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Awake In The Dark
What you're watching these days on the Big Screen and the Small Screen.


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Old October 9th, 2005, 01:28 PM   #1
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Vancouver International Film Festival 05

Just in case you were looking to see what to catch at your rep or indie theatre this year, I've been blogging the films I've seen at the VIFF this year. A mixed bag really but the last handful I've seen have been winners.

VIFF so far: "Crying Fist", "Digital Shorts", "Sleeper"

Quickly:

"Crying Fist" - Korean drama in which we follow the parallel stories of two fighters who end up in the ring against each other. The structure is brilliant because both stories are strong and in both stories we don't really know who to root for when they finally end up fighting against each other. If only the boxing was better choreographed (more like "Rocky"). From the director of last year's crowd-pleaser "Arahan" and starring the lead from "Old Boy".

"Three Digital Shorts" The next day I saw a woeful collection of digital shorts by Asian directors which did their best to make me lose my mind. The only notable one was "Haze" by Shinya Tsukomoto, the maker of "Tetsuo: the Iron Man", in which a man wakes up and finds himself trapped inside the walls of a building. Similar to "Cube" but nastier (and shorter). The audience is left to figure out just what the point is behind this man's torture.

This morning I saw a good German low-key thriller - "Sleeper" - about a new employee of a genetics lab who is asked to spy upon the Muslim scientist he is supposed to work with. It examines the motivation, emotions and influences on an informer. Good performances. I liked the portrayal of the office politics in a research environment and the subtle condemnation of the domestic anti-terror campaign.
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Old October 9th, 2005, 01:29 PM   #2
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VIFF #2: "Piano Tuner of Earthquakes"

I knew from the work of the Brothers Quay and from the description of "The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes" to be wary of something potentially obtuse and brain-breaking but even forewarned I didn't expect something so inaccessible and glacial. I'm a fan of the twin brothers' short animated works (you will have seen their influence in a host of music videos and in the J-Lo thriller "The Cell") and I've written about them in this blog. They construct intricate and creepy stop motion animated pieces - each a tiny masterpiece of dark fantasy. However, given feature-length they've made something even fans of Peter Greenaway might have trouble digesting. Their executive producer Terry Gilliam might have better invested in an anthology because the story is thinly stretched. The visuals are there - beautiful in spots - purposely obscured in others. It is 95 per cent live action with some actual Quay Bros.' animation.
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Old October 9th, 2005, 01:31 PM   #3
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VIFF #3: "Duelist"

I'm 2/4 for good films versus wastes of time at the VIFF now after seeing the glitzy but overwrought "Duelist". You know you're in for a long movie when the first scene takes fifteen minutes to get through because a simple action sequence is filmed from dozens of angles and is filtered through several dozen cheesy transition effects. It's like a Korean parody of a Bruckheimer movie except the joke never brought more than a smile to me. Of course, the plot was just the most basic of martial arts cliches. A 17th century police squad uncovers corruption at the highest levels while the tom boyish lead investigator falls for an enigmatic pretty boy swordsman with long bangs hanging over his eyes. Their 'romance' never goes beyond the crossing of swords and this metaphor the director pushes over and over with both fighters nearly orgasming while posing and slashing. There is only so much under-cranked photography I can take in a fight scene or stylish snow falling through light. I literally began snoozing in the third act.
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Old October 9th, 2005, 01:34 PM   #4
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VIFF #4: "Why We Fight"

Eugene Jarecki's followup to last year's "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" (during VIFF 04's documentary heavy lineup) is a polemic attempting to answer why America is in Iraq and why America since the end of WWII has been involved in so many conflicts. Jarecki has fashioned a stylish and well-edited documentary but in such a wide-ranging polemic tantalizes and suggests rather than makes a supreme case that it is the ascendancy of the military-industrial complex rather than national interest that has made the United States into such an imperial power.

Jarecki opens the film with an ode to President Dwight D. Eisenhower who ended his administration with a public address warning against the rise of the military industrial complex. More interesting is Jarecki's skillfull weaving of multiple interviews with ordinary people who are cogs in the machine so to speak. The filmmaker explores the stories of a retired NYPD police officer who lost a son in the September 11th attacks and sought to preserve his son's memory by having his name inscribed on a bomb that was dropped in the first weeks of the war. The two pilots of separate 'stealth fighter' missions that became the opening shots of the war recount their feelings when they realized they had opened hostilities. A solitary New Yorker enlists with the Army in the hopes that his life will turn around. A former military intelligence officer who now lives on a farm tries to unveil some of the machinations behind the cooking of intelligence data that sought to prove the case against Saddam Hussein.

I was engaged more by the delivery than the actual message. In the VIFF at least you can say that such a film was preaching the choir (I heard similar gasps and tut-tuts last year during many documentaries) and after years of analysis the accusations are familiar. A more detailed look into the actual military-industrial complex would have been helpful but probably would have harmed the pace and the human-focused approach of the filmmaker.
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Old October 9th, 2005, 01:41 PM   #5
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VIFF #5: "Blood Rain", "The Gronholm Method", "Beowulf & Grendel"

My first multi-movie day was a mixed bag. I had only intended to see two films but based upon Wayguk's recommendation I inserted another film between my four o'clock and 9:30 films so basically I was on my ass for most of the day.

"Blood Rain" for the most part was a fairly engaging 18th century murder mystery set in a remote South Korean island where the mysterious burning of a tribute ship combined with the murder of a girl brings a team of official investigators. It begins as a quaint procedural mystery as the lead investigator uses autopsy and lore to crack only the first in a growing intricate series of cases that become more connected as the story weaves on. While the mystery itself was rather tame - again the western viewer might have a problem connecting with penchant for South Korean film to be histrionic - the audience was divided down the middle when the gore started flying. People were stabbed, mashed in the head, beaten casually and in a brauvura display of gore effects, a man is drawn and quartered (that is, torn limb from limb).

"The Gronholm Method" is a delightful adaptation from a Spanish play. A group of candidates for an executive position are sequestered in the same room and are made to run through a series of group tests designed to winnow out the weak until only one is left. The candidates follow instructions on the screen in front of them posed in the form of questions or challenges. Between the tests, the candidates connive, make alliances and even engage in trysts, all within offices of the company. Funny, outrageous and never boring, "The Method" is worth watching in film and probably even better in theatre.

"Beowulf and Grendel" - This Icelandic - Canadian production is a visual feast. Great costumes, sets and locations. This really should have been the proper platform for a modern adaptation of the Beowulf saga. However, the story is aimless and the cast - notably Gerard Butler, Stellen Skarsgaard and Sarah Polley - are wasted in scenes that often don't seem to have a purpose, with dialogue that can't decide whether it will be contemporary or pseudo-classical. The story attempts to paint the beast Grendel in a sympathetic light but in doing so reduces conflict. Missed opportunity.
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Old October 9th, 2005, 01:43 PM   #6
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VIFF #6: "Kekexili: Mountain Patrol", "Caché", "The Prince Contemplating His Soul"

My second three movie day was a winner. All three films were well worth seeing and provided widely divergent experiences.

"Kekexili: Mountain Patrol" is a Tibetan-Chinese film about a group of volunteer rangers protecting the endangered Tibetan antelope from a voracious poaching industry. When one of their members is murdered by their most sought after suspects, the team begins an ill-fated odyssey to seek justice, a goal that ultimately nearly destroys them. Like yesterday's "Beowulf & Grendel" the filmmakers use the natural environment to maximum effect, contrasting the morality of the human actions with the stark beauty of the surroundings. Unlike yesterday's film, "Kekexili: Mountain Patrol" shows a taught economy of action that keeps the audience following the stories and characters even though the immense feeling of gravity leads its characters to a seemingly inexorable conclusion. A great VIFF pick combining environmentalism, cultural exploration, politics and a universal theme of hubris and justice. Watch for it as it is distributed by Paramount.

Michael Haneke's "Caché" ("Hidden") was one of the more anticipated VIFF screenings starring French indie favourites Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil as a couple who begin receiving mysterious videotapes showing that they are under surveillance. Each tape reveals more and more and begins to peel away at a hidden secret in the past of one of the family. I'm an admirer of Michael Haneke's direction and combined with always good performances by Binoche and Auteuil as a parents stretched apart by the growing stress "Caché is a solid film though lacking in a satisfying conclusion. Haneke appears to be drawing some sort of parallel between the central moral turn and French treatment of its Algerian history. I wish I knew more about it to fully understand the analogy. On another level, there is a not-so subtle criticism of heavy handed anti-terror tactics. One shocking sequence in the final act jolted the audience out of its seats.


"The Prince Contemplating His Soul" ("Bab' Aziz") is a sumptuous, though seemingly formless, journey of magical realism that can seep into your dreams if you catch it in the right mood. A wise old blind man and his precocious (and precious) grand-daughter wander through the desert in search of a legendary gathering of dervishes. Along the way they meet a collection of fellow travellers each on another journey. They stop and share tales both mythological and modern. Interwoven with this is a simply amazing tapestry of sufi music that will have you leaping to the Internet searching for the soundtrack (not available!). The performance by the young girl (Maryam Hamid) brings each scene to life even with her constant questions beginning with "Bab' Aziz...!" The imagery and cinematography servers further to stir your mind. Although at times I found myself drifting away there was always something coming next that brought me back into the flow of the shifting dunes, the singer's voices and the droning fantastical tales. Few films capture a feeling of a wandering dream as effectively as this. One to remember.
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Old October 14th, 2005, 06:29 PM   #7
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VIFF #7: "The Bridesmaid"

A quirky black comedy in which a workbound man takes home the bridesmaid from his sister's wedding and despite her obvious mental imbalance decides to stick with her. As their relationship grows he makes the mistake of agreeing to exchange murders as a token of their love. This twist is a long time in developing and it wouldn't be right to call this either suspense or thriller. It is more like a whimsical comedy filled with homespun though charming characters.
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Old October 14th, 2005, 06:31 PM   #8
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VIFF #8 Final: "Paradise Now"

The last day of the festival after recovering from a busy party the night before I saw the stunning and powerful "Paradise Now", easily the best film I saw at the festival. The story of the last day of two Palestinian friends who have volunteered to become suicide bombers, "Paradise Now" left me still in my seat watching the end credits, shaking from the emotion and power of both the film. A tremendous work of direction, acting and psychology. Director Hany Abu-Assad filmed on location in Israel, contrasting the poverty of the West Bank with the glossy western sheen of the Israeli city (standing for Tel Aviv). It is directed in parts a sensitive drama, part romance and edgy thriller. While some in the audience might find fault in the overt message in some of the preachy dialogue, the delivery by the stars Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman as the two men and Lubna Azabal as a moderate daughter of a past martyr is master work. Regardless of the result, one cares for these characters, their stifled loves, histories and hopelessness. As a work of politics, "Paradise Now" tries to explain the background of two fictional bombers, delicately peeling back their stories and off-footing the audience at the end when both men are faced with the decision to go through with 'the operation' or not. Among the best of the year.
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