Thursday, September 11, 2003

TIFF Wrap-up (Revised)

Sat Sep 13

Undead (Evil Aussie Twins) C

Good: Flying zombie fish. Bad: "Quirky" refugees from The Price of Milk who end up not having their brains eaten by zombies like I fervently hoped they would. Awful: Stupid aliens and assorted cinematic incompetence. Colin Geddes really should have just revived the awesome Wild Zero if he was looking for a proper sendoff to the venerable Uptown theater.

PTU (To) B-/C+

As the first Milky Way film (and in all likelihood only the second HK action pic) to screen at the prestigious NYFF, expectations were high going in. Best to lower them considerably. One of those "task that must be completed in a short duration" movies, much-hyped action auteur Johnnie To inexplicably abandons the urgency necessary to this genre and focuses, ever so deliberately, on the police procedural and cool lighting (To made the Handsome Boy Modeling School "gangster" pic The Mission). Except it's nothing that we haven't seen in a hundred corrupt police dramas. A kickass opening and closing plus terrific use of props, especially cellphones, but not enough, especially when his outfit has put out much better shit.

Zatoichi (Kitano) B+/B

[More to come.]

Small Town (Ceylan) w/o

10 minute long shot of a guy walking up a hill cued to an inarticulate diatribe against rural living. An endless scene with alternating close-ups of actors reciting the minutes of a 1983 Santa Monica City Council meeting. There comes a point when shoe-shopping along Yonge Street sounded much more appealing than slogging through this tiresome first feature.

Dallas 362 (Caan) B+

One thing's certain: this modest, familiar tale -- basically it's Good Will Hunting meets Mean Streets -- is in for a second wave of movie nerd backlash after the big boys fell hard for it. (The backlash is already on, in fact.) It's not hard to see why. There's nothing profound or revolutionary or "challenging" here, nothing that stretches boundaries or goes off in bizarre directions. Caan is not the second coming of the Andersons (Wes or PT).

All there is here are smartly directed scenes that invariably undercuts the cliches inherent in the set-up, dialogue sharp enough to be laugh-out-loud funny, but naturalistic enough to be believable, fat-free cutting, and terrific ensemble performances -- the kind of thing that used to be called "good, smart filmmaking." Occasionally stumbles (if we start a letter campaign now, perhaps never again shall The Smashing Pumpkins' "Today" be used as source music for a montage sequence), but it's as accomplished an AmerIndie I've seen since You Can Count On Me. Yeah, you read that right: Sonny Corleone's son made one of the best movies of the festival. Stop scoffing, Stults.

Fri Sep 12

Nine Souls (Toyoda) C+

All over the place, but mostly watchable when it isn't trying to be a zany New Zealand comedy. Or when it isn't trying to be All About Lily Chou-Chou. You get the idea. Why didn't I get a ticket for Purple Butterfly instead, which sounded so fucking awesome?

The Merry Widow (von Stroheim, 1925) A-

Ignore that crack-ho V-Mort: The guy who played the villain was totally awesome.

Distant (Ceylan) B+/B

Beautifully observed, smartly judged film, of the sort you almost take for granted until you realize how rarely they turn up. Caveat: checked out for fifteen minutes (due to sheer exhaustion and poor viewing conditions) so take it for what it's worth.

Thu Sep 11

Gozu (Miike) B-

Remember the climax of Dead or Alive? The whopper of a finale here almost tops Miike's finest moment and really bumped up this wildly uneven Alice in Wonderland-cum-Yakuza flick. And yeah, it's way more fucked up than that description makes it sound.

The Five Obstructions (von Trier & Leth) A-/B+

Liked this cordial deathmatch between men of opposite temperaments quite a bit better after a good night's sleep. What I loathed about von Trier's Dancer in the Dark -- essentially, I resented his meta-gambit of manically trying to jerk your heartstrings while forcing you to see him doing it -- works well here, as von Trier's sadistic, control freak meta-pranksterism is laid out bare, and without the cover and artifice of the overwrought melodrama. As a smarter man than I suggested, Dancer feels like it's about a sadist (von Trier) and his victim (Selma). Here's a movie about a sadist and his sparring partner. The dignified, sympathetic Jorgen Leth makes a terrific foil: Lars wants to forcilbly shape every molecule of his material; Jorgen seeks to just observe and record the right moments. Lars imposes absurd rules; Jorgen dances his way around them. Punch/counter-punch. Moviemaking is simply the instrument of battle between the two wills, the act of filmmaking itself energizing and (possibly) cathartic for one, the impish rulemaking and power trips delighting the other.

My TIFFing pals largely concentrated on other aspects of the film, many of which were fascinating but undercooked (the intervention angle too clever by half to be intelligible and the thesis that "rules can be liberating" is seriously undercut by film's positive assessment of the Figgisian Obstruction 3). Don't listen to those guys. My take on this is way better.

Guest Room, etc. (Halim, etc.)

My pal Skander Halim shows that that he can put his incomparable wit and unassailable good taste in comedies to teriffic use by crafting an incredibly appealing short called THE GUEST ROOM. He takes a sitcom scenario -- a grad student takes up a guest room in a family residence and catches the attention of both the mother and the daughter -- and creates a funny and poignant portrait of a family yearning for connection. Halim displays a deft touch with actors, who undoubtedly relish the opportunity to spit out Halim's biting lines. More stunning is Halim's incisive depiction of teenage emotional confusion. I've yet to see a better film that captures that confusion teenage girls undergo in dealing with their budding sexuality. Halim must've tolled some heavy research hours since he has never expressed much interest (at least to me) in this topic previously. Perhaps it takes a detached observer like Halim to really nail the confusion and temptation of teen sexuality.

Les Sentiments (Lvovsky) B/B-

Romantic comedy with a Greek chorus (think Mighty Aphrodite) makes great use of Jean-Pierre Bacri's classically Gallic pout. Much of it frothy and enjoyable, but takes a tonal lurch into botchy-wotchy land in the third act (turning into The Woman Next Door). (The poor bullpen of this fest lineup (movies floundering from the 7th inning on) is proving to be a worrisome trend.)

Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai) B-

A minor nostalgia piece that pretty much happens in real time; takes Tsai's ardent minimalism to the limit, or perhaps past it, veering into self-parody at times. It's full of ten hour takes of a gimping woman silently shuffling through an empty corridor. But Tsai's always rainy Taipei, with its forbidding greens and blues and its attendant malaise, is, in a strange way, an inviting world to lose yourself in. Helps that Tsai's really pretty funny, the physical jokes now depend almost entirely on the preceeding stillness for their effect. And it ends beautifully. But please, let's try something new next time, eh, Tsai-fly?

Wed Sep 10

Des Plumes dans la tete (Some Frog) C+

Starts off like The Seventh Continent, presenting a series of cryptic yet evocative imagery. Then it becomes a very poor man's Under the Sand.

Histoire de Julien et Marie (Rivette) B+/B

Good then okay then boring then good then totally awesome then what the fuck Rivette.

In the Cut (Campion) B

Remember how awesome it was when Jane Campion took Henry James and imbued his novel with her own concerns (especially how a woman can find a good man) and a strong female subjective viewpoint? No Nicole Kidman here, unfortunately, and Meg's "brave" performance is both laudable and uneven, but Ruffalo once again channels Brando to terrific effect (this time looking just like the man in Viva Zapata!)) and Campion does her thing in the context of a sub-Seven type crappy erotic thriller. In other words, the genre stuff sucks eggs (and Campion's touch is, as is often the case, two touches too heavy), but as a supple, erotically-charged fairy tale about a woman's fear of male malevolence (in its many forms) and male abandonment, it's pretty compelling. (The bad genre stuff often has a thematic purpose. For example: Red herrings = the avarice of men in their many manifestations.)

Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (Roeg, 1980) B+

Roeg's sometimes too arty for his own good, but I always enjoy cautionary tales about some obsessive guy trying to fully possess an elusive woman (perhaps because that theme confirms my smug satisfaction about my own very adamant non-possessiveness in relationships). Art Garfunkel: the most unlikely SkineMax leading man ever.

Twentynine Palms (Dumont) B-/C+

Formally accomplished and pretty engrossing road movie, and with actual characters for a change (though early on I'd pegged them for either sexual archetypes or national allegories, or perhaps both). Then it blindsides you with an aluminum bat and turns into another Bruno zoology exhibit. It's clear Dumont's not interested in human beings as such; he's much more curious about the genus (or perhaps the phylum) to which we belong. Pretty fucked up shit, but still doesn't deserve all the hate thrown at it by the seething, stirred-up audience.

Tue Sep 9

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and...Spring (Kim) B+/B

Premised on the concept of samsara, this simple, surpassingly lovely Korean parable really captures the vital spirit and elegant simplicity of Buddhism like no other film I've ever seen. So what if it happens to be "cute" as well?

Brown Bunny (Gallo) B+

So it's narcissistic and self-indulgent vanity project...but we're talking about Vincent Gallo here. Didn't anyone see Buffalo '66? And besides all that, there's also a Hellmanesque a beautifully monochromatic look and magnificent framing (especially of faces). Felt just like a mournful drive to visit the grave of a deceased loved one. Post screening Q & A a riot. The skinny: Vincent Gallo does not like Buffalo. Or Roger Ebert. Or reporters. Or his crew.

Les Triplettes de Bellville (Some French Animator) B/B-

Imaginative, cute and well-designed French cartoon but lacks the foundation and thus the emotional resonance that makes Miyazaki's flights of fancy so rich. Would've worked better as a 40 minute piece.