Sunday, September 28, 2008

CIFF Notes -- Days 8 & 9

Day 8, Sept 26

Time to Die (2007, Poland, Dorota Kedzierzawska): 7/10
One Week (2008, Canada, Michael McGowan): 8.5/10

The Polish film Time to Die is mostly a soliloquy, beautifully shot in black and white. Credit goes to an excellent performance from Danuta Szaflarska for playing such a vibrant character. While the film is technically sound, like most recent Polish films, it took me a while to warm up to this story. Even though I was not bowled over this film, I did find a certain charm to it, not only from Danuta’s performance but the dog in the film whose actions and expressions were appropriate.

All it took for me to go see One Week was reading that Joshua Jackson plays a character who goes on a motorcycle journey from Toronto to Tofino. I love journey films and one set in Canada was definitely worth checking out. Thankfully, the film does not disappoint. In a way, the film is a postcard for Canada, showcasing the beauty of this country, along with snapshots of those small towns whose fame depends on that one big icon (largest mosaic, etc). Joshua Jackson plays Ben, a character whose life is turned upside down when he learns he has cancer. Unsure about what to do, he heads for a quiet moment with his newly acquired motorcycle and a cup of coffee. The sold out theater erupted with laughter when they recognized what coffee Ben was drinking. And the laughter increased when Ben ‘rolled up the rim’ to see what prize he won. He didn’t win anything but the message in the rim proclaimed ‘Go West Young Man’. And so it was. The Tim Horton's cup sealed Ben’s destiny and he undertakes a beautiful journey that ends at the beaches of Tofino.

Day 8, Sept 27

The Grocer's Son (2007, France, Eric Guirado): 8.5/10
Driving to Zigzigland (2007, Zigzigland, Nicole Ballivian)
REC (2007, Spain, Jaume Balagueró/Paco Plaza): 8/10

The Grocer's Son is a charming film set in a beautiful small French town. While the story deals with the title character and his life, we get a glimpse into the farmers and town folk he interacts with on his daily grocery deliveries via his father’s truck. There is a tiny reference to some of the farmers being in debt even though that is discussed in passing. The film would form a perfect companion piece to the excellent French documentary Modern Life, which is about the decline of farming in France and played in Cannes this year.

Sometimes the best way to deal with tragedy is via comedy. And in the international political world the issue of Palestine and the occupied territories is no laughing matter. So credit goes to the film-makers of Driving to Zigzigland that they manage to portray the issue of occupation, homeland security and racial profiling in a humorous manner. The film is about a theater actor (Bashar) from Palestine who dreams of working in Hollywood. He leaves his home and daily problems of checkpoints behind to make his living in the promised land where he ends up driving a cab in order to pay his bills while constantly auditioning for small acting parts. In conversations with his passengers, whenever he mentioned his homeland as Palestine, the discussions often ended up in an argument. So he decided to name his country as Zigzigland, a trick that works surprisingly well.

It has been almost 9 years since The Blair Witch Project was released, yet its legacy lives on. Blair Witch.. came up with a very smart formula for a horror film by using a handheld camera to shoot their film in darkness. The absence of light does evoke fear in some people and the film-makers cashed in on that idea and proved that if one had a good myth, there was no need of nasty creatures or even gory blood because the darkness would cause the audience some jitters. Cloverfield tried this idea but one reason I didn’t think it worked was because the film was not confined to closed quarters. And the reason the Spanish horror film REC works is because it takes the Blair Witch concept into a confined space of an apartment building. There is plenty of opportunity for the spooks and screams while the camera moves around in darkness.

REC has a short running time of just under 80 minutes and gives enough screen time to develop the characters before turning into a screaming pitch dark film. The story is about a television crew (the lovely reporter Angela and Pablo, her cameraman) who follow two firemen into an apartment building after the fire-station received a call that an old lady was trapped in her apartment. Early on, it is clear something strange is going. A bite and some blood later, the film pauses to catch up with the other residents in the apartment. And then the jerky camera goes into over-drive as the actors engage in a screaming match. What strange force is at work in the apartment building? Thankfully, the film does give a glimpse into the mystery near the end, with a taped recording voice that reminded me of the radio messages in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. Plenty of nods to Blair Witch and it seems that Hollywood has already noticed as their remake Quarantine will hit theaters in a few weeks. It is certainly fun to watch such a movie in a packed cinema hall because the nervousness and anxiety of the audience raises the decibels of the on-screen screams. And the directors do give the audience plenty of time to prepare for the oncoming danger. There are plenty of moments when the camera moves around a darkened space and one knows that something will appear in front of the camera and when it does, there will certainly be a few screams among the audience.

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