allah by Paul Haggis

I'm Not There by Todd Haynes

The Sun Also Rises by Jiang Wen

Help Me Eros by Lee Kang Sheng

la Graine et le Mulet by Abdellatif Kechiche

Se, Je by Ang Lee

It's a Free World by Ken Loach

L'ora di Punta by Vincenzo Marra

Sukiyaki Western Django by Takeshi Miike

12 by Nikita Mikhalkov

Il Dolce e l'amaro by Andrea Porporati

Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon by Eric Rohmer

It's a fascinating mix... everything is here from the token Italian films that never seem to go anywhere after the festival and the big-budget, high-concept American morality tales that sweep the Oscars come February (remember Brokeback Mountain?). The presence of so many
major American films is a sign that Hollywood prefers Venice to Cannes for launching some of
its prestige titles. Venice is not exactly known for breaking careers, so its a relatively safe choice, yet it can considerably boost the profile of a film because so many major critics attend it and actually GET to see the films.

It's always hard to predict what can win at Venice because of the very high standard of the entries. But I'll make a go of it.

Considering that the president of the jury is Zhang Yimou (twice a winner at the festival) and that Ang Lee had only recently triumphed with Brokeback, that would discount "Lust, Caution" (and probably every other Asian film) which will not need any prizes to sizzle on every critics top ten list by the end of the year. The trailer promises a noirish delight the likes of which we haven't seen since Body Heat and I know of no other filmmaker who can be relied on to produce a near-masterpiece every time he makes a film.

The de Palma film, on the other hand, gives us a cause to worry. I love Brian's work, but the plot of his new opus sound dangerously similar to his previous war drama - 'Casualties of War'. He's always strayed too close to plagiarism and here he could be seen to be cannibalising his own work. But then, he's got a reputation to keep - he is the preeminent postmodern filmmaker after all. I just wish he kept making his escapist thrillers that fuel so much analytical literature in film studies (witness the magnificent 'Femme Fatale').

I won't even bother talking about Wes Anderson's new film... He's quickly proving to be a one-note wonder.

Much more exciting amongst the English-language contingent are Todd Hayne's and Andrew Dominik's new films. Haynes has been a consistently fascinating filmmaker, always surprising with his choices. 'I'm Not There' could be his most radically experimental work which finds six actors portraying Bob Dylan at different stages of his career. Of course, like most tricks in cinema, this one is also old hat. Another Tod (Solonz) made the highly controversial 'Palindromes' using the same device which of course was originally put to brilliant use by Bunuel in 'That Obscure Object of Desire'. Still, I'm holding my breath in anticipation and think that its likely that Haynes will walk off with the gold (or silver).

The long awaited second feature by Andrew Dominik is quietly accumulating steam. Word is that it is a philosophical meditation on masculinity and violence a la Kubrick and Mallick and the trailer gives us hints of its possible magnificence. I've got a hunch that it just might put a spell on everyone - including the Golden Lion - courtesy of Brad Pitt's strangely hypnotic gaze in this film (is it me, or is he doing a Robert Redford impersonation?).
Another strong candidate that has the potential to sway the judges is Nikita Mikhalkov's '12'. A harrowing (I'm sure) war film set in Chechnya this is actually an adaptation of '12 angry men' (!!!) This might be a great Dostoevskian yarn in the line of classic Soviet cinema of the 50s or it could be a turgid, PC dud in the line of well... most big-budget Russian films of recent years. But I've always admired Mikhalkov's ability to marry serious subject matter with populist sentiment and it might just prove to be a winning formula this time around (it did in 1991 with 'Urga').
Then there's Eric Rohmer's whimsical fantasy film based on a 17th century novel. If it's anything like his 'Marquise O' or 'Perceval'... I'll give it a big miss. I could never understand how his limping, terribly theatrical 'historical' adaptations could garner so much acclaim. Rohmer is a director of modern morality and when he goes for broad strokes and symbolism... well it just turns ugly.

Youssef Chahine seems to be the only thing to remind us that there are films made in Egypt, but I doubt it'll help him win a key prize at any of the major film festivals. This one sounds like a typical potboiler that could've been scripted by Mahfouz - it's all good v evil, sexual frustration sprayed with a heavy dose of morality. Chahine's preachiness never quite appealed to me despite the very liberal outlook his films unfailingly possess and I don't think the festival judges are going to care for it either.

The one and only true outsider in this year's festival is the dauntingly creative and unstoppable Takeshi Miike. The man, who'll surely make films even after he dies, comes to Italy with a Japanese "western" set in the 11th century. Well, we all know that Venice IFF was responsible for opening up Japanese cinema to the West. They always did love them here, yet Miike is a director that can challenge even the most unethical, immoral, unscrupulous and jaded audience member in the world (I know what you're thinking, but no... I still have a thin coat of ethics to shed). So his presence at Mostra is surely meant to be an electrifying aphrodisiac to help digest all the other politically loaded dishes. I don't care. He's hands down the most imaginative director on the menu and the biggest risk-taker of all. How can you not be excited by a film with a title like Sukiyaki Western Django and starring Quentin Tarantino anyway?

Yet, in the presence of Peter Greenaway's latest art-work (I don't dare call them films anymore) all else pales in comparison. This time, Greenaway has adopted a PAINTING into a film. That's right, a painting. It's a hefty masterpiece too - Rembrandt's 'Nightwatch'. From the vague descriptions I've read, the film revolves around the mystery surrounding the painting's conception and if one were to be absolutely literal
we might call it an 'art historical thriller'. I know that Greenaway's reputation has suffered seriously in recent times, but that just means that he's a filmmaker who is somehow outside time and taste. This one is doubtlessly going to be as challenging and textually loaded as 'The Baby of Macon' (I'll have to make sure to re-read Simon Schama's great book on Rembrandt). But the injection of pure aesthetic pleasure comes like a warranty note with any Greenaway film and 'Nightwatching' has an irresistible combination of art, suspense, philosophy and a sick sense of humour. I'm drooling all over the computer as we speak.

I'd like to think that the festival jury will be able to grace Greenaway with a much deserved top prize. But its a long shot...

Right now, I'm putting my two dollars on either Dominik or Haynes...

Friday, July 13, 2007

Red Road. SIFF

The Dark Route Through Female Psyche.
Andrea Arnold's 'Red Road'.

June 21

'Red Road' was one of the two films that I anticipated most for over a year, the other one being 'Inland Empire'. There's some kind of weird symmetry to the fact that I got to see them back to back on the same night.

Arnold's film screened in the main competition at Cannes last year - almost an anomaly for a debut feature - where it garnered exceptional notices and a Grand Prix award. Everyone was talking about a potent new voice on the scene and I could not wait to have a taste of it. What made it even more fascinating was that it is the first film in a series of three that are going to feature the same characters. Each film will be directed by a different filmmaker (the other two will be helmed by two Danish members of the Dogme project)

But anticipation is a double-edge sword, ready to topple down your enthusiasm to the ground. 'Red Road' did not prove to be what I expected to say the least. Not because of any inherent faults. Rather, it was akin to taking a boat to Tahiti for a rowdy holiday and ending up in a cold Edinburgh port instead.

I'm not passing judgement here, Edinburgh is beautiful, but I felt out of sorts with this film, completely understanding its aims but not being able to give a shit anyway.

The central figure in the film is Jackie (Kate Dickie), a single woman in her mid 30s who works as a CCTV monitor operator. Jackie seems detached from the world around her, preferring to live life vicariously in her God-like position up in (literally) air. She does have an occasional passionless encounter with a fellow officer, but something has obviously died within her. That is until she spots a red-haired man (Tony Curran) on one of her screens. Her demeanour changes completely. We learn that the man has committed a crime and Jackie isn't too happy seeing him out of prison. She soon descends from her omnipotent throne into the stinking dump of Glasgow's urban wasteland to take matters into her own hands (again, literally). The film takes its time to get to this point and I sunk in my seat comfortably expecting a bracing thesis on justice from a female point of view. And Arnold, who is an Oscar winning director after all (for a short film), holds the suspense remarkably well, constantly teasing us with her character's seemingly left-off field actions. It's a device that would be best described as "cropping" - giving us only certain information without the necessary caption to make the context clear. It reminds us just how deceiving "information" can be - particularly visual. We think that we can read a situation by just seeing it, but as they say... it's only the tip of the iceberg. For example, in once scene, we see Jackie follow the man, Clay, into a pub. Just before she goes in, she picks up a stone from the footpath and puts it in her handbag. We assume, it's there to protect her. It's obvious and logical, yet the implications of this action turn out to be completely different a few scenes later.

While manipulative and slightly contrived this is an approach that has been used by most of the great suspense masters and it's what I like most about 'Red Road' - the complexity of its narrative construction, the exceptional understanding and mastery of visual language. Yet, like any road, this one must end at a certain destination. In this particular case, where you've been second guessing yourself constantly, the final point begins to grow to an almost unsustainable importance. The audience MUST be surprised at any cost. It's the kind of promise that 99% of films, especially thrillers, fail to deliver. When they do... well... just look at what happened to 'Sixth Sense'.

'Red Road' does deliver a surprise... but one that is so underwhelming that I momentarily found myself completely thrown out of the film, wondering how elaborate the gilded plasterwork in the State Theatre was. It's a beautifully tacky building, constructed in a neo-baroque style, deliberately mixing a myriad of influences in its decor to create a dreamy, magical atmosphere. A perfect movie palace really, where the mystery extends to the corridors even after the film is finished. Built in 1929, the State Theatre...

I'm so sorry... where was I?

The punchline in this film is not, as I might've insinuated, weak. It's simply rather conservative.

I watched a 1960s Mexican horror film recently based on the legend of La Llorana. It featured a woman, a witch to be more precise, bent on gaining "absolute" power and knowledge. Even if it meant sacrificing everyone around her. What is exceptional in this case is the purity of this desire, its blatantly empowering motivation. Something I believe that La Llorana shared with the femme fatales of 1940s. But then they were all evil right?

I only bring this up because I feel that the "good" heroine of 'Red Road' could have made for a fascinating analysis of guilt and gendered notion of power because she is a character that is at once extremely natural and recognizable yet full of contradictions and mystery. Jackie (and Clay for that matter) is not a movie cypher put there by the director to explore some abstract theory (as happens in a lot of French films recently). She presents a rare chance to see a woman who is not only in control, but also takes action. The sex scene that comes at a... uhum... climactic point (just like in Nuri Ceylan's 'Climates'), hints at a truly twisted sensibility behind the ordinariness of this woman's face. Of course, the trick is in the motivations and unfortunately Arnold can't help but trap herself and her heroine in yet another 'woman's picture'... apron strings and all...

Monday, July 9, 2007

Turkish Sour Delights: 'Climates'. SIFF

June 20


She stands... silently looking at her partner. It's hot and there's a hint of annoyance on her face. He seems not to notice her as he takes photographs of some Hellenistic ruins. Finally she approaches, gently brushing against him, making her presence known. He asks if she's bored, she lies and then leaves him again to sit on a hill opposite of the ruins. She looks on some more and then starts crying.

It takes a good couple of minutes (or so it seemed) for a tear to appear and then ever so slowly to glide down Ebru Ceylan's ravishing cheek. Edit that Harvey Weinstein!

It's a tell-tell opening scene of a film that has become somewhat a cause celebré among online film enthusiasts. Battle lines have been drawn and positions have been established, either embracing or attacking Nuri Bigle Ceylan's new film for its meditative stylistics and its relentless ambiguity. So what's all the fuss about?

A softly spoken architecture professor (Bigle Ceylan) is vacationing with his partner, the much younger art-director Bahar (Ebru Ceylan) in Turkey's South West. Their relationship is on the rocks, presumably because the professor can't keep his fly zipped. They separate after a particularly violent quarrel and Bahar disappears from the picture while the professor takes up with his fiery ex with whom he obviously enjoys a much more... lets just say interesting, sex life. His peace is however disturbed when he finds out that Bahar has left Istanbul, possibly with another man, to go on a long location film shoot in Turkey's East. Soon, he's off printing photos of their summer vacation and picking up romantic trinkets in the hope of enticing Bahar back.

That's about it really. Yes, its minimalist, its simple, there's hardly any exposition... whatever. I won't indulge in facile arguments about boringness, slowness or any other base reactions. We should always approach the filmmaker on his own terms, without demanding that he dress down to suit what we want. In fact, the film is actually compulsively watchable. You're carried along from one scene to the next, just because you don't know where it's going to go. It's a significant advantage that is achieved by keeping the characters shrouded in heavy fog: "Heavy ambiguity ahead! Turn on your brain searchlights please!"

So, herein lies the charge: Is Nuri Ceylan masking a rather embarrassingly simplistic tale of love turning sour with a heavy coat of bullet-proof pretentiousness or is he really making a profound statement about alienation and the emotional malaise of the modern man?

Herein lies the evidence: take a female character, put her in a shopping centre and have her sobbing in front of a shelf full of detergent. In one version she's shouting to a woman standing next to her that her husband's been cheating on her. In the other version, she's just standing there, looking at the detergent bottles and silently sobbing and sobbing while people pass her by. Version one is what you're likely to see in a 'Neighbours' episode and it'd take a really great director and actress to make the scene anything but trashy. Version two could be a scene from Nuri Ceylan film. And lets face it, we're going to be much more intrigued with version two, simply because we don't know what is making the woman cry. If it sounds suspiciously easy... well, I'm afraid it is. A clever director always makes good use of the unknown quantity and mystery - David Lynch has built his whole career concocting impregnable puzzles. Yet, as always, it's a question of degrees. Compare what Lynch does with a similarly cliched 'relationship in crisis' story in 'Lost Highway' to Nuri Ceylan's film and you'll know what I mean. It's like exploring a new galaxy as opposed to a small Caribbean island. Ceylan has neither the astounding imaginative power of Lynch, nor the philosophical depth of Antonioni to transform his film into a path-breaker. Which does not mean it's not successful on its own, smaller scale. Granted, the film feels like the bastard child of Rossellini's 'Voyage to Italy' and Antonioni's 'La Notte' and it shows in every sprocket of its celluloid DNA, but it's not a mere clone (read: simulacra). I do think that 'Climates' takes up the very same thematic concerns of these earlier films, but travels much further in its deconstruction of a romantic relationship. In a way, Ceylan has made a transgressive film, but made it so covertly, most people seem not to notice. Those who love it are enticed by its romanticism, tending to read it as a quiet emotional roller coaster. Those who hate it, blame it for the same reasons - it's short in its reach and doesn't do much more than whine about banalities.

To me, the transgression lies in the fact that this is an anti-romantic romantic movie. The central relationship is constructed around something that the characters perceive of as LOVE - a notion that Ceylan progressively begins to dismantle. When Bahar instigates a near-fatal accident this act is immediately read as a passionate gesture on her behalf, proclaiming her love and frustration towards Isa. But looking closely, it's a rather pathetic imitation of amour fou, its impact weak and embarrassing. Bahar is playing a role she thinks she must fulfil because the scenario calls for it, like an impressionable child acting out a scene from a Hollywood movie since she has no better way to respond. Similarly, her constant sobbing is usually interpreted as a genuinely earnest statement by the filmmaker - an indictment of Isa's actions. The crying is an important detail since not only does it become a kind of emotional apex in the film, but also causes much irritation or admiration in the audience. But it is meant to be irritating! Bahar's tears hint at the theatricality inherent in this relationship. She's unable (or unwilling) to comprehend that their problem is not because Isa has an occasional fuck outside of their non-matrimonial unit, the problem is that they're absolutely uninterested in who the other person is. Isa wants Bahar only because she looks good on him. His narcissism is implicit in the way Ceylan acts out the character, rendering him almost infuriatingly passive; his blankness is not a result of stupidity but dismissiveness. He doesn't care what his partner thinks (never mind about feelings) and once he's "used" Bahar, he discards her through a persuasive double-speak by arguing that she can find a more appropriate partner because she's still "young and attractive". His coldness and detachment are only underlined by the fact that they're in an idyllic setting - a context that is rife for romantic regeneration. But Bahar is masochistic, which is mainly self-induced and Isa simply hates people. She has a dream during which Isa mistreats her and the rest of time milks his infidelity for all the self-pity she can get. He, on the other hand, can only sustain interest by reducing his partners to objects of possession, his ex-girlfriend, Serap, for example. Once he sees her in a bookshop with a friend, his interest is suddenly piqued. Serap knows Isa all too well and her long, knowing laugh reduces Isa to a stale nut - something which he later forces her to eat in the ambiguously staged, highly borderline sex scene.

This subversiveness is the most fascinating aspect of the film. Here we have two very unlikable characters, rather fearlessly portrayed by the director and his real-life wife, playing a charade which they wish to will into reality by sheer play-acting. Maybe Ceylan's film would've been more successful if he was more upfront about his intentions. But I like the deceiving nature of this film. By conning the audience into 'buying' this cheap melodrama, Ceylan seems to be saying that we're all involved in "playing the game". And it's a cruel one but as it transpires in the end, the characters (and maybe the audience too) are only too happy playing it.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Flanders, Eye in the Sky, SIFF Day 12

June 19

I don't think I've ever missed watching a film to which I'd bought a ticket. Come rain or snow, I'd be there in front of the cinema, like a pilgrim awaiting religious ecstasy in the darkness of the temple. So it says something about my mindset that on the morning of June 19 I simply couldn't give a fuck... Or maybe I simply forgot that I had a 12.00pm screening of Susan Bier's 'After the Wedding', I'll never know for sure. In any case, after feeling sorry for myself throughout the day for losing 8 bucks (cheap tickets with a multiple pass, but still...) I realised that I'd see the film on DVD in couple of months anyway. Besides, this gave me a lot of time to prepare for a vicious attack from Bruno Dumont at 6.30pm in the evening. I only had a light lunch, just in case...

Dumont is not exactly a household name, but in France, he's a formidable presence, at least in many critic's books. Many of them love him, most of the public loves to hate him, for this is a director seemingly bent on making unlikable films. Sorry, make that utterly detestable.

'Flanders' is no different. Set in a farm somewhere in Northern France, the film follows André - a boorish looking young fella - as he works the land and has very awkward meetings with Barbe - his neighbour's daughter and a childhood friend. Barbe is a nymphomaniac and seems to only know how to connect to people through her body. After Andre refuses to acknowledge their relationship, Barbe picks up a new guy in a bar and starts fucking within two minutes of meeting him. Quel Poésie!

'Flanders' then makes a sharp turn into war film territory as André and Barbé's new beau are sent to an unspecified war somewhere in the Middle East. They're in the same regiment and are soon caught in some heavy fighting. If this is starting to sound like 'Pearl Harbour', let me give you this flash forward - somebody gets his balls cut-off in real-time. Meanwhile Barbe has a breakdown and is sent to a mental hospital.

And herein lies Dumont's hardline stance. He does not buy into myths or romantic notions. Hell, the guy even refuses to give us a single, mildly likable character to root for. Everyone's liable for their selfishness and innate cruelty towards fellow human beings. Dumont's anti-war vision is certainly not new, but rarely has it been so bleak, so frankly pessimistic. He posits no allegiances and simply stares passively at the ugliness of the human animal. Stuck in a foreign war, these soldiers have off-loaded their morals at home and they are truly frightening in their blank disregard and brutality. They've become machines. Although treated slightly more sympathetically, the oppressed are not seen to be much different. They just don't have as many guns. The parallel universes of Flanders and the war zone are intercut to emphasise the underlying crisis of human condition in general. We are in a constant state of war Dumont seems to be saying.

Watching this film, I realised with astonishment how most war movies fail to make a truly anti-war statement by indulging in heroism, something that 'Flanders' is completely devoid of. This makes the film into a most discomforting, wrenching experience imaginable, yet at the same time... isn't that what a war is? In a way, the film confounds our own selfishness by making us aware of our desire to be "elated" and "inspired" by cinema - to be lied to. I admire this filmmaker for his integrity even if I invest more in his films than I get back. Dumont's indulgence, his grating superiority and his love for human filth is an obstacle that is hard to surmount. A Dumont film is often like watching a corpse being dissected - humanity reduced to banal, rotting matter. And call me selfish, but I do like to leave the cinema with some spiritual charge rather than making me want to slash my wrists.

Ever since watching his previous two films, I've felt that Dumont's problem is in his inability to provide a closure or leave a door open. Once you step into his inferno, there's no way out. Even Pasolini gave us a feeble hope with the closing shot of 'Salo'. Here (wisely), Dumont makes a tentative move and gives his new film a sense of redemption towards the end, which makes this work his most complete and successful to date and among the best examples of the new cinema of violent chic.

Just in case you're wondering what cinema of 'violent chic' is (you read it here first), think American torture porn ('Hostel', 'Saw') French style. The leading proponents of what I consider to be definitely a new movement akin to the 80's cinema du look, are filmmakers such as Gaspar Noe, Alexander Aja and our topic of discussion - Bruno Dumont. What makes their films so different (and so chic) is the way the violence is orchestrated and who it is directed at. If Eli Roth in his 'Hostel' films tries to push the body horror to the extreme, Noe and Dumont go for irreversible psychological damage (pan intended). Just an example here to clarify their approach. In 'Irreversible' Noe stages an epic 9 minute rape scene. Static camera no cuts. Pure, unfiltered "action" that is as much about our endurance to sustain "looking" as about the Bellucci character surviving. The most disturbing element about this scene is not so much the actual violence, but the framing device the director uses - the moralistic, political, psychological implications of the violator and our implication as a spectator. Dumont stages a very similar rape scene in his highly contentious '29 Palms' (2003), but this time, the victim is a man. It becomes immediately apparent that Dumont's aim is not to out gross jaded sensibilities, but to disrupt moral barriers and send a shock-wave of Foucaldian panic. Sex and violence are above all polemical tools in these filmmakers' hands (another example might be Cathrenie Breillat's 'Romance') who want to draw the dark side of the audience into the open and play a dangerous game of extreme ethical disengagement. Yet, to me, the fire under the unease of watching a film such as 'I Stand Alone' (Noe) or 'Humanite' (Dumont, 1999) is their unrelenting stylishness - the chic of it all. There is a sensory thrill as you watch Noe's mesmerising formalistic experiments even while what he's depicting is a man's head being pulped into a mashed potato. You're violated but at the same time can't help but gasp at the ultra cool of it all. The same goes for the more restrained, dour elegance of Dumont, whose style, ironically is the anthitesis of formalism. What you get is neatly framed, monumental canvases filled with drabness and silence, draped in mystery and dread (Dumont purposefully avoids "pretty" shots). The stylishness here is derived from ambiguity that is very Antonionesque in its semiotics (again, landscape as a language). The viewer is informed from the first frame that he'll be getting a philosophical enquiry rather than entertainment out of the experience. It's a long way off from 'Kill Bill' indeed but I like travelling the distance.

I could feel the grunt rising inside about two minutes in. Three minutes later I could hold it back no longer.... Uuuuurghhhhhh.....

Disappointments are as common in film festivals as revelations are rare. And I purposefully took a chance on the Hong-Kong thriller - 'The Eye in the Sky' - to offset the debilitating effect of Bruno Dumont's 'Flanders'. Dammit, I wanted to be entertained for a change. And there is no other film genre that does it better for me than thrillers. Alas, not this time.

'Eye...' is the feature debut of Nai-Hoi Yau, a writing collaborator of that latest John Woo wanna be - Johnny To. That should've rang some warning bells as To's films are laughable imitations of American gangster films that somehow manage to shoot their through to festivals like Cannes and Venice.

The plot sounded intriguing enough though. A young woman is training to become an SVU, basically a surveillance officer who has to follow and report on suspected criminals without being noticed. Her supervisor is a wise old goose, who takes a chance on the woman because she's too dumb looking to be suspicious. Soon the team is tracking down a highly organised group of jewel thieves, at the head of which is a slippery crim played by the indefatigable Tony Leung Ka Fai (is he like in every Hong Kong movie or what?).

There's much ominous music, much surveillance camera footage, some rudimentary shooting (on a completely empty motorway no less!) and some silly humour Hong Kong style. And then it all disintegrates into a one-note boring cops and robbers chase film with stock characters that might've been ordered from a 'ready to film' catalogue. Awash in bland cinematography, bland performances, some idiotic dialogue and absolute predictability, this is by far the most wasteful film I've seen during the festival.

'Nikita' it aint certainly, but the film ignores also the rudimentary largess of ridiculous pomp that is such a fixture of most Hong Kong action films. By choosing to opt for a subtler approach, where the thrill is derived from psychological cat and mouse games rather than car chases, the director has completely missed the point. He doesn't give us fully-fledged characters who can possibly exist in the real world (we know practically nothing about these people outside of their job) and he takes out most of the action? What is this, a con? That's what I consider a film that fails to deliver on almost every level.

I have never been enamoured of Hong cinema with two very big exceptions - Wong Kar-Wai and John Woo. This film proves that that's exactly they are - exceptions.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Poison Friends and Family

June 18

Is the Art House film almost like film noir, with certain stylistic conventions that cross over from one genre to the other? Of course not, but on a purely superficial level, you can't help but group them. After all... it's the same kind of people that are going to see those films. Isn't that a strong enough convention? My definition would be thus. Art House = pseudo intellectual cinema watered down for middle-class urban audiences. These two films are perfect illustrations of what makes or breaks this kind of cinema.

Maybe only the English can elevate writing to a matter of life and death the way French do. So when I saw a French 'literary thriller' on the SIFF menu, I couldn't resist taking a bite.

Unfortunately the film in question - 'Poison Friends' (dir. Emmanuel Bourdiau)- turned out to be more like French cuisine than Balzac; a lot of dressing and no meat.

The concept is fascinating. A bunch of literature students studying in Sorbonne fall under the influence of a brilliant fellow called Andre (Thibault Vincon, in a magnetic performance), who rubs everyone under his thumb by ridiculing their writing aspirations. 'Why do people write?' he quotes I can't remember which quotable writer - 'Because they're too weak not to'. Now anyone who has a healthy suspicion of their creative ego can't possibly not shake in terror at this "profound" assessment. People like Eloi (Malik Zidi in what appears to be sleepwalking rather than performance) and Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger). They soon become Andre's adoring groupies, hanging to his every word, letting him direct the course of their lives. What's more is that Andre takes almost an erotic pleasure in controlling the silly buggers. The power play between the group depends not only on the inflation of one's ego, but the deflation of the other's. It is immediately obvious to us that Andre's attempts at preventing his friends from writing has less to do with his nihilistic philosophy but much more with his deep insecurity as a writer himself. He is a man of ideas who is never able to consolidate more than hot air in the drab Parisian weather.

OK, the question is posed. To write or not write? It's a question that is asked not only by the characters; it is distinctly aimed at us - the audience. And Bourdieu takes it very seriously. Which is where he makes a fatal mistake. The question is superfluous because it views writing as some kind of an autonomous media that is separate from any other field of creativity. To me, the question is much larger - why create? Isn't writing and by that I mean literature, simply one form of self-expression? Is it any more important than music, painting, architecture or... well... film? It's not an accident that the Greeks sent out the muses together. They were a group - interdependent, interconnected and always performing essentially the same function - inspiration.

At one point Andre 'forgives' Alexandre (who wanted to be playwright) because he has decided to become an actor. "That's different" he states. Why? Is it much less of an intellectual pursuit hence less threatening or simply because Alexandre is not a literary threat anymore? The film never aspires to make its position clear on this point. And even if we disregard these obvious lapses of logic, the filmmakers still don't rise up to the challenge of providing a satisfactory solution to the initial issue they've raised. I must turn to Bergman again for some guidance. In one of his watershed films ('Through a Glass Darkly), Bergman showed a writer as unmerciful and cruel as they come. A man outwardly caring and gentle, but who is driven to exploit his sick daughter and naive son for the sake of his pen. Bergman was unsparing in his assessment of the creative ego - it is all consuming and in many ways above humanity. To him, art is as terrifying as a faun-splaying Apollo, but that's what constitutes its greatness, period. Granted, Bourdieu's aim is different. He's not so much concerned about what takes to write but more about what it costs not to write. A wonderful example of this dilemma is Hal Hartley's 'Henry Fool' - a remarkably similar film in many ways, which at least has the courage to argue for a place under the sun for its brilliant 'con artist' (for isn't being 'brilliant' an art in itself?).

But it's this film's nastiness is exactly what puts me off. It's just about the calibre of a mosquito bite. Irritating. At one point Andre deletes his librarian girlfriend's (Natacha Regnier in a wasted role) short story from her computer. "It was crap" Andre states. And you know what? It probably was, but Bourdieu doesn't let us enjoy this moment of delicious malice. The short story must be rescued at all costs, because God forbid that this hot little librarian should be prevented from expressing her point of view. Have even the French gone PC? What is the world coming down to?

Alas, Bourdieu's formula is as bogged down in mechanics as any previous screenplay about the nature of writing - success is the best revenge. Maybe so, but here it's not even sweet. The supremely passive Eloi overcomes his fear of literary 'exposure' only because his mother (a famous writer) rescues his manuscript from the rubbish bin and gives it to her publisher (nepotism goes a long way, but the director fails to even milk this ironic faux-pas). His half-hearted reaction to his success is as suspicious as everything else in the film. It's like "Oh... you mean I'm brilliant and all I had to do is write about myself?" Indeed, the only character who seems passionate enough about the art of letters is Andre. Perhaps he knows too much about it to be able to make a go at it himself. When your standards are up there with Dostoevsky, naive confidence is perhaps the best medicine the doctor can prescribe. But 'Poison Friends' is ultimately like its protagonist - confused and lost, unable to harvest the irony or the tragedy from a very classic set-up (where art-thou Chabrol?). In the end, the whole thing feels like an overpriced dessert made of lettuce: a bland concoction that is pretentious enough to fool some into thinking that they just ate a Kirsch Soufflé.

On the other hand there's 'Wolfsbergen'. Even the title, with its frightening challenge to pronounce itself, spells out a certain foreboding - it is NOT going to be a Woody Allen film. It's not even (gasp) French! I can already see the crowd thinning out... Which is a pity.

Nanouk Leopold's film is what soap operas are made of: a large middle-class family in crisis. And indeed, almost every screw in this story has been screwed before, after all, there aren't that many ways you can destroy a patriarchal unit in two hours. But the originality comes in the packaging, the presentation of this well worn material.

A father sends out letters to his daughter and two grandchildren, telling them that he doesn't want to continue living after the death of his wife. The women, each suffering from their own pent-up problems refuse to take the matter seriously, one of them doesn't even get the letter. The daughter is having trouble communicating with her husband on any level, her eldest daughter is in turn trying to hard to do the right thing while completely disregarding the fact that her love-affair and constant clashes with her husband are psychologically hurting her two children. And the youngest granddaughter has a strange affliction (she cries constantly without any reason) which renders her anti-social and lonely.

Taking her cues from Chekhov, Leopold makes these seemingly banal relationships twist and turn in quietly fascinating ways, relying on perfect doses of understatement and dead-pan, sometimes ink-black, humour to elevate a dime-a-dozen story into something utterly compelling and moving.

Yes, at times it is pretentious... Some of the characters are crafted with not much more than blank looks and long stretches of silence (silence being cheap and all), as if the refusal of communication automatically constitutes profound depth. But the film is any many ways about silence - moments that can describe a situation equally as well as words (awkwardness, hesitation, shock, grief) and that is why I like this film so much - it wears its pretentiousness (in the form of ambiguity) on its sleeve. As with Antonioni, the cinematic gesture and posturing become a mode of communication in itself. And you learn to read it as you go along, thanks in large part to the director's consistency and commitment to her vision.

It is all composed of static mid shots, not a single camera move in sight; exquisitely arranged compositions framed by doorways, corridors and windows, superbly chosen colour scheme and almost mathematical precision of rhythm, timing and editing. The whole film feels like a Vermeer re-imagined by Mondrian and crafted by Bauhaus: a majestic style that is all about balance, harmony and cerebral introspection. You'd know it's Dutch even if the film was silent.

Leopold succeeds in a faultless combination of form and content - a tough task to pull off in any director's hand - and with three films under her belt, she's already a bonna-fide auteur.

The ending of the film, with its reassuring calm and quiet (yet wrenching) power reaches almost philosophic heights. It is a benign meditation on life and death that is surprising and reassuring in its all-encompassing sense of normality. Translated into American, you'd probably get a double episode of the Jerry Springer show.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Killer of Sheep and the Black Side of American Cinema

June 16th

Perhaps the weakest link in this years exemplary program of Sydney Film Festival was the retrospective section. John Huston? I must be missing something... Not only had I seen everything in this program but I think I have most of the films (Maltese Falcon, Asphalt Jungle etc...) on DVD. What's the point if you can probably catch most of these films on cable or simply get them on DVD? Sorry, I must remind myself that I'm not the center of the universe. Apparently the screenings were full...

But there was something truly special in the form of Charles Burnett's student feature film - 'Killer of Sheep' shot over weekends in the summer of 1976. This black and white feature has the rare privilege of being listed among the few films that are being preserved by the Library of Congress. Burnett's film is widely considered to be not just one of the greatest cinematic renditions of African-American experience, but also one of the most important independent American features ever made.

I came to the film with absolutely no expectations. Accolades might make me want to see a film but never make my mind up for it. I was, however, partial to the fact that it was made for only 10 000$ - I'm a sucker for triumphing under-dog stories.

The film is essentially plotless. It describes a couple of days in the life of a black neighbourhood in LA. The epicentre of the film is Stan, a 30-something man who has difficulty in getting his life together. He's worn from his work at the slaughterhouse, the lack of money, the constant demands his friends make on his time and even the emotional needs of his wife. And that's it. There are hardly any dramatic developments (by most standards) and even no climaxes. It's as if Burnett is simply content to luxuriate in the dreary banality of everyday life, constantly teasing us by turning away from the "story" just as we think something "dramatic" is going to happen. At one point Stan is approached by two hoodlums who try to coerce him into a robbery. Stan is confused and is almost tempted, his moral dilemma painfully etched on his face. But once the wife puts the hoodlums in their place, this potentially tense story 'hook' becomes just another 'moment' strung together with other seemingly prosaic bits and pieces.

In another scene, the camera follows a child for quite a while. The child has been seen in the beginning and we think that he could potentially be one of the protagonists. We only get a long scene where this boy walks around, wearing a funny dog mask and then disappears altogether. It is this exquisite bravery in handling of screen time and the confidence with which Burnett snatches a "tune" only to abandon it for something else, that made me stare at the screen in awe. It takes extreme confidence or maybe recklessness to not try and involve your audience in a clear-cut narrative arc that would carry them through the experience just on the basis of 'what happens next?' logic. That's also to director's exceptional cast of non-professional actors who are more or less portraying themselves. That sounds almost facile and an easy way out, but from a personal experience of having worked with non-actors, I know that getting them to be as natural, relaxed and supremely confident in front of camera as Burnett's actors are - requires great talent, skill and above all, vision. And what a sad, lethargic and moving vision this is... It's the kind that is almost never seen on American screens - a vision of profound simplicity and dignified micro-realism that we've come to identify with Czech filmmakers (Forman's 'Black Peter' especially comes to mind) and the Italian cinema of 1940s.

Jazz is perhaps the best simile that can be applied to the improvisational ebb and flow of this film. And you hear plenty of it in the film. Languid, sensual, wistful and poetic. It slowly dawns on you that the film is as much a visual as an aural experience which is caucused with impeccable taste. The music translates the lives of these people into a language that is universal in its emotional reach - like poetry. In fact, the music (or its copyright to be more precise) was responsible for holding the film back from proper distribution until all the rights were cleared very recently. But without it, the lyrical aspect of Burnett's film, its obvious "poeticisim" would not be possible and is one of the key reasons that it seems still so fresh and immediate today - like a Hafiz poem celebrating the bittersweet torments and pleasures of our daily slog through life.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Away From Her, Rescue Dawn

June 15

The festival is in full gear now and it was time to serve up some heavy stuff. Namely films about dementia and POWs.

There are many things you can say about Sarah Polley. Lightweight is not one of them. Even when playing a drug-dealing teenager in Doug Liman's crime-comedy 'Go', Polley always manages to add some serious gravitas to her screen characters. Isn't it time blondehood proclaimed her a national icon?

In 'Away From Her' Polley finds herself behind the lens, directing her debut feature based on a Alice Munro's short story. A debut most unexpected considering the subject matter and Polley's youth (she's all of 27). Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinset) have been married for many years. They have no children and seem to only need each other. But when Fiona shows rapidly developing signs of Alzheimer disease, their secluded Utopian world begins to collapse. She insists on moving to the nearby clinic for the elderly, claiming that she doesn't want to be a burden on Grant. Reluctantly he agrees, but after a month at the clinic, Fiona seems not to recognize her husband and has developed a close relationship with a fellow patient - Albury. Confused and upset Grant wonders if this latest twist in their relationship is not just due to illness but Fiona's way of taking revenge for past hurts and testing their love.

And so it develops into a magnificent game of psychological enquiry on the nature of human connection, fidelity and responsibility. What is remarkable about Polley's direction is the understanding and maturity she brings to her treatment of this painful situation. She could've gone for easy shots, milking the drama dry but instead chooses to underscore her film with some exceptionally written dialogue that sparkles with wit and humour. This allows the audience to bypass our instinctive reactions to the tragedy of Fiona's condition and contemplate about the essence of Grant's attachment to her. Indeed, when a relationship is stripped of that most essential component - memory - what is left to hold it together? It's a difficult proposition and we're not given straight answers either. That's why I think the film succeeds; it leaves space for our own personal questioning, a kind of self-interrogation when you go back home and face your close ones.

What 'Away From Her' also emphasises is our natural need for connection, whatever the situation. When Grant meets Albury's wife, they connect not only because of their shared problem, but because their lives are left in a vacuum that needs to be filled. It's the kind of approach that is stunning both for its simplicity and ambiguity. It's not about surfaces, sex, financial need or even intellect, its much more primal and difficult to pinpoint.

The director makes her cast act as if they're in an Ozu film. The absolutely magnificent Julie Christie - who is herself suffering from Alzhemeir's - gives a sublimely delicate performance that is full of mystery and incredible tonal range. Everyone else is on par; it's a consistent ensemble piece that is never out of sync. Polley's use of the screen is also worth noting. She often uses backlighting to surround her actors with a beautiful glow that radiates warmth and also something otherworldly. There are many quiet moments where a whole sea of information is conveyed by a single glance, a wistful 'Oh' or an innocuous gesture. It's no wonder Atom Egoyan has produced the film - his benevolent influence is everywhere.
While the film does wonderfully what it aims to do it must be said that is a long way from say Bergman's 'Cries and Whispers' or Atom Egoyan's 'The Sweet Hereafter'. I think that by choosing to treat the situation with a relatively light touch and deliberately overlooking the ugliness and pain caused by dementia, the director has played rather safe. This is not a harrowing experience by any means and I felt that we as an audience are left too easily off the hook. You shed a tear or two and feel happy sad but you don't wonder in the end who's left cleaning after Fiona's shit her pants. In my book, that's a cop-out, yet I can't but like this film because it truly is rewarding on so many other fronts.

And now for cinema's lone wolf's - Werner Herzog's - new film, 'Rescue Dawn' - starring Mr. Batman himself, Christian Bale. This is how imagine the initial meeting between Herzog and Bale went.

So you've seen the documentary right? Little Dieter...
Bale: ... needs to fly. Yes of course I've seen it. I know all about the guy.
Herzog: So you know that you'll be in some tough situations. We want to shoot the film in
location in the jungle, no fucking studios.
Bale: I'm no Hollywood pansy, I can take it.
Herzog: But you know... I want to be really real. I want you to fly the plane and crash dive.
Bale (visibly excited): Bring it on!
Herzog: You'll have to loose a lot of weight throughout the filming.
Bale: Plenty of experience in that department.
Herzog: No stuntmen...
Bale (punching the air): Yeah baby!
Herzog: And I want the audience to really feel its real. There's this maggot eating scene, real
Bale (jumping off his chair): Fuck yeah!
Herzog: And everyone's gonna fart in your face when you're chained up to about five POWs.
Bale: I'll do the movie for like 20 bucks!
Herzog: 10 bucks and you'll have to bite and eat a live snake coz you know... we want it be really real.
Bale... (has an orgasm).

Well... that is pretty much what happens in the film. I don't mean to denigrate Herzog's achievement with this film. It's frighteningly REAL and extremely engaging. But in telling this TRUE story of the only American POW to have escaped from the jungle during the Vietnam war, Herzog tramples the same ground he's travelled through so often in 'Aguire', 'Fitzcaraldo', 'Kobra Verde', 'White Diamond' and his own documentary on the same subject - 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly'. Herzog goes back to the jungle... only to find that he has nothing new to say. Well, what more can be said about survival instinct, ambition and human ego that he hasn't explored already? Here, the director even manages to make a film about the Vietnam War that has absolutely nothing to do with the Vietnam War. It could've just easily have taken place in any other war - provided there's a jungle. Yes I know that's not what the film wants to be... we're not meant to politicize the situation. The underlying philosophy is actually very black and white. Dieter has to do everything humanly possible to escape. No questions about right and wrong and why the Americans are bombing innocent villagers. It doesn't matter, this guy just wants to survive. And there is no denying that Herzog captures this harrowing struggle beautifully. We're 100% with him and his actor on this journey.

But my problems is that we're at it again and we know where it's going, the pay-off is astonishingly jingoistic (it'd make a perfect propaganda piece for American troops in Iraq) and what's worse, there are no surprises along the way! Add to it the irritating mugging of Christian Bale (in contrast to the delightful Steve Zahn) who mistakes mannerism for acting and you get a strangely irrelevant one-act film from a master-filmmaker. Even accusations of 'mainstream' aspirations seem beside the point. I just hope that this is a way for Herzog to earn enough funds for a five hour film set on the Everest and featuring a tribe of telepathic dwarfs.

And I'm sorry... but I'm seriously worried about Bale. Will someone please tell him that Oscar is simply a gold-plated tin statue and NOT the Holy Grail?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sydney Film Festival... of Drummers and Masturbators

I know, I know... the festival is well and truly over and I haven't delivered on my promise to post "hot and up-to date news" from the festival. I work and have a social life - so shoot me! All the other reviews will be post-facto.

June 12

There are certain films that call out for new definitions... words even... Films like 'Pink Flamingos' or 'Mullholand Drive'. Screening in the festival's 'Provocateur' section was Koen Mortier's Belgian debut 'Ex-Drummer' and "Eye-Fuck" is the first idiomatic phrase I came up with when trying to describe it. Yes, it hurt and I actually looked away. Now, people who know me, know perfectly well that there's practically nothing cinematic out there that can outgross my jaded viewing sensibilities. I'm perfectly content to eat pop-corn while watching 'Bad Taste' and 'Salo'. It's not that 'Ex-Drummer' is more visually vulgar, gory or disgusting than these films. Maybe it's the terrifying reality of the characters that cuts so close to the bone. However ludicrous the situation somehow I felt that people like the ones featured in this film pass me by everyday on the street. What kind of people you may ask? A trio of guitarists with serious handicaps - one is deaf (and a wife-basher), the second has a dead arm that has gone numb from masturbating (has a bald mother and a psychotic father) and a third one is so angry he walks on the ceiling (and hates women to the point of wanting to slaughter them). The forth one is the drummer - a famous and privileged writer who is approached by the three invalids to help complete a band that is going to play only once at a local rock competition. The writer (his sole handicap being the fact that he can't play the drums) agrees just to be able to observe the depraved lives these disparate characters lead.

Now, in an American comedy, we'd follow this bunch of losers through trials and tribulations until the eventual triumphant conclusion (they play wonderfully, win a prize, get the girl, get laid, get a contract or understand the value of friendship or whatever). But people do things differently in Belgium. First of all, the losers can play - and really well at that. Second of all - nobody seems to really give a shit about the prize. Thirdly - there's not a single good-looking person in sight. Hollywoodn't as the ad says. The film is narrated by the writer/drummer whose dry, lordly voiceover has a Virgilian chill to it as he takes us through the hellish-Flemish uber-camp of self-destructive nuclear family wasteland. In fact, the tapestry here is so convoluted that at times it's difficult to pin-point what exactly the director is aiming his guns at. Considering the horrifyingly bleak hilarity of the film's coda, my guess would be that 'Ex-Drummer' is a critique of society's destructive strive towards 'normality' at all costs - an achievement of an impossible equilibrium if you like. Because in the end, the most disturbed character is really the figure of the writer whose Nietzschean disregard for humanity eclipses all the other handicaps on display put together. But then what does a meter-long dick and a middle-aged bald woman have to do with all that? I'm still trying to figure... The problem with this film is that it tries to do and to be so many things at once. I could call it bluff on a whole deck of mixed themes and metaphors but still not win the hand, so in the end I decided that Koen Mortier's obvious tactic of 'hit'em hard, ask questions later' is a clever choice - now I absolutely must watch this film again. Visually, Belgian (of the Flemish side) films always tend to be on the dour - 'it really sucks to be in Belgium' - side. And this is no different, but the director, who I repeat is an exceedingly clever bloke, uses the 'toilet bowl' aesthetic to foreground the extreme aspects of his story into semi-documentary type visual texture which makes you totally not blink twice when you see a man walk on a ceiling or you suddenly find yourself in an overly enlarged vagina. Add to it some real on screen sex, the surreally violent ending and you get the idea. To say that I look forward to Mortier's follow-up film would be a complete understatement.

The second film of the day I had already seen previously, so deviously I decided to include it as part of my festival quota.

'Witnesses' is Andre Techine's typically cool look at the terrifying spread of AIDS in 1980s. Featuring the director's wide-eyed muse - Emanuelle Beart - as a bohemian writer of children's books, the film is a story about a group of people that are profoundly changed by the disease. Sarah (Beart) and her policeman husband (Sami Bouajilla) have a happy open-marriage arrangement which is somewhat thrown off balance when they have a child. When their closest friend a gay doctor (Michel Blanc) falls in love with a precocious youth named Manu and brings him along to one of their country gatherings, things become even more complicated as attraction develops between all the wrong people. Manu is attractive and is desired by everyone and he takes full advantage of it. Soon, long drives out for 'flying lessons' with Sarah's husband follow. But this is not the Paris of the 20s and a very different kind of war shutters the precocious bonhomie of these hedonistic times. Manu comes down with AIDS, which painfully tests every one's allegiances and motives.
I usually enjoy Techine's dry, laconic storytelling and his multi-stranded narratives that always seem to center on a cultural microcosm rather than just on a single individual. And this is no exception. The uniformly excellent cast deliver stunningly restrained, unsentimental performances and it is a testament to director's mastery that we come to understand and care for all his flawed characters. Like Almodovar, Techine refuses to pass judgement and his typically French sense of subtle irony reinforces the inherent complexities in human relationships never going for definitive and facile statements. The achievement of this film is that it is anything but message driven. We forget to moralise while watching how these people desperately try to clutch on to their dignity and forge ahead with life. The rich shading of interactions, emotions, the fluidity of relationships and emotions is what makes 'Witnesses' such a beautiful testament on the human spirit.
It does seem that Techine himself profoundly changed after the 80s. The magnificent exuberance of his early cinema-du-look films such as 'Barrocco' with their electrifying stylistic gusto has given way to distinctly plainer and paired-back mise-en-scene. He obviously doesn't think of life anymore as a romantic romp through technicolour. Who can blame him?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sydney Film Festival Day 4: Of Mattresses and Men (and Women)

It's Monday the 11th; the festival's just kicked in and I'm already blogged out... but let's get to it...

Every film festival has them - movies that you're not going to see anywhere else... that is until the DVD comes out.
Tsai Ming Liang is a filmmaker who seems to work exclusively for the festival circuit. I have never seen any of his films released in Australia commercially. And I doubt they get released anywhere else. He's just the antithesis of everything that popular cinema stands for... fast and cheap thrills, facile emotions, visceral pleasures.
So it's no wonder that I put his latest opus 'I Don't Want To Sleep Alone' on top my "must see" list. It's Liang's first film set in his native Kuala Lampur - a liminal place that seems to register on the world map as a transfer point between the north and south hemispheres. Appropriately Liang delves in the rampant multi-culturalism of this city, with his characteristic wide-eyed objectivity. From frame one, we feel the absolute rawness of the place. The drab colours, the depressing dilapidation of half-finished construction sites, the babyloniasm of it all... amidst which Liang's camera picks up his protagonists in a pattern that seems resolutely random only to turn out to be celestial. The plot "wanders" around a homeless Chinese man who is severely beaten up (in the hilarious opening scene) by some thugs and is then picked by a local construction worker who then proceeds to almost religiously look after him for no apparent reason. Then there is a young restaurant hostess who is forced to look after her proprietresses' comatose son. And then there's the central character: the mattress. That's right, I'm completely serious.
Throughout the film there's practically not a single verbal exchange between any of the characters. Words are rendered ineffectual in Liang's universe, never more so than here. They just stare at each other for a while, then follow each other for a while, then make an occasional but telling gesture, then either walk away or lie still staring at the ceiling. This strange, Keatonesque atmosphere permeated the theater itself. Pure silence; yet I was laughing hysterically without making a single sound. The director is able to do wonders with the most banal of situations, to draw out humour and poignancy out of the ordinary by the sheer audacity of his timing and meticulous choreography. For this film is nothing if not a dance: a cinematic quartet of pas de deuxs that is exquisitely poetic and at times soaringly sensual.
While Liang's earlier film "Good bye Dragon Inn" (2003) was defiantly challenging in its temporal and spatial experiments that lead to near-abstraction, his latest masterpiece is much more humanist and emotionally rewarding. The early scenes of bodies (actually a single body) being washed and groomed in real time are painfully confrontational in their unflinching reality, testing our own limits of endurance when it comes to caring for other people's needs. But of course its much more than that. The film transcends the banality of sex to speak volumes about our need for contact and a sense of proximity. The bare intimacy of it all - physical and emotional - is sometimes so powerful as to be uncomfortable yet by then end of the last scene proves to be nothing short of cathartic. Ok... I feel myself floating away with all the gashing superlatives, so just for the touchdown I'd like to say that this is my film-revelation of 2007 so far.

I also somehow squeezed in the second showing of 'A Walk Into the Sea' and I'm glad to report that the experience proved worthwhile. The hitherto unknown figure of Danny Williams - one of the periodic victims of Andy Warhol's Factory is unknown no more. This documentary is a fascinating semi-expose of what went on in Warhol's silver-foil cocoon and how it affected a young and extremely talented filmmaker. Williams disappeared when he was 27, presumably due to suicide, although his body was never found. For a couple of years he was Warhol's live-in boyfriend and was graciously lent the valuable Bolex camera that allow him to shoot two dozen highly original experimental films. No one saw the film until their recent discover and more crucially no one seemed to remember Danny making them - even while they were starring in it. While Esther Robinson's documentary is only rudimentary and occasionally annoying in its cloying techniques, it is full of fascinating interviews with many survivors of the Warhol era and more importantly has clips from Williams' films which are to say the least - revelatory. This is a must see for anyone interested in the period and in American avant-gard cinema in general.

The last film of the day was Manoel de Oliveira's tribute to one of the greatest films ever made - Bunuel's 'Belle du Jour' - appropriately titled 'Belle Toujours'. The film is basically a sequel of sorts... 38 years after the original film finished Henri Husson sees Severine in the opera and proceeds to chase after her through Paris. She finally agrees to meet him for dinner claiming that she only wants one thing... to know whether her husband was told or not. Those of you who know the original film, will know what a crucial question this is. It's this kind of, perfectly flimsy, premise that many of Oliveira's existentialist fables are constructed around. I must admit I've never quite warmed to this auteur's films, with the exception of 'The Convent' (1994) - an utterly strange, almost silly, philosophical parable which starred the original Belle de Jour - Catherine Deneuve. In this film, Bullie Oglier takes on the reigns as the aged, but still enticing, Severine. She manages to retain a lot of the cold mystery that Deneuve projected in her role. Piccoli huffs and puffs through his role, at times seeming like he's going to have a heart attack. But sadly, the whole affair is quite grating and masturbatory. It's the epitome of antiquated bourgeois film making that for some reason refuses to die a dignified death. The director's bizarre casting choices for the secondary roles make this almost painful to watch, especially in the first half. And the astoundingly superficial "insights" the characters come up with, seem to have been drawn from a "How To Read Freud" textbook for high school students. The final "dinner" is however quite light and deadpan and the pay off is surprising, appropriately absurd and infuriating (it has to do with length, a box and a rooster). At least Oliveira stayed true to Bunuel's spirit. And you gotta give it to him - he's nearing 100 and is still making cerebral comedies. Respect!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sydney Film Festival Day 3

A very gay day indeed... even while the rain torrents nearly made me stay in the house.

I like to have themes during festivals and Sunday just turned out to be a little... bent. Two films that dealt with homosexuals in highly conservative societies screening on Sunday the 11th caught my eye.
Paul Schrader's 'THE WALKER' was made back in 2006 but I'd never heard of the film until this Sydney screening. Considering that the film deals with murder and corruption at the higher ranks of Washington's political elite... I wouldn't be surprised if someone up there didn't really feel like letting out of the bush.
This strange, strange post-neo-noir looks at the unconventional career of one Carter Page III - a gay Virginian tobacco heir, played with astonishing aplomb by... wait for it... Woody Harrelson. Carter makes it his duty to be that essential accessory that every rich politician's wife should have - her handbag. He's there to amuse them while they play cards in the afternoon, ready to advise them what kind of fabric they should choose for their walls, soothe their anxieties by telling them how beautiful they look and drop them off to their lovers' houses when they need an alibi. It just so happens that Carl's closest fag-hug friend, a leftist senator's wife Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott-Thomas), needs such an alibi when her boyfriend turns up murdered. Poor Carter of course promises to help and is dragged deep into the dirty side of Washington politics.
What at first seems like a political satire with Woody hamming it up as the unofficial Louella Parsons of Washington, turns into an increasingly complex thriller that sheds skin like an onion and smells like raw fish.
Think Big Sleep crossed with My Best Friend's Wedding and you get some idea of what Schrader has come up with. Of course I don't mean to suggest that such a superficial description could do justice to a film as multilayered as this. But it's not for nothing that Schrader has authored a seminal essay on film noir. He knows the style like the back of his hand and deals his cards like an ultimate pro. You think you know where the film is going to go, but after leaving the film you might suddenly realise that if you were watching a murder mystery, you still don't know who the killer is. But that's not the point anyway. Schrader has drawn a sublime character study rendered nearly impeccable with dialogue tuned like a piano wire. Harrelson gives a standout performance. It seems every macho Hollywood star is clamoring for a chance to wear pink so expect at least some Oscar buzz.
I'm not very well versed in interior American politics, but the film works simply as a study of corrupt power masquerading as democracy and there's no audience member in the world nowadays that can not relate to that. I could go on and on about this film because it works on so many levels. Suffice to say that Schrader has made one of his best works so far which proves once again that he's one of the best, most sensitive, liberal and honest American filmmakers working today.

'LA LEON' is a chamber piece set in the Argentinian tropics. It's a quietly brooding film that looks at yet another outsider who tries his best to go on about his business without bothering anyone. Him being gay of course is a problem, although no one seems to care much except the resentful ferry man who has issues with all outsiders including a bunch of immigrants stealing wood from the region's forests.
Stunningly photographed in black and white, La Leon simmers with menace underneath its languid surface. It reminded me of some of the seminal Japanese films of the 60s ('Onibaba', 'Woman in the Dunes') that dealt with repressed sexual desire. But unlike those films, director Antheago Otheguy's second feature delivers the same old notions and truths that we've seen countless times before. Yes, the bully just wants to fuck the protagonist, yes the landscape is a sexual metaphor, yes society is a rotten microcosm no matter where its located... yawn... I felt like I was seeing 'L'Aventura' for about 10 millionth time. The arthouse trappings of films like this are just not enough to disguise the fact that the water is only ankle deep. Added to it is a plot that is almost archaic in convention, leaving this audience member catatonic with luck of suspense. And lets admit it... when you're watching someone raw a boat for minutes and minutes... the least you can ask for is some element of surprise. Still... I managed to gain some enjoyment out of exquisite shots of canes gently swaying in the water...

There you have it. A very solid start but no revelations so far.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sydney Film Festival - Day 1&2

I thought long about my decision to cover the Sydney Film Fest, about what form such coverage should take. At first I wanted to do a video-diary, then just interviews for my site, then simply a diary, then... well I guess I just didn't want the hassle. If this blog is going to be of any use, I guess I should start putting some interesting stuff on it.
Well then... over the next two weeks I'm going to post views and reviews of everything I come across at the 2007 SIFF. Considering that I'm seeing nearly 30 films, I think the initiative is justified.

The festival opened on Friday the 9th with Olivier Dahan's 'La Vie en Rose'. A splashy biopic about the great French icon, Edith Piaf, Dahan's film has garnered mixed reviews and countless gushing adjectives relating to the reportedly astounding performance of Marion Cotillard... Last time I saw her, she was playing a deadly sex kitten in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 'A Very Long Engagement'. She's come a long way since then I guess, still playing a deadly sex kitten (in a way). I avoided the film, but the Sydney public was in ruptures as they always are when they get some second-hand French sophistication for a 15$ ticket and a bag of popcorn.

The next day the festival kicked in with some truly interesting Australian premieres. Namely 'A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory' a documentary made by the subject's niece - Esther Robinson. Unfortunately I couldn't see it, but I find the subject immensely fascinating. Williams is almost a completely unknown filmmaker from Warhol's factory, plus his fate alone makes for an utterly compelling tale. He disappeared mysteriously in 1966 never to be seen again. I don't see it coming back on screens here... so thank God for DVD.

On the other hand, my expectations for Tony Ayres's new film 'The Home Song Stories' was barely lookewarm. His debut feature 'Walking on Water' left me as cold as a cube of ice, although it was praised to no end by all the Australian critics (the biggest malady of our bloody film industry). Thi one is not going to be any different ... expect a double orgasm from Margaret Pomeranz on 'At the Movies'.
As it turns out, Ayres returns to thematically similar ground - an autobiographical tale of a dysfunctional familial unit battling against all odds to stay together. The film tells the story of a Hon-Kong nightclub singer, Rose (the exquisite Joan Chen), who leads her children on an impulse to Australia in 1960s following a navy officer from Melbourne whom she met in Hon-Kong. After marrying the man, she briskly leaves him in a week, taking her son and daughter on an excruciating journey from one 'uncle' to another, until she's forced to come back to her husband again, only to leave him for a much younger Chinese migrant. As Rose ages, her self-confidence wanes as well. She resorts to emotional blackmail, namely suicide, to get what she wants.
Once you know that story is autobiographical you can't help but feel sorry for the filmmaker and his sister from whose points of view the film is rendered. It's a tragic tale for sure, but Ayres succeeds in taking a hard, long and generally restrained look at his mother whose emotional disbalance causes everyone so much grief.
The authenticity of the material is admirable as is the director's ability to condense this very episodic tale into a solid narrative structure. You never lose focus or become disengaged from the characters. This is largely thanks to the remarkable performances from the three leads. Joan Chen, whom we don't see often enough, gives an exceptionally complex performance as a woman who is seductive, vivacious, independent at one moment and destructive, manipulative, needy the next. The children are splendid too, hopefully we'll see more of them in the future.
While not a masterpiece, 'Home Song Stories' is one of those rare Australian films that really look deep into the immigrant experience and manage to wring some answers to as yet unanswered questions of identity, cultural difference and female empowerment within the context of Australia's recent history. The film sometimes veers dangerously close to a cathartic edge, at times almost falling into self-pity and melodrama. The framing device that the director used (a voiceover by the now adult son) is also really irritating because of its earnestness. It reeks of a desperate need for closure and is probably the biggest flaw in an otherwise fine film.
The NSW premiere was attended by the whole cast, including Joan Chen, and a Q&A session followed the film. Self-congratulations all-round. I also spotted a very grungy-looking Phillip Noyce making his way to the film with a very (and I mean very) young and attractive African woman. I'm sure it was just his secretary.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A Blog Is Born

Well, I guess I had to give in sooner or later. Considering the fact that blogging has become a worldwide obsession, I shouldn't feel too bad. I don't know how many people are going to read this (hello out there!), but hopefully I can fill this in with stuff that can not go on my website. What should you expect? More flicker junk.
First of I'll be covering the 2007 Sydney Film Festival which has a trully exceptional line-up this year. It's all about creating buzz - which some of those films are going to need. Expect DVD news and DVD news. I've just gone through a whole butch of truly exciting films by Chabrol, Melville, Naruse and Vlacek, so I'll be covering those on the website (called FILMCODEX by the way). Oh for those who care... fresh off the press - the 5th volume in Criterion's Eclipse series is a box set of 3 early Sam Fuller films. I'm salivating already.