SBIFF 2015: Second Chance (2014) & Confession (2014)

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Taiwanese film number two of the festival was the frothy Second Chance, directed by Wen-yen Kung. Okay, maybe not frothy exactly, but definitely bubbly. Second Chance is (I assume) one of the only action movies about pool. Yes, that kind of pool, where you stand around a table and firmly poke a series of colored balls. Sure, there’s The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986)—did you remember Tom Cruise is in that?—but those are hardly action films. Although, Poolhall Junkies (2002) does have Christopher Walken, which is reason enough to watch it. Obviously.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfHAiIq-Yeo&w=560&h=315]

Seriously, the man is a national treasure. But I digress. This is what I was talking about:

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Why are they standing in front of a rock slide? Don’t worry—it doesn’t matter.

Second Chance is a sweet and entertaining mishmash of redemptive sports story, redemptive family story, crime story, comedy, drama, and action. Within the first five minutes, it seemed like two different films, with two entirely different tones, had started. The film doesn’t give you a chance to get bored or invite deep contemplation. It’s easily the most fun I had at SBIFF this year—and that’s an oft-underrated virtue at film festivals.

A disgraced former pool champ, played by Jason Wang, is forced back to the table when his independent, spunky orphaned niece has to find a way to hang on to her family’s pool hall (and convince her social worker that she doesn’t need to go to a foster home). Formulaic? You bet. Does it matter? Not at all. Asian films often seem much better at taking formulas and recycling them without making the audience feel like it’s eating a 7-Eleven egg salad sandwich that probably wasn’t very good even before you accidentally left it roasting on the dashboard of your car. Maybe Asian filmmakers choose better formulas than Hollywood studios. (It certainly seems easier to get decent distribution in that part of the world for that sort of film, on which much less money is riding.)

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Peijiang Wang plays Shine, the budding billiards champion who finally gets her uncle Feng to stand up and fly right, i.e., quit drinking and find a way to pay off the gambling debts that have brought his old rival to the door of the family pool hall/home, the Outstanding Pool Hall. There are the requisite training montages, which are a lot more entertaining than what is, essentially, golf on a table has any right to be. It’s a tribute to good storytelling that the film doesn’t need a lot of locations, doesn’t need a lot of characters, and doesn’t need a complicated plot to be such a good time.

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Also on the agenda was the South Korean “neo-noir” Confession, directed by Do-yun Lee. If the characters from Partners in Crime grew up, they might have ended up like the three boyhood friends in Confession. 

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Confession is a solid, enjoyable crime thriller, the first feature by director Do-yun Lee. The three friends grow up to be very different from but still devoted to (or maybe just tied to) each other. Slick insurance agent In-chul (Ju Ji-Hoon) has more in common with the greedy mother (Lee Whee-Hyang) of his friend Hyun-Tae than with either Hyun-Tae (Ji Sung) or their friend, the slightly damaged Min-Soo (Lee Kwang-Soo). The center of the film’s plot is the robbery In-chul and Min-Soo stage at the gambling hall owned by Hyun-Tae’s parents. Playing to the surveillance camera, In-chul and his friend’s mother mime a violent robbery while offering directions to each other. (Which is absolutely as silly as it sounds.) The camera can’t hear them, of course, so why not?

What could go wrong with this plan? Nearly everything, as you might expect.

As with Second Chance, it doesn’t matter a whit that we can see what’s coming. Indeed, in a genre picture like this, being able to see what the characters can’t—the absolutely inevitable disaster they have stupidly, arrogantly set in motion—is essential. As Hitchcock pointed out, that dynamic is what creates suspense. It’s not not knowing what’s going to happen; it’s knowing exactly what’s going to happen when the characters don’t that makes us squirm in our seats and talk pointlessly at the screen.

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Min-Soo, In-chul, and Hyun-Tae

One of the things that makes both of these films better than their average American counterpart (assuming it ever got a distribution deal) is that they both spend quality time developing their characters, so that we care about them. Rather than being told the main character’s backstory in dialogue— “My parents were killed in front of me!”*—or having the plot laid out for us in dialogue— “I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.”**—we watch characters do things and interact with each other. And so the characters seem like people rather than placeholders, and the plot appears to be generated by who the characters are rather than by the dictates of a marketing campaign aimed at 14-year-old boys.

I’m sorry. Did I say all that out loud?

Confession calls to mind another South Korean crime thriller traveling the festival circuit, A Hard Day. Seong-hoon Kim’s film about a corrupt cop having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is, I think, a better movie (though it’s hard to tell having only seen each once). Nevertheless, Second Chance and Confession are both a good time, and if you’re lucky enough that you can get to and afford a film festival, check these out. If not, don’t despair…they’ll be streaming soon.

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Up next from my SBIFF adventures… the Chinese thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014).

 

Colombiana (2011)

** Taken (2008) Really? You didn’t recognize that?

SBIFF 2015: Partners in Crime

SBIFF_2015_Barbara_BorosO woe is me, attending film festivals is getting in the way of my watching classic film. Luckily, I’ve got several blogathons coming up (see banners at right) to get me back into the classic swing of things.

Before we return to our regularly scheduled programming, however, I’d like to tell you about a few of the films I saw at the annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It’s a good festival with lots of potential celebrity-spotting, as it’s so close to LA. Unlike the heavenly AFI Fest, though, it ain’t free. Movies are $15 a pop. But…they do a great deal on late-night movies—you can get a Remains of the Day pass for $60, which gets you in to every movie that starts after 10pm. If you went to every late-night screening, that more than halves the price of the films. So put that in your back pocket. (You know, for next year.)

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Partners in Crime (2014, Jung-chi Chang)

One of several Taiwanese films I saw, Partners in Crime is about high school bullying. Sort of. Three boys who don’t know each other well discover the body of a mysterious classmate on their way to school, Chia, who has thrown herself off her balcony. One of those boys, Huang, becomes peculiarly interested in what happened. He invites the other two boys to their classmate’s funeral. At first, he’s simply lying to the girl’s grieving mother, to make her feel better. Within short order, however, he’s escalated to bringing his new friends, Lin and Yeh, along to break into the girl’s house.

They find a diary suggesting Chia was bullied. Soon after this, things go (more) off the rails. Describing much more of the plot will spoil things. I can tell you that this film boasts the worst school counselor I’ve ever seen on film. In one of the two or three meetings she bothers to have with these kids who’ve found the (bloody) body of a schoolmate who committed suicide, she gives them an essay assignment. In their last meeting, she tells them, “If things come up…deal with them yourself.” The film is more complex than it first seems, just as the plot is more complicated than it first appears to be.

As you might gather from the two stills here, the film is also about loneliness, much more than it is about bullying.

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It’s engrossing, and there are beautifully set up shots like the one in which one of the boys, in the foreground, watches a heated discussion between another boy and a girl, just out of focus, twenty feet away. Definitely recommended.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cecCpLP75-s&w=560&h=315]

 

If you’re in the area, or fancy a trip, there are more films coming up this weekend, for free (!). It’s the festival’s “3rd weekend,” during which they show a series of festival favorites. Click here for the schedule.

Also coming up locally are two “The Wave” mini-festivals:

April 23rd  – May 3: Contemporary Films from Spain & Latin America

July 15 – 19: Contemporary Films from France

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AFI Fest 2014: Wednesday, November 12

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Day Five: Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma (2014)

In the spirit of recent posts at Krell Laboratories (“Rethinking the American Canon”) and Girls Do Film (“A Realisation…and a New Year Resolution”) on the paucity of work by women directors, and in the less lofty spirit of just getting my sh*t together already, this post is on the last AFI Festival film I saw (you know, last November), written and directed by a Palestinian woman. Each blog writer noticed she hadn’t posted much about films directed by women and made a commitment to seek out, and post about, more such films. Brava, I say. And, me too, I also say. In the thus-far short list of directors about whom I’ve written there is nary a woman to be seen. Shameful.

Both Krell Labs and Girls Do Film are engaging, well-written film blogs (Krell Labs even has a quotation from Samuel Johnson!), each covering very different territory from the other. I suggest you scoot over to at least one of them now and promise to peruse the other later. I’ll wait here.

Alrighty. As Louis CK said about an entirely different activity, “Here we go!”

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Writer and director Suha Arraf

The final film I saw at the AFI Fest was director Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma. It is a quiet film, in comparison to some of the others I saw, but no less absorbing. There are almost no men to speak of. (That’s not why I liked it so much. … Okay, maybe that’s not the only reason I liked it so much.) Most of the film stays inside a villa belonging to what’s left of the Touma family, in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. The Toumas are an old Christian family—Ramallah used to be largely Christian, and they now comprise a significant minority there. One of the neat things about Villa Touma is that the “now” of the film isn’t entirely clear. At first, it looks like the 60s or maybe the 70s. When the film eventually moves from the house to the city, it becomes clear that it’s much later than that, sometime close to now (2014), but probably not right now (2000-something).

Since the Six-Day War in 1967, the Touma family has been whittled down to three unmarried sisters, used to being respectable and upper class but now running out of money. None of them works, and being aristocratically respectable seems to mean that, as women of a certain age and background, the sisters remain decorously cut off from social life. That’s certainly what it means to the eldest sister, the implacable, imperious Juliette (Nisreen Faour), and what Juliette says, goes. villa-touma-movie-posterAnother of the sisters, Violet (Ula Tabari), was married, but so briefly it doesn’t appear the relationship was even consummated. Given that her arranged marriage was to a much older man (who inconveniently died almost immediately), Violet doesn’t miss her husband so much as she misses the status accorded a married woman. She keeps her wedding dress hung over the only mirror in her bedroom, looking at the dress rather than at herself in the mirror. The dress keeps her from facing the passage of time. But her refusal to acknowledge her reflection is also a denial of herself as a person whose life has changed since her wedding day. That dress is one of the many signs that, for Violet and her sisters, Juliette and Antoinette (Cherin Dabis), time stopped somewhere in the late 60s, when they each lost so much.

The present comes to stay in the form of the sisters’ niece, Badia (Maria Zreik) the daughter of the brother they loved…until he married a Muslim woman, shaming the family. Eighteen-year-old Badia has grown up in an orphanage. When the sisters agree to take her in, she is nervous about living among strangers, especially strangers who have as many unspoken rules as her aunt Juliette does. The list includes a refusal to discuss either of Badia’s parents. Juliette figures they can marry Badia off quickly, after outfitting her with the appropriate training—a little piano, a little French, what folks used to call comportment—and some clothes “reflecting her status.” Juliette is determined to reestablish the family’s good name (and perhaps to bring a fellow with some money into the fold). The predictable clash between an unhappy, mothballed past and a freer but equally perilous present ensues. Watching it take place, though, I was fascinated.

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Some vintage clothes are classically stylish. Some…aren’t.

Thankfully, what doesn’t happen is a series of amusing-yet-poignant episodes in which vibrant youth helps its crotchety and staid elders catch up to the present and re-learn how to enjoy life. Instead, all four women have real, intense personalities. Unlike characters in a mainstream Hollywood film (especially female characters), these women have not been diluted into kinder, gentler characters by the end of the story. They change, yes, but there are no grand epiphanies at Villa Touma. The sisters, or at least Juliette and so Violet and Antoinette by default, remain bound to some traditional ideas about what sort of behavior is acceptable for women, especially unmarried, aristocratic women. And so, the ending the audience wants for these women doesn’t come to pass, at least not all of it. It is sad in a very real way, without being terribly depressing. One does not leave the theater (or couch) feeling like the world is an awful place and human beings a plague upon it. Neither would I call the film “a darkly comic fable” as the NY Times did, but it has many moments of humor.

PageImage-531262-5249353-photo2copy5Rather, Villa Touma is a film that offers its audience the time and visual space not just to appreciate each actress’s performance but to notice those performances in ways we often can’t in “bigger” films—films in which there’s more plot to get through, or expensive effects or locations by which we need to be impressed. The soundtrack in this film is often simply ambient noise—and Villa Touma, as you might expect, is a pretty quiet place. The space of the house is shot in ways that invite you to notice how dated the tasteful decor is, and how the sisters move through the house as if parts of it are somehow off-limits, already wrapped up and packed away. The characters interact with the space in ways that are both graceful and telling, and the women are often arranged in forms that suggest the embrace of a tradition both nurturing and stifling. Some of this blocking is repeated over the course of the film, sometimes with the same shot set-up, sometimes from different perspectives. The ritual of eating meals and taking tea together is perhaps the most important of these; it provides the audience with a subtle calibration of the shifting ground under the Touma women’s feet.

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Suha Arraf and Cherin Dabis, the writer, director, and now actress who plays Antoinette, the youngest of the sisters, were present at the AFI screening in November. One of the topics Arraf discussed is the dispute between herself and various Israeli state agencies over what nationality the film is given when presented at festivals. Arraf insists the film is Palestinian, but the Israeli economy minister, the Israeli Film Fund, and the Israel State Lottery beg to differ. They are demanding that Arraf return what amounts to something over half a million dollars to these various institutions that provided funding for the film. It looks like there hasn’t been a resolution yet, unless it just hasn’t been reported. Villa Touma premiered at the 2014 Venice Film Festival as Palestinian. According to The Hollywood Reporter, at screenings in Toronto and London, the film remained nation-less.

From the admittedly little I know about the situation, it seems petty for the various funding institutions to demand their money back. It’s not like Villa Touma is the next Gone with the Wind; I suspect most of that money is simply gone. And, more to the point, presumably Arraf was given the funding based on some description of the story, if not an actual script. If that is the case, these funders knew the characters were Palestinians, were speaking Arabic, that it would be a “Palestinian story.” What, other than political points, is to be gained by labeling the film Israeli? There’s an interview with Arraf about the film here. And an earlier NY Times story here.

The Hollywood Reporter, by the way, described the film as stodgy and the performances as wooden, noting that festival audiences are more likely to be “generous” in their assessments. I can’t agree with any of those statements—slow and deliberate is not necessarily stodgy, the performances were vibrating with life, and festival audiences are often snootier than the snootiest professional critic. Sometimes you just want to punch the two dudes standing in line in front of you at festival screenings, those guys who are loudly making it clear they really appreciated, on an intellectual level, the most broadly offensive film at the festival. Or who are busy dissing the most controversial film there as bourgeois. (They’re almost always dudes, and they’re always in front of you because they got there first, the longer to stand in a line that advertises how ahead of the curve they are.)

Villa Touma is still on the festival circuit and scheduled to be at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival at the end of this month (January 2015). This is Arraf’s first fiction feature, but her other screenwriting credits, Lemon Tree (2008) and The Syrian Bride (2004), are both available on disc via Netflix, and Lemon Tree is available for rent on Amazon Prime. There are clips of both on Hulu+.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMg-SWePBgw&w=560&h=315]

AFI Fest 2014: November 11

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Day Four: Takashi Miike’s Over Your Dead Body (2014)

I had a ticket to Song of the Sea, the new animated film by Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, 2009) but couldn’t make it. I’m looking forward to seeing it, albeit on a much smaller screen, when it comes out on DVD. I don’t expect it to come to Santa Barbara, but I’d be delighted if it did. Maybe it’ll be in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival lineup in January.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgbXWt8kM5Q&w=560&h=315]

…and now for something completely different.

I love Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins (2010), although I haven’t yet made it through his brutal Ichi Ichi-The-Killer-Poster13-Assassins-Posterthe Killer (2010) and not for lack of trying. (And I haven’t tried Audition [1999], either, though I mean to.) Miike has a great eye, and he constructs breathtakingly beautiful mise-en-scènes. Over Your Dead Body is no exception. It’s a gorgeous film. Of course, the other thing Miike is known for is gore, often sexual in nature. Over Your Dead Body is also no exception in this regard, but the gore was (for me) manageable, and in retrospect, I think the gore really did matter in the context of the story. The film is a sort of cross between revenge-driven horror (a Miike staple, from what I understand) and what some film scholars have called “body horror.” Body horror would include lots of Cronenberg and films like Carrie (1976) that focus on horrors that originate within the human (and most often female) body.

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Ebizô Ichikawa as the cruel Kosuke/Iemon

It’s unfair to focus on the gore, however, even though it may be the first thing one remembers, because the majority of this film is gore-free. The film meanwhile makes use of a number of sub-genres, most noticeably that it’s structured as a play-within-a-play. The main characters are rehearsing for a live performance of Yotsuya kaidan, one of the most famous of the more recent Japanese ghost stories (rather than 18th-century ones that became films like Mizoguchi’s wonderful Ugetsu [1953]). These traditional tales often start with romance and end in some richly-deserved and bloody revenge, not unlike Over Your Dead Body‘s frame story, the affair between the play’s lead actors, Kosuke (Ebizô Ichikawa) and Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki). The actors’ affair mirrors or doubles or is maybe caused by the relationship between their characters Iemon and Oiwa and which the actors play again and again. (In addition to being a play-within-a-play, Yotsuya kaidan is said to be based on actual events, adding another layer to the story.) There is some supernatural influence here (keep your eye on that creepy doll), but Miike never offers an explanation for the events, which I think works just fine. The film creates a trance-like sense of suspended animation, and an “origin story” would undo the effect, diluting it into a dreary One Missed Call (2008) sort of affair.

maxresdefault-1The acting is excellent, particularly Ichikawa as Kosuke/Iemon, but it’s the art direction/staging (by Yuji Hayashida and Eri Sakushima) that blew me away. One of the most interesting things about the film is the way it cheats at being a play. We watch a lot of the performance unfold as though we were an audience at a live play—but an audience with an unnaturally mobile eye, contributing to our growing sense that something here is just…off. The camera weaves around the actors and through the set, avoiding any sense of a static adaptation of a drama. When the camera tracks back to include the rest of the warehouse rehearsal space (see above) with its rows of desks for the director, actors, and technicians, it’s often jarring because we’ve forgotten they’re there. But by the last third of the film, that off-stage space has become part of the play’s stage for us, as well as for Kosuke and Miyuki, apparently trapped in the roles they keep performing.

teaser-overyourdeadbodyHardcore Miike fans may be disappointed if they’re looking for gore, but as a film and as a story, it’s excellent. (Most of the gore is based in the 19th-century story, the result of Oiwa being poisoned.) If you’ve enjoyed other horror films based in Japanese folklore (which is a lot of ’em nowadays), this will be right up your alley. It’s also worth seeing if you’re interested in the interplay between stage and screen, though you may have to avert your gaze when Miyuki/Oiwa goes looking for the fetus she’s convinced she’s conceived with Kosuke/Iemon (and I’m guessing that’s not an episode in the earlier version).

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I do want to hunt down some other adaptations of Yotsuya kaidan, as I love Japanese ghost stories almost as much as I love more well-known fairy tales. But in the meantime, I have my final Fest film to write about, Villa Touma, the only film I saw, I am sorry to say, that was directed by a woman.

Also coming up, my much-delayed entry in the British Empire in Film Blogathon, George More O’Ferrall’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter (1953). And eventually, I’ll get to Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die. Eventually. Villa Touma and Heart of the Matter were not light-hearted romps, so I may well need some frothy-Lubitsch-type palate cleanser before tackling Lang’s Hangmen (which is, in comparison, almost a light-hearted romp).

Thanks for reading!

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AFI Fest 2014: November 10

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So this is the movie I took my Mom to.

Mind you, that wasn’t the original plan. We planned to see Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s new film about the painter J. M. W. Turner. That was before we realized the film was 149 minutes, and we agreed we weren’t ready to commit to almost 3 hours of sitting. The Iranian Fish & Cat was what I had tickets to next, so Mom figured she’d tag along. We whiled away the time before the film with some very nice drinks at the Roosevelt Hotel across the street. I had a Spiced Cucumber Collins (Hendrick’s Gin, lime, shishito pepper, cucumber, and mint) which was quite refreshing. I heartily recommend trying to recreate it at home. Yum.

flyer_largeThere was a healthy line for the film, which the AFI schedule advertised as a “horror comedy art film,” like “a Friday the 13th installment directed by Alain Resnais.” While that is one of the finest descriptions I have ever come across, I suspect that it did the film a disservice by attracting people who were expecting more Friday the 13th and less Alain Resnais.

It’s hard to say much about the film without utterly ruining it. Here goes.

The film has been making the rounds of festivals and doing very well, but there is no sign yet that it will be distributed. It certainly should be. However you want to categorize the film generically, it’s worth seeing for the formal experiment. The 134-minute film is one take, but what’s really interesting is how the director, Shahram Mokri, uses that formal restriction to play around with time. The assistant programmer who introduced the film argued that it has flashbacks. I’m not so sure that’s what they are; regardless, there is something tricky (not gimmicky) and fascinating happening with the element of time. The film mostly follows its characters around, often literally from behind, slowing down and elaborating on the “West Wing” walking and talking method of shifting from one character or group to another. This allows the viewer to “return” to scenes that have already happened, from a different perspective.

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Yes, they are each missing an arm, in case you were wondering.

 

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An earlier set of creepy twins (“The Shining,” 1980).

 

0Aside from its formal value, the film is beautiful and often darkly funny. I was enchanted by Babak, one of a trio of possibly murderous restaurant owners, played by Babak Karimi. If you’re familiar with Iranian film, you may recognize him as an editor and actor. (He was in Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film A Separation.) That’s Karimi in the poster up on the left. He has some wonderful sequences, including the beginning—a riff on American horror films, in which a car full of young adults who have gotten lost on their way to a campsite stop at a run-down restaurant to ask for directions. Babak’s response to the young man’s request for directions is to ask for his ID. Repeatedly. And to ask him whether or not the gate they passed was closed. Repeatedly. The kid is lucky he got his ID back.

I spent the first 40 minutes or so chafing against my expectations (more Friday the 13th), but once I let go of them, I enjoyed the film immensely. So did my Mom. If it does get picked up, I do hope that whatever tiny marketing campaign it gets does it justice.

If you’re interested in finding a screening of the film, check out the film’s official website hereVariety has a brief write-up of the film here.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gft318xTAdg?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I’m still really looking forward to seeing Timothy Spall make this face on a big screen. (And the paintings. Of course. Obviously.)

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AFI Fest 2014: November 9

AFIFEST2014logoMy two Sunday movies at the Fest were Run, written and directed by Philippe Lacôte, and then A Hard Day, written and directed by Kim Seong-hun, both from this year.

I was excited to see Run not only because it sounded great, but because it’s a movie from Côte d’Ivoire and there just aren’t very many of those yet. One of the things I love about films is the opportunity to see places that I’ll never go from the perspective of someone who lives there. Run was filmed in Côte d’Ivoire and neighboring Burkina Faso, and it is beautiful country. The film was beautiful—the colors and the shot constructions. The director was at the screening and took some questions afterwards. He explained the film is meant to operate on three levels of reality: personal, social, and mystical, and that each of the three “acts” of the film represents part of the country’s history.

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The film stars Abdoul Karim Konaté as Run, whose coming of age story in some ways mirrors his country’s history. The film is largely a series of flashbacks after Run murders the Ivorian Prime Minister (formerly a paid thug) at the beginning. As a child, Run wants to become a rainmaker. The local rainmaker takes him as an apprentice, and this section of the film offers some of its most breathtaking landscapes. When that doesn’t work out, he goes to work for Gladys the Greedy, a beautiful and enormous professional eater, played by Reine Sali Coulibaly in a funny and touching performance. (Lacôte explained that Gladys, who was originally going to be played by Gabourey Sidibe, is based on a real [male] professional eater who came from Mali.) In the third section of the film, one of my absolute favorite contemporary actors, the incomparable Isaach de Bankolé (a regular in Jim Jarmusch’s films), plays the last of Run’s mentors, Assa. De Bankolé was born in Abidjan, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire, and where much of the film’s action takes place.

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Gladys (Reine Sali Coulibaly) and a young Run (Abdoul Bah)

With any luck, the film will get picked up at the festival and lots more folks will be able to see it. Here’s a clip:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SDrpfbnKUk?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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A Hard Day was my second film—another midnight screening. The director was also in attendance at this one. Unfortunately, given that the screening ended just before 2am, no one had the stamina for a Q & A. The audience loved the movie, and it’s definitely the most fun I’ve had so far. I’m a big fan of South Korean crime thrillers, starting with The President’s Last Bang in 2005, which I saw at the always-excellent Wisconsin Film Festival. A Hard Day is a really good film. The first twenty minutes or so are especially impressive and the rest of the film does justice to its great opening. This is going to sound like I’m ruining the plot for you, but what I’m about to describe is really only the beginning of what is a very long bad day for the main character, so trust me and read on.

A corrupt cop (Lee Sun Gyun) has left his siblings to finish preparations for their mother’s funeral in order to drive back to his precinct to hide some incriminating evidence from the Internal Affairs officers who are about to show up. His sister calls and gives him a (justifiably) hard time about how soon he’ll be back. He also gets a call from his young daughter, Mina, to remind him to bring her a chocolate cake. And his fellow corrupt cops back at the precinct are calling about the evidence that will incriminate all of them and is not being hidden. Unfortunately, our hero, Detective Ko, is the only one with a key to the drawer containing said evidence, so all the other cops can do is stare despondently at the drawer. In the middle of all this, his car slams into something, cracking the windshield and denting the front end. It turns out that Detective Ko’s day has gone from bad to much, much worse. He has accidentally killed a man. When Ko sees a police car heading towards him, he hides the body…by putting it in his trunk.

Shortly thereafter, Ko is back at the morgue with his family and an extra corpse. His colleagues show up to discuss the impending catastrophe and alert Ko that the Internal Affairs guys are on their way to him, now, at the morgue. In a panic, Ko makes another really bad decision—to hide the corpse in the only place no one will look: his mother’s coffin. He is wracked with guilt—and in a particularly hilarious moment, he promises his mother’s corpse that he will make it up to her. What ensues is a genius combination of genuine suspense and something close to slapstick, involving yellow balloons, a noisy toy soldier, and the cross from his mother’s coffin.

2014+-+A+Hard+Day+(still+2)Like a number of fine South Korean crime thrillers, A Hard Day masterfully blends the thrills of a crime story with some very dark humor (my favorite kind). But the drama wouldn’t work if we didn’t actually care about Ko—and we absolutely sympathize with him. We want him to escape the Internal Affairs cops, get the dead guy out of his mother’s coffin, and make it home to his daughter with her chocolate cake.

For whatever combination of reasons, American action films don’t seem interested in offering their audiences real characters anymore, and so the movies are hollow and unsatisfying, however good they may look. The last action heroes (sorry) I can remember caring about from an American movie are Nic Cage and Sean Connery in The Rock, which was almost 20 years ago now. (Oy vey, I’m old.) Hollywood, take a lesson—this is how you make a real action movie.

 

Coming up next: The weirdest Iranian film you’ll probably never get to see.

 

Trailer for A Hard Day

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33xuvdscFqQ?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

AFI Fest 2014: November 8, 2014

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I’m not sure why every screening at the AFI’s annual Fest isn’t packed, regardless of the day or time. It’s FREE. F.R.E.E. I have a ticket to see Sophia freakin’ Loren honored at a screening of Marriage Italian Style (1964, Vittorio de Sica). Technically, it’s a voucher, and I have to pick up a ticket and start standing in line early enough, but whatever. It is free. AND THERE ARE STILL VOUCHERS AVAILABLE. What is wrong with people? You can take a drink into the shows at the Chinese cineplex (which is most of the screenings), and the Fest is a great for spotting celebrities. What’s not to love?

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My first film this year was Quentin Dupieux’s new film Réalité. Dupieux is indie-famous for his film Rubber (2010), about a murderous rubber car tire, which, admit it, is the greatest premise you’ve heard in a long time. AFI are fans of Dupieux, and his film Wrong played at the Fest in 2012. Réalité is cut from the same cloth as those films–it’s got the same unsettling combination of real humor and surrealism. “Real humor” because often films that are surreal fail embarrassingly at incorporating humor. David Lynch is the master of brilliantly combining humor and surrealism. Needless to say, most people aren’t David Lynch. (And YAY for new “Twin Peaks” episodes in 2016!!)

There is a fantastic bit at the beginning of Réatlié that felt like a Jacques Tati gag. An aspiring director, Jason (Alain Chabat), is pitching his film to a producer, Bob (Jonathan Lambert). Bob asks Jason to describe his film, but before Jason can get a word out, Bob insists that he have a cigar. Jason doesn’t want a cigar. Bob offers him a cigarillo. No, thank you. Not to worry—for non-smokers, Bob has regular cigarettes. (It’s like Dean Martin as an alcoholic on the wagon in Rio Bravo just sticking to beer.) Bob insists that Jason have a cigarette. Not wanting to offend the producer, Jason relents. Within four seconds, the producer has snatched the cigarette out of Jason’s mouth, complaining that Jason is such a poor smoker, it’s no fun to watch him. Pointing out that the air is stale, Bob then suggests they go out on the balcony for Jason to pitch his idea. Every time Jason is about to start pitching his film, Bob interrupts. It is both very French (both actors are French) and very funny.

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“I’m your pusher man.”

The movie involves several intertwined plots that may actually all be the same plot. Characters wake up from dreams that involve other characters that had appeared to be part of a sub-plot. Eventually Jason begins encountering another version of himself as he goes about trying to fulfill the producer’s one condition for signing a contract. Jason’s film is about murderous television sets (sound familiar?) that make people stupid the more television they watch. (“So it’s sic-fi,” says Bob.) Soon, the homicidal televisions start killing people with “waves.” People are in agonizing pain, they bleed from every conceivable orifice, and then they die. Everybody on the planet. The End. Bob’s only condition for producing this masterpiece is that Jason find the perfect groan of agony for these stupid human victims. “I want an Oscar for that groan, Jason!” he says with not a trace of irony. (Jason later has a dream of receiving an award for the best groan, but he can’t go up to get it because he’s stuck to his seat.) In an attempt to help Jason relax so that he can find the perfect groan, he and his unsympathetic psychoanalyst wife go to see a movie. Playing at the theater is a movie called Waves, and of course, it is his movie. He stands up in front of the screen and tries to convince the audience that they need to stop watching the film because it doesn’t exist yet. And that the groans will be better when he’s finished. His wife is mortified. I didn’t think of it at the time, but it all sounds very Woody Allen.

Is Réalité a good film? Absolutely, and I enjoyed it. But it’s a style of film—I don’t think it’s quite a genre—that I don’t love. Maybe the color and the violence of a Lynch film make the Möbius-strip-like quality of the narratives more palatable. Maybe I got impatient because it was a film about making films and involved too much navel-gazing. I liked a lot of things about the film, including John Glover (“Smallville”), of all people, who plays an ex-documentary filmmaker named Zog working on a new film for Bob (starring a girl named Reality). There was something kind about his character, his insistence that Bob be patient while watching the rushes. So much of the film’s humor depends on cruelty towards the characters, I wish there had been a little more of him.

 

FaithbookI hung around for the midnight movie, Alléluia, a thriller directed by Fabrice Du Welz, starring Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas (an Almodóvar regular), and shot in 16mm. It’s based on the same story, the Martha Beck-Ray Fernandez murders, as the pulpy The Honeymoon Killers (1969). Alléluia was riveting in a demanding sort of way—so much so that the film sometimes felt like mostly a tight close-up on Dueñas’s Gloria, sometimes just her eyes. (Though there was of course less of that than it seemed like there was.) That demanding intimacy was perfectly apt—Gloria is willing to overlook a lot in a fella, including being seduced, conned, and abandoned, but when Michel (Lucas) sleeps with other women in order to con them, while Gloria lurks about posing as his sister, she loses whatever is left of her mind. Almost immediately after meeting Michel, she drops her daughter with a neighbor, and she and Michel set about fleecing lonely women. But Gloria can’t stomach the part of the con that involves Michel’s infidelity. She is crazily possessive from the moment he seduces her. The morning after, he cons her out of some cash. In a brilliant moment, once she is out of his line of sight, she runs breathlessly up and down stairs to get for him, then stops before he can see or hear her to catch her breath. Handing him the money, she smiles, saying, “If you don’t help the people you love, you don’t really love them.” This is exactly the response that Michel’s manipulation is intended to elicit, but when he doesn’t call, she tracks him down. Michel confesses who he really is (not a shoe salesman, as it turns out) and she seems to accept him as he is. It is their mutual acceptance that seems to doom them (and, of course, the women Gloria will later slaughter).

ALLELUIA-AFF 120x160.inddMichel is a Humphrey Bogart fan. He has film posters; he takes Gloria to see The African Queen (1951)a film about another pair of misfit lovers. I’m hoping the über-creepy scene of Michel and Gloria laughing at the film, intercut with Katharine Hepburn and Bogart laughing at Bogart’s hippopotamus imitation hasn’t ruined The African Queen for me. Michel also reads crime fiction—Simenon’s Maigret stories. We know serious trouble is brewing when Michel and Gloria set their sights on a beautiful widow who also reads Simenon, and has a daughter almost the same age as Gloria’s. The assistant programmer who introduced the film pointed out that Lucas is reminiscent of Klaus Kinski—”but handsomer,” she was quick to add. There is definitely something around the mouth that is Kinski-ish, and that sort of shiftiness that Kinski had (you never knew when he would just go off) makes Michel seem simultaneously insincere and vulnerable.

Both the leads are tremendous. Gloria at first elicits our sympathy; she seems naive…and then absolutely terrifying. Michel is at first appalling and then sympathetic (though not redeemed, not by a long shot). He has a wonderful speech on his first date with Gloria about being able to tell what sort of person one is based on their choice of footwear. He’s got Gloria’s style pegged, and we don’t know if he’s been stalking her or if he really does understand her in some way. It’s an impressive narrative/directorial feat, making those two sociopaths sympathetic, and making their relationship so compelling, while still maintaining a moral center, not allowing us to excuse any of the pair’s crimes simply because they’ve found each other. I’m interested in seeing Du Welz’s first movie; Calvaire (2004) is a horror film, and given Alléluia, I’m looking forward to being horrified.

 

All in all, not a bad first day. Up next: Philippe Lacôte’s feature debut, Run, and another midnight screening, this time A Hard Day, a crime thriller directed by Kim Seong-hun.