Saturday, November 17, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 2

It’s time I started playing catch-up and reviewed the St. Louis International Film Festival movies I’ve been packing in this week. I’ve been seeing at least two a day after work, which has been fun, but doesn’t leave a lot of time to write if you are also fond of eating and sleeping. There have been at least four excellent films so far, but I’ve also seen my first batch of duds. I’ll be bringing you reviews of them all!

While overall it has still been a great year, this week saw a parade of disappointments with the upcoming Peter Greenaway screening. First the distributors wouldn’t cough up his latest film, “Nightwatching,” so Cinema St. Louis had to rely on an older, but still brilliant, “Drowning by Numbers.” Then Peter Greenaway canceled his trip to St. Louis, prompting the festival to withdraw his lifetime achievement award. In the scramble to find someone locally to present the film, my name came up. I was overwhelmingly excited by the prospect and set about doing some research and outlining a draft. Then I found out shortly after that RD Zurick had been given the job instead. Disappointed as I am, I still thank Brett Smith and Prof. Charles Barr for thinking of me and suggesting my name.

I think at this point, I will probably skip out on “Drowning by Numbers” and see the Israeli film “Aviva, My Love” instead. However, when I’ve finished covering SLIFF 2007, I’ll dig up a paper I wrote on my favorite Greenaway film, “A Zed and Two Noughts,” and post that as a tribute to the great director.

Anyways, on to the reviews from Nov 11-12:

Title: Getting Home
Director: Yang Zhang
Country: USA
Score: 8.5
Zhao (Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan) is kicking back some midday drinks with his friend (as usual), when his buddy up and dies. Despite his lack of money or friends, Zhao determines to bury the corpse to its home town, about 1000 miles away across China. Yes, it does sound a lot like a Chinese cross-country road-trip version of “Weekend at Bernie’s,” but the film is actually quite touching and frequently hilarious. I was told later that this has been one of the most popular films at the festival and a second screening has been secured (Sunday, Nov 18th at 8:30 at the Plaza Frontenac).

The film is quite good-natured and draws the audience into sympathy with Zhao who is honest, unpretentious and friendly. The attention to character and personality pays off, since it allows the audience to enjoy morbid, deadpan and absurdist humor from jokes that might have felt cheap otherwise. Much of the laughs come from irreverent visual gags, like Zhao strapping the body inside a giant monster-truck tire and rolling him along the road or lashing the corpse to a scarecrow pole to keep it inconspicuous at night.

The humor is not particularly sophisticated, but it is pinpricks us with unexpected jolts and jostles us out of complacency with sudden shifts. The pace shows delicate balance when it comes to maintaining the comedy, quirkiness and drama, but it is Zhao Benshan’s performance that aids immeasurably in selling the material. His gentle, hangdog face, steady resolve and impeccable timing bolster the film through the vast stretches where he is the only character onscreen. His dalliances with friendship, love, criminality and suicide round out his development and provide episodes that keep the plot interesting and the jokes fresh.

Title: The Method
Director: Marcelo Piñeyro
Country: Argentina/Spain
Score: 6.0
Eight applicants (one of which is a mole) at a multinational corporation compete for a cushy executive position in this corporate psychological drama. The film is set in a near-future world where riots against the IMF are tearing apart the street while the rich vie to get richer in the glossy conference rooms of towering skyscrapers. The brilliant opening sequence features some gorgeous triple-split-screen work (one of my favorite techniques best used in 2003’s “Doppelganger”), but it is all too short; after the initial credits it is replaced with traditional camerawork in the single-room setting where most of the film takes place.

The bulk of “The Method” involves the eight applicants gradually learning how diabolical the so-called “Grönholm method” of psychological testing, screening and selection can be. Pitted against each other in direct competition, the initial veneers of politeness and civility quickly crumble. The men and women are voted out one-by-one after completing various tasks involving problem-solving, peer-evaluation, verbal play and trust. One of the more obvious examples is an exercise where each person must defend why they should be allowed to stay in a bomb shelter in case of a nuclear attack and a shortage of supplies.

“The Method” is a tense, harsh indictment of office politics, corporate greed and the dehumanization that comes with modernization. It combines over-the-top with all-too-real. I loved the way that the verbal exchanges escalate from neutral comments through banter into stinging insults. However the balance only lasts for the first half of the film and, after a striking early peak, Piñeyro doesn’t is unable to keep ratcheting up the intensity. With a handful of cast members yet to eliminate he devolves into repetition, ill-suited sexual tension and an excess of verbal and physical extremism that loose any sense of realism or truth. He also breaks from his claustrophobic one-room premise in a misguided attempt to expand the space, fit in some sex, and isolate the characters into pairs. Unfortunately it also allows the tension, momentum and discomfort to leak out. The final act coasts on rail, too contrived and predictable to be exciting or shocking.

Piñeyro was clearly influenced by elimination-based reality TV and the trendy mix of melodrama and sex appeal on soap operas. Both sources tend to hold back the potential of the film, causing the structure and character dynamics to sit comfortably in a rut. The similarities to films like “The Game” (1997) or any of the “Ten Little Indian” adaptations only reminded me of more successfully variations on the every-man-for-himself theme.

Title: No Regret
Director: Hee-il Leesong
Country: South Korea
Score: 3.0
“No Regret” has thus-far been the clear low-point in my SLIFF viewing experience. As a big fan of South Korean films in general, I gave it a chance despite the dull-sounding premise. I quickly ended up regretting my decision.

The plot revolves around an unrequited gay romance between petulant orphan Lee Su-min and obsessive stalker/businessman Song Jae-min. Despite plenty of opportunity for insights into the inherent cultural and class conflicts, “No Regret” is content to simply mire in cycles of romantic attack and retreat. Neither character is likable, interesting, original or logical and their emotions are such broad, inconsistent mishmashes that one has no idea what they are thinking or why they do or say anything. The acting is not really bad, but lacking material to sink their teeth into they fumble and flounder.

The screenplay is bland and lifeless, borrowing unenthusiastically from other art-films about mismatched lovers and stormy homosexual relationships. There are a few conversations which hunt for new thoughts and emotional expressions, but there are no real kills. After spending about an hour too long trapped in the stagnant life of Su-min, the film veers into thriller territory. The pointless drama, trauma and violence feels like a last-ditch attempt to get onto Tartan’s “Asian Extreme” DVD distribution label.

I’ve saved the worst for last. Though the film is bad enough based on writing, story and pacing alone the real mess is the craftsmanship. A good low-budget filmmaker can transcend lack of materials, but Hee-il Leesong is, instead, crushed under the weight of his technical incompetence. There is no lighting to speak of and most of the film is spent trying to divine the meaning of shapeless silhouettes blurring across black patches. Arbitrary natural light from ugly phosphorescent bulbs occasionally reveals the emptiness of the sets, the inexpressively of the minor cast and the banality of the composition. Talent, training, money and help from an experienced crew or sorely needed to save this visual trough.

Sadly, a film that is this bad for so long allows the mind of a film reviewer to wander and I begin planning ways to trash the film when I sat down to write. Here is the most succinct one: If I had a dollar for every time I yawned while watching “No Regret,” I could have bought a better digital camera than the one it was shot with.

Title: Waiter
Director: Alex van Warmerdam
Country: Netherlands
Score: 6.5
“Waiter” is a dramedy about a fictional character (the waiter) who interacts with the writer who created him. While I do enjoy this premise, the festival is featuring it in three movies, and it has already been done adequately in the surprisingly good “Stranger than Fiction” (2006). Warmerdam has very little to add, except that he improves upon the ending and ultimately displays a different perspective on the powers of creation and authorship.

Edgar, the waiter, is depressed and depressing. He leads an empty, thankless life serving rude upper-crust snobs. He lives with a bedridden wife and maintains a whiny mistress. His next door neighbors are not just loud and cruel like regular bad neighbors, they are actually vicious mobsters. Edgar finally gets so fed up with his lot that he busts into his author’s apartment and demands a better life, or a least a few moments of bliss and love. Herman wants to write a serious modern novel and will thus tolerate very few romantic notions, though his mischievous girlfriend, Suzie, is more than willing to grant wishes. Eventually Herman invents Stella (Lyne Renee, looking sumptuous in her debut film role) to fulfill Edgar’s need for love, but life refuses to get easier.

The humor in “Waiter” comes entirely at Edgar’s expense and we spend most of the movie either trying to anticipate his next fiasco or enjoying his current abuse. Not many of the laughs are particularly well-earned, but some really work. My favorite was a scene from one the more absurd subplots, in which Edgar arrives home to find his gangster neighbors sitting in the darkness of his apartment. They introduce Makino, a Japanese assassin who “needs a place to lie low.” Guess where they had in mind? Some of the material is less inspired, like most of the straightforward restaurant pratfalls that hit all the usual jokes involved with food preparation and rude customers. The audience responded particularly well to a running joke in which Edgar role-plays with his mistress and four African American spear-hunters.

None of the performances really stand out and not enough is done to capitalize on the fact/fiction author/character possibilities. Herman in particular comes off as a loud, mean and untalented author. Whether his creations are intentionally supposed to be mediocre workmanship is hard to gauge, but since the audience is stuck viewing them for 90% of the film isn’t a wise decision even if it is the point. I did appreciate the ending, with three linked twists in rapid succession that smartly, though bitterly, beat out the conclusion to “Stranger than Fiction.”

Title: Ploy
Director: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Country: Thailand
Score: 8.0
Ratanaruang is becoming somewhat of a perennial SLIFF fixture, where I think pretty much all of his films have played over the years. Scheduling issues (on the festival’s side) prevented me from seeing “Invisible Waves” (2006) last year, but I had seen “Last Life in the Universe” (2003) a couple of times and was looking forward to “Ploy,” his latest.

Like his previous films, this one has an easy-going pace and a thick moodiness in which a handful of sharply-drawn character float about. Ploy is the name of a young girl who enters into the lives of Wit and Dang, a withdrawn Thai couple who have recently returned from America for a funeral. Wit meets Ploy in the hotel bar where she is waiting for her mom and invites her back to his room to freshen up. His wife, already reeling down the path of jealously after finding a woman’s name and number on a scrap of paper in Wit’s jacket, imagines that the interloper is a romantic rival brazenly trotted out right in front of her. Arguments, misinterpretations and disturbingly realistic nightmares divide the characters and pull them through ponderous emotional wormholes.

The heavy atmosphere, digital camerawork, minimalist mise-en-scene and gently intercut free-flowing story make this film a bit difficult to get into. I found that my sleep-deprived drowsiness actually helped me slip into the mood, keeping myself in the dreamlike narrative stream and presenting relaxingly simple, but strangely beautiful, compositions. The actors are all extremely confident and comfortable in their roles, showing effortless modulation of their expressions. Their words, and the silences in between, feel packed with a history only partially revealed by the film. Their realism lacks a clear agenda, and I appreciate the way that Ratanaruang refuses to tell us how we should feel about them.

Atmosphere is definitely the crux of “Ploy,” but it does not rely solely on a homogenous haze of pretty pictures and brooding silences (Tsai Ming-Liang, pay attention now). What gives the film its depth is the way that reality dissolves into dreams in a manner that is seamless and seductive to watch yet delightfully destabilizing when one tries to pin down the narrative. These ethereal intrusions don’t always have distinct transition points, but they open doorways for fears, desires and the other phantoms of imagination to enter. Then there is also emotional resonance, the warm melancholy and a few choice interjections of sensual passion. Though I am often antsy during these festival marathons, time seemed to stop for “Ploy” (in a good way) and then resume afterwards.

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