TIFF Reviews: The Bad

I forgot to post these reviews months ago, so here they are.

I’ve put off reviewing TIFF this year because I was hoping that I could entice some publications with a few pre-release reviews for Oscar contenders, but since that proved fruitless I’ll just (lethargically) post reviews here. Don’t expect long reviews for these four though. By far the four most awful films I have seen at TIFF in my four years attending. Paltry selection indeed.

I also realize how old this post is. What happened was I wrote most of the first review and the following two and just forgot to follow through with the rest and post it. Well, here it is.

Bad part one: the latest film from the Romanian New Wave, Outbound. Now, Romanian New Wave is my favorite subgenre at the moment – in fact, it’s partially the reason why I am so in love with cinema to begin with. 2007 was a big year for me – it was also a big year for Romanian film. You’ve got the Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and a rather great picture conveying the impossibility one exact and universal truth with 12:08, East of Bucharest. Those films discussed the decadence of Romania during the despotic reign of Nicolae Ceausescu. At the time, one would feel that those films were promissory notes of what was to come in Romanian cinema – I don’t think anyone, myself included, would have anticipated that 2007 would be the year that Romanian filmmaking peaked.

Periferic (Outbound) opens on surly protagonist Matilda (Ana Ularu), a main character as unlikable as any you will ever encounter, but for less reason, I’m sure. Matilda is with two other young women in a shared prison cell discussing how she is going to leave Romania during her two day leave of prison which she gets to take due to a death in her family. So off we go – Matilda is released from prison and just outside of the domicile a trucker pulls up in front of Matilda. He’s a goods exporter who can safely get her out of the country via smuggling, but is upset that Matilda has yet to gather his fee of 2,000 Lei (650 American Dollars). She says she’ll get it, he gives her the benefit of the doubt (for who knows why, she seems as sincere as a brick to the face) and off they go. He drives her to where she needs to be out of the goodness in her heart, she thanks him and this is where her story begins.

I won’t bore you with the details, but from here on out we follow Matilda from unfortunate situation after unfortunate situation because writer/director Bogdan George Apetri’s ad hominem is that life is suffering and unfair and even without political oppression there will always be social. This would be a sweet sentiment if we were given a character who had a) Any virtuous qualities so that we could actually root for her, b) Was portrayed with a bit more delicacy by non-actress Ana Ularu, c) Had a character arc that, you know, arced and didn’t flat line, or even d) Did anything that wasn’t a complete rehash of other, better, more honest Romanian films. At one point in the film, Matilda scours her brother  prior to the burial of their parent because he won’t give her money to illegally escape Romania. The brother’s wife, played with honesty and actual warmth by Ioana Flora, interjects and demands she remove herself from their lives. Of course, Matilda spits at her and storms off. Ioana is then directed to shoot Matilda a snotty glare in an attempt to make us sympathize for our protagonist, but it’s all a lie. Everything is apparent, but none of it makes sense. It’s one of the least dimensional films I’ve ever seen. It gets even less appealing when Matilda visits her nine-year old son at an orphanage. There is nothing there. We don’t even see a woman striving to do good by the child she was forced to abandon – just a worthless person dealing with her tragedy as selfishly as possible. Disgusting. You almost wish Nicolae Ceausescu wasn’t decapitated so he could prevent such forms of free speech from ever being manifested.

One of the first films I saw this year at the festival was Bad Faith (Ond Tro) – a Swedish film by Kristian Petri. The three films I had seen prior to this were two poor efforts (Film Socialism & Legend of the Fist) and one average documentary (Inside Job), so I got excited at the promise of seeing something that had an interesting synopsis – a woman stalks a serial killer – and really wanted this to be the turning point of my festival.

But it wasn’t. Surprisingly, my festival wasn’t made better by this terribly derivative, offensively cliche and thematically meandering piece of cinema…

The plot of this film begins when Mona (Sonja Richter) leaves a party – of which she was sexually harassed by her married boss – and amidst the walk she took to find some sort of clarity stumbles upon a dying man. Rather than help him, she walks over to the blood-oozer, touches his wound and with a stoic expression walks away without doing anything to help. No phone call to the police, no attempt at remedying the man’s deadly wound… nothing. No, she rather walk back to the party with blood on her hands (get it?) and endure the burden of not helping a dying man. Although the blatant symbolism is offensive – you’d think a second or two of showing your audience your protagonist attempting to wash her bloody hands clean would get the point across, but no, why not hold for a good minute? – what is most offensive is the lack of characterization Mona is given. How, as an audience, we’re meant to buy that she didn’t assist the dying man for any reason other than her timidity… yet a few scenes later she begins to stalk X (Kristoffer Joner), the man she thinks is accountable for murdering the man she found. There is no characterization – just a protagonist whose thoughts and ambitions are fitted to the whims of the writer.

From here on out, Mona takes on a faux-martyrdom that she places upon herself – a driving point that’s essentially “Bystanders are as guilty as those committing crimes”. Yeah, well not really, but if you make your protagonist so stubbornly docile I’m inclined to agree for the worst of reasons.

In addition to all of these frustrating contrivances, Mona falls for Frank (Jonas Karlsson), a man who she first met in an empty church just after the first murder had taken place. His reason for being in an abandoned church? “The silence is calming”. Well, that isn’t absolutely creepy and suspect, so when the times comes for Mr. Petri to reveal Frank’s role in these murders to be astonished is to have an IQ below 55.

There is absolutely nothing of worth here. The refined HD cinematography is a complete contradiction to the grittiness that should inundate a film such as this; the music is comprised of generic thuds; the performers are as emotionally listless as the characters they were given to work with – just a terrible film that no one should ever see.

Throughout his career as a director Julian Schanbel has indirectly stated that the only stories worth telling are true ones about people who have led some sort of fascinating life. Between Basquait, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly he’s told three inspiring stories – the first two deriving from socially oppressive situations and his last from a physically oppressive one. With Miral, Schanbel makes his sympathies to those rebelling against tyranny known.

Such trash is Miral. From the most obtuse forms of courage and strength (a scene where Miral is made to piss herself is where the film irrevocably lost me) to the most exhausting set-ups to characters (Miral is entirely pure and innocuous and her liberated mind only persecuted for… all of the film) to the forty minutes dedicated to Hind Husseini’s legacy wherein she founded an orphanage, none of this film has the required level of sincerity or coherency to achieve any actual accomplishments.

As you know, Julian Schnabel is a very technical director who has been lauded only for his technical achievements. He doesn’t work much with his actors — the only person to have gotten great acclaim from within one of his films was Javier Bardem and he’s considered one of, if not, the finest working — so when he helms a film there’s a sense of urgency when untested or poor actors are given large roles. Now, if anything positive can be said of Miral it is this: Schnabel gives Rula Jebreal’s sickeningly woeful and politically bias a worthwhile exterior. Great use of color and camera movement. After that, well, Hiam Abbass is up to par and then that’s it for the compliments. The story has no structure, only excessive torture; it has no depth, but one abrasively repeated point: “LOOK HOW BAD IT IS HERE. GIRLS ARE PURE, GUYS ARE GENERALLY DICKS.” A thoroughly bad film — and to me, offensive in how much in prides itself on its boldness in showing how dark conflict torn countries can be whilst also perpetuating how superior strength of women in the face of great danger. An uber-feminist take on anti-establishment fundamentals; more myopic than it is enduring; completely offensive and not at all inspiring.

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