Thursday, October 9, 2008

EIFF: Gomorrah at the end of the festival

The Edmonton International Film Festival has been over for several days now, and yet I continue to churn out these entries, trying desperately to write about as many films as possible before they are all consigned to the graveyard of memory. Even as I type these words, I can feel the casket closing on Let the Right One In, a Swedish coming-of-age tale spiced up with vampires. That’s an oversimplification of what is actually an interesting little movie, but it has been lost in the blur of films I’ve seen since. I’ve given up on writing anything about it, save for these few words, which I offer in the way of apology and epitaph. Its sense of privileged intimacy reminded me of a secret shared between friends, and so what it said to me shall remain untold.

The reason I couldn’t find time to say anything else about Let the Right One In is for a simple and welcome reason—I was too busy watching other films. I began writing about this year’s festival with some anxiety about EIFF’s usual fondness for bottom-of-the-barrel crowd-pleasers, and the short film selection seemed to bear this out. The bulk of the short films I saw stuck mainly to a glib-cute tone that quickly grows wearisome when it dominates all other styles. There were a couple of stylish allegories that offered some relief, if not genuine satisfaction (The Eye and Next Floor), and at least one lovely, oblique mood piece (The 12th Alley, a lonely metaphysical bowling alley soliloquy), but these were the rare exceptions.

More common were variations on clich├ęd ideas, such as stories of kids trying to get their ball back from an elderly person (baseball in the case of A Pickle; soccer in the case of Because There Are Things You Never Forget) or the usual bland comedies about the war of the sexes (which probably covers about half of the short films at the festival). Still, the low point had to be From Little Things Big Things Grow, which is four minutes of hyper-cuteness that could spur even the softest heart to infanticide. School children dance as they sing the title song, a cheesy piece of self-esteem celebration that includes lyrics where the children all say what they want to be when they grow up. I appreciated the specificity of the kid who said he wants to be a graphic designer; I’m a little more concerned about the one who said she wants to be a mermaid. Trust in yourself, and you can do anything, even become an imaginary creature. That’s one to grow on, but I’m not sure what it’s doing in a film festival.

Despite my disappointment with this year’s slate of short films, the features offered some surprising gems. EIFF tends not to stray too far from the middle of the road, but they do occasionally swerve precariously close to the ditch. But to be fair, there were even some fine films that were a perfect match for the festival’s populist sensibilities. Consider Man on Wire, an excellent documentary by any measure, but also essentially an inspirational movie about a man following his dream. Still, it is not saccharine or condescending, but rather an elusive, moving film, and proof that a film can fulfill the crowd-pleaser mandate of EIFF without forsaking craft or ingenuity. Which is really just my way of saying that there is no excuse for pap like From Little Things Big Things Grow.

You may ask what is four minutes of discomfort in exchange for hours of pleasure, and you would be right—besides, part of the fun of watching short film programs is seeing stuff you normally would never go near. You may also ask what sort of misanthrope sneers at cute, cheerful children, and all I can say is now you know. But if am I to truly do this festival justice, how can I end on a such sour note? A true crowd-pleaser should end on some sort of positive, optimistic high. To that end, allow me to present one final review, this time for Gomorrah, a dense, powerful Italian mob epic directed Matteo Garrone.

Gomorrah

Let me be clear on one thing: this is not a typical mob story. Near the beginning of the film, Garrone shows a couple of teenagers quoting dialogue from Scarface, as if to emphasize how far he strays from the usual glamorization of violence and wealth found in films about organized crime. Even the opening scene—a series of gruesome murders in a tanning salon—teases the audience with a promise of violence that is never quite fulfilled. The scene begins by mocking the vanity of these middle-aged, pudgy mobsters preening over their looks, but the sight of their dead bodies in the buzzing blue light of the tanning beds is a chilly taste of what is to come. There is no glorious final shoot-out for these men—death is ugly, swift, and brutal.

The reason for this stark contrast to the typical mob film is probably because Garrone has a very real target in this film: the Camorra, the oldest and one of the largest organized crime cartels in Italy. This isn’t some starry-eyed mob movie (as the teenagers quoting Scarface seem to believe they are starring in), but a drama that draws its purpose from real conditions. This is still fiction, but it is tied intimately to real problems posed by the Camorra.

The film is built out of multiple stories, most of which centre on characters from a single apartment complex, and the layers of walkways that make up the building mirror the various parallel narrative threads that run throughout the film. Some stories might seem almost recognizable, like that of the grocery boy who begins working for the Camorra despite his mother’s misgivings, or the two aforementioned Scarface-quoting teenagers who steal from the Camorra and openly defy its power. Others are more unique, such as the story of a tailor who secretly teaches workers at a Chinese garment factory, risking his life by helping one of the Camorra’s rivals. Another tale follows a young man who works as an assistant for one of the Camorra’s garbage disposal bosses, who roams from site to site, scrounging up new dumping grounds for dangerous waste.

None of these threads connect in any obvious way. Fate is not hurtling these people through space and time towards some sort of grand unity in the end; the Camorra has replaced fate. You defy the Camorra and you die, or else you join it and you die. The characters are linked through the Camorra, so that it becomes the great unifier in this film, the only unity possible in this poor place. It is entrenched in tradition and pervades the social order. In a telling shot, we see the grocery boy running drugs for the Camorra on one of the walkways in the apartment complex, and then the camera drifts to a wedding procession passing on the walkway below.

The film is filled with such striking moments. When the drivers responsible for transporting toxic waste refuse to work after one of their own is badly burned after a spill, the Camorra’s man rounds up a bunch of young children and tells them to each pick a truck. Hustling about in a game mood, he gathers cushions to allow them to see over the steering wheel, and Garrone shows the man triumphantly watching a procession of heavy machinery driven by children. It’s an absurd, comical sight, but obviously disquieting as well. Even better is a scene where a dying man lies on his bed, crucifix above his head, rasping “euro” over and over again, invoking a new god as capricious and cruel as the one of old.

There’s a grim humour to such images, even as they reveal the sick social order that has arisen because of the Camorra. Most of the characters struggle with finding a way out from under the Camorra’s influence, but the organization is simply too pervasive. It controls so many aspects of the economy that there doesn’t seem to be any way of leaving one Camorra business without somehow, even inadvertently, joining another. Indeed, the Camorra is the economy in this film, blurring the line between capitalism and crime until the two seem interchangeable. As average workers watch their savings and jobs disappear while executives get multi-million-dollar severance packages, this idea rings true no matter where you are. It might even be—dare I say it?—a bit of a crowd-pleaser.

Monday, October 6, 2008

EIFF: Momma's Man

American movies generally don't do maturity well. This probably sounds like specious generalizing considering my last two posts were about American films possessing mature worldviews (Rachel Getting Married and Sugar, in case your scroll function is mysteriously disabled), but I think the point is still valid. Between Hollywood escapism and the sort of cynicism and violence that often characterize movies marketed at adults, there isn’t much room for a film that opts for a more considered approach to life. Even the independents aren’t much help at this point, with the current vanguard of young filmmakers preoccupied with solipsistic stories about twenty-somethings falling in and out of love (I’m talking about mumblecore here, and may you all have mercy on me for using that ridiculous term).

None of my curmudgeonly carping should discount the fact that good cinema can arise from any of these groups; I certainly don’t want to make any blanket dismissals here. I just want to make a point that maturity is a rather neglected theme, which is why Momma’s Man is so welcome and ultimately so disappointing.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs, the film tells the story of Mikey, who, after visiting his parents in New York, finds he is unable to return to his wife and new-born child in California for reasons purely psychosomatic. Staying with his parents is a kind of prolonged adolescence, and he seems unable to give it up. He begins to lie to everyone—his wife, his coworkers, his parents—in a vain, self-defeating effort to remain inside that place of comfort and security. He begins to steep himself in talismans from his past, reading comic books and old notebooks from high school. In one particularly funny scene, he even plays an angst-ridden song aimed at a former girlfriend that he wrote as a teenager (the chorus, delivered in a whisper because his parents are trying to sleep, is mostly just, “Fuck / Fuck / Fuck / Yoooouuuuu!”).

Despite such moments of humour, the film is underlined with melancholy. Jacobs casts his own parents as Mikey’s parents in the film, and the apartment used in the film is the actual Jacobs home. The film is often at its most poignant as an affectionate portrait of Jacobs’ parents. Surely any adult who has stayed with their parents for a few days will recognize this situation and identify with Mikey’s desire to stay there, freed of responsibility. But behind that desire is the knowledge that this sanctuary is beginning to fade away. When Mikey is talking to his wife at one point, he justifies staying in New York by telling her, “You don’t know what it’s like to watch your parents grow old.” He back pedals right after he speaks (presumably her parents are dead), but the words show the rest of the film in a strange light, making it seem as if Jacobs is casting his own future sorrow over the death of his parents as the subject of the film.

Sadly, the film only glances that emotion. More often, it retreats into its humour, which, while at times enjoyable, lacks any real traction in the story—it has nowhere to go in the rather barren landscape of the film. Mikey’s continual lying casts a dark shadow over the film’s more whimsical moments, but Jacobs doesn’t really know how to handle it. Even when Mikey’s father discovers his son's lying ways, nothing comes of it. Now, I don’t expect a film with this kind of quiet, fragile mood to resort to shouting melodramatics, but a film that doesn’t seem to believe in consequences can’t help but feel a little inconsequential.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

EIFF: Sugar

This film breaks my heart. It isn’t the story that’s to blame, though the film is certainly moving at times. No, it’s the fact that this is one of those modest but inherently decent little films that seem to be shuffling through theatres on a path to some sort of oblivion—it will live on, but just barely, subsisting on scattered DVDs in a few video stores, doomed to be pawed for eternity by uncomprehending renters who pick it up only to put it down disdainfully after reading the back and not seeing any recognizable names. Like any other animals, these people know the scent of the sickly and weak and avoid it at all costs.

But that is hardly a just fate for this film. Sugar is by no means a great work, but it is a very good one, and its merits are rare enough that they should be seized upon by others. Unfortunately, the screening I went to was poorly attended, with only around 20 to 30 people in the crowd—a stark contrast to Half Nelson, the previous film from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, which sold out its screening at EIFF two years ago. To be fair, Half Nelson had the benefit of a recognizable lead actor (Ryan Gosling) and a juicy premise (inner city high school teacher buys drugs from one of his students), while Sugar contains a cast of unknowns and tells the rather unglamorous story of a young man from the Dominican Republic drafted into the minor leagues.

This is certainly one of the most mundane sports films I’ve ever seen, and I mean that as a compliment. Miguel Santos (nicknamed Sugar for various reasons, which seem to change depending on what he’s doing at the time) never rises above the minor leagues. His American baseball career begins and ends with a Single-A team in Bridgetown, Iowa. Unsurprisingly, the film’s treatment of baseball is scaled to this level, meaning that there are no big make-or-break games, no bases-loaded, bottom-of-the-ninth moments of redemption.

In fact, this is not even a “baseball movie” in the normal sense. More than anything, this is the story of a young man coming to terms with what he wants from life, as well as a poignant recasting of the typical immigrant story. Sugar comes to America with ideas of baseball glory looming in his imagination. He brags of his great pitching abilities and even shows enough talent to become the toast of the team for a while, but once he is sidelined by an injury, his game never really recovers. However, there is a steady stream of other players from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere to take his place, and Sugar finds himself caught in the strange bind of having been brought to a country where he is no longer really wanted or needed.

Boden and Fleck tell this story simply, but eloquently. Their greatest virtue as filmmakers—and the reason I feel so saddened by this film’s presumable failure in the marketplace—is their ability to approach their characters in a way that is sympathetic and yet still critical. They are aware of the cruelty of this system that chews up talent, while being careful never to sneer at anyone who is caught up in it. Even as a coach is scolding Sugar for smashing a water cooler in a burst of rage, the filmmakers find ways to suggest more depth in this man, who other films would just dismiss as a stock character. The coach implies that he knows exactly what Sugar is going through, and as he speaks, his voice becomes more charged and emotional, his face becoming pained at a memory playing out as he speaks.

There’s another movie contained in that brief spark of emotion, one that follows the coach from his own youthful glory days to his decline, and reveals the quiet sadness of his job watching youngsters fall into the same traps that he did. The film does not always live up to the promise of such richly suggestive moments—some supporting characters, such as the small-town Christian girl Sugar develops a crush on, never quite rise above the level of sketches. But when the film does reveal the nuances of a character in a few lines of dialogue, you really feel the strength of Boden and Fleck as filmmakers.

This deep-rooted empathy prompted Half Nelson to its unsettling moral quandaries, but Sugar is comparatively more modest in reach, even if it still shows itself acutely aware of the political implications of its story. The film is certainly no polemic, but the tenderness of the drama suggests that the real purpose is to encourage an understanding of the difficulties facing a foreigner in a strange country. And even though the film mainly sticks to the intimacy and immediacy of Sugar’s problems, it still nods towards the larger scale of these issues when Sugar discovers an entire weekend league of discarded latino players, all of whom now only play for the love of the game as they struggle to carve out some place for themselves in American society.

After showing off his pitching prowess to his new friends, Sugar sits down on the bench amidst cheers and congratulations. A sorrowful look appears on his face, just for a moment, before a grin finally appears. Even as he celebrates what he has gained, he seems painfully aware of everything he has lost. It’s a quiet yet profoundly moving moment, and proof of the merit of Boden and Fleck’s approach, which displays great sympathy and humanity without ever descending into sanctimony and superficiality.

Friday, October 3, 2008

EIFF: Rachel Getting Married

Jean-Luc Godard once described one of his films as a “neorealist musical,” and while I doubt he would approve of this use of the term, I can’t help but feel it was made for a movie like Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme’s buoyantly told story of a woman getting out of rehab to go to her sister’s wedding.

In making this film, Demme employs what is probably the most common marker of cinematic “realism” these days—the shaky, handheld camera that so many other directors have used as a lazy short-cut to building a sense of being in the moment. However, Demme’s use of this method is hardly laziness; rather, he displays a great deal of self-discipline and skill in how he tells the story. Scenes rarely feel forced or stagy, and the film has a kind of home-movie immediacy that comes from all of the clutter and people wandering in and out frame.

The music, however, is what really matters here. The film is built around music, but at the same time, it approaches the music on realist terms. There is no non-diegetic sound in this film; everything emanates from within the space of the story. Even the music played during the closing credits comes from peripheral characters in the film who are jamming in the backyard after the wedding is over.

In spite of this one constriction, the film is still dripping in music, oozing it from every moment, at times almost absurdly (the film’s style may say “realism,” but there’s something surreal about seeing Robyn Hitchcock singing at a Connecticut wedding). The family is surrounded by musician friends, so the score of the film largely comes from these people hanging around the house, practising their parts for the wedding. The groom even sings his wedding vows, and quite well it should be added, seeing as how the character is played by Tunde Adembimpe of TV on the Radio (who brings a nice geeky awkwardness to the groom, most memorably in a tour-de-force dishwasher loading sequence).

More so than teary-eyed speeches and shouting arguments, the music elaborates the emotions of the characters, as it should in any musical. At times, it is sentimental, other times simply jubilant, and it even occasionally verges on sarcastic (at one point, a couple of kids practise a version of “Here Comes the Bride” that calls to mind Jimi Hendrix doing “Star Spangled Banner”). But most importantly, this approach turns the film into a curious hybrid, beholden neither to the demands of realist drama nor Hollywood melodrama.

It’s a pleasant surprise. I really wasn’t expecting such a charming, idiosyncratic film to come out of this story. The premise flirts with the maudlin and cliche, but it never really succumbs, which is admirable when you consider what we’re dealing with here. There’s Kym, fresh out of rehab, whose acid-tongued remarks and sarcastic demeanour hide the guilt and self-loathing she feels for her involvement in the accidental death of her younger brother (yes, a dead child story. It’s one of those movies). Then there is Rachel, the more successful, stable sibling who feels resentment at Kym for disrupting what is supposed to be a perfect wedding day with ugly emotional truths, family conflicts better left buried, et cetera. This is well-trodden emotional terrain we’re walking on.

But the conventional melodrama in the script that is trying to make itself heard never quite comes through—the songs just drown it out. The music inspires a loose-limbed approach from Demme that is miles away from the stiffness of his last fiction film, The Manchurian Candidate. Even as the script is pulling towards confrontation and catharsis, Demme is pushing the film towards something more open-ended, less easily defined, and ultimately, more rewarding.

The final confrontation, that last emotional bloodletting that would put everything in its place, mercifully never comes. Instead, we are left with things left unsaid, arguments never finished. In other words, a family like any other.

EIFF: Man on Wire

In 1974, Philippe Petit set up a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center and walked across it. In fact, he crossed it eight times, spending 45 minutes on a wire 110 stories above the ground.

It would be hard to make a dull documentary out of such a remarkable story. After all, how could a man who snuck into the World Trade Center to do a wire-walking performance be boring? But even beyond the obvious interest of the subject matter, this is an exceptional documentary, well-crafted and haunting. At times, it is part love story, charting Petit’s obsession of the towers from afar, showing the towers being built alongside images of his childhood, as if their meeting was somehow destiny (as one friend of Petit says, the towers were built for Philippe, of course).

At other times, it feels like a heist movie as it follows the elaborate plotting and preparation required in setting up the stunt. Petit cases the joint, as if it were a bank he was breaking into. He takes pictures, makes diagrams, and builds models to figure out where to place the wire. He impersonates a French newspaper journalist and manages to get in with a couple of friends in order to take photographs of the top of the building and quiz workers on safety hazards. True to heist movie form, there’s even an inside man.

Petit possesses an undeniable hint of megalomania. As his former girlfriend notes, when she met him, it was just assumed she would follow his destiny—whatever path she might have for her own life, it was secondary to his own. Still, the man is incredibly charismatic. As he describes his obsession, his plans, his great schemes, he talks rapidly, hands whirling about as if he were physically conjuring up his memories. He’s a superb story-teller, witty and self-dramatizing, and yet his intensity is never off-putting.

Maybe this is because there is a purity to Petit’s goal. He doesn’t seem preoccupied with wealth or fame. He just wants to walk between the towers because they’re the tallest in the world, because it would simply be a great thing to do and share with others. You start to understand his mania when you actually see the wire walk—the event is captured in stills and video footage so grainy that sometimes it seems like the wire isn’t even there, that he actually might be walking on thin air. In one image, he has a great, broad grin on his face, caught in mid-laugh. In another, he lies down on the wire, completely casual and calm. Having conquered such height, he makes it seem like the distance between the sky and ground has collapsed. He might as well be inches from the street.

It’s a remarkable moment, and the film allows it to speak for itself. In fact, I’m not sure if anyone could possibly put words to such a moment. When one of Petit’s childhood friends and co-conspirators tries to explain what happened on that day, he can’t do it. He trails off, buries his face in his hands, and simply cries.