Better to have semi-tiffed in piecemeal fashion over the course of a calendar year than never to have tiffed at all! It's the



All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- actually not seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)


NOTE: Bypass the preview essay and scoot down to the reviews by clicking here.


The Preview Essay -- Two or Three Things I Know About TIFF


Below is a recreation of what it might have looked like had I actually stayed at TIFF for more than 12 hours. It's sort of a dramatic reenactment, with the films having been seen over the course of months rather than days. Just play along. You'll feel better. The point is, over the course of the past year, I've essentially, only half-consciously, been seeing (mostly downloading) the films that I would have seen in my original screening schedule. This summer, rather than throw them into the general mix of monthly reviews, it occured to me that I could just place them in this format, where they could take on the air of a unique summer project. I'd toyed around with this idea, but decided to run with it after reading Mark Peranson's article about film festivals in the most recent issue of Cineaste, where he concludes that "today it's possible that by year's end one could conceivably download (or have someone send you via a file transfer system) most of those mythical fifty films [agreed to be the key films of a given year], whether or not they have distribution, important sales agents, or widespread festival participation (or buy them legally from other countries over the Internet, if one wanted to remain above board)." Good eye, Mark. That's pretty much what I've done, and so, why should my site bear the conspicuous absence of 2007 TIFF coverage when (a) I actually went; (b) I've seen (or "watched," really) all the films I would have seen had I "festivalled;" and (c) I'm more dedicated to this process than many critics who actually hung in? What follows is as close to the original fest coverage as possible, with links standing in for reviews appearing elsewhere in the site.


1) What can I tell you about TIFF '07 that you don't already know? With the exception of a few curmudgeonly holdouts (hi, Mark!), most film critics (a grumpy bunch, by and large) seem to have an uncharacteristic spring in their step this year. Cinema has stopped sucking! But of course, this isn't really how the story goes. Nobody likes everything, or even most things, in this Great Year for Film. But what's amazing is that, for the first time in recent memory, everyone I know and/or regularly read seems to be madly in love with something. There're Secret Sunshine people and Silent Light people and Import Export people and Red Balloon people and, as the news begins trickling out of Venice, Redacted people and Girl Cut in Two people, and so on and so forth. (Me? I'm a Profit motive man. Soon there will be others . . .) And, glory be!, if any one film seems like it has the potential to bring everybody together, it ain't gonna be some pseudoliterate overrated schlub-a-thon from Alexander Payne. Nope. It'll most likely be Todd Haynes. So yeah, let's all get drunk and screw. TIFF '07, whoo-hoo!


2) But come now. What does any of this really mean? The broad characterization of the Year in Film thus far has been one of a shellshocked and disillusioned community finding faith in movies again, which is a lovely fable. But could it be that all the social and technological forces that have been fragmenting us into ever-more-private taste-fiefdoms have finally hit a critical mass? The consensus of quality may in fact be indicative of a tacit acceptance, or even an embrasure, of the collapse of "consensus" as such, and its replacement with camps, posses, chat group buddies, little flags and manifestoes -- cinephilia as total rhizome, and film festivals as spaces of dispersal, splatter, reactions and ideas wafting into the air and fizzling out on lacquer tabletops like so much espresso foam. Top Ten? Why? Any number can play. After all, the optimists might actually be right. If we're all becoming less and less of a community in dialogue, the resulting fragmentation could be a new, at-long-last appropriate response to transnational shifts, changes in media technology, a rejection of quaint humanist bromides about the "great family of man," and the like. Now, hardly anyone "speaks our language," but have we perhaps arrived at a state at which more artworks are, at the very least, "interesting" in their insularity?


3) Is it too pissy, in the context of Love-In 2007, where the Rivers of Cinema are allegedly flowing with milk and maple syrup, to point out that there are certain things TIFF just botches, over and over again? For instance, take a look at this year's dismal selection of German films. You'd never know by looking at Toronto that major new developments were afoot, what with the so-called Neue Berliner Schule and its forebears kicking ass and taking names at the Berlin IFF. TIFF has never really supported Christian Petzold or Harun Farocki, so I suppose that working in partial response to their example would not be the way for younger filmmakers to curry favor with the Toronto crowd. But still, in 2007, selecting works by Stefan Ruzowitzky and Hans Weingartner over new films by Angela Schanelec and Maria Speth is unfathomably obtuse. Someone on the selection committee needs a stern talking-to. Likewise, TIFF's having passed on demonlover and now Boarding Gate, while programming the noble but somewhat stilted Clean, shows us that someone somewhere in the head office only likes their Assayas films when they're fortified with 12 vitamins plus iron. [NOTE: Reader Michael Sooriyakumaran kindly reminded me that of course they showed Clean; it was a Canadian co-production. Sorry for the brainfart.] Finally, if the reviews out of Locarno were correct, the omission of Masahiro Kobayashi's The Rebirth will ensure that a complex, rigorous film, devoted to examining human labor, its relationship to trauma, and its potential role in the healing process, will now be little more than a momentary rumor in North America. Its fate is sealed; you'll probably never hear of it again. Thanks, TIFF.


4) But you know what? There's still way more showing that I want to see than I am physically capable of watching within the 144 hours (including sleep) I have set aside for the purpose. And that, dear reader, brings me to my final point. Once TIFF kicks off, I will be doing my best to provide updates to this page, and my site in general. I actually enjoy writing reviews when films are freshest in my mind, and the TIFF backlog can be daunting when I don't keep apace during the festival itself. Having said that, no promises. Last year, I actually missed films I wanted to see because I was doing website work instead. And, when you consider that no one is paying me one thin dime to do this, well, that's fucked up. What's more, I've fallen behind on everything in recent months due to a series of difficulties in my private life, and I will kindly spare you the details. (This is not a blog.) But for me, TIFF '07 will be abbreviated (only seven five! days), I will be starting out from a place of total exhaustion and ending up god knows where, and I will be exercising my only chance each year to indulge in obscure cinema in all-day total-geekout mode. So, while I will do my best to keep Hack alive, you may be receiving considerably less than in years previous, at least while the festival is actually on.


5) The Last Bloggy Preface: So, the screening schedule has gone through a lot of ch-ch-ch-changes, and I'm sure there will be more. For reasons best left unexplored, I'll be attending the final five days of the festival. (Way to get the most out of that P&I pass! Yeah, I know.) So lots of stuff at the end will be rush-line, and although I don't really expect any problems you never know. So that stuff above about few if any web updates? Consider that proviso raised to the tenth power, unless the line-ups have Wi-Fi. (And frankly, I wouldn't be surprised.)


And now...


seen prior to the festival


Europa 2005, 27 Octobre (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Italy) [v/s] [8]

August 2007. See review here.


Profit motive and the whispering wind (John Gianvito) [v/m] [8]

April 2007. See review here.


screening schedule (and everything's subject to change)



9/9 -- PRE-GAME SHOW!!! or, through the magic of technology and international commerce, small morsels of TIFFery wend their way into my home.


To Each His Own Cinema (various, France) [5] [changed to 6, 8/12/09]

You can read the epic-length review here.


Beyond the Years (Im Kwon-taek, South Korea) [4]

Handsomely appointed but vacant, Im's one hundredth film (cue confetti drop!) cannot even manage to make its characters' copious melodramatic sufferings and cruel historical vicissitudes register as anything more than gaudy beads on a rather deterministic narrative necklace. Make no mistake, Im is a master, all right, and there is no denying the sheer physical beauty of Beyond the Years, even at its most abject. The simple way in which Im frames an establishing shot of a thatched-roof hovel on a hillside, with the sun just barely peeping over its crest, calls to mind the finest images in Asian cinematic history -- from Kurosawa and Mizoguchi to Imamura and Hou. But there's also no denying that #100 finds Im on autopilot, dipping ever so slightly into outré intimations of incestuous desire but mostly charting the Hell That Was Life In the Korean Twentieth Century through the eyes of a pansori troupe. But, unlike Chunhyang and Sopyonje, Beyond the Years is too committed to thwarting its protagonists' artistic ambitions to ever really let the music shine through. Apart from tiny dollops here and there, this really is the non-singing, non-drumming Sopyonje, and probably for completists and scholars only.



9/10 -- A hectic travel day that included an hour and twenty minute delay at the border due to an immigration issue. It seems a Pakistani national who'd already been deported had gotten on the train to sneak back into Canada, so we were all stuck in Niagara Falls, ON until the Feds sorted it out. Sobering stuff -- here I am just trying to see some films and not hack up a lung. (And wouldn't you know, the Hasty Market down on the corner is all out of cough syrup. Oh well, something for tomorrow.)



Water Lilies (Céline Sciamma, France) [4]

April 2008. See review here.


Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-sheng, Taiwan) [3]

Lee's directorial debut, The Missing, marked the start of a career displaying the inevitable influence of Tsai Ming-liang while also showing the clear early flutterings of an original artistic voice. By contrast, Help Me Eros is, ironically, double-dipped in Tsai-ness like a Dairy Queen chocolate cone while evincing such thematic and organizational ineptitude as to suggest that Lee gleaned next to nothing from the master's tutelage. In broad outline, the story of a wealthy man (Lee) who loses all his money in the stock market, becomes fixated on a suicide-hotline worker (Jane Liao), and then takes up with a "betelnut beauty" (Ivy Yi) as a sort of surrogate, Eros spins out in all manner of abstract directions, encompassing musical interludes, extensive hardcore sex, Tsai-like miserablism with the usual instant noodles and barren Taipei squalor, and a hazy neon glow of city nightlife actually more redolent of second-rate Wong Kar-Wai. What binds these disparate moods and patterns together, along with a generalized electric-blue glaze of videography, is an almost comedic variation on art-film torpor. Everything feels depressive and dead, with no deeper meanings to compel basic engagement. What's more, the utterly random scene-to-scene organization, to say nothing of the shoddy compositions and aimless camerawork, all seem to rhyme with the depressive, disconnected sex and opium smoking among the principal characters. An intra- and extra-diegetic drug-glaze seems to be the order of the day. Is the finale actually going for poignancy, or does it mean to strike a note of cheap, Alanis Morissette faux-irony? Pointless.


Contre Toute Espérance [Summit Circle] (Bernard Émond, Canada) [7]

In truth, the grade is divided; the material focusing on the day-to-day relationship between Réjeanne (Guylaine Tremblay) and Gilles (Guy Jodoin) would merit an 8. Regrettably, Émond clutters the film with a needless "murder mystery," a flashback-provoking investigation that gives the film its structure but also cheapens the proceedings with hackneyed genre fluff. (The "Flics: Montreal" stuff gets an iffy 6.) Nevertheless, throughout my viewing of Contre Toute Espérance, it was obvious that I had truly discovered a world-class director, one whose work I'd follow carefully from now on. I thank Dan Sallitt for the tip. He's been an Émond fan for quite some time, and this stands to reason. Contre Toute superficially resembles a Sallitt film. Like Sallitt, Émond foregrounds still, almost fragile mise en scène and limited, highly deliberate camera movement, always in the service of dialogue and performance. There's an almost microscopic intensity in the way Émond slows the pace of his individual shots, clearing space for the carefully modulated performances of his two phenomenal lead actors. It's difficult to explain precisely what this director is doing which strikes me as so unique and noteworthy, but the best I can do for now is to suggest an unlikely alliance between Bressonian temporal dynamics and Bergmanian dramatic values. The inherent mawkishness of the subject material -- a couple's struggle to survive after the man suffers a debilitating stroke and the woman's job is downsized out of existence -- is subverted with a plainspoken, reduced affect that at the same time does not reduce the performances to "models," or exclude the recognizable human emotion that the Method can provide. If this balancing act hasn't won Émond legions of fans, I think it's because his achievement is so subtle, it can easily be mistaken for artlessness or a lack of definitive style. Having said all this regarding Contre toute's formal accomplishments, allow me to say that the specific situations depicted in the film -- the struggle to overcome the effects of a stroke, the agonizing effort of physical and speech therapy, the roller coaster of hopelessness and optimism, the slow adjustment to one's new abilities -- are ones that I have witnessed up close, sad to say. Émond's representation is spot on, particularly the codependency and marital struggles that inevitably ensue. Now, points ought not be awarded to art just for "getting it right," but as a matter of course, Movies of the Week thrive on ridiculously romanticized depictions of illness and infirmity, trotting out the "heroism" of the weak for the edification of the rest of us. Émond just shows plain, unadorned effort, the hard, hard work of recovery, and supporting that recovery. Everything that was missing from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is here in Contre Toute Espérance, including class politics. No wonder the entire known universe went with Schnabel instead.


Dr Plonk (Rolf de Heer, Australia) [2]

Well, the light touch and relative sophistication of Ten Canoes was a fluke, apparently. In that film, de Heer even managed to make fart jokes with a certain degree of aplomb. But Dr Plonk is just a painfully witless film, a failed postmodern riff on silent cinema that purports to have something clever to say about the hazards of the contemporary world, or the charm of the last century's faith in progress, but mostly just contents itself with lots of guys in sad fake moustaches kicking each other in the pants. The story, such as it is, has one Dr Plonk using a pine-box time machine to travel to the year 2007 to acquire evidence for his theory that the world will end in that year, a full century later than his own era. But really, de Heer does very little with the premise, except to mount a production so inept, and without even the slightest iota of effectively comedic slapstick, that it almost functions as de Heer's implicit, conservative's argument against the early cinema's revisionist vogue of the last thirty years. To the Guy Maddins and Tom Gunnings and Ken Jacobses of the world, who see the pre-Griffith canon as a virtual wonderland of inexhaustible pleasures and possibilities, de Heer seems to raise a wagging finger and say, "Oh yeah? All I see is a bunch of grayed-out medium shots of herky-jerky performers running around clobbering each other over the head, punctuated with the occasional title card." What's more, Dr Plonk is not just rife with political incorrectness but patently unfunny political incorrectness, just showing deaf-mutes getting kicked and ooga-booga style Aborigines chunking spears for the mere sake of it, as if to provide a stern lecture about how unenlightened the Golden Age of Silent Cinema really was. Sorry, folks. This one has maybe one good sight gag (involving the tossing of chemical reagent bottles) and no redeeming qualities beyond that.


-Tape Film (Chris Kennedy, U.S. / Canada) [s] [5]

Hardly revelatory but pleasant enough in its own way, Tape Film is one of those "you got your chocolate in my peanut butter" aesthetic mash-ups, where the frisson, should it arrive, comes from the juxtaposition of two (or more) incongruous elements, the weight of their respective histories provoking thoughts that range outside rather than within the piece itself. In this case, Kennedy mixes the process-art side of structural film with the psychedelic / light flare aspects of 60s Expressionism, Brakhage in particular but also Schneemann, Scott Bartlett, Ed Emshwiller, and the whole early-video-to-film solarization brigade. Basically we see a figure applying strips of tape to a window, gradually obliterating the screen in horizontal bands. This simple action is shown in negative, color-reversal, high-contrast, with eye-scorching reds and yellows. The intuitive character of the film's surface intends to instigate a dialogue with its methodical contents. However, I found that once that basic theme was recognized, Tape Film held few surprises.


-epc 2D: sun (John Price, Canada) [s] [4]

Price's home movie images were shot (or blown up, not sure) on outdated 35mm film stock that polarized colors into brash silhouettes, mostly of bright yellows and greens. The overall impact was of recognizable forms being nuked into relative abstraction, and much of the film resembled the semi-representation paintings of Chicago artist Ed Paschke. I am straining to remember anything noteworthy about this film, other than the fact that it struck me as vague and underarticulated, and probably undeserving of a berth in such a high-profile showcase. But by the same token, a cursory mousing-around on Price's website indicates to me that he's got some interesting-looking work under his belt, so I'm definitely keeping an eye out despite my reservations regarding epc 2D.


-Discoveries on the Forest Floor 1-3 (Charlotte Pryce) [s] [7]

There is an undulating certitude to Pryce's use of rhythm, one that approaches both the muscular quality of Julie Murray and even certain aspects of the paintings of Terry Winters (both of whom have been known to explore the defamiliarizing impact of scraps of the organic in close-up), as well as the delicacy of Diane Kitchen's nature-study films, or the thin adjoining intricacies of snowflakes cut out of folded tissue paper. Pryce's film seems at first to be relying on speed to forge convincing articulations, but in fact Discoveries is neither fast nor slow. It touches upon certain aspects of Brakhage's Mothlight or the beige, cracked-earth textures of the silt collective's work, but Pryce is working photographically, and forming her odd, almost wobbly edits based on shapes and forms inherent in the images themselves. Nevertheless, there is a directness here that almost transcends cinematography; Pryce's filmic descriptions of spores, cones, and brown-black bug parts possess a haptic quality that practically coats the screen with a thin layer of soft mud. Repeat viewings would be necessary to clarify in great detail just how Pryce achieves her splice-alchemy, and overall Discoveries is not exactly "groundbreaking" as a cinematic nature study. It follows a well-trod path. But it does so with a striking grace that continually hovers on the verge of evaporation.


-Papillon (Olivier Fouchard, France) [s] [6]

A strange, rhythmic little doodad of a film, Papillon plays like a set of proto-Pop Art preoccupations (edge lettering of the film itself, but also commercial fonts and graphic designs of the sort one might spy in the margins of a Rauschenberg canvas) channeled through the cinematic procedures of Len Lye. Against a black background, close-up texts turned on their side wobble up the screen, dyed in deep industrial reds, blues, and greens. The thup-thup-thup of a hand-scratched optical soundtrack is mixed with other ambient sounds and, eventually, improbably, a few bars of Pink Floyd's "Great Gig in the Sky." What exactly is Fouchard up to? I can't say, although I look forward to further exposure to his work. But as an experience, Papillon is percussive eye- and ear-candy, playing off the usual fissures between text as legible data and as pure plastic form. Like the titular butterfly, Fouchard's film pops into the world, pleases with its grace and demands little from us, and exits almost immediately -- a refreshingly modest ethic.


-Evertwo Circumflicksrent...Page 298 (Bruce McClure) [p/s] [5]

This performance at the Toronto IFF was, against all odds, my first exposure to McClure's work, since for a variety of reasons I kept missing his pieces even as I was in very close proximity to them. (One was even installed in my classroom at Binghamton University during my class time, but I'd finished early and couldn't stick around.) Needless to say I've been anxious to see what the work is like; McClure is one of the few experimental filmmakers to have made a big splash on the scene in the last ten years about whom there seems to be virtually no dissenting opinion. The recent projector-performances are regarded as something genuinely new and, in some ways, one of the last "necessary" moves to be made in cinema's modernist trajectory. McClure, an architect turned filmmaker turned light-sculptor / noise-musician / artist-engineer, seems to be shifting the terms of cinema away from the bounded rectangular light of intra-frame relationships, moving the action out into the space of projection and spectatorship. He does this using rigorously controlled means, such as manipulated loops and rhythmic hole-punching in metal-plate inserts, all governed by proportional schema that appear to have a concrete basis in math, although Evertwo soon began to look and sound like chaos. (Nothing new here; the ultra-rational music of Babbitt or Stockhausen often maintains a surface-character of random disarray, giving a sense that order and disorder are cousins rather than opposites.) So, in creating spatially organized light-and-sound constructions that violate the sanctity of the screen frame, McClure brings the latent connections between structural film and minimalist sculpture to the fore, squaring the circle at long last. It's about the thing's pulsating ability to prompt a shift in your bodily engagement with not only the thing itself but its (and your) surrounding architectural container. It's all perfectly logical, which makes it all the more disappointing that my first encounter with McClure's work didn't carry much beyond intellectual appreciation. Evertwo was comprised of two altered projectors with the sound heads wired through guitar petals, and various intra-projector inserts (some presumably celluloid, others solid objects) colluding with the flicker to produce a slowly shifting 3-D form. The soundtrack was earsplitting, metallic loop-chime reminiscent of the music of Glenn Branca or Elliott Sharp, but the shadowy form onscreen just looked like a whirling orb that cell-divided, split, and reabsorbed into itself. The effect was very much like one of Ken Jacobs' Magic Lantern performances, only with a more controlled, even reductive set of variables. The pulses of light, combined with the persistent abstract clank of the soundtrack, implied a total sensory package, an enveloping, even frightening experience that overwhelmed and eventually transported the viewer's consciousness. I tried to get into it, like I would a rock show or an opera, but there was something so painfully evident about Evertwo's intent that I always felt one hemisphere of the brain planted firmly on the floor. Maybe I was too tired to fully submit to McClure's shock hypnosis. I'll certainly see another of his works any chance I get. But I find myself wondering why Evertwo, unlike certain key works by Paul Sharits or Iannis Xenakis, seemed to remain so firmly tethered to the Apollonian.


Glory to the Filmmaker! (Takeshi Kitano, Japan) [3]

January 2008. See review here.



9/11 --



Useless (Jia Zhang-ke, China) [v] [5]

January 2008. See review here.


Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico / France / The Netherlands) [7]

While it seems to me that there's no question that Silent Light represents a major step forward in the evolution of Reygadas's art, I still have certain reservations about his filmmaking. Seldom has a director so blatantly signaled his ambition produce visionary images almost from day one. Although Reygadas certainly has the talent to back up his audacity, he (much more so that fellow-travelers like Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Brakhage, or Sokurov) seems to evince this odd double-consciousness, fully occupying a cosmological world of his own devising while keeping one eye on the critics and tastemakers. It would be far too easy to call this cynicism, although particular moments in Japón undoubtedly have an undeniable bad-boy whiff about them. This question pretty much divided everyone where Battle in Heaven was concerned, but whatever its flaws Reygadas was on his way to locating his own voice, in particular his broader humanistic impulses within the specific cultural landscape of contemporary Mexico. In this regard, Silent Light is both fascinating and confounding. Its overall success, and the sheer overpowering beauty of the film as a physical artifact, is a direct result of Reygadas's decision to zero in on a small, marginal subculture (Mennonites in the hinterlands of Chihuahua state) and create a film aesthetic that fully occupies their time, landscape, and spiritual worldview. In a sense, Reygadas tackled the fundamental problematic of his cinema -- the tension between what the physical world can reveal of itself, and what if any spiritual meaning we can ascribe to that physical presence -- by situating Silent Light within a community whose religion suffuses their world, their relationship to the land, and, as it happens, the conflicted love triangle Reygadas has devised. Silent Light is a film in which momentous spiritual crisis and one's place in the eyes of God are ideas that can be explored without helicopters, dead horses, corpulent blowjobs or unmotivated stabbing deaths. The stillness of the mundane speaks anguished volumes for these individuals, a dry shroud of religiosity that hangs in the air like the thin dust of newly threshed wheat slightly inhibiting their movement.


Light, and in particular the materiality of light, is paramount for Reygadas in this film, and apart from Silent Light's overt exploration of the nature of love, faith, and sacrifice, there is also a subtle but undeniably present self-interrogation with regard to the status of cinema. In some sense Silent Light's Mennonites are intended to seem like "found objects." The internal struggle plaguing Johan (Cornelio Wall) of whether to leave his wife Esther (Miriam Toews) for his lover Marianne (Maria Pankratz), and what this decision will mean for his mortal soul, is a human drama that Reygadas wants us to believe in. And yet the film is rife with signals of artifice and deliberate craft. Silent Light's infamous opening sequence, in which a black screen gives way to distant animal cries, whirling stars, a sunrise slowly describing the Mexican earth, and eventually the everyday miracle of two trees coming to presence in the light, calls forth the natural world as well as the spiritual / celestial one. But at the same time Reygadas's manipulations -- camera movements, accelerated motion, color correction -- are fairly obvious. Silent Light opens with an explicitly theatrical overture, one that intends to call to mind the Creator's capacity to generate life and light that outstrips any human production. Reygadas alludes to divine omnipotence at the same time he point back to film's artifice. Similarly, the frequent use of lens flares (most notable during Johan and Marianne's first onscreen tryst) demonstrate the awesome power of the sun, and gesture back to the physical optics of the act of recording. Silent Light plunges into the problematics of contemporary faith; we are promised an unmediated world but can never really achieve this. And in fact, the very human dynamics witnessed throughout Johan's family represent this very disruption of the holy. The first time we see the family, they are praying before breakfast. Johan the patriarch is leading the family in grace, but it goes on too long, as we see he is preoccupied with his romantic dilemma. In the middle of the prayer, Esther opens her eyes to return Johan's gaze, catching him out as he drifts into the profane.


If there is any place where Reygadas's substantial achievement falters, it is in Silent Light's conclusion. Much has been made of the unmistakable homage to Dreyer's Ordet, right down to the color and arrangement of the funereal sitting room. The question I have is, what does this allusion avail us? Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that referencing a film that great merely points up Reygadas's shortcomings, as if Ordet were holy writ and untouchable. But there is a sense that by putting all his eggs in the basket of this grand allusion, Reygadas comes down a bit too hard on the side of postmodernism and the circular traps of representation. This is bothersome since much of the rest of Silent Light is, in part, about how to find meaning while grappling with this very conundrum. Reygadas's conclusion offers a certain symmetry, and marks a reversal in the film's (and Esther's) characterization of Marianne, who has somehow become God's conduit. But the sudden leap into both the supernatural and into name-that-masterpiece does feel rather inorganic, like a slip back into the director's earlier audacity for its own sake. (To compare a film and filmmaker on much the same page, when Bruno Dumont has Pharaon levitate in L'humanité, it was not that character's final and defining act.) Are we to understand that Esther's fate is primarily a second chance for Johan, a state of grace? Truth is, I don't know, and it gnaws at me. Reygadas concludes Silent Night with a visionary flair, all right, but one that almost asks us to reconsider the rest of the film's dogged location of the spiritual lifeforce in our own world as some sort of category error, or the elaborate set-up for a bone-dry joke.


The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories (Andrey Paounov, Bulgaria / U.S. / Germany / U.K. / Netherlands / Finland) [4]

April 2008. See review here.


Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, France) [9]

April 2008. See review here.


The Exodus (Pang Ho-Cheung, Hong Kong) [7]

December 2007. See review here.


-I'm Not There (Todd Haynes) [8]

December 2007. See review here.



9/12 --



Days of Darkness (Denys Arcand, Canada / France) [4]

It's odd: when Bollywood periodically throws out one of its on-the-cheap remakes of a recent Hollywood success, like Reservoir Dogs or E.T., it's taken in stride by mainstream and highbrow film culture alike, allowed to pass with a patronizing chuckle. Such blatant copycatting is just a step above porno parody remakes, and only goes to show how charmingly inept the developing world can be, all those little Borats with their wind-up cameras taking our ideas and pantomiming them into kitsch. (Never mind the fact that Bollywood means big money, and that its finest productions grind contemporary Western musicals into the dust.) But when an allegedly world-class North American auteur perpetrates the same offense, no one bats an eyelash. Granted, the reaction to Denys Arcand's American Canadian Beauty has been uniformly negative, but the fact that it could exist at all, that a production so crass and craven in its very foundational concepts could receive funding from folks at Telefilm or Canal+, who should know better, is disheartening indeed. Like the Mendes / Ball crapsterpiece, Darkness is a midlife crisis blown up to the proportions of epic quest, even grand opera. Jean-Marc Leblanc (Marc Labrèche) is a bitter civil servant deep in the bowels of the Quebec provincial government, with a power-realtor wife, a porno stash, and delusions of great intellectual prowess. Like a sexual Walter Mitty, he frequently envisions himself the master(bator) of his own harem, featuring among others Eurohottie Diane Kruger as well as Jean-Marc's lesbian co-worker (Arcand regular Macha Grenon). This nonsense is balanced only by Arcand's usual political nonsense, which perhaps makes sense only if you're a disillusioned child of the 1960s, or an embittered enemy of the Euro-style welfare state. From a Yank perspective, Arcand's swipes at politically correct speech, social services, and the very idea of positive action through government just seems mean and reactionary, like a sort of banal, unfunny Terry Gilliam for the George Will set. Just as The Barbarian Invasions made national healthcare look like a Byzantine nightmare, so Darkness mocks Canadian social work as a paper-pushing, self-perpetuating sham designed to help no one. Which brings me to my final analysis of Arcand and his place in both Canadian and world cinema. The guy's films are excruciating, unfunny, and desperately certain on their urbane wisdom. The director, with his flip scoffing tone and prim, semi-Scandinavian mise-en-scène, affects a high-handedness, much like Jean-Marc himself. Arcand comes on like a severe Dutch uncle delivering painful truths, but he's no Jacques Nolot or Werner Herzog, men who can make bitterness and resignation sing. He's just a self-loathing pseudo-intellectual whose films display a crippling inferiority complex with regard to European sources, French cinema in particular. And so it's little wonder that Arcand continues to be selected to represent French-Canadian cinema, and Canadian cinema tout court, on the world stage. He exemplifies Canada's national inferiority complex, one that nation in no way deserves. The films of Jean-Pierre Lefebvre thematize this, but Arcand's are symptomatic of it. Robert LaPage is ten times the filmmaker Arcand is (to say nothing of LaPage's searching, openhearted worldview), but still we're subjected to Arcand over LePage, over and over. Denys Arcand is not only washed up. He's a pox on our cultural landscape. Can we please close the book on this guy?


L'Ora di Punta (Vincenzo Marra, Italy) [4]

A tedious character study of a blandly unscrupulous man, L'Ora di Punta strikes me as highly indicative of a specter haunting Italy, both its politics and its cinema. Smug, vacant Filippo (Michele Lastella) begins as a corrupt detective on the Financial Police, he cuts some dirty deals with his superior, cozies up with a wealthy widow "of a certain age" (a succulent Fanny Ardant), uses her connections to break into some shady business speculation, smarms and charms influential politicians while doublecrossing pretty much everyone in his path without a moment's thought. It's sort of an Italian Psycho, but without any of the humor or bloodletting. Instead, Filippo's pretty obviously supposed to be some kind of allegorical figure for the state of Italian capitalism and/or politics, and as such Marra simply doesn't have that much of interest to say. Stylistically, the film has a few flourishes, zeroing in on the chilly lacquered interiors of faceless power. But for the most part, Marra conducts matters as though he were helming a soap opera, with men giving dastardly, impassive looks to wounded women, florid music cues burbling beneath the action all the while. (Marra is a significant new player in Italian cinema -- L'Ora di Punta played in competition in Venice -- but based on the evidence here I'm hard-pressed to understand why.) There seems to be an undercurrent of Conformism here, Marra none so subtly harking back to Bertolucci's masterwork and its incisive autopsy on empty opportunism. But there's no Freudianism here. In fact, Filippo is so sociopathically blank that in the second real scene of the film we see him spurning his own little gray-haired mother who traveled to Rome all the way from her village just to see her boy. ("Sorry, mom, you can't stay at my place. I've got workmen.") No, the hysteria on display is of a uniquely political variety, pointing to a set of circumstances that have seemingly left Italian progressives feeling trapped like rats in a maze. If you look at films like The Caiman, Paolo Franchi's The Spectator, or the recent work of Marco Bellocchio, one gets the overwhelming sense that Italy is grappling with a dual consciousness, an overt identity as a Western democracy that belies a tacit understanding that in fact the nation is run by mafiosi and robber-baron thugs. (I suspect Sorrentino's Il Divo to continue the trend.) L'Ora di Punta is a film so filled with disgust that it forgets to reflect reality. It's all compulsive moustache-twirling.


Time to Die (Dorota Kedzierzawska, Poland) [W/O] (0:30)

Kedzierzawska's reasonably high reputation on the festival circuit meant that curiosity got the better of me, and based on the brief sampling I could stand, I will happily admit that on a purely visual level, Time to Die is never less than lovely and often quite ravishing. The crisp black and white cinematography patiently etches its silver-nitrate foliage on the screen, with the form of a dilapidated house coming into view through the woods like a kind of architectural ghost form. But beyond the natural wonder of the thing, there's just a prattling old woman (Danuta Szaflarska) who may or may not be dead, who talks to her dog, and who won't leave this house, god damn it. It's just tiresome and embarrassing, and showed no signs of going anywhere remotely worthwhile.


Eat, For This is My Body (Michelange Quay, France / Haiti) [7]

March 2008. See review here.


Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov, Russia) [6]

February 2008. See review here.


Happiness (Hur Jin-ho, South Korea) [6]

As with other efforts I've seen by Hur, but to an altogether greater extreme, Happiness is a death-grip battle between rigor and schmaltz. But the thing is, too often this aspect of Hur's work is excused by simply calling him a "populist" director, and that's not really what's at issue. Yes, he's playing to a mainstream Korean audience, so he'll never display the formal severity of, say, a Jang Sun-woo. But Hur's concept of what makes a film accessible is obtuse and obtrusive, to the point of madness. The worst offense in Happiness is his sappy, skull-penetratingly obnoxious score, with its chirpy, sub-Stevie Wonder harmonica and Wyndham Hill noodlings. But even on the level of structure and pacing, Hur parses out story beats in exact fifteen-minute intervals, as though his prospective audience has some sort of Syd Field train to catch. Having said all that, Happiness does show a great deal of restraint in the area of "terminal illness film," mostly because it's largely a film about the selfish existential choices that tank a doomed love affair, with impending death serving only to complicate the timeline. Young-su (Hwang Jung-min), the club manager who's drinking himself to death, then not, then doing so again, has choices that Eun-hee (Lim Soo-jung), with her congenital respiratory ailment, does not, and so power in the relationship (and between the genders) becomes written on the body in unusually dramatic ways. Hur tamps down the melodrama in the performances, and his control of mise-en-scène is usually admirably sharp. But now and then he'll turn all gooey-eyed in the face of Nature, revealing his weakness for cheap-seat explanation and wielding the expository sledgehammer. As for editing and scene-by-scene organization, Dan Sallitt (Happiness's major defender) is often correct, that Hur will end a sequence before you expect it to, and jump to a new sequence whose temporal connection to the last is intriguingly ambiguous. That is, on a purely formal level, Hur does often undercut his own penchant for bold strokes, in favor of gaps, silences, and near-Pialatian ellipses. But this only happens, say, 20-30% of the time. More often, the decoupage is pretty standard. So, Dan's not wrong, but possibly zeroing in on those aspects of Hur's practice that most interest him as a critic and filmmaker, and expanding them in his response.


Sad Vacation (Shinji Aoyama, Japan) [6]

Here's a film that is far, indeed so very far from perfect, but in no way deserves the critical drubbing it has received. And although this is only the second Aoyama film I've seen, it does convince me that the downturn in his career should not be taken at face value. Yes, Sad Vacation is not as fully realized, profoundly moving, not to mention coherent, as Eureka. But I also suspect that Aoyama is penalized simply for his refusal to make films as ostentatiously stately as Eureka, preferring instead to explore genre, a grungier punk aesthetic, and a halting, collision-montage approach to tonal shift that is much more characteristic of South Korean cinema than most Japanese art-film output. Here, Aoyama delivers whiplash clashes of the mournful, the comic, and the blatantly banal and unremarkable, editing the pieces like a DJ. But usually, when one says that, we're supposed to think of hip-hop, and that's not the rhythm here. It's more like musical-chairs and the random stylus drop. There are, however, consistent aesthetic dominants that smooth out these transitions and give Sad Vacation an overall shape and (despite what you may have heard) a very compelling forward trajectory. Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is the prime mover of the film, his abandonment by his mother apparently prompting him to occupy an unlikely position as scruffy, taciturn scoutmaster for first one, and then another band of misfits. Once Kenji happens upon his mother once again by chance, his discovery that she may not be all that different from him essentially flips a switch in his personality, and all those he once drew close to him suddenly become pawns in a single-minded game of revenge. Nevertheless, Aoyama and Asano so underplay this obsession that it is quite possible not to notice it until very late in the game. Some very intelligent commentators and friends of mine have complained that Sad Vacation relies on plot twists and character decisions that bear no relationship to actual human behavior. I think this is fair, although I'm not sure this is what Aoyama had in mind. The film has its naturalistic moments, but I think it does demand to be read as a kind of abstract thematic piece, an examination of the possibilities and limitations of family. (This is clearly a preoccupation in Japanese cinema at the moment. See also: Kurosawa, Kiyoshi.) The formal "randomness" could, I suppose, even be read allegorically, were one so inclined. How do all these disparate bits coalesce into a film? How do these strange, incompatible individuals, brought together by chance, actually form a family? Of course, Sad Vacation isn't all complete chaos; much of it is quite serene. Aoyama's continual refrain of classically composed landscape shots, with echoes from Ozu through Imamura, seem to serve as a cultural baseline against which the unmooring of traditional values, in terms of kinship as well as cinema, are played out. I concede, this isn't an entirely successful experiment. If anything, Aoyama concludes his treatise a bit too neatly, like a position paper, which means that the consequences of many of Kenji's most heinous acts are never really addressed. What's more, to my mind Aoyama only confuses things with Sad Vacation's explicit references to Eureka, since the films are too unique to be meaningfully adjacent. Nevertheless, there's too much here for us to simply chalk this up as some kind of unmitigated disaster. The title track found Johnny Thunders ruminating on the Sex Pistols and what their end might mean, and maybe Aoyama is forcing us to grapple, once and for all, with the "death" of the man who made Eureka eight years ago. He's not coming back.


Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet) [7]

January 2008. See review here.



9/13 --



Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, France / U.S.) [7]

November 2007. See review here.


Mad Detective (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, Hong Kong) [7]

February 2008. See review here.


Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike, Japan) [W/O] (0:39)

Although I'm not someone who needs convincing that Miike is a serious talent, I can't claim to diligently keep up with his output. (Who but the fanboys and Tony Rayns can?) But let's face it. The charm of Miike -- the fact that he's stylistically all over the map, yet always remaining somehow fundamentally "him" -- also means that his work is going to be at least somewhat uneven. Lots of folks were unimpressed with Big Bang Love, for example, but I actually found Miike's Oshima / Genet riff exceptionally moving, formally sharp, and surprisingly original for pastiche work. Not so SWD, which is essentially a set of gimmicks casting about for a structure, or even a raison d'être. From the opening scene, a straight lift from Tears of the Black Tiger, through the warmed over Leone moves, Miike's disorganized nonsense about rival gangs in "Nevada," fighting it out incomprehensibly over some hidden gold, never remotely gains traction. Part of the problem may be -- I can't say for sure -- that this is a big budgeted studio film ("It's a Sony"), and it feels stranded between straight-ahead, movie-movie behavior and tongue-in-cheek postmodern snickering. The Japanese-speaking-phonetic-English thing also, I suppose, was supposed to add a cross-cultural layer, but again, it was mostly a big so-what amidst a very large, unwieldy whatsit. By the time we had a revenge-rape scene (or was it a "revenge-rape scene," har har), I figured there was no reason to trudge on. After all, there will always be more Miike.


In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, France / Spain) [8]

January 2008. See review here.


Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong. South Korea) [6] [second viewing raised to 7]

October 2007. See review here.


You, the Living (Roy Andersson, Sweden / Germany / France / Denmark / Norway) [7]

Novermber 2007. See review here.



9/14 --



The Romance of Celadon and Astrea (Eric Rohmer, France / Italy / Spain) [7]

April 2008. See review here.


Mister Lonely (Harmony Korine, U.K. / France / Ireland / U.S.) [4]

April 2008. See review here.


Import Export (Ulrich Seidl, Austria) [8]

February 2008. See review here.


The Man From London (Béla Tarr, France / Germany / Hungary / U.K.) [6]

February 2008. See review here.


Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan) [5]

January 2008. See review here.



9/15 --



Wolfsbergen (Nanouk Leopold, Belgium / The Netherlands) [6]

May 2008. See review here.


Before I Forget (Jacques Nolot, France) [6]

March 2008. See review here.


The Duchess of Langeais [Don't Touch the Axe] (Jacques Rivette, France / Italy) [8]

February 2008. See review here.


My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada) [7]

March 2008. See review here.


And Along Come Tourists (Robert Thalheim, Germany) [5]

This is a frustrating, even maddening film, which in itself is kind of maddening because as a film qua film, it is exceedingly mediocre. Tourists isn't the kind of cinematic work that ought to provoke moral paroxysms or crises in the ethics of the image, since there's a very real indication, based on what Thalheim put up on the screen, that he and co-writers Bernd Lange and Hans-Christian Schmid didn't give adequate thought to these questions themselves. Instead, they zeroed in on a premise which in and of itself cracks open the previous century's greatest philosophical hornet's nest as if it were a fresh baguette. and tricked it out with genre banalities that -- I kid you not -- actually recall Driving Miss Daisy. Schmid's involvement (he also produced) tells you a lot here, since his bland realist professionalism and commitment to actors'-studio scenarios punctuates Tourists, obviating any direct engagement with the problems that cinema itself brings to the equation. To wit: if the Holocaust, and the site of Auschwitz in particular, have become commodified sites of official, dutifully trotted-out remembrance, how can Thalheim avoid redoubling the symbolic violence? His rather pathetic answer is to rely on stock tropes. Sven (Alexander Fehling), a young German doing his civil service at Auschwitz, is a vacant stand-in for audience identification. He must befriend Stanislaw (Polish acting legend Ryszard Ronczewski), a crusty old survivor who lives at the camp and is, to all intents and purposes, a professional Witness to History's Darkest Hour. Period of mistrust, grudging respect, yadda yadda yadda. But just by dint of the magnitude of the questions broached, Thalheim's superficial treatment cannot squelch all potency. A contrived moment when Stanislaw is cut short during a testimony speech -- time is money, especially when you're standing out in the rain -- still cuts, and still provokes ethical quandaries regarding big business "sensitivity training" and "diversity initiatives," despite how clumsily handled it is. Likewise, a scene between Sven and girlfriend / camp employee Ania (Barbara Wysocka), which finds the two bicycling along the perimeter of the barbed wire walls of Auschwitz like it was Central Park, raises infinitely fascinating questions, not least of which, what is it like for those who were born in and grew up around the Polish village surrounding the camp? At the risk of sounding like a prig, a documentary might've better explored the ramifications of these issues, with far more depth and insight. But who knows? Maybe a fictional film less afraid of its subject matter, less prone to cling to the lifejackets of cliché and convention, might've worked out too.


[That was a retroactive substitute for the originally scheduled film, one I thought I'd never be able to catch. That would be . . .]


The Princess of Nebraska (Wayne Wang) [W/O] (0:31)

Well, the YouTube debut certainly makes sense, except that really this is a film that should be categorized as "we couldn't give it away." It's supposed to be a big deal, or at least a boon, when these indie guys -- Wang, Soderbergh, Demme -- go back to their low budget handheld roots. But it all depends on whether or not you've got something to say, and Wang's apparently trying to use his lameass "realism" to channel Hou Hsiao-hsien in Millennium Mambo mode, but with a script so clunky Kevin Smith would send it back for a rewrite. It begins promisingly enough, with an offhand but poetic fragmentation of space and the body, our heroine Sasha (Li Ling) seen in the non-space of the Oakland Airport only as a pair of red pumps ambling around the baggage carousel. The close attention to the terminal area, the BART station, the way the train segments the landscape, all gives the impression that Wang is back on his feet, paying strict attention to how travel and cultural hybridity dislocates the subject in transit. But no, soon it's all about petulant Sasha and her utterly tedious, knock-up party-girl vapidity, with some class- and gay-baiting thrown in as faux-complexity. All in all, it's the desperate work of a film artist who was once connected to vital intellectual subcurrents and is now just grasping at straws, only displaying how sadly out of touch his sojourn through Hollywood has left him. This. Thing. Stinks.


Inside (Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, France) [5]

This one's undoubtedly getting bonus points for being so "economical," always a plus in genre-land. Clocking in at just over 80 minutes, there's not much fat on Inside, but beyond the admittedly well-build mechanical apparatus of the thing (we could go ahead and be grisly and just call it the skeleton, I suppose), there ain't a lot of meat. And no, gore ain't meat. Bustillo and Maury see to want to have a double-claustrophobia thing happening, with all the pertinent action happening to victimized Sarah (Allyson Paradis) limited to her small apartment, and the one-day-unborn fetus sustaining body-blows in the womb. But, um, wait a minute. The confined-space set-up is always a plus in terms of cinematic spatial construction, particularly in the horror film where so much depends on who controls space and for how long. The directors do this rather well. But the periodic flashes onto the fetus are really taking us into dicey political territory, implicitly arguing along with the unnamed crazy assailant (Beatrice Dalle) that Sarah is more incubator than human being. Maybe the filmmakers thought that by setting it up so that Sarah was supposed to be induced the next day (and yet she never goes into labor through the whole ordeal?), the fetus was kind of like one of those weary detectives who sees too much action on the last night before his retirement, and that way they were letting themselves of the hook. But no. (And as a matter of fact, I am too sensitive about this, being American, not French, and therefore having the ramifications of the Lacey Peterson verdict gumming up my judicial system.) In short, the film is rather casually anti-feminist, and it wouldn't be so bothersome were it not for the fact that it seems like Inside is out to say something else but never really does. It's post-postmodern horror, in that the guys who made it know that there's supposed to be some social allegory at work, so they make a place for you to supply your own. Anything would probably do. There's the banlieue riots, the medicalization of childbirth, and hell, by the final image I bet you could even argue that this is an explanation for why France chose to sit out the Iraq War. Still, it so clearly has much less on its mind than you will while you watch it. Inside cuts ideas out of you and sticks them to the wall.


[ADDENDUM: It seems that Inside was not quite the film its makers had intended it to be. Christoph Huber emailed to inform me that Bustillo and Maury did not have final cut, and that the fetus shots were inserted into the film against their wishes. (In fact, it seems the directors initially discovered this at an early festival screening, since it had happened almost immediately beforehand.) This is important to know, since obviously these inserts radically change the meaning and the gender-politics perspective of the film, and it's good to know that this is in fact a Harvey Scissorhands-style intervention / corruption.]






California Dreamin' (Endless) (Cristian Nemescu, Romania) [W/O] (0:40)

I have tried twice now, and there is no denying it. Romanian New Wave or not, Nemescu's last testament though it may be, I will never finish watching this tedious, bloated, unfunny film. There are just too many better things to do. Sorry, dead guy.


The Walker (Paul Schrader, U.S. / U.K.) [6]

Given that I'm generally not a fan of Schrader's work, The Walker took me by surprise. I'd make no great claims for it, mind you, although it manages to succeed as a legal thriller up to a point. More impressive, though, is Schrader's examination of a unique and seldom-considered Washington hanger-on, the gay male socialite who hovers on the periphery of the corridors of power playing canasta with senators' wives. The whole thing could have so easily been reduced to an SNL punchline, and in the hands of a right-of-center moralist like Schrader, the results should have been horrific. But in fact, something much more interesting happens. Schrader's obvious unease with the gay material creates an interpretive gap between the text as parody and as stiff-upper-lip melodrama. Bravely into the breach plunges the startlingly humane Woody Harrelson. His read on Carter Page III, son of a legendary senator and a man whose own lack of ambition essentially permits D.C. homophobes to loathe him without copping to their bigotry, is at once tragic and wryly flamboyant. Where the script and the surrounding old-biddy intrigue seem fully prepared to make Carter little more than a sad old queen, Harrelson transforms what would otherwise be stiflingly stereotypical behavior into a thin defensive layer, the only protection from a near-total self-hatred that finds Carter freely joining forces with others in his own destruction. The Walker is ultimately a parable of sorts, the story of someone who allows himself to be exploited by his supposed betters and then congratulates himself for his fierce loyalty. Eventually the whodunnit aspects have to be cleared up, and the rather unsatisfactory way Schrader dispatches this business implies (as does Harrelson's exquisite performance) that the film actually cares much more deeply about other matters. When The Walker restricts itself to character study, and consideration of the subtle ways in which sex and gender and Oedipal tyranny can become unmoored from typical relations of power, it's actually first rate.