Friday, October 26, 2007

CIFF Recap: Ploy


Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is a genre commitment-phobe. He'll start a movie one way—dreamy, elliptical, and virtually plotless—then, as if distrustful of his own instincts, hijack it last minute with external, out-of-left-field pyrotechnics. Last Life In the Universe is a mesmerizing mood piece until Takashi Miike and his small army of gangster archetypes start shooting gaping holes into it. When will Ratanaruang learn that Wong Kar Wai atmospherics and Johnnie To theatrics mix like oil and water? The guy's at it again with Ploy, a moody portrait of marital disintegration that veers off into violent, run-of-the-mill genre territory in its homestretch. This time, though, it actually sort of works: the Thai auteur's latest blurs the line between fantasy and reality from pretty much frame one, making its third act 180 nearly justifiable.

It helps, too, that this may be Ratanaruang's most elegant, absorbing act of manufactured ambiance. Unfolding with hushed, foreboding menace, Ploy finds a married couple's shaky union rocked and torn asunder by the arrival of the titular mystery figure, a teenage waif who crashes their hotel room in the early hours of the morning. Is Ploy a real girl or just a symbolic specter of a dead-and-decaying relationship? Could she be the ghost of the child they lost/never had? Looking for cut-and-dry answers from Ratanaruang is a losing proposition. Thankfully, what this disquieting slow-burn lacks in narrative semblance it more than makes up for in pitch-perfect atmosphere: rarely has maddening, up-all-night, early morning insomnia been so successfully evoked. And after the off-kilter, Polanski-like middle act of Invisible Waves, Ploy offers further evidence (confirmed here by jarring tonal disruptions, including a deeply unsettling nightmare sequence) that Ratanaruang may have a great, nerve-jangling psychological thriller in him yet. Give this guy a Repulsion or a Diabolique or an Audition, and watch bloodstreams collectively chill. B+

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

CIFF Update: The Man From London


The Man From London is film noir by addition and subtraction. It takes a conventional noir narrative, strips it of the usual pulp trappings—the stylized violence, the crackerjack dialogue, the twisty plotting—and stretches it out to a marathon, two-and-a-half hour length. It then adds a healthy dose of anguished, Bergmanesque family drama, and replaces the genre's down-and-dirty nihilism with a strain of rich empathy. The results are not so much a deconstruction of the form as a distorted, slow-mo variation on it—noir pushed to its austere, formalistic limits.

In other words, we're back on the singular wavelength of Béla Tarr, the Hungarian master filmmaker, for whom no long shot is too long, no plot too straightforward that it can't be pushed and pulled in strange, challenging new directions. After the haunting, unforgettable Werckmeister Harmonies, The Man From London feels like a bit of a comedown—which is to say, a very good film, just not one of the greatest of this new millennium. Employing as a loose template a novel by Georges Simenon, Tarr here transforms noir into patient watchman theatre, a series of stolen glances and overheard conversations. In the jaw-dropping opening sequence—a virtuoso 12-minute tracking shot, a voyeuristic triumph of movement, staging, and composition—a nightshift railroad worker (Miroslov Krobot) bears silent witness to a secret meeting and a sudden, unplanned murder from his high-rise lookout tower. When a bag of loot gets lost in the shuffle, the blue-collar everyman seizes upon opportunity, snatching up the abandoned cash and inadvertently drawing some unwelcome attention from several interested parties.

In the hands of virtually any other filmmaker, this all would be mere set-up for a subsequent string of Hitchcockian twists and turns, but Tarr's having none of that fancy jazz. He's interested in the mood and mystery of noir—its tragic fatalism and complicated moral quandaries—not its potential for knotty genre kicks. (Stylish black-and-white photography aside, no one's going to confuse the film for a post-modern pulp riff like Sin City.) Slowing time to a methodical crawl and keeping the perspective firmly fixed on his weary, in-over-his-head protagonist, the filmmaker expels every ounce of suspense from this calculated anti-thriller—it's hard to not wish for a little Raymond Chandler spontaneity after nearly three hours of Tarr's studied poetic realism. Naturally, there is method to the meticulous, long-take madness: a profound moral center slowly takes shape, and The Man From London becomes less about crime’s mechanics, more about its consequences and casualties, about the innocents whose lives it violently disrupts. A film noir that ends in empathetic transcendence? This is Tarr’s world. We’re all just gaping in awe at it. A-

Monday, October 15, 2007

CIFF Update: Flight of the Red Balloon


Something about shooting abroad brings out the lackadaisical romantic in Hou Hsiao-hsien. Like a dazed tourist, the Taiwanese master spends most of his filmmaking vacation time snapping pretty pictures, getting lost on backstreets of foreign cities and leaving his more prickly artistic obsessions back home. That was true of Café Lumiere, his serene, meandering furlough through Tokyo, and it's also true of Flight of the Red Balloon. Set in some inviting corner of contemporary Paris—sun-dappled alleys, crowded cafes, and a cluttered, impossibly bohemian flat are the primary locales—Flight is supposedly a full-on tribute to Albert Lamorisse's celebrated children's film, The Red Balloon. Yet save for the stunning opening sequence, during which young Simon (Simon Iteau) and the titular balloon take turns chasing each other through the streets of Paris, Hou's latest bears only a tangential, post-modern relation to Lamorisse's short-form classic.

What we're really in for is another lyrical, naturalistic slice of life, this one centering on the vaguely troubled home life of Simon and his frazzled artist mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), with most of the action—a term to be used very loosely in a Hou film—taking place within the confines of their quaint studio apartment. Hou's stand-in is Song (Fang Song), a Taiwanese film student and Simon's part-time nanny, who takes in both the strained family dynamics and Parisian culture with the same muted, outsider curiosity as the filmmaker himself. Beautifully shot, with some lovely diversions and a fierce performance from a bleached-blonde Binoche, Flight nevertheless feels a bit inconsequential, especially when compared to the erratic, neon urgency of Millennium Mambo or the complicated personal-political tensions of Three Times. The film itself seems constantly at risk of floating away, disappearing on the back of a gentle breeze. It's Hou's interesting conceits about cinema itself-- the role it plays in our emotional and psychological development, in our collective histories-- that keeps it tethered, enticing one to maybe give this mannered mood piece a second, closer look. B

Thursday, October 11, 2007

CIFF Update: Silent Light


Silent Light, the latest from acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas, begins with a moment of such pure aesthetic bliss, such elegant, unfettered visual poetry, that it takes you damn near half the movie to realize what an artificial hook it is. Tracking down from a starlit sky to a vast, golden field, pitch-black night giving way to splendid, sun-drenched day, this bravado opening shot lends the film—instantly and effortlessly—an intoxicating milieu, a hint of natural wonder, and an inflated sense of mythic/spiritual import. It’s a stunner all right. Too bad it’s also a total put-on.

Silent Light is all poetic affectation—empty gestures and bad visual metaphors. It’s the exact sort of pretentious, dramatically inert, slow-as-molasses affair that turns the curious uninitiated off of art-house cinema. Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), the sad-eyed patriarch of a close-knit Mennonite clan, is suffering from a domestic crisis, torn as he is between two women: his wife and mother of his children, and his mistress. We know all this because Johan says it aloud, over and over again, to anyone and everyone who will listen. Bluntly and dispassionately expressing his internal torment in pithy little declarations, Johan isn’t so much a character as a pawn in Reygadas’ thinly sketched spiritual allegory. The filmmaker is far too preoccupied with romanticizing the Mexican countryside via evocative imagery (some of it cribbed from Days of Heaven) to actively explore his characters’ conflicts of loyalty and faith. He’d rather linger on pastoral landscapes than brave that rocky terrain. Strip away the postcard-pretty visual splendors, and what you’re left with is little more than a vapid chore of a family drama. Johan frets, he needles he bow, he has tasteful, missionary sex with his mistress and plays John Proctor to his patient wife’s Elizabeth. The audience rolls its eyes and/or falls asleep.

That is, until Silent Light jumps the tracks into the deep end. (SPOILERS HEREIN) One truly has to marvel at the bizarre mawkishness of the last act, during which one character dies of a broken heart—yes, really—only to be revived by a single teardrop from a redemption-seeking griever. Reygadas doesn’t even begin to earn this climatic, pseudo-transcendent moment, during which his half-baked religious subtext bursts dramatically and preposterously to the surface. But one feels grateful for it anyhow, if only as an antidote to the suffocating composure of everything that came before. And then we’re back to that remarkable first shot, moving in reverse now—day bleeds back into night, order is restored, and Reygadas has a symmetrical bookend for his art-house howler. He knows how to open and close a picture. It’s probably the meat of the thing he should work on. C-

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

CIFF Update: You, the Living


Like Alexander Payne covering Jacques Tati, with all the formal elegance and patronizing tragicomedy such a comparison implies. Depression, romantic discontent, existential malaise—all are fair game to Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson (Songs From the Second Floor), for whom the human condition is nothing more than an excuse for elaborately staged, absurdist farce. A morose woman complains—loudly, repeatedly, and occasionally in song—that no one understands her. A lonely Goth girl pines endlessly for the lonely Goth rocker of her dreams. Some poor schmuck gets the electric chair for a botched party trick. These sad-sack urbanites are the butt of a grand, cosmic joke, and Andersson views them as mere cogs in his meticulously constructed gag machine. A series of droll, vaguely connected vignettes, You, the Living is that rare film that regularly stuns you with its peerless aesthetic brilliance, even as said brilliance actively underlines the smug detachment of its creator. Andersson’s static, carefully composed one-shots suggest the steady gaze of an impish deity, or perhaps the cold curiosity of a scientist studying bacteria in a Petri dish. Tati may have reduced modern life to clockwork mechanics, but he never made a flippant mockery of human suffering. You, the Living has a few inspired comic moments—i.e., a totally enchanting wedding fantasy that seems to have wandered in from a better, warmer film—but its flyweight misanthropy wears on the nerves and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. C

Monday, October 8, 2007

CIFF Update: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days


With its extended long-takes, almost-real-time structure, and starkly naturalistic aesthetic, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was last year’s import of choice for the critical establishment—the Belle of the International Ball, the darling of the world festival circuit. The only real dispute among enamored cinephiles was whether the Romanian award-winner was an outraged, humanistic polemic, a hilarious dark comedy, or both. For this particular critic, it was actually neither. Tracing the futile attempts of a sick, lonely old man to get medical assistance from an overcrowded, largely indifferent health care system, Cristi Puiu’s celebrated film struck me as completely schematic, with both its titular patient and his antagonistic, would-be caregivers painted in broad, allegorical strokes. It felt like a cruel joke, Puiu wanting us to suffer with Mr. Lazarescu, to feel his pain, to share his misery. And indeed we do, for two and a half long, tedious, borderline-sadistic hours.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, this year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, bears more than a passing resemblance to Puiu’s overpraised endurance test —and no, not just because both films hail from Romania. Chronicling the daylong efforts of a young woman to secure an illegal abortion for her college roommate, Cristian Mungui’s harrowing drama immerses us, Lazarescu-style, in the hour-by-hour, moment-by-moment complications of its heroine’s plight. (Highlights include a visit from the menacing, sleazebag “doctor” and an uncomfortable, untimely family dinner.) Mungui’s approach is similar to Puiu’s, with subjective experience valued over plot mechanics, but there’s a key difference between the two films: while old man Lazarescu is an anonymous non-character, a passive figure to which bad things happen, the protagonist of 4 Months is anything but a helpless victim. As played by revelatory newcomer Anamarie Marinca, she’s resourceful, headstrong, and forgiving—a flesh-and-blood heroine worth caring for, not an allegorical stand-in. This lends the film an instant poignancy, and it makes completely gripping the events that unfold during the character’s personal Day From Hell. It’s worth noting that this graceful, compassionate triumph is also a “message movie,” one that takes aim at an oppressive, bureaucratic government and the lose-lose situations forced upon those living under it. Yet, thanks largely to Marinca’s confident and empathetic performance, never does political agenda overwhelm personal conflict. 4 Months may be an ordeal, but it’s one that leaves you shaken, wound up, and moved. A-

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Here we go again...

Cannes is long over, Toronto and Venice have passed, and New York is winding down as we speak. For Midwest film lovers, that can mean only one thing: that the Chicago International is upon us. Held the first two weeks of October, the Windy City’s premiere film festival has long fought an uphill battle for legitimacy, struggling to distinguish itself from its bigger and more high profile brethren. Part of the problem is timing: arriving at the tail end of festival season, Chicago ends up feeding off the scraps of other fests, picking up films that have long since been screened and acquired, and usually failing to nab any significant premieres. The schedule is traditionally a motley mix of Cannes leftovers, completely obscure (and usually forgettable) foreign imports, and American indies that don’t make the cut at Sundance. I’m not particularly familiar with the history of the CIFF (could or did it ever hang with Cannes or Toronto?) but I do know that the last decade or so has seen one of the oldest film festivals in the world—42 years and counting—failing again and again to drum up much attention from anyone residing outside of Cook county.

Of course, I do reside in Cook county, so the Chicago International is kind of a big deal to me. It may be a second-class fest, but goddamn it, it’s the only major one we Midwesterners have! An entertainment journalist with a press pass and frequent flyer miles might scoff at the been-there-done-that selections, but the rest of us get a chance to see films we’ve only been able to read about for the last six months. Factor in the reasonable price tag, the lectures and retrospectives, and the off chance that you just might catch a surprise stunner—as I did in 05’ with Sarah Watts’ charming, out-of-left-field Look Both Ways—and the CIFF comes out looking a little more exciting and a lot more promising.

Then again, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the Chicago International, if only because its arrival every year coincides pretty neatly with my own big city anniversary. I moved to Chicago in 2004, about a month before the CIFF swept into town, and I’ve attended every year since. The festival has become a place-marker, a fixed point on the calendar from which I can measure the last twelve months of my life. Like the LaSalle Bank Marathon and the dieing of the river on St. Patty’s, it’s also a yearly reminder of where I’m at, an annual pick-me-up. Cheer up, buddy, the CIFF says to me. You live in one of the biggest and most exciting cities in the world! Let’s go watch some movies! For me, the festival is Chicago.

And lo, tonight is Opening Night. I’ve never attended one of the star-studded Gala premieres that kick-off the fest, and I won’t be breaking that pattern this year for Marc Forester’s The Kite Runner. (If I wanted to pay $25.00 to see a Forester film I would have gone last year to the Opening Night premiere of Stranger Than Fiction) My festival experience is going to be a little different this time out, for a couple of reasons. First off, as an employee of the Landmark Century Centre, I’ll actually being working the fest, in a manner of speaking—i.e. herding middle-class attendees to their screenings like sedated cattle, and keeping them fat and happy with regular deliveries of popcorn and soda. Secondly, thanks to the generous sponsorship of a sympathetic supporter (love you, Mal), I’ll be spending the remainder of my waking hours in some darkened auditorium checking out the latest from Hsiao-hsien Hou, Béla Tarr, Carlos Reygadas, and others. In contrast to the mere two screenings I attended last year—the flawed but interesting Invisible Waves and the misguided, IndieWood quirk-fest Wristcutters: A Love Story—I’ll be seeing a whopping ten films on the bill this time around. It’s going to be a busy two weeks, one divided entirely between work and movies. Which, come to think of it, is kind of like my life in general…

First up on the agenda is Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, playing downtown on Sunday night. I’m going to do my best to update the blog regularly with festival reflections, writing capsule reviews for everything I see. Whether or not I accomplish this lofty goal remains to be seen, but since I’m putting other writing responsibilities on hold until the fest ends, I feel it’s pretty doable. Look for my first update on Monday.