Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Taxi to the not-so-dark side

Laila’s Birthday plays today at 6:10pm at River East.

Is it possible to make an apolitical film in Palestine? More appropriately, is it possible to be an apolitical Palestinian? Rashid Masharawi’s comedy Laila’s Birthday proceeds from this question, yielding a rather entertaining comedy of errors before arriving at moments of (sadly familiar) pathos. Its protagonist is a former judge—an emblem of nonpartisanship—reduced to driving a cab while he waits for the Abbas government to reestablish him in court. The film follows him through a day that goes from bad to worse; the running joke is that the tumult of occupied Palestine won’t even allow our decent judge to buy his daughter a birthday present.

Laila’s Birthday marks a great step forward for Masharawi, whose last film, the mostly-pleasant Waiting (2005), was undone by clumsy moments of didacticism. Here, the politics are less forced and less simple. Most of the people Judge Abu meets are friendly, law-abiding citizens like himself who regard the occupation as well Palestinian politics as really big inconveniences. In one of the film’s best scenes, an old woman waiting in line for food rations complains that Fatah and Hamas are equally corrupt because they only give out food to their own members. “So which party do you belong to?” someone asks her. “Whichever one is giving out the food.”

The film’s humor bears passing resemblances to the Jewish comedy that was most popular in the U.S. during the Great Depression. Likewise, at 71 minutes, Laila’s Birthday has the tautness of a Depression-era programmer. Masharawi moves the film deftly from episode to episode and from comedy to drama while presenting a believable portrait of contemporary Ramallah. To the casual Western observer, this may be the most valuable aspect of Laila’s Birthday, as it depicts a modern Palestinian city with all the (secular) bustle of American one. Even when Masharawi’s visual style appears indifferent, his locations remain expressive.

Monday, October 27, 2008

No secret, just a great film

The Secret of the Grain has its final screening tomorrow (10/28), 8:30pm, at 600 N. Michigan.

Once in a while that rare French filmmaker comes along who is liked – hell, fawned over – by his public, the local industry that produces and releases his films, and the magazine that usually acts as contrarian to the tastes of all, Les Cahiers du cinema. If you are at least familiar with the Cahiers, you know that Abdel Kechiche has achieved some sort of miracle with his last two films, L’esquive (2004) and The Secret of the Grain (2007).

If you want to know why he is the darling of the French film world, look no further than the films themselves. You will find no explanation in the backstage of festivals and awards ceremonies (though Kechiche has already swept the prestigious French Césars twice). Kechiche has no previous industry standing. In public terms, he has proved to be a shy figure and has avoided festival appearances (you won’t see him in Chicago, alas).

It may be the subject matter – the perils facing France’s vibrant immigrant communities – that attracts spectators since even the most recent work by Jacques Rivette, virtually ignored in its native land, has seen a wider release in the U.S. than the last two Kechiche films. L’esquive, Kechiche’s second feature, was released in the States more than two years after its international premiere, and when it finally got to Chicago it only ran for a week at the Film Center. The Secret of the Grain didn’t come to town after its Venice premiere in 2007, though to the credit of CIFF’s programmers, the usual ruling out of year-old work was put aside in this case.

If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and blowout the festival with The Secret of the Grain, a film about a North African man named Slimane who is laid-off from the docks of Sète and has the idea to open a restaurant featuring his ex-wife’s couscous. About an hour and a half is just the build-up; the rest, which falls in place with such nail-biting precision, you will just have to see for yourself.

Like L’esquive, Secret is a film in which words are an essential element. Kechiche allows his characters to engage each other in epic verbal outbursts that go on sometimes for ten minutes (in fact, one scene late in Secret is so endless in this respect that audience members generally flock out in droves). Patient viewers will be rewarded for sitting through such obstinate wordiness when they discover that the film comes to be entirely about the body: the body, not words, are literally the element that may save Slimane, his family, and his friends, from total catastrophe.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Yes, but how?

Snow plays again today at 6pm and Tuesday at 4:10pm. Both screenings at 600 North Michigan.

Revanche plays again on Monday at 8:30pm at 600 North Michigan.

The late Gene Siskel once argued (in his review of Soul Food [1997], if I recall) that it wasn’t difficult to make a good movie. A filmmaker just needed to be honest with his or her experience, avoid succumbing to cliché, and try to depict life as it’s lived. Granted, this definition excludes most experimental or avant-garde movies, but it’s useful for the majority of narrative cinema, which communicates through storytelling, performance, and the like. Of everything I’ve seen at the Festival so far, all but one film has been at least Siskel-good; the exception was a Turkish family drama called Summer Book, whose over-dependence on clichés negated (for me, anyway) the more edifying images of small-town Turkish life.

And yet, I’ll probably retain that film’s lemon groves and an old-fashioned butcher shop longer than I will the more ephemeral imagery from The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain, a film I preferred on the whole. If there’s been one benefit of my second-tier press status (which means I can only get into films for free if they don’t sell out), it’s that I’ve been forced to see more modest filmmaking that aspires to be “good” instead of attention-grabbing titles that aspire to be great. And thus, I’ve accumulated a nice collection of mental snapshots from around the world.

One of the most accomplished “good” movies playing in this year’s festival is the Bosnian title Snow, which depicts a village’s efforts to return to stability after the civil wars of the mid-1990s. Despite the heavy subject matter, this is still restrained, eye-level filmmaking. Director Aida Begic devotes more time to the villagers’ jam-making business than their post-traumatic stress. She avoids outright pathos, though the war’s lasting effects are always felt: There are no men left in the village with the exception of a single grandfather, and the sizable number of orphans has led to something like collective child-rearing. Snow is the rare social drama that advances on the truism “life goes on” with a more sophisticated, “Yes, but how?” It moves slowly, observing recovery in small measures. The chapters are literally separated day-by-day. Emotional outbursts are kept to a minimum; with everyone in poverty, there are more immediate concerns. Though genocide is one of the eternally relevant political subjects (It is going on in the Sudan, in Iraq, as I write this), in movies it is too often fodder for simple catharsis. Here is a film that oversteps catharsis in favor of understanding.

The Austrian drama Revanche, on the other hand, is a long road to catharsis. It deals with two of the most metaphorically-ripe characters in contemporary drama—the ex-convict and the guilt-stricken police officer—and aims to find universal truth in their suffering. The movie begins as an exciting, though underplayed crime story. With its austere framing, nervous tone, and potent Method acting, it suggests a European cousin to Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), another film that hinged on a bank robbery gone wrong. But Revanche switches its tune about half-way in, along with its setting (going from urban prostitution to life on a farm), and morphs into a quiet drama less about revenge than redemption. I should note that I’ve come to greet this theme with near-instinctive incredulity, so I probably enjoyed this less than last night’s audience, who responded with lengthy applause at the end. But this is still a most grown-up film, and the cast (especially Ursula Strauss, best known in the States from Barbara Albert’s films Free Radicals [2003] and Falling [2006]) is remarkable as the police officer's religious wife.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Good Kind of Social Drama

The Noise in My Head plays Saturday at 3pm and Sunday at 5:45pm. Both screenings are at 600 North Michigan.

We’ve all met women like Laura, but rarely in the movies. Early thirties, single, smart but unimaginative, reticent but prone to explode in an argument, pretty enough to date but never married. She works at a big business in a small city (Geneva, in this case) but always in a low-ranking job; even she could not see herself in a position of authority. She shows traces of perfectionism and yet is fundamentally unsure of herself. In fact, she's often in danger of emotional collapse, but avoids it by holding fast to the safety of conformism. With the exception of a sympathetic ex-boyfriend boyfriend, Laura is without companionship. In fact, she doesn’t appear to have anyone in her life with whom she can speak openly. Her unarticulated thoughts have been suppressed for so long they’ve accumulated to a near-schizophrenic din. (They’re the source of this movie’s title, by the way.)

When a woman like her turns up in a fiction film, she’s typically someone’s ex or a family member avoided except for at gatherings. The Noise in My Head is notable for following Laura as her life teeters but doesn’t fall off completely. Given its lack of sensationalism—Laura isn’t out-and-out mentally ill (though she comes close)—the film is not a piece of radical humanism like Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane (2005). Also, the intimate, realistic approach precludes the grand catharsis of a fantasy like Punch-Drunk Love (2003). It resides the squarest of genres, the modest social drama, whose frequent manipulativeness have made it something of an anathema to serious moviegoers. But The Noise in My Head doesn’t want to manipulate its audience. It simply wants to remind us of something that is worth remembering: just how difficult life can be for most people.

The film enters into a plot when Laura lunges impulsively at happiness. She takes in an 18-year-old boy she meets hawking papers on the street. He’s neither violent nor on the make sexually—two clichéd developments the movie thankfully avoids—but a different kind of risk. We come to learn he’s a pathological liar and a bit of a thief, a behavior problem for so long that his parents finally kicked him out. His name is Simon, and we’ve met people like him, too, working at convenience stores and other menial jobs. He’s the sort of kid who wasn’t forward enough in school to be a bully, but he wasn’t smart enough to be recognized as a student, either.

Director Vincent Pluss charts their relationship carefully, finding value in their everyday activities. More characters enter the film and each is as three-dimensional as the leads, giving way to a grand pathology of passive despair. It’s worth noting that Pluss, a young Swiss director still finding his voice, borrows only the best elements of other filmmakers. Taking Mike Leigh’s practice of allowing the actors to help sculpt the dialogue, he creates a comparably deep sea of humanity. Also, his anxious, propulsive editing recalls two masters of modern French cinema, Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin. But Pluss displays a sympathy for his characters (and a curiosity about the world) that cannot be faked. And he knows how to end a film miraculously. The Noise in My Head stops on a narrative caesura so unexpected and yet so carefully calibrated it reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction, another storyteller who inspired awe before life’s possibility.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Discovery: SERBIS

Serbis plays again on Saturday at River East at 7:30pm.

While I’ve seen some very good movies at the festival, Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis is the first one that threw me for a curve. It’s an in-your-face drama about an extended family that once operated three movie palaces in the Filipino city of Angeles but now runs only one—and that became a second-run porn theater some time ago. The subject matter recalls Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) and Jacques Nolot’s Porn Theater (2002), but this is not a lament over the death of cinema or the failure of lonely people to connect. The environment is boisterous in spite of the depravity (As in the Tsai and Nolot films, the theater hosts a vibrant a gay cruising culture), full of life, full of character. Mendoza's mobile, mainly hand-held camera seems unable to keep up. The film takes place over an especially busy day as the family’s controlling matriarch awaits a decision in the bigamy suit she’s filed against her husband. Also, her teenage nephew is afraid to announce he’s gotten his girlfriend present; the local pre-op transsexual hookers are working harder than usual to get customers; and someone needs to take the kids to school. For all the melodramatic elements, Mendoza stages the proceedings as if he were Ridley Scott making an action film: We’re constantly in the middle of things. Remarkably, the camera is nonjudgmental throughout all of this, even during the movie’s most prurient moments. (Note to the squeamish: One of them is a hardcore scene involving someone’s popped boil.)

This is Mendoza’s seventh film in four years, and his fearlessness and sure hand with actors (particularly child actors) mark him as a major filmmaker. Serbis played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year, where it shocked a good part of the audience. Last night’s screening wasn’t as scandalous (though there were some "Well, I never" kinds of entertaining walk-outs), but it also provoked the realization that Mendoza is someone to watch. I’ll write more about this after Saturday’s screening, which I eagerly await.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Writings on the Wall

24 City plays again tomorrow, 10/23, at River East at 8:50pm.

After seeing more than half-a-dozen or so movies at any festival, one starts seeing patterns in the selections, overlapping themes. It’s always risky to lunge at generalizations about The State of World Cinema or (grander yet) What the World’s Thinking About. Better to regard the experience as a private optical illusion—the magic reassembly of disparate films into a cohesive whole.

That said, almost everything I’ve seen so far at CIFF has involved somebody losing their job. The exceptions—Sleep Dealer, Don’t Look Down, Delta, and 24 City—have involved people accepting menial labor. Comparisons to the global economic crisis are so obvious they don’t need to be spelled out… except these movies were conceived at least a year in advance, by artists working in different countries with different agendas. How legible was the writing on the wall?

Of the movies I’ve watched concerning unemployment, only one has incorporated failure in its overall aesthetic strategy: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata. The CIFF program aptly describes it as a quiet drama about an average Japanese family—just barely avoiding an allusion to Yasujiro Ozu—and so it is until the final half-hour, when it operates in a sort-of narrative free-fall, with each new development seeming to come from a different movie. Before then, it is a compelling, but somewhat familiar look at a family in crisis, with the central story concerning the businessman father who’s too proud to admit he’s been laid off. The film follows his wife and two children (well-meaning misfits both) separately, so to stress how alienated they’ve become from one another. In its structure and patient, long takes, Tokyo Sonata has less in common with Ozu than with Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), the greatest contemporary family film; and like Yang’s great accomplishment, understated humor tempers the melancholy of Modern Life. But then there’s the final 30 minutes. Without giving away too much, it forces the audience to switch from thinking about a family in crisis to what it means to lose everything—home, relations, one’s very sanity. It’s been less than a day since I watched Tokyo Sonata, and I’m still undecided as to whether its plot twist is brilliant or merely a great trick. Either way, I hope it returns to Chicago with a proper run so I can see it again.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

From Mexico (and the future): SLEEP DEALER

Sleep Dealer plays again Wednesday, 10/22, at 600 North Michigan at 8:30pm.

In a few generations, migrant workers will no longer need to cross the U.S. border for menial jobs: They can perform them from home with the use of virtual reality. That’s one of the ideas floating around Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, a Phildickian sci-fi story that approaches a high-tech future from the perspective of Mexican laborers. As a film, Sleep Dealer is sometimes flat and too indebted to the Hollywood storytelling it aims to subvert. But as a think piece, it’s clever and endlessly imaginative. During a warm-hearted Q-and-A after tonight’s screening, Rivera admitted to spending 11 years on the project from conception to final cut; he clearly made great use of the time by realizing his future world down to the smallest details. (The intravenous modem cables that connect Mexican workers to U.S. job sites also enable a new form of writing whereby users upload their thoughts like video files. We come to learn that the movie itself is one such “novel.”) One measure of the film’s success is that it’s able to touch on big, relevant subjects—U.S. corporations privatizing water sources in the Third World, the military outsourcing combat duty—without making them seem extraneous to its fictional universe. The may characters may seem a bit transparent as a result, but, as in some of Dick’s best novels, Sleep Dealer still works as a funhouse mirror of current events, with the characters serving to help us explore the variegated terrain. The second and final screening would count as a must-see if Rivera is in attendance again. Animated, honest, and blessed with seemingly bottomless optimism, Rivera has the potential to become the Wayne Coyne of American independent cinema.