Saturday, 20 October 2012

HIFF 2012: Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Not that it matters much, but I'll try to pick up on Love & Anarchy reporting for this year. After all, I'm not even halfway through all the films I saw in there. But no matter, plenty of them were good enough to digest for a while and to report through a longer stretch of a time allows for a deeper look into them. This post focuses on the films that lingered on somewhere between reality ond pure fantasy, whatever that may mean.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA)
Director: Benh Zeitlin

This year's Love & Anarchy opening film gathered a lot of buzz at Cannes this year, and was praised from Earth to Heaven. With such an overkill on praise, it's easy to be disappointed in the end result. It's a very good film and more than suitable for the choice of opening film of the festival. But while it was praised for being a wholly original piece of filmmaking, it's more or less the same story as Terry Gilliam's Tideland had a few years back, albeit with with more grace and with subtler mentally handicapped people.

In a fictional Deep Southern village of Washtub, lives the six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) in a run-down shack. Her mother has long since left so she attempts to bond with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Unfortunately, Wink has severe mental and heath problems, and isn't too happy about them and is prone to bursts of anger. Hushpuppy has learned to more or less take care of herself, with the help of the other villagers. Hushpuppy has an active imagination and gets lost inside it from time to time. When a tornado threatens the village, Wink and Hushpuppy rekindle their relationship, but the desperate situation also calls for desperate acts. Hushpuppy also ventures on an adventure to find her mother.

The film is visually very inventive, with some amazing sets that look like they've been lying around for years having actually been created from scratch. The overwhelming flood of striking imagery makes the viewer feel like a six-year-old him- or herself, being amazed of the vastness of the world and all the things in it. That's probably why the film had such a strong response.

But this in turn also brings with it a sense of helplessness. We can't do anything to hold Hushpuppy's family together, or even to make her act sensibly to grow up to be a proper adult in time. Basically the characters are archetypes, but have enough flaws within them to make them somewhat well-rounded and interesting. The main problem however, seems to be that it throws so many things in the air and quickly ties up the knots at the end. For instance, there isn't enough on he community and it's coping by the end, although it seemed like a major element in the beginning.

But nevertheless, for a first-time director, Benh Zeitlin has created an amazingly confident piece of work. It has been helping that the director and the crew form a strong creative collective that have supported each other with their decisions and visions. I'm looking forward on what this group creates next.

★★★ 1/2

Love or Anarchy: Mostly Love, but with a big dose of Anarchy thrown in for good measure

Chicken with Plums (Poulet aux prunes, France/Germany/Belgium)
Directors: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud

This film was first screened at Espoo Ciné, and after Love & Anarchy it was chosen as Film theater Orion's Movie of the month, so there have been plenty of times to see Marjane Satrapi's adaptation of her own comic book. I'm a bit ashamed I haven't read the comic this is based on, although even the film version is unmistakably of the comic artist's signature style.

The film tells the story of the final days of the famed violinist Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric).  He decides to die when he can't find pleasure in life any more. Initially, it appears that his reasons are purely due to him hating his family and his displeasure of getting a new violin after his old one is destroyed. But cut scenes to the future, to the past and to Iran's mysterious legends reveal new sides to Ali's character and his story.

The film opens a bit slowly, but once it gets going it grows on the viewer more and more. It's easy to symphatize with Nasser Ali, since he hates his own obnoxious kids. This is basically a romantic film masqueraded as a fairy tale. For all the imaginary characters, basically this is a story about a broken heart and an unrequited love, much in the same way as, say The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Since I'm a totally cynical bastard, this is the sort of romance I like.  The little comic touches and segments are just the plums to sweeten the already tasty dish of chicken.The film sells itself well as unpredictable and a little anarchistic in that most anything can happen at any given time.

There are several cool animated sequences thrown in for good measure.

The hilarious parody of American sitcoms is of course the easiest possible target, alike to shooting fish in the barrel, but it still made me laugh to my tears. The mythological side is also well-realized, with a suitably mixed style of comic book art and reality. The most memorable of these scenes is wonderful Angel of Death, Azraël, played with curiosity and mellowness by Edouard Baer. But make no mistake, this is Amalric's time to shine. At times, it feels like he's in every French film made these days, but watching his subtle performance here, one can't help but to admire the sheer skill and nuance he brings to his best performances.

★★★ 1/2

Love or Anarchy: 50-50 on this.

Holy Motors (France/Germany)
Director: Leos Carax

Cranky old French auteur Carax has crawled back from the sewer he has dwelled for at least four years (it's been 13 years since his last feature film). And his new film has created a lot of buzz, for it is something not often seen. A purely art house film consisting of mostly sketches and sequences with only a very loose thread tying them together. It does seem the director would be more comfortable with short films and segments in anthology films today.

Stating the plot of Holy Motors is to do an interpretation of sorts, so here's how I see it. Monsieur Oscar (Denis Levant) is a prolific, rich man going to work on a limo one day. His job requires him to wear masks and make up and to do odd tasks around Paris. His first job requires him to dress up as a beggar, and his second as a degenerate sewer-dweller, eating flowers at a graveyard, and to disrupt a fashion photo shoot. He kidnaps the model (Eva Mendés) and takes her to his lair in the sewers.

She'll sing a lullaby to him.

But he still hasn't lost it and is soon back to business. We begin to get the hang of what's going on as he does movements in a motion capture suit, and proceeds to have sex with a woman walking in in a similar suit. Riding inside the limo, it is revealed that invisible cameras are following him around the day. His jobs get more and more intensive, and he is, for instance, required to brutally murder a few people. Truth and fiction are at all times hard to separate, even when M. Oscar goes to pick up his daughter at a friend's party. Finally, he settles home with a bunch of chimpanzees. But what does his limo think about all of this?

Carax is commenting on the state of cinema today, looking for a realistic digital shooting style, while aiming for more and more extreme situations and preposterous stories. Every time the audience is able to grasp an even small strand of plot, Carax destroys it by reminding we are watching a movie. This bitter love letter is at times hysterically funny, but it gets repetitive and pretentious towards the end. There's no good reason half an hour couldn't be trimmed from this.

It's basically a development of some of the ideas Carax has already done. For instance, the monsieur Merde sequence is a clear development of the director's segment in Tokyo! That doesn't make it any less funny, although this is a comedy clearly aimed at high-brow cinema buffs that can reflect their own disgust with modern films through this anarchic piece. Carax doesn't solve any of the problems he posits, and certainly doesn't save cinema with this work, although some of the more eager critics have suggested such.


Love or Anarchy: Pure Anarchy

Himizu (Japan)
Director: Sion Sono

Sion Sono's new film has become an annual event as much as Takashi Miike's at Love & Anarchy. The prolific director is always able to comment on Japan's recent events, national psyche and culture in surprising, shocking and innovative ways. After two darker psychological thrillers, Sono returns (in a way) to the twisted teenage romance of Love Exposure with his latest film. It brings a welcome emphasis on his wicked black humor, but overlays the melodrama by the end.

At another village ravaged by natural disasters, this time in shantytown in the seaside Tokyo suburbs, lives the only child of a family disintegrating. The teenaged Yuichi (Shota Sometani) finds he has to support himself since his mother is whoring around, and his father has disappeared since becoming seriously indebted to yakuza. He begins a string of shady businesses and lending out his beach house, but he's having trouble collecting money fast enough for the yakuza still feels he owes them for his father's loans. Back at school, quirky girl Keiko (Fumi Nikado) has grown an obsession on Yuichi, and notices his absence from school. She will stop at no ends in following him around and attempting to help him cope in his ever-growing desperation.

Whereas most American post-apocalyptic (that is to say, post-9/11) films had an uplifting theme of uniting people to cope with their losses, Sono has a lot more cynical outlook on human nature here. He argues that our so-called civilization hangs by a threat and a strong enough catastrophy may bring out desperation that allows violent impulses to take over people. The desperation tears us even further apart from our already disconnected lives. Yuichi becomes tangled in a web of violence, murder and vigilantism.

But Sono does believe in certain goodness in people nevertheless. He is a firm believer on love for redemption of people. In the end, Yuichi can't manage his situation by himself, he realizes he needs Keiko and his foster-father figure Shozo (Tetsu Watanabe). Shozo is the film's most interesting character, a self-claimed former millionaire eccentric, who has lost everything. But his love for his friend Yuichi makes him go behind his back and risk his very life to save him from yakuza. It's really a shame the end half of the film focuses so much on Keiko's and Yuichi's relationship, with Shozo being sidelined.

As I mentioned, the teary-eyed melodrama and weltschmertz of the final scenes of this film fall a bit flat and leave a bad aftertaste in the mouth. Otherwise the film features many of Sono's great strengths - great characters, shocking brutality, surprising story developments, the satirizing of Japanese culture and a pitch black sense of humor. I'm particularly enamored by the scene of literal gallows humor - Keiko's parents building gallows in her room for her to kill herself and spare them from the high cost of her living.

★★★ 1/2

Love or Anarchy: Even though at the surface it may seem like an Anarchy-heavy piece, the heavy melodrama puts it firmly in the Love corner.

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