Friday, August 28, 2009

An Unusual Rant about "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

I recently tagged along with my Dad and little sister to finally catch the latest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. After seeing it, all three of us agreed that it was, on the whole, a decent movie. A terrible adaptation, argued my Dad who had just re-read the book and spotted the most discrepancies between text and film, but considered on its own, a decent movie (on the technical side, I must say that the true star is cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who brought us the dazzling images in Amélie, A Very Long Engagement and Across the Universe). But early on in the film, there was a small scene that stuck around in my head for the rest of the screening; one which quite effectively reminded me of my feelings for the franchise (and franchises in general) in relation to other films and, for better or for worse, affected my perspective on the boy wizard’s latest round of adventures on the silver screen.

The scene in question is the one that introduces our titular hero, eschewing yet another Dursley-centered exposition and zeroing in on Mr. Potter as he reads a newspaper in a small subway diner. He is interrupted by an alluring waitress (played by an actress named Elarica Gallacher) who, noticing his name all over the paper, innocently asks who Harry Potter is. The two strike up a small conversation that ends with her promptly telling him before he asks that she gets off work at eleven. It’s a nice little scene that’s shot and acted in a relatively natural style, allowing the two actors to establish both their respective characters and the slightest touch of attraction between them – a glimmer of potential that could lead to so much more. But then, after the waitress has gone, Harry looks out the window at the passing trains and sees, appearing out of nowhere in true wizard fashion…Dumbledore. Like an obedient dog who sees his master, Harry goes to join the headmaster’s side. After some words of greeting, Harry casts a longing glance at the diner where waitress has just exited. She looks around, searching for him. But alas, their rendezvous is not to be, and soon enough Dumbledore whisks Harry off to his next magical adventure.

Now, these two scenes inspired thoughts of protestation in me and slightly soured the remainder of the movie that followed them. The reason for this was simple: undoubtedly like Harry himself, I wanted him to ignore or dismiss Michael Gambon’s bearded wizard and go with the waitress instead. A completely pointless wish, I know – especially since I had read the book, was familiar with what lay in store for young (or not-so-young-any-more) Harry and knew all too well that the waitress’ scene wasn’t even in the book and was invented solely for the movie, meaning it’s highly unlikely that Ms. Gallacher will ever be seen again in the Potter-verse (contrary to Roger Ebert’s own hopes expressed in his review). But regardless, I wallowed in my feelings of futile hope and bitter disappointment all the same. The effect was similar to having had a juicy steak dangled in front of you, only to see it yanked out of sight and replaced with a bowl of tasteless grey gruel. Not that the remainder of the film was as unpleasant as eating gruel, but after having seen such a good, simple scene that hinged on a moment of genuine feeling and emotional subtlety instead of a similar moment intruded upon by a magical quest or CGI beastie, it might as well have been.

My feelings about this scene are no doubt similar to Daniel Radcliffe’s (and his costars’) own impatience with being chained to Warner Brothers and the remaining Potter films. He has recently made relatively successful ventures into non-Potter projects such as December Boys and My Boy Jack, the most famous one being the Broadway play Equus, which required him to perform nude onstage and paid off with a flurry of reviews commending his performance. Indeed, Radcliffe has improved as an actor, and it shows quite often in Half-Blood Prince. But to have to continually walk away from “real” acting jobs to fulfill an obligation to the series of children’s films he began at the tender age of eleven as well as its legions of fans must be annoying at the very least. Granted, seeing this particular responsibility through to the end is, all things considered, the right thing to do, and definitely preferable to having some other actor stepping in with only two or three films left to go. But still, it’s easier than ever to imagine just how eager Radcliffe must be to finish up the series so he can move on to bigger and better things.

In a recent online interview for, Radcliffe made the following observation about the Potter films: “You know what I take pride in more than anything else about these films? They’re the only films since Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series that have featured one character going from about the age of 11 to 20. To be in Truffaut’s company, I’m happy with that.” That quote alone seems to contain in a nutshell Radcliffe’s sharp taste and intelligence and illustrates how, by now, both are visibly clashing with the Harry Potter franchise – or, heck, the whole notion of big budget, big studio franchises in general. While it is indeed refreshing to pick up on the similarities between the two characters’ onscreen exploits (including the freeze-frame at the end of Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is almost definitely an homage to the famous one at the end of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows), the simple truth is that, outside of the focus on young people, these are two very different animals. While all five of François Truffaut’s films to feature his alter ego played by Jean-Pierre Léaud (being The 400 Blows, the short Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board and Love on the Run) are, in adherence to the filmmaker’s recognizable style, devoted to the simple wonders of everyday life and fittingly crafted with light-hearted compassion and naturalism, the Potter films for the most part remain primarily focused on two things: keeping the plot rolling and providing the spectacle of Harry’s magical world. There is still some attention to stuff like character development and moments of emotional significance (there would have to be in order for the films to, like the books, have any resonance with audiences), but such elements have to be packed in along with Quidditch matches, house elves, magic classes, spell casting and the inevitable, race-against-the-clock rush to stop the Dark Lord and/or his servants. Add to that the usual lack of style found among the franchise’s veteran mainstream directors Chris Columbus, Mike Newell and David Yates (Azkaban’s Cuarón being a notable – and noticeable – exception as a rare interloper from the world of art cinema), and what you have is a collection of films designed to be slick, glossy and easily consumed by the masses instead of the more interesting and personal expressions created by filmmakers such as Truffaut.

That’s what makes the diner scene such a gem within Half-Blood Prince – it’s something that Truffaut could have made. And just think about the film that would have resulted if Harry had told Dumbledore to find some other Chosen One and went off with the waitress! No Ron, no Hermione, no owls, no Voldemort – just, to borrow an analogy pricelessly used in Stolen Kisses, two people navigating through the minefield of young love. Plus, while Radcliffe has some nice, natural acting moments in Half-Blood Prince (like when he is comically “drunk” on the Felix Felicis potion), just think of the possibilities if he had the chance to show such bits of humor and subtlety in an entire film. I’m sure he’d be a match for Léaud at his most awkward and likeable.

But again, this is all kind of pointless, since, as I have said before and will say again, I shouldn’t be walking into a tofu shop looking for a steak. The sixth Harry Potter flick is finished, and there are only two more films to go (both comprising the events of the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). They will be what they are meant to be, and then Radcliffe can move on to other, hopefully different things. It looks like the first one on his list will be a portrayal of Dan Eldon, the young photojournalist who was beaten to death in Somalia in 1993 in the upcoming film The Journey is the Destination (promising premise, but the title leaves something to be desired). There’s really no telling where he might go from there, but maybe, just maybe, could he do a New Wave-ish character-based film shot on the streets and in ordinary locations? I don’t think it’s too much to wish for.

Oh yes, and let’s also hope Elarica Gallacher pops up in a bigger role in something tasteful sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The First Shinsedai Cinema Festival – Report

The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre

All good things must come to an end, and August 23rd, 2009, marked the end of the Shinsedai Cinema Festival. It can certainly be said that the event, which was co-curated by Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow founder Chris MaGee and Midnight Eye co-founder and author of the new book Beyond the Pink Curtain Jasper Sharp and hosted at the impressive Japanese Canadian Cultural Center, was a notable success, especially for a film festival that was a) in its first year, and b) featuring independent films that had beforehand received little attention in North America. Indeed, Shinsedai offered a range of interesting films that one most likely wouldn’t find at such genre-focused festivals as Toronto After Dark, and in doing so provided a rich experience for adventurous viewers hoping to learn more about Japanese cinema and culture. Toronto now has a new resource that will enable many to expand their knowledge and appreciation of Japanese culture while showcasing the talents of independent filmmakers. I already can’t wait to see what next year will bring.

Chris MaGee, "Thunderfish" actress Junko Kimoto and Jasper
Sharp at the opening reception for the festival

While I didn’t catch all of the films that were shown at the festival, I certainly made an effort to see most of them – and am very glad I did. Here’s what I thought of the films I saw:

Weiner Waust (Maya Yonesho, 2006)

Shot throughout Vienna, Austria, this five-minute short was a colorful and imaginative delight. Using stop-motion animation, it mainly consists of abstract patterns and shapes dancing on index cards carried throughout different parts of the city, at time mimicking the sights seen in the streets. The enchanting concept and light tone of the film (partly contributed by an accordion score) make it a fun demonstration of cinematic experimentation.

Naked of Defenses (Masahide Ichii, 2008)

The first feature film shown at Shinsedai turned out to be a notable success, drawing a large audience and favorable reactions from virtually everyone who saw it (who I spoke to afterwards, at least). Focusing on the precarious relationship between two female factory workers (one being eight months pregnant, the other having suffered a miscarriage), it is a still, contemplative drama about past traumas and unspoken resentment. The story takes place in the eerily quiet countryside and urban spaces of Toyama Prefecture, providing a sharp contrast to the loud din of the plastics factory where the women work. Lead actresses Ayako Moriya and Sanae Konno both give superb performances, and writer/director Ichii delivers a very well-made film that adequately accommodates both of them.

Suzuki & Co. (Kazuo Kono, 2008)

This is a great comedic short about a desperate job seeker who joins the one-man team behind the titular internet auction company. Both funny and wise, it reveals hidden truths about the business of providing (seemingly) useless stuff and a philosophical perspective on consumer culture.

Inside Kobayashi Hall, where all of the films were screened

Freeter’s Distress (Hiroki Iwabuchi, 2007)

I was really looking forward to seeing this film, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Freeter’s Distress is an onscreen account of Iwabuchi’s experiences as a part-time worker at a Canon plant who is trapped in a state of near poverty. Filming with his handheld camcorder, he talks to friends and acquaintances about the challenges of finding full-time employment and making progress in the world and at certain points addresses the larger political and social dimensions of his situation. For the most part, though, his film remains fairly intimate as it gives the first-person documentation of a life constantly spent striving for survival. We see what Iwabuchi sees as he rides his bike, journeys to Tokyo, tries to find places to sleep in the city until morning (at one point, waiting until noon, when he gets paid) and, in the final portion of the film, walks and stays awake through a night of pouring rain until he reaches the ocean. The film ends abruptly, but there is good reason for this: Iwabuchi himself is left facing a void of uncertainty at that point in his life, so why shouldn’t the audience share that experience? Such an ending is a better and more logical choice than a summative epilogue (as so many documentaries bear), and makes it clear that Freeter’s Distress is a slice of (a) life in the purest sense. If nothing else, it’ll make you want to know how Iwabuchi has fared beyond the film’s events.

emerger (Aki Sato, 2008)

Telling the story of a woman adorned with casts on her neck and leg who is looking for casual sex and a recently spurned gay man, the 42 minute-long emerger displays a rough, raw quality that suits its two emotionally damaged main characters.

Bunny in Hovel (Mayumi Yabe)

This dark, moody film dwells on a destructive family living in the Japanese backwoods. Returning to the house after three years, the mother’s son at first offers the possibility of hope, but isn’t the crusading hero that some viewers may mistake him for – the film is, to its credit, too deeply set in grim reality for a contrivance like that.

Csikspost (Yumiko Beppu, 2009)

Csikspost is a fun, sometimes downright goofy short about the simple pleasures of summer and childhood alike. The main character is the eight year-old Mina (charmingly played by Marina Kawamura), who strives to convince a young fruit vendor to marry her single Dad. Maintaining a great sense of humor, the film contains a few touches that certainly suggest a Wes Anderson influence.

Arungaku (Tomohisa Takashi, 2009)

This concert film was shown with four short works by its subject, the video artist and composer Takagi Masakatsu. Seen together, they certainly convinced me that he is quite the talented individual. His films are unfathomably beautiful spectacles of shape, color and motion that often simulate the texture of paintings. Then there’s the documentary, which showcases his aurally mesmerizing musical work and, simply, the creative process of making music. In the brief segments outside of the concert, Masakatsu is shown as a cheerful, animated person who takes genuine pleasure in what he does and strives to share that joy in all of his art. Thanks to this film, I’ll definitely be hunting for some of his albums over the next few weeks.

Here is Girls, one of his videos (with his own music):

Maledict Car (Kosai Sekine, 2008)

This music video for the band Jemapur consists of a kaleidoscopic stream of imagery reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s work. Here's the entire video:

Thunderfish (Touru Hano, 2005)

With hints of horror and noir, Thunderfish was easily the most genre-influenced film to be shown at Shinsedai. While telling the story of a photojournalist who investigates the prostitution trade and rural legends of Cantella Island, the film also sets out to explore themes such as traditional beliefs and how they clash with contemporary culture (it is set in the 1950s, but the island’s inhabitants more closely adhere to a 1930s way of living). Thunderfish maintains a great atmospheric quality throughout its duration that is primarily owed to Tetsushiro Kato’s cinematography, which perfectly evokes the stifling humidity of the island and uses a vivid palette of saturated greens and blues.

Me with "Thunderfish" actress Junko Kimoto

Vortex & Others (Yoshihiro Ito, 2001-2008)

This is a marvelous collection of short films that truly revel in visual and narrative creativity. Right from the first moments of the first film, Wife’s Knife (in which a man is stricken with horror and fear towards his meek, seemingly harmless wife), it’s clear that Ito is unafraid to venture into the realm of the bizarre – in fact, it’s more than likely that he knows that’s where the best ideas often lie in hiding. All five of these films (being Wife’s Knife, Imaginary Lines, Non-Intervention Game, Plum Double Suicide and Vortex) have something different to offer, and can be described in three adjectives: fascinating, fun and funny.

Jasper Sharp (left) with Yoshihiro Ito (right) in the Q&A discussion for "Vortex & Others"

Now I… (Yasutomo Chikuma, 2007)

Now I… is the first feature film by Yasutomo Chikuma, who maxed out his credit card and served as producer, writer, director and lead actor. He stars as Satoru, an incredibly withdrawn young man who is pushed to interact with the outside world after he is given a job at a winery. The film uses a minimal approach to clearly reflect the claustrophobic viewpoint of the antisocial Satoru. Besides being a capable filmmaker, Chikuma also proves his talent as an actor, especially since he was present for discussions after the screening and, thankfully, turned out to be a much more communicative and cheerful guy than his on-screen protagonist.

The Rule of Dreams (Naoyuki Tsuji, 1995)

Evocative of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and made with low-tech means (charcoal sketches that leave shadow-like trails as they “move” across their paper backdrops), this animated short is mystifying in its surreal images and the imaginative way in which they are created onscreen.

The Trains (Takahiro Hirata, 2005)

A fun and inventive short that will certainly make me think differently about passing trains.

Girl Sparks (Yuya Ishii, 2007)

I couldn’t imagine a more well-chosen pick for the closing film for Shinsedai than this one, which drew plenty of laughs from beginning to end. It provides an account of the strange and frustrating life of teenager Saeko who must contend with her cross-dressing father (who, he explains, also wants to be a mother to her), the assortment of odd boarders he takes into their home, the isolated rural town in which she lives and the rockets that constantly soar through the sky above her.

For more reports on the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, please visit the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow here, here and here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Five Films I'll Be Catching at the Shinsedai Cinema Festival

With both the Toronto After Dark Film Festival and, of course, the Toronto International Film Festival, the end of summer/start of fall period has always been a busy one for film lovers whether they already live in Toronto or are willing to make the trip to sate their cinematic appetites. Well, now there's one more attraction that looks like it's going to be a real treat for those same adventurous viewers: the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, which is being curated by Midnight Eye co-founder Jasper Sharp and my friend Chris MaGee, founder of the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow. The Shinsedai Festival will be taking place from August 21st to 23rd at the Canadian Japanese Culture Centre and focusing exclusively on a diverse selection of new films from emerging Japanese filmmakers (some of whom will be in attendance to present and discuss their films; see the full list of attendees here and here).

A look through the list of films will tell you that the festival will be featuring quite an intriguing mix to choose from. While I'll be setting out to catch most (if not all) of the featured films, here's a quick "Top Five" list of the ones that I'm the most curious about.

1) Freeter's Distress (Hiroki Iwabuchi, 2007)

This film provides a first-person account of the life and trials of the 23 year-old Hiroki Iwabuchi's life as a "freeter" - an educated young person who is trapped in the world of part-time employment. While it looks like an informative watch, Freeter's Distress is sure to be so much more, especially because of its "confessional" quality (acting as both director and subject, Iwabuchi simply picked up a camcorder and recorded the details of his day-to-day life - and ended up with an entire 67-minute film!).

Read the review here.

2) Now, I... (Yasutomo Chikuma, 2007)

Right off the heels of Freeter's Distress, here's a fictional film that's sure to have its share of similarities and differences with Iwabuchi's film alike. Starring director Chikuma (who made the film on a shoestring budget that sent him into the all-too familiar territory of independent filmmakers: credit card debt), it details the experiences of a young man who must make his way through the world without proper education, work experience or his mother, whose death initiates a new chapter in his life.

3) Thunderfish (Raigyo) (Touru Hano, 2005)

While this film looks like the most genre-influenced selection in the Shinsedai Festival, even it sounds like a refreshingly unique work to get lost in. Touru Hano's film plunges a journalist into a mystery involving Cantella Island, a missing photographer, a local brothel and an old legend surrounding a giant fish known as the raigyo. Color me curious!

4) Peaches (Bunny in Hovel, emerger & Csikspost)

The very notion of the Peaches filmmaking collective has me very interested in what they have to offer, since they promote and practice both do-it-yourself filmmaking (controlling such aspects of their films as distribution and screenings) and women getting behind the cameras themselves (Peaches is currently comprised of nine young female directors). Shinsedai will be featuring three of the group's films: Mayumi Yabe's Bunny in Hovel (2009), about a young son's return to an abusive household, Aki Sato's emerger (2008), about two kindred spirits and their (mis)adventures in love, and Yumiko Beppu's Csikspost (2009), a summertime tale about a little girl, a single father and one black hole.

Read a review of emerger here.

5) Vortex & Others: Five Short Films by Yoshihiro Ito (2001-2008)

This series of shorts looks like a treasure trove of some of the stuff that makes Japanese cinema so appealing: unconventional stories, off-the-wall inventiveness, an eccentric, elusive mix of horror and humor. Written, shot and directed by Yoshihiro Ito, these five films are sure to remind many of the works of such directors as David Lynch and Seijun Suzuki and offer a surreal and exciting diversion from what one usually expects from the mainstream.

Read a review of the five Ito films to be featured here.

Friday, August 7, 2009

John Hughes 1950-2009

I remember two years ago when, during my stay at a cottage my family rented in Northern Ontario, I heard on the radio that Ingmar Bergman had passed away. Then, a few days later, I had gotten back home only to find out that another legendary filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, had died within twenty-four hours of Bergman. Well, this year I received a similar shock: on the same day I got home from my family's latest cottage excursion, I read the news that John Hughes unexpectedly died from a heart attack at the age of fifty-nine.

Now, it goes without saying that John Hughes wasn't exactly the same kind of filmmaker as Bergman or Antonioni - he wasn't what you'd typically call an art house director, nor a "visionary" filmmaker. Instead, he shared the same ranks as Woody Allen - he had a distinctive voice that he used, through his films, to tell insightful, resonant stories that truly affected generations of people. As the many other online obits are saying, Hughes helped define the 1980s and pave the way for a new representation and understanding of teenagers in the movies. By simply looking at the handful of films he directed alone, you can easily get a measure of how drastically he changed the concept of the teen movie. I can safely say that he is the person most responsible for making the teen movie what it is today, and it's difficult if not impossible to not see the signs of his influence in others' work in the same area.

The first Hughes film I remember seeing is Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which my cousin Pierre showed me one afternoon at his place. It certainly was an excellent introduction to his work, not only because it contains his trademark sharp humor and great writing, but also because it's just so damn good. Around the same time (or possibly before? - my memory is hazy), Uncle Buck became a favorite of my family's, one that we'd revisit many, many times over the years. I'd later see other classic Hughes films such as The Breakfast Club and Planes, Trains and Automobiles and come to regard him with the same measure of respect and appreciation that so many have already bestowed, and that he so rightfully deserves.

And there is no more apt a time to renew that respect and appreciation than now - and no better way than by revisiting one (or a few) of his many classics. I myself plan to rewatch Ferris Bueller's Day Off as soon as I can on one of my days off from work (because, of course, you can't watch a movie like this one on a day you have to work or go to school!), probably followed up by The Breakfast Club.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hughes.