Saturday, October 31, 2009

Eastern Europe 3, Greece 2

Buick Riviera (2008, Croatia, Goran Rusinovic)

Goran Rusinovic’s brilliant film illustrates how hatred can persist through generations and lay dormant until one day it is unleashed into a full fledged war. On the surface, the film appears to be about two strangers whose chance encounter leads to volatile consequences but it is clear that the film is about more than just two people. The two characters give us one example of how hatred can suddenly flare out of a seemingly harmless situation and result in bloody revenge. In this regard, the film can explain why fighting broke out in the former Yugoslavia or why other cultures/tribes are in a race to destroy each other. The simple answer can be that people just don’t like each other. But why? Why don’t people like each other? Query this question and often the answers are the simplest things. An unreturned smile can immediately label someone as an enemy. And sometimes, ofcourse, a nice smile can cause distrust. Add all these little things up and you build a catalogue of distrust and hatred, eventually leading to horrific consequences.

Buick Riviera starts off in the snowy American mid-west. After Hasan’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, he is fortunate to get a lift from Vuko. The two exchange jokes and things are quite pleasant especially after they discover they are both from the same land. But Vuko’s constants remarks about Muslim behavior anger Hasan and he counters about Vuko’s Serb identity. Immediately, hatred and distrust flare up. Hasan heads home and things appear to have ended. But Vuko shows up at Hasan’s door, determined to buy Hasan’s beloved broken car (the Buick Riviera). The car becomes a ground for asserting each other’s control over the other -- Hasan needs to preserve his car while Vuko wants it at all costs. Watching the duo’s confrontation with confusion is Hasan’s American wife, Angela, who does not understand what is going on. Still, her character is essential because she serves as a moderator who oversees a critical scene in Hasan’s and Vuko’s battle at the dinner table. The camera work is brilliant in this dinner table scene where Angela is seated at the head of the table, equidistant from Hasan and Vuko who are across from each other. However, the camera’s perspective is altered in moments to make it like look that Angela is siding with Vuko in some debates. In this regards, the camera perspective portrays Hasan’s inner feelings of how he feels he is on the verge of losing everything. Memories of bloodshed in his former land come to Hasan’s mind and he is determined to fight back harder.

A fascinating film and one of the year’s best!

Link: Sarajevo 2008 write-up.

Border (2009, Armenia/Holland, Harutyun Khachatryan)

A dialogue-less picture which lets the powerful images speak for themselves. The film shows that if people can’t trust an animal from the other side of the border, then how can they ever get along with humans from across the border. At the film’s start, a buffalo is found injured near the border. The people from across the border tend to the buffalo and bring it over on their side. However, the village people and even the farm animals treat the buffalo with suspicion. Seasons pass and the buffalo appears to be assimilated with the people’s daily activities. Still when something does go wrong, it is the buffalo that is blamed.

The buffalo ends up being a symbol of a refugee, a stranger who finds himself in a different community and tries to adapt. A few subtle images highlight the strains of the border on everyday life and the distrust that exists of those on the other side. Even the buffalo appears to feel the strain of that border and yearns to break free of the human created border.

The director has called the film a blend of documentary and “live-action film” but the film’s keen observances of everyday life erase the boundary between documentary and fiction. This film does not feel like scripted cinema at all but is a rich work where an animal is used to expose humanity's many faults, especially intolerance of a stranger.

Link: Official website

Delta (2008, Hungary, Kornél Mundruczó)

A special thanks is given to Béla Tarr at the start of Kornél Mundruczó’s Delta. It is easy to see why that is the case because Delta incorporates a few touches from Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango and The Outsider. While Tarr’s films are in black and white, Delta is in color and this sets the film’s mood and atmosphere apart from Tarr’s work. Also, there are some scenes in Delta that evoke Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos and Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow. Overall, Delta is a visually sharp film and a real cinematic treat.

Dogtooth (2009, Greece, Giorgos Lanthimos)
Original title: Kynodontas

This Un Certain Regard winner is part Lars von Trier, part Ulrich Seidl with a touch of the absurd. The story goes from dark humour to shock in an instant with its depiction of family abuse and incest. The film may be hard to like but it is equally difficult to ignore this work. There is plenty to chew on in this film, especially regarding the consequences of a controlled environment that the father imposes on his family. The father creates a closed environment where he controls every aspect of the household from what the children see on tv to what they learn. However, his closely guarded world is threatened when the introduction of an outside element into the house changes the equation drastically. In essence, the film forms a twisted case study of the butterfly effect.

Strella (2009, Greece, Panos H. Koutras)

After Yiorgos is released from prison, he encounters Strella, a transvestite, in a hotel. The two sleep with each other but complications arise after their encounter. What follows has roots in Greek mythology but the film takes things to another extreme by adding a wicked twist. It is hard to talk about the film without giving the twist away but without the twist, there is really nothing to talk about. Still, the film manages to pack an emotional punch.

Trailer for Dogtooth

Thursday, October 29, 2009

(East + South East) Asia Spotlight

Ten films covering four countries:

China -- Fujian Blue, Fish Eyes
South Korea -- Rough Cut, Daytime Drinking, My Love Yurie
Malaysia -- Call If You Need Me, Karaoke, This Longing
Philippines -- Independencia, Adela

Call If You Need Me, Karaoke, Daytime Drinking, Rough Cut and Fish Eyes were mentioned previously in CIFF previews I & III. These five films are included here with shorter comments.

So in order of preference:

Call If You Need Me (2009, Malaysia, James Lee)

A visually sharp film that combines the style of diverse film-makers such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Quentin Tarantino while still retaining a unique Malaysian flavour. Hou Hsiao-Hsien elevated a gangster film to an art form with Goodbye South Goodbye and James Lee does a very job in carrying on that tradition. Call If You Need Me is about gangsters and kidnappings but there isn’t a single gun or drop of blood to be found on screen. All the violence is kept out of the frame and we are instead shown events that precede or succeed a violent act. Because there is no violence shown on screen, we can instead focus on the characters and their day to day lives, including their love interests and their choice of food and drugs.

Karaoke (2009, Malaysia, Chris Chong Chan Fui)

This beautifully shot film attains a level of beauty normally associated with the cinema of Thai film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, especially Tropical Malady. While the images are mesmerizing, one must also pay careful attention to all the sounds that can be heard. The lyrics of the Karaoke videos are also important as they provide a clue to the film’s three act structure.

This Longing (2008, Malaysia, Azharr Rudin)
Original title: Punggok rindukan bulan

The minimalist style of This Longing will frustrate some viewers but patient viewers will be rewarded with moments of beauty spread throughout the film. There are two stories here which are loosely tied and both show the gradual decline of an apartment complex in Johor Baru which is slated for destruction. The 90 minute long first segment is about the relationship between a young boy (Sidi) and his father. The second segment (about 30 minutes) features a completely different character, Riza, who returns home to have another look at the place where she grew up. After she arrives, Riza finds that the complex is almost empty as most of the residents have been relocated. Her walks through the same halls that Sidi passed through makes one question all the scenes in the first segment and whether Sidi and a younger Riza had crossed paths.

This Longing blurs the line between documentary and fiction not only because of its style but also because it was shot in a real apartment complex which was about to be destroyed. Seeing the cranes crunching away at the building at the film’s end (without any background sound) lends a haunting perspective to the story.

Fish Eyes (2009, Korea/China, Zheng Wei)

Zheng Wei makes an impressive debut with this well shot film that does not burden the screen with needless dialogue. The minimalist style works to perfection here as we witness the everyday events of a father and his son. Their daily routines are altered when a mysteriously girl shows up. While the father cares for the girl, the son sees the girl as someone who can be used to gain an advantage with the local gang.

Fujian Blue (2007, China, Weng Shou Ming)

The film takes place in the Fujian province and observes a slice of the human trafficking operation. On one hand we witness the methods of the local gangs seeking to profit from people wanting to leave China and on the other, we see the reasons for these people’s departure. Leaving one’s country illegally isn't easy and not without danger, but it isn't any easier to carve out a respectable living at home when crime and poverty are close-by. In this aspect, the film shares sentiments of Italian films set in the port cities during the 30's-50's when Italians sought to leave for America.

The vibrant look of Fujian Blue makes for a very calm watching experience despite the negative characters and situations on display. Overall, a worthy debut film and it is easy to see why it won the 2007 VIFF Dragons and Tigers award.

Independencia (2009, Philippines co-production, Raya Martin)

Raya Martin has certainly carved a unique style for this film with the studio sets, black and white film mixed with some staged newsreel shots. The controlled set environment allows Martin to play with the lightning (example, a studio light serves as the shining sun) and sound, thereby providing some of the film's best moments. The story spanning two generations is set against the backdrop of the island's historical aspects between the departure of the Spanish and the arrival of the Americans, with the American involvement in the Philippines growing steadily during the course of the film. The film's title proclaims Independence but that is an elusive concept as depicted by the film. Even at the film's end, we get a clue to impending blood shed that will take place on the islands when two foreign countries (America and Japan) will go to war.

It took me two viewings to appreciate the beauty of Independencia but I still missed out on some of the symbolism on the second viewing. When I saw the film the first time, the controlled set surroundings didn't produce a natural reaction in me because I could not bounce any emotional resonance off the stage settings. Only after the news reel appeared around the 30 minute mark, did I being to appreciate the film's humour and pokes at history. The second viewing was far more rewarding and allowed me to observe things with a different perspective.

Independencia could form an interesting double-bill with Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain. While Independencia ends with the Japanese yet to arrive on the Philippines, Fires on the Plain shows the American and Japanese soldiers locked in brutal war on the islands. Atleast, in Independencia we see the local Filipinos but the locals are hard to come by in Ichikawa's masterful work.

Daytime Drinking (2008, Korea, Noh Young-seok)

A delightful film that provides plenty of laughs with its sincere tale of love, friends, alcohol and good food. When I was not busy laughing, I was craving hot ramen noodles with cold beer just like the characters in the film.

Rough Cut (2008, Korea, Hun Jang)

Rough Cut is a fascinating no holds barred action film that puts a new spin on the traditional gangster genre. Some aspects of the film within a film story are similar to the extraordinary Korean film Dirty Carnival but Rough Cut has gone in a far more gritty direction with good effect. Kim Ki-duk's screenplay is different from anything he done before, and that includes the gangster film Bad Guy that he directed early in his career.

Adela (2008, Philippines, Adolfo Alix Jr.)

The film resides on quite an emotional and powerful performance from the 85 year old actress Anita Linda. The usage of the slum location adds to the film's realism and invites a glimpse into the character's lives. In this regard, the film is similar to other recent fascinating Filipino films set in real slum/shanty town locales such as The Bet Collector (directed by Jeffrey Jeturian) and Foster Child, Slingshot (Brillante Mendoza).

My Love Yurie (2008, South Korea, Ko Eun-Ki)

Donga falls for his neighbour Yurie but he can't have her because of one tiny problem -- Yurie’s father is the devil! To complicate things, Yurie's father forces his daughter into prostitution, something which further torments Donga. Desperate to gain Yurie's love, Donga has no choice but to make a deal with the devil. After the deal is made, Donga is happy but his happiness has restrictions because a deal with the devil always has consequences.

The film has a creative take on Goethe's Faust tale and the interesting set-up of two houses in the middle of nowhere is a great idea as it gives the film a timeless look. After a very good opening, the film goes off track around the point when Donga makes a deal with Yurie's father. As part of the deal, Yurie's father gives Donga a picture book which shows his future with Yurie. The scenes that follow do not sit in the film's previously developed ideas of the purity of love that Donga wants and the devilish nature of the trade that Yurie is involved in thanks to her father. Instead, these picture book scenes halt the film's flow and grind the story to a halt.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Two brothers and two fateful penalty shots

Rudo y Cursi (2009, Mexico/USA, Carlos Cuarón)

Ah. The beautiful game. It unites and can equally divide.

Two brothers, one a goal keeper and the other a striker. Mortal enemies on the field because of their opposing roles. One’s happiness depends on the other’s misery -- if a striker scores, then he is the hero yet if the goalkeeper blocks the shot, then the goalie comes out on top. An agent, Batuta (Guillermo Francella), is impressed with both brothers but he can only pick one, so he leaves it up to the brothers to decide who gets selected. Beto (Diego Luna), the goalkeeper, opts for a penalty shot to decide their fates.

As the two brothers run towards the goal, Beto indicates to Tato (Gael García Bernal) where he should shoot the ball.

“Shoot to the right”

“Let me block it. Shoot to the right.”


Tato steps up and sends the ball perfectly to his right while his brother dives the other way. Batuta is impressed and asks Tato to meet him the next day. But Beto is upset.

“I said aim right! Why’d you shoot the other way?”

“I aimed right!”

“I meant the other right!”

“What other right?”

“My right, asshole!”

“You should have said to aim that way!”

The rivalry that was already present between the brothers intensifies. Tato takes a step towards healing that rivalry. After Tato makes it big, he forces Batuta to give his brother a chance. Sure enough, Beto is given his chance and manages to make his mark. However, the two brothers are plagued with problems off the field -- Tato throws his riches away on a fine looking gold digger named Maya while Beto gambles everything away.

Oddly, the brothers handle their off-field problems differently. While Beto’s gambling debt puts his life in danger, he still manages to shine on the field, keeping clean-sheet after clean-sheet. On the other hand, Tato’s goals dry up completely and he reaches breaking point when he learns that Maya is cheating on him.

Tato is on the verge of being sent to the second division and has one more game to salvage his career, while Beto is given one more chance to pay off his debts. Both brother’s get their chance to turn their lives around in the same game when they square off against each other.

It is clear how fate will decide the outcome.

A penalty shot. If a penalty shot kick-started their soccer careers, then it is appropriate that the two brothers face off again from 12 yards to decide the outcome of the rest of their lives.

Rudo y Cursi may feel like a Hollywood film in its treatment but the film redeems itself in the penalty shot near the end where the ironic fates of soccer and life in general are respected. The ending can only be written by someone who understands that, in soccer, games can end just as they start.

Note: The calm and soothing narration provided by the character of Batuta evoke the sentiments of Eduardo Galeano from Soccer in Sun and Shadow where Galeano poetically conveyed the beauty of the game.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nordic Spotlight

Denmark leads the pack with 3 entries followed by one each from Sweden and Finland.

The Blessing (2009, Denmark, Heidi Maria Faisst)
Original title: Velsignelsen

This impressive debut feature tackles a topic I have never seen on film -- the day to day challenges that takes place for a couple after their baby is born. Most movies only go as far as showing the child birth process and focus their energies on packing in as many jokes and incorrect information leading up to the birth (example: unlike in most movies, a woman's water breaking does not mean that the baby will be delivered right away). So it is refreshing to see a movie that realistically portrays the complications and stress that takes place from not only from feeding the baby but handling the familial relationships that surround the arrival of a newborn. The young mother shown in the film suffers from post-partum depression and her situation is complicated by the fact that she is unable to feed her baby while having a strained relationship with her own mother. The husband does not understand the wife's situation and when he is away on a business trip, she slips further into misery and depression.

The film does an excellent job in depicting things as they are without spelling anything out. For example, the words "post-partum depression" are never mentioned nor are reasons given as to why the baby is crying (unable to drink milk). Any stoppages for explanations would have ruined the film's flow and one can imagine how such a script churned through a Hollywood studio would look quite dramatic and formulaic.

The film got a jury prize at the Göteborg festival.

An interview with Heidi Maria Faisst.

Guidance (2009, Sweden, Johan Jonason)

Just when Ylva is losing hope in finding a treatment for husband’s worsening depression, a young man approaches her to offer a radical treatment to cure her husband Roy. She convinces Roy to try this new treatment in a bid not to only cure him but to save their marriage. The treatment involves Roy to break contact with the outside world and as a result he finds himself stuck in a farmhouse located in the middle of nowhere where this young therapist goes about imparting his version of holistic treatment. But as it turns out, the young man is in more need of spiritual help than Roy.

This fascinating film shares the core sentiment of Todd Hayne's Safe in poking fun at so called spiritual teachers and does so with varying shades of ironic, dry and dark humour. The Dogma 95 style treatment gives the film a realistic feel and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions of either horror or absurdity.

Little Soldier (2008, Denmark, Annette K. Olesen)
Original title: Lille soldat

This rugged film tackles many brutal issues ranging from prostitution to human trafficking to the lingering scars of war. After Lotte (Trine Dyrholm) returns to Denmark drained from her war experience, her father offers her a job as a car driver for his escort business. The escort service needs a strong driver who isn't afraid to deal with hostile clients and Lotte fits the bill perfectly. That is until, she starts to sympathize with the conditions of the women in the sex trade, especially Lily (Lorna Brown). Lotte's background as a soldier and the cold relationship with her father certainly brings a new and sobering perspective to the prostitution trade run in some European countries.

Three Wise Men (2008, Finland, Mika Kaurismäki)
Original title: Kolme viisasta miestä

Mika Kaurismäki presents an interesting portrayal of the three main character's collective misfortunes and failures. A person is expected to gain wisdom with age, so goes the saying. While the film's three males have certainly aged, they are still grappling to gain any wisdom. Through the course of the film, their characters evolve and become a bit wiser, although with some pain and tears. The film does start to run out of steam near the end but is still engaging, albeit packed with plenty of misery.

The Escape (2009, Denmark, Kathrine Windfeld)
Original title: Flugten

Quite a relevant story about Afghanistan, journalism and political decisions about refugees. The film is about a Danish journalist Rikki (Iben Hjejle, High Fidelity and The Boss of it All) who escapes from the Taliban and reaches back to Denmark where she is proclaimed a hero. A colleague suspects something and sets about to dig up the real story because he believes the saying that no one escapes from the Taliban. But the truth isn't clear cut and things get murky soon enough. The film does take plenty of short cuts in portraying the story but still there are some worthy debating points in the film, especially regarding war criminals and refugees.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A new festival hits town..

This weekend marks the launch of the inaugural Calgary Arab Film Festival. In the last few years, quite a few different film festivals have started in this city but a festival focusing on Arab cinema was long overdue. Some people keep complaining that the city has too many film festivals but I disagree. In fact, I think the city has too few film festivals. The Calgary International Film Festival can't always cover the entire global cinematic spectrum, so it is essential that there are other festivals spread throughout the year that do justice to the multiple regions/genres of cinema that exist.

Regarding CAFF, I am impressed with the line-up for a first time film festival and clearly some planning and effort went into it. Also, the festival has spread their schedule out wisely by having a manageable total of 6 features + 2 documentaries.

Out of the 6 features, I have seen two films (Barakat and What a Wonderful World) already this past summer. So I restricted myself to only two films for the festival. On Saturday night, I caught Falafel and on Sunday night, I plan to watch Salt of this Sea, a film that I have wanted to see for more than a year.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Spotlight on Japan

A very healthy haul of 5, listed once again in order of preference:

Ain't No Tomorrows (2008, directed by Yuki Tanada)
Original title: Oretachi ni asu wa naissu

This is an excellent film that depicts the coming of age tale of a few teenagers with unflinching honesty. Considering that plenty of films mishandle the changing complex behaviour associated with a teen's sexual awakening, it is refreshing to see a film that does not shy away from handling the issues head on. The honesty of the film (along with the sexual conquests) feels a bit like Larry Clark's Kids but this film stands on its own.

Vacation (2008, directed by Hajime Kadoi)
Original title: Kyûka

Even though it deals with the grim topic of a prisoner's execution by hanging, the film maintains a poetic balance by depicting the story from the point of view of the prison guard who volunteers to work during the execution. As per Japanese law, a guard who works during the execution shift gets a one week vacation but there are clearly emotional repercussions associated with such a vacation. There are plenty of dialog-less shots in the movie where the actors expressions beautifully convey the sense of agony and pain their characters are facing. Also, the film is clearly meticulously researched regarding the Japanese prison system and the process involved with an execution.

Still Walking (2008, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda)
Original title: Aruitemo aruitemo

The style, shots and set design of Still Walking immediately bring the works of Yasujiro Ozu to mind. But that similarity ends as soon as the characters in Still Walking open their mouths. In most of Ozu's films, even though there was disagreement and resentment between the characters (be it children vs parents or vice-versa), the hatred was not out in the open. But in Hirokazu Koreeda's film, the knives are fully out as the family addresses each other with heavy doses of sarcasm and harshness. Given the tragic circumstances of the family gathering, the hatred is understandable because it is another form of failed expectations the family has of each other. Overall, a fascinating film that depicts the characters with a sense of beauty that Ozu would have been proud of.

Achilles and the Tortoise (2008, director Takeshi Kitano)
Original title: Akiresu to kame

Takeshi Kitano presents a light hearted spin on the Achilles and Tortoise tale by adapting it to the subjective world of art. The fact that Kitano has used his real life paintings in the film certainly suggest an autobiographical angle to the film. The only negative aspect is that the second half of the film repeatedly hammers home the same point over and over again by showing the (expected) rejection of the young artist's works.

Note: The art school segments echo the sentiments of Terry Zwigoff's Art School Confidential.

All Around Us (2008, directed by Ryosuke Hashiguchi)
Original title: Gururi no koto

A good film that manages to integrate the two strands of the main couple's relationship problems and the court room stories nicely. Just like Vacation, All Around Us balances a grim topic with a touch of beauty. The husband is a courtroom artist covering the cases of brutal killings but since the camera focusses on him and his art work, the impact of the crimes is lessened and the confessions of the criminals turn into background noise. This tactic allows us to see the husband's work just as a routine job and something that comes in the way of his marriage. The one negative about the film is there are plenty of repetitive situations, especially the court room parade of killers. Still, there is plenty to admire in this film.

David Bordwell discusses Still Walking and All Around Us near the bottom of this VIFF 2008 post.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Recent German Cinema

A spotlight on German Cinema featuring 5 very different films listed in order of preference:

Everyone Else (2009, director Maren Ade)

A fascinating look at how professional competition (architecture in the film's case) can put an already fragile relationship under more stress. The film has a slow start and at first it is not clear what the issues in the relationship are but gradually as we get to see more of the couple's behaviour, the problems become clearer and the film catches fire. Although it is not an open inferno but a slow burn which eventually leads to an implosion and not an explosion. It is credit to Maren Ade that the film does not resort to melodrama but instead lets the body language of the actors do most of the talking. The rawness and honesty of the couple’s relationship is unlike anything seen on film in the last decade.

Lulu & Jimi (2009, director Oskar Roehler)

A smartly developed film which perfectly combines a 1950's style forbidden racial love story with elements of Shakespeare (Romeo & Juliet, The Tempest, Othello) and David Lynch (Wild at Heart). The visuals are striking and oscillate beautifully from a dreamy feel to a nightmarish vision. It is a real delight to watch this film and pick out all the cinematic influences that are integrated in the story while still enjoying the refreshing and unique work.

Peaceful Times (2008, director Neele Vollmar)
Original Title: Friedliche Zeiten

A delightful light hearted German film about a fragile marriage shown through the eyes of the couple's three children, with the story focussing more on the dynamic between the two sisters while their younger brother is kept on the fringes. The performances of the children is excellent and their characters lend a cute touch to the film and manage to brighten the atmosphere despite the serious topics of divorce, infidelity and East-West German suspicions/tensions. The film is set in the 60's and forms a nice pairing with Lulu and Jimi as both are German films heavy with American pop culture influence from the 50's and 60's.

note: The humour and setting of Peaceful Times along with the story's focus on children is reminiscent of last year's enjoyable Canadian film Mommy is at the hairdresser (original title Maman est chez le coiffeur, directed by Léa Pool).

November Child (2008, director Christian Schwochow)

An engaging multi-layered story that looks at the consequences that arise from a woman's decision to cross the East-West German border. An interesting angle explored by the film involves how a professor seeks to profit by writing a book about someone else's troubled past. In order to complete his book, the professor decides to align himself closely with his subject, while observing the subject's emotional reactions at the pieces of evidence and research that he gives out in small chunks. Also, the film features a wonderful performance from Anna Maria Mühe daughter of the late Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others).

Variety's review.

10 seconds (2008, director Nicolai Rohde)

The wonderful 1999 Mike Newell film Pushing Tin shed a light on the stressful job of an air traffic controller. For an air traffic controller, the planes may only appear as tiny dots on a screen but each of those dots means hundreds of lives and an incorrect decision could lead to horrific consequences. 10 Seconds bases its story on a real life tragedy that resulted from a mid-air collision; the event also had dire consequences for the air traffic controller on duty at the time of the collision.

The film's story features multiple characters who are all tied to the night of the collision -- the air traffic controller who is an emotional wreck after the incident, his wife who handles the stress in her own way, a policeman on duty at the crash site and a man who is haunted by the loss of his wife and child who were on the plane. The film has slick production values but unfortunately fails to properly bring all the different elements together with the right amount of emotional depth that is required.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Turkish Cinema

It has been a vintage year for Turkish cinema. The year started off with the Rotterdam Film Festival having a wonderful spotlight on Young Turkish Cinema. A few months later, at the Istanbul film festival local Turkish films managed to shine through. And as the year has gone on, new fascinating Turkish films have continued to pop up, like the wonderful Wrong Rosary that screened at CIFF’s Maverick competition.

But here are 5 films that featured at Rotterdam and Istanbul. The films are arranged in order of personal preference.

The Storm (director Kazim Öz)

This politically alive film handles the debate about Kurdish identity and illustrates the revolutionary awakening from a youth perspective. The political issues and revolutionary planning aspects presented in the film could easily apply to other parts of the world like the summer student protests in Iran. Even though the film was released last year in Turkey, it has hardly gotten any press coverage. One big reason could be because of the portrayal of the Turkish police and Government. The film is only shown from the Kurdish student’s point of view and the Turkish Government is shown to be the enemy and at times things look like a police state. Such a depiction of the state might have caused this movie to be looked unfavorably in certain quarters. But the film is highly relevant and shows how the seeds of revolution can take hold at an early age as students (and young adults) can be transformed into revolutionaries. The flip-side is that these same revolutionaries can be labeled as terrorists, depending on who is reporting the story.

The Storm may not be as visually stunning as other recent Turkish films but its cinematography is perfect for the story and gives the audience a fly on the wall view of the secret conversations that go on behind closed doors. There are two interesting shots in the film that convey the mood of the main character Cemal. When Cemal is on his way from his village to Istanbul, he throws a stone in the river. As the stone skips on the water, the camera is placed on the opposite side and we witness the stone gain momentum until it speeds past the camera. This same action is taken from a different angle near the film’s end, when Cemal is returning back to his village from Istanbul. He throws a stone again in the river but this time the camera is placed behind the stone and shows the stone skip and quietly disappear into the water. Cemal’s face hardly conveys any emotion but the position of the camera gives us a glimpse into his inner state. In the first instance, when the stone approaches the camera, we get a sense of a burst of energy and this mimics the enthusiasm with which Cemal is looking forward to university. But at the film’s end, he is returning tired and beat up from his city experience. He throws the stone with the same force but the camera angle allows us to see the stone quietly sinking into the water. Cemal is at peace at the film’s end and has had enough of the city life, so one can naturally assume that he will spend the rest of his life back in his village, a place where he will be eventually buried.

These are the words for the film on Rotterdam’s website: "Hardcore and heart-wrenching, The Storm has already started to gain cult status among young audiences in Turkey."

I can easily imagine that this film will indeed gain momentum in certain sections of Turkish society but I do hope that more people outside Turkey can get to see this gem.

Milk (director Semih Kaplanoglu)

An absolutely wonderful film that is packed with plenty of symbolism and cinematic beauty. The film manages to delicately handle a few issues such as a son's attempts to get published, his failed attempts at love, his relationship with his mother and adds a mystical element regarding the powers of milk to drive away evil. The relationship of the son to the mother feels similar to the one portrayed in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys but Milk shows more maturity and depth than Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s award winning film did.

note: Milk contains one of the most eye opening scenes I have ever seen on film in recent years. The image in question was something that I had never read about nor seen on camera, so this film added a new image to my memories. I won’t give it away but all I can say is that the image is not out of context and is relevant for a thread that runs through the movie.

My Only Sunshine (director Reha Erdem)

One of the year’s best shot films!! The film has a beautiful visual language but the story is not as strong as that of Reha Erdem’s previous feature Times and Winds. In My Only Sunshine every single bleak situation is easily anticipated but the film does have a knight in shining armour that comes to save the day, but the knight is in the form of a foreign soccer fan who arrives on his boat to give the film a much needed light fairy tale feel.

Pandora’s Box (director Yesim Ustaoglu)

An enjoyable Turkish family film that blends humor with emotional drama. There are some slack aspects in the movie but those are balanced out by some quiet thoughtful moments which give a glimpse into the character's lives.

Two Lines (director Selim Evci)

A nice debut film which is similar in style to Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates. The relationship of the main couple is developed patiently with plenty of excellent expressions and moments of contemplation.

update: Wrong Rosary had also screened at the Rotterdam (where it won an award) and Istanbul film festivals.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

CIFF 2009 Diary, Day 9 & 10

Day 9: Saturday, Oct 3

Oct 3 was all about achieving a personal record of seeing 7 films in a single day. Originally, I had planned on seeing atleast 5-6 films but when an additional screening was added at 10:45 am, the path was clear for me to hit the elusive seven.

Cyborg, She (2008, Japan, Jae-young Kwak)
Time: 10:45 am at The Plaza

The originally scheduled screening for Wednesday night was sold out but the print never arrived on time. So a special screening was added on Saturday morning. But as it turned out, the film-makers still screwed up and sent a print without English subtitles.

Watching this film without subtitles is not that bad as there are quite a few stretches without dialogue (one such sequence was atleast 10 minutes long). But I was quite disappointed by this film because it looks like a recycled version of Jae-young Kwak's earlier film My Sassy Girl with a sci-fi angle tacked on. While My Sassy Girl was fresh and funny, the humour in Cyborg, She is stale and predictable.

I Killed My Mother (2009, Canada, Xavier Dolan)
Time: 12:45 pm at the Globe, downstairs screen.

This film blew me away and was easily the single best film of the festival I had seen. Normally, only a few films inspire such strong reactions in me and I was certainly not expecting to be jolted this early in the day.

Dolan's film is raw, funny, emotional and brutally honest. It properly depicts the teenage vs adult struggle that exists in a majority of households in probably every country in the world. Normally, there is a mutual loving bond between parents and children early on in the child's life. But when the hormones start gushing through the children’s blood stream in the early teens, those same loving parents become the children’s enemy and the relationship between the two sides starts to degenerate. In some cases, the relationship starts to mend once the teen has grown up into an adult. For some people, this happens around the mid 20's, for others much later. But Dolan seems to have acquired this understanding a lot early on as he directed the film when he was 19 (and wrote it when he was 17).

The dialogues are sharp and pointed. In one case, the mother remembers the time when her son used to tell her everything and they were friends. To which the son replies "I was 4 and I had no choice". Ouch. Words can hurt, especially if they are always spoken with venom and sarcasm. The mother is unable to cope and the son wants away. Their arguments and fights may be about personality traits and specific issues but they echo the universal teenage angst and sense of rebellion. There have been many films in the past which covered similar topics but most works usually turn into one-sided rants from a teenager's perspective. On the other hand, I Killed My Mother perfectly depicts the struggle that exists on both sides -- it is not easy for parents to raise their kids while it is equally difficult for kids trying to assert their self, despite depending on their parents. We are also introduced to another parental example in the film which shows how a parent tries to be their child's friend. Yet, even that parent gets disrespect no matter how hard she tries. Damned if you let the kids have their way and damned if you stand in their way.

Plenty to take away from this film. Quite simply, a sensational debut.

Gigantic (2008, USA, Matt Aselton)
Time: 3 pm at Eau Claire, Screen #2

Sometimes the indie American films follow a prescribed formula especially by ensuring their stories contain quirky off beat characters who are supposed to generate humour for their unique behavior. Sure there are some tender moments of genuine humour here but for the most part, I didn't react with much enthusiasm. Still, it was a nice relaxing film to watch after I Killed My Mother.

Cooking History (2008, co-production, Peter Kerekes)
Time: 4:30 pm at Eau Claire, Screen #5

This insightful documentary highlights the rarely depicted topic of military cooks who fed the soldiers. Peter Kerekes does an excellent job of ensuring the documentary is vibrant and always interesting by getting the surviving characters to either cook or re-enact the tension of their war time drama. And as an added bonus, Peter Kerekes also provides humour in the form of recipes, in case someone wants to serve their nation by poisoning an entire enemy army. And each recipe appropriately ends with the common ingredient of "a pinch of salt". The final segment which features a cook standing in the ocean is precious, especially his preparation of imaginary dishes for an imaginary sea crew.

note: I missed the first 8 minutes of this film as Gigantic was a 98 minute long feature.

Breathless (2009, South Korea, Yang Ik-June)
Time: 6:30 pm at the Globe, downstairs

For the second time in the day, I was absolutely shook up by a film. But it took a while to appreciate what the director had in mind because the first 20 minutes appear to be routine stuff straight out of most Korean/Japanese gangster films -- punching, swearing and some slapping. The person dishing out all these is Sang-Hoon (played by the director himself), one of the nastiest on screen personas seen in recent years. The violence is put in context via a flashback when we observe a tragic episode in Sang-Hoon’s childhood where his mother and sister were accidentally killed in an episode of domestic violence. Sang-Hoon never forgave his father and after his father is released from prison, Sang-Hoon visits and beats him up frequently. Sang-Hoon’s kicks at his father usually occur at the end of night when a drunk Sang-Hoon ponders over his past. The father quietly accepts the beatings.

Sang-Hoon is a loner with no friends but one day he comes across a fiery teenage girl, Yeon-Hue, who refuses to take his abuse and fires back. The two form an unusual friendship and take comfort in each other’s presence, even though the two swear and put each other down. It turns out that another example of domestic abuse is taking shape in Yeon-Hue’s house, where her teenage brother is just starting to assert his “manliness” by taking his anger out on his sister. The abuse that Yeon-Hue suffers is two fold because her father is mentally disturbed (triggered most likely after his wife and Yeon-Hue’s mother’s death) and hurls profanity at his daughter frequently.

A few years ago, I had seen an Israeli documentary where someone asks an Israeli woman how her fellow countrymen could treat the Palestinians so badly considering the suffering Jews underwent. The Israeli woman replied that if a young boy saw his father slapping his mother, would the young boy be a peaceful person when he grew up? Her reply was negative and she said most likely the young boy would grow up into a man who would in turn slap his own wife. Her words came to my mind while watching Breathless because the film shows that kids who witness violence in their youth will grow up and re-enact those same episodes onto others. While the film may not be the most pleasant to watch, it takes a brave stand in drawing a direct line from domestic abuse to gangster violence. There are some examples of youth joining the gang due to unemployment but the film emphasizes the cycle of violence aspect quite clearly.

There are many movies out there which have graphic scenes of violence and horror and the directors of such graphic films defend their works by emphasizing their movies are anti-violence and the violent scenes are meant to prove a point. But in most cases, these movies end up glorifying violence because the consequences of violence is never fully explored. On the other hand, Breathless clearly depicts the danger of a violent life, whether that life is in a household or in a gang. There is a consequence to every violent action and Yang Ik-June’s film is the only one I can think of that has a purpose for every scene of violence and abuse. This film should be shown to every teenage and adult male. And if after seeing this film, those males would still opt for a violent life, then there is no hope not only for those people but humanity in general.

And to think that Ddongpari (Breathless) is just a debut feature by Yang Ik-June! Wow. Easily one of the year’s best and relevant films!

Seven Minutes in Heaven (2008, Israel, Omri Givon)
Time: 9:30 pm at the Globe, downstairs

There is a good story idea in this Israeli film but while the idea may have worked perfectly for a 20 minute short film, it is painfully worn out in a full length feature. The needless repetition and spoon-feeding do nothing for the story but merely pad the time, and when the interesting twist on the story is revealed near the end, it is too late.

Daybreakers (2009, Australia, the Spierig brothers)
Time: 11:30 pm at the Plaza

For the seventh film, I was back at the location where I started my day, almost 12.5 hours earlier at 10:45 am. I got to the Plaza at 11:15 pm and the long line up had me worried. There were two lines, one for the advanced ticket and pass holders, and the other for rush tickets. Only a certain amount of pass holders are let in and when that quota is reached, the pass holders have to join the back of the rush ticket line. Since I was a pass holder who was at the end of the advanced ticket line (only 5 people were behind me and they all had tickets), I was certain I would not make it. But amazingly, I just made it.

As for the film itself, after an impressive start and good setup, it was a huge letdown to see the film settle into a comfortable Hollywood template, complete with loud music, some explosions and even a car chase. The film does redeem itself with a good ending. There are lots of neat elements in the film not covered by other vampire movies, especially the “Daytime Driving” aspect, which could also serve as the film’s alternate title. I thought the film had a great idea in combining a vampire tale with a sci-fi & political angle and there are many aspects which add something new to the vampire genre. So it was especially frustrating to see the film contain a very dull and average middle segment.

After 7 films in a day, sleep. Precious sleep. zzzzzzzzzzz

Day 10: Sunday, Oct 4

The Prophet (2009, France, Jacques Audiard)

I had first heard of Jacques Audiard about 4 years ago when I was in London. His film The Beat that My Heart Skipped earned rare reviews, especially from Peter Bradshaw. So I decided to check the film out during its opening weekend in London and was left in awe of both the film and Roman Duris’ performance. Duris was already a favourite of mine, especially from his performance in the pulsating Exils, but he was mesmerizing in Audiard’s well crafted film. I made a point to see the next film that Audiard would direct.

Fast forward to 2009 and when Audiard’s Un Prophet hit Cannes, I lay in eager anticipation. My excitement only grew over the coming months and hit a high point when I was in Paris where almost every cinema seemed to be showing the film. I waited for its CIFF debut and quickly snapped up my ticket. And it was a good thing I had an advanced ticket because the film was sold out on its 7 pm show on the festival’s final day.

The Prophet dives into the heart of the gangster world, right from the prison cells to the controlling ports and cities. The prison’s hierarchy and daily routines are outlined with a fine observant eye, which at times recalls the work of Jacques Becker in his brilliant film Le Trou. We observe a criminal (Malik El Djebena played by Tahar Rahim) elevate himself through the ranks by his quick intelligence, observant and diplomatic skills. There are plenty of neat references (religious are the common ones) tucked away in this film which will ensure a second viewing will also provide a pleasurable experience. Overall, quite an amazing film.

note: In the second half of the film, I found Tahar Rahim to resemble a bit like Robert Pires. Since at one point in my life I considered Pires to be a footballing God, I found the presence of his look like in a film called The Prophet to be appropriate.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

CIFF 2009 Diary, Days 6-8

Day 6: Wednesday, Sept 30

The 10 film Maverick competition kicked off on September 30 with 4 screenings, followed by a further 4 on Thursday and the final two on Friday night.

Schedule for the 10 Maverick films:

Wednesday -- Juntos, Everyone Else, Unmade Beds and Karaoke.
Thursday -- Be Good, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Wrong Rosary and Fish Eyes.
Friday -- My Suicide and Be Calm and Count to Seven.

I had seen four stellar films prior to the festival (Be Calm and Count to Seven, Everyone Else, Fish Eyes and Karaoke) and I was looking forward to seeing a few more.

Juntos (2009, Canada/Mexico, Nicolás Pereda)

Before the screening, Nicolás Pereda mentioned that he felt strange talking about Juntos as a movie because originally it was intended to be an art gallery project. He then asked the audience to watch the film with an open mind.

It is easy to see why this work could have been an art gallery project. One can imagine seeing the footage beamed on walls as audiences walk by a particular moment and then return later on to see what the three characters are up to. The film contains long static takes and gives a glimpse into the relationship between three people living in an apartment -- Gabino, his girlfriend Luisa and his friend Paco. Gabino finds himself in the middle of this awkward dynamic as Luisa's dislike at Paco's presence means that Gabino's relationship with Luisa is put under stress. The stress is conveyed early on and reaches breaking point in a stellar 10 minute long dialogue less scene with Gabino and Luisa sitting quietly at the kitchen table. With each passing second in this scene, one can feel the tension rise between the two and had Gabino dared to speak a word, then the relationship would surely have been over then and there.

The title Juntos refers to Gabino's dog that goes missing at the film's start. The dog's disappearance also signals the degradation of the relationship Gabino has with Luisa and Paco, although Gabino's easy going manner with Paco suggests that he will eventually forgive any of Paco's mistakes (a beautiful dialogue exchange between the two when Gabino is working on the sink pipes is another strong highlight of the film). There is also a scene that will inspire walkouts or discontent from the audience. In this particular scene, the camera does not shy away from watching Gabino take a bath in the nude. The scene starts off with Gabino's member slightly covered but slowly, everything is out in the open. This long sequence, which features Gabino lathering himself with soap, brought laughter from some of the women in the crowd and caused one man to loudly blame another woman for bringing him to see this movie. The man walked out a few minutes after the scene was over. But the scene does bring up the question that if it was a woman shown bathing instead of a man, would there have been any walkouts or even any laughter?

There are also some precious moments of humour derived from watching the characters and their crumbling household appliances. The film certainly requires an investment from the audience and does reward those who are patient enough.

note: Robert Koehler's review is worth reading.


After Juntos I headed down to the Plaza to meet up with Chris Chong Chan Fui and introduce his film. As it turned out, Karaoke proved to a frustrating challenge for quite a few of the audience members, including some good friends.

Day 7: Thursday, Oct 1

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009, USA, Damien Chazelle)

This black and white free flowing jazzy film is a breath of fresh air and has shades of John Cassavetes. The story is simple enough -- Boy Meets Girl, Boy dumps Girl, Boy meets another Girl and eventually Boy realizes he made a mistake. But the film has such a beautiful free style to it, like a jazz piece, that one can forget about the story and enjoy the images that are musically conveyed on the screen. There are also a few musical numbers, especially the cute restaurant tap dance sequence, that are integrated nicely in the film's framework.

Note: originally I had intended on seeing Be Good but then I changed my mind because I figured that I might have better chance of catching Be Good on DVD than Damien Chazelle's film. As good as Guy and Madeline.. is, I do wonder what future the film might have outside of the film festival circuit.

Wrong Rosary (2009, Turkey, Mahmut Fazil Coskun)

There is a famous Indian song from the film Padosan: "Mere samne wali khidki mein ek chand ka tukda rahta hai..". which roughly translates to "a beautiful girl lives next door" (I think an exact translation for this song would lessen the impact). The words for that song perfectly describe the story in Wrong Rosary as Musa, a muezzin, is smitten by his neighbour Clara. While the two belong to different religions, it is not religion that forms a barrier in their relationship but instead Musa's shyness gets in the way. Gradually, as he takes takes baby steps to edge towards Clara, we see his confidence grow. And just when things look like heading towards a happy sunset over the Bosphorus, a heart breaking conflict is thrown in the mix, ensuring some tears will take place.

Overall, Wrong Rosary is a wonderful crowd pleasing film. At times, the two characters of Musa and Clara look straight out of a Chaplin movie as both are outcasts in the beautiful city of Istanbul.

Note: Wrong Rosary continues the trend of fine Turkish films I have seen this year. And like most of those Turkish films, Wrong Rosary is expertly shot and allows one to completely soak in the atmosphere. The previous Turkish films that I saw this year will be outlined in a “Spotlight on Turkey” post shortly.

Day 8: Friday, Oct 2

Zero films seen!!

Despite my best intention of seeing a film on friday, a bizarre sequence of events (rain + car troubles) ensured that I once again failed to see a film on each of the 10 festival days.

Still, the rest was welcome as I was able to take in a record 7 films on saturday.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

In celebration of cinema

Chacun son cinéma is a collection of short films that were commissioned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Cannes film festival. In most short film anthologies, one usually gets a mixed bag of results. But in the case of Chacun son cinéma, the three minute length ensures that most shorts offer something worthwhile. Only one segment by Amos Gitai comes to mind as being quite awful, while most are enjoyable and some quite brilliant.

However, the most fun I got was in guessing the director of each short. I had not looked at the full list of directors before hand so it was an enjoyable game, provided the director's name was not displayed before the short began (which I think happened only once). Here was the criteria by which I could identify most of the shorts:

  • director's style (example: Tsai Ming-Liang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar Wai)
  • director's presence (these were giveaways)
  • setting (such as the one by Aki Kaurismäki)
  • location (Walter Selles)
  • the presence of an actor used by a director (Manoel de Oliveira)

  • Still, there were some that I wouldn't have guessed such as the Gus Van Sant or Jane Campion pieces. But Jane Campion's short makes sense considering she was the only female director in the anthology. Also, there was a director (Bille August) I was not aware of.

    Overall, there are some which convey the pleasure and magic of the cinematic experience. And the final segment which shows that there is nothing good ever playing in a multiplex is quite funny.

    note: my DVD didn't have the segments from David Lynch and the Coen brothers.

    Monday, October 12, 2009

    CIFF 2009 Diary, Days 2-5

    Day 2: Saturday, Sept 26

    Tetro (2009, USA, Francis Ford Coppola)

    Family again. But this time the family does not deal with the mafia but instead with the arts -- music, theatre, opera, ballet and literature. A tale of 2 brothers forms the core but there is also a second rivalry of 2 brothers (the two brother’s father vs their uncle) around the nucleus. Women, the love interests, left standing by.

    The Black and White gives La Boca a beautiful sensual feel. It starts with a blinding light and ends with a similar light. Flicker, flicker, off.

    Houston, We have a problem (2008, USA, Nicole Torre)

    Oil. Wars and boardroom deals. Politics and foreign policies, all about oil. The black gold has driven humanity forward and it may prove to be their downfall.

    Good to see the ideas that one reads about in books and papers given coverage on film. It is essential that people watch this film but what good will come out of it? The film covers the emergence of alternative forms of energy in the latter half and that is where hope lies for humanity. Hopefully, the politicians get that message as well. Otherwise, the clock is ticking and more wars may await.

    The White Ribbon (2009, co-production, Michael Haneke)

    In The White Ribbon Haneke displays the same keen observation towards society and culture that was evident in Cache, although the methodology between the two films differs in terms of images vs words. In the absorbing Cache, it was solely the images that gave clues to the character’s true feelings and the audiences were required to derive their own conclusions. But in The White Ribbon, the character’s words clearly spell out the hatred and feelings of disgust. On some occasions, the images do convey the hatred & fear but words are the real weapon here.

    The White Ribbon does take a while to catch fire though. The first hour appears to be devoid of much drama as we get a dry glimpse into the character’s daily lives and activities. But after the first signs of the horror and hatred in the village are revealed, then the purpose of those earlier scenes which depicted the mundane activities is made clear. After that point, the film is a riveting pulsating catalogue of the hatred and evil that would be unleashed beyond the borders of a single village and across the European landscape.

    The use of a narrator to carry us through the small town tale in The White Ribbon feels a bit like Lars von Trier from Dogville and Manderlay. In fact, Dogville and The White Ribbon have quite a bit in common as both films use the story of a few selected characters to stand in for a nation -- in both cases, the directors are trying to depict their understanding of the psyche of a larger group of people by focussing on a selected few characters. While von Trier set his film on a stage set thereby eliminating any feelings for the character’s environment, Haneke uses a real environment to depict the character’s daily routines thereby making his film feel like a living breathing case study.

    Day 3: Sunday, Sept 27

    Crackie (2009, Canada, Sherry White)

    Ah Newfoundland. Beautiful landscape but devoid of jobs. Not a stereotype but a reality as documented by the large number of people that leave the place to head west to look for jobs, especially in Alberta. Sherry White’s film also picks up on this aspect as the young Mitsy is abandoned by her mother who heads to Alberta to etch out a better living. Crackie is an engaging coming of age tale garnished with a mix of humour and drama. The humour is provided by Mary Walsh who plays the strong outspoken grandmother who looks after Mitsy.

    Revache (2008, Austria, Goetz Spielmann)

    I had been looking forward towards this movie since it made the cut for Cannes back in 2008. And I was not disappointed as this beautiful bank heist + moral tale certainly delivers. Also like in Spielmann’s previous film Antares, steamy sex is thrown in for good measure. Having now seen two movies each by the Austrian film-makers Goetz Spielmann and Ulrich Seidl, there are overlapping similarities in both film-makers style, especially considering both film-makers start their recent films in sex centers before expanding to a larger canvas.

    Police, Adjective (2009, Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu)

    Serious conversations between characters regarding the meaning of words and grammar forms a rich cinematic experience. Things are presented in a simple easy to absorb manner with long takes mixed with precious moments of humour. The film builds up on Corneliu Porumboiu’s previous film 12:08 East of Bucharest and also has a nod towards The Death of Mr. Lazarescu as it depicts another example of the bureaucratic circle of paperwork hell.

    Day 4: Monday, Sept 28

    The Happiest Girl in the World (2009, Romania co-production, Radu Jude)

    Winning a free car was supposed to usher in new freedom for Delia Fratila. All she had to do was act in a 35 second car commercial and drive away with her new car. But things don’t turn out to be that simple. Her parents want to exchange the car for money to finance a better future and the commercial shoot turns out to be an artistic and physical challenge. Funny and engaging. Another vintage film from Romania.

    Day 5: Tuesday, Sept 29

    The Last Lullaby (2008, USA, Jeffrey Goodman)

    This was a real discovered gem of the festival. Originally there was only a single screening of this film (Sunday 7:15 pm) which I had intended on seeing but unfortunately missed. Scott, a true film buff, raved about this film later on and I wondered when I would get to see it. But thankfully a second screening was added on Tuesday and true to Scott’s words, The Last Lullaby is indeed a treat.

    Price (Tom Sizemore), a retired assassin for hire, rescues a girl from a bunch of kidnappers and demands a ransom from the father for his opportunistic rescue effort. Price disappears after he collects the money but things get interesting when the girl’s father tracks him down and offers a hit job with a lot of money. On paper, it looks to be easy money. But in the tradition of film noir, it turns out to be anything but. Stylistically shot and nicely acted (Sasha Alexander looks immensely charming), The Last Lullaby is easily superior to a majority of what Hollywood has to offer. So you can be sure that this film won’t play in a multiplex any time soon, but it is one that has to be seen.

    St. Nick (2009, USA, David Lowery)

    The last few years have seen a richer and different America depicted on screen thanks to film-makers such as Ramin Bahrani’s (Man Push Cart & Chop Shop) and Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy). Now, David Lowery’s name can be included in that list as his St. Nick is a beautiful addition to the new American cinema that is emerging despite the dominating presence of the mostly suffocating one-dimensional Hollywood cinema on the North American screens.

    While the main story of St. Nick is about two young run away kids, the film also highlights the current America where empty abandoned houses reflect the tough economic times. At the film’s start, the young boy examines one such abandoned house and gets about making it habitable both for himself and his younger sister. While it is engaging to watch such a young boy go about fixing the house, it is also heart breaking to see these two kids skip past childhood and head straight into the struggles of adulthood. Since the two have no money, they have to resort to stealing to feed themselves. In this aspect, the film is related to Wendy and Lucy as both films examine the young character’s struggle to make ends meet while on the road.

    St. Nick is also another shining example of a film that does not need to drown the screen with dialogue and instead lets the powerful visual language of the camera convey its thoughtful story.

    Monday, October 05, 2009

    CIFF 2009, wrap-up

    The 10th edition of CIFF ended up being the best programmed year in the festival’s history. I managed to catch 22 films over 9 days as I missed one day of film viewing. In fact, it has been a few years since I have managed to watch a film on each of the 10 days. My overall total number was less than I had hoped for but in the end, even getting to this total took a lot of effort. But I managed to do something that I have longed for a long time now -- watching 7 films in one day. A few years ago some festival programmers mentioned how they watched 7 films in a single day at TIFF. For me getting to that number appeared to be impossible as the maximum number of films that anyone could watch at CIFF and VIFF was 6 (I managed 6 at VIFF in 2007). This year, when the print of Cyborg She didn’t arrive on time for the wednesday night (Sept 30) screening, CIFF added a screening for that film at 10:45 am on saturday. I was already planning on watching 6 films that saturday and this additional screening gave me the perfect chance to hit 7. In the end, it was close as the 7th film was sold out and I just managed to snag one of the last few spots in the theater.

    Best Films -- Canada, South Korea, Romania and France

    Romania had a very strong showing at the festival with three excellent films. Police, Adjective is simply outstanding. Corneliu Porumboiu brings the same style of humour that he used in 12:08 East of Bucharest. In both films, the funniest moments arise while watching characters engaged in serious discussion; what is serious chatter for the characters is rich comedy for the audience. The Happiest Girl in the World is another interesting dry humour product from Romania. The entire film is essentially about a 35 second commercial but there is plenty of drama around filming that commercial such as the lead girl’s tussle with her parents, the production crew’s silliness, producer interference and the director’s struggle to maintain his view. Katalin Varga rounded out the trio of Romania’s strong candidates.

    The Prophet is engaging and a delight to watch. The Korean film Breathless is easily one of the best films I have seen this year. The film manages to draw a direct line from domestic abuse to gangster violence. It is not an easy film to watch but it is also powerful, raw and just damn brilliant.

    But...the best film of the festival for me was the Quebecois film I Killed my Mother. It is hard to believe that the director, Xavier Dolan, wrote this film when he was 17 and directed this at the age of 19. The topic of a teenager’s tussle with their mother is universal but Dolan shows plenty of maturity and intelligence in this outstanding debut feature.

    22 precious films

    All the films deserve a proper write-up but I am taking the easy way out and lining up the films in order of preference. The ratings are somewhat fluid as most films are quite good.

    I Killed My Mother (2009, Canada, Xavier Dolan): 10/10
    Breathless (2009, South Korea, Yang Ik-June): 10/10
    Police, Adjective (2009, Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu): 10/10
    The Prophet (2009, France, Jacques Audiard): 10/10
    Katalin Varga (2009, Romania co-production, Peter Strickland): 9/10
    Revache (2008, Austria, Goetz Spielmann): 9/10
    The Happiest Girl in the World (2009, Romania co-production, Radu Jude): 9/10
    Wrong Rosary (2009, Turkey, Mahmut Fazil Coskun): 9/10
    Cooking History (2008, co-production, Peter Kerekes): 8.5/10
    The White Ribbon (2009, co-production, Michael Haneke): 8.5/10
    The Last Lullaby (2008, USA, Jeffrey Goodman): 8.5/10
    Tetro (2009, USA, Francis Ford Coppola): 8/10
    St. Nick (2009, USA, David Lowery): 8/10
    White Night Wedding (2009, Iceland, Baltasar Kormákur): 7.5/10
    Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009, USA, Damien Chazelle): 7.5/10
    Houston, We have a problem (2008, USA, Nicole Torre): 7.5/10
    Crackie (2009, Canada, Sherry White): 7.5/10
    Juntos (2009, Canada/Mexico, Nicolás Pereda): 7/10
    Gigantic (2008, USA, Matt Aselton): 7/10
    Daybreakers (2009, Australia, the Spierig brothers): 7/10
    Cyborg, She (2008, Japan, Jae-young Kwak): 6/10
    Seven Minutes in Heaven (2008, Israel, Omri Givon): 5/10

    Festival Diary/Notes

    Opening Day

    Days 2-5

    Days 6-8

    Days 9-10


    Sunday, October 04, 2009

    CIFF 2009, Venues

    The festival is over and my slow return to normality can begin. Unlike previous years, I was unable to maintain a daily log of films that I saw but I still plan to do a recap soon. In the meantime, I wanted to talk about the venues, something I have not done before.

    When CIFF first started 10 years ago, it was based around the city's three art-house theaters -- Globe Cinema, The Plaza & The Uptown. In the last few years, CIFF expanded to include more locations (at one point as many as 6 venues including Eau Claire Cineplex cinemas) but this year it was back to basics and only three locations -- the Uptown dropped out leaving Eau Claire to take its place.

    1) Eau Claire Cinemas -- Previously, CIFF only used a solitary screen (the IMAX). This year the festival used two regular screens and that was quite convenient as both halls were almost across from each other. The Cineplex at Eau Claire is not your average multiplex. Each week, one can find an independent/foreign film playing alongside the newest Hollywood flick. If most multiplexes around the country were programmed like the Eau Claire, I would have fewer complaints.

    2) The Globe -- The two cinemas at this venue have been showing great indie/foreign films for years. And the manager, Dan Silver, is quite supportive of local film festivals as he was very helpful when we booked the theater for our Pan-Asian film festival a few years ago.

    3) The Plaza -- The best programmed cinema in the city and probably one of the top cinemas in this country!! On each night, one can find multiple movies playing in the single hall. And those movies range the entire cinematic spectrum -- old silent & foreign classics, new indie/world cinema, hollywood, midnight/cult and genre films. The Calgary Cinematheque uses the Plaza as its regular spot and virtually every film festival in the city shows all their movies here. One can even find the odd Ethiopian or Tamil movie playing here. And until a few years ago, the Plaza used to regularly show Bollywood movies. In fact, the first movie that I saw in the Plaza was a Bollywood film almost 12 years ago. And I also saw my first ever foreign film (the Japanese film Shall we Dance) at this same theater.

    And the Plaza's location is great too. The Plaza is surrounded by a wine bar and a bookshop on either end. Plus there are plenty of good restaurants, cafes and pubs within walking distance. So there is enough opportunity to be properly nourished in between movies.