Tag Archives: foreign films

TIFF18: Everybody Knows

What I went into the movie knowing: family wedding, family secrets. What I didn’t know, and would come to understand, was the little unifier between the two: kidnapping. Which tends to ruin the wedding part, or dampen it at least, depending on who disappears, but it’s quite fertile in terms of secrets.

Laura (Penelope Cruz) returns to Spain for her little sister’s wedding, her teenage daughter Irene and young son in tow, husband left behind in Argentina for work.

Laura is happy to reconnect with sisters, parents, and dear friend\ex-lover Paco (Javier Bardem), who is himself happily married. Whatever used to be between them seems to have dissolved to merely friendship, though I’m not certain if everyone else is really convinced of that. At any rate, the wedding in the village church is beautiful and nothing can ruin it – not when Irene mischievously rings the bells in the clock tower during mass, and not when the priest takes the opportunity to hint heavily that Laura’s wealthy (but absent) husband should pay for its repair as he did for the church renovations. A MV5BN2ZjNDc3ZTUtZjJiNS00ZTBjLWEyNzYtOTFkMGE1YmYxN2NiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_reception follows in the courtyard of the family hotel. It is high-spirited, with lots of happy guests drinking, dancing, and making merry. Irene steals one too many unattended glasses of wine and retires to an early bedtime, with her little brother. But then the power goes out and Irene goes missing, which is when things get interesting.

Although I felt the film a tad overlong, Everyone Knows is engrossing thanks to its clever trail of breadcrumbs. A terrific ensemble cast helps pull this off, essential when everyone’s a suspect – even the crime itself is suspicious.

As those all-important first 48 hours tick by, we get to know our characters (or should I say suspects?) at their worst, which is an intimate introduction indeed. Old secrets are unfurled as new ones are forged and kept guarded – soon the whole village is under a dark cloud of tension. And sure, they milk the tension a little longer than is fair. It’s moody and captivating but doesn’t quite know when to call it quits.

Seeing real-life lovers Cruz and Bardem act opposite each other is always a treat, and both get to flex a little – if not to impress us, then each other. Cruz has real fire (her real-life children with Bardem likely help ignite her mama bear instincts), and combined with her seductive beauty, imagine the difficulty I had taking my eyes off her long enough to read the subtitles. The struggle is real – multiplied by however many Penelope-lookalikes hired to play her sisters are on screen at any given time. The film’s got some challenges, you bet, but all obstacles can be overcome given sufficient motivation.

Advertisements

TIFF18: Roma

Roma is the kind of movie that births film criticism. It will be used as the golden example in so many future texts I ache to think how many words will eventually be written about it and can’t quite fathom it.

Mexico City, 1971, a young family is having a rough time. Mom and Dad were fighting a lot, before he left, and now they do it on the phone, when he remembers to call. Four young kids are feeling vulnerable and acting out. Two young servants are trying to keep it all from falling apart. But one of them, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), is going through her own private crisis as well. She’s pregnant, and the father has run off. Fearing for her job but unable to return home to her religious family, her current situation is tenuous and her future uncertain.

This is the semi-autobiographical work by Alfonso Cuaron about that crazy time in his MV5BNGEyMTgxZDYtOGUyZC00NDk5LWEwYjUtODcxYmZjNjFmZTFkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTA2ODMzMDU@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1502,1000_AL_childhood when his beloved maid’s unexpected pregnancy collided with his parents’ bitter divorce. It marked him for life, and all these years later he’s strung together the haunting images from that period and used his memory to paint in the rest. He’s only a minor character in the film, it’s really an ode to the women who raised him: his mother, the two servants, and Mexico herself.

Cuaron immerses us in Mexico circa 1971. Filmed in starkly beautiful black and white, you can’t help but drink it all in, everything from the airplanes overhead, to the geese in flagrante delicto, the muddy markets and the local cinemas, the grassfires and New Year’s Eve traditions, rooftop laundry and candlelit chores, every scene is packed with loving details to a time and place Cuaron clearly treasures. His camera moves slowly, soaking up detail, lingering lovingly in quiet places. His trademark long takes emphasize time and space – the big house compared to the servant’s quarters, and the time Cleo devotes to undoing the naughty work of busy children. The sound design is incredible. At times I was overwhelmed by the layers of noise in the city – hawkers, vendors, tradespeople, cars, trucks, buses, dogs barking, children playing, marching bands tooting their various horns in seemingly random parades.

Roma is of course shot in Spanish and subtitled with care. It is obviously composed with great care as well, with so many interesting angles and viewpoints (a Christmas party filmed at child height, for example) and depths of field. Lensed by Cuaron himself (Emmanuel Lubezki was unavailable, but his collaboration in pre-production means his DNA’s all over it, Cuaron assures us), he often keeps his entire shot in crisp focus, with as much going on in the background as the foreground – but when the focus goes soft, it’s for good reason. Take note.

This film brims with the kind of personal detail that makes it truly unique. I especially liked seeing the young boys clearly obsessed with outer space – posters, toys, and astronaut costumes – you can’t fail to think that these are the origins of Gravity. Indeed, Cuaron has left a little piece of his heart on the screen. It is not sentimental, but it is affectionate, made with love. And I think it will be received, by audiences and the Academy, with nothing but.

Fantasia Film Festival Wrap Up

Cinderella The Cat

Um.

Where to start. This is an animated film, but do not let that that mistake you into thinking this is benign in anyway.  Mia, the “Cinderella” in question, was a little girl aboard a ship of dreams, a ship her father was going to turn into some wildly successful, hologram heavy, extremely technologically advanced…something. MV5BMjMyNTFkYzEtNmI3Mi00MGVkLTkyYTgtMTJhN2Q1MzQzMjgyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTMxODk2OTU@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_Cruiseship? Tourist destination? Curiosity? Lab? Impossible to say because it never happens. Instead her father gets tricked into marrying an evil woman, a woman who has schemed with her evil boyfriend to steal Mia’s dad’s fortune by murdering him on their wedding day, directly after the vows. And they do. And then they for some reason have to wait 12 long years until Mia comes of age and inherits her fortune, which they’re certain she’ll sign over to them. Which makes no sense because for 12 years, Mia’s evil stepmother and her 6 evil stepsisters force her to be their maid as they all live aboard the crumbling ghost of the ship. They hate her for sure and the feeling is mutual but in this case I can’t help but think that the maid fate is actually quite lucky – stepmother forces her own daughters into prostitution.

Anyway, it’s an ugly, sordid tale that I didn’t enjoy. There were no glass slippers, though there are shoes used for drug trafficking. Did you always secretly want your Cinderella with a side of tits and guns and racial slurs? Boy have I got an Italian film for you.

Ajin: Demi Human

An Ajin is a demi-human, as in a human who comes back to life after death. Immediately. 46 are known to exist worldwide, but more are likely in hiding, because their fates are undesirable. These ‘immortals’ are being captured in Japan, by their own government, for sadistic testing. Alive while their limbs are systematically amputated, for example, they are tortured day in and day out until MV5BMzIwYzFiNWItZTM0OC00ZDE0LWE4MTktMTkxY2M2NDRmZjM4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQxNjcxNQ@@._V1_they succumb. And then they live to do it again.

When demi-human Kei Nagai is sprung from such a lab by another Ajin and former captive, he’s only relieved for a few minutes before realizing that his saviour is going to ask something in return. Something big. But the movie doesn’t dwell on complicated facts or feelings or characters or situations. It’s time for violence! Stunning, beautifully-choreographed violence, which includes a nifty (and probably unnecessary) Ajin perk: a ghost monster who comes out of them and fights alongside them – there’s something familiar about it, maybe not quite Transformery or Pacific Rimy, because it’s smaller scale, but still. The fight scenes are crazy. And the director knows that’s all you came for, so dispenses of all the details.

 

 

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

In the early 90s, a group called ACT UP Paris is putting pressure on the government and the pharmaceutical companies to do more, to do something to combat the AIDS epidemic.

I’ve seen lots of great documentaries about AIDS advocacy in the 80s and 90s and am forever in awe of how the gay community basically saved themselves. They had to. Of course the world was immediately scared of AIDS, but this was at a time that they were still afraid of homosexuality as well. HIV as not exactly a sympathy magnet. People thought it would basically kill off a bunch of deviants and sinners, and lots were okay with that. So the gay community rallied for itself. Even as they were being decimated by a unforgiving disease, they had to organize and go to bat for basic things like treatment and education and access and understanding and when all else failed, for the right to have their partners hold their hands while dying.

1238247So the truth of a film like BPM (aka Beats Per Minute aka 120 battements par minute) hurts. It hurts to see such a strong group of people fighting to save their own lives, but watching the group, watching their friends and colleagues, go missing one by one. They send postcards with the faces of their dead comrades to the Prime Minister knowing one day that face might be theirs. They act as guinea pigs for drug companies that withhold information, and go to jail for demanding it. And they continue to fight even after it proves not to “just” be a “gay disease” but one that would spread to lots of vulnerable populations. Their hard work is what saved us all.

Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a newcomer to the group, can’t help but be enchanted by Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), an HIV-positive member who is using the last bit of his strength to fight the good fight. Even though this is inevitably a very sad movie, there is also hope, and the struggle to find positivity even when things look bleak. It’s about fellowship and caring and justice. BPM doesn’t resort to melodramatic shenanigans. It has confidence in its story. It tells it straight, and it’s actually more affecting this way. 

Kasane – Beauty & Fate

Kasane is a young, talented woman prevented from pursuing the “family business” – she, like her mother, is a fabulous actress, but she’s held back by a prominent scar on her face. But when her mother dies, she leaves Kasane a magical tube of lipstick – one that, when conveyed through a kiss, allows her to swap faces with the kiss recipient for 12 hours. So you can bet your Mac and Sephora that Kasane finds herself an attractive but middling actress named Nina and literally kisses her face off.

I had some problems with this movie, namely, the blatantly sexist stuff. Like, there’s no reason that this magic has to be transmitted via kiss except the director clearly likes to linger over whatever lesbian\girl-on-girl situations he’s orchestrated.

I think the premise has potential, but right off the bat I bet you can recognize some challenges and when the script runs into them,  it’s like running into a brick wall. I wish MV5BOTdhOGY1MmQtNzQwZC00NTBiLWI2ZjEtNTdkZjIyZTM1ZjhjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQxNjcxNQ@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,707,1000_AL_some script writer would have made even a half-assed attempt at circumventing the obvious pitfalls, but no, Kasane runs into them face first, and the camera caresses her smudged lipstick. I mean, you can understand what Kasane (Kyoko Yoshine) gets out of the equation – but Nina (Tao Tsuchiya)? What can she possible stand to benefit?

And, okay, let’s address the scar – a significant one covering half her face. I won’t pretend it’s easy to be so marked, but I can’t forgive this movie for constantly reinforcing that scar = ugly. In fact, the older I get, the less I see ugliness, period. And I can’t really fathom why we’d ever need to use that word. But this girl, though clearly paranoid about her scarring, is not ugly. But if you’ll allow me for just one moment to pull back the curtain a little, let’s say for the sake of argument that she is ugly. Isn’t the lipstick a little cruel? Wouldn’t things have worked out better if it was a magical tube of cover up? A nice thick foundation with a side of pancake pressed powder? Julia Roberts has at least four tattoos that we know about, but have you ever seen them? No. Because makeup. Makeup IS magic. I have a tube of Christian Louboutin red lip stick that cost a car payment, but it’s worth it because it makes me feel like TWO car payments. But you know what? Makeup is fun because colour is necessary but changing yourself is not. Scars are just a reminder that you survived. And it feels awful to be complicit in this movie’s messaging, because scars don’t make you ugly, but being shallow and superficial does. Which is not to say it would be easy for a young woman to confront our looks-obsessed world with a scar that looks so angry and cruel, but there has to be some middle ground between total isolation and stealing someone’s face.

This movie claims to challenge our notions of beauty and superficiality but I felt it did the opposite. It’s adapted from a popular manga but I’m unfamiliar with its source material and I wonder if I would feel differently if I knew it. For me, parts of this movie felt uncomfortably fetishistic, and though I tried to take it light-heartedly, and just enjoy the twisted nature of the film, I couldn’t quite buy into it, nor did I want to.

 

The Vanished

When director Chang-hee Lee saw Oriol Paulo’s 2012 film, The Body, he enjoyed it, but he also saw how he would make it differently, and perhaps more importantly, how he could inject it with some Korean spice. Chang-hee Lee introduces the film to us at Fantasia Film Festival, and appears overwhelmed to have traveled all this way for his first feature film, awed at the reception, abashed at the applause. After greeting us in French (garnering immediate rock star status), he reassures us that this is not so much a horror film as a thriller, and so of course the opening scene causes me to pee just a teeny, tiny, barely perceptible bit. It was hella scary.

OF COURSE it’s scary: a night security guard goes down to the basement DURING A BLACKOUT on a rainy night BY HIMSELF armed with only a flashlight TO A MORGUE where he sees – what? a woman? a body? a ghost? We don’t know, because someone (or something) shadowy gives him a crack on the head, and when the police arrive it’s night really the security guard who grabs their attention, but the empty drawer in the morgue.

Yoon Seol Hee, newly dead, formerly a young, successful CEO, has gone missing. Well, her corpse has. Bad-boy detective Woo Joong Shik is on the case, and he’s cynical as hell and casts an accusatory eye at her “trophy husband”, Park Jin Han, although he’s more concerned with murder than mere body snatching. Of course, since Park and Yoon run MV5BOTk0ZDAzOTMtMTg3NS00Y2Y3LWI4ZDYtNjE2MGU3NTRkNTc4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI1NzMxNzM@._V1_with an elite crowd, the higher ups are cautioning Detective Woo to back off – but he’s much too much a loose canon to respect authority, isn’t he? You know he is. Meanwhile, if Park is looking inadequately grief stricken, he’s overly concerned about his wife’s missing body. And pretty soon he’s frantically claiming that she’s responsible for her own disappearance, and is somehow still alive.

The cool thing about this movie is that it takes place over the course of just one night, which gives it a real sense of urgency. Movie detectives are often of this variety, the old “renegade cop” trope, the guy who plays by his own rules. He’s tough, a bit of a cowboy, a definite anti-hero, often with a side of alcoholism or anger (mis)management. But there’s something about seeing this Detective among his much more restrained, polite, effacing, perhaps more stereotypically Korean colleagues that’s intriguing and fresh. No one quite knows what to make of him, and he definitely shakes up the investigation.

Even if you’ve seen the original Spanish version, you’ll still get a kick out of The Vanished; the Korean setting of course makes for quite a change, but circumstances and even outcomes have been rearranged as well, for your viewing pleasure. And to be honest, it was quite a pleasure. I can’t believe this is a first feature for the director. It looks slick and cool and there are lots of visual details to admire, we get a sense of his style and aesthetic and the whole thing just glows. The cinematography is beautiful. As I mentioned, this film takes place over the course of a night, so DP Lee Jong-youl coats it in a cold blue wash that lends just a touch of creepiness to an already creepy scenario. But in flashbacks he floods us with warm, natural lighting, which is a bit cruel actually – it gives us a false sense of comfort when really we should never let our guard down.

The thing about The Vanished is, it’s a very compelling puzzle. And even if you’re very clever and you manage to slot all the moving pieces into just the right places, you’ll find it’s one of those trick puzzles that only look complete – actually it just unlocks like 3 more puzzles to solve! The veteran cast (Kang-woo Kim, Hee-ae Kim, and Sang-Kyung Kim as the rumpled Detective) close ranks and draw us in with their institutional politeness – but something stinks in this morgue, and it’s certainly not the dead body. Because, you know, it’s missing. And maybe not even dead.

I Have A Date With Spring

South Korea is in a Renaissance of film. Powerhouse directors like Park Chan-wook,  Bong Joon-ho, and Yeon Sang-ho have produced exciting, glossy blockbusters that made the leap from Asia to Hollywood, but the truth is, some of the greatest stuff being produced in Korea are genre films, and Montreal’s Fantasia Festival is just the place to see them. We’d previously seen movies about fake pregnancy, and an animated zombie movie at the festival, to name a few, but this year we’re seeing even more, and they’re crazier than ever.

I Have A Date With Spring is about a young director, alone in the woods on his birthday, resolved to camp out until he finally completes his script. It’s been 10 years since his last 201806-IHADWS-16film, and 3 years since the script started haunting him, and he just wants to bang it out. Instead he’s visited by strangers, and finding a fan among them, he divulges what he’s got so far:

It’s the day before the end of the world. Aliens decide it’s now or never in terms of visiting the Earth, so they choose 3 sad sacks and do their best to befriend them and learn their worldviews. Each story is told in its own separate vignette.

One, a young schoolgirl, is a bullied outsider who has no place to go when school is suddenly evacuated. She unadvisedly gets in the car with an alien (who looks like a normal Korean man but doesn’t act like one – red flag!) and spends the day with him, driving deserted streets and narrowly escaping his awkward advances. She’s got a pretty bleak outlook, hates her mother and classmates, and spends her time drawing violent and creepy things.

A second is a middle-aged professor, alone in the world except for an elderly mother who calls him from half a world away. It’s a beautiful, young alien who visits him – except for the hacking cough and the unfortunate boils. Will that be enough to stop him kissing her?

The third, a harried and unappreciated housewife who goes to the market one day to find it devoid of shoppers or staff. Instead she plays a crane game with a mysterious young woman who claims to know her (hint: it’s another alien!) and she follows her back to her marijuana hothouse for some relaxing gun play.

The aliens all leave their new friends with a last gift. And that’s when things get twisted.

Writer-director Seung-bin Baek has a dark and wonderful mind. You won’t be able to guess where he’s going so just sit back and enjoy the ride. Aside from some unnecessary voice-over narration in the young director scenes that bookend the film, he strikes a resonant, deeply disturbing chord that’s interesting and fresh and unlike anything else I’m going to see at the movies this year. His characters have loneliness, isolation, and outsider status in common, so when the aliens decide to grant them their innermost wishes…well, that takes us to an unexpectedly sinister and surprisingly philosophical place. The movie is horrific in many ways, but where it most succeeds is in pointing out life’s every day horrors – things that you or I might relate to. Things that might you or I wish for Earth’s destruction also. And that, friends, is why we make our way to Fantasia Fest year after year. We do it for weird.