Thursday, October 29, 2009

Autumn Sonata (1978)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Country: Sweden

The other day, I finally got around to sitting down and revisiting Autumn Sonata. The film is one of Ingmar Bergman's later color triumphs, an elegant chamber drama clearly made by a mature artist. But there is another figure who attracts just as much of the audience's attention in front of the camera: acting legend Ingrid Bergman (no relation) in, unfortunately, her only collaboration with the great filmmaker. But perhaps the rarity of this collaboration makes it all the more special - or perhaps we should be thankful that it happened at all, as its result is truly something to be experienced.

Autumn Sonata mostly takes place over the course of one day and night in the home of Liv Ullmann's Eva and her husband Viktor (Halvar Björk). Eva's mother Charlotte (Bergman), a renowned pianist, comes to stay with them for a few days, her visit at first starting off with a friendly reception, but soon giving way to more painful confrontations. Among the sources of tension between mother and daughter is Helena (Lena Nyman), Eva's sister who is stricken with a crippling illness and whose presence makes Charlotte very uncomfortable, and buried feelings of resentment that stem from Eva's neglected childhood.

Autumn Sonata, as well known as it is for its two headliners, is remarkable for so much more than the meeting of the Bergmans, serving as a perfect convergence of several artistic forces. Liv Ullmann is at her typical best here, giving a both powerful and subtle performance that ranks among the most memorable of her many collaborations with Ingmar. In similar fashion, the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist produces absolutely gorgeous imagery, suitably making good use of autumnal colors all throughout the film. Especially worth noting are the beautiful stylized flashbacks theatrically portrayed with isolated shots that stand out as miniature masterpieces of lighting, set design and composition. Also, keep an eye open for Bergman regulars Erland Josephson and Gunnar Björnstrand in minor roles.

While Eva's husband and sister serve as interesting and important characters in the narrative, it'd be a joke to place any relationship in the film above that of the mother and daughter. The entire "sonata" of the film is built around their inevitable conflict, even when the two of them greet each other warmly enough when Charlotte first arrives at the remote house. A precursor for what is to come is presented in a scene in which Eva practices one of Chopin's preludes on the piano for her mother, after which Charlotte performs her own rendition of the piece. In a way, the scene is a variation of the double monologue scene in Persona, as the camera lingers on each woman's face as the other plays the Chopin piece, recording every subtle flicker of emotion as she regards her opposite in quiet contemplation. However, unlike the Persona scene, Bergman now no longer needs the device of direct repetition nor the aid of dialogue - wisely, he lets Chopin's music do all the talking (though before her turn to play, Charlotte does offer a rather brilliant analysis of the composer, his character and how it should be reflected in his music).

Then all of the elegant exposition soon gives way to the middle portion of the film, a veritable emotional tempest as the two women reveal their pain and anger towards one another. At first, one could call Ingrid's character a monster based on her authoritative, confrontational nature - one could easily draw that assumption from her decision to wear a flowing red dress so soon after her partner Leonardo's death, which she does mainly to thwart her daughter's expectations of her. However, the long nighttime dispute sequence and the way it shows both Eva's and Charlotte's perspectives towards one another simply makes it impossible to conduct so simple a reading. Each woman takes turns as both victim and antagonist, digging up bitter memories of sacrifices made and regrets long harbored.

While an often bleak affair, Autumn Sonata is also an irrefutably brilliant work of art, and upon this recent viewing, I'm fully prepared to list it among such other Bergman favorites of mine as Persona, Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander.

Along with this review, I thought I'd include a topic- and season-appropriate treat: a gallery of photos I took of some of the wonderful autumnal sights around my home town of Oakville, Ontario that can be seen around this time of year. I hope you enjoy 'em.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Let The Right One In; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Let the Right One In (2008)
Director: Thomas Alfredson
Country: Sweden

Better late to the party than never. Quite a few months ago, I read the novel upon which this film is based by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who served as the screenwriter in its adaptation to the screen. Simply, the book was great - a well-written, slow-burning, character-based horror novel worthy of comparison to Stephen King's excellent 'Salem's Lot. Of course, positive word-of-mouth aside, I should have known I was in for a treat - because a vampire story that gets its title from a Morrissey song ("Let the Right One Slip In") can't possibly be bad.

I was most pleased to discover that what people were saying about the film were also true, and that it is very much its own animal while remaining faithful to the book. The Swedish setting is shot as an otherworldly, desolate, nocturnal, snow-laden realm of darkness and isolated islands of light provided by streetlamps - the perfect atmosphere for a horror yarn. But while there is a fair share of grisly tension-filled scenes, the best part of the story remains the touching relationship that grows between the lonely boy Oskar and his new neighbor Eli, who, yes, turns out to be a vampire. Young actors Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson do a simply superb job of portraying the tentative, awkward steps towards mutual respect, understanding and love that their characters take while dealing with the complications and horrific truths of Eli's "condition." Their meetings at the snow-covered playground outside their apartment building, their mutual love of puzzles, their connection as fellow outsiders and kindred spirits - they all give the film a real emotional weight, elevating it above regular genre fare more concerned with creative kills and jump-in-your-seat shocks.

I'll shun the American remake, Let Me In, and continue to scoff at Stephenie Meyer and all things related to Twilight - well, except for the good songs I've been hearing from the bafflingly impressive New Moon soundtrack, including the stellar contributions by the Killers and Thom Yorke. But a shirtless Robert Pattinson, vampire Dakota Fanning and glittering skin? You can take 'em, Twi-hards - especially that last one, which seems dumber than ever when one thinks of the hospital bed scene in Let the Right One In. That's what's supposed to happen when sunlight hits the unholy flesh of a vampire. But I digress. No, instead I'll take the conflict between Oskar and his bullying tormentors, complex relationship between Eli and her "guardian" Håkan (simplified in the film - ah well; one can't have everything) and strange yet sweet bond that forms between the two young (or, in Eli's case, seemingly young) characters. It's all true: this one's a winner.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Country: South Korea

Now, in a perfect world, I'd be following up the above review with one for the great Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook's recent vampire film Thirst, which I shamefully missed seeing in theatres. But the Region 1 DVD for it won't be out until November 17th (which, thankfully, is still surprisingly soon). So, I instead decided to fish out from my collection Park's first film in his "revenge trilogy," Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Like a good bottle of wine, the film had aged incredibly well since I last saw it (which was some years ago), and it proved to be quite a rewarding watch. However, that doesn't mean it was an easy one - though excellent, this is one uncompromisingly cruel film, especially when considered next to its counterparts Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. Those films are also quite hard-going in their explorations of revenge and its damaging effects, but at least they offered some solace in their moments of stylistic flair and visual beauty (especially the baroque, decadent, operatic Lady Vengeance). Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance offers no such escape, telling the sad tale of Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf factory worker desperately trying to find a new kidney for his dying sister, and Park (Song Kang-ho), the company president responsible for firing him whose daughter is kidnapped in a scheme to get money for the kidney transplant, in a cold, detatched manner that leaves no room whatsoever for romanticism. Park makes it very clear: revenge is a terrible, ugly business that only brings about similarly terrible, ugly results. In fact, so clear and effective is Park here that one almost wonders if he even should have bothered with two more films about revenge. All in all, Mr. Vengeance could be considered the true horror film being reviewed here, as its horrors stem not from ghosts or vampires, but from people caught in a destructive cycle of hatred and desperation. While hard to watch, every minute of it is brilliant.

Now that I've revisited Mr. Vengeance, I'll probably get around to reviewing the other two films in the revenge trilogy before too long - if anything, I just know Lady Vengeance will be a most welcome and fitting treat right around Christmas.

Heads Up for the Brazil Film Fest

Hello all. This is a heads-up for a pretty cool looking film festival that'll be hitting Toronto in the next few days: the Brazil Film Fest. Brazilian cinema is one of those areas that I could definitely learn more about, and an event like this is one effective way to do that. Starting on October 22nd, the Fest will be presenting a wide variety of films from Brazil. Among them is This is Pelé, a 1974 documentary on the world-famous soccer player; Madame Satã, a fictional portrait of the real-life, cross-dressing performer João Francisco dos Santos who strove to make it to the big time in the 1930s; The Mystery of Samba, which provides a close look at the people and culture of samba; and This Is It, about two young people talking over their relationship just as it is coming to an end.

The full schedule and list of films for the festival can be found here. It will be running from October 22nd to the 25th at the Royal Cinema at 608 College St. in Toronto, and will be featuring singer and songwriter Adriana Calcanhotto making her Canadian debut on the festival's closing night.

All in all, this looks like a great way to expand your view of Brazilian cinema beyond City of God. Details about the Brazil Film Fest can be found at its main website.

Friday, October 9, 2009

House; Dogville

Hello all. I'm reporting here on a couple of interesting films I've seen over the past few weeks. Without further ado:

House (1977)
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Country: Japan

Wow. I don't think words can do this thing of beauty justice, but dammit, I'm going to try anyways. I sat down to see House on October 3rd with the J-Film Pow-Wow crew. I set out to experience Nuit Blanche in Toronto that very same night, but nothing I saw throughout the city (which really wasn't all that impressive) could even begin to hold a candle to House, or as it's known in Japanese, Hausu. It's one of those films that at once makes you feel like you are on hallucinogenic drugs and believe that the filmmakers themselves were on them while they were making it. Using a formulaic plot involving seven generically-named girlfriends (e.g. the musician Melody, the tough chick Kung Fu, the constantly hungry Mac, as in sto-Mac-h) visiting one of their aunts and her big, spooky house, the film catapults itself into a surreal, hilarious and downright nutso ride of cinematic experimentation and absurdist comedy. It is something that might appear to be a trash genre flick on first sight, but there are too many wonderful and visually stunning things packed into it to call it anything other than brilliant. I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just leave you with this valuable advice: House will apparently be doing a theatrical tour through the rest of 2009 and some of 2010 before it is eventually released by the Criterion Collection(!) sometime next year. If you can, go see this thing in a full house, and expect a great night at the movies. If you can't do that (or even if you can), wait patiently until the Criterion DVD comes out, then pick it up and have a few friends over with a case of beer. You won't be disappointed.

Dogville (2003)
Director: Lars von Trier
Country: Denmark

And then there's Dogville, which I saw the day before Nuit Blanche and deserves a different sort of "wow." I'm usually somewhat skeptical of Lars von Trier due to his frequent pompous qualities, but I've always regarded him as a unique and truly fascinating artist. Dogville proves that in spades within its first few minutes, with John Hurt's eloquent voiceover resonating on the soundtrack and the camera lingering on the small township of Dogville from above. Just as Hurt's narration evokes a novelistic mode of storytelling (emphasized by the film's division into chapters), so too does von Trier's choice of presenting the town as merely a dark stage with drawn and labeled tracings of buildings and landmarks with a few props positioned among them put one in the mind of a stage play. As a result, you simply can't help but be drawn into the story purely through the performances being given onscreen (and onstage) as the actors bring to life their individual characters, adhering to the story being unravelled by von Trier. There certainly is an impressive cast to see this duty through, most prominent among them an impressive Nicole Kidman as the runaway girl Grace who seeks safety from the township of Dogville and gradually learns the costs of such a favor. The other fantastic actors who strut their stuff include Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Chloë Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgård, James Caan, Siobhan Fallon and, to round things off with a couple of classic screen legends, Lauren Bacall and Harriet Andersson. As well as being another of von Trier's testaments to the importance of the actor and acting in film, Dogville is a beautifully written, brilliantly constructed morality tale; a fable both simple and complex that runs in the same vein as George Orwell's Animal Farm - as well as a remarkable portrait of Americana. Surely enough, Dogville gave me much to think about after its three hour running time had expired, and I very much look forward to a return visit.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Toronto International Film Festival 2009 + Fall Rumblings

A few weeks have passed since the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close, meaning it’s high time I posted some reviews of the films I saw. Now, as I have mentioned before, I only made it out to a few of the many films that were featured (a mere six), but I enjoyed each one and, overall, was not disappointed. At the very least, I can safely say that while my picks for this year were small in quantity, I was certainly compensated by both their variety and quality. Proceed below to read more about the grab-bag of flicks I sampled this year.

Micmacs à tire-larigot (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2009)

A fuzzy but still-decipherable pic of Jean-Pierre Jeunet at the Q&A after Micmacs

As some can fairly guess from the trailers that are popping up online these days, and as my buddy Bob Turnbull states on his own blog, Jean-Pierre Jeunet delivers in his latest film, Micmacs à tire-larigot, everything you’d expect from his wonderfully unique vision. With Dany Boon leading the way as Bazil, a man who decides to take on the two weapons manufacturers that robbed him of his father and life as he once knew it (the latter via a bullet lodged in his brain), the film is packed with a checklist of classic Jeunet ingredients: quirky characters, screwball situations, mesmerizing visuals, creative cleverness and splashes of stylistic glee. I’d say those anticipating a mix of Delicatessen and Amélie will be fairly satisfied, as Micmacs channels the weirdness, wackiness and dark humor of the earlier Marc Caro-assisted work along with the vibrant color palette (from cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata, admirably meeting the high level of quality set by Bruno Delbonnel and Darius Khondji) and whirlwind tour of Paris of the Audrey Tautou-starring phenomenon. Propelling the film along with boundless energy and crowd-pleasing appeal is a fantastic ensemble cast, most of which comprising the makeshift family of inventors and misfits who help Bazil carry out his payback plan. Each of the actors is a joy to watch, some of them familiar faces from previous Jeunet outings like André Dussollier, Yolande Moreau and, of course, Dominique Pinon; others new faces like Boon, Julie Ferrier as a spunky contortionist and Omar Sy as the perpetually enthusiastic, proverb-spouting Remington. Micmacs sees Jeunet returning to his comedic roots with a vengeance while keeping his recognizable brand of magic flowing strong. It is yet another slam dunk for the filmmaker, and is easily the most satisfying one of the six films reviewed here.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Werner Herzog, 2009)

Michael Shannon and Willem Dafoe

One of the two Werner Herzog films shown this year at TIFF (the other being his already much talked-about reimagining of Bad Lieutenant), My Son, My Son was executive produced by David Lynch, and it somewhat shows, as if he was on the set whispering ideas to everyone’s favorite German wild man. While Michael Shannon’s impressive portrayal of the haunted, obsessive Brad McCullum fits neatly within the gallery of mad men that populate Herzog’s films, there are also several strange Lynchian touches like the many moments of agonizing awkwardness (hello, Grace Zabriskie), Brad Dourif as the foul-mouthed, ostrich-farming Uncle Ted and such memorable lines as “Razzle them. Dazzle them. Razzle dazzle them!” – inspired by the words on McCullum’s special coffee cup, no less. While it’ll most likely be remembered as a minor work in Herzog’s filmography, My Son, My Son is still an interesting, if ambiguous, character study wrapped in a suitably off-kilter vision of America.

Visage (Face) (Tsai Ming-liang, 2009)

Model and actress Laetitia Casta with Lee Kang-sheng

Not a love letter to the French New Wave so much as a solemn prayer, Tsai Ming-liang’s latest is a bizarre but constantly fascinating work of art – and this is certainly a case where Art with a capital “a” would be warranted. Face seems to tell a story about a (skeleton) film crew struggling to realize a project about the Salomé myth, but its actors play characters that very closely resemble their real-life personae, and there is no doubt that the presence of such legends as Fanny Ardant, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jeanne Moreau and Nathalie Baye is meant to contribute to the film’s post-modern motif. Sure enough, the shadow of François Truffaut looms over much of the film, and the time that has passed since his death (and the glorious days when the New Wave was still in full swing) is all too strongly felt as Ardant, Léaud and others wander through mazes of mirrors and dark, subterranean passages, playing out a Day for Night relocated to Hades. The assortment of coldly beautiful images and reoccurring elements (reflections, animals, ghosts, water, sexual desire and, of course, faces) certainly give the viewer plenty to savor and ponder in equal measure. Face is definitely not for everyone, but those brave enough to seek it out just may become ensnared by all the enigmas contained within this spellbinding fever dream of a film. I myself am curious to see how it will hold up on a second viewing. Also, it has inspired me to check out another Taiwanese director’s ode to French cinema – Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon. Had Edward Yang lived long enough to make one of his own, I wonder which French filmmaker he might have tipped his hat to.

Les derniers jours du monde (Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu, 2009)

Mathieu Amalric and Sergi López

Based on a novel by Dominique Noguez, this film by brothers Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu follows Mathieu Amalric’s Robinson as he searches for Lae (Omahyra Mota), the woman he loves, amidst the end of the world. Through flashbacks, we learn how he met her while on vacation, became estranged from his wife and lost his arm while the “present day” sequences detail one episode (and erotic encounter) after another as Robinson calmly journeys through a world falling apart at the seams. Unlike most movie apocalypses, some traces of normalcy stubbornly remain: people still go to nightclubs, operas and restaurants as resources become scarcer, mass evacuations are carried out and armed troops become more prominent in the streets. The exact cause of the meltdown is never quite determined; instead, we are shown several of its effects such as disease outbreaks, air bombings and, at one point, a perpetually dark Parisian sky. The hysterical behavior that soon overtakes people (suicides, betrayals, anarchy) is truly disturbing to behold, and like Robinson, we can only watch helplessly before moving on to a fresh horror. This unique take on “the end,” captivating story and superb performances by Amalric, Catherine Frot, Karin Viard and Sergi López (who played the contemptible Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth) are all thoroughly fascinating to watch.

The Last Days of Emma Blank (Alex van Warmerdam, 2009)

Gene Bervoets and Marlies Heuer

This Netherlandish dark comedy has some of the same quirky vibes that run rampant through Napoleon Dynamite, only here they are thankfully put to far, far better use. The Last Days of Emma Blank is centered on a family seemingly trapped in their own micro-universe – a quality emphasized by their house’s situation amid a desolate landscape made up of shrubs, sand and a nearby beach. The titular character (Marlies Heuer) is a merciless tyrant suffering the final stages of a terminal illness. She enforces her will over the rest of the household with an iron fist and the promise of an inheritance, seeing that her every wish is carried out. This makes for an unbearable existence for her designated minions, which include her husband Haneveld (Gene Bervoets) and daughter Gonnie (Eva van de Wijdeven). A prominent subplot involves Gonnie’s cousin Meijer (Gijs Naber), who is romantically attracted to her while she seeks more realistic means of distraction and escape. The rest of the small cast is filled out by Annet Malherbe as Bella, Meijer’s mother and the family cook, Marwan Kenzari as a stranger pulled into the family’s madness and the director Alex van Warmerdam himself as the hilariously deadpan Uncle Theo, who spends the majority of the film acting like a dog. Smoothly adapted from van Warmerdam's own play Adel Blank, Emma Blank is made a great delight by the actors’ chemistry with each other as they make their way through the twisted story scene by barbed, terrifically hilarious scene. This is one well worth keeping an eye open (and praying, if need be,) for a wider North American release in the future.

Toad’s Oil (Kôji Yakusho, 2009)

Eita and Kôji Yakusho

My full review for well-known Japanese actor Kôji Yakusho’s directorial debut can be found at the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow; here, I’ll simply say that it’s a whimsically concocted tale that dances between over-the-top humor and thoughtful seriousness while packing in everything in-between from heartfelt tributes to childhood to an impromptu road trip across Japan to a showdown with a black bear.

Well, that was TIFF for me this year – and it seems as soon as the fest ended, things shifted into autumn mode in one big hurry over here in the Greater Toronto Area. But even though I’m not a big fan of the cold, I’m digging fall so far this year – the leaves turning and falling, Halloween drawing steadily closer, the yearning for season-appropriate drinks like cider and dark specialty beers (like Hobgoblin, a delicious favorite of mine). Of course, that means my film tastes are also being affected, as I anticipate revisiting Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and dig the fall color scheme of the trailers for Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which looks, well, fantastic. I’ll also be delving into some horror films before the 31st, including Let the Right One In – a film I know I’m late in getting to, but now that one of my sisters has given it to me for my birthday, I can finally see if it compliments the excellent novel by John Ajivide Lindqvist. Plus, the growing rumblings about Lars von Trier’s latest film Antichrist (which will apparently be coming out in the GTA a little after Halloween – boo) have inspired me to check out Dogville, which I’m very excited about finally seeing and should keep me in the dark, brooding, European and autumn season spirit I seem to have entered. I’ll get to the next entry in my Classic French Cinema Triple Bill series of ramblings soon, but I figure I should venture into some other areas of world cinema first, unless I want to re-name this site Marc’s Big French Film Blog. So, something else – and not French, for a change – will be featured here before too long. As always, stay tuned.