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A Microcosm of Life in Iran?
I saw this film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Filmed during an actual qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup, Offside works brilliantly as both a comedy and a tragedy. The film follows the fortunes of a group of young women who are caught trying to sneak into a football match at Tehran's Azadi Stadium. The country's Islamic religious leaders have decreed that women may not sit with men at sporting events, lest they be exposed to cursing and other morally questionable behaviour. This hasn't stopped the country's young female fans, who continue to sneak in using various tricks. But Panahi focuses on a small group who have been caught and are being detained agonizingly close to the action. They beg the bored soldiers guarding them to let them go or at least to let them watch the match. The soldiers tell them they shouldn't have tried to get in, that they could have watched the game at home on TV. They banter back and forth in almost real-time as the game continues, just off- camera.
There is one very funny sequence where a young soldier accompanies one of the girls to the restroom. Since there are no female restrooms at stadiums, he has to clear the room of any men before he can allow her to go in. Plus, he makes her cover her face so no one can see she's a woman. This is accomplished using a poster of Iranian soccer star Ali Daei as a mask, with eye holes punched out.
You get a real sense that even the soldiers are baffled by the prohibition, and are only carrying out their orders so as to hasten the end of their compulsory military service. One soldier complains that he was supposed to be on leave so he could take care of his family's cattle in the countryside. Little by little, the girls and the soldiers talk to each other, and there are numerous small acts of kindness on both sides to show that these are basically good people living in terrible circumstances. However, the soldiers' constant reminder that "the chief" is on his way lends a sense of menace, since we don't know what sort of punishment the women will face.
Unlike most Iranian films, which are known for their strong visuals, Offside is filmed in a realist style with no artifice. In fact, the film was made during the actual qualifying match against Bahrain that took place on June 5, 2005. The "plot" in many ways was determined by the result on the pitch. If Iran won the match, they would qualify. If they lost, they would not. Since the World Cup has come and gone, I don't think it is a spoiler to say that Iran won the match. The scenes of celebration at the end of the film were real and spontaneous, which gave the film a real authenticity. Seeing how much this meant to the people of Iran was deeply touching.
As well, one of the young women makes reference at the end of the film to seven fans who died during the Iran-Japan match on March 25, just a few weeks before. They were trampled to death after police began to spray the crowd with water to move them in a certain direction. Knowing that this was a real-life tragedy added another level of poignancy to the celebrations.
I don't want to go off on a long political tangent, but this film gave me real hope that there are those in Iran who are hoping for change and working at it. Iran is a nation of young people, and it is only a matter of time before they take the place of their elders in the political sphere. Films like this one show the proud spirit of the Iranian people in spite of their present difficulties, and it's my sincere hope that there is a brighter future for them.
El telón de azúcar (2005)
Nostalgic and unsatisfying home movie
I saw this film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Strangely and almost unintentionally apolitical, this film is a personal remembrance of growing up in the 70s and 80s in Cuba. The director seems to have shot all of the footage herself, making it more like a home movie. And it's incredibly nostalgic, with lots of comparisons of old photos with the present. But the film's thesis, if I can use a word that strong, is impossible to prove in this context, even if it's correct. The director seems to be saying that life in Cuba in her childhood was good, that Castro's revolution was achieving positive results and that the end of the Cold War was disastrous for Cuba. But this is pretty self-evident. We see a lot of run-down or abandoned buildings that were in good repair thirty years ago. We hear interviews with her classmates who agree that things aren't as good anymore. I don't want to sound facetious, but I could probably make a pretty similar film about my own childhood.
When she talks to students at her old high school, about the only privation she can uncover is that they no longer get snacks. In the director's childhood, they got chocolate biscuits and fizzy drinks. But in a society where the government provided so much (and still does, compared with the rest of the world), these examples seem a bit forced. I'm sure life in Cuba is difficult for many, but from the evidence of the film, it still seems to be doing pretty well. For a society that has withstood a trade embargo from the world's richest nation for more than fifty years, and whose biggest benefactor cut it off more than fifteen years ago, it's doing remarkably well. Its children are literate and fed, and it seems to have avoided the extremes of poverty seen in many parts of the Caribbean and Latin America.
Unfortunately, I think the director's complaints are fairly universal. The idealism we feel in our youth turns into disillusionment as we age. The forces of globalization and capitalism are affecting Cuba, even as Castro tries to hold them at bay. The fact that the director and many of her classmates left Cuba in the 1990s (during the "Special Period" that followed the end of the Cold War, a time of tremendous economic hardship for Cubans) also clouds the picture. How does her memory of Cuba as a socialist paradise differ from the memories of the anti- Castro crowd in Miami, who remember pre-revolutionary Cuba as a different kind of paradise? Both are unreliable and nostalgic.
While the film was enjoyable as a window into one person's experience, and it was great to see the modern footage of life on the island, overall I found it unsatisfying.
Laitakaupungin valot (2006)
Kaurismäki's sympathies lie with the common people
I saw this film at the Toronto International Film Festival. This is the third film in Kaurismäki's "Helsinki Trilogy" (the others are Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002)) While I haven't seen the first, this film shares many thematic and formal elements with the second film, and I enjoyed it just as much.
Koistinen is a lonely security guard who is ignored by his co-workers; that is, when he's not being teased by them. His life is soon turned upside down by a femme fatale, with heartbreaking results. Despite the grim-sounding plot, the film is full of the director's trademark deadpan humour. And I'm in awe of how he can make the film just radiate love despite the mannered acting and awkward staging. Perhaps it has to do with the warmth of the lighting and the colour palette, as well as the use of nostalgic music and art direction. Whatever it is, from the first frame, you know the director loves this sad sack and wants us to love him too.
The films of the Helsinki Trilogy all deal with people on the margins, and it's clear that Kaurismäki's sympathies lie with the common people and not with those whose success or power has dehumanized them. He is a true humanist, and his "heroes" all bear their sufferings stoically; in fact, they quite literally personify a "never-say-die" attitude, and that makes them admirable. Their hangdog expressions may make us pity them, but it's their core of inner strength that makes us love them.
Fong juk (2006)
As finely tuned as a Swiss watch
I saw this film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Among lovers of Hong Kong cinema, Johnnie To is legendary. He had three films showing in this year's festival (Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006) screened together, as well as this film) and this was my first experience seeing one of his films. I'll be seeking out some others. Exiled is an incredibly well- constructed film. It's like a Swiss watch, with every scene precisely set up and choreographed and nothing wasted. To has created a self-contained world and set his characters loose in it. Set just around the time of Macau's reversion to the Chinese government, it concerns a group of hit men who come together when their boss orders a hit on one of them. Two pairs of men arrive at the target's new home. The first to warn him, the second to kill him. After a kinetic set piece involving three shooters, precisely 18 bullets, and the target's wife and infant son, the group ends up helping still-alive Wo move furniture into his new place, before settling down to eat.
The mixture of action, comedy, and sentiment is probably a staple of Hong Kong gangster films, but I found it fresh. The plot continues when the assassins agree to give Wo some time to carry out one last job to make some cash for his soon to be widowed wife and orphaned child. Things don't go as planned, however, and the film bumps along from set piece to set piece until an inevitable but satisfying end. Each choreographed set piece is set up in such a way as to heighten the anticipation, and you almost don't mind that none of these trained killers seems to be a very good shot. It's enough that they're all ludicrously macho, swilling scotch from the bottle and smoking as they fire bullets at each other.
Seeing this one on the big screen is a must, just for the sound. The musical score, by Canadian Guy Zerafa, veered between James Bond and spaghetti westerns, with a bit of mournful harmonica thrown in. It worked perfectly, as did the fact that the viewer can hear every single shell casing hit the ground throughout the film. Even the gunshots themselves seemed different from those in American films, with less blast and more metallic sounds. It certainly helped create atmosphere. While this and the choreographed gunplay never let you forget you're watching a created thing rather than any semblance of reality, that actually made me more appreciative of the creator. He's certainly created another Johnnie To fan.
Made me think a little more deeply about the films
I saw this film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Not as salacious as it sounds, this is a three-part documentary (each episode is 50 minutes) featuring Slovenian superstar philosopher/psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek. Zizek takes us on a journey through many classic films, exploring themes of sexuality, fantasy, morality and mortality. It was directed by Sophie Fiennes, of the multi-talented Fiennes clan (she's sister to actors Ralph and Joseph).
I enjoyed this quite a bit, although I think it will be even more enjoyable on DVD, since there is such a stew of ideas to be digested. Freudian and Lacanian analysis can be pretty heavy going and seeing the whole series all at once became a bit disorienting by the end of two and a half hours. It didn't help that an ill-advised coffee and possession of a bladder led me to some discomfort for the last hour or so.
My only real issue with this is that Zizek picked films that were quite obviously filled with Freudian themes. He spends quite a bit of time on the films of Hitchcock and David Lynch, not exactly masters of subtlety. I would have liked to see him try to support his theories by using a wider range of films, although that's really just me saying I'd like to see part four and five and six.
Zizek is very funny, and part of the humour was watching him present what amounted to a lecture while inserting himself into the actual scenes from some of the films he's discussing. So, for instance, we see him in a motorboat on his way to Bodega Bay (from Hitchcock's The Birds) or sitting in the basement of the Bates Motel (from Psycho). Which is not to say that his theories are not provocative. Even when I found myself disagreeing with him, it definitely made me think a little more deeply about the films. Which is exactly what he's trying to accomplish.
A Monster Movie, after all...
I saw this film at the Toronto International Film Festival. A huge box office hit in Korea, The Host is a good old-fashioned monster movie, and a lot more. The director introduced the screening by saying that the film isn't really a monster movie at all, but an emotional Korean family drama, and he's right, mostly.
The family in question is a strange one. There are no mothers and no spouses, just a grandfather, his three unmarried children, and the daughter of his eldest son, whose mother abandoned her shortly after she was born. The grandfather and eldest son run a food stand next to the Han River, and one day, a gigantic lizard-like monster emerges from the water and attacks the people picnicking along the riverbanks. In the process, 13-year-old Hyun-seo is carried off before the horrified eyes of her father Kang-du. The family grieves together in the hospital to where they've all been quarantined until Kang-du receives a staticky cellphone call from his daughter, who is alive and begging him to come and rescue her from the monster's lair, somewhere in the sewer system.
The reason for the quarantine is that the government believes the monster is carrying some sort of virus and are trying to limit exposure to the rest of the city. The problem is that they've called back all the troops that they'd first sent to capture the monster, and now it falls to this dysfunctional family to find their child. After breaking out of the hospital, the whole group embarks on a search and rescue mission armed only with a couple of rifles and sister Nam-ju's bow (she's a bronze medal-winning archer). They're all ineffectual in unique ways. While Nam-ju (Bae Doo-Na, so great in last year's Linda Linda Linda) is an excellent archer, she's slow to take aim, which cost her the gold medal. Brother Nam-il is a university graduate who can't find work, so he's turned to booze. And Kang-du is just generally lazy and a bit dim-witted.
There is quite a bit of humour in the way the family members interact, as well as a fair bit of social and political satire at the expense of both the Korean and U.S. governments (the Americans are blamed for dumping toxic waste that created the monster in the first place). This was amusing, though pretty heavy-handed.
The cinematography made use of lots of rain and cloudy skies to convey the claustrophobic feeling of the sewers even when we weren't actually there. In fact, the only sunny skies in the film occur just before the monster's first appearance.
While I did find the film enjoyable, I felt it ran a bit long, and stretched credibility a few times too many. It's a monster movie, after all, so maybe I shouldn't have had such high expectations. The effects are well-done and it was certainly fun to watch, but it's not an art film by any stretch of the imagination. The theme seemed to be that even dysfunctional families are still families, and that we need to take care of each other and not expect our governments to protect or rescue us.
The main character is too enigmatic
I saw this film at the Toronto International Film Festival. This was an earnest but uneven film about life in Romania during the final months of Ceausescu's rule in 1989. Teenaged Eva and her young brother Lalalilu live with their parents and suffer the hardships of living under a hated dictator. Since their neighbour is a cop, they have to be careful what they say, and Eva's parents encourage her budding romance with the policeman's son Alex because of what the family connection could do for them. Instead, her rebellious attitude gets her expelled from her school and sent to a technical school for troubled students. There she connects with another neighbour, Andrei, whose family have already been punished for protesting against the regime. Together they make plans to escape Romania by swimming across the Danube, but when the crucial moment comes, Eva turns back.
Meanwhile, Lilu is plotting with his friends how to kill the dictator. Young Timotei Duma is very reminiscent of Salvatore Cascio, who played young Salvatore (Toto) in Cinema Paradiso. Which means he was extremely cute, and some of his scenes were the best in the film. There are two whimsical scenes where we seem to enter his childlike world: one is set in a submarine taxi where all the villagers can be taken to whatever city in Europe they wish to visit, and the other visualizes the boy blowing a huge chewing gum bubble that becomes so large that it floats away. Clearly, the theme of escape is on everyone's mind.
I wish there had been more scenes like that. Instead, most of the film consists of Eva's various meetings with Alex or Andrei and very little dialogue. For a main character, she was just a little too enigmatic. I definitely felt the film could have used a bit more dialogue and a bit more editing to speed the pace a bit. As well, the ending could have used a bit more explication. There are some pictures of Ceaucescu on live television and what appears to be live coverage of him fleeing but there is no explanation. For Romanians this might be self- evident but for the rest of the world, we could use a little bit of help.
The ending itself is quite lovely, with the increasing tension suddenly released with Ceaucescu's fall. And there were some moments of dark humour, as when the students are required to sing patriotic songs about how wonderful their lives are in Romania when it's plain that everyone is living in misery. But there is a bit of unexplained business at the end surrounding the policeman and his son Alex that bothered me. As well, there were a few strange cinematographic choices throughout the film that proved distracting. Scenes would be clumsily blocked by objects as if the director didn't quite know where to place his camera. It's not a huge surprise to discover that this is Catalin Mitulescu's first feature film.
Inspirational. Moving. But So Much More...
I saw this film at the Toronto International Film Festival. I loved this, and not just for the obvious reasons. Blindsight is a documentary about a group of blind Tibetan teenagers who attempt to climb one of Mount Everest's sister peaks. Now, this kind of thing is usually a can't miss. Inspirational. Moving. Pretty standard, right? And even if the film were just that, I'd still have liked it. But it was so much more. Blind herself, German Sabriye Tenberken established a school for blind children in Tibet, in a culture that sees blindness as a curse, as evidence that a person did bad things in a previous life. Many of the children at the school have been shunned their whole lives, and at best, are a burden to their families. As part of their education, Tenberken shares with them the story of American Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. She sends him a letter inviting him to come and visit her students. Instead, he comes up with a plan. He'll arrange an expedition for them to climb 23,000 foot Lhakpa Ri and provide all the guides and equipment. Sabriye finds six willing participants and this is when the fun starts.
Erik's team are mostly American, mostly male, and mostly sighted. As experienced mountaineers, they're Type-A personalities, very gung-ho and goal-oriented. Sabriye is European, female, and blind, and the students for her are more than a "project," no matter how well-intentioned. Additionally, the students are Tibetan, and not old enough or confident enough to always stand up for themselves. As the expedition unfolds, they become pawns in between the two adult "sides," wanting to please both, while at the same time wanting to gain the confidence that comes from accomplishment. As an additional obstacle (other than being blind, that is), they are speaking English as a second or in most cases, a third language, and struggle to understand and make themselves understood.
When it turns out that none of the students have any climbing experience, and that some are much more coordinated than others, it begins to unravel Erik's original plan for them all to reach the summit together. As both students and teachers begin to suffer the effects of high altitude, decisions must be made as to whether to continue on or to send some down the mountain. Among the effects of high altitude is increased irritability, and you can see how this feeds the conflict between the adults. At the risk of oversimplifying, on one side are those for whom the destination is all, and on the other are those who just want to enjoy the journey. I won't tell you how it all turns out, except to say that this was one of the most surprising and thought-provoking stories I've seen in a long time.
The film also weaves bits of each climber's story into the narrative, and this was sorely needed, since once on the climb, the kids tended to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. With all the drama going on around them, that wasn't surprising. The backstories are by turns charming and heartbreaking, and I found it very strange that I found myself closer to tears at the beginning of the film than at the end. This was contrary to my expectations, and another pleasant surprise.
In addition to all the human drama to cover, director Walker and her small crew had to contend with the frigid and oxygen-deprived conditions herself, lugging equipment up the mountains and hoping it wouldn't break down. As with all great documentaries, the filmmaker was just lucky enough (or smart enough, or prepared enough) to be at the right place at the right time, and she's captured a very special story that has as much to say about people who want to do "what's best for the kids" as it does about the kids themselves.
I saw this film at the Hot Docs Film Festival in May 2006. The North American Soccer League was struggling along through the 1970s until the New York Cosmos, owned by Warner Communications head Steve Ross, decided to bring superstar Pele to the Big Apple. Suddenly, attendance was up, and the Cosmos started winning. Continuing the formula by bringing some European stars over, the Cosmos won several league titles over the next few years. In the process, the once-moribund NASL expanded quickly to 24 teams. Unfortunately, the resulting dilution of talent, and the inability of smaller-market clubs to pay the huge salaries demanded by European or Latin American stars, meant that the league soon imploded.
The film tells the story with humour and verve, and it's hard not to be a little bit nostalgic for the days when 70,000 people would crowd into Giants stadium to watch "the other football." But ultimately, the Cosmos' strategy was short-sighted. Building an audience for soccer in North America was going to take time, and the free-spending style of Ross and the Cosmos attracted only fairweather fans, who would melt away as soon as the team stopped winning. Other franchises couldn't attract enough fans in the first place, and the league suffered as a result.
It was interesting that the director admitted afterwards that he is a huge fan of Chelsea Football Club in the English Premiership. Chelsea are following a similar strategy at the moment, with the seemingly endless billions of owner Roman Abramovich funding the construction of another superteam. So far, they've won back to back titles in England, but to the detriment of the league, according to many observers. Without a salary cap, the English Premier League drains talent away from the rest of the world, and Chelsea are the richest club of all. This concentration of talent makes the game less competitive in the long term, and while it may attract a few new fans, they're not the sort of fans who will stick around if and when the team starts losing.
Many of the American innovations brought to the game by the NASL have made it into the game in the rest of the world. For example, penalty shootouts to decide games tied after regulation time. This will always be unpopular with football purists, but for the casual fan, it certainly adds excitement to the game. Other gimmicks weren't so successful, thankfully. Who wants to see cheerleaders at a football match?
The only flaw in the film was the absence of any present-day interviews with Pele or Johan Cruyff (who played for the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats franchises), though I believe numerous attempts were made to obtain their participation. The director Paul Crowder promised lots of fun stuff in the DVD extras, including their attempts to get Pele on board.
We Feed the World (2005)
Enlightening but Gloomy
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. I would call this film a Mondovino for food. By which I mean it is an examination of how globalization and the growth of the power of corporations has affected the production of food. The director dispassionately takes us to farms in Romania and Brazil, a fishing boat in Brittany, a greenhouse in southern Spain, and a chicken processing plant in Austria.
In all these places, we see traditional practices being abandoned in favour of giant factory operations. In each place, someone on camera asserts that flavour is not as important as price or appearance. So we see hothouse tomatoes being driven 2500 kilometres to be sold, we see rain forest cleared to grow soybeans, even though the soil is unsuitable, and we see the entire eight-week life cycle of thousands of chickens, raised to supply the incessant demands of the world for cheap food. Watching factory-farmed chickens being "processed" might be enough to turn some people into vegetarians. Except for the fact that our vegetables are really no better.
There is some interesting information about GM (genetically modified) crops which are resistant to herbicides like Monsanto's Roundup and the growing use of hybrid seed. Unlike regular seed, which farmers used to save from year to year, hybrid seed cannot be used to raise a second crop, forcing farmers to keep buying seed from large seed firms like Pioneer. This raises all kinds of issues, and I really think the film could have spent more time here.
The film ends with an interview with the CEO of Nestlé, the largest food manufacturer in the world, who muses on "attaching a value" to water, and calls the position of the NGOs, that access to clean water is a human right, "extreme". After bragging how many jobs his corporation is creating, and how many families it is supporting, he glances at an informational video of one of Nestlé's Japanese factories, and marvels how it is so roboticized. "Hardly any people," he crows.
The only significant weakness to this documentary was its unrelenting gloom. I would have liked to have been given some ammunition or to have seen some success stories, or at least some rebellion. But there wasn't any. Since I have an interest in this area, I can point you to the Slow Food organization, which is trying to encourage more consumption of local products and the preservation of disappearing foodstuffs. But I really wish the director had done it instead.
12 and Holding (2005)
Uneven, but a couple of winning performances
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Ostensibly about a group of friends, this film tells three separate tales that veer from comedy to tragedy and back again. I'll sketch them in the order of most successful to least.
Malee lives with her mom and never sees her dad. She's just started her period and begins to develop a very strong crush on a construction worker who is one of her therapist mother's patients. Her attempts at flirting are both painful and very funny to watch. She's obviously missing a father figure, but there's something else stirring as well, and she's lonely and looking for adult attention. Zoe Weizenbaum was just a joy to watch, beautiful and earnest and lovable and willing to take amazing risks for the film. The director told us to watch out for her as "Young Pumpkin" in the upcoming Memories of a Geisha.
Leonard is an overweight kid from a family where everyone is overweight, and he's tired of being the butt of other people's jokes. After a serious accident in which (bizarrely) he loses his senses of taste and smell, he starts eating healthy food and exercising, and takes radical action to, as he sees it, save his mother's life. Played soulfully by Jesse Camacho, Leonard is never just comic relief, but a hurting little boy who wants to change not only his life, but his family's as well.
Jacob (Conor Donovan) and Rudy (also played by Conor Donovan) are twin brothers who are very different from each other. Rudy is athletic and fearless, Jacob withdrawn and shy, mostly because of a large birthmark on his face. One night, Rudy and Leonard stay overnight in their treehouse, after bullies threaten to destroy it. Their plan to stay awake and defend it goes horribly wrong when they doze off, and the bullies light it on fire, unaware that anyone is inside. Leonard escapes with relatively minor injuries (but as noted above, the odd side effect that he can no longer smell or taste). But Rudy is killed, and his family is devastated. Jacob is racked with guilt for not being with the others on the night of the fire, but he's also filled with a desire for revenge. After the two perpetrators are sent away to a juvenile facility for a year, Rudy and Jacob's mother expresses her wish that the guilty pair die, a sentiment that Jacob stores away in his heart.
For a while, Jacob goes to the juvenile facility regularly to threaten the two, telling them that when they get out, he's going to kill them. But after one of the boys commits suicide in custody, Jacob softens and even continues to visit the other boy and bring him comic books. As the boy's release looms, they make a plan to run away together. Jacob is unhappy at home, feeling unwanted due to the arrival of a new adopted child. But his plans lead to even more tragedy.
If all this sounds melodramatic, it is. And despite the heavy subject matter, at times there was a vaguely "after-school special" feeling about the film. This last story, which in some ways ties the others together, carries the most weight, but is the least successful. I'm not sure why, but it may have something to do with the huge dramatic burden placed on the shoulders of a young actor with little experience. The fact that the film careens through a wide emotional territory like a drunken elephant doesn't help, either.
In the end, the performances of Camacho and Weizenbaum are so winning that I sort of wish they were in a film of their own. As a story of three kids seeking the love of their parents, the film is only partially successful. I also wish the kids had been in more scenes together, since you don't really get to see why they're friends in the first place.
The Last Hangman (2005)
The loneliest of professions
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Between 1933 and 1955, Albert Pierrepoint was Britain's Chief Executioner, responsible for more than 600 hangings. Timothy Spall gives a devastating performance as a decent man engaged in the loneliest of professions. The title is somewhat misleading. Hangings were carried out until 1964, but Pierrepoint was the last man to hold the official office of Chief Executioner.
As the film begins, Pierrepoint is proud to be offered a job as a hangman, following in his father's and uncle's footsteps. Since he's only needed every few months, he maintains his job as a grocer's deliveryman and keeps his moonlighting a secret from his friends and even his wife (Juliet Stevenson). He is very good at his new profession, and is determined to complete each job as quickly and humanely as possible. It's a bit odd seeing him trying to shave seconds off the time required for each execution, much like a professional athlete trying for a world record. That is, until you realize that his desire is for the prisoner to have as little time as possible to be afraid. After each execution, it falls to Pierrepoint to cut down the body and prepare it for burial, and it's touching to see the tenderness he displays. After the execution of one woman, he tells his assistant, "She's paid the price, now she's innocent."
Pierrepoint's reputation grows and after the war, he's flown to Germany by the British Army and placed in charge of executing scores of Nazi war criminals. As a result, his secret is leaked to the press, who now broadcast his identity as the finest hangman in the land. With his earnings from these jobs, he and his wife decide to open a pub(!), which does a booming business, thanks in part to his notoriety.
But the job begins to take a terrible toll. Even after he tells his wife about his second profession, she doesn't want to hear about it. Nobody really wants to hear about it. When protesters start demonstrating against capital punishment, Pierrepoint finds himself the target of their ire. Doubts begin to creep in to destroy his previously unshakable faith in what he does. By the mid-1950s, Albert Pierrepoint resigns his position (ostensibly over unpaid fees) and completely reverses his own position on capital punishment, though he initially keeps his opinions to himself. In his 1974 autobiography, however, he finally confesses that the whole experience had left a bitter aftertaste for him and that he felt that capital punishment had "achieved nothing but revenge."
Though this is a fairly standard biopic and "issue film," the performances of Juliet Stevenson and especially Timothy Spall are remarkable. Pierrepoint's determination to remain detached takes a terrible toll on his life and is bound to fail eventually. The obvious conclusion is that killing corrodes our humanity, whether the killer is a murderer or an executioner on the state's payroll.
Workingman's Death (2005)
Dirty work, beautifully captured
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. After you see this film, you'll never complain about your job again. Subtitled something like "Five Portraits of Work in the Twenty-First Century," Glawogger's documentary features some of the most dangerous, difficult, or just plain unpleasant work in the world.
Each segment except the last one is about twenty-five minutes long, and is shot without any voice-over narration and very little editorializing. We are simply presented with people working and talking about their work. The director possesses a very painterly sense of composition, and we're often presented with shots of workers posing as if they were in front of a still camera. The camera-work is even more impressive when it is moving, and I often found myself wondering how they were able to film in some of these conditions.
The segments follow, in order, a group of miners in Ukraine who have dug their own coal shafts, a group of men in Indonesia who collect sulfur from an active volcano and haul it down the mountainside, butchers at an open-air slaughterhouse in Nigeria, men who break apart rusting ships for scrap metal in Pakistan, and steelworkers in China. Although all of these workers are merely surviving, the thing that struck me most was how contented, even happy, most of them were.
That being said, three of the five segments featured Islamic societies, and I found myself wondering about the connections between the conditions these men were working in and the rise of Islamic radicalism. Among the shipbreakers in Pakistan, for instance, there was an interesting segment which followed a photographer who circulated among the men charging them a fee to take pictures of them holding an assault rifle. There was no voice-over, but I got the impression that these men wanted to be seen as revolutionaries instead of just subsistence scrap workers.
The most intense segment had to be among the butchers, and there was quite a lot of blood and gore evident as we watched the men work. But strangely, I found this a more honest approach to the production of food than I saw in the factory farms in a film like We Feed The World. These butchers are "hands-on," literally.
The final segment, filmed among steelworkers in China, was the shortest, and the least interesting, but the director was trying to end with the optimism of the Chinese workers for the steel industry, which he contrasts with shots of a defunct steel mill in Germany that's been turned into an art installation. His point was slightly unclear, but overall, his unflinching eye for detail, even in some harrowing work environments, makes this documentary a must- see.
Mah nakorn (2004)
Amelie Cranked to 11!
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. I'd heard some buzz around this film, that it was sort of a Thai Amelie. In fact, it's Amelie cranked up to 11. Which is entirely too much. This film is absolutely overstuffed with whimsy. A narrator tells us the story of country boy Pod, who comes to Bangkok to find work and falls in love with Jin. Along the way, he loses and then finds his finger, drives around a chainsmoking talking teddy-bear as well as a man who licks everything, and shares his house with a gecko that has the face of his dead grandmother. If that's not enough, the object of his desire is an obsessive neat freak who carries around a book written in Italian that she can't read. A case of mistaken identity sends her off on an environmental crusade that results in her accumulating a mountain (literally, a mountain) of plastic water bottles. Will this pair find love in the end? Well, by the end, I didn't care that much.
The problem was that the visual tricks and whimsy overwhelm the characters, who end up being nothing more than a collection of quirks. The constant voice-over also never really lets the characters tell their own stories, and the romance never feels believable.
Sasanatieng is obviously a director of huge talent, and there are quite a few great sight gags and some really original visuals. But there's just far too much of it. It's like eating a whole chocolate cake at one sitting. If he could tone down the trickery a bit, and find a story with real characters, he could one day make a really outstanding film. This isn't it yet, but I hope he does it.
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Another directorial debut, this time for Mike Mills, who's been making short films and music videos for a number of years. An altogether sunnier film than The Squid And The Whale (which I also reviewed for IMDb), the two films are actually interesting mirror images of each other.
Justin (newcomer Lou Pucci) is 17 years old and still sucks his thumb. He tries to hide it from his parents, but they know, and it's beginning to cause some trouble. He hides it from his new girlfriend, but she dumps him when she senses he's not "opening up" to her. A school counselor suggests that the problem is that Justin is ADHD and that Ritalin will help. Ah, simple. But he soon dumps the pills and begins to try to stop being "weird". Along the way, he learns a few things about his parents and about being himself. It's a fairly standard coming-of-age story with a bit of a twist.
It baffles me why this film was savaged by Variety and a few other critics, who derided it as a "paint-by-numbers" indie film. I don't think that's entirely fair. Sure, there's a great soundtrack (Polyphonic Spree and Elliott Smith), and an androgynous young lead (Pucci is excellent and plays innocent like a young Johnny Depp). But there are no shootings, no weird sex, and the family, though far from perfect, are caring and decent people.
It's actually refreshing to see people in this kind of film portrayed as anything other than freaks. Veterans Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio play parents who really love their kids, though they don't always understand them. And the film defies convention by having D'Onofrio play the failed athlete dad as someone who really wants a genuine connection with his oddball, non-athletic son.
And even though, compared to something like The Squid And The Whale, this film is polished to a high gloss, it never feels fake. Instead, Mills has created an atmosphere of safety, a place where a great many teenagers actually live.
There is some exposition near the end of the film involving Benjamin Bratt (as a recovering coke addict TV star) that feels contrived, but it's played for laughs. As is Keanu Reeves' role as a holistic orthodontist. His over-the-top performance for once doesn't seem to detract from the film. Perhaps it was because Mike Mills introduced the film personally, but I get a feeling of sincerity from the film that seems anything but paint-by-numbers. At every step of the process, from his casting, to his soundtrack choices, I think Mike Mills was trying to make an irony-free film. And I think he has succeeded.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
The best ensemble acting of the year in a smart and moving film
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. This film contained the best ensemble acting I've seen this year. Based on the autobiographical experiences of writer and director Baumbach (co-writer of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic - Anderson serves as producer on this film), The Squid And The Whale is about the dynamics of a family of four going through a divorce in the mid-eighties. Father (Jeff Daniels) is a writer whose best days are behind him, yet he remains an unrepentant snob. Mother (Laura Linney) is also a writer, about to have her first novel published. When her multiple infidelities emerge, the parents decide to divorce. Their sons Walt and Frank are thrown into turmoil. This is not original stuff. But the writing is of such high quality, and the performances so genuine, that I found myself drawn right in.
The film is obviously told from the sons' perspective. Walt seems to be like his father, snobby and self-righteous, while younger Frank seems more sensitive, though also more self- destructive. Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates' son Owen Kline is a revelation in this role. His sister Greta also appears briefly in the film. You might remember these two from The Anniversary Party, but this is really a breakout role for Owen, and I hope he'll continue acting.
The film makes it painfully aware how people hurt each other when they can't talk directly about their feelings. Daniels is excellent as a man whose intellectual pride and snobbery hide his deep insecurities and the pain of rejection by his wife. And Laura Linney is able to make even an unsympathetic character a little less blameworthy. The only issues I had the film are probably related to its miniscule budget. The hand-held camera-work is often a little bumpy, and the film feels a little unpolished. But after hearing how Baumbach had a 23 day shooting schedule, and took five years to obtain the funding for the film, I have to give him credit for producing a smart and moving piece of cinema.
Just as an aside, I was pleasantly surprised when the end credits rolled that the beautiful titles I'd been noticing were designed by Torontonian Leanne Shapton, who was art director at Saturday Night magazine for a few of its most visually exciting years (circa 2000-2001). I'm glad to see she's finding new places to bring her great eye for design.
Everything Is Illuminated (2005)
Without the ballast of the book's historical sections, the film floats away a bit.
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Based upon the acclaimed novel by Jonathan Safron Foer, Everything Is Illuminated is the directorial debut of actor Liev Schreiber. An audacious choice, since the novel is multi-layered and very "meta", but Schreiber, who also wrote the screenplay, handles the material with ease, for the most part.
Elijah Wood (looking as doll-like as ever, and wearing glasses that magnify his already-huge eyes to make the not-so-subtle point that he is an observer) plays Jonathan, a man obsessed with collecting things from his family's history. When his grandmother hands him a photograph from 1940 saying, "Your grandfather wanted you to have this," it sends Jonathan off on a voyage of discovery. The picture is of his grandfather in Ukraine, standing with an unknown woman who, according to his grandmother, saved him from the Nazis, allowing him to escape to America.
Jonathan duly turns up in Ukraine, where he hopes to unravel the mystery of the woman in the photograph. His tour guides turn out to be a little unnerving to the fussy and obsessive vegetarian. His translator Alex is like a Ukrainian version of Sasha Baron-Cohen's Ali G and Borat characters rolled into one, and is played by newcomer Eugene Hutz, the frontman for the "gypsy punk" band Gogol Bordello, who contribute several songs to the soundtrack. While I thought his accent in the film was just an outrageous parody, during the Q & A, I realized it was actually his real voice (or maybe not. It could be part of the shtick.). Alex's grandfather, the driver, thinks he is blind and is accompanied everywhere by Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., his "seeing-eye bitch." Alex's mangled English leads to many laughs, and the middle section of this road movie is easily the most enjoyable.
Things get a bit more serious when they find the woman in the photograph, but here, in a section of the film called "The Illumination," I found myself still a little in the dark. Perhaps in ironing out a few of the book's twists, something was lost, but I found the "mystery" either confusing or not so mysterious, and actually felt a little unsatisfied by the end.
However, the film is shot and edited beautifully, the acting is fine, and the directing sure- handed. Schreiber admitted that the stuff in the book that he left out of the film was the stuff that attracted him to the idea in the first place. Which is an odd thing to say, really. The book contains an imagined history of the shtetl where Jonathan's grandfather was raised, a place with hundreds of years of history which is wiped out by the Nazis in a few hours. I think this background would have given the film the weight it needed at the end of the journey. Without that ballast, the film floats away a bit.
Nevertheless, this is an assured debut from Schreiber, and I look forward to seeing what he chooses for his next project.
The Heart of the Game (2005)
Real drama and excitement, both on and off the court
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. A documentary about high- school basketball that took seven years to make, this film will be compared to Steve James's Hoop Dreams, which is a high compliment indeed. But the films are different.
Serrill began following the girls' basketball team at Seattle's Roosevelt High School when they hired a new coach, tax law professor Bill Resler. Not expected to make much of an impact, Resler proceeded to build a powerhouse in his first year at the job. An eccentric but effective motivator, he chose a different "theme" for his team each year: Pack of Wolves, Pride of Lions, Tropical Storm, and then whipped his players into a frenzy. His motivational skills and his ruthless physical workouts gave the team the confidence and endurance to beat their opponents, even when they were bigger, taller, or more talented.
In his second year at the job, he noticed a young freshman by the name of Darnelia Russell. She stood out for a number of reasons. She had been an outstanding basketball player at her middle school. And she was black. At Roosevelt, in a privileged suburb of Seattle, black students were a minority, unlike at inner-city schools like arch-rival Garfield. In fact, when he tried to recruit her for his team, she rebuffed him at first, admitting to her friends that she wasn't used to being around so many white people. Her presence at Roosevelt was the combined idea of her middle school coach and her mother, who wanted to keep her out of trouble and make sure she got an excellent education.
Her arrival helps Resler build Roosevelt into a city dynasty and a threat at the state championships. But there are ups and downs. And if you wonder why the film took seven years to make, Serrill admitted that he just filmed everything and waited for the story to emerge.
Although the film touches on a few issues of race and class, Serrill says he wanted to make it more about the basketball, and there are generous clips of games, even from major network coverage. Although it give the film much of its energy, I felt myself wishing there were a few more interviews with players, especially Darnelia, who emerges as a central character in the story. We never really get to know her as anything other than a great basketball player.
That being said, it's a documentary about sports, so I'm predisposed to like it. There is real drama and excitement, both on and off the court, and it's also good to see the contribution of people like Bill Resler recognized, a good man who is instilling not just a love of winning, but of playing, and living. As the credits rolled, it was endearing to see that a few of the songs were actually composed and played by Resler, on guitar and vocals, with director Serrill on harmonica.
Nuit noire, 17 octobre 1961 (2005)
An important document of the legacy of French colonialism
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Another gut-wrenching portrayal of some of the shameful events perpetrated during the Algerian war, this film is an important document of the legacy of French colonialism.
On the night of October 17, 1961, more than 20,000 Algerians gathered in Paris for a peaceful demonstration against French rule of their homeland. It wasn't entirely spontaneous. In fact, the FLN (the main group advocating for Algerian independence) required all Algerian men to participate. It was to be a show of solidarity to bolster the ongoing negotiations between the FLN and the French government. Instead, it turned into a massacre. The police were already living in a climate of fear and repressed anger due to the ongoing campaign of random assassinations of police officers. And the police leadership were eager for a crackdown to avoid further humiliation. As the demonstrators gathered in various districts, police immediately moved in to arrest thousands, and after some confusing reports of being fired upon, themselves fired upon and then charged the crowds. There is no official report on the number of dead, but it was somewhere between 50 and 200. More than 40 years later, there has never been an official acknowledgement of the events of that night.
Noted television director Alain Tasma spent two years gathering evidence and reconstructing the events leading up to the massacre, and he presents a straightforward account that manages to capture the rising tension keenly. The film is a sort of parallel to the events portrayed in the classic film The Battle of Algiers, and Tasma owes a lot to the techniques and pacing of that forty-year-old masterpiece. With the exception of that film, most "issue" films rarely rise above their sense of moral outrage, and October 17, 1961 (more evocatively entitled "Nuit Noire" in its native France) is not a masterpiece. But it does capture the feeling of a time not so long ago, a feeling which is eerily present again in the rising Islamophobia of many Western democracies.
Brothers of the Head (2005)
A too clever mess
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Based on a novella by science- fiction author Brian Aldiss, this film attempts to tell the story of Tom and Barry Howe, conjoined twins who are plucked from their family by an impresario in order to form a rock band.
Almost deliberately gimmicky, the film is also too clever by half (if you'll pardon the pun). By mixing genres, styles and moods, the directors (whose previous film was the excellent documentary Lost In La Mancha) lose their way pretty quickly. I was never sure whether I was meant to take it all seriously or not. Flashbacks, dream sequences, it was all just a bit much. Plus, the promised rock and roll just didn't move me. I was reminded a bit too much at times of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a film I found original and moving. But in this case, the songs just weren't as good, nor were the main characters sympathetic. A more unfavourable comparison would be the similarly disappointing Velvet Goldmine.
An Acting Tour de Force
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favourite actors, period. But he's usually known for character roles, and so he's not quite the household name he deserves to be. And sadly, because this film probably won't have wide appeal, he might remain that way. The truth is that he's one of the finest actors working today, and this film is a tour de force. Hoffman inhabits the role of Truman Capote, nailing everything from his childlike voice to his fey mannerisms, even down to his facial tics. He's almost too good, which may distract a bit from the other charms of this film.
If focuses rather narrowly on the time Truman Capote spent writing his most famous book, In Cold Blood. After a family of four is murdered in their remote farmhouse in Kansas, Capote decides to write an article for The New Yorker. After the two murderers are apprehended, Capote begins to form a bond with one of the men, Perry Smith (portrayed with amazing subtlety by Clifton Collins Jr.), drawing parallels between his own troubled childhood and that of the career criminal. The proposed article is abandoned, as Capote realizes he has the material for a book. And not just any kind of book, but a whole new kind of writing, what Capote calls "the nonfiction novel."
As the months drag on after the men's convictions, Capote keeps trying to draw Smith out, asking him to tell him about the night of the killings. When he finally does, it's uncomfortable to watch, not only for the brutality of the murders, but also for the way that Capote uses Smith for his own ends. It's clear that there is an inner conflict going on in Capote's mind. On one level, he really does befriend this killer. But he also uses him for material so he can feed his huge ambition and ego. His duplicitous nature is just another thing he has in common with Smith.
But after several years of research, at the end of all the legal appeals to spare the killers' lives, Capote is relieved to hear they'll finally be hanged. It's the only way he can finish his book. However, the experience of actually watching the executions shakes him deeply. His jumbled mixture of feelings and motivations went on to have a profound effect on Capote, and although the book does go on to become his most successful, he never finishes another. The film ends by quoting the epigraph to his final, unfinished manuscript, Unanswered Prayers. It was Christian mystic Teresa of Avila who said that "answered prayers cause more tears than those that remain unanswered."
Linda Linda Linda (2005)
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Named for a song by legendary Japanese "punks" The Blue Hearts, this film tells the story of four girls who form a band for an end-of-year high school festival. They decide to play covers by The Blue Hearts, and although the film only covers a few frantic days of practice, the pace is sometimes glacial. I'm not sure that this is a bad thing, though it felt like the film wanted to go in two directions. On the one hand, it was a typically sentimental Japanese film about the passing of youth, and the director gives us a few shots of each of the girls smiling wistfully while gazing off in the distance. On the other hand, it's a film about a thrown-together-for-the-hell-of-it cover band, and it could have used a bit more of that kinetic attitude. That being said, it was hugely enjoyable (though probably a good 15 minutes too long), and Bae Doo Na, who plays the gawky Korean exchange student, literally steals the film. Her transformation from gawky outsider to sassy singer, though unrealistically quick, is endearing. And only in a Japanese film would someone get to sing the lyrics, "Like a rat, I want to be beautiful" and make it sound heartfelt.
Thank You for Smoking (2005)
Stuffed with Very Smart Laughs
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. At the film festival a few years back, I saw an incredibly accomplished short film called In God We Trust, and I vowed that if young Jason Reitman (son of Canadian director Ivan Reitman) ever made a feature film, I'd run out and see it. I kept my promise, and Reitman delivers on his.
Aaron Eckhart is Nick Naylor, the tobacco industry's spin doctor. He is very good at what he does, and manages to be likable while saying and doing despicable things. In this biting satire, Eckhart doesn't really have any epiphanies, but he thinks he does. After an ill-advised affair with the reporter doing a profile on him, his secrets get out and he loses his job. But after a bravura performance at some Senate hearings, Big Tobacco wants him back. Claiming to have a "responsibility" to his young son, he refuses the job. Instead, by the end, he's set himself up in business advising all sorts of other icky corporations.
The film is stuffed with very smart laughs, and I liked the fact that Nick emerges unrepentant at the end. It just sharpens the satire, that this man actually thinks he's now a better person. The tone of the film reminded me quite a bit of Alexander Payne's Election, though the comedy is much broader.
Reitman loses his deft touch slightly near the end of the film. Up to this point, no one has been seen actually smoking in the film. After a bizarre attempt on his life, Nick is told that he has to quit smoking. It's a bit incongruous and it's never mentioned again. I suspect that this is much funnier in the novel by Christopher Buckley on which the film is based.
I would definitely recommend this film, not only for its skewering of the tobacco industry (standing in for all corporations, really), but also for its jabs at Washington and Hollywood as well. No one is spared. You'll even get to see Rob Lowe in a kimono!
Feels Like a Bit of an Exercise
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Not quite sure how to write about this one. Bubble feels like a bit of an exercise for Soderbergh. First of all, it was shot in HD (high-definition) digital video, and this makes the visuals incredibly crisp. Secondly, it was filmed on location in a small Ohio town with a completely amateur cast. The script felt mostly improvised or situational, and actual dialogue is quite sparse.
This is a small and quiet film in which large themes play out over 90 minutes. The pace is very deliberate, and the atmosphere incredibly claustrophobic. The overriding theme for me seemed to be isolation and it was almost physically painful watching some of the characters go about their daily routines or listening to them try to connect with each other. These are people who seem completely inarticulate and unable to express their feelings. There is a sort of love triangle, and a murder, but that's about all I can say.
Though the mannered acting and slow pace threw me off at first, once I got used to it, I appreciated the film a lot more. This is one of Soderbergh's more experimental films, and he admitted after the screening that it would be "polarizing" for audiences. While the film is not entirely successful, I'm glad a director of his stature is still taking risks.
An ambiguous look at high-level competition
I saw this film at the 2005 Hot Docs festival in Toronto. Filmed over a period of at least four years, this film follows three elite gymnasts as they try to qualify for the 2000 US women's Olympic team. There is two-time national champion Kristin, serious and shy, bubbly and beautiful Alyssa, who tends to lose her concentration at important moments, and tiny underdog Morgan, who at 15 is three years younger than the other girls but twice as driven.
Competitive sports is a deeply complicated arena for young people, and the film expresses some of the ambiguities very clearly. All three young women make very clear that they are in gymnastics to pursue their own dreams and that they're not under pressure from parents or coaches to do anything that they don't want for themselves. But we also see coaches who are so caught up in the competition that they ignore clear signs of injury. By the time the Olympics have come and gone, none of the three seem happy, although they all made the team. Each girl came out of the experience damaged, either physically (poor Kristin undergoes the first of many surgeries for a stress fracture before the documentarian's camera) or emotionally (Alyssa seems bitter about the whole experience, while Morgan can't seem to string a sentence together without choking up.) It's hard to watch people's dreams die, but before we start pointing the finger at "the horrible sports industry", we have to remember that these girls chose to put themselves into competition. All of them were not only talented, but driven enough to reach the highest levels of their sport. Were they not athletic, they'd have had their hopes dashed in other endeavours, I think.
The process of realizing that our dreams are not always attainable is a painful milestone on the way to adulthood, and though it is hard to watch it unfold in front of a camera, I came away with a real respect and affection for these young people. One odd thing about the film (and this may have been deliberate on the part of the director) is that we don't see any other aspects of the gymnasts' lives. We see a very small part of their family lives, but nothing about school, nothing about their friendships. It's as if they only really exist in the gym. While that may seem to be true, it's not really true, and so I think the director uses it to heighten the tension. Later in the film we finally get to see the girls dressed in street clothes, and it's a dramatic change.
I'm sure more than a few people will see this film as an indictment of youth sports, but I think that's too simplistic. Athletic competition is just one more area where eager and idealistic children are forged into slightly cynical adults. That's not a bad thing, but it can be difficult to watch. I found myself cringing watching the network footage of the competition, since I knew the injuries that each gymnast was so carefully trying to hide from the judges.