Living La Vida Gangster
Generally, the programming agenda at SBIFF is divided into areas of Hollywood concern and otherwise, between the American/Oscar time contingent and the “international film” aspect of the festival title. But the line between those worlds isn’t as hard and fast as it might seem. Take, for example, Thursday night’s double-header, Election and Triad Election, fine examples in the Hong Kong gangster film genre. That very genre is presently being celebrated, if one step removed, in the current hooplah and Oscar buzz over Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, a remake of the Hong Kong flick Internal Affairs. Scorsese, infamous cinephile, knows something exciting is up in Hong Kong, and The Departed is as much an homage to that culture as it is an all-American roughhouse etude.
Director Johnnie To earned a Golden Palm for Election, and his sequel is just as gripping an example of the Hong Kong crime cinema touch: tough and stylish, by turns, these movies at once makes us empathize with their sleazy suave Godfathers and Godsons, thugs and acrobats. But we don’t cry much when they meet untimely, unsavory ends. If echoes of The Godfather franchise abound in the films, there is something distinctly Eastern about their perspectives, both in terms of filmic cadences and style, and certain lines of dialogue, as when, before a snitch meets his end, the killer advises him to “wise up in your next life.”
Hand-held camera and close-up examinations of violence were themes common to two otherwise disparate films seen on Thursday, director Andrea Arnold’s intense and personal Scottish film Red Road, and Polish director Slawomir Fabicki’s Retrieval. Themes of voyeurism and untold past sins course beneath the surface of the hypnotic Red Road, about a female cop in a rough neighborhood in Glasgow, who becomes obsessed with a keen interest in a certain lowlife, for reasons we only later discover. Included in her process is one of the most tersely erotic scenes in any of the festival films (so far), but even that comes lined with ulterior motives.
Retrieval takes on the savagery and innocence blended into the person of one strong but confused and sensitive young man, pressed into service of thuggery while caring for his Ukrainian wife. Storyline and sensory rattling aside, the film creates a seamless bond of form and content, in a naturalistic style common in Eastern European film.
And then, in yet another corner of the cinematic universe, Pavel Lunguin’s film The Island is a disarmingly involving study of a half-crazed monk on a remote island in Russia. For reasons we learn in the pre-credit prologue, Anatoly is something of a slovenly mystic and healer, which draws the sick of body and mind, and also the scorn and also the heartened appeals of his more “normal” brothers at the monastery.
Who woulda thunk that Russian monks would make for such involving cinema? Yet another lesson learned at the festival.
Josef’s previous film festival blogs:
Film-about-film themes and in-jokes somehow just go down easier when you’re mentally lost in the thicket of a film festival. Two films screened on Wednesday at SBIFF ‘007—the Hollywood Man in the Chair and the Dutch film Waiter—bore out that theory, giving the film-obsessed among us something to chuckle knowingly about, even though the films themselves are flawed and nothing too special.
After the screening of Man in the Chair, writer-director Michael Schroeder talked about how he had been plugging along as a B-film director, making eight forgettable films in eight years, and wanting to finally make something he was personally attached to and proud of. He should be proud, even if the film doesn’t quite hit artistic “money.” The script is fairly larded up with quips and quotations, from Nietzsche to Hunter S. Thompson, but it contains plenty of both indie “feel good” moments and old Hollywood nostalgia. (“The glitter stops at La Brea” is but one true and metaphorical statement).
At one point, a veteran gaffer dresses down a big shot producer: “I’ve seen the celluloid abortions you call movies,” to which the producer replies, “Those abortions have won me some brass dolls.” They’re speaking English, by way of Damon Runyon and timeless glib Hollywoodese.
It’s also a hoot to hear a scraggly Christopher Plummer spewing gutter wisdom and potty mouth lingo, a la Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine. Everyone’s favorite character actor M. Emmett Walsh dishes out a rolling bellyful of character, too.
With the clever and drolly funny Waiter, Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam throws his hat into the genre of screenwriter as pliable God, with obvious comparisons to Barton Fink, Stranger than Fiction and Adaptation, and also with those films’ shortcomings of implausibility after the charm of the conceit wears off. Characters—particularly our hapless waiter protagonist—bemoan their fate at the hands of fickle a writer’s imagination and seek to alter destiny. Waiter is a cleanly-made and left-of-center film, though, with two of the funnier scenes yet seen in this festival: In one, the simple ultra-fastidiousness of a bizarre bow and arrow salesman’s wrapping job, and another Dadaistic scene in which our waiter abruptly starts chanting “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” (spoiler alert), the result of the screenwriter has fallen asleep on the job and is resting on the “a” key.
Also Seen Dept.: The Korean film The King and the Clown is your not-so basic tragicomic tale of jesters at the mercy of royalty in 16th-century Korea, and is a blockbuster success in its native country. The film is also a remarkably beautiful film to look at, from the costumes to the glow of virtually every neatly-composed shot. In this tale, the king is a sadistic buffoon, while his jesters are innately wise, even as they skewer the corruption and cruelty of the man in charge. Hmm, sounds kind of like George Bush and John Stewart, the foolish king and the profound jester.
Reviews of Films from Around the World
It’s clear by now that SBIFF has come to embrace its identity as a multiple-identity affair. Hollywood folks come up to gab, be seen, and grease the wheels of Oscar buzzdom, to the delight of the star-stricken in all of us.
But every year, it also becomes more apparent that the real meat and soul of this festival is in the actual “film” part of the equation, as a vital art form and also as a line of “other” consciousness. For 10 days, we get big screen access — direct or otherwise — to other perspectives and stories from outside the usual U.S./Euro-centric system.
Three examples of that alternative viewpoint screened on Tuesday, halfway through the 10-day fest.
Blessed by Fire
The rough but intriguing Argentinean film Blessed by Fire dealt with that country’s brief by bloody skirmish with the mighty Brits over the Falkland Islands in 1982. In director Tristan Bauer’s then-and-now chronological crosscut style, we move across the tale of a veteran’s suicide attempt in Buenos Aires in present-day and the mud and blood and grimy reality of that standoff on the island back when. Time is compressed in the mind of a battle-scarred veteran, who can never forget the war, and the subtext of this film is that, even with a conflict forgotten or neglected even in their own country, let alone the world, the harsh reality of life on the front line is the same for all soliders in the line of fire.
Speaking of altered time sensibilities, Ten Canoes — clearly one of the finest films of this festival — is a fascinating Australian film about Aboriginal life, seen as part of the Native American subseries in the festival, which also included the hypnotic The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (about Inuit life). Directed by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, Ten Canoes is a stylistic triumph, laid out in layered storytelling fashion, half truth and half myth, blessed with a sense of being submerged in another, more native way of being.
Another highlight of the festival so far is Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door, Italy’s Academy Award nominee, but without the familiar gloss common to many foreign film nominees. Like Ten Canoes, but in its own indigenous way, this feels like insider’s cinema — a tale of a rural Italian immigrant family’s trek to American in the 19th century. It’s a naturalistic rite of passage saga from old to new world, with a prolonged middle passage through the purgatory of Ellis Island. On another level, it is but one slice of the great American story, the one about a nation of immigrant still grappling with a sense of who belongs and who doesn’t.
Revolutions, Favorites, and Alzheimers
12:08 East of Bucharest
Three Romanian men, from middle-aged to Santa Claus-ian, sit around talking on a charmingly cheap television set. The subject of this talk show: the town’s response to the Bucharest revolution of 1989, on its anniversary sixteen years later. The men — and their caustic callers — dive into minutiae, accusations, character mauling, and sneak attack dry, high comedy. This is eastern European talk show culture at its humblest, and cinema at its most delightful quirky and absurd, with shades of the great old talk show satire Fernwood Tonight (with Martin Mull and Fred Willard) and Eugene Ionesco.
In short, director Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08, East of Bucharest, one of the oddball charmers of SBIFF ‘007, is a classic example of the idea that some of the high points of this festival sneak in through a side door, and from an unexpected niche of the world cinema scene. There are long stretches where it appears nothing is happening, but the provincial warmth and Eastern Euro-slacker humor are always humming beneath the surface. The film itself also has moments of disarming beauty, as in the sweet, symmetrical framing device of omniscient shots of the city’s lights as they shut off at dawn and on again at dusk. It’s a day in the life of a post-iron curtain city, and of a little corner of planet earth.
(12:08, East of Bucharest will screen again on, Thursday, February 1 at 4:30 p.m. and February 3 at 1:15 p.m.)
From Spain, we caught DarkBlueAlmostBlack, from newcomer director Daniel Sanchez Arevalo. (It’s one of those films over which festival director Roger Durling violates his policy to avoid the “f” word—as in one of his “favorites.”) It is charming and in ways entirely different and more in-your-face than 12:08, wriggling its way towards an Almodovar-ish mixture of kinkiness and sentimentality. The film doesn’t get to that exalted state, and maybe it’s unfair to make the comparison, but Almodovar has raised a high bar in Spanish cinema and beyond. It’s hard to stay out of his shadow when dealing with matters of the Spanish heart and groin.
(DarkBlueAlmost Black screens again today, January 30, at 4:30 p.m., January 31 at 1:30 p.m., and February 2 at 4:30 p.m.)
Away from Her
Often in the complex, collaborative medium of film, an overall work may be flawed, but is rescued by some element or another. That’s certainly the case with the Sarah Polley-directed Canadian film Away from Her, a sometimes poignant, sometimes prosaic and education film-ish tale about a couple’s slide into Alzheimer’s cruel sunset. But the film is mostly recommended for the luminous and calibrated performance by one Julie Christie. She’s got glowing, elderly beauty in check, and a subtle range of emotional connections, complicated by the crossed wires and foggy pockets of her condition. Early in the film, she distractedly muses “I think I may be starting to disappear.” The ensuing performance fleshes out that very notion of a human disappearing act, but with regular flashes of insight and emotional epiphanies along the way.
Hers may be the finest performance of SBIFF ‘007. The next few days will tell.
From East Germany to Mexico City to Kurismaki
You know it’s film festival time in Santa Barbara when, on a cold and soggy Sunday, you can map out the dopest route between several films moviefone has never heard of. From late morning to midnight, the dogged festivalgoer could take in The Lives of Others, a newly-Oscar nominated German film about Stasi, the secret police force; a cool and arty Mexican documentary, In the Pit, about a bridge construction in Mexico City (as much a profile of the working class as the project); the dazzlingly, mock-doc reconstructed Inuit-meets-Danish explorer tale of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen; and the happy story-crossing atmospheric French froth of Avenue Montaigne.
Oh, and most impressive of all (for those in tune with the director’s unique vision), we got a look-see at the latest from director Aki (Man without a Past) Kaurismaki, Finland’s Jim Jarmusch. Like Jarmusch, Kaurismaki knows about the imperative of the well-composed, unhurried shot and the potential expressive power of gently-broken rules and expectations in cinema. His new one, Lights in the Dusk, about a hapless loner for whom fate has a pocket full of woe in store, is full of his own brand of neo-Finnish-noir. Color and lighting are worth the price of admission, as is the hypnotic and formal pace and texture. Even this glum and tawdry femme fatale tale in Helsinki feels like a zestier version of a Robert Bresson film.
Generally, Sunday’s crop represent the kinds of films which the expanding universe of film festivals (reportedly now up to 1,400 worldwide) is ideally suited. Which among them can we expect to find in regular release over the next year? The Lives of Others, an engaging and poignant history lesson about East Berlin in the last gasping years before the Wall fell, stands a strong shot at the arthouse circuit. (A trailer from that film is below.) Avenue Montaigne is a feelgoody tapestry, probably headed for an arthouse near you/us.
Alas, Kaurismaki’s new one — not as strong as Man Without a Past, but stunning nonethelees — may not make that public screening grade. But he’s one of those acquired tastes and festival icons well worth seeking out, coming soon to a DVD outlet or Netflix near you.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s Antics Revealed; Three Films from Day One
On day one of SBIFF ‘007, the intrepid or hopeless event hopper could have taken in excellent film experiences from Croatia (Grbavica), Russia (The Italian), and even Iraq (Ahlaam), all highly recommended viewing, and also Kazakhstan… not. Yes, this was the day Borat graced our fair city, in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen (pictured by Paul Wellman), appearing as SBC, in five-o’clock shadow and a baseball cap festooned with a bear. Cohen and his smash hit film descended on the Lobero, with a screening and a strange, strained conversation with the man/men of the hour in Hollywood.
There were three other guys from the movie onstage — the producer and two writers — but frankly, nobody cared about them. Such is the power of a new superstar on the comedic landscape: when he appears, we hang on his every word (of which the mum, and sometimes glum Cohen was reluctant to give much) and await the comic sexy time (which he delivered a bit of, heeding the wisdom of aiming at genitalia, at one point offering a female audience member the chance to confirm that his package was in order).
Pity interviewer Leonard Maltin, who did his level best as straight man/fall guy interviewer on a crooked playing field. But he acquitted himself nicely and even personally registered on the laff Richter scale. Asked if he was innately fearless, Cohen hemmed, hawed, and finally admitted “at the end of the day, I want to make the funniest film possible. Sacrifices have to be made. I was ready to have a man sit on my face.” He also admitted that “Peter Sellers was always my hero. You believed Clousseau really existed.” Ditto Borat. During the audience Q&A segment, Bunny Bernhardt, bless her heart, appeared as a faux Kazakh woman and gave Cohen a bouquet. “I thought she was going to shoot me,” he said after, then asked the next man at the microphone “you have no flowers for me?” At some point, the taciturn Cohen had had enough: “this is the revenge of the American people, isn’t it?”
And the Movies?
From the film front (oh yeah, that), Grbavica is a powerful slice-of-life from post-war Bosnia, in the not-so-peaceful aftermath of the conflicts there. The film, which shows again Sunday, January 28, at the Metro 4, plays like a sober but ultimately hopeful sequel to another, much more harrowing film seen at SBIFF many years ago, Vukovar.
The Italian is the sweetest and most filmic orphan tearjerker you’re likely to find at the moment. (It plays again Tuesday, January 30, 7:30 p.m. at the Lobero and Wednesday, January 31, 4 p.m., at the Metro 4.)
And, quite seriously, writer-director Mohamed Al-Daradji’s brave film Ahlaam, shot guerilla-style in wartorn Baghdad, confirms a core value of this and other film festivals: they connect us with the living, breathing world far outside Hollywood’s petty interest, tapping the contemporary world’s woes and joys in ways mass corporate media has grown increasingly inept at.
After the screening, Al-Daradhi spoke with the audience and explained his rationale for making the film, offering that “the process for me was to say `who are you and what are you doing?’” That’s a stirring manifesto, especially under the circumstances, still raging.