TIFF REVIEWS: Day 4

Day Four! One of the best days… on paper.

PereEnfant

One of two Cannes winners on the day, La Pere Des Mes Enfants (or: Father of My Children) was one of my most anticipated of this years festival. It had a very contrived plot that occurs often in mainstream releases – a workoholic parent struggles to weigh both his family and business life evenly in the scale of his life goes through an arduous process to choose which is most important to him – but something about it made it sound more authentic and more rigorously achieved that I couldn’t pass it up. Perhaps it was the French accolade, but who knows. Regardless of pretense, I went into this with open arms, but only received a quick, lukewarm hug from the film and its – albeit particular – intention.

The film opens on a busy man by the name of Grégoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), a well-dressed, intelligent and admirable film producer. One that doesn’t purchase film rights or fund features he isn’t completely indebted to in some emotional way. This, of course, causes financial problems as art features seldom bring in a big box office in take. He is swarmed in multiple obligations to his work – finding a place to shoot for the Korean filmmakers and finding funding for his favourite director who seems reminiscent of Lars von Trier, among other issues – as well as your regular fatherly issues. He has three daughters in Clemence (Alice de Lencquesaing), a beautiful 19 year old who is having some identity/body issues; although anyone with a common sense would describe her a beautiful in every imaginable way, Valentine (Alice Gautier), a precocious little girl who is as cute as a button and twice as well-rounded, and Billie (Manelle Driss) a 9 year old who is intelligent, quick-witted and encapsulates the ideal female child. With this marvelous family, and a somewhat urgent, somewhat pestilent romance with his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli), Gregorie manages to balance both workload and life. Sure, he pays more immediate attention to his burdening occupation, but in such a risky business who wouldn’t? He often has time for his children – taking them to ancient cathedrals and handing down your generic fatherly life lessons in apt fashion – so no harm no foul. Of course, the wife rides his back impatiently to keep his home life from fading into the background manifested by Gregorie’s money.

For the first half of the feature, Father of My Children takes on an unprecedented task in revealing the common working man as an imperfect, but seldom selfish caricature as so many features seem proud to do with condemnation. Gregorie’s life becomes so unbearable to witness that you feel the asphyxiation of his job and worriment as the lead character does. This opening hour or so is barely short of brilliant and encompasses a tout, rhythmic stringed score to keep the pacing from nodding off as per usual in this class of film.

…however, its the second half those watching should be worried about. Midway into the feature the story takes a perspective hop and focuses on the family life behind Gregorie and how the bills strain his family – leading this, of course, is Sylvia. The second half is what is entirely wrong with the film; the score goes from melodic to melodramatic, the performances go from refreshing and honest to typical and contrived, and the story goes from compelling story of making difficult decisions to an exhausting traipse. It isn’t terrible, but its enough to diminish the good fortune that was fabricated in the first half.

In the end, you’ll be stuck balancing near-masterpiece with near-trash and find yourself juggling thoughts on a definitive rating. On the one hand, you’ve got a delightful introspective into the lives of others – on the other, you’ve got a standoffish family drama that holds a candle next to your daily shown soap opera. It’s something to watch once – and the cast is exceptional, especially the obscure-even-for-an-international-actor Louis-Do de Lencquesaing in a heartbreaking, yet heartwarming role. It’s unforgettable, yet forgettable; a film you’ll be stuck on for awhile. [6/10]

Dogtooth

Onto another feature that won big at Cannes – another Un Certain Regard – in Kynodontas (aka Dogtooth). It being another foreign feature I was anticipating immensely and it having just played after the poor second half of La Pere de mes Enfants, I was essentially open to anything. I’d heard it was sort of abstract, sort of surreal and not defined by its Greek origins, unlike previous praised features from Greece (see: Eduart) which helped me to accept it into my lineup less hesitantly.

In a sentence, the film blew my mind. It’s specializes in controversial situations, abstract humor, frantic characterization and above all, the logical deprivation of humanity. The story follows the least conventional household in existence – following a father (Christos Stergioglou) and mother’s (Michelle Valley) segregation of their children from the outside world; using them solely to sustain their entertainment and to prove to one and other that anything imaginable can be done with children depending on your mindset. Here the three presumably adopted children in Son (Hristos Passalis), Younger Daughter (Mary Tsoni) and Older Daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) have been taught to be entirely obedient to their parents and are sufficiently in the dark about the outside world; literally afraid of anything outside the gate (known to them as one of their siblings) that keeps them sheltered from an average existence.

When Father brings home a casual acquaintance in Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), she is paid to give his children some semblance of friendship. The *intrusion* of an outside person tilts their unbalanced world in the direction of fundamental society. It’s odd though, because Christina is paid to be a whore to an extent; giving sexual pleasure to the son and later on to the elder daughter in exchange for items – using her as her parents do. It’s this sick fascination with the story that puts Dogtooth above the majority of films you’ll see all year. It never holds back on expressing itself as direly as possible and it uses repelling sexual conduct to tell a more severe layer of affliction to the viewer.

You’d wonder where the humor is in this stark tale of degradation. Honestly, you’ll only find it if you have a warped grasp of the world or can place yourself in the shoes of someone who does for 90 minutes. All the humor is up to the viewer – some may be in fits of laughter where other may shed a tear imagining this taking place in contemporary society. There are scenes where the children are taught to bark like dogs when the family has to take their dog to get trained – so instead of being without a dog for a few weeks, the father puts his children in a dog-like state of mind. They bark, they obey… and their prize is that they get points/get to choose the family’s form of entertainment for an evening. It’s entirely incongruous, but it works on several levels – thus achieving the reaction director-writer Giorgos Lanthimos appeared to be aiming for.

In my honest opinion, everyone with a keen inkling for international cinema needs to give this film a once over. It’d be a dubious statement to say it’ll please everyone, but for the people that can take Dogtooth for what it is, they’re bound to justly take in one of the only contemporary surreal masterpieces. The cast is phenomenal, the shock value is a constant presence and the story is unmatched in malicious creativity: I can’t say enough about this film. [9/10]

HouseofBranchingLove

Onto another film that would’ve been great if not for an upsetting final act: Mika Kaurismaki’s The House of Branching Love. If you’re accustomed to the Kaurismaki’s  (both Aki and Mika) style, you know that you’ll receive at least two constructive aspects from any of their films: stable performances and a beautiful visual design. Of course I wouldn’t use those two to define their separate works if Mika’s latest didn’t follow that trend.

The film opens on a disgruntled married couple in Juhani (Hannu-Pekka Björkman) and Tuula (Elina Knihtilä) – your average work-a-day slums. Juhani has the least glamorous job of the two; he works as a social councilor for mundane issues, but typically romantic affairs. On the other hand, Tuula works as… well we never really find that out, but she’s semi-successful – drives a nice car, affords most of their well endowed home, etc… – with an aggressive demeanor. In this scenario, both people in the relationship have apparent flaws, and since we are thrown into the conclusion of their routine we have to apply their traits to those we are familiar with and pick a side when it comes to the fraught encounters.

The two decide on a new way of life from here on out: they’ll share the abode with a list of rules (that they obviously cannot stick to for very long) to keep them at bay with one and other, and to an extent, content. When bitter Juhani feels true repugnance from his wife, he decides to break one of the carnal rules that he devised and brings home a woman to sleep with. Of course this won’t fly in Tuula’s home, so her brief appearance in Juhani’s quaint basement room brings an abrupt end to any tomfoolery. Then Tuula feels betrayed by her ex-husband, so she asks a good looking gentleman from across the way to fly his boat-plane over to her place to get better acquainted. Essentially the story is immature and asinine but works entirely on a comedic level, so you forgive the obvious play on relationships and allow the nonsense into your mind, and at times, your heart.

Their poor relationship takes on further complications when Juhani decides to do some real emotional damage to his ex. He calls up his estranged brother, Wolffi (Annti Reini) and asks to borrow one of his many floozies for a week. Wolffi says he’ll have to pay 200 dollars a day for the woman – a price he chops down to 1000 for the week out of his definition of a “good heart”. He lends out a playful and rather lovely young woman named Nina (Anna Easteden) who is a bind herself. The police think she pushed a coworker from a third story building and took a satchel of money, while she claims she didn’t kill her or take the money; of course her being a prostitute, the police think otherwise. Here is the primary source of the film’s issues: the crime/thriller aspect. It feels so tacked on – the police perspective and humor is poor to an outrageous extent. If the story stayed segregated from any other genre apart from the comedy/romance one it applies so well to the screen, it would’ve easily been deemed great by this viewer.

Anyhow since it is an integral part of the feature, I suppose it has to remain in my review. Here a minimal romance brews between the sensational Nina and the obese Juhani in a cute but flimsy way. It’s skated over in a literal sense – right after they go rollerskating they are immediately intimate it seems – and doesn’t add anything bulky to either characterization. In fact, the only thing that gives Nina any sort of true character is when she confronts her criminal issues head-on… and those are rarely prevalent.

All of this is fine until the final 15 minutes – which is devised with infinitely more coincidence than conviction, trying to place humor inward to lighten the heavily poor blow. It’s offensive to any viewer’s intelligence to witness this take place – the final image is laughable at best. It’s a mixed bag, but almost entirely entertaining. Solid performances from the cast with a delightful visual spark that is far from as creative as Mika can do, but its still notches above the norm. See it for a few hefty laughs but nothing more. [6/10]

TheRoad

Speaking of spectacular visual designs – the next feature I saw blew me away with its masterful sense of a grim color palette and a worldly grip on a post-apocalyptic setting. The film – yet another highly anticipated feature by me – is The Road and its one of the many films as of late that prove that you can be quite successful without any conviction. Whether you’re working with a hollow script or manufactured performances, all you need to convey a message is a worldly sense of the story’s setting.

Set in an undetermined year in the future, The Road analyzes what we could succumb to. There’s no individual reason behind the barren landscapes, but we know that there are certain survivors and almost all of them have grown to live off of human flesh, as animals are a species of the past. The story follows an earnest father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they trek across vacant land, hoping to make it to the seaside and escape the hell that their previously stable country has collapsed into. They battle intense illness, prolonged starvation and rampant, immoral humans; suffer strife in nearly every area on their journey. Isolated, their blood bond keeps them from devolving into what is now perceived as the norm; cannibalism. The cannibalistic creation is a well-thought idea, but when written to the screen it realizes its transparent nature. Why is this father and son couple able to sustain existence without becoming animals? Surely there are other father and sons living as cannibals, so why are they so different? Here the writing is so black and white that its comparable only to Oreo’s eaten in 1930’s features. It’s amusing, but not intellectually stimulating by any means.

The dialogue that the two spit out reveals itself as false and the humanity aspect of the feature exudes a fabricated sensation. Their conversations ramble on and on and neither performance radiates the honest feeling they should. In particular, its the youth in Smit-McPhee that feels the most false. His whining portrayal as the son and interaction with Mortensen is standoffish and is an entirely annoying endeavor. No matter how well he masks his native Australian accent, it hardly makes up for the complete misfire of a performance he induces into the film.

The “best” example of the script’s issues is a peak moment in viewer-story connection that adamantly showcases the forgery discharged. There’s a scene where the son scrounges up a Coca Cola from a vending machine, leading the father and son to dwell on the dissipated past whilst discussing the “bubbly goodness” of the beverage. This sounds sympathetic enough to create a semblance of viewer-character identification in concept, but finds itself far and away from the mark in execution. The exchange between the two primary characters reveals itself more as obligatory product placement than a sincere gesture towards the viewer; the line delivery from the two weak performers finds itself in a most precarious position. If without dialogue, this scene would’ve been emotionally powerful, honest, refreshing; an entire success. This applies to the majority of the feature – if without dialogue and only driven by gestures between characters, the possibilities for the final product would have been endless.

Although the script is lacking in the warmth it tries to assemble with human interaction – holding the viewer in a spectator’s position -, John Hillcoat’s bleak and sinister vision for the feature is more than suitable and is one of the finest single achievements in cinema this year. He represents the material in the most apt fashion; utilizing the desolate plains to their most complimentary. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis imbue the father and son’s passage with more effect solidarity and truly enhance the viewer’s experience of the feature. The prodigious atmosphere created is intelligently nurtured – constructing itself into a truly harrowing possibility and hardly a cinematic parallel.

Even though the world created is poignant, the story at hand keeps it from being the potential masterpiece many imagined. Seldom do you encounter a true conversation between the father and son, the majority of positives is found when they encounter a nearly ancient blind man (Robert Duvall in the only impressive performance) slowly making his way up a street. There is finally some tension between the father and son which is built up in a smart, yet delicate fashion. It works as ray of hope in the diminished script – almost symbolic in the film at hand – but loses all integrity when the child lambastes his father in the most immature monologue imaginable – promptly bringing the script back down from its highest point.

Even with all these flaws, I’m willing to take this feature as a stylish piece – forgetting the substance it elementarily tries to evoke – and call it great in that respect because I’ll do anything to extract as much as possible from any given feature. The collaborated minds of Hillcoat, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis amount to a monumental aura. It’s bound to immerse any viewer in the world created – its only the performances that clash with this refined imagination. A film that’s entirely watchable; a story that’s very compelling; and an intent that’s more admirable than brilliant – The Road is a journey that would’ve been best taken with a vow of silence. [7/10]

The final film of the evening was the highly touted Hong Kong action feature Accident. Formulated like every other HK action film, I wasn’t expecting much. Where I felt The Departed was one of the strongest crime-thrillers of the decade, I felt Infernal Affairs to be very mundane, very slowly paced. To this day, I’ve yet to really give in to a feature way of Hong Kong and Accident certainly wasn’t the feature to break down that wall.

Opening on a terribly fun action sequence, Accident cuts right to the thick of the story. It doesn’t waddle around the main plot with various sideplots or meaningless conversations – everything that takes place within the confinements of this 90 minute feature are entirely about the four lives of these hitmen and woman and their professional endeavors. Their job? To create scenarios in which the people they aim to kill will die – making the death looking completely like an accident. This group battles other competitors – apparently they aren’t the only team of assassins who work in this special category. A story oozes the Hong Kong essence – the bizarre crime subgenre (see: Mad Detective) where they are both imaginative and witty. But along somewhere along the lines the story becomes too stoic and calm for its own good. It’s an energetic plot with a very calm execution.

The focal point of the story is Brain (Louis Koo), the intellectual leader. He plans out everything in his quiet apartment – from the correct co-ordinations for the scenario to play out without a hitch to the roles that each of the five participants need to be in. Their each given a craft role to transform the seemingly ordinary scenarios into a malicious and bloody twist of fate. However, Brain encounters problems his once reliable group of killers buckle to the exhaustion that the job entails. The elder of the group, Uncle (Shui-Fan Fung) is far past his prime and is slipping into a state of Alzheimer’s.

In the process of executing their next plan something goes wrong. A reliable member of the group in the unyielding and generally fun Fatty (Suet Lam) dies in a botched job. But Brain is too smart to see the incident to be so little as to be an accident; he takes immediate action against those who are trying to wipe them out. Paranoid ensues in the mind of Brain and the story slips into an area of complexity that will lose some with the added factor of subtitles.

As I said earlier, the direction of the script plays out very quietly. There is never an indication of a Hollywood factor – though I suppose anyone tired of the constant pushing of a story will breathe this in easily – which works both as a positive and negative. The assembling of the feature isn’t as lively as the plot would indicate which leads to boredom and further audience complications. The script is very witty and plays on several contemporary issues in frothy manner (ie. job loss) by serving peculiar situations. It’s a semi-enjoyable flick that is amassed with intricacy and a devoted lead performance that concludes with one of the best climaxes/endings of the festival. It wasn’t lively enough to keep me enthusiastic for large portions, but viewing it solely as a work of art it’s a solid feature. Accident seldom makes mistakes and is as wise as its lead character is clever. [7/10]

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