Wednesday 30 September 2009

TIFF 2009 - "Hipsters"

Though not quite the perfect blast of music, dance, colour and energy that it could have been, the Russian musical Hipsters is actually only a bit shy of that and without a doubt one of the most fun marriages of music and film I've seen in awhile. It's a bit of a cross breed of Grease and Dirty Dancing, but with more smarts, a story that tweaks cliche situations and a full painter's palette that gets splattered across just about every scene. The main flaw of the film is that it doesn't quite keep the energy flying high for its entire length and occasionally cuts scenes just as they are at their most fun. The story, though surprising in numerous spots, takes a few odd turns that stall the mood a bit, but in the end there's still plenty of enjoyment to be had.

Polly and her friends are the hipsters - a crew of young rebellious teenagers who love American jazz, poodle skirts and outlandish hairstyles. In prim, proper and very grey-looking 1950s Moscow, they tend to stand out and often get "raided" by the communist youth group. One of these young communists is named Mels (after Marx, Engels, Lenin & Stalin) and he gets immediately smitten by the music, fashion and sexual energy of the hipsters. Not to mention the beautiful Polly. Before you know it, he's buying black market ties, jackets and a saxophone. His eagerness for the music allows him to merge into the hipster gang pretty easily and he and Polly begin to form a relationship. This doesn't sit too well with his youth group or its leader - the also gorgeous, but much more harsh edged Katya.

The youth group just doesn't understand the rebelliousness of Polly and her friends. "Why don't all the people want to live like everyone else?" they wonder. Everything the hipsters stand for (they are considered to be kowtowing to U.S. culture) is thought to be against what is good for the party and a gateway to further criminal activity. The saxophone, in fact, is thought to be a step away from the switchblade. Fortunately, any of this political commentary and slight satiric content is relatively subtle or rolls comfortably into the musical numbers and story of the young couple. Those numbers, of course, are the highlights of the film. They contain lots of closeups, broad reactions and even cheesy moments, but are all done in a knowing fashion. The songs are typically in the swing style and pretty much fit the definition of "toe-tapping". There's serious moments a plenty throughout the story, but it never loses sight of the fact that it's supposed to be fun.

And it is. The cast is filled with naturally charming and dynamic actors - in particular Oksana Akinshina (Polly) who has also appeared in Lilya 4-Ever and The Bourne Supremacy - and there are many moments of breezy casualness that just carries the audience along. It's too bad that it seems to second guess itself at times though. Early in the film, for example, as Mels (now called the more Americanized "Mel") is being given dance lessons by his new friend Bob, the duo begin dancing all around the apartment. It's a bit reminiscent of the silliness of the scene in Footloose where Kevin Bacon teaches Chris Penn to dance, but far less awkward and much more enjoyable. Until Bob's mother walks in on them that is, and the number gets cut short just as it's picking up steam. There are several moments like that throughout the movie that impact the overall momentum which was building up - you end up never quite reaching any jump-out-of-your-seat moments.

By movie's end though, my toes had sure got a good workout and I left the theatre smiling pretty broadly.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

TIFF 2009 - "Micmacs"

Jean-Pierre Jeunet knows how to please his fan base. His latest film Micmacs A Tire-Larigots (for the most part simply called Micmacs in North America) is chock full of his patented set design, quirky characters and Rube Goldberg type apparatus, and from start to finish it's crammed with more inventiveness and creativity than many directors manage in entire careers. Granted, if you aren't a fan of previous films like Delicatessen and Amelie, you won't likely be converted, but if you are then there's little chance you'll be disappointed - in fact you'll likely be thrilled.

The film came in 3rd place for the Audience Award at the end of TIFF, so it was a feeling that was obviously shared by many. Along with the gags and wonderful artistry, the movie also contains the story of a man down on his luck who, through the help of his new found family, rises back to achieve happiness and even some revenge against those who have wronged him. If that feels like I'm giving too much away, it doesn't really matter. Don't worry, even though the story does actually follow that arc (as well as contain an overall theme decrying weapons manufacturers out purely for profit), it's not the main point of the film. Neither are the characters - each one is a fine, though perhaps fairly standard, version of characters Jeunet has used before (portrayed by many of the same actors). None of these things are the reason why the film works so well.

It's the production design...From the houses and buildings (the video store where our hero Bazil works, the offices/apartments of the competing presidents of nearby weapon manufacturers, the junkyard home of the rag tag group of scavengers Bazil falls in with) to the wonderful thingamajigs that the group's inventor builds (mechanical characters and devices used to do menial tasks) to the lengthy and intricate set pieces the entire group participates in to help get Bazil his revenge, the film never stops its joyous hopping about and feels like an ode to unencumbered creativity. The story of Bazil's revenge is enjoyable and the characters do have numerous fun foibles (e.g. the young Calculette who can immediately estimate weights, distances and speeds), but they seem to have been fit in to serve the sets, gags and inventions. Now that's not usually a good plan - creating props and little "bits of business" and then shoehorning a story into it - but it works like gangbusters here.

Of course, I'm overstating things. The story had me engaged and looking forward to the end comeuppance of the evil Corporate presidents, so things weren't obviously forced into the sets after the fact. I do wish the characters were given a bit more time to expand on their personalities, though, as we would've been a bit more involved in subplots such as the budding romance between Bazil and the contortionist. Which leaves Jeunet's film just short of being perfect. Fortunately, it's superbly entertaining, constantly surprising and leaves you grinning ear to ear. I guess that'll have to do.

Monday 28 September 2009

TIFF 2009 - "The Misfortunates"

"Life went on...Of course, that's what sometimes makes it difficult."

It's not often a movie can take you from sweet and charming to sad and depressing then to laugh out loud hilarious and then shift to something quite disturbing. It's even rarer when the movie can do that all that within the span of 3-4 minutes...Repeatedly. Welcome to The Misfortunates, the story of a family of 4 grown boys (well, men actually) being raised by their mother as seen through the eyes of Gunther - the teenage son of the eldest. It's a bit crowded living all under one roof, but the boys are pretty useless on their own. Of course, they aren't really a whole lot better together either.

We initially meet Gunther as an adult. He's a struggling author who has yet to find himself published. Actually, he's pretty much struggling at everything. His menial jobs, his relationship and his happiness are all pretty much going nowhere. Most of the film consists of flashback scenes from his days as the teenager in the house with his Dad and uncles, but the story occasionally jumps back to check in with Gunther's current progress. This makes it less of a plot driven movie and more episodic, but considering the vast amounts of drinking the boys do, their lives really are quite episodic anyway. There's the naked cycling race, the dressing like a woman days-long binge, the world record attempt at beer drinking, the Tour De France drinking game and of course the big live Roy Orbison concert on TV. While this day to day chaos goes on, young Gunther is trying to become a man and make it through school.

It's not easy for him...He loves his family, but they do make it hard for him to study. His constant tardiness and behaviour issues end up giving him many extra essays to write and though he embraces these opportunities to be creative, he still wonders if maybe he should board at the school. It's also hard trying to grow up when your youngest uncle steals the girl you had your eye on and you get some fairly mixed up advice regarding women, drinking and life in general. The men are buffoons and, let's face it, losers. They do little for society, are selfish and lazy, and are rarely sober. Yet you can't help feel a little compassion for each of them, if not quite sympathy for their inability to get their asses in gear. Even their mother has a difficult time keeping her patience - their treatment and ideas regarding women aren't exactly modern and Gunther is soaking it all in. Look no further than the bawdy folk songs they love to sing with enlightening lyrics like "One is not enough and three is too many" (from a song dedicated to women's breasts). And yet, they can still seem warm and caring even while they teach these songs to their young niece.

Set in a small town in Belgium, director Felix van Groeningen has created a fascinating portrait of people stuck in neutral who have let life beat them down until they can only look forward to the next period of drinking. It's partially their own fault (Gunther's Dad tells him he tries his best to fend for him, but he drinks away half his paycheque almost immediately after getting it), but the village also seems to strip away any beauty or hope. The audience found a great deal of things to like about the film itself, though, and it got some of the most positive walking-out-of-the-theatre buzz that I heard the entire festival. Our good fortune for having selected the film in the first place.

Saturday 26 September 2009

TIFF 2009 - "Soul Kitchen"

Food. Music. Sex. Family. Depending on the person, each can be thought of as a kind of "food for the soul". They all make up significant parts of Fatih Akin's latest film Soul Kitchen which, complete with scenes that rival Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and Big Night for their capacity to make you want to reach through the screen to grab the food on display, focuses on many of the joys of life. It ends up being somewhat of a meta-film: It's about food for the soul, but it also becomes food for the audience's soul too.

Not that it's perfect mind you - it has a plot arc that is overall fairly predictable, several clunky scenes and one or two performances that aren't quite consistent. However, it's wholly entertaining, never slips into "turn your brain off" silliness and provides several absolutely joyous moments celebrating all those varieties of food for your soul.

Zino owns a restaurant called "Soul Kitchen" in an old warehouse. It's packed with old tables and chairs and dishes that don't quite match. He's got his core crowd, though, and they come back for the fairly basic food that serves their needs. He's already pretty stressed, but life takes several turns for the worse after he wrenches his back, gets informed he owes taxes, finds out his girlfriend is leaving for an extended trip to China and runs into an old "friend" who has designs on his warehouse property. The movie follows his and his restaurant's ups and downs for the next few months as new staff, new customers and new relationships all factor in.

One of the new staff is Zino's brother - a jailbird who is out on day parole and is seeking some meaningless job in order to help meet the requirements of being allowed out. As Zino starts preparing to join his girlfriend in China, he considers turning the restaurant over to his brother. He's also hired a cranky perfectionist chef who verbally abuses and threatens customers if they dare to ask for a change to the menu. As the food improves, so does the music - his brother begins to DJ and another employee brings his band (and its fans) into the space for practice sessions. There's a great deal of churn in Zino's life and his back is still screwed up, but the restaurant is more popular than ever. Of course, that creates its own set of problems.

Twists and turns abound in the film - not huge ones, but small ones that make the trip from A to the inevitable B more than a simple straight line. As well, it's a great deal of fun to spend time with these characters (even the minor ones) as they are, for the most part, fleshed out. In particular, Zino's brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu of Run, Lola, Run fame) and the restaurant's spirited and ornery waitress Lucia (Anna Bederke) are standouts, especially when they go beyond flirting and take things to a new level during a wild night at the restaurant after the chef has spiked everyone's desserts with a powerful aphrodisiac (Lucia's ravenous gaze towards Illias is a clear indicator of the potency of the additive). The patrons feast on the new menu and gorge on the music as well. One would expect some great tunes simply due to the title of the film, but across several styles I don't think there was a single duff track. The music matches extremely well with several terrific scenes of laughter, dancing and celebration in Zino's restaurant. It's a place where the clientele can fuel up on the nourishment that body and mind require. It sure did me a lot of good as well.

Thursday 24 September 2009

TIFF 2009 - "Perrier's Bounty"

Waking up with a hangover and seeing your loan shark's collection agents (ie. the muscle) standing right next to your bed is a pretty nasty way to start off your day, but it's going to get a whole lot worse for Michael (Cillian Murphy). No one can lend him any money, the beautiful girl downstairs he's in love with is suicidal, his Dad is 100% positive that he'll die during his next sleep and, after a "misunderstanding" of sorts, Michael now has a bounty on his head. The next few hours will lead him (and the viewer) down many unexpected paths, but fortunately, as the seemingly omniscient narrator tells us, "There's a point to this."

Working in a similar vein as Guy Ritchie's early films (street level crime filled with unique, interesting and funny characters), but with much less self-conscious style to it, Ian Fitzgibbon's Perrier's Bounty strikes me as a sure-fire crowd pleaser. Its plot keeps taking little detours off the expected routes and creates its own twisting turning ride - just when you think you know what direction it's taking, something happens that pretty much quashes that thought. Along with the terrific performances, a cast of interesting characters that weave in and out of the story and another superior David Holmes score, the film provides a top notch, dynamic and wonderfully entertaining journey. There are some familiar scenes and moments that are from the playbook of similar films, but here they all feel right for this particular story since there's usually some additional touch or angle to them that wasn't expected.

As Michael tries to figure out how to repay the money and avoid the bounty on him, he comes across coke dealers, dog trainers, crazy old female farmers and parking cops. But the one guy he's really trying to avoid is Perrier himself. As played by Brendan Gleeson, he's a charming, quick wit with a friendly smile and a gay-friendly work environment, but can also be a big burly bastard who won't think twice about screwing you over and killing you. Gleeson plays the role with relish and makes for the type of villain you're always sad to see leave a scene. As for Michael's Dad, Jim Broadbent plays sleep-deprived wide-eyed enthusiasm like he's been living it for years. As he tries to keep his mind working to stay awake, his conversational gambits become a bit blunt, but he has a kind heart at the root. At one point he blurts out to Michael's neighbour "You suicidal? Sorry to hear that."

As great as the characters and script are (the dialogue is sharp - never just random wise cracks), it's the free flowing plot that really provides the constant forward momentum and all the fun. However, it's still well-constructed underneath - there are various characters or things that show up and then come back to further effect later in the film all without feeling contrived. The journey is the important thing here, even though you really want to see where it ends up once the narrator has told us about the "impending heartbreak". It pretty much ends where the narrator indicates it will, but you can't help but wish the ride lasted a bit longer. I look forward to a wider release so I can see it again.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

TIFF 2009 - "The Loved Ones"

Maybe it was just the pumped up Midnight Madness crowd (perhaps psyched by initial descriptions of this otherwise unknown film as a mix of Carrie and Pretty In Pink as imagined by Sam Raimi) or the tiredness brought on by a 5-film day, but Sean Byrne's The Loved Ones ended up being one of the most memorable and fun screenings of the entire film festival for me. Apparently I'm not alone in thinking this either as it won the inaugural Midnight Madness Audience Choice Award.

Though not really a mash-up of the two films mentioned above, Byrne's Aussie horror had surprises, gore, disturbing scenes and plenty of humour for everyone's fill. Most of all, though, it had a keen eye for composition and pacing. It takes its time, uses long takes and builds up its head of steam through story and character. For example, there's a sequence late in the film that most directors would've likely rushed through, just to get to the "kill" shot. Byrne flips it around though as he uses several long establishing shots and then a very long single zoom into a character's face. The entire audience knows what's coming, but he holds it, holds it and holds it some more (creating a giggling sense of anticipation in the crowd) and then releases a very quick shot of the end result to a huge audience reaction. Byrne and crew know what they are doing.

It's best to go into the film knowing as little as possible. Granted, that should go for most films, but it's of particular worth here. So aside from saying that Brent and Holly have plans for the upcoming prom night which don't quite pan out the way they expected, I'll leave it at that. There's other story threads that are spliced into the main one and each ties back in some way to the title of the film. These changes of pace also help to break up some rather intense scenes going on elsewhere - though don't mistake "intense" for "torture porn" (a term I dislike, but I can see how some might think there are elements of that if they hear more of the plot details). The gore is not gratuitous nor is it random. Anyway, the dysfunctional relationship at the heart of the main story keeps the viewer always a bit off balance and usually laughing while they attempt to right themselves.

What makes the whole film work so well is how the story is told. Not only is Byrne not afraid to show a familiar scene in a different way, it seems like he's embracing the chance to do so. Whether it's via his choice of framing, editing (including restraint in allowing a scene to play itself out) or not giving his male lead very many lines of dialogue for probably about 75% of the movie, there are many things that set The Loved Ones apart from many of the other horror and genre films out there today. Including the fact that it's highly entertaining.

Sunday 20 September 2009

TIFF 2009 - "Symbol"

WTF has a new poster child and its name is Symbol.

Whether it's the storyline of the preparations of a Mexican wrestler named Escargotman for his latest fight or that of another man completely sealed in a white room who slowly but surely works towards an escape plan, Hitoshi Matsumoto's (his previous film Dai-Nipponjin aka Big Man Japan appeared at TIFF two years ago) latest film is a head-shaking, sometimes frustrating and sometimes hilarious experience. I suppose it's not fair to attach the WTF label to it, but I guarantee that at least several times during this film you will utter the full version of that acronym to yourself - and possibly even aloud (I know I heard it from a couple of different folks). Feel free to use any of a long list of possible substitutions for the letter 'F' (farg, frig, frak, etc.), but I expect the sentiment will be the same.

The opening scenes take place in Mexico where we meet a foul-mouthed dangerous driving nun, a kid spoiling grandfather and a wrestler who likes to wear his mask around the house. They're all part of the same family and are getting ready for Dad's bout later in the day. There's little wrong with these scenes in and of themselves, but there's also little to engage the viewer. The wrestling match itself is solid too, but nothing of overly strong interest actually takes place when we cut to the Mexico scenes. The question lingering in your mind, however, will be "How in the hell does this have anything to do with the guy in the yellow pajamas flailing about in the white room?" and I expect that's exactly the design point.

The scenes with the unnamed man in pajamas (played by director Matsumoto himself) are split into three sections: The Education, The Implementation and The Future. It's hard to describe this portion of the film too much without giving away any of the strange, funny and downright goofy surprises in store for the viewer - such as knowing what the many "buttons" that appear in the room really are and what each one does when it is pressed. The man isn't the sharpest tack in the box, but that just makes it all the more fun to go along his trip of discovery within the room. There's a good mix of randomly silly and relevant occurrences so that you're never quite sure if something that has shown up or happened might be useful later on. The various escape plans the man devises are probably the most entertaining aspects of the room segments, especially when we see him visualize the actual escape through cartoon panels while snapping his fingers along to a great funky tune. Some of the other comedic moments don't work quite as well, though, since Matsumoto goes for some pretty broad reactions to what happens to him as well as repeating and stretching out some of the gags. Fortunately, even with the occasional returns to the less than exciting Mexico bits, there is still enough going on to keep you wondering what you could possibly see next.

So how do the two segments relate? Even if you could somehow tie them together in your mind, you still won't come close to guessing. The more important and interesting question is "where does it go from that point on?", because that's when things really open up. Feel free to bring in the metaphysical, the religious and the philosophical when discussing what it all symbolizes. There's no wrong answer...Just make sure to show your work.

TIFF 2009 - "Kamui"

If I'm being kind, I'd say that Yoichi Sai's "post-modern sweeping Ninja epic" (as per the festival programmer's introduction) of the 1960-70's manga "Kamui Gaiden" (also known as "The Legend of Kamui") is a pretty faithful recreation of a graphic novel's frame by frame storytelling - cheesy CGI and all. If I'm being honest, I would say that's also its biggest problem. Short of a few scenes, much of the action and story feels like it is indeed taking place on a flat cartoon panel and never seems to realize it's a filmed adaptation. The 2-D space applies itself to the characters as well since they show very little depth and, consequently, very little reason to care for them.

It's not the fault of the story itself, though, since there are numerous interesting aspects to it. During the Tokugawa period in the 17th century, a young boy named Kamui is ostracized from his community. He's always felt like an outcast and so decides to build up his strength and speed in order that he may one day leave and find freedom for himself. Unfortunately, after striking out on his own he finds that he has few options outside of becoming a Ninja. His skills are already quite strong so he joins a team that hunts down former Ninjas who want to leave the life. As any Ninja warrior should know, you may be required at any moment to kill just about anyone - man, woman or child. For Sugaru, a formidable opponent that Kamui and his team battle, it's too much for her to continue killing without justification. The fearless battle in which she engages the Ninjas leaves a strong impression with the boy.

Many years later, Kamui has become a young adult and has developed a set of secret moves that put him a cut above the rest of the Ninjas. It's at this point that he too decides that his time has come to leave the life of killing and find some of the freedom he's been desiring since an early age. He almost finds it too: through numerous circumstances, Kamui ends up on the run and in a fishing village where he not only shares his secret with a former opponent, but may have also found himself a quiet happiness. It doesn't last long, of course, and he has to face traitorous behaviour, an emperor's bounty, a ship full of pirates and massive sharks.

It all sounds like meaty stuff for a good Ninja film chock full of battles. There are actually some early scenes that promise a fun romp ahead (using what seems to be not-quite-finished CGI effects, Kamui displays his Izuna Drop and Mirror Mist Kill moves), but it loses its way when Kamui gets on the bad side of the crazy, power hungry emperor and he meets Hanbei the fisherman. The fun drains from the story and there's not much inventiveness in bringing to life the characters. The special effects are very much short changed by this point too since we've gone beyond fight scenes and into big ocean storms and other events that are peripheral to the Ninja arc of the story. In particular, the huge killer sharks that encircle an island - the effects on them put me in mind of Shark Attack 3: Megalodon and that's not a good thing (I'm overstating it a bit, but I can't help the fact that the comparison popped into my head). Sai makes use of some good framing for many of his shots that seem to map to storyboard panels, but I never felt that he took it much further than that.

Having seen Sai work wonders with the story of Quill the seeing-eye dog (his 2004 film that avoided all the trappings of what could easily have been excess melodrama), I had confidence that Sai could put a new spin on a strong Ninja tale. From the post film Q&A with him, it appears that the Kamui Gaiden manga were of particular importance to him as a young man. My impression is that perhaps Sai couldn't quite remove himself from his reverence for the manga to create an intriguing and visually exciting tale.

Friday 18 September 2009

TIFF 2009 - "Bare Essence Of Life"

The wiring in Yojin's head is different than most people's. It's not broken, it's just different. He tends to repeat words, can't sit still and loses focus on conversations. He's also prone to acting up, likes to throw things around the place and keeps a long string of alarm clocks set to remind him to do basic tasks. So even though the rest of him is 25 years old, his brain is actually in a very childish state. He doesn't worry about this much until Machiko, the new school teacher, arrives in town from Tokyo and he becomes smitten with her. Thus begins the plot of Satoko Yokohama's Bare Essence Of Life - a gentle, sometimes funny, sometimes strange and occasionally surreal look at these two people as well as our nature as human beings to control what scares us.

Yojin likes her immediately, but she's a bit frightened by his actions. One evening he tries to pull her out of her classroom through a window while she is still minding several children, so one can somewhat understand her concerns. The children, however, seem to love him and treat him like one of their own by pestering and playing with him in the same way as the rest of their class. This easy friendship Yojin has with kids leads him to play with a small boy in his backyard garden one day and it's here that he discovers something - getting sprayed with pesticide calms him down and clears his brain. That night he has a long talk with Machiko as he walks her home and he realizes that she might prefer the clear headed version of himself as opposed to the regular version. So he starts to spray himself regularly.

It's during one of these walks home (each done in lovely, long single takes) that the story's general theme surfaces. Machiko tells Yojin about her version of evolutionary theory - as humanity makes its world safer and further controls unpredictable elements like Mother Nature, we stop evolving. It's a bit of a circular argument (using Machiko's own example, if humanity evolves in order to find a way to stop any further wars won't we then hit another evolutionary wall?), but the details are somewhat besides the point. It's an interesting viewpoint on man's love/hate relationship with the natural world around us and the extent that we should combat it. The film is filled with references and ties between humanity, nature and our fears such as the dusting of crops via helicopter, beautiful close-ups of grass and insects, and Yojin's own struggles to make sense of his Grandfather's gardening lessons on audio tape as he tries to keep bugs away from the cabbage. It also provides a wonderful look at small town rural life and its languid pace.

We get to spend quality time with these characters via numerous long takes like those walks home. There's typically very few edits during conversations, so it gives the viewer a relaxed, comfortable and very natural way of getting to know both Yojin and Machiko (not unlike Nobuhiro Yamashita's Linda Linda Linda and A Gentle Breeze In The Village). Machiko is a bit unsteady herself since she lost the love of her life recently via a car accident. He was already essentially lost to her due to his philandering, but she seems deeply perturbed about the fact that his head was severed during the crash and as yet not found. She still somehow holds out hope that he may one day talk with her - if only that head could be found. Meanwhile, Yojin is convinced that he's actually evolving (he mixes up which pesticides he uses on himself so that he won't gain tolerance to them), but is actually beginning to suffer some real health problems. This leads to some very unexpected and magical moments that work their way into the latter portion of this very engaging film. It's the second feature by Yokohama (who also wrote the screenplay) and I look forward to any future theories she cares to share with us through her films.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

TIFF 2009 - "Five Hours From Paris"

Given the country of its origin (Israel) and possibly also the non-issue that is the debate around the choice of Tel Aviv as the focus of the City to City programme at the festival (this film is not actually a part of that programme by the way), Leon Prudovsky prefaced the screening of his feature-length directorial debut by telling the audience that his story was not about war, politics or religion. It's about romance. Through the three part structure of the film (each part named after the characters), it achieves its goal in sweet and very charming fashion. By the end of the story, you've become so fond of the main chracters that you actually want a full scale cheesy-fireworks-in-the-sky ending.

Things are complicated when Yigal and Lina first meet though. He's a divorced father of a 12 year old boy and she's married to a Russian urologist studying in Canada. Yigal drives a cab and is about to embark on a business venture with his ex-wife's current husband, but is relatively meek in his daily life as evidenced by his son's detached indifference to him, his failed attempts at conquering his fear of flying and a constant feeling of loneliness. For her part, Lina has struggled through some of her own confidence issues. She'd always dreamed of being a concert pianist, but rationalized to herself that she preferred to teach children and so became a piano teacher instead. She volunteers at the opera as an usher and her unspoken regret is all over her face. It's in her capacity as Yigal's son's teacher that the two of them first meet.

Yigal is struck by her beauty (the man has good taste), but notices that she has a wedding ring and so does nothing more. Fortunately, the kids at school gossip and he hears that her husband actually ran away to Canada - so he gently starts to pursue her. An early sign that the film plays things a bit differently than standard romantic tales is one in which he insists on driving her back to the opera to pick up her phone. What any other story would likely have made a squirm inducing scene reflecting his desperation, this one turns into his first blush of success at reaching Lina. The rumours about her husband end up being untrue (she is actually preparing to eventually move to Canada to join him), but they've already begun a friendship so it continues at a leisurely pace and grows from there. The key to the film is these two main characters. They are realistic, very likeable and both hoping to enjoy life more than they currently are - it's just they aren't sure how to overcome their fears. These are people to whom anyone can relate and I found I simply enjoyed spending time with them, both when they were together and on their own.

The title of the film comes from the fact that Yisal's son's Bar Mitzvah is taking place soon in Paris. He desperately wants to be there and is trying to overcome his overwhelming fear of flying by visiting a psychiatrist. Both Yisal and Lina are somewhat stuck in their current ruts - neither overly passionate about their work or overall state of being, but also unwilling to take risks and preferring to live vicariously through others. Their relationship builds in a very natural way so that the romance grows from it. One of the best sequences in the film starts with a celebration of his first short flight (on which Lina joins him) with champagne and involves mice in her kitchen and Karaoke at a bar. Whether the film winds up with that particular cliche finale or not isn't for me to say here, but after spending an hour and a half with these characters you want to see their passions get re-ignited like those fireworks they truly deserve.

Monday 14 September 2009

TIFF 2009 - "The Ape"

The 82 minute run time of The Ape is designed with a single purpose in mind: to put you in the shoes of someone living solely by instinct (though very poor instinct for most of the story). Struggling at every step of the way to make decisions, Krister is having a really bad day after a particularly regretful decision made the night before. The film builds the tension as he staggers, drifts and stumbles from one spot to another and his desperation and his helplessness is palpable in every frame. At each juncture, even though you don't have much information as to what's going on, you can't help but try to put yourself in his situation and wonder what you would do. In Krister's state, though, it's not like he knows much more than we do...

And that's how he's operating - gut feel, chance encounters and daily habits guide his every move. After waking up on the floor of a bathroom with blood on and all around him, Krister washes up and goes to work. He's confused and disturbed, but also somewhat on autopilot since he still ensures that his cell phone ear piece is with him wherever he goes. His day at work (as a driving instructor) doesn't last long as he almost physically attacks a student and then just leaves her with the car to get back by herself.

The strong reaction to the circumstances surrounding Krister is achieved by using handheld cameras that follow Krister everywhere typically with tight closeups or at most medium shots. There's no score or soundtrack except for the noises around Krister, his own laboured breathing and the occasional sudden loud roaring or crashing (a bus going through the frame, trains, metal falling, etc.). Just a little something to add to the jumpy sensations you already have and to bring you just a bit closer to Krister's own state of mind.

I haven't said much more about the plot partially because that's how the film is being sold - go in blind without knowing where it's going. Which, by the way, is exactly how lead actor Olle Sarri had to approach each day's work since he didn't know scene to scene where things were leading or what the backstory was. More specifically, though, the plot is pretty much irrelevant. It's all about the continuous creep of tension and stress on Krister. Have you ever had one of those moments when so much is twirling in your brain that you can't actually think clearly or logically about your next step? And your feet seem to be in cement? Eventually you start doing something or walking somewhere out of pure instinct, but not before a couple of false starts. That's this movie in a nutshell.

It may not be "entertaining" (as even director Jesper Ganslandt warned the audience it wouldn't be), but you'll likely experience exactly what the film wants you to feel.

Sunday 13 September 2009

TIFF 2009 - "L'Enfer D'Henri-Georges Clouzot"

"You have to see your madness through"

Somewhere late in Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea's new documentary L'Enfer D'Henri-Georges Clouzot (about the famed director's "lost" 1964 film L'Enfer), Clouzot himself states the above philosophy. It's meant as a general approach artists should take with their work, but by this point in the story it feels more like a summation of both the main character arc from the aborted film as well as Clouzot's own journey trying to make it. Clouzot's script for L'Enfer is built around the obsessive jealousy of Marcel, a middle-aged, chisel-featured man married to a much younger and beautiful flirtatious woman. The main goal of the filmmaker was to try to visually render feelings of anxiety and neurosis. If nothing else, from the many clips of never before seen footage the documentary shares, it appears he would've succeeded on that point remarkably well.

Clouzot had just started getting his cast ready and was about to begin helming the shoot when the studio gave him an unlimited budget. It probably shouldn't require hindsight to realize that removing all financial controls from the dream project of a known meticulous and perfectionist director (qualities for which Clouzot was criticized by the New Wave directors) may not have been such a good idea. Using many present day interview subjects who worked on the film and behind the scenes footage, we get a good feeling of how things got away from Clouzot and why the entire production spun out of control. It's a kind of Lost In La Mancha scenario wrought 40 years earlier (run-ins with star Serge Reggiani, the impending draining of a lake important to the film, Clouzot's own physical collapse, etc.). There's a goldmine of elements the directors pull from which leads to a somewhat jumbled affair, though still quite a propos for what must have been a chaotic and frustrating shooting period.

It's all terrific stuff, but the truly amazing and jaw dropping moments come from the "lost" footage shot for the film that has been sitting with Clouzot's window for greater than 40 years now - 13 hours of it sitting in 185 cans. Comprising only a portion of the initially scheduled 4 weeks of outdoor shooting (and none of the proposed 14 weeks of soundstage scenes), the documentary slowly pieces together what the film may have been like. The footage of the film is brilliantly composed and framed, but the standout sections are the hours of tests (shot in both black & white and colour) for the delusions Marcel has during his struggle with his jealousy. Playing with light, water and "kinetic art", Clouzot devised some stunning visual experiments and captured them on film. The trailer above shows star Romy Schneider in numerous seductive poses and moments, but there are hundreds of other tests that were done using optical tricks with faces, colours, lines, spinning objects and all manner of shapes. The dream sequence from his 1968 film Les Prisonnieres gives an idea of how he may have used these same effects in L'Enfer, since some of the sequence is duplicated if not directly taken from the 1964 tests.

All these clips are mixed with the sounds and electro-acoustic music found on the only audio tape from the entire production (none of the film has any sound associated with it). Along with those external scenes and "re-enactments" of what were to be some of the key soundstage scenes, we get the basic structure of the film Clouzot had in mind. From Bromberg's slightly rambling yet passionate and entertaining introduction and post-film comments, there sounds like there's another equally interesting documentary to be made regarding the release of the footage by Clouzot's wife. Apparently the Inferno that engulfed Clouzot had been smouldering with her for decades as well.

It's hard to say what L'Enfer would've ended up like, but I damn sure wish I could've found out. Fortunately this incredible document exists to tease us with what might've been.

Cross posted at

Monday 7 September 2009

A Wandering Ginza Butterfly

Known primarily for her roles in the "Lady Snowblood", "Stray Cat Rock" and "Female Prisoner" series of films, Meiko Kaji has played her share of reclusive, intense and dangerous women. Stunningly beautiful, but typically with a single purpose in mind - vengeance. The two "Wandering Ginza Butterfly" films she did in the early 1970s follow a somewhat similar template: Kaji's character Nami the Red Cherry Blossom won't stand for injustice and follows through with righting it, but she does it this time with a little less violence and blood splattering. Until she really, really needs to that is.

As a fan of the lovely Ms. Kaji, I have to admit a great deal of bias up front for her presence in any film. It's particularly hard to be objective during much of Kazuhiko Yamaguchi's 1971 film, because Kaji turns on the charm and - this may surprise devotees of the previously mentioned films - she smiles. Her cheekbones get some decent screen time while she is given more room to actually act and respond somewhat naturally to the other characters. The first sequence of the film shows us a kinder and gentler Kaji as a new inmate gets tossed into a women's prison cell and immediately demands to be given preferential treatment. Nami steps in and defuses the entire situation with a simple welcoming gesture and gains the upper hand. She introduces herself as a wanderer and we gradually begin to discover her history.

The key to the film is that slow reveal of her background. We know virtually nothing about her as we pick up the main story, which begins just after Nami is released from prison while she heads back to Tokyo and, specifically, the Ginza district. Within its high end shopping and neon signs, "every single girl in Ginza has a wound from the past that they can't talk about". Her uncle runs a pool hall and it's here that we learn about her abilities not only as a pool player, but as a gambler, con-man and astute judge of people and situations. While these introductory segments spool out, you gain confidence that Yamaguchi will indeed tie everything together: Why was Nami in prison? Who is Kajime Saeko (the woman who vouched for Nami and helped her get out of prison early)? How does Shin (a slick player she meets on the train to Ginza) fit into all of this? And when exactly will yakuza boss Owada get what's coming to him?

The tension builds slowly as you know that a final showdown is on its way. It's effectively handled via all these gradual reveals as well as some of the stylistic choices by Yamaguchi. Whether he is using low or tilted angles, occasional freeze frames, tight zooms, music or simply shadows crossing Nami's face, he's able to string you along while the plot develops. Nami gets a job as a "hostess" at a club and manages to get most of what she earns to Saeko through her friend Ryu - a somewhat bumbling, but streetwise pimp. Meanwhile, Owada and his henchmen are intent on taking over the club and the seeds of retaliation are sown. Yamaguchi keeps things very lively by playing up the humour - the over the top female prison sequence at the beginning, a scene where Nami collects (without any threat of violence whatsoever) owed money from a construction boss and another where she strands a client in the tub after collecting from him (his almost childlike cries and direct look into the camera was one of several laugh out loud moments). Even little musical cues pop up in the background ("La Cucaracha", a Morricone riff, etc.).

All that to say that the film is extremely entertaining for its entire 86 minute run time. Those expecting more of the vengeful blood-splattering Kaji from "Female Prisoner" or "Lady Snowblood" may be disappointed initially, but hopefully the intriguing story and other stylistic elements will work their magic. If not, Meiko Kaji likely will.

The second Wandering Ginza Butterfly film ("Wandering Ginza: She-Cat Gambler") is less a sequel than it is simply another set of events that happen in the life of Nami. Likely it happens sometime after the conclusion to the first film, but it could just as well have taken place in an alternate universe since, other than her characteristics and her history of having learned all her card-playing, pool-cue-wielding and con-man ways from her father, Nami isn't tied at all to any of the people from the initial film. Fortunately, it retains the fun spirit and playful style of that first movie while also working its way towards a violent showdown with those who deserve their comeuppance.

The first time we see Nami, she literally wanders into the path of three thugs trying to recapture a young lady who has escaped their clutches. Though this scene sets the plot rolling, the film feels less story focused and more tailored to its individual scenes than the previous one. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but it doesn't quite build up as much tension towards any reveals or fights since it seems to just hop from scene to scene. The connections go something like this:
  • The young girl saved by Nami has a drunk for a father who sold her to those thugs in the first place because of the gambling debt he has to the local yakuza who run the local sex clubs.
  • One of those clubs has a Madam who is an old friend of Nami's (from their street days) and who tries to convince her to join the gang to help out at the gambling tables where Nami has been spending her time hoping to come across the man responsible for her father's death years ago.
  • While at one of the tables she befriends a stuttering pimp named Ryu (played by Sonny Chiba) who is trying to start up his own sex club as competition to the yakuza.
So there's less of a straight through line in the story as compared to the initial film, but everything still moves at a good pace. Another difference is that there seems to be a bit less subtlety in the film as evidenced by more slapstick humour as well as more overt statements regarding prostitution at the clubs. A prime example of the former would be the scene of Ryu's partner "Smokey" sitting on a bidet to show the ladies how to properly clean themselves. There's also the portrayal of the male and female characters - Nami is still the same mysterious yet charming fully realized character, but the rest seem to fit into two divisions: the whiny prostitute or the misogynistic gangster. "She-Cat Gambler" isn't doing anything new or different in these respects, but it does get a bit tiring to see the umpteenth woman get slapped to the ground (even Ryu slaps Nami at one point) or to continually have these men yell as a form of intimidation. Of course, that's partially the point - these are weak people who are stuck under the flashing neon signs of the Ginza district and constantly revert to the only behaviour they know.

So none of that is to be taken as a criticism of the film itself - it stays true to the form and the style of its genre. Though not quite as flashy as, say, "Black Tight Killers" or "Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter", director Yamaguchi uses the same techniques he successfully worked into the first film - low angles, freeze frames, appropriate music, zooms to faces, etc. - and continues to do so judiciously. Enough that it helps to ensure that the film flows into, yet again, a solid piece of entertainment.

Both films were released to DVD a few short months ago by Synapse Films. The above post was cobbled together from previous reviews of both films I wrote for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow.