2001 Reviews

Here are my reviews of some of the films that appeared at the latest edition of the Montreal International Festival of New Cinema and New Media

ABC Africa (Iran - 2001)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Plot: Documentary on the efforts of a humanitarian organization helping orphans and families victims of the AIDS virus in Uganda.
Review: What started off as a simple documentary on the humanitarian efforts of one group in Uganda ended up being much more than that for Iranian director Kiarostami (A Taste of Cherry) and his assistant. Shooting simply with two digital hand-held cameras, ABC Africa is a glimpse at an Africa and its people that is always missing from media accounts, one where suffering, disease and poverty are an everyday problem, but one where life is also affirmed in music, dance and colors from the children on the streets to the women collectives. It is a splendid, important documentary that knows to keep quiet, letting the images of this place and of its inhabitants speak for themselves. Though it is mostly apolitical, there is one exception that could not be by-passed: that the Church precepts of refusing any kind of family planning, and therefore the use of condoms, is a big factor in the wild spread of AIDS in the country. A brilliant, honest everyday portrayal of a place where the parallels of beauty and disease, of life and death are always present.
Documentary: 7/10

Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner (Canada - 2001)
Starring: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter Henry Arnatsiaq
Director: Zacharias Kunuk
Plot: A mysterious, evil shaman places a curse on an Inuit tribe culminating many years later in the murderous rivalry between a heroic hunter and the tribe leader's son.
Review: Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner is an adaptation of a centuries-old Inuit legend, produced and told by Inuits, a tale that encompasses the universal human traits of greed, jealousy and murder, describing a harsh world where community meant everything, the hardships of everyday living were constant, heroes were greater-than-life, and shamans ruled like gods. And yet it is also a simple, moral-based story, well told with characters who really come to life as more than just mythical archetypes, portraying the life of these simple people without making it look idealistic or terrible; this is just as it was. From its opening moments, the film quite literally takes you to a different world, one that we haven't seen with such vigor and understanding, and the leisurely pace immerses us into the life, culture and community. The pacing doesn't always hold well, but this is nonetheless a compelling, immersive experience. The film has many moments of beauty, quiet reflection and danger, the most memorable one being when Atanarjuat races across the frozen landscape through ice water and snow, naked, chased by his murderous pursuers, the camera capturing the agony and distress in his every step. The semi-documentary feel of the film only adds to this sense of being part of this community and the award-winning cinematography is splendid, plunging us into this virtually unkown world, with the whole immaculately white Arctic as a backdrop, with its stark, bright vistas. With a great cast, compelling story and impressive visuals Atanarjuat is a slow-moving but absolutely impressive accomplishment.
Drama: 8/10

Durian, Durian (Hong Kong - 2000)
Starring: Hailu Qin, Wai Fan Mak, Suet Man Mak
Director: Fruit Chan
Plot: A young woman struggles to make her fortune as a prostitute in Hong Kong before returning to her family and friends on the mainland but once there has a hard time re-immersing in the desolate, dead-end life of her home town.
Review: Durian, Durian is director Chan's most accomplished, mature feature to date and, though it doesn't have the in-your-face immediacy of his Made in Hong Kong, it's a much more straight-forward and well-defined film. Here he returns to one of his favored themes, that of HK's identity when faced to mainland China, exploring the sentiments of fascination and mistrust mainlanders express towards the bustling, capitalist city. The story is split in two parts, one on the streets of Mangkok where the prostitute works from a restaurant and befriends a young illegal immigrant, and the other in Northern China, where she tries to make sense of her life and her roots. The film is also well-crafted, from the varying film techniques contrasting the two places, its people and its way of life (hand held cameras are used for the HK settings with quick editing for the bustling, warm streets of Mangkok, and static, long pans for Yan's return to the cold, barren mainland) to the narrative progress, it takes you into her life without forcible means and without the need for melodrama. Chan continues to use non-professional actors to convey an unrehearsed, true-to-life feeling and the two actresses are simply brilliant. Hailu Qin in her first role manages to bring a certain innocence and dogged determination in her finely nuanced performance (winning the HK Festival award for best actress in the process), and the young Wai Fan Mak, repeating her role from Little Cheung, is an endearing waif whose occasional smile lights up the screen. As a side note, the Durian of the title, a fruit with a sweet taste but a pungent odor, seems an adequate metaphor for Hong Kong itself. An endearing, thoughtful drama from one of Hong Kong's finest directors.
Drama: 8/10

I'm Going Home (Je Rentre a la Maison) (France - 2000)
Director: Manoel De Oliveira
Starring: Michel Piccoli, Antoine Chappey, John Malkovich
Plot: A veteran stage actor must raise his grandson alone when his wife, daughter and son-in-law die in a car accident and finds the courage to continue on with his life in every day things.
Review: I'm Going Home is a contemplative snapshot of a highly ethical actor and his craft, of the feeling of aging, loss and of grasping at one's final moments. Unfortunately 93-year-old director De Oliveira seems to have very little to say here, but takes his time saying it, preferring capturing small instances than really allowing his character to shine through. There are some interesting, thoughtful moments here, even one or two clever visual gags. The relationship between grandfather and grandson is occasionally quite touching, but since we never see the protagonist as he was before the accident, there is no sense of change, or much of nostalgia to his routine. Worst of all, the film spends an exceedingly long time on shooting scenes from stage productions of The Tempest and Ionesco's Exit the King (which starts the first 20 minutes of the film). There is an interesting scene on a fictional shoot of Joyce's Ulysses with John Malkovich as the demanding director, but this is but a minor enjoyment. Veteran French actor Piccoli is in fine form, however, and his performance is easily the highlight of the film, accurately portraying a man holding on to the familiar everyday moments. Some may hail I'm Going Home as a minimalist drama, and the film is not devoid of substance, but it really is only a minor effort from an acclaimed director.
Drama: 4/10

Kandahar (Iran - 2001)
Starring: Niloufar Pazira, Hassan Tantaï, Sadou Teymouri
Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Plot: A journalist living in Canada returns to her native Afghanistan and must secretly make her way to the city of Kandahar to stop her sister from committing suicide on the next solar eclipse.
Review: Based on the real-life account of journalist-turned-actress Pazira's search for her childhood friend left in Afghanistan, Kandahar is another fine film from acclaimed Iranian director Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh, A Moment of Innocence), one that should be a real eye-opener for Western audiences. This is not a happy tale, and the long road through this land where social order has broken down is filled with perils. Indeed, as one character says, "guns are the only thing that's modern in Afghanistan", a place where war and famine have always been omnipresent. The film's main goal was to portray the suffering, the hidden pain of these women forced by the oppressive Taliban government to hide behind colorful veils that are virtual prisons, banned from any schooling. Aptly enough, the women throughout are barely formed characters, just as they are barely recognized as people. The suffering of the rest of the population is also at the fore, from the constant lack of even the most rudimentary services, to the ever-present danger of millions of land mines left buried across the country. Pazira does a fine job acting the part of an Afghan living abroad, naive to the ways of the land who no longer recognizes her native country. Makhmalbaf has a good sense of location and camera shots to make you feel part of the happenings, keeping everything simple and direct in his usual style of mixing documentary and fiction, allowing the narrative to seemingly progress at its own pace, giving off a real sense of being there. Poetic scenes also abound, as do surreal ones, such as the one showing hopeful amputees racing each other across the desert to reach parachuting prosthetic limbs dropped by Red Cross helicopters. A beautiful, important, and emotionally powerful film.
Drama: 8/10

Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux
Director: David Lynch
Plot: Having lost her memory after a terrible accident, a woman wanders into a young Hollywood starlet's appartment and soon gets her help in finding out who she is and what sinister events led her there.
Review: Director Lynch (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) is back to his old tricks with Mulholland Dr., a wonderfully stylish film drenched in noir atmosphere, filled with quirky characters, plot-twists and memorable set pieces. The first part is set in a "Twin Peaks"-like universe, an intriguing, suspenseful murder mystery in a conspiracy-bound Hollywood, with the plot weaving different stories and characters. The story only gets more confusing as it unfolds, never revealing what is actually going on. Indeed, Lynch seems to enjoy playing with his audience, turning the story twist of the last third into descent into the dark, perverse, surreal depths of his imagination. The two segments (the split announced by a hot-'n-heavy lesbian scene) are miles apart in both pacing and style. Part of the reason for this is that most of the film was part of a failed TV pilot, which Lynch then "finished off" for theatrical run in his own particular way. Two riveting performances by its two female leads, especially Watts, make the whole exercise extremely engaging. There are also some terrific type moments, such as the surreal performance at an old movie palace called Club Silencio, or the creepy cameos by a hysterical old couple. The film ends up being an acidic ode to tinsel-town, an ill-fated love story full of murderous jealousy. Some might enjoy the convoluted existential way the film ends, but many will also feel a bit cheated after having put so much into these characters. Either way, this is a cinematic experience to take on its own merits, to enjoy as it is presented, and one to accept as having no resolution or conventional narrative.
Entertainment: 7/10

Platform (China - 2000)
Starring: Wang Hong-wei, Zhao Tao, Liang Jing-dong
Director: Jia Zhang-ke
Plot: A troupe of young Chinese stage performers, tired of staging plays spouting the Party line, take a rock and roll show on the road but realize that rural communities are too busy suffering the changes of the 1980's to be interested.
Review: Platform is a quiet, slow-moving drama full of long shots and many quiet moments, whose main goal would seem to be to give us a definite sense of place, of mood, and of time. The main theme here is the economic and social changes forced on the mainland population after the disaster that was Mao's Cultural Revolution of the '70s, with the story focusing on the drab lives of a small group of twenty-somethings who are limited in their liberties to love or find their own individuality. Director Jia Zhang-ke tries hard to make us feel the boredom of the disenfranchised youth of the 80's, and in this he succeeds: the film is a tedious depiction of dragged-out, mostly insignificant moments full of dead air that are meant to affect our understanding of these youths' existence. Even though the film is too long by an hour, we never actually get any feeling or sympathy for these protagonists. Indeed, like the characters themselves, wandering through the countryside, we keep waiting for something, anything, to happen and, like the film, end up going nowhere. The incredibly static, documentary-style keeps its subjects at a distance, rarely allowing us to see any real emotions, and therefore making it difficult to get involved. The fact that the film is simply way too long and that each subsequent scene seems heavier than the preceding one, just makes it worse. There's an important message here, but it is mired in a heavy, dull execution.
Drama: 4/10

Soft Shell Man (Un Crabe dans la Tête) (Quebec - 2001)
Starring: David La Haye, Isabelle Blais, Emmanuel Bilodeau
Director: André Turpin
Plot: Having survived a near-fatal accident, a deep-sea photographer returns after a long absence to his home in Montreal where he has to deal with the people he's left behind as well as his own fear of commitment.
Review: Turpin, having made his name as one of Quebec's best cinematographers, works both as director and cinematographer for his latest film, Soft Shell Man, a film that starts off as a typically amusing romantic comedy but eventually morphs into a deeper, emotional drama brought about by the protagonist's own flawed nature. La Haye, in one of his best roles to date, breathes life into his performance and has enough charm and confidence to make us actually care for this character despite his many faults. He is the very heart of the film and is simply terrific as the charming, lovable protagonist who tries to accommodate everyone around him, and yet is terrified by any kind of commitment. With a deft cinematic style, incisive dialogues and situations, and a colorful cast of interesting characters (all ably portrayed), Turpin has created a dramatic comedy that moves along well and is constantly engaging. With an eye for seeing the humorous side of romance and bringing a satirical look at seduction, Soft Shell Man manages to avoid the pratfalls and clichés associated with the genre and provides a core of real drama to its mostly light-hearted proceedings.
Drama / Comedy: 8/10

Trouble Every Day (France - 2001)
Starring: Vincent Gallo, Béatrice Dalle, Tricia Vessey
Director: Claire Denis
Plot: A French doctor keeps his wife locked up until he can find a cure for her cannibalistic sexual urges while an American scientist suffering from the same disease desperately tries to find them.
Review: Trouble Every Day, the latest offering from director Denis (Good Work), is an unsettling piece of "auteur" film-making, a psychological thriller turned social commentary inspired by vampire stories. Whatever else, the film is well shot, sometimes bordering on the "artsy" for its own sake but allowing for a certain mounting tension. The carnal acts, for there is no love here, are passionate, animalistic, and finally cannibalistic, with the camera calmly focusing on the succession of events, unflinching. Sex and fear have always been a favorite combination for good horror stories (see Hellraiser), and with its blend of horror, vampirism, sexual deviancy and cannibalism, Denis offers up a disturbing, violent piece in a similar vein. Unfortunately, what starts off interestingly enough soon drags on without keeping our interest. There are inklings of a pseudo-scientific explanation but no answers are really forthcoming, events only alluding to what might actually be going on, with the story-line only growing more ridiculous as it leads towards its anti-climax. If there's a message here, it's well hidden. What we're left with are some pretty revolting, unsettling graphic images without context. As for the two leads, Gallo is wooden, rarely depicting any emotion except a vague sort of ennui. Dalle, however, manages without any dialogue to portray a woman torn between her deviant lust and her rare moments of conscience. With Trouble Every Day Denis may have wanted to detail the animal attraction of sex with her own inimitable style and social view, but what comes out is a horror film that is too vague to be accepted by fans of the genre, and too flighty and disgusting to be admired by anyone else. An interesting failure, for sure, and one that may achieve cult status, perhaps.
Entertainment / Drama: 4/10

The Turandot Project (US / Germany - 2000)
Director: Allan Miller
Plot: Documentary describing the preparations and staging of Puccini's classic opera Turandot in Beijing's Forbidden City featuring an Italian and Chinese cast and crew.
Review: The Turandot Project is a look at the making of what is quite probably the largest-scale production of Puccini's Turandot, filled with hundreds of extras all dressed in intricate, colorful and authentic Ming dynasty costumes, a huge chorus, and three separate sets of singers all appearing within the confines of Beijing's Forbidden City. Internationally renown conductor Zubin Mehta enlisted the talents of film director Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern) to enliven the opera and bring it back to its true setting, taking into account Chinese sensibilities and style to create a new rendition of the classic Italian opera. Documentary director Miller has assembled an interesting account that pulls us into this revealing look at the behind-the-scenes workings in Vienna and of the huge undertaking in Beijing, of the people involved and the difficulties and frustrations in pulling it off. The focus isn't so much on the music as on the incredible style and scope of the production, its difficulties, its personal and cultural conflicts, and, finally, on the sense of wonder and accomplishment at the final cultural collaboration. For opera non-opera fans, The Turandot Project is a lively experience of an absolutely spectacular production. 
Documentary: 7/10

Va Savoir (France - 2001)
Starring: Jeanne Balibar, Sergio Castellitto, Marianne Basler
Director: Jacques Rivette
Plot: A French actress returns to Paris after a three year absence with an Italian theatre company and must face the reason for her departure - her ex-lover, a philosophy professor.
Review: Va Savoir is comedy spiced with romantic drama and quirky characters on the interconnections between film and theatre, literature and philosophy, art and life, with a plot that moves along well in sometimes surprising, off-beat directions. The first half hour is a bit slow-moving, giving the story time to set up its characters and situations but soon picks up. Rivette, the oldest of the French New Wave directors, shows off a surprising playfulness here, mixing light-hearted moments verging on the farcical with more pensive, dramatic ones. Romantic triangles between all the protagonists are set up and intertwine, presented within sequences of their theatrical performance of Pirandello's "As You Desire Me", all leading to a rather burlesque climax. The film is filled with some fine set pieces, like the embarrassing dinner party, and Rivette has an eye for the humor in these situations with a definite tenderness towards his characters. Balibar is a little strange but definitely charming in her own eccentric way, with a performance full of delicate nuances. Castellitto is also a great presence as the manager and lover pursuing his obsession to find a lost Goldoni play, as is the rest of the cast. A little long, but undeniably amusing, Va Savoir ends up being a refreshing ensemble comedy.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

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