Tuesday 31 January 2012

Blind Spot #1 - "City Lights" & "Safety Last"

My first thought when I was tasked to join the Blind Spot challenge (to watch and write about classic films you hadn't yet seen on a monthly basis) was "Can I really say anything worthwhile or of interest at this point about these classic films?". My second thought was "I highly doubt it...". Granted, this is a blog and it really comes down to how I express my personal opinion about film. Since I'm coming at these classics for the first time decades after they were made, totally out of their context and with my own personal baggage, I should at least be able to get across my own perspective - but I'm not sure I can add a lot to the conversation.

To quell my concerns a bit, I decided to approach things a bit differently and expand my task to watch two Blind Spot films per post and to try to make them at least somewhat related. Perhaps those comparisons might allow for some additional discussion, since I really did want to join the list of bloggers participating. Like most film buffs, I have a rather daunting list of "must see" movies ahead of me including numerous "obvious" titles. Since my typical method for choosing the next title that goes into the DVD player or streams through NetFlix is somewhat random, I don't have a methodical way of trimming that "must see" list down. I'll typically lean towards a genre pick or maybe some Noir or perhaps a lesser known impulse choice. So now I've got something to - at least occasionally - focus my attention on the films that have been left by the wayside...

My first choice was a somewhat obvious one and probably one of the biggest gaps I had remaining. Though I've seen a bunch of Chaplin's work - The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Circus, The Kid, Monsieur Verdoux, The Great Dictator - I've let City Lights slip by me all these years. Yes, I had not seen the film that has long been regarded by many to be one of the all-time greatest motion pictures and was famously submitted by Robert Bresson as both his first and second choices to Sight & Sound's poll of the greatest films (with The Gold Rush his third and the rest of his list blank). It was simply another one of those cases where I felt I had seen the movie already due to its place in the cultural fabric and the number of times I've seen different clips and sections of the film - particularly the end of it. Fortunately, now that I've seen it, I no longer have to fake my way through conversations with other film bloggers...

OK, that's not true. I've never actually lied about seeing it. The thing is, I probably could have since the story of the blind girl and the bum she thinks is a millionaire was already very familiar to me. Though Chaplin's story has what you might say is "a lot of heart", it's also an example of where he takes a bit of a backseat to Buster Keaton for me. I'm in the camp that prefers Keaton's stone face which never pleads for sympathy as opposed to Chaplin's rather shameless appeal to the audience. That's not necessarily a criticism of Chaplin, but simply a preference on my part. He prefers to go for pathos and the big scene (his separation from the boy in The Kid for example) whereas I'll take the subtler approach. It also felt like Chaplin couldn't wait to get to his big ending and rushed through the climactic build-up, therefore cutting the tension leading to the resolution. But really, I'm niggling at details here - the film is truly wonderful. Chaplin's little tramp has never (at least from what I've seen) been sweeter and the film is packed with gags and funny bits - far more than I expected. And it's not just the set piece gags (like the street elevator that the tramp repeatedly barely misses falling into), but it's all the little bits of business thrown in between them that make Chaplin a genius. A hand gesture here, a cane twirl there, a drunken shuffle across a dance floor...And then while you're still smiling and laughing at all that small stuff, he hits you with ceiling hung confetti getting mixed in with spaghetti. So yeah, genius is pretty apropos.

Harold Lloyd's Safety Last stands as a bit of a contrast - not because it isn't brilliant (it is), but because I came into it knowing nothing at all about its story. The stunts, however, were the known quantity this time - in particular, the iconic image of him dangling from a clock face over a busy downtown city street. Lloyd seems to have found an interesting middle ground between Keaton and Chaplin since he mugs far more to the camera than the former, but doesn't quite play the emotions across the board like the latter. He uses a strong story line to build towards (with smaller comedic moments along the way) the big set piece at the end. And what a marvelous piece it is too...If the plot of a young man hiding his real job as a department store clerk from his girlfriend (in order to make her think he has a managerial position at the store) doesn't sound overly original even for 1923, the film keeps it moving forward without lagging or overdoing any particular gag. And then Lloyd gets to his own climactic scene which, in further contrast to Chaplin, he stretches for a full 15-20 minutes as he climbs the outside of the store's building as a publicity stunt and uses that single concept as a creative wellspring for all manner of athletic comedy. His smaller moments of subtle humor feel a notch below his contemporaries, but when it comes to a major crafted piece of funny business, Harold Lloyd ranks right up there with them. The following year's Girl Shy has its own long climax that is also a wonder to behold as Lloyd races the clock to prevent a marriage and touches just about every possible mode of transportation.

As with City Lights and Chaplin, I already had a few of Lloyd's other films under my belt before tackling his most famous. It turns out there's a reason why both these films are as exhalted as they are in their respective director's careers - for me, each one comes across as the most fully formed and complete pieces of art they ever made. In the end, if I lean a bit more towards Modern Times as my favourite Chaplin, it doesn't mean that I don't see Bresson's point of view.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Warping the Conventions

If you haven't explored "The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara" (the 5-disc set released by Eclipse last year), it really is time you do yourself a favour and take a closer look. The 1960s were a fertile period of movie-making in Japan and Kurahara was right at the front lines with the likes of Seijun Suzuki, Masahiro Shinoda, Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima and Hiroshi Teshigahara who were all considered part of the Japanese New Wave. Essentially, there were a number of filmmakers who were simply tired of the same-old, same-old style of filmmaking and decided to blast open the doors of conventionality.

I've enjoyed diving headlong into Kurahara's work and over the past few months I've posted reviews on J-Film Pow-Wow of each of the 5 films in the box set that spans his career between 1960-67 (he had about double that output in that period). What follows are edited versions of all five:


I can't help but feel that the cracking opening of "Intimidation" is Kurahara's attempt to throw down in front of his peer directors - "So you think you can make a noirish crime thriller? Well look at this!" The blast of a train whistle kick starts the fast paced affair as the camera rides the back of a locomotive through a wintry country side and mountain tunnels while the blaring soundtrack accompanies the ride. As the train pulls into the station (and delivers a character that will begin the film's chain of events), you know you're in for your own ride. It's a short one (the film is a mere 65 minutes long), but there won't be many stopovers or delays before getting to the final destination. In fact, the train is also where our main characters meet their fates at the end of the movie and, in the greatest tradition of noir, they are appropriate to their actions.

One of those main characters is named Takita who is an assistant manager at a district bank and has just received a promotion to head office. The promotion may be a bit questionable since he's married to the president's daughter, but that doesn't stop him from puffing out his chest and smirking just a little bit more than he normally would. On the flip side is his old friend Nakaike - a man who would rather hide in the back room during Takita's farewell party and help heat the sake. He's slightly nebbish, unsure of himself and comes across as someone who is perhaps a bit too scared to "make a move" and get what he wants out of life. Takita stole his woman (and therefore his chances of upward mobility) and his sister won't forgive him since she was actually with Takita at the time and now has to make do with simply being his mistress. Takita makes it seem as if he is doing Nakaike a favour by still addressing him in friendly terms and offers to drink with him like they were old friends. Nakaike can't help but remain in deference to his superior and when he's reminded by another superior that they are supposed to be drinking as friends, Takita gives a wonderful backhanded compliment to Nakaike: "I hate to call him slow, but I actually I like that about him."

Takita's confidence gets knocked down a few notches when he meets up with the passenger brought in earlier by the train. The shifty individual claims he has proof of some very illegal loans Takita has made and he will expose him unless he gets paid 3 million yen. Takita believes his only recourse is to rob his bank before he leaves for the head office and it's at this stage that the film jumps into its higher gear - it becomes a heist film with numerous small and big twists. Particularly when Takita needs to work around Nakaike who just happens to have inherited the role of night guard on the evening the theft is planned. The story shifts around as the role of intimidator moves between the characters: blackmailer over Takita; Takita over Nakaike's sister; sister over Nakaike ("you're a spineless fool"), etc. Kurahara seems to have complete control over the pace of the plot and the switching of roles. Though he doesn't overdo the genre conventions or pile on an overabundance of style, he does bring a great deal of energy to the proceedings by using quick cuts and close framings. If it sounds like the film might be pared down to the bone at 65 minutes, it isn't. But it certainly is efficient as hell.

Though the characters of "Intimidation" don't have much personality - Kurahara is using archetypes and playing them broad - the film still flies by with such speed and is, simply put, a great deal of fun. Whether Kurahara's cutting extra close on Takita's eyes or using the camera to make yet another encircling move, there's always something of note happening. His rebellious youth film "The Warped Ones" (also released in 1960) goes several steps beyond in regards to playing with style, but "Intimidation" uses it to craft its story with all the right beats. In all likelihood, Kurahara had no intention of intimidating other filmmakers via this film - given how he treats his intimidators in the film, one would expect he would know better - but it doesn't mean that we can't still be impressed by a young artist's use of his medium.

The Warped Ones

The obvious comparison point for Koreyoshi Kurahara's frantic 1960 film "The Warped Ones" is Jean-Luc Godard's own little burst of energy "Breathless". The central characters of both films are rebelling against society at large and have no concern for law and order while the filmmakers throw you into their worlds via a slash and burn style of editing. Though Godard may have influenced a greater swath of future filmmakers, in my opinion Kurahara made a far more satisfying and consistently interesting piece of work. The energy of "The Warped Ones" never flags, it never wavers from its callous "heroes" straight line sprint away from societal conventions and it never feels overly stylized. It feels like a genuine account of the disaffected which uses the visual medium to reinforce how their world must have felt.

Chuck Stephens in his liner notes on the Eclipse edition of the film states that it is "filmed....just as its central character....feels". It doesn't take long to figure out that Akira - the leader of the gang of three disillusioned youngsters - is angry. Angry at anyone who talks over his beloved jazz music, angry at society's rules and simply angry at the world in general. When we meet his partner Fumiko at the start of the film, she's his co-conspirator in cons they run. While she flirts and comes on to wealthy businessmen, Akira seizes the opportunity to relieve them of their wallets. He gets caught in one such instance and, because he is still under 18, gets sent to juvenile detention. Fumiko turns to prostitution in order to bring in money and by the time Akira serves his time, she has what seems to be a stable of regular customers and approaches her job with an odd sense of detachment and amusement. Everything is a joke to her. The third member of this callous lot is Masaru, a typical short-sighted, act-on-impulse, wanna-be gang member that Akira meets during his incarceration. He immediately falls for Fumiko who initially spurns his advances but soon caves in since he actually pays her some attention. A quick stop for a car theft and the trio is off and running.

After heading out to the beach, their first task becomes clear - spotting Kashiwagi (a conservative follow-the-rules reporter who set up Akira's capture), they run him down and kidnap his girlfriend. The entirety of this opening sequence - from the introduction of the characters through their reformatory days to their sun-drenched, sweat-soaked day in the sun - lasts about twenty minutes and there's barely a moment to pause except for the freeze frames during the titles (and even those have blurred stills due to the fighting and roughhousing in the jail cells). It's a perfect representation of how these three live their lives as they careen from one moment to the next with barely a thought for the consequences (no matter how serious) to anyone around them or to themselves. Fumiko and Masaru talk about building a future together, but their plan consists of Masaru joining the local Yakuza. She sees the immediate possibility of monetary gain and he sees the chance to be in a tough gang, but there's no consideration paid to the inherent danger.

The blown-out white of the bright sun beating down on Akira is stifling for him. It may indicate possible escape (as do the trains running past the small room shared by the three of them and the occasional loud airplane), but he doesn't seem to care to make an effort. His only respite (aside from jazz music in the car or at his favorite club) is breaking societal rules (from minor infractions like stealing people's daily milk bottles all the way to rape) and provoking the members of that society - particularly those who benefit from it. There's a great, unbroken 2-minute scene of Akira loping through an art gallery and showing contempt for the people and the art at every chance. It ends with him trying to cool himself off by tearing into an ice cream cone after having just forced his beloved jazz onto the jukebox. It's a perfect summation of the film as it focuses on one of the alienated youth (born likely around the start of WW II) showing mocking contempt towards his elders and what they hold dear until his frustrations boil over and he seeks refuge. That constant strain is bound to warp someone.

I Hate But Love

Who knew Koreyoshi Kurahara could make a rom-com? Well, OK, not your typical Hollywood romantic comedy, but a quick look at its plot and structure could easily lead you to believe the resulting film was being targeted at a multiplex crowd. That is, if you also assumed that mainstream fare had a crashing jazz score, in your face handheld cameras and a dynamic editing style that you could never really anticipate. And that it was acceptable to mostly abandon its initial rom-com feel half way through so it could turn into a road movie, bring in melodrama and tackle the subject of media manipulation while examining the idea of true love. Not your average date movie to be sure.

Kurahara's only colour feature included in the box set is a great deal of fun for that first half as we get to know famous DJ and television host Daisaku and his manager Noriko (played by two of Japan's biggest stars at the time - Yujiro Ishihara and the gorgeous Ruriko Asaoko). She's scheduled just about every move of his life for the last two years and, even though they are attracted to each other, has laid down the rule that they will not have intimate physical contact in order to focus all their energies on his career. For Daisaku, this is beginning to be a distraction all of its own as he is getting burned out by the jam-packed itinerary of daily meetings and events while also wrestling with how women fit into his life. He's not in a very happy place and hates the thought of yet another late night of making club appearances when he'd rather just sleep. Noriko keeps him on schedule, though, as she is efficient, very confident and approaches challenges in a positive way. She even keeps track of their "relationship" via a whiteboard - incrementing each day how long it has lasted in different coloured markers. At the 730th day, she outlines the number in a heart to mark the two year anniversary and it's characteristics like this that make her pretty lovable during this first section. Daisaku's sad sack demeanour wears thin, but she delights in things like waking him in the morning and tricking him into a cold shower. Doris Day and Rock Hudson would slot quite nicely into this framework.

That style and pace stays clicking along and rarely lags on either the story or visual fronts. If it isn't laugh out loud funny, it's enjoyably silly and with Kurahara's shot selections and strong use of colour (focusing on the pop of different hues from objects like car seats, blouses and markers), it easily keeps you engaged. At the halfway mark, Daisaku ignores all advice and decides to help a young woman by driving a jeep to the remote area of Kyushu (900 miles away) so that the doctors can make use of it to help the injured and sick. The main doctor in Kyushu and the woman have fallen in love via their correspondence and Daisaku is fascinated by this version of "true love". The road movie idea can fit nicely into the broader realm of the light romantic comedy, but this is where Kurahara veers off route. As Daisaku's determination to finish the task of delivering the jeep on his own becomes stronger, so does Noriko's need to gain control of him and his career. As she chases after him in his Jaguar, it becomes less of a fun-filled excuse to bring the lovers together as it does a heightened melodrama used to explore aspects of how the media exploits the masses and how the concept of "love" is misunderstood.

It handles both of these in reasonably interesting ways, but it becomes difficult to stay as engaged with the characters during most of this journey. Noriko's frantic need to gain the upper hand on Daisaku and make sure that his career (and her well-being) does not suffer begins to wear down the good will she built up with the viewer initially. When she can't physically stop him, she starts to turn his trip into a media circus as if he had planned it that way. When that too fails to dissuade him, she starts to break down emotionally. Daisaku doesn't gain many points either - his single-minded focus on the trip is incredibly selfish as he ignores the impact it has on the many people who depend on him and isn't even doing it for those who will benefit. All he wants to get out of this is a deeper understanding of "humanism". Some of that is achieved by the end (with both couples coming to interesting conclusions about their relationships), but doesn't add much as it goes along. Were it not for the barbed attacks on Daisaku's media image, the effect the reporters and fans have in slowing down his progress (every day the jeep is not available in Kyushu means more people may die) and some very lovely scenery as they wind through a big chunk of Japan, the long journey would become somewhat tiresome. By its end, Kurahara has smashed some oddly disparate genres into an overall entertaining and even illuminating work. Though he loses some of the charm of the characters along the way, it's an interesting and well-crafted enterprise.

Black Sun

"Black Sun" is an odd beast...While it has all of Kurahara's typical chaotic energy and style and it reaches for a grander message about the disenfranchised, it struggles to keep its characters interesting and stretches some scenes to their breaking point. It focuses on two outcasts from society - a homeless thief and a black American G.I. - who are at odds with each other for the majority of the film due to language barriers and various misunderstandings. Akira tries to shelter Gil in his ramshackle abode (a half bombed out church where he squats) while Gil nurses a bullet wound to his leg. As their predicament worsens, their relationship grows not only more volatile, but closer as well. You could easily be forgiven for sensing a bit of a "The Defiant Ones" feel in spots as they begin to understand each other and realize they need to stop their in-fighting, but will you care anywhere near as much about these two characters as the ones from that classic 1958 film? It's doubtful.

When we meet Akira at the beginning of the film, he appears in a desolate junkyard of a field that could easily be a freshly bombed out city bulldozed to the ground. He steals some of the few possessions that belong to the bums who scavenge there and sells them off to get money to buy a jazz album. He's a huge fan of the music (his dog is even named after Thelonious Monk) and considers any black man to be his friend. On the way out of the store, he almost gets run over by a rich man and woman who barely even notice his presence. The woman crushes his album and when the man half absent-mindedly waves some money to pay for it, Akira becomes enraged. He demands that they apologize to the respected black man on the album cover (drummer Max Roach - performer of the film's music) and will not stand to be ignored by them. He has a highly emotional disposition that can be quick to anger, but is also typically bright and happy-go-lucky - especially as he listens to his beloved jazz music in a freshly stolen car. After driving by the scene of a murder, he realizes when he gets home that the suspect has hitched a ride in the back of his jalopy. Though the wounded G.I. brandishes his machine gun at Akira, all he can think about is that a black man stands before him and therefore he must be a great man too.

Gil has been accused of killing a fellow G.I., but the only additional piece of information we ever get about it is that the victim was white. No details as to whether there was prior intent or whether it was justified - just that Gil is desperate, in pain from the bullet in his leg and feels everyone is against him. Unfortunately - and this is a big problem - Gil is portrayed with zero subtlety and is all bluster, anguish and breathless statements. Since he speaks English, none of what he says is translated via subtitles and so it's very difficult to understand him the entire film. As it turns out, most of what he says can be deciphered from context or it simply isn't relevant, but it's frankly still a very annoying aspect of the film and combined with Akira's constant highly melodramatic mood swings ("I love you!", "I hope the G.I.'s find you and kill you!"), it's a bit straining to spend any time with these characters at all. And there lies the problem - the film stays almost entirely with the two of them. There are excursions into the real world - Akira's favourite jazz bar, a few driving expeditions and a final, wonderfully filmed chase sequence - but there's a lot of time spent between just the two of them.

Granted there are valid points to be made here - both men have felt isolated from their environments and typically are judged quickly by others due to their outward appearances (even Akira assumes Gil can play and sing jazz music simply because he is black). Kurahara uses some flashbacks in Gil's head to bring these points to the fore while allowing the visuals to do the rest (the film is beautifully lensed). He brings such a dynamic feel to their world using handheld cameras, attaching them to moving vehicles and using a few timely freeze frames that there really does seem to be a high level of chaos in their lives. Particularly when the score crashes in with Roach's thundering drums and vocal/horn sounds that feel as cathartic for the musicians as they are for the listeners. A blues tune called "Six-bit Blues" plays several times and contains lyrics that Gil can certainly understand as he contemplates any form of escape: "Gimme six bits worth o'tickets, on a train that runs somewhere". Kurahara also uses the same names (and same actors) for his characters as the ones in "The Warped Ones". Since Akira and Gil knew each other in the previous film, this obviously isn't a direct sequel, but it sure has that feeling sometimes due to the style and where Akira's life is currently headed (a direct line from the previous film). Even his prostitute friend Yuki feels like a perfect map to her character in "The Warped Ones" (again, played by the same actress). The jazz bar is the same set as their hangout from 4 years previous too, but it also is not the "same". Many of these touches add a great deal to the "world askew" feeling of the film, but even Kurahara's stylistic choices can't quite pull enough of an entertaining yarn out of this message movie. He certainly grabs your attention at times though.

Thirst For Love

You're not even a minute into "Thirst For Love" when your senses have been jarred. As a woman pauses while shaving an elderly man, we suddenly catch flashes of a chicken thrashing in (one can only guess) its last dying gasps while its sharp piercing squawks fill the soundtrack. Those images and sounds quickly convey some important information: the woman with the blade in her hands is not in a good headspace and she likely has some issues with that old man. It also signifies that director Koreyoshi Kurahara is going to tell his story with more than just conventional narrative techniques. As it turns out, it must have been deemed very unconventional since Nikkatsu delayed the film's release because they felt it was too "arty". In the same year that Seijun Suzuki got fired from Nikkatsu for delivering "Branded To Kill", Kurahara decided to quit the studio over their decision.

Call it arty if you want, but I call it effective. Rapid cuts, long takes, a restless camera, freeze frames, still photos and daydreams all combine with the layered sound field (and occasionally no sound at all) to tell us the story of Etsuko - the woman in question above. She is the daughter-in-law of wealthy Sugimoto (the old man) and lives in his rather crowded household. He counts ten people in the house: himself, Etsuko, his son Kensuke and his wife, his divorced daughter Asako and her two children as well as the two servants. If you're paying attention you'll notice the sum only comes to nine. Etsuko's husband (Sugimoto's youngest son) has passed away, but it appears that his father still counts him in the family and retains a seat for him at the family dinner table. This despite the fact that Etsuko has become his mistress. Apart from the servant Saburo, the old man has little use for the rest of the household and considers them all to be lazy and leeching off his good will.

While the rest of the family don't seem to want to let go of Sugimoto (Kensuke admits freely that he and his wife love their carefree loafing existence), Etsuko appears to feel somewhat trapped. Her marriage was initially wonderful, but then she learned the truth about the man she married: the first flashback shows still photos of a fun-loving, mischievous and very happy couple, but the second flashback (telling its story through the same technique of multiple still photos) shows a cheating, self-satisfied scoundrel who couldn't care less about her feelings. The remaining male members of the family - her father-in-law (though she has become his mistress, she still insists on calling him "father") and Kensuke - are both quite smitten with her, but offer nothing more than their desire. None of the men in this family seem to have the ability to truly love her. This leaves Etsuko's attentions on the young and strong Saburo.

The film is filled with close-ups of Etsuko - staring at Saburo's sweaty neck or his glistening back or just lost in a daydream of the two of them skipping along the road to Osaka in a heavenly white glow - and she appears to be a tightly coiled spring ready to unravel. She's constantly noticing physical ways of leaving - that road to Osaka, a helicopter, the train, etc. - but they simply aren't available to her. So she focuses on Saburo and her own desires increase to the breaking point. Her torment isn't reserved just for herself, though, and as the dynamics change within the family, she ensures she doesn't remain alone in that state. Ruriko Asaoko (star of "I Hate But Love") uses her big eyes to wonderful effect throughout the film - though her physical actions don't always show what she is thinking, her eyes give away every lustful thought and every internal struggle. Based on Yukio Mishima's novel, the film keeps the viewer unsettled with its sudden bursts of sound and has a willingness to do whatever it takes to pull you into how Etsuko feels. Meanwhile it doesn't skimp on pulling in side issues like class distinctions and the impotence of the rich while also providing some gorgeous imagery and precise framing of its characters. The Eclipse boxed set "The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara" has been quite the revelation and you couldn't have picked a better way to close it off.

Thursday 19 January 2012

One Of Those Scenes - "Tuesday, After Christmas"

Radu Muntean’s 2011 film Tuesday, After Christmas shares many similar stylistic attributes with its recent Romanian brethren – it proceeds at a leisurely pace (depending on your point of view, this could be termed “unhurried” or “glacial” – I prefer the former), contains very naturalistic performances, uses very little extraneous music and incorporates very long takes. Other then the tension-filled dinner scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, rarely have I seen all these qualities used as exquisitely as in this film’s central scene: the 12-minute long sequence of a wife gaining her strength and resolve to assert control over her husband – after having just learned from him of his infidelity and his love for a younger woman – and to decide how things will be from now on.

The film’s plot is razor thin: Cristi’s wife Adriana accidentally meets his mistress Raluca (but doesn’t learn about the affair) and it makes him realize that he needs to come clean and make his choice. He still loves his wife, but for him it’s a familiar, comfortable relationship and not quite the passionate affair he’s having with Raluca. We get an intimate glimpse in the film’s long opening scene (single shot of course) of them lounging in a naked, post-coital bliss as she playfully nips at his chin and they engage in the chit-chat of lovers. Later, as contrast, we see Adriana shaving Cristi’s sideburns while he stands naked at the bathroom mirror. It’s not that he doesn’t love his wife – there’s a tenderness with which he rubs her feet on the couch while they have a routine conversation – but he feels the pull towards his younger, less self-sufficient and more vulnerable mistress. So when Adriana decides to meet Cristi at the dentist, she also meets Raluca who is the hygienist that has been working on her daughter’s teeth for the last few visits. After the extremely tense meeting (for two of them at least – Adriana is unaware of anything), Cristi realizes what he has to do.

At the kitchen sink in their home, almost midstream in one of their conversations, Cristi tells Adriana he has fallen in love with another woman. She doesn’t explode, she doesn’t wail – she lets it sit with her for a bit. And that’s where the scene in question begins. As she rummages in the back of the room doing a menial task, it’s like she’s trying to hold things together and prevent her marriage, her home and her entire life from crumbling. But she can’t – the deed is done, the trust is broken. After she vents her anger and Cristi has to restrain her, she steadies herself and lights a cigarette right in the middle of the living room. Previously, when Cristi wants to smoke in the house he’s forced to do it by a cracked open window, but here Adriana defiantly puts her stamp on the house. Gaining confidence, she grills him about the relationship and making it very clear that the marriage is over, that he will move out and that their daughter stays with her. She is also very clear on another point – HE will have to break the news to their little girl on his own. It’s his decision to leave her after all.

Cristi agrees with all her statements as he’s not looking to gain anything from the split and is genuinely sad about the harm he is causing his wife. But Muntean is careful not to make Cristi overly sympathetic. Short of him being smitten by someone who he feels needs him, he comes across as a middle aged guy who worries that “he’s missing out”. So he’s not an evil person, but certainly a jerk. Adriana makes it very clear that this is HIS fault and that HE is to blame for destroying what they had. She finishes the scene dignified and poised but crushed. It’s a hell of a thing to watch this extended, unblinking look at the dissipation of a long relationship. At the end of the movie, a final door closes on a decorated Christmas tree and its bounty of gifts reinforcing to Cristi the consequences of his actions.

Previously published on RowThree.

Thursday 5 January 2012

CASTing a Final Net over the Year - 2011 in Review (Part 4)

Good friend James McNally (and first blogger I actually met face to face) from Toronto Screen Shots had the idea last year to put together the CAST Awards - a list of the top rated films of the year from the Toronto Film blogging community. Though it's about as representative of the group as much as any other consolidation of opinion is, the list was still an interesting counter to the Toronto Film Critics Association and a great way to further bring the blogging crowd together. The small set of bloggers who used to meet at film festivals and occasionally go for a pint has grown leaps and bounds over the past few years and 2011 has seen a large array of new (and seriously fantastic) people join the group. James is a key reason why our monthly film blogger pub nights are large, raucous and more fun than a block full of aliens attacking.

This year, the set of voters for the Cinema Appreciation Society of Toronto (CAST) Awards increased to 40 (many more were asked, but only 40 submitted by the deadline). The results are listed below but are also found at James' site with loads more stats and links to many of the participants. In addition, this year we also did a full roundtable podcast about the results (a CASTcast if you will - hey blame James, it was his joke). The panel included myself, James, Kurt Halfyard (from Rowthree and Twitch), Joe Belanger (Black Sheep Reviews), Ryan McNeil (The Matinee and who graciously hosted the event for us) and the duo of Matt Brown and Matt Price from the Mamo podcast (who acted as moderators and organized the group). I did my best to keep up with what I think is a terribly interesting and astute set of folks and had a great time chatting, laughing and sharing a bottle of Port.

The full roundtable podcast can be found and listened to here or downloaded directly from here.

The top 25 from the final CAST ballots are as follows (hope you don't mind me stealing the table from your site James...):




1. Drive5483136
2.The Artist4792629
3. The Tree of Life4602427
4. Attack the Block3862536
5. Take Shelter3762021
6. Midnight in Paris3302431
7. Melancholia3061926
8. Shame2841928
9. Beginners2811924
10. Martha Marcy May Marlene2792024
11. Hanna2351828
12. CafĂ© de Flore207913
13.The Raid2051215
14. Blue Valentine1921130
15. Bridesmaids1851831
16.The Muppets1791425
17. The Illusionist1741122
18. The Descendants1721116
19. Super 81671631
20. Contagion1671422
21. The Interrupters1671012
22. Tabloid1651220
23. Hugo1621023
24. The Trip1591424
25. Meek’s Cutoff1591018

A few notes:

  • My favourite of the year Cafe De Flore finished 12th which was pretty remarkable for a festival film that had a small end of year release in town. It had the highest average point total from the voting, so you can see that there's a high degree of love from those who saw it.
  • My favourite film of 2010 The Illusionist made this year's list too (due to a wider release in 2011). That's how great that film was...
  • The most widely seen films were top scorer Drive and insane-amount-of-free-screenings-per-capita Attack The Block. I expect the latter had the wider disparity in individual rankings. The former didn't make my Top 25 though I liked it well enough.
  • I've seen 19 of the Top 25, but only 6 of the Top 10.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

The Year's Favourites - 2011 in Review (Part 3)

Although I still haven't seen some major players from the typical 2011 "Best Of" lists (A Separation, Carnage, The Descendants, Hugo, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Melancholia, Shame, The Skin I Live In, Take Shelter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, We Need To Talk About Kevin - I hang my head in disgrace...), I still easily found 20 titles (well, actually 23 with a few cheats) to list as my favourites of the year. Since even the honourable mentions that didn't make the top echelons were all solid films that I enjoyed quite a bit, 2011 has had a fine share of quality films for my taste.

I'm often unsure as to whether I should include film festival screenings in my favourites list since they typically won't be available to wider audiences until the following year. Over half of my top 20 are from TIFF, Hot Docs or Toronto After Dark, but I can't help it that these were the films whose flickering on the screen meshed with my own frequency.

1. Cafe De Flore

A technical and stylistic marvel from Jean-Marc Vallee that is also deeply touching, delicate in its character portraits and personally resonates for me clear off the scale. I won't see a better film next year. Full review.

2. I Wish

Several critics labelled this "Kore-eda Lite" and I think every single one of them is off their rocker. This is top notch Kore-eda - profoundly humanistic, gentle, charming and a delight from start to finish. Minor characters have complexities that allow them to linger on in your mind along with numerous bittersweet, life-affirming moments. Full review.

3. Beauty Day

The best documentaries use their subject matter as a springboard to bring you closer to fascinating and interesting people. In Jay Cheel's case, he followed the attempt to launch a 20th anniversary special for an old cable TV show of pre-Jackass stunts, found the man behind Cap'n Video (Ralph Zavadil) and gave us this wonderful, detailed character-based story. Full review.

4. Tree Of Life

I wouldn't know where to begin to describe what I think Malick is trying to do here - I can only state what I get out of this gorgeous film. And that's the ability to not only be transported back to my childhood, but to reflect upon it and get lost in the wonder of those years. A very spiritual film (though not specifically religious).

5. The Raid

I can't wait for this to have a wider North American release then attend a screening to watch as everyone's jaw unhinges and crashes to the ground like one of the many losers of the hundreds of astonishing fights in the film. Then I'll know what I looked like the first time I saw it. Full review.

6. Win Win

I know it probably shouldn't have a bearing on my enjoyment of the film, but I really liked the characters in Thomas McCarthy's latest film. It's not just that they feel like "real" people, but they are people I would want to meet and stay in touch with for the long haul.

7. Wetlands (aka Marecages)

A quite remarkable first feature film from Quebec director Guy Edoin anchored by an incredibly tough performance (my favourite of the year) by Pascale Bussieres.

8. Dreileben

Last year I started my TIFF marathon with an existential Italian film called The Four Times (Le Quattro Volte). This year, I decided to kick things off with the 4 and a half hour, 3-part, 3 different director-led, German experiment Dreileben. I'm 2 for 2.

9. Attack The Block

Working within the limitations of not only budget, but also the confines of a single apartment complex, Joe Cornish has put together an incredibly fun and surprising action film. The characters aren't overly likable, but they are consistent and you might actually achieve some semblance of an understanding of them by the end.

10. The Muppets

I'm in the Muppets-can-do-no-wrong camp on this one. Critical facilities be damned. Apart from the rap song by Chris Cooper, I smiled the entire length of this movie.

11. The Artist

I'm perfectly happy if The Artist wins Best Picture at The Oscars - it's not my pick, but a film that has put so many people into such a good mood deserves the recognition. I look forward to re-experiencing that.

12. Beginners

Built around the filmmaker's own personal story, Beginners managed to tell a pretty universal story of making the most of the life you have. Even if you can't relate directly to the specific lives of these characters, you should be able to appreciate the character arcs and how the story is told with humour, warmth and style.

13. Midnight In Paris

Yes, I wish Woody had spent more time on development of the present time characters (Rachel McAdams "Inez" is so awful that you almost hate Owen Wilson's "Gil" for even talking to her), but as soon as they transport back to the past the film becomes completely charming without wallowing in nostalgia for even a second.

14. The Interrupters

Why does the Academy not like Steve James? He seems like a pleasant sort, cares about people and makes astonishingly great documentaries (count this right up there with both Hoop Dreams and Stevie) that provide windows on larger social issues.

15. ALPS

Though Giorgos Lanthimos' films border on quirky-weird for the sake of being quirky-weird, it would be a mistake to not look past that to the central themes and well-constructed stories. I enjoyed Dogtooth, but ALPS was a step up for me as it examines how each of us risk getting lost in the different roles we act out for others.

16. The Guantanamo Trap / Wiebo's War

Or are the best documentaries the ones that make you reconsider a point of view? These two Canadian docs didn't force their opinions down your throat - they just effectively placed information in front of you and made it very difficult to dismiss. The Guantanamo Trap full review. Wiebo's War full review.

17. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey

15 hours just wasn't enough. I wanted more of Mark Cousins providing his unique personal perspective on the history of film and even more new entries to my "must watch" list (along with the hundreds I already got from this film).

18. Super 8

A kid's adventure tale told with energy, excitement and humour and which doesn't overly pander to either the kids or the adults. I could do without the lens flares, but I was supremely entertained and so was my 11 year-old.

19. Himizu

I think I've become a Sion Sono fanboy. I totally understand many of the negative comments towards the film and how its incredibly high volume pitch and intensity wore people down, but I'm still fascinated by Sono's approach to filmmaking and here he conveys an emotional plea to his fellow countrymen after the devastating year they went through.

20. Midnight Son / The Innkeepers / Father's Day

Three fantastic "horror" films from this year's Toronto After Dark festival - each approaching the genre in a different manner. Midnight Son (Full review) gave a real-world scenario for a vampire, The Innkeepers brought character-based humour and a smart script to an old-fashioned ghost story and Father's Day (Full review) was essentially the perfect grindhouse exploitation movie. Don't ever tell me there isn't variety within the genre.

Honourable Mentions

The Guard, Samsara, Pearl Jam Twenty, Contagion, Margin Call, Moneyball, Warrior, Sons Of Norway, These Amazing Shadows, The Adjustment Bureau, Bridesmaids, Absentia, The Woman, Monsieur Lazhar, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Tabloid, Our Idiot Brother, Certified Copy, The Adventures Of Tintin