One of only two six film days I had this year. And its the only day where I review a film that’s “old news” in The Informant!
First up on the day was Les Herbes Folles (US title: Wild Grass), a film I was mislead into believing would star Mathieu Amalric and have a plot that was tangible. Turns out Resnais was aiming for a lesson in abstract humor – and while it did have its moments of potency – it fell flat and ran a more uncomfortable course than the main characters and their relationships.
After opening on a dire shot of grass poking out through concrete, the story follows Georges Palet (Andre Dussolier), an aged man with mundane ambitions. Whether it be working on his literature or seeing classic cinema on cooled nights, Georges appears as simple as men come. His routine is disrupted when he stumbles upon the wallet of a beautiful middle aged woman named Marguerite (Sabine Azéma). Early on the film finds itself a voice – and a special one at that. We’re all accustom to film-noir, but in the preliminary stages of the feature the viewer will find themselves witnessing a film-blanc (as I’d like to call it) unfold; a film-noir set during daylight hours with sunny photography. These two ideas of convention clash impressively and it only makes the disaster that follows that much more a shame.
Soon, Georges begins to observe the descent of himself and the idea of being a recreant come into fruition. There is a minimal inkling that comes with a discovery like this, but what starts off as simply feeding curiosity snowballs into an incline into obsession – putting his achieved family life on the brink of catastrophe. He stays awake during countless nights pondering the idea of calling the woman he feels intimate with, yet hasn’t met.
On the other side of the story is the life of Marguerite, a partner in a dentistry firm ran with her strikingly beautiful and eerily close friend Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos). At first, the idea of the kind man being apart of her life seems laughable – she has her tiring routine to fulfill and does even give second thought to thanking the man. So as the elder plays cat to the workaholic’s mouse, the story takes on a familiar, but engaging formula.
Alas, Resnais doesn’t strive to achieve quiescence. As the first act rolls into the second, there is a complete shift in purpose, the thematic elements grow heavy handed and the story adjusts itself for a nose-dive in interest for all but those that appreciate satisfactory abstract filmmaking. Yes, Wild Grass diversifies itself from what most would consider a cinematic norm, but what is being particular when you place your story in peril? One might interpret the plunge in formality as a symbolic gesture to the erratic behavior of the lead characters’ back and forth, but its far too dissatisfying and alienating to be potent symbolically; a prime reason as to why the theme falters.
The theme is easily grasped – the idea of events occurring and people’s lives intersecting in areas where they shouldn’t; parallel to wild grass poking out of concrete. This is completely fine, there is hardly any exaggeration and Resnais’ work ethic towards a comprehensive soul is only matched by the story’s misconstruing final line.
The dialogue lethargically spoken attempts to torpedo cinematic semblance, as well as audience identification through its weary voice; comatose in contempt. And while I embrace the performances – especially the bit roles worked excellently by two preeminent exports of France via Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos – I loathe the focus of the feature. If cinema is wildlife, Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass could be thoroughly plucked off the sidewalk without a moment of my concern. [4/10]
One of the few big surprises TIFF had to offer was Faith Akin’s Soul Kitchen – a thought front-runner for Venice’s Golden Lion. While that was the primary reason I watched it, I was perhaps blown away by the masterful embracing of an idea that already sounded overwrought with convention.
The film starts off with a young man strutting to an 80s rock-pop soundtrack on his way to work. Immediately you know you’re in for a delightful romp of a film. Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos) is the man and his job is owning and running a downtrodden bar/restaurant that serves as cheap a food as it does liquor. Including his establishment, Zinos’ life is quotidian what with the argumentative girlfriend, feelings of insignificance and a group languid people that regular his bar.
However, the film only briefly shows Zinos’ life prior to his bubble being burst which arises many questions and speculations as to how the film should turn out. Fortunately, Akin’s approach excessively benefits the story at hand – rarely treading into nugatory territory and maintaining a pace only surpassed by that of Usain Bolt.
When things come crashing down around Zinos, they seem adamant in landing as mercilessly as possible. His girlfriend, Nadine (Pheline Roggan) is leaving to Tokyo to pursue the highest education possible – causing an obvious disruption in their relationship. Zinos can’t leave the bar unattended, so they make-do with online video chats… or at least try to. Obviously this set-up runs into deep complications and their relationship begins to fall apart at the seams. This soon begins to beg the question “Is love worth the risk?”, and even more fundamental to the plot “Is she worth it?”.
Around the same time, Zinos’ convict brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) is searching for work – or at least a job title to stand behind while he deals in assumed illegal activities. Zinos uneasily churns out a yes, but the uneasy adhesive that has brought these brothers together once again turns out to be a less worrisome glue than one would expect crime would produce.
There’s a bit more external conflict put in place by Thomas Neumann (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a former colleague of Zinos. He seems like a man with hidden intentions, and of course, he is. It’s examples of immediate cliches like these being replaced by familiar, but fortifying plot points that revitalize the story where they would cause detriment for others.
In another minimal, but wholly effective accommodation to the feature, Mr. Akin galvanizes an unusual photographic style. Not for the entire duration, but rather used diligently in nominal scenes. The picture chosen above parades the particular technique that works on a fundemental I cannot even begin to explain. It’s endearing, exaggerated and somehow scrupulous. It’s small audibles like these that put an enchanting film like this far above the tenacious cesspool of generic dreck.
With an eclectic group of characters each played expertly – the best ensemble I witnessed at TIFF, and that’s saying a lot – only adding to the endless pleasure of the film, Soul Kitchen cooks up a beat for all to groove to. It truly says something to me (as it should to you, too) that I love this film despite the fact that it represents everything I hate in cinema – montages, eccentric characters that are only wacky for the sake of being wacky and chance events that are integral to the plot. Whether it be the discotheque soundtrack, the winsomely outlandish chain of events or the blazing humor contained, this movie has something for everyone. [9/10]
Next up is the only film I saw at the festival that had any sort of immediate release. Having waited a month to write this review, this film is far and away old news. The feature is The Informant! and it is the second Steven Soderbergh feature of 2009 (the other, of course, being The Girlfriend Experience)
The Informant! follows the true story of compulsive liar Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) and his attempts of achieving his own “so crazy is has to be true” story, which is masterfully applied by the intrinsic use of narration. The viewer learns what has shaped Mark into the man he is through interpretive stories that he likes to ponder as opposed to straightforward and tired “when I was a child…” scripting that meanders to the masses. This is where the script is most potent because it serves up a dish for the commonplace cinema-goer and the contemplative one – there’s both insight and amusement inflicted into the story in an area that is generally serviceable to a script at best. They’re all tales of contemporary folklore that consist large amounts of favorable insight into Mark’s psyche – each story discusses largely hypothetical situations and how Mark would adapt to those situations if he was one of the infamous.
Akin to The Hoax and various other films about liars, the film begins a little melancholic towards the white-collar workers of today. Jobs are being alleviated from hard workers all to keep profit at a high (a bit of social commentary, no doubt), but no worries, Mark is nearing the head of the corn syrup plant. When the FBI get ear of a possible kick-back scandal from within the company, all of the heads are suddenly on the brink of losing their jobs – increasing Mark’s odds of becoming CEO. This makes good headway for a decent story, but its what follows that makes this a true great in the espionage subgenre.
After appearing to be a hero to the FBI – risking his job to inform on his coworkers – he begins to take on more cases that hold more weight. All involving various other corn companies, of course. Events start to grow out of hand and the story snowballs into scandal. Here absurdity begins to take its course – making way for a riotous second act and a priceless final one.
Enforcing that this is the tale of one man is the family dynamic – or rather, lack thereof. Mark’s family life is scarcely tapped into, which allows the viewer to believe that Mr. Whitacre is a rather selfish man – leading the film’s structure and baffled vantage points to play allegory to the soul of it all. What the viewer interprets from Mark’s home life is almost too facile and where one of the few flaws lays; we see Mark as a nice father who is obsessed with his work, a loving husband who is clearly too preoccupied with attempting to break out of an ordained existence to continue on with a charade.
I’ve come to witness something about Soderbergh this year – is he fascinated with airplanes or what? It isn’t particularly just having the need to set a couple of scenes in an airplane, but he places his actors inside a glow of softened white lights. It makes for a very hallucinatory viewing experience – appearing almost dreamlike. Political discussions primarily take center stage in these scenes (also in The Girlfriend Experience), but I’m not sure if this is all an intentional formula at bringing light to political agendas that run our lives – the plane serving as a turbulent setting to unsettle a thinking viewer – or is just a two-time coincidence. Either way, it’s obvious that Soderbergh is adroit with his films.
The development of Mark Whitacre is acutely constructed – partly due to the excellent performance by Matt Damon and partly due to devout scripting by Scott Z. Burns. This blend allows for various interpretations and judgments of Mr. Whitacre – once more leaving the lingering feeling that nothing in life is an absolute; that there is far more than black and white. With this, the creation of Mark Whitacre surpasses the simple idea a character being nothing more than celluloid concoction; actualizing the protagonist unlike many blundering biopics. A intricate and extrinsic character study, The Informant! is a multi-layered feature filled to the brim with hearty humor and exceptionally genuine suspense. [8/10]
Seldom does one come across a picture that so accurately describes the film they’re going to review, and here, to fully comprehend the insanity of violence and drug addiction that Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans employs all one has to do is look at the picture above. The first note I’d like to make is that this is only similar to Abel Ferrera’s ’92 feature Bad Lieutenant in that the lead character is a cop with a drug addiction. The only plausible reason for Herzog to call this film a re-imagination of any kind would be to mislead viewers to the structure that Ferrera’s rotten cop feature has; surprising viewers with events that unfold more.
Opening in a prison swollen with water, Bad Lieutenant quickly sets a tense scenario by bestowing its location as New Orleans, Louisiana and the current topic of interest as the on-going storm named Hurricane Katrina. Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) and his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) walk into an area of the penitentiary they frequent to see a convicted, but repentant murderer screaming for one of the cops to save him. Immediately we learn that Terence and Stevie are scummy policemen – they place serious bets as to how long it will take for the criminal to drown instead of doing the noble thing and saving a life. Stevie comes off as more emotionally distant; hardened without a sense of morality that loves the idea of the bad cop shtick more than lives it. Terence on the other hand jokes cruelly about not wanting to dive into water with his fifty dollar cotton underwear – apprehensive towards ruining them as they’re a gift. Thankfully Terence breaks and saves the drowning man. This sequence eloquently conveys the difference between Terence and a truly ruthless cop – he is clearly a good man that has been corrupted by a defective city – which is of great importance when pondering the events that unfold in this feature.
However, saving the convict comes at a price; a bad spinal injury. He is given prescription drugs to ease the pain, but when we skip one year ahead its obvious his need for medication has expanded outside of prescribed drugs and into far more dangerous and expensive territory. This causes the newly appointed lieutenant to have erratic behavior and cater to his own needs infinitely more than the needs of the public. Terence’s exaggerated morals are first put to the test when it appears Big Fate (Xzibit), a local druglord has killed an immigrant family from Senegalese. His blunt force tactics – not condoned by the rest of the police force – collide perfectly with a crime of this nature. There is plenty to gain from all of this – be it drugs or more recognition – and hardly anything to lose. Upon arrival to the crime scene, Terence skims over the decimated bodies with professional eyes – reiterating his valiance.
From here on out, the rest of the story whizzes by eagerly. Herzog’s lunacy runs in excess during the more hallucinatory scenes where Terrence tensely eyes down envisions of Iguanas. Juggling a priority case with a meager, drug-addicted girlfriend in Frankie (Eva Mendes), as well as comforting his own habits – be them the minor gambling issues or his copious narcotic addiction – declares surprisingly simple for the lieutenant. Although his plate is full and his servings begin to mix into each other, Terence’s ‘live life in the fast lane’ mentality proves what would be a harrowing experience to further affected officers to be a rather cakewalk.
A plethora of scenes bounce around self-aware; exuding a tremendous amount of humor throughout the feature. Comedic exertion occurs too often to entirely enjoy the two-hour crime film. Apparently you can have too much of a good thing in cinema; who knew it’d take a German auteur to uncover a new truth. Initially, bewildering happenstance is found enchanting; its very peculiar, seldom utilized in “good” films and exploits the zany soul to an excitable degree. After the first half these antics becoming predictable and proves flimsy writing and that the majority of the film holds no artistic semblance. The script continues to hold audience engagement despite this, but upon pondering the feature one will feel a tad cheated by the flamboyant antics displayed.
Herzog also adds an implicit view on wildlife, as he tends to do for reasons only viewers could begin to wonder (I think he finds that its the most simple-looking things in life that are inevitably the most complex; it works in connection to this film as well). Here he shows the anguish of reptiles; clearly post-Katrina has done a number on them as well. Herzog attempts to administer a metaphysical side to the feature that generally revolves around the idea that wildlife do have a conscience themselves. From an alligator mourning a fallen friend on the highway to “do fish have dreams?”, William M. Finkelstein’s screenplay is filled with ponderous goodies for viewers to behold. Personally, I found great pleasure in the line “shoot him again, his soul is still dancing” – both through the expert delivery of the line and the many profound associations it takes on. Do our souls dance after we die? Must we die twice to officially face our maker? All of these frenzied scenes are far more ambiguous than one would imagine – each of them prompting the though that perhaps its only those on the brink of cataclysm that have the scope to view life and what it has to offer in its entirety.
Nicolas Cage’s performance as the wayward law enforcer is sensational – a true cinematic experience to behold and one of the rare marvels that one can enjoy with an assortment of peers; be they critics or typical filmgoers. His portrayal is as flustering as the character he plays is resilient; muddling recent conceptions that Cage has lost his fervor. Ludicrous, anticlimactic and without the delusions of grandeur that plague a tired genre, Bad Lieutenant dashes out of the gates and never finds itself hitting the proverbial wall. [8/10]
Romanian New Wave: the truest cinematic artform of the decade. After winning the Palme d’Or in 2007, Cristian Mungiu’s latest film is cumulative effort on the parts of he and four other Romanian directors – none of which have a real name and have been directing shorts until this feature, where they direct some more shorts. Tales from the Golden Age is an impassive collection of stories resonating the absurd political agenda that took place in 70s and 80s communist Romania prior to its upheaval brought on by its antagonized citizens. Each story is quaint and minimal in structure, but hold very heavy and disparate connotations – building up effectiveness in portraying discordant conditions and eventually bridging the gap between audience and film.
Like all anthologies, you’re bound to come into a rough patch or two. Fortunately, the film opens on the only chagrin. Here, a group of townsfolk are in immense anticipation to see their leader pass by the town in his automobile. This story gives heed to what will come in future shorts – the amount of inanity between political interaction (“will you do this, comrade?” – “yes, comrade!”) and jejune thought processes in the higher up echelons give a taste for the humor the viewer will experience.
Despite the contempt the filmmakers of the film have for communist Romania, they never berate the dissipated faction with self-conscious, “look audience, this is what happened!” immaturity. They’d rather take the high road and insipidly commentate on the neglect that ran its course – scheming the bewilderment imposed by Romania’s public through deadpan expressions and dialogue.
Not content with just touching on one or two areas where reckless government totaled the commonplace, each of Tales from the Golden Age’s stories embody a directive – the first is perhaps the only that doesn’t do justice to what its meant to convey. There’s a greatly humorous story about greed and poverty in communist time that happens to crawl over onto education as well. The indicated story is about a family of three – and later on a grizzly uncle – who drudge through less than acceptable conditions in their routines. In school, children bypass the norm by exchanging good foods for answers (from their peers, of course) and gallivant in their minds about the possibilities of young romance. This story works its way from being multiple shades of adorable to a truculent final act that records the desperation of hunger and the remiss that comes with trying to kill a giant pig. Its a cumbersome tale that takes on some of the films most bright spots.
Poignantly articulate, the following fable murmurs depression and the want to keep tradition alive and prosperous. Because jobs are scarce and many people cannot afford eggs, Easter isn’t very decorative. When a truck driver (Vlad Ivanov) is sent to bring chickens to a farm outside the small farming community he lives in, Grigore is coaxed into being a partner in a shady effort in obtaining hundreds of eggs from his truck by what is assumed to be a woman he’s been in love with for a long time. All he has to do is stay in the humble area – with the tantalizing woman, of course – for the two days of leeway he has to take the chickens to the farm. For those days, they’ll collect and sell off the eggs that the animals drop off. Its a very endearing tale of one man trying to modulate his life into something picturesque, but because its a Romanian feature, don’t hold your breath for the greatest outcome.
Each story has an excess in modesty – especially the final tale. There isn’t much to discuss about it, but it is my favourite of the bunch. Its a simple story about a compromising young woman wanting to go on a school trip, but cannot afford it. When a strange young man introduces her to a hilarious pedestrian way of obtaining the money she longs for, a civil romance sparks up and is perhaps too unrequited to lavish in as a viewer.
Style doesn’t play important with films like these – they’re simply shot; simply written; but complexly contrived. Cristian Mungiu substitutes kicking a person while they’re down with forging a label of being impoverish to what was once considered a wealthy powerhouse. It’s intelligence like this that keep these similar feature distinct from one and other – continually allowing for much to yet be divulged into. Meticulously fabricated and emotionally stimulating, Tales from the Golden Age is a more than reasonable depiction of government gone wrong – playing alertly to countries with its cautionary tale(s). [8/10]
Generally horror movies suck. Over the last decade or so, people in the horror business have resorted to cliche after cliche after cliche – or, if you’re in Hollywood, stealing foreign concepts and remaking them for their masses. Even the first installment of [rec] was remade only a year after it had initially been released in Mexico for Americans. So with the unique zombiefest that the first [rec] accumulated, you’d expect that this – if any horror film – would be one of the rare treats for fans of the freaky. Unfortunately writer-director duo Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza give into the temptation of an ulterior route that completely compromises the purpose of the launching ground that was [rec].
After the mayhem that ensued in the first, [rec] 2 pursuits a similar route as the first. Although there is no fleshed out lead-in like in the first, its clear that the paths laid out for these fictional characters are explicit: chase, kill, survive. At first, the story follows four SWAT members and a priest into the house – why the priest is there is unexplained at first, but when his importance to the story is revealed, one cannot help but escape the justification without laughing. And in a film that’s entirely serious, laughter isn’t exactly desired.
After a plot twist is revealed and the zombies begin to scream manically dissimilar to their reactions in the first, the story finds itself a steady and thoroughly enjoyable course filled with bullets and scares. In an attempt to preserve one of the fundamental components of the first, each of the soldiers is given a headset with a mini-HD camera installed. So yes, the shaky-cam is back – and yes, it is at its most exploitative use.
As a frenzied pace brews due in majority to malicious use of guns and blunt objects, the priest looks for answers in the several story apartment. He’s entitles himself the leader of the group while the decadent pursuit of his begins to endanger the lives of “his men”. They continue onward in this dilapidated abode, allowing the audience to revisit the diminutive rooms that had already had viewers gasping for air. Once again, these rooms are filled with indeterminate dangers and once again, the nauseating scares are repeated.
The soldiers’ entire segment begins to run in a loop; all freight dissipates quickly because of this. It’s only until the second half of the feature that the vigor anticipated makes a return.
In the second half, we come to witness the lives of three teenagers – a brother and sister combo with the brother’s best friend/a boy that the sister really adores. It’s cut-and-paste characterization, but it’ll do. Mischievous and clearly curious as to what is unfolding across the street, the trio make their way into the house of horrors via esoteric entrance. Their relationships together are more annoying than boring as the writers expect the zany actions of these teens are at all plausible enough to be taken seriously. They jest in obscure ways, have a jealousy dynamic running an infantile course, and obviously play ironic happenstance on plenty of occasions in the house.
Despite these flaws, I very much enjoyed the readmission of innocence into this house. It seemed all too immediate to have tough men go in and demonstrate what happens when a zombiehead meets blunt object. At least with precocious kids the scares seem more genuine.
There’s a big plot twist midway through just prior to the teens being ‘completely’ introduced that makes you wonder what’s really going on. It’s only until the end that you give the writers any credit for their haphazard attempts at fabricating excitement. All in all, [rec] 2 isn’t what you’d expect from the first. There isn’t a brooding air or darkened mystique about any of the settings which makes the backdrop very innocuous – an area in which the first flourished in achieving. Despite all these flaws, you can’t help but enjoy the swift pace or at least give credit to the filmmakers in trying to keep the [rec] name above water. Even if there’s a bucket of unoriginality for every drop of inspiration, [rec] 2 manages to keep its competency without depriving itself of excitement. [6/10]