TIFF REVIEWS: Day 9

Ah, I’m almost done all these. Good. Today was probably the best day of the entire festival thanks to a quick decision that had me throw out my Le Derniers Jours du Monde ticket because a) I didn’t feel I could wake up at 6am again to watch a film that starts at 8:45am, and b) I didn’t think I’d be able to stay awake through 140 minutes of “post-apocalyptic man wandering around the world trying to find his ex-love”. While that sounds great, the length intimidated me (and I had The White Ribbon to follow and didn’t want to be fatigued for that one). So what better switch than a movie that starts at 10am and lasts a mere 81 minutes? Thank you, perfect timing.

So the 81 minute film that kicked off the day was Jesper Ganslandt’s The Ape. In this, his second ever feature, he does what many strive to accomplish for decades upon decades and that’s to create a masterpiece.

A man wakes up in blood disoriented. However, he reacts to this discovery unlike any other person. In fact, he’s only jilted by finding out he’s covered in blood for a moment and instead of panicking he takes his attire off, throws it into the wash, takes a shower and preps himself for the day of work ahead.

Throughout the day, there is clearly bothering him. Since it isn’t a physical agitation, the viewer is meant to interpret his screeching and kicking of things as emotional torment running its course. What is he so worked up over? Is this what Krister (Olle Sarri) is like daily? Surely he doesn’t wake up covered in blood everyday, but apparently his brooding attitude isn’t unusual to those who know him at work. So either something has been bothering him for an extensive period of time or he’s had two separate trials run his life: one prior to today and one that will remain within him from today onward until he solves this crisis.

Following the lead character around with a handycam and sporting only the most natural of sound capturing has become a style I adore. Since I fell in love with Romanian New Wave in 2006 to now, my admiration for simplistic storytelling has grown into a feeling I sense will be eternal. As per usual, the ‘style’ of the film isn’t cinematic, but rather personal. Occasionally a filmmaker will botch the intrinsic aesthetic and botch the purpose altogether, but here Ganslandt makes you feel as if you woke up with Krister that morning and followed him around all day.

In addition, Ganslandt’s script leaves for nothing to be desired when the credits begin to roll and the Bob Dylan song ablaring. He presents Krister’s good, bad and ugly in a meticulous fashion that one seldom sees in film. Considering the film takes place within one day, you won’t have all the answers to what makes the character depressed or driven handed to you, so for the majority of those 81 minutes you’re given a puzzle. Some I see snap the pieces in half and speak emphatically about how insipid the puzzle is; others I see take the pieces and work diligently to solve it. If you’re the type of person that appreciates film that doesn’t condescend to its viewer and merely asks you pay attention to it, you’ll be in for a delightful little piece of Swedish cinema.

Midway through, the story hits a bump in the road that changes its course for direction drastically. It answers the main question it prompts at the beginning, but it’s one of those “make or break” moments in cinema that, if told about beforehand, you’ll feel cheated when you watch it. I will say that the first half flourishes in showing the struggles of an introvert, but the second bombastically presents the strain that is put on extroverts that cannot relate with other people as they are perched in the most precarious of positions.

To those curious as to what the title alludes to, it is what Ganslandt believes we all are at our core and if determined enough, we will revert to a merciless, monstrous state, if need be to serve ourselves. In a way, The Ape plays out like version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde… and the best version of it I’ve seen at that. Eat your heart out Tracy, Sarri’s performance defines what it is to be distressed.

Here it was – my most anticipated film of the festival — scratch that, year. Palme d’Or winner by Michael Haneke? Yeah, ’nuff said. Anyways, I had to give this a rewatch before I could review this day because I felt I didn’t have the best of recollections about this film. So while I loved it, I needed to give it a fully competent viewing. Also: I’d just like to note that this review will be quite extensive and while it will be without spoilers (it isn’t a film you can really spoil anyways), it’ll be a long scroll if you’re not interested in my thoughts about this film.

Religion is where Haneke establishes this, his latest feature and the title of it in The White Ribbon. Early on, it’s indicated that children wear white ribbons to be a constant reminder that they’re pure creatures and shouldn’t unfasten their belt of religious restraint… ever. With this, Haneke imbues a very problematic stance on religion in early 20th century Europe and berates his audience with quips on it. Is it an anti-religion feature? Considering it feels as if done in vain of early Bergman, this is the stance you’d presumably take – that Haneke is denouncing the Catholic church. There’s a scene at the end that proposes that we’re all too judgmental and are suspect of everyone. While this is a delicately spoken sentiment, this is where Haneke loses himself in his own self-indulgence and forgets that he’s telling a story from one man’s perspective; leaving a ponderous mind astray and his closing statement without competence. Haneke’s trademark circumventing is not applicable here.

Set between 1912 and 1914, The White Ribbon dissects many variables would solve for many interesting questions. The one that seemed most understated but fascinating was how this was a precursor to Nazism. With the children in the film renouncing God in their individual ways and being taught to fall in line, while it might not be the most sought out theme the film had to offer, it seemed as intriguing thought as the children would have been soldiers in the war and their personalities are as worrisome as Hitler’s regime.

In connection to this line of thinking is their demonic presence. The leader of the group, Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) often speaks to other children about leaving the village for get togethers. What this plays out as is a young woman seeking ways to avoid the eye of God that is so potently placed above their village to gather with friends and discuss the alternative meanings to life. Perhaps not in such a profound depth, but with each exit and re-entrance to the village, a more alarming crime takes place and her presence feels all the more disturbing. Haneke continually presses the ideology that these children are menaces that must be stopped — the crimes stop being committed when the white ribbon is tied onto the children, for example — but takes an alternative route at the end. Why? Perhaps he just likes screwing with the mind of his viewers.

From the first moment of the film to the last, the audience understands that this is a first person account. With the man speaking being far older, you’ve got to take into consideration his memory at hand. This is the first obstacle Haneke finds himself having issue passing. His story is mysterious alone: “who is committing these crimes”? On top of this, he’s got an old man recalling the tale which, to an examinative spells questions about the lead character’s recollection. It muddles up the film a fair bit to those that ponder these consequences, uncovering a new reason as to why narration – especially first person – shouldn’t be used so pointlessly. Because, in the end, all of what The School Teacher adds is hardly beneficial to the viewer and the way his voiceover is constructed is just detriment to an already compelling tale, no matter how cold the final words he speaks may leave you. Perhaps Haneke should revisit the Robert McKee scenes in Adaptation.

Apart from these two glaring flaws, Haneke composes a fairly brilliant tale about religious uncertainty in youth and how society runs under rule of royalty. Its got sentiments about every perspective one can take with such circumstances – why singular ruling over a people works and why it doesn’t, for example – which what makes this as poignant as it is.

Enveloped in the two and a half hours of running time are four perspectives, but none more important than The School Teacher (Christian Friedel) whom I’ve already discussed in some detail. In addition to being the reason the story exists, his own story — not the one he’s telling based on his prior suspicions and hearsay — lifts the depressive chills in stretches as he finds himself on the brink of a blooming romance with one of the Baron’s employees, Eva (Leonie Benesch). Although he’s past 30 and she’s 19, they find warmth by confiding in each other during the dire summers and early winters. It’s one of the most believable developments of romance cinema as provided all decade – it’s just a shame that it had to take place under the ghastly restraints of their society.

Three other stories run their course. One involving a poor family who are indebted to the Baron as he provides them with work, but seldom with pay – anger, betrayal and suspicions of murder course through the veins of this bewildering story. How Haneke handles this segment about distraught and struggling family testifies to his craftsmanship in handling the bleak. Too bad this is the story that is least divulged into, as a two hours feature about the trials of this family would’ve made for a wonderful feature itself.

The other two stories – the two most discussed and explained – are about the pastor (Burghart Klaußner) attempting to maintain the righteousness in the town, while balancing his Godly obligations with his parenting ones. The other is about a doctor (Rainer Bock) — who, early on suffers a terrible injury as part of the worrisome occurrences taking place in the town — who may be the most disgusting character 2009 has provided. By using his children and his midwife (Suzanne Lothar) to feed his selfish endeavors, he expels a manner only sought as contemptible for modern viewers, but in this phallocentric tyranny Haneke is displaying, he’s merely a slightly worse man than most. The major issue found here is that the midwife’s dystrophy is a nuisance for viewers because she’s so self-loathing in her many attempts at accosting pitiful conversations. She’s a painfully written character who has reason to be so joyless, but Lother’s presence that was so harrowing in Funny Games is found as a cadaverous shell of a person. Unless Haneke wanted to place your mind in that of 1918 Germany and educate how man’s mentality could be so just, he missed the ball on this one.

Because each story has a similar dejected aura, the film relies heavily on the performances to display the individual characterizations. It isn’t a stretch to call the work of these men and women magnificent, nor is it one to give them as much credit as Haneke for constructing the torpor environment in which the film thrives. There are several performers that turn out work worthy of “best of the year” titles. From Friedel’s composure at the informative lead to Benesch’s unfurling of maturity through tears and restriction to Klaubner’s resonant strictness that will leave you feeling as if you’ve had your hide lashed to Bock’s unrelenting devouring of a woman’s soul, these portrayals are as individual as Haneke’s work behind the camera.

A topic that has been heavily discussed about this feature is its use of cinematography and how meticulous it is or isn’t. In post-production, I sense that Haneke had issues understanding what he wanted to evoke with this picture, not completely knowing the extent of each theme he’s preaching – leaving the feature a tad maladroit. For example, early on in the film a piece of music sets the tone for a scene, as per usual in most films. After this scene, music is no longer heard during scenes. It isn’t an overly effective use of music, meaning the use of it doesn’t come across as poignant, but rather Haneke had troubles deciding what he wanted. With the cinematography, he decided against leaving it in technicolor as he so shot it, stripping the life from each frame and leaving it with shades of black and white. In certain scenes, this decision elucidates the frumpy lives of those being portrayed. In others, the lighting is cause for an attenuation of the malady as too many light colors are distracting — there is no singular focus in some scenes. Apart from the lighting issue – which is expected when you’re unsure of the visual aspect from day one – he complies scene upon scene of engaging composition. Especially in his choice to refrain from showing death (apart from one scene near the end which packs a bleak punch when shown) – all of it feels extremely European, and dare I say it, existentialist on level with Bergman or Tarr (inferior director, just for clarification).

With a difficult array of themes that range from fully developed (the innocence in youth; the belief that what your superiors say is true) to seedlings that you must nurture into full thoughts (women are often virtuous and intelligent, no matter how good or evil), while it isn’t apparent Haneke had a complete consensus as to what he was doing, he must have known he was doing whatever it was right. This is one of the rare cases where a gut feeling gets someone a long way, as well as one where The White Ribbon cannot be explained. At least not as easily as The Pastor makes it out to be, as this film is not a symbol for innocence and purity.

Following the second emotionally heavy film of the day, I walked across the hall to Perrier’s Bounty – a story that, if as good as in practice as it was in concept, would’ve actually been worth the 88 minutes it runs for.

Ian Fitzgibbon and Mark O’Rowe collaborate to bring you a unique crime/thriller with some of the greatest current actors the UK are providing. An interesting concept, four admired performers and quick pacing – what could go wrong? Well, a lot.

First, the story takes on far too many dramatic connotations to be as snappy as Fitzgibbon wants it to be. One moment you’ll have Michael (Cillian Murphy) in a frantic, but humorous state at a bar, only to come home to find Brenda (Jodie Whittaker), the holder of his unrequited love planning to kill herself after a breakup. This isn’t done in a particular funny light; she’s stolen a gun and is binge drinking. If anything, perhaps it tries too hard to blend real humor with forced humor which causes the disjointed sensation that has derailed many a feature. So if you take to the anticlimactic depression in a fun light, well, don’t expect it to be so “fun”.

In the quirky mix is Michael’s father, Jim (Jim Broadbent) who is convinced that the next time he falls asleep he’ll die. Why? Because he learned it in a dream. Abrasively crass voiceover reiterates what fate means and irony at inopportune moments throughout to give a hood’s interpretation of life, as if it’s anything profound that a drunkard might have a few wise words to speak. Well this one certainly doesn’t and the humor intended is more off-putting than his deconstruction of the language he speaks.

Oh the plot, yes. So Michael owes a mobster named Perrier (Brendan Gleeson) some money and he can’t come up with it so the mobster wants him dead. His father tells him he must run away, but the father tags along to bond with his son before his next sleep. Oh, and the woman Michael loves is dragged along as well because, well, there’s no real reason pertaining to why she goes, but she does, much to the glee of Michael. The editing is snappy and each character is divulged into as much as possible, but the way these people are written is so vapid that to comprehend their purpose (past and present) is to listen to them explain themselves through poorly constructed monologues.

In addition, there are some thugs under the thumb of Perrier that love their dogs. They’re “dog enthusiasts” and have a dog club with other big men that love dogs. This plays a major role in the climax. Let me just say that if you’ve seen Deadlier Than the Male (Julien Duvivier, 1956) you’ve seen a similar resolution done with far more tact and far less stupor.

Apart from the solid cast – you can never go wrong with Murphy, Whittaker, Gleeson & Broadbent – this is one of the least fun films I’ve ever had to endure. What makes it most sad is that it was intended to please its audiences. The Meaning of Life: as presented by 1st Graders.

First off, I would like to give Ye Lou a round of applause. Not only is this guy basically exiled from his home country of China after making risque cinema, but he makes this – his most image contorting one to date – just after being given the middle finger by his country. This man’s got some gravitas — and to me — is one of biggest advocates of ‘cinema without borders’.

To be honest, perhaps it was my excitement for this film going in that caught me off guard. Have you ever been so unenthusiastic to watch something that you just, you know, didn’t know what you’d be in for and were caught off guard? Rarely happens to me, but eight days into TIFF and two exhausting films back to back made me think I could have a two hour nap during this film. Also: word on the film was, even though it won Best Screenplay at Cannes, that it was a terrible feature. But no, it hooked me from the opening frame and Ye Lou’s introduction to romance – especially the homosexual angle – is one of the most honest contributions to love this past year.

By using the works of Yu Dafu, an early 20th century poet who felt nature an analogy for the human condition, Ye Lou sets a beautiful, but ominous tone for the tragedy. With most filmmakers, their issue is that they use these works, but they’re so potent that it obstructs the message the filmmakers themselves are trying to teach; they can’t live up to the work the provide. Here, screenwriter Feng Mei balances the poignant words from the poet with her own heartfelt sense of how the world – or rather, romance – works.

A disjointed love triangle, Wang Ping (Wu Wei in a devastating performance) cheats on his wife Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi in a focused portrayal) with Jiang Cheng (played almost too softly by Qin Hao). Lin feels that her marriage is fleeting and therefore hired a private investigator to seek out the ‘mistress’ in Wang’s life. It comes as a big shock to her when it’s revealed her husband is a homosexual; her inability to grasp the conflict rumbling within her soulmate and seeping hatred for the disgusting persona he holds creates a frantic beast from the once delicate woman. As you can tell, she is no Liberal.

Because homosexuality is frowned upon far more in China, the way the story presents itself to its audience is almost haunting. Even though it was required of Ye Lou to shoot this film covertly with handheld cameras — as he’s banned from filming in China — it works heavily in his benefit as it adds a despondent aesthetic to the depressive picture he wants to paint. In cohesion with Peyman Yazdanian’s melancholic score, an authentic visual poem is formed. Lou’s vision of betrayal in disorientation is heartbreaking and earns the tears it causes to fall from immersed viewer’s cheeks.

Within the script are a few shocking moments that drive the isolation-induced desperateness angle home. Lou doesn’t smack his viewers over the head with “Do you not see what your nonacceptance is doing to these people?” but focuses more on the reactions of others; gradually forming and reinforcing the humanist angle prompted by the stanza’s by Yu Dafu.

As a film based around romantic taboo (also to note, Mr. Lou doesn’t dangle naked men around the frames to add controversy. In fact, no one is seen naked from top to bottom in a turn to exploit nudity for shock purposes at any point during the two hours), this is perhaps the best example of romance under fire thus far in cinema. Spring Fever does what most romantic tales of betrayal do without sugarcoating one’s true feelings. For once, a person being deceived is portrayed as a person so perturbed that their best judgment is transposed into hatred; this is cinema at its most genuine, however discomforting it may be.

Oh boy, Harmony Korine. Oh boy…

After checking out Gummo to prep myself for Trash Humpers (which was headlined as Gummo 2: The Musical), I knew that this film was going to divide me. On one hand, you’ve got an interesting tale about a trio of destructive individuals who hate the media as much as love humping trash. On the other, how exhilarating can a film that bases its premise around people that make love to garbage and destroy contemporary pleasures be — especially when most of the film isn’t devoted to this contrast, but rather people singing emotionally scarring tunes and humping trash? Turns out it can be pretty good if you can get past the blatant ‘unique for the sake of being unique’ style Korine superimposes on each of his films.

As always a challenge for reviewers, the latest ‘effort’ from Korine is without any actualized purpose and a myriad of symbolic gestures, making the entire piece hard to distinguish with any fervor. With moments feeling like clips taken out of snuff films and others from klan rallies, you’d think Korine is just attempting to push the envelope more and more with his artistic creativity. Here, the majority of it is rehashed from Gummo and the ‘musical’ element is hardly harmonious and done in true Korine fashion.

What makes this a compelling film is how bizarre it all is. Trash Humpers would be a prime subject in the debate of what is and isn’t art in cinema. Is Korine doing anything meticulous with his worldly trepidation while attempting to stir up a universal truth meaning – or is he just playing with a VHS recorder and some neat masks he paid someone to make? What’s even more disturbing than the feature at hand is questioning where Korine found himself the inspiration to draw this one together.

There’s no real story — unless you consider random scenes of masked figures humping trash, children ‘killing’ dolls with hammers and an assortment of the mentally malnourished talking uncouthly a new-age attempt at a narrative — so there’s nothing to actually review with this one. It doesn’t even classify under any genre known to man. The first half is comedic, sort of? Trash humping is as funny in concept as it is in execution. So are the vast shots at questioning political correctness, but the second half takes the fun out of what made the first half fun and turns it on the viewer. “Why are you laughing? These are deeply disturbed people”. It sticks like well cooked spaghetti does to a wall, but tastes like a spoonful of vinegar.

If you can find yourself wrapping your head around this, all the power to you. As an experience – as you can’t judge something like this based on its artistic merit, or lack thereof – it’s an effective one. Your laughs turn to sighs and your sighs into eeks and your eeks into snores. It hits on many levels effectively, but not all of them are beneficial to the viewing. Trash Humpers is to cinema as humping trash is to procreation — a messy experiment that leaves you putrid and wondering why. See it… there’s no two ways about that. Why? I don’t even know yet.

Closing off the day was my second midnight madness film of the festival in the animated Belgian flick A Town Called Panic; a film based off a short lived cartoon in Europe.

High-octane with its clean humor and an absurdest sensation, this slapstick comedy which fronts as a children’s film can pass with ease as one for teenagers and adults alike. Director/writers Stephane Aubier and Vincent Pater’s style is reminiscent of Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, but their animated show predates Seth Green’s a few years. And while the duo’s style isn’t at all comparable to the parody and satire of Green’s, they keep their audiences enjoying their work with eccentric characters, jovial contemplations and optimistic themes.

One of the issues the film has is that it’s comparable only to His Girl Friday in term of frantic dialogue (If you didn’t know, it’s the “fastest” film clocking in at 240 words per minute) which grows cumbersome with subtitles. So they need to dumb down the conversation (which they do at times, not to say this has Tarantino-like importance when the characters converse), but the directors never take the time to relax the hyper cartoons to let the humor settle in/let their viewers catch up with the blitzing words. It’s all tangible stuff, but as comedies rely heavily on wordplay, this one loses a lot of its punch if you don’t understand French.

Akin to elementary stories, A Town Called Panic’s originates from three long time friends with very different personalities. There’s Cowboy, who is the personification of a caffeinated adolescence; Indian, who is the doubtful close friend of Cowboy, but finds himself being a cohort for some less-than-wise doings; and Horse, who is the glue (oh, I finally get why he’s a horse! Clever) that keeps them all together with his wisdom and maturity. Two rambunctious characters with one irritable one – a classic formula for laughter that predates even the Three Stooges.

Though the plot grows tedious after the first half an hour and the impact of the jokes shrink, the writer/directors never panic and give the story everything it needs to be full. At 75 minutes, it could have come a few moments sooner as the final 15 minutes are annoying beyond belief.

This certainly isn’t a film to watch at midnight – unless you’re really up for it – and should, instead, be viewed while you nibble away at your breakfast and preferably with your kids (if you have them). It’s got plentiful elements that will have you smiling or laughing but it’s too erratic and disjointed to have the clarity of most other films designed for all ages. As for now, I’ll stick to the 10 minute shorts of the show to sustain my craving for Aubier’s and Pater’s aberrant charm.

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