Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Good Old-Fashioned TIFF 2007 Roundup - The Meh

Hello again. Here's part 2 of my massively delayed 2007 roundup.

These are the films I met with a hearty shrug. Most of these aren't bad movies--they just didn't do anything for me. On with the show...


The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald)
A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Nobuhiro Yamashita)

Two contrasting takes on modern teenage life, both of which made me thank the heavens I was no longer a teenager. Honestly, neither film is bad. THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS distinguishes itself with a supremely chaotic design, where the film's editing reflects Tracey's fragmented mind. Thoughts, stray words, weird images, imagined conversations, all compete within a single frame for our attention. It's often very arresting, particularly in a heartbreaking scene where Tracey has sex with her school crush--her fantasies dominate the moment, but soon, the unromantic reality takes precedent and all she's left with is something cold and meaningless. It's a great scene, an authorial commentary seeping into the frame almost in spite of Tracey's desires. But the film lacks the distance that might have given it a sharper edge. Instead, we're mostly left floundering in Tracey's mind, and after a while, that becomes almost unbearable. That might have been the point, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating.

A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE focuses on a very, very different teenage girl--an innocent and naive girl living in a rural province in Japan. Her life centers around her school, which only has a handful of students left, most of whom share a single classroom. Into this simple existence comes a boy, who moves to the town from Tokyo. Thus begins a slow-burning, chaste romance that never elevates above hand-holding and a single, halting kiss. There's not much more to it than that In truth, there's nothing really wrong with this film. But a year after having watched it, I find it difficult to remember any highs or lows, anything truly memorable, as though the movie was itself a gentle breeze, enervating in the moment and forgotten the next. (Ooh...poetic!)

Jar City (Baltasar Kormakur)

Lots of little things bugged me about this one, but I don't feel like dragging them out. Mainly, it's an interesting premise presented in a mostly uninteresting manner. I don't want to drag spoilers into my arguments, so let's just say that the film's concerns with family history, while often emotional, don't quite go far enough to address the larger ideas the film presents. At least by my estimation--your mileage may vary.

The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona)

Why didn't I like this more? It's got a creepy house, masked ghost children, some ferocious scares, a downbeat ending, good performances, a on, so forth. In short, it's everything I love about classy ghost stories. So why didn't it work for me? Why did I spend half the film frustrated by the husband's stubborn refusal to accept the supernatural? Why did I find the resolution both satisfactory and underplayed? Why could I not stop nitpicking the back story and the character's actions? Regardless, it's worth a look, if only for the moments when it comes alive (particularly when the scares kick in).

With Your Permission (Paprika Steen)

Not bad, with a seriously twisted sensibility, but the eventual mix of sentiment and black comedy doesn't quite work. Often very funny, sometimes genuinely affecting, but never wholly successful.

Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains (Jonathan Demme)

Great man, so-so documentary. Its biggest strength lies in the contrast between a former president's tireless and arduous effort to improve the world and the current president (unseen and mostly unremarked upon), who, in eight years of office, has yet to show one scintilla of Carter's passion or compassion.

Run, Fat Boy, Run (David Schwimmer)

Awful romantic comedy, but it definitively proves that Simon Pegg and Dylan Moran can make even the most simple-minded, poorly executed comedies tolerable just by showing up.

Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-Sheng)

Weird, boring, pretentious, sad, silly, fascinating--Lee Kang-Sheng's film is all these things, sometimes simultaneously. What it is not is a terribly good film. Like most of them on this list, it's not necessarily bad--it's just...missing something. Something crucial that would give the whole thing focus. Without it, the string of deeply depressed and repressed characters, grasping desperately for any kind of sexual gratification they can find, becomes wearying rather than enlightening. That said, anything this unusual should be given a chance regardless.

Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike)

Dear Takashi Miike,

Hi! I like your movies. They are weird and sometimes very fun. They often get a little boring, but then something awesome happens and then I am happy. Still, something weird is happening (weirder than your movies, if you can believe it). What's happening is this: I'm kind of getting tired of your movies. They are still kind of cool, and the awesome parts are still kind of awesome, but...that's it. These days, it's like there's nothing else there. Maybe it's just this one, which starts out awesome, but quickly gets dull. And what's with the length, man. You're not Sergio Leone and this isn't Once Upon a Time in the West. This story didn't need to be dragged out forever and ever. Anyway, keep making movies, only make them better.

Crunchy Squirrel's Inner Twelve Year-Old

Mad Detective (Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai)

Another great premise / iffy execution film. I'm still puzzling through this one, so look for a future installment dissecting this and something else sometime later.

That's it for now. On to part three: The Hell?!

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Good Old-Fashioned TIFF 2007 Roundup - The Good

Here we go. It's my roundup of last year's TIFF, only nine months late. Woo hoo! I've split it into three parts, because it's easier and I like things that come in threes. And I'll do some larger write-ups of some of the more interesting films at a later date (if I remember, of course). Anyway, I'll shut up now.


You, the Living (Roy Andersson)

Not quite the revelation that Songs from the Second Floor was, but still a singular experience. Funny, but not quite a comedy; sad, but not quite a drama; strange, but grounded in real human behavior. It kind of stumbles on occasion, especially in a long stretch where Andersson trades out the offbeat humor for straight-up pathos, but it's worth it for the ingenious newlywed sequence, a bracing combination of deep sadness and "how'd-he-do-that" dazzle. Bonus points for the bleakly funny ending.

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin) / Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)

I'll review these soon. Short take: they're wonderful, two of the best of the fest.

Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon (Eric Rohmer)

The 21st century interprets the 18th century interpreting the 16th century. As strange as that sounds, it plays even stranger. Deliberately wooden acting and lengthy speeches about love and virtue make it slightly off at first, but the film gradually wears you down with its exceedingly dry wit and sincerity. And the ending is terrific, the best of its kind in a romantic film since Before Sunset.

The Man from London (Bela Tarr)

I didn't finish the film, but the half I did see was mesmerizing. Agonizingly slow and methodical, yes, but mesmerizing too. Deep down, I know I should find Tarr's humorless, ponderous filmmaking to be pretentious wankery, but there's something about his style that I find deeply compelling. Perhaps its the attention to detail, best represented here by the ridiculously complicated opening scene of the film, depicting the incident that sets the plot in motion. Whatever it is, I can't resist it.

No Country for Old Men (Ethan and Joel Coen)

Ah, hell, everybody's seen this already. Nobody needs my review.

Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway)

Let's be honest: Greenaway can be a wee bit pompous. He's the only filmmaker at TIFF who would introduce his film with a mini-lecture on Rembrandt and the age he lived in, as though the assembled audience was a classroom of students. No matter--the man has an eye like no other. and a deep-seated wit that keeps his work from becoming too self-indulgent. This one's one of his best recent efforts, thanks mostly to Martin Freeman's terrific central performance. It's a little long and a little off at times, but I was pretty enthralled by the whole thing.

Jellyfish (Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret)

The post-festival reviews have been mixed to negative, but this was a nice breath of fresh air in the middle of a busy, loaded week. Lightly surreal, it follows several Israeli men and women, whose lives connect in unusual ways. Admittedly, that description makes it sound like the sort of arthouse film that has choked the cinemas in the last ten or so years, but this one finds a tone of sweet cynicism that elevates it above the rabble.

Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer)

A pitch-perfect recreation of silent cinema, fused with a dash of social satire. It shouldn't work, yet it often reaches giddy heights, especially in the wild, Keatonesque chase that closes the film.

Sad Vacation
(Shinji Aoyama)

I'm not quite sure about this one. For one thing, it has one of the most baffling endings I've seen in ages--a raspberry sent directly towards audience expectations. For another, it's a semi-sequel to earlier films Shinji Aoyama made, none of which I've even seen. And yet....the whole thing has a strange power, a weird sensibility that I've tried to parse since watching it and haven't gotten any closer to understanding. I know writing this makes no sense to anyone who hasn't seen the film, but I can't explain it any better right now. Maybe I'll write the thing up at a future date....

OK, that's it for now. Also good, but going in a later write-up, for reasons that will become apparent: Glory to the Filmmaker! and Eat, for This is My Body.

Next up: The Meh

Sunday, June 15, 2008

New Beginnings for 2008

Hello out there. It's time to dust off ye olde website and start preparing for TIFF 2008. If there's anyone out there at all, you might recall that I made all kinds of grandiose claims last year about "finishing what I started" and all that. Hell, you could just scroll down and see where I say that over and over again. Well, as you can see, that didn't happen.

I guess I should confess something: I'm not a very good blogger. I hope that isn't a huge shock to anyone. I don't have the internal drive and need to communicate that seems to be a prerequisite for serious bloggers. I'm lazy, I procrastinate madly and I mix up my metaphors like a dog driving a car through a plate glass window.

Here, however, is the real confession: I hate writing. Maybe I should clarify that: Writing frightens me. There's something so naked and personal about expressing yourself in a forum like this that makes me shrivel up inside. It's silly, it's irrational and it's strange behavior for someone who at least likes to pretend that he's a writer. But there it is and I can't avoid it or make it go away by magic.

So I will instead try to make it go away by writing more. I know what you're saying. "For the love of god, don't make any promises, you moron!" Well, here it goes: I promise to write more on this blog for the 2008 festival than I did last year or the year before. I also promise to make this a more wide-ranging blog than it has been, by focusing on more than just the festival and Toronto. Hopefully, you'll stick around. If not, oh well.

As ever, leave your thoughts or insults in the comments. They're always welcome, even if I never seem to respond to them. Sorry.

By the way, if you've been here, but haven't been to 1st Thursday, you should definitely go there now. Darren does what I've tried to do, only successfully. It's the best TIFF website you'll find anywhere.