After a lovely day at the beach, Monday night found us exploring cooler climes first in Sweden, then in the Netherlands. MIFF is truly international, and Monday night was certainly the strongest night of the week.
Swedish director Roy Andersson follows-up his delightfully surreal SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR with an exploration of humankind in all its subdued glory. YOU, THE LIVING, subtitled, a film about the grandeur of existing, is constructed as a series of vignettes, many hilarious in their deadpan absurdity. In an opening sequence, a woman repeatedly shouts at her lover and her dog, telling them to leave her. When they finally, reluctantly leave, she breaks into song. It's surprising and delightfully funny. Members of a marching band show up repeatedly, particularly a tuba player who annoys both his wife and his neighbors when he practices at home. A young woman meets a rock star she admires and later dreams of their wedding night with him. Another man dreams of facing the electric chair after attempting (and failing) to perform the old pulling a tablecloth out from under place settings at a dinner party.
YOU, THE LIVING took three years to shoot, because nearly all of the sets, including the outdoor scenes, were constructed for the film. There's an amazing sequence when the young girl and her rock star, dream husband are in their new apartment which slowly begins to move like a train across the city. Andersson's washed out palette of grays, browns, light blues and whites are enhanced by the whitened faces of the actors. Andersson's films are experiences that might not be for everyone, but they are unique and delightful for me. 4 cats.
BLIND is your basic, tragically doomed romance, yet it's one that writer/director Tamar van den Doop handles with such beauty and originality that it becomes elevated to something much more. Ruben Rietlander is a young man perhaps barely out of his teens, who lost his eyesight during childhood. His elderly mother Catherine cannot properly care for him on her own, and the women she hires to read to him are driven away by his violent tantrums. Enter Marie a scarred, albino woman in her 30s who is shunned by the villagers. For some reason, perhaps out of desperation, Catherine hires Marie to read to her son. Perhaps because she is an outcast herself, Marie will not put up with Ruben's outbursts and she physically manhandles him rather than flees shrieking as is the norm with the hired help. Gradually, the two fall in love, but in Ruben's mind, Marie is a beautiful young woman with fiery red hair and blue eyes. As is the case in tragic romances, Ruben's doctor discovers a way to restores Ruben's eyesight. Marie knows if this happens, their love is doomed, so she leaves and manages to stay hidden from the heart-broken Ruben... until the inevitable happens.
BLIND is gorgeously shot. Tamar van der Doop has a terrific eye, and the incorporation of Ruben's visual fantasies of how things might appear are surreal and gorgeous. Halina Reijin is particularly strong as Marie, keeping her rage tightly coiled inside, and watching her slowly unclench as she slowly lets her guard down around Ruben is a real treat. The period costumes, and lush settings add to the visual feast. 4.5 cats.
If there was a theme to Sunday night's films, it would have to be carrying our dead or our absent loved ones. In POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD, two children living in Caracas, Venezuela, must invent stories about their absent parents who are revolutionaries in a political struggle. In Zhang Yang's GETTING HOME, a man literally carries the body of his dead friend back home to his family.
In her introduction, director Mariana Rondón thanked the countries of Venezuela and Peru for funding her film, then commented on how POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD was a singularly Venezuelan story. In 1960's Caracas, revolutionaries struggle against a political regime. Two children tell stories of growing up with revolutionary parents through a lens of romance and innocence. Rondón wonderfully combines dramatic and comedic narrative storytelling; faux docementary; and comic book style hand-drawn animation over live action to tell this darkly funny, yet serious story of a very volatile time and culture.
At first POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD was confusing; Rondón jumps around in time without warning, and the two children narrate their stories as if they were comic book characters. There is none of the political nuance to explain the whys of the conflict. Gradually however, the story becomes clear, peppered with fabulous sequences of the various characters lives. Family scenes around the Venzuelan New Year are lively and telling; especially when Teo, one of narrators' parents, returns home and is subsequently captured by the government and imprisoned. A sequence 2/3 of the way through the film, depicting a group of female, revolutionary, college students committing an act or defiance is perfectly executed in groovy, 60s style, bringing together split screens, animation, music and narration sublimely. Rondón is a talented filmmaker whose work deserves broader exposure. I have no idea what kind of distribution POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD will receive, but I can only hope it makes it to Boston. 4/5 cats
Straddling the sublime and the ridiculous, young, Chinese director Zhang Yang explores the bonds of friendship in GETTING HOME. Benshan Zhao (HAPPY TIMES) plays Zhao, an aging factory worker whose co-worker and drinking buddy dies unexpectedly far from home. Zhao is determined to fulfill a promise he made to his friend, to return him to his village for burial. Operating with limited funds, and carefully trying to pass his deceased companion off as drunk or comatose, Zhao begins a series of cracked adventures is his attempt to complete his task, and along the way, he learns the true meaning of friendship and finds a path for his life.
Zhang, director the popular Chinese films SHOWER and QUITTING, starts things off on a silly note, and throughout the film there is an understandably absurd quality to the proceedings. Gradually Zhang starts to introduce more serious themes, yet in a way that fits in with the established tone of the film and never seems overly heavy-handed. Sure there's a little schmaltz, but it's not overdone like in a Hollywood film. While he doesn't take the experimental risks that he did in QUITTING, GETTING HOME is an entertaining and lovely film. 3.5 cats
Saturday night featured one of the most unusual films of the festival, and one of the best - and not necessarily the ones I would have expected. It also found us walking the pedestrian mall at Lincoln Road, an experience that makes navigating the mobs in Times Square seem rather tame. Yikes!
ESTÔMAGO - A GASTRONOMIC STORY (Brazil/Italy; 112 min.)
director: Marcos Jorge
This lively black comedy examines the nature of power as it relates to food. Raimundo Nonato comes to the big city from the "jungles" of Brazil - no money, no place to stay - and wanders into a cafe where he orders the fried chicken snack and gets in trouble with the owner when he can't pay. The two work out a deal where Nonato will wash dishes in exchange for board. Diner owner Zulmiro soon discovers that Nonato has a talent for cooking and teaches him how to prepare some of the diner's staples. Within days, the place is packed, and Nonato's food is universally praised. Soon he is scooped up by the local restauranteur, Giovanni, who further instructs Nonato on the finer arts of cooking, including wines, and shopping at the market for a restaurant. As Nonato's fortunes rise, so does his relationship with Íria, a local prostitute with a jones for good food.
Director Jorge intercuts Nonato's story with scenes from the present day where he is embroiled in a power struggle in prison. He enters his cell of a dozen or so prisoners at the bottom of the ladder, but as his culinary skills provide gourmet meals for his cellmates, he slowly finds himself off the floor and into the bottom bunk, then rising higher and higher until he is directly below the cell's leader.
Jorge deftly deftly juggles the two stories, Nonato's rise to power in prison, and the reason he's in prison in the first place. The acting is appealing, especially João Miguel as Nonato, and Fabiula Nascimento as Íria. The black comedy is skillfully handled, and the build-up to Nonato's initial downfall well paced. I hope this film gets a release Stateside, and if it does, it comes highly recommended. 4 cats.
DISENGAGEMENT (Israel/France/Germany/Italy; 117 min.)
director: Amos Gitai
Israeli director Amos Gitai has clearly put together an accomplished work in DISENGAGEMENT, but it's one that requires a little more knowledge of political situation there than I possess to fully appreciate it. After a terrific, yet nebulous opening sequence with Uli (Liron Levo), an off-duty, Israeli police officer and an unnamed Palestinain woman (the marvelous Hiam Abbass) sharing a cigarette, some conversation, then a kiss while on a train, the action jumps (back?) to Paris, where a French woman of Israeli background (Juliette Binoche) stands a bedside vigil as her father dies. Her adopted half-brother Uli arrives, and after some slightly offbeat conversation and particularly bizarre flirtation, the two join their late father's lawyer (Jeanne Moreau) for the reading of the will. There Binoche's character discovers that a daughter she had given up at birth, was living in a camp in the Gaza strip, and that her father had visited her several times. As a police officer, Uli was returning to Israel to move the settlers in Gaza out, and his sister decides to return with him to find her daughter.
With some outstanding visuals and some powerful scenes, Gitai illustrates the difficult task of the Israeli police having to forcibly move Israeli citizens off the Gaza strip. He also shows how ill-prepared the police are, and how easily such a sensitive task can be bungled. Binoche's character is a bit of a cypher, acting a little mentally touched at first, then finding her ground when on the hunt for her daughter. It was nice to see Dana Ivgy (OR, MY TREASURE) playing Binoche's daughter. A strong film, but a little too obtuse for me. 3 cats.
Scot and I took in our first night of Miami International Film Festival (MIFF) offerings on Friday. Each of the ten films we are seeing comes from a different country, and appropriately enough, our first film was from Canada. Sadly, it's been the biggest disappointment so far.
AMAL, directed by Richie Mehta, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, and recently won the Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. The film is based in India and follows the story of autorickshaw driver Amal who defies convention and is actually honest and hard-working. One of his fares is an exceedingly difficult, apparently homeless man who belittles him harshly. In fact, this man is a wealthy hotel owner who is dying. When his encounter with Amal shows him that some of the wealthiest men are the poorest, he rewrites his will cutting his greedy, conscienceless sons out and instructing his lawyer to find Amal our of the thousands of autorickshaw drivers in the city. If you're thinking it sounds like a parable, complete with cardboard characters and heavy-handed lessons, you'd be right. An ironic twist ending does a little to raise the film above bad to simply mediocre. Mehta adapted AMAL from a short story written by his brother Shaun. 1.5 cats
Moving to the U.S. our second film was a big improvement. Ira Sachs (FORTY SHADES OF BLUE) leaves his tested theme of outsiders living in the modern-day South and enters 1950s, northwestern suburbia to look at the domestic difficulties of marriage in MARRIED LIFE. The talented acting pair of Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson play Harry and Pat Allen, a married couple who like, if not love each other. In an amusing reversal, Pat equates love with good sex, and Harry is seeking a deep, romantic love. He thinks he's found it too, in the form of young, beautiful widow Kay (Rachel McAdams) as he confesses to his longtime friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan). Unable to confess to Pat, Harry steers the plot into Hitchcock territory by deciding he must kill his wife to spare her heartbreak and pain. Meanwhile, the plot gets even messier when first Richard begins to pursue Kay, then Pat reveals a secret of her own.
While this all sounds like a melodramatic, period thriller, Sachs manages to keep things lively by casting his film as a comedy. It is in the comedic elements that Brosnan is allowed to shine, conveying a surprising physical comedy. The cast is attractive and talented, and the production design lovely, and while there may be a plot contrivance or two, this lively film manages to entertain for the duration. 3.5 cats.
This is the first year Tony Brighton has submitted his Top 10 films of the year. Let's take a look!
Thom Bowser, one of our west coast members out in San Francisco, sends an intriguing Top 10 led by an as yet unreleased Takashi Miike film.
Tom recently relocated to Japan, but he's still watching movies! Here he submits his rather lengthy (I should talk) Top 10, broken down into various categories so that it resembles its own mini-awards ceremony.
Tom says, "Well, it looks like I did have to update my 2007 list after seeing some
stuff here that I didn't have time to see before leaving the states."
Best Not to make it to a U.S. screen
Rebuild of Evangelion:01 : You Are (Not) Alone
Best of the Rest
No Country for Old Men
Linda Linda Linda (making this list for the third year)
The Rest of the Best
28 Weeks Later
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Best Movie No One Saw
The Golden Door
Biggest Disappointment - 3way tie
The Simpsons Movie
The Golden Compass
Movie that should have made the big screen instead of The Simpsons Movie
Bender's Big Score
Please stop using celebrity voices in movies (or the Shut Up Sean Penn Award)
Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz
Best of the Fests
I'm A Cyborg but that's OK
Super Theater Edition Keroro Gunso 2
Best Sig from a Movie
"It's like looking in a smelly mirror"
Philip, one of our newest members, sends his Top 10 in despite the fact that he doesn't have the opportunity to see many films at the theatre!
Philip says, "Thanks Michael for the invite to post this and thanks to Bruce for nudging me to join my favorite film society. I've been lurking for a few years reading everyone's reviews not realizing I could join so easily.
"My list comes with a disclaimer. I'm finishing up a Master's program in Syracuse, NY and so between my time constraints, lack of money and having only one theater in town that shows good films, my list is mainly pieced together from Netflix rentals. I drove an hour to see The Bubble, every other film on the list I watched at home. There are many films I want to see from this past year so this is not a complete list, but 2007 is long gone and I have to let go of that."
Philip Bahr's Grad School Top 10 Best Films of 2007:
Here's a Top 10 submission from our own Marilyn at the Movies...
Marilyn says, "Here is my top ten in no particular order taking into account there are still critically acclaimed films I have not seen. I reviewed the list of eligible films to help me and note that movies like PAN and JIMA are on the list and so I have listed them even though some may feel they belong to last year."
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
There Will Be Blood
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Letters From Iwo Jima
The Lives of Others
No Country for Old Men
In the Valley of Elah