Thursday, October 31, 2013

Another Year, Another BIFF

1. The Past dir: Asghar Farhadi
At the very first BIFF I attended I saw four films. The last of those films was Farhadi’s About Elly and I’m convinced that when the workers tore down the Regent Cinema a year or so later they found a chair with my hand prints imprinted in it. Aside from being nerve-wracking About Elly was the first film I ever saw that hinged on an entirely different set of cultural norms to those I was familiar with. All of which is a rather long winded way of saying that I have no intention of missing a Farhadi film.

2. Outrage Beyond dir: Takeshi Kitano
The only previous Takeshi film I’ve seen is Hana-bi. Having said that, I love that film’s curious mixture of brutal violence and goofy sentiment. I also love its idiosyncratic editing and marvelously suspenseful bank heist scene. In short it’s long past time that I saw another – even if it is the rather tepidly received Outrage Beyond.

3. The Missing Picture dir: Rithy Panh
This film’s reception plus its premise of brutal history mixed with dollhouse reconstructions makes it a must see.

4.  Fallen City dir: Zhao Qi – and 5. ‘Til Madness Do Us Part dir: Wang Bing
Ever since I went to Rotterdam in 2012 and saw films like Bachelor Mountain, Shattered, Born in Beijing and Apuda DV, ethnographically minded documentaries from China have been one of my favorite film types – a feeling reinforced by seeing Petition and Three Sisters recently. Documentaries seem so much more revealing when they focus on their subjects’ behavior or when the interviewer actually leaves space for the interviewed to really express themselves. And the rapid change, dramatic rural/urban divide and history in China create so much rich subject matter to be mined. So of course I’m seeing the two Chinese documentaries at BIFF – especially the one by Wang Bing, the acknowledged master of the form.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

SFF Capsules #1

I'm having a great time at the Sydney Film Festival so I'm unearthing my blog to write about some of the movies. We'll see how long this newfound desire to write again lasts.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear 
“I know. Horrible people like me don’t really exist.”

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is a deliciously strange film. At its centre is a lived in relationship portrayed by two actors turning in nuanced, understated performances. At its edges is an off-kilter world both charming (golf carts as a major means of transportation) and chilling (psychopaths with bear traps). The two shouldn’t work together but somehow they do. 

Perhaps it’s the women in the aforementioned relationship that make the film work. Vic is grounded enough, albeit anxious and needy, but it's Flo’s personality which feels like a synecdoche for the rest the film. She’s alternately serious, playful and passive aggressive, sometimes she's even all three at the same time. It says a lot about Romane Bohringer’s skills that she can incorporate all these traits into one cohesive character. 

Alternately it might be Dennis Côté’s camera which impassively studies his actors’ worn faces before viewing them in motion and pans right with the same unhurried precision whether it’s approaching a boy playing with a toy helicopter or two women in tremendous agony. I don’t want to suggest that the camera feels totally removed from events but it almost always seems to be studying the action from a position of bemused detachment.  Similarly the film’s mise en scène often seems to undercut scenes' dominant mood. In particular many ominous moments are ever so slightly undermined by a playful note. For example a normally opaquely menacing henchman idly playing his guitar or an agonising sequence being interrupted by a hilariously incompetent trumpet player. 

Whatever the case it’s a fine film, by turns exquisitely moving, wryly hilarious and disconcertingly surreal. Sometimes it’s even all three at the same time.

The Rocket
Its subject is worthy, its director is endowed with not inconsiderable chops and its child actors are as cute as any cherubs who’ve graced the screen. It’s no wonder then that I feel like a right curmudgeon for not being able to enjoy this fable of a cursed son trying to save his family and his sense of self.

The biggest stumbling block for me is its tone.  Ostensibly this is a pretty grim story of people coping with enormous loss; no wonder then that director/screenwriter Kim Mordaunt feels the need to lighten the mood somewhat. It’s an impulse I could get behind – I don’t disagree that even the grimmest of lives is leavened now and then. It’s just that the humour is so hacky, consisting as it does of an endless stream of selfconscious wackiness and limp bodily function jokes. Here’s a traumatised war veteran who is also a James Dean impersonator! Oh and did you know that rockets are kind of phallic? I mean they’re just like dicks! Dicks, geddit?! Also here’s a little boy pissing!

Another stumbling block is that of the plot itself which bears a horrifying similarity to any number of uplifting family drama/comedies I was made to watch as a youngster before I was able to choose my own viewing material. Granted it is a little more accomplished than those movies – the cut from a difficult birth to a giggling boy on a swing and the suddenness and brutality of a woman’s death are two of many minor formal coups that never appeared in the likes of Ed – but the storyline’s payoffs are every bit as familiar and tired, robbing them of any resonance their real world relevancy might’ve lent them.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Various Letterboxd Scribblings

My writing productivity has been low of late and, as usual, the quality hasn't been anything to write home about but I have written about two (two!) films on letterboxd. Neither of these scribblings are as holistic as I'd like and neither really talks about formal elements but, uh, here they are.

I Saw the Devil
Rote plot twists and suspense beats turn what should be an unnerving descent into moral hell into yet another tired revenge thriller. If Kim really wanted to put his hero through a meat grinder he could have made a noir film in which the protagonist is constantly, inexorably drawn towards his fate. Instead I Saw the Devil employs constant cat and mouse set pieces where the question is less about what will be left of the hero and more about who will survive. (To say nothing of the misplaced but apparently obligatory use of black humor to close out the second act.)

If I Saw the Devil is good at anything it's in providing a short hand glimpse into the logic of misogyny and goosing its male audience with shots that threaten to make them complicit in sexual violence. Kim's camera lingers unnervingly on things no audience should reasonably want to look at in quite a different way from, say, the unambiguously outraged gaze of Fincher's camera in his The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But again, this is the audience being made complicit in an unnerving way. If only Kim was able to do the same for his protagonist.

Seven Psychopaths
Plays like a Cabin in the Woods for mouthy, British gangster films. Which is to say that it's often clever and funny but rarely more incisive then the average blog post bemoaning Guy Ritchie's oeuvre or lamenting the state of modern horror. I mean, pointing out that women rarely get substantial roles in crime films isn't exactly the stuff of which incisive critiques are made, and it doesn't help that, much like The Cabin in the Woods, it wants to have its objectifying cake and eat it too.