2003 Reviews

Here are my reviews of some of the films that appeared at the 32nd edition of the Montreal International Festival of New Cinema and New Media.

Distant (Uzak) (Turkey - 2002) 
Starring: Muzaffer Özdemir, Emin Toprak, Zuhal Gencer Erkaya
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Plot: A lonely, unhappy commercial photographer living in the big city relunctantly accepts to share his appartment for a short period with an unemployed younger relative from his small hometown.
Review: Uzak (Distant) is a contemporary urban drama, but one that takes its two individuals and makes a general statement that's hard to argue with. From a simple premise (the introverted, literate city dweller meets the rural laborer), the quiet narrative approaches a peculiar type of tragedy, an everyday one that pervades much of modern society. For the middle-aged photographer secure in his own world with his books and TV, surrounded by barriers of his own making, the bumbling, uneducated cousin becomes a burden. He feels somehow responsible, and yet disdains this family connection and resents the everyday intrusion. The film works as a contemplative observation of our modern societies, with the slow but deliberate narrative capturing the ennui, the pervasive alienation of its characters, lost in their own social exclusion. Each of them is distant from the touch, the looks, and the comfort of other human beings, and have learnt to be disconnected from their surroundings and the people around them. With little verbal communication to be had, writer / director Ceylan sets the stage for various banal-seeming sequences which eventually end up being more observant than a direct exposition, leaving audiences to gain knowledge of these two mismatched souls through long, static shots. Yet, these lengthy bits - some of which will undoubtedly put most mainstream viewers to sleep - are necessary to get the message across, to help capture this loneliness of contemporary life. There's a feeling of resigned sadness to be found in every frame, of growing disillusionment and slow despair. The cast is impeccable, with both leads showing the air of people sleepwalking in their own lives, looking for comfort but afraid to connect with something that might hurt them. Uzak, with careful, deliberate measures, comes close to revealing the real distances among us. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.
Drama: 8/10

Dogville (2003)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall 
Director: Lars von Trier
Plot: A woman on the run from gangsters in Depression era America, finds refuge in a small mountain town and its welcoming citizens, only to be subjected to a gradual humiliation and oppression from the villagers as time passes.
Review: Dogville is a tale of oppression told in 9 Chapters (and a Prologue). The first half sets up the situation, slowly, sympathetically, letting our heroine loosen her guard and accepting her new lot before bringing the worst of its denizens to bear. From this point on, she is forced to accept and somehow forgives so many small and large indignities and humiliations (including physical and psychological torture and rape) that one is appalled. The story takes its time to build its main protagonist up as a smiling, courageous martyr, while every single other character are unmasked as despicable human beings. There is a final reckoning to be had, and though satisfying in a mainstream sense, it brings other questions to bear. The sets making up the town are reduced to chalk marks on the floor, some necessary pieces of furniture encompassed in invisible walls, all presented on a large indoor soundstage. The minimalist sets and acting gives the whole proceeding a very theatrical feel, one that at first leaves audiences at a distance. But thanks to a surprisingly visceral script and some fine acting by a top-notch cast, we are quickly taken into the story. Headlined by a terrific Kidman, the impressive cast really work to make this believable. Writer / director Trier shot the whole thing himself, much of which was done with a portable camera, giving it all a gritty sensibility. Soon, what was at first an impersonal cinematic gimmick becomes intensely intimate. Sure, it's all exceedingly manipulative, meant to shove Trier's theme of arrogance and of oppression, a critique of American imperialistic oppression, a satire of the “good Christian” values and charity that are an excuse for self-aggrandizing and moral superiority to the detriment of others. One can strongly like or dislike his style of storytelling, his philosophy or subject, but there is no denying that Trier is a master filmmaker who manages to slip under our skin and punch us in the stomach at the same time. One might balk at his political views, but just like his earlier works such as Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, Trier doesn't flinch from showing the worst of society straight on. Dogville is definitely not pleasant cinema, or an enjoyable experience, but it will definitely leave an indelible impression on its audience. (See also the extended review of the film).
Drama: 9/10

The Far Side of the Moon (La Face cachée de la lune) (Quebec - 2003) 
Starring: Robert Lepage, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Marco Poulin
Director: Robert Lepage 
Plot: After the death of his mother, a failed professor tries to finish his doctorate degree on the Space Race by recruiting the help of a famous, and hard to reach, Russian astronaut while trying to make sense of his life and his relationship with his younger, more successful brother.
Review: Famed theater and cinema writer / actor / director Robert Lepage (Possible Worlds, ) has brought his successful play The Far Side of the Moon to the big screen, and it's a terrific little adaptation on the questions on the cosmos, on Man's attraction, indeed fascination, towards the stars. His usual inventiveness is much in evidence, as is his social humor and his philosophical meanderings, making for both a thoughtful and entertaining outing. Working on the dual themes of family reconciliation and our place in the universe, the story intermingles childhood remembrances, the sense of mourning and brotherly rivalry, all taking place in parallel to the history of the conquest of space and the Cold War. Though the text may be the same, Lepage has added many moments that are quite cinematic and interesting, such as some terrific cuts blending space footage and his everyday life. The seemingly carefree way about which everything unfolds, and the stellar camerawork, rich colors and fine cinematography, makes the trip immensely enjoyable, but there's no doubt this is a finely tuned, precise narrative. Lepage decided to play both brothers, and presents two characters with very different personalities, one awkward and introverted, the other self-assured, successful, and gay. The dialogue between them alone is worth the price of admission. The Far Side of the Moon doesn't offer any deep pondering by any means, but with its playfulness and imagination it is a delightful little gem of a movie.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

Good Bye Lenin! (Germany - 2002)
Starring: Daniel Bruhl, Katrin Sass, Maria Simon
Director: Wolfgang Becker
Plot: In the late 1980's, a teenaged son and his sister living in East Germany are at their wits end when they try to cover up the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unifcation of Germany from their socialist mother who's just come out of a one-year coma.
Review: Good Bye Lenin! is a light-hearted comedy, a satire on the changing face of an Eastern-block nation opening up to a very different kind of society. It's a coming of age story for both its protagonists and their divided country, their transformation paralleled in their surroundings, as Coca-Cola trucks drive by, posters of scantily-clad women deface building walls, and all-night Burger Kings pop up replacing the statues of Lenin and the billowing Red Flags. There's also a sentimental mother-son relationship at the heart of the film, and a search for a missing father, long gone to the West. Yet, it's nowhere near being a serious view of the historical event and thanks to a fine, charming cast it works in a mainstream kind of way. Most of the chuckle-friendly comedy comes from the inventive and soon very complicated charade being played out to explain all the changes around the socialist hardliner. But its filmmakers also want to make a point showing the problems that occurred when East meets West, or at least West invades East in the form of capitalist advertisement and products overruning the slow, safe routine of a communist existence. Though it makes fun at the situations, and pokes fun at both sides of the fence,the film is sympathetic to the plight of a a population used to a very different type of propaganda, now forced to readapt to a "free market". Director Becker does an efficient job at focusing on the daily lives of its main characters, at the quick change in lifestyle and ideaology, at the shift in priorities due to the sudden influx of new ideals. With its solid production values, sets and attire, the film brings back a certain nostalgia of the late 80s, with feelings at odds between bleak future and infinite possibilities. Leaving the political implications behind, Good Bye Lenin! makes for an amusing, and occasionally touching, look at the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Comedy / Drama: 6/10

His Brother (Son frère) (France - 2003)
Starring: Bruno Todeschini, Eric Caravaca, Nathalie Boutefeu 
Director: Patrice Chéreau
Plot: Two estranged brothers, now in their 30's, are forced together and must face their differences when the eldest one comes down with a an incurable blood disease and asks his younger sibling for help.
Review: Based on a book by Philippe Besson, His Brother is a dramatic experience, a film that first and foremost captures the sense of loss and suffering, of quiet wasting away, and finally of acceptance in man for whom life is no longer bearable. It also captures the difficulty for the people left around him, still healthy but emotionally and psychologically unprepared to have someone previously of such vitality and independence reduced to a husk of his former self. There is no real story as such, though we do experience the frustrations of the characters, the slow rapprochement of the two brothers trying to look beyond their differences, and their slow rekindling of their fraternal bond. Wanting to bring a certain realism to the film (à la cinéma vérité), director Chéreau (who won praise for his film Intimacy) uses a hand-held video-camera, close-ups, and sometimes long, silent shots in a film devoid of music (except for a particularly jarring scene). The human body is the real subject here, fragile, naked, placed in the hands of others to be manipulated and prodded. In other European hands this could have been awkward or sleep-inducing, but there is a definite sensibility and raw emotional energy that grabs our attention. The camera bears an unrelenting eye on the sometimes clinical, cold efficiency on his hospitalization (an extended scene as nurses prepare him for surgery is a harrowing comment), the sense of powerlessness of the surrounding family members, and the everyday lives of its protagonists in a look that is always disturbingly intimate. The only flight of fantasy here is a dream sequence, where the younger brother sees himself as the sick one, bringing the metaphor of culpability to the fore. The cast is superb in bringing all these feelings to the screen, without emoting, with but a look or a body movement, they make us believe and understand. His Brother is not always an easy film to sit through, but it is definitely a memorable one.
Drama: 7/10

Memories of Murder (South Korea - 2003)
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Roe-ha Kim
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Plot: A small town cop with a violent temper and a big city detective are at a loss to stop a vicious, methodical serial killer despite the many suspects they bring in.
Review: Based on a true story of an unsolved crime investigation during a time when South Korea was coming to terms with its own, new entity as a democratic state, Memories of Murder is not meant to be a clichéd cop thriller. This is first and foremost a police drama, one with the usual trappings perhaps (violent murders, mysterious assailant, cop procedurals, violent conflicts, etc) but one who's real aim is to bring to light the difficulties of a society in facing a very different type of criminal. As the film starts off, the characters are quite stereotypically given life: the blundering small-town cop who's gotten over his head and is just looking for a culprit, and the educated big-city inspector who has the "right" way of getting things done. However, both are just as inexperienced as the rest of the police in facing crimes of this magnitude. As time passes the narrative becomes more complex and the leads begin to transform under pressure while dealing with a government that is too busy suppressing its own citizens to put resources into a proper investigation. In the end, as their options dwindle, the roles end up reversed. To make this work we need to believe in these characters, and the two leads give very good performances as two anti-heroes, and the film is all the better for it. Director Joon-ho Bong (who's previous film was the dark comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite) shows he can capture the feel of a different type of dramatic effort, and do it well. There are some humorous touches here and there, especially as the bumbling Keystone-Cop-like local police try to pin the murders on anyone they can, but this turns to a dark, almost cruel drama as things stall. Unfortunately, despite some good intentions and some effective narrative bits, the film is a bit too disjointed in terms of pacing with moments that seem unnecessary and slow-moving. Worse, it never quite achieves its goal of showing its society's loss of innocence in light of these gruesome events. The mystery itself has its share of twists and turns, none of which end up with any satisfactory result, which might be the intention. As a social or political commentary, Memories of Murder doesn't quite achieve its goals, but as an intriguing look at the downward spiral of two cops, its a well-executed, precise affair.
Drama: 6/10

Noi Albinoi (Iceland - 2003)
Starring: Thsmas Lemarquis, Thrvstur Les Gunnarsson, Elmn Hansdsttir
Director: Dagur Kari
Plot: A teenager, bored with school and life in his small Iceland village in a remote icy fjord, dreams of escaping his surroundings with the city girl who works at the local diner, but his plans end up getting out of hand.
Review: On its surface, Noi Albinoi is a coming-of-age tale set in small-town Iceland but soon turns to more than that, becoming a window to a social apathy and feelings of isolation that affects a whole community. Using a cast of unknowns, director Kari's first feature easily captures the daunting, cold surroundings and the inherent boredom of its insular people. The main protagonist, the titular Nsi, is a tragic figure: a smart boy who has lost all hope for the future, or indeed who might never have had a chance to hope for any, trying to rebel and get out of his surroundings but inevitably stuck in a life where he can find no exit. It's an often-used, universal teenage theme, but here it feels even more true - there really are no options. Shot with low light - giving the film a gritty, blue- and green-tinted hue amongst the abundant snow - suing constant close-ups of enclosed spaces, the film brings an atmosphere of claustrophobia. It's a feeling that's also expressed in the narrative, as the young man contemplates his very limited prospects for the future. His close social circle, made up of his half-sane grandma, his drunken but well-meaning father, and the local used-book seller, give the impression of a stagnating, hopless life. As the narrative progresses, there's a definite sense of a life teetering between boredom and oblivion that settles in. Even the employment aspects are clear dead-ends (case in point: his first real job is digging graves in the dead of winter when the earth is hard as rock). Yet, this is not all a perverse, depressing drama - the film is also observant enough, and on occasion the script clever enough, to show some cases of humour and possible joy. That these always end up for naught is another matter. As for the climactic, disastrous tragedy it might well be a final, drastic way out or another step in despair - take your pick. Noi Albinoi isn't quite a masterpiece, but in capturing the dead-end life of its outcast character and his inhospitable surroundings, it hits all the right notes.
Drama: 7/10

The Saddest Music in the World (Canada - 2003)
Starring: Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros
Director: Guy Maddin
Plot: During the Great Depression, a snow-covered Canadian town becomes the center of attention and the focal point for two estranged brothers, one a grieving widower, the other a Broadway shyster, when the local beer baroness opens up an international contest to find the saddest music ever written.
Review: How to describe a film that defies standard descriptions? A musical comedy harkening back to the old Hollywood pictures, The Saddest Music in the World is a wacky, over-the-top farce that can also be moving and almost poetic. Winnipeg director Maddin (Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary) displays as much gusto as he ever has - if not more so - and plays with the film's visuals as if it were an experimental era film. It's also his most straight-forward one, narrative-wise, and his most mainstream. Not that it will ever become a popular sort of film, the constant changes in camera angles and film stock can get on one's nerves, but as a cult and art-house entertainment, it's sure to please. Shot to look and feel like an old-style black-and-white film of the early 30's (one with grand theatricality) but with a modern music-video-type editing, the narrative is full of attention-grabbing events and details. The music and songs give a quick overview of world music and culture as seen through Hollywood's heydays, and the musical numbers only get more extravagant and ludicrous as the film goes on. Maddin usually seems to have difficulty keeping up the level of energy and invention on a feature-length effort, but here he manages to balance all his elements well - at times farcical or melodramatic, ridiculous or poignant, the film is always interesting and even occasionally brilliant. Lots of absurd moments enliven the story, such as the queen of beer dancing on glass legs, or the narrative told in large newspaper captions, or the battle-of-the-bands style musical contest itself, with the winners sliding into a vat of beer. The cast is also pretty good, with smarmy, wise-guy McKinney sharing the spotlight with the grand Rossellini in her most demented role yet. There's no doubt that the film is a definite jab at American super-productions that razzle-dazzle at the expense of more intimate (and local) fare, but everyone gets a put down, not least of which are the Canadian protagonists. Though it might be too weird or extravagant for some, The Saddest Music in the World is still a definite success.
Entertainment: 8/10

Zatoichi (Japan - 2003) 
Starring: Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano), Michiyo Ogusu, Taka Gatarukanaru
Director: Takeshi Kitano 
Plot: A wandering blind masseur, who just happens to also be a master swordsman, confronts the criminal gang controlling a small town where he crosses the paths of two geishas looking for revenge and faces a powerful ronin for hire.
Review: A modern remake of the popular classic series of the 1960's, Zatoichi is a brightly lit, comical take on the standard samurai flick that still maintains its roots. For those who have seen the original material, the stories told here will be familiar as are the popular elements of melodrama, effacing humor and fast-paced swordplay. But if the plot is old, other things have changed: Zatoichi himself has been turned blonde, for one, the dialogue uses modern slang, and the ballet-like swordplay that fans know and love has been replaced by special effects and quick editing though the duels are well choreographed and visceral. What made the series, and this film, enjoyable isn't the run-of-the-mill samurai tale or its cast of standard characters, but the portrayal of its main protagonist, a sort of jolly anti-hero who had his share of vices (drinking and gambling) and yet had a heart of gold and a very Zen-like demeanor. What we get here is a well executed mix of action set pieces, sentimentality and slapstick, the film changing tones with fine aplomb. Though this is his first take outside the modern era, the film seems like a good fit for actor / director Kitano who has made his name with bloody, and yet sometimes surprisingly touching, gangster films like Fireworks and Brother. This is just as violent as Kitano's other fare, but there's an excess that appears plain gratuitous after a while, what with all the CGI-enhanced blood-letting and blade-pierced bodies. The final musical number (including some tap dancing) is engaging and amusing, inserted as an added wink to the audience, but it's a little off-putting, as if saying the whole movie was just a show. Throughout, however, Kitano seems to know and respect the character, never quite pushing the film into the ridiculous. In the end, purists may cry "foul" to all the modifications (and modernizations) to the much-loved series, but those open enough (and those who have never experienced the series) will enjoy this new breed of Zatoichi.
Entertainment: 7/10

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