Thursday, August 02, 2007

2007 TIFF—Film Comment Five

Thank God that Darren Hughes is as much a Toronto-obsessive as the rest of us. The site he has specifically created to rudder us through the month before the Toronto International Film Festival ("TIFF")—1st Thursday—is proving to be essential daily one-stop shopping.

So I've secured my press accreditation, my lodging, my airfare, some designer t-shirts, jaguar Mikli shades, and I'm eyeballing a new Mac Pro. Now the rough part: the embarrassment of riches called the festival line-up, which keeps expanding (it seems) day by day.

Clearly, one of the best handles on the Toronto line-up are the Cannes reviews of films that will crossover at Toronto. The July/August issue of Film Comment offers staff favorites from Amy Taubin, Kent Jones, Gavin Smith, Edward E. Crouse and Richard Peña. Unfortunately, none of these are being offered online so I'll try to summarize some of the raves and warnings from the Film Comment Five.

Taubin, Jones and Smith include Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park on their top ten. Taubin claims that one of the "stunning onscreen moments" from the festival is that of "a teenage skateboard kid leaning against the tiled wall of a shower, his hand half-covering his exquisite face (a face that would not have been out of place in Bresson's Lancelot du Lac) as the clatter of the water mixes with a half-dozen layers of music and noise in a muted crescendo of horror." Taubin continues: "Van Sant seems to have unburdened himself of predetermination as a philosophical position and filmmaking method. Like the skaters of the eponymous Paranoid Park, the film is thrilling for its balance of spontaneity and precision." She waxes rapturous on the images captured by cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li. (Film Comment ("FC"), 43:4, pp. 54-55.)

"Van Sant's Paranoid Park," Kent Jones adds, "was all about guilt over the possible commission of a crime gracefully dissolving into the flux of skateboards on concrete." (FC, 43:4, p. 57.) Paranoid Park is part of TIFF's Vanguard program.

Taubin, Jones and Peña hold onto The Flight of the Red Balloon for their top ten. Once again keen to "the quiet radiance in all things" that DP Mark Lee Ping Bing finds for the film, Taubin writes: "The film gathers slowly until, as in Hou's best work, it moves to another level where the ordinary suddenly becomes breathtakingly intense but lighter than air—which could also describe Binoche's performance, perhaps the best of her career." (FC, 43:4, p. 55.) The Flight of the Red Balloon is part of TIFF's Masters program.

Barbet Schroeder's L'Avocat de la Terreur / Terror's Advocate—part of TIFF's Real to Reel—claims its singular place on Taubin's top ten, though she doesn't expand on her choice. Kent Jones, who didn't include it on his list, complains that "Schroeder opens more doors than he has the energy to walk through." (FC, 43:4, p. 59.)

Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra (also in TIFF's Masters program) shows up on the top ten lists for Taubin, Jones and Peña. Noting 80-year-old retired opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya's powerful performance, Taubin suggests that "without Vishnevskaya's grounded, understated presence, the film might have fallen into bathos." (FC, 43:4, p. 56.) Kent Jones adds that in Alexandra "the ethereal aspects of Sokurov's sensibility are internalized, the presentation more earthbound, rooted in material textures, sounds and visions." He describes Vishnevskaya's bulky form "as constantly present within the frame as the head and shoulders of a Dardenne hero." Alexandra, he concludes, "is vibrant at the core." (FC, 43:4, p. 58.)

Although Taubin concedes that Korea's Jeon Do-yeon, the star of Chang-dong's Milyang / Secret Sunshine and the Best Actress winner at Cannes, is a subtle actor with wide emotional range, she warns that it's not Jeon's fault "that the film devolves into a fitful Tennessee Williams-like melodrama." (FC, 43:4, p. 56.) Mileage varies of course and Kent Jones includes Secret Sunshine in his top ten whereas Peña shifts it into his number one spot. Jones describes the film as "ferocious" with "a welcome touch of the sardonic." He calls it "a comedy of social aggression" that is "never less than acutely observed and remains impressively balanced between humor and anguish." (FC, 43:4, p. 58.) Secret Sunshine is included in TIFF's Contemporary World Cinema line-up.

"From the opening images of vast, rolling plains to the final instant of an old man's troubled ruminations, the Coens keep their eye on the ball, and their customary precision acquires a measure of majesty." So Kent Jones assesses No Country For Old Men which he likewise describes as "exemplary" "handsome" and with "just the right measure of troubled, unkempt humanity." (FC, 43:4, pp. 57-58.) Peña likewise adds it to his top ten, Gavin Smith puts it in first place, and TIFF includes it in its Special Presentations.

Also in TIFF's Masters series is Ermanno Olmi's Centochiodi / One Hundred Nails, which Kent Jones adds to his top ten for being "the strangest films at Cannes, as well as one of the most beautiful." He asks: "Is the cinema more important than the natural beauties it captures? One Hundred Nails is, as they say, an 'old man's film,' with no sense of propriety whatsoever, happily if not joyously at odds with itself. Thematically and stylistically speaking, it is an oasis amidst the endless buzzing of an aggressive film culture." (FC, 43:4, p. 59.)

Gavin Smith found Bela Tarr's The Man From London "astoundingly torpid … which, right from its opening shot proved to be an entirely unrewarding 132-minute trudge to nowhere and back." (FC, 43:4, p. 60.) The Man From London is part of TIFF's Masters program.

Julian Schnabel's Le Scaphandre et le papillon / The Diving Bell and the Butterfly made it to Richard Peña's top ten, and though Gavin Smith didn't list it, he did compliment it for being "engrossing, tastefully rendered" and "a solid respectable job." (FC, 43:4, p. 61). Schnabel's latest is included among TIFF's Special Presentations.

Japan's Naomi Kawase's Mogari no mori / The Mourning Forest won the Grand Prize at Cannes; a controversial win since—as Gavin Smith describes it—"At the press screening … journalists and critics deserted in droves, quickly concluding that it was of no consequence." Notwithstanding, Smith acknowledges that "[w]hile hardly a competition standout, this [is an] unassuming, extremely slight, gently handled story." (FC, 43:4, p. 63.) That being said, none of the Film Comment Five added The Mourning Forest to their lists. TIFF includes it in their Contemporary World Cinema series.

Also in TIFF's Contemporary World Cinema program is Fatih Akin's Yaşamın kıyısında / The Edge of Heaven. Again, on no one's list but Smith concedes the film "was a solid and absorbing continuation of Head-On's exploration of German-Turkish cross-cultural contradictions, but it's more cerebral and measured, less visceral and unpredictable than the earlier film, and some found Akin's balancing of two linked and interwoven narratives too schematic—although I can't say it bothered me." (FC, 43:4, p. 63.)

Gavin Smith adds Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's Import Export to his list but warns that it's "Abjection Cinema" though "more than just another trawl through the lower depths." He cautions that "if moronic proles barking orders at dazed and bewildered prostitutes, the rasping breathing of dying babies, and the senile outbursts of nursing home-residents are music to your ears, run to this film and enjoy a good wallow." (FC, 43:4, p. 63.) Queue up at TIFF's Visions program.

Control finds its way to Edward Crouse's top ten list, because the film "is completely enmeshed with its subject." The homework's been done for fans of Joy Division and Crouse praises that the film "never takes the bait to veer into miserabilism." (FC, 43:4, p. 64.) Control is part of TIFF's Vanguard.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Ploy likewise made it to Crouse's top ten list and is part of TIFF's Visions program. Crouse describes the film as "an addled mixture of dreams, jealousy, and eroticism (or lack thereof)." Admitting that the time Pen-ek takes to get places inspired walk-outs at Cannes, Crouse promises "the film's alternating erotic currents could be hypnotic, making the overloaded ending forgivable." (FC, 43:4, p. 65.)

Richard Peña adds Carlos Reygadas' Luz silenciosa / Silent Light to his top ten (as does Gavin Smith), along with Lucia Puenzo's XXY. Silent Light is included in TIFF's Visions program and XXY is in Vanguard. Peña regards Reygadas' latest as "far and away his most accomplished work, a film of great subtlety, invention, and tremendous depth of feeling. This," he stresses, "is the Carlos Reygadas we've been waiting for." (FC, 43:4, p. 66.) As for XXY, winner of the Cannes Critics' Week prize, Peña praises newcomer Inés Efron's "wonderful performance" and summarizes that XXY is a "moving, perceptive film on a highly-charged topic, and an enormously auspicious debut for its director." (FC, 43:4, p. 67.)


Paul Martin said...

I was disappointed that Paranoid Park and The Flight of the Red Balloon didn't get programmed at Melbourne International Film Festival (which is currently at day 10 of 19), but am happy to hear positive reviews. Maybe we'll see them here next year.

I did see Alexandra and found it a very strong, original and credible film with an interesting perspective and aesthetic. I saw it the day after Beaufort and they made good companion pieces as films around war that are not conventional war films.

I found The Mourning Forest enjoyable and definitely worth seeing. It's a meditative piece that is engaging, though the hand-held camera was sometimes distracting.

Michael Guillen said...

Paul, thank you for stopping by to comment. As I've mentioned, your coverage of the Melbourne International at your site has been great. I'm amazed you've written up as much as you have. Keep up the fantastic work!

I'm impressed that the Melbourne International has secured these titles before the Toronto International North American premieres.

I took note of your review of Alexandra as well as your user comment on IMdb.

Likewise with The Mourning Forest at both The Melbourne Film Blog and IMdb.

I look forward to gaining a bit more time to respond more fully to the entries on your site.

acquarello said...

Hmm...I guess my earlier comment didn't post. Darned captchas, why do they make them so hard for us four eyed folks? 8)

Anyway, I was just commenting that I wouldn't take much stock in Amy Taubin's criticism that Lee Chang-dong's latest film, Secret Sunshine suffers from being "melodramatic". All of Lee's films tend to have a melodramatic arc, he's a fiction writer who has an affinity with French Realists. But there's not really anything wrong with that. Even though there's always that one big emotional denouement in all his films, it's not done in a manipulative way. What he actually seems to be trying to hone in on is that precise moment when slice-of-life becomes tragedy, and he's trying to find it in the everyday gestures. Of his three previous films, only Green Fish felt forced in this way, but Peppermint Candy and Oasis really work well because the main protagonist transforms in that one moment from a not-so-nice person to someone you truly empathize with. That's a tough transformation to pull off, and Lee does it very well.

Anonymous said...

Anything Lee Chang-dong does would be a must-see for me based on Oasis alone. I haven't seen Peppermint Candy, but I'd love to. I was hoping that Sol Kyung-gu, so amazing in Oasis with Moon So-Ri, would be in this new one, too, but it seems like he's not.

Thanks for the critical summaries, Michael. Put me in the category of people who like how long Pen-ek Ratanaruang takes to get places. But Silent Light and the latest Hou are probably higher on the list of films I'm dying to see.

Michael Guillen said...

Acquarello, Rob, thank you so much for your feedback. What's always so fascinating about a grouping of reviews like the Film Comment Five is precisely how you discern whose mileage you're willing to vary with. I had already decided that Taubin's comments were to be served with a shaker of salt.

Of the five it's Richard Pena who impresses me the most. I wish he had written about a wider selection of films.

I haven't seen a whole lot of Korean film; but, what I have seen, has all tended to veer towards the melodramatic. In gist, I have no problem with mellers, especially if they--as you so astutely point out, Acquarello--serve insight. I've not seen anything by Lee Chang-dong; Secret Sunshine will be my first. Are his previous films on DVD?

Acquarello, have you seen any other films on the TIFF line-up. I was going to scour your site but will just ask upfront.

Silent Light is high on my top ten and I'm hoping to follow suit on your own insightful interview, Rob.

Anonymous said...

Michael: I hope you can make it to the Midnight Madness sidebar at TIFF - new films from Takashi Miike and Dario Argento!

acquarello said...

According to good ol' Amazon, both Lee's Oasis and Peppermint Candy are both on DVD, but only Oasis is available on Netflix. Incidentally, Peppermint Candy is also notable for a few things: it used reverse chronology before Memento made it hip, and it was also the first film to openly deal with the Kwangju Massacre. The massacre was basically a watershed event in South Korea that brought about democratic reform and the end of military rule.

Richard Peña's interesting, he doesn't veer off into the experimental stuff too much, but his choices are solid. He's also pretty much the reason why NYFF has screened every Almodóvar film (there's always some grumbling that Almodóvar's "spot" could be better served by screening some under-represented or distributorless film, but I like that his films break the monotony and keep the festival from being to stuffy).

Anyway, I haven't seen that much from the list. I caught Saverio Costanzo's In Memory of Myself, but I was really disappointed in it, it felt a bit like forced know, like when you have that silent pause to reflect on your sins at Catholic mass...and it seems to last forever :)

On the Real to Reel section, I caught the work-in-progress screening of Parvez Sharma's A Jihad for Love. It's a huge project that several years in the making, where Sharma basically goes to a few dozen countries to film the gay experience in Islamic communities. Some are in countries that follow strict Shia Rule, some in contemporary. What makes his film unique though is that it's not just a snapshot. Because he follows these people over several years, you see their growth and evolution. For instance, there's one young man who wouldn't agree to have his face filmed at the beginning, but eventually, he says he's ready and you see his face. The film is basically a companion piece to Trembling Before G_d.

I haven't seen Import Export, but Ulrich Seidl's films are not easy. His documentaries are basically about hollow, bankrupt people, and Smith nails it when he calls it "Abjection Cinema". For instance, Models is basically watching young women abuse their bodies for two hours in search of "beauty". Don't get me wrong, there's something of a message about the human condition in all his films, but the method leaves a lot to be desired.

Michael Guillen said...

Peter, me and my Twitch teammates buzz around Midnight Madness like honey, and--as mentioned over at First Thursday--I will catch maybe one at midnight just to experience the Ryerson crowd, but I'll probably try to catch them at press screenings or afternoon public screenings. Otherwise I get too wiped out. I ain't as young as I used to be.

Acquarello, wonderful response, thank you. Some sage cautions there. You went as press last year, didn't you? How was that experience for you? Hopefully we can meet this year, at least in passing.

Anonymous said...

Hey Michael,

CONTROL, EDGE OF HEAVEN, and PLAY are playing here in Manila at their film fest next week, so I'm hoping I'll be able to coordinate a screening in between the night-owl work hours I have out here. Have fun in Toronto! I love Toronto! One of my fave magazines is the urban transit/public space mag SPACING. Snag a copy while you're there. It can add to your experience in the city -


Michael Guillen said...

Ooooh, I hope you get to see those too, Adam. Then hopefully you'll write about them for us!

And neat tip about Spacing. I'm hoping they come out with a festival-specific issue? I love their subway buttons!

acquarello said...

Hey, Maya, I actually went to NYFF press screenings last year, not TIFF. The sheer smorgasbord of free movies at TIFF would make my head explode! :)