Tuesday, September 28, 2010

EIFF: Soul Kitchen

It can feel a bit callous to dislike a Fatih Akin film, particularly one like Soul Kitchen, a frenetic comedy that tries so very hard to inject a little bit of mirth into the joy-sucking void of early 21st century living. But it’s also that same earnest effort that makes Akin so hard to enthuse over. Like his previous film—low-key cross-border drama The Edge of HeavenSoul Kitchen is well-meaning and well-crafted and, well, lifeless.

Not that the film lacks for energy. The plot piles up with eccentric characters and sudden complications, operating under the principle that a lack of anything to say is best hidden beneath a cloud of noise. The story revolves around the titular Soul Kitchen, a restaurant run by Zinos, a Greek man who wants to finally pull the struggling business into shape so that he can leave it in the hands of his brother and run off to China to reunite with his reporter girlfriend. The expected colorful cast of broad types duly arrive to entertain us, whether we like it or not—the criminal brother and his cronies, a crusty old captain who lives in the restaurant, the fiercely principled gypsy chef with a fondness for knife throwing, the raunchy, scheming old school friend, and so on.

Madcap farce can be a kind of music created out of voice and movement. When it’s working, the audience is swept along, startled by its whirlwind incidents, which are completely unexpected and yet somehow logical. But in Soul Kitchen, the humour is too often predictable and flat, each setup telegraphing an all-too-obvious payoff. I found myself tapping my foot during the film—not to the music, unfortunately, but impatiently as I waited for Akin to finally reach the expected conclusion of each gag. Given the retro stylings of the film, there’s perhaps a touch of ironic self-awareness to these stale jokes, a winking “This is so obvious and corny that it’s almost funny.” I suppose that’s a kind of humour, but I also think I would rather the film was just plain, old-fashioned funny.

Still, there’s something vaguely appealing in Akin’s social mishmash, where a Greek restaurateur can go with a German physiotherapist to see a Turkish healer, and real estate tycoons and tax collectors can party with ex-cons and squatters. Music and food are mediums of cultural exchange, where different groups express themselves and swap ideas. Akin seems aware of this, which is perhaps why bringing in live music and authentic ethnic food saves the restaurant. Too bad he provide us with recycled pratfalls—a key scene for the plot involves Zinos throwing out his back while trying to lift something heavy by himself—instead of some fresh and funny insights into these colliding cultures. I’m not asking for more earnest drama from the director, but I do expect something beyond this empty energy. Doesn't he have anything to bring to the table?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

EIFF: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

A princess who hides her ugliness behind a veil leans over a pond and catches a glimpse of herself in the water, but beautiful now, the beauty she feels is her right but has been denied her. A catfish surfaces and begins to speak, praising her loveliness, and she enters into the water, dropping her jewels as an offering as she asks to be made as beautiful as her reflection. Finally, she floats in the centre of the pond, and the catfish begins to, um, pleasure her.

This rather odd folktale/digression/past life(?) is dropped into the middle of Apitchatpong Weersethakul’s beguiling, baffling, and altogether astounding Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. More a drifting dream than narrative film, this curiosity from Thailand nonetheless tells the story of Boonmee, an aging farmer whose kidneys are failing him. As the end of his life draws near, he is joined by the ghost of his dead wife and his long-missing son, who appears in the form of a monkey spirit with eyes that glow piercing red in the dark.

Don’t ask me what any of this means on a literal level, or how it relates to the story of the princess, but let me assure you no other film this year has offered me as much pure delight per square inch of celluloid. The key is to not allow the idiosyncrasies of the storytelling distract from the fundamental, and rather simple, theme. Much like how Weersethakul’s earlier Tropical Malady was a deeply strange yet completely clear love story, exalting romantic surrender in the most mystical terms, this film hinges on the idea that any death is also a birth, and then allows us to take that notion in any number of directions.

For instance, in various interviews Weersethakul has spoken of the film as an ode to the dying medium of film. Certainly, you can see a reverence for cinematic history in such disparate reference points as Thai costume drama (the sumptuously shot story of the princess and the catfish) and Chris Marker’s La Jetee (Boonmee’s dream of the future, told in a series of still photos). The darkened cavern Boonmee and co. enter at night is both a womb and movie theatre, the shadows on the wall and primitive cave paintings pointing to the beginnings of all visual arts. It’s the origins of man and the origins of cinema—and the primal place where Boonmee goes to die.

You can take a lot of different ideas from this, which is perhaps the point. Weersethakul carefully avoids overexplaining his films in interviews, and his reasons are obvious. He’s after a sense of wonder above all else, and wonder cannot exist without at least some level of mystery. If you completely understood the significance of the red-eyed monkey spirits, if you knew that they were meant to symbolize such-and-such thing, would you feel that mixture of dread and awe at their appearance? Would you feel anything at all?

Perhaps this sounds like a cop-out, but we’re so used to our cinematic pleasures being parceled out through a neatly organized delivery system that we lack the language to properly praise a film that provides such unfiltered delight. If anything, the real problem is whether or not we would be so accepting of this mystical weirdness from a western director. The last thing exoticism should be is an excuse to engage with art we would deny if it were domestic.

But I can think of no director quite as guileless as Weersethakul, whose work is so open and gentle, even as it looks unblinkingly at the darkness of the world (the violence of his homeland is never denied, with Boonmee even wondering if his illness is karma for the communists he killed in his youth as a soldier). There’s no sense of calculation here—in fact, the story might make more sense if there was. It’s also worth noting that Weersethakul’s father died of a kidney affliction similar to Boonmee’s, suggesting that part of the film’s strangeness comes from how it pulls on private experiences and distorts them for cinematic effect. Like North American eccentrics such as Guy Maddin and David Lynch, Weersethakul’s unique sensibility comes from the way his films derive from his own memories and dreams. He’s probably as much a curiosity to his countrymen as he is to us.

None of which is any help for the hapless viewer approaching this remarkable work. We cannot see this film through Weersethakul’s eyes, only our own. But to my eyes, this is a beautiful film by any measure, open with possibilities for anyone willing to enter its mysteries. This is perhaps what the director intends with the multiple worlds we see at the end of the film. In one alternative, three characters sit in a hotel room, transfixed by the dull glow of the television set, frozen into complete passivity. In the other, two of these people leave the room and head to a karaoke bar, where they may or not sing, but regardless, they are free and moving through the world. I cannot tell you which alternative the director intends as reality. But I can tell you which one is more fun.

EIFF: Let Me In

Near the beginning of Let Me In, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the March of 1983, Ronald Reagan appears on a television in mid-speech. He’s giving the infamous “evil empire” address, and the film turns on the moment when Reagan quotes de Tocqueville. “America is good,” he says. “And if ever America ceases to be good—”

The film cuts away at the crucial moment, letting the unfinished thought hang over us like a knife waiting to drop. The missing line: “America will cease to be great.”

Heavy burden for what is one of the bottom-feeding entities of the American film industry—the dreaded remake of a foreign cult hit—but writer/director Matt Reeves has high ambitions for his version of the much-loved Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In. He has clearly thought long and hard about the problems of adapting this story to American soil, and he’s pulled together an excellent cast to make it work (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz as the boy and his vampire, with Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas providing a bit of soul to the supporting parts).

The original’s lonely mood and wintry pall are faithfully aped, and the basic shape of the story remains intact—Owen, a bullied 12-year-old boy with divorcing parents and no friends, develops a relationship with Abby, the new girl next door, who turns out to be an ageless vampire. Where Reeves’ version of this story defines itself is in the details. The wall of Owen’s bedroom—where he taps out morse-code messages to Abby next door—is a giant moonscape, frozen and eternal and empty. His gym teacher, who promises to make Owen strong if he comes to after-school weight lifting, is Russian (American strength during this era being spurred on by perceived Soviet might, this is a particularly nice touch). The Cold War lingers on like the stubborn New Mexico winter.

But it’s that speech from Reagan that registers most strongly. Although the film is less persuasive the more we see of the vampire’s activities (low-budget horror effects are too cheesy for this story’s essential solemnity), it nonetheless remains a rare remake that justifies its existence. Using the original film as a springboard, Reeves meditates upon the “evil empire” speech. Late at night, after witnessing Abby brutally savage a neighbourhood woman, Owen tearfully calls up his father and asks, “Do you think there’s such a thing as evil?” You can find Reagan's reply in part of his speech to the National Association of Evangelicals that remains unquoted in film: “There is sin and evil in the world.”

Notice: this isn’t just a matter of evil, but sin. Owen’s mother is devoutly religious, and God dwells inside the story like a wraith, on the dresser in a picture of Jesus watching Owen steal money from his mother’s purse, in the schools lurking inside the pledge of allegiance. Reeves has injected a good dose of old-fashioned American religion into the original story, opening up new possibilities in an already richly suggestive premise.

One of the chilling things about Reagan’s speech was how he used religion to bolster the image of himself as leader of a righteous nation, beset by evils both without (the evil empire) and within (abortion, the less famous but almost more frightening part of the speech). It’s the notion of evil that drives the nation into his cold arms; it’s the fear of evil that leaves people seeking refuge in dreams of power. And Abby, more than anything else, is Owen’s dream of power, his escape from isolation, from terror, from the bullies that loom in his mind as the greatest threat in the world.

Abby destroys Owen’s tormentors, but it’s not quite clear if he fully understands at what price this release has come. There’s a brief flicker of awareness, though, in one of the most painful scenes in the film. Owen enters Abby’s apartment after the disappearance of the man we assume is her father. (He is actually her servant, a weary old soul with cracked glasses and a dead expression finding fresh blood for the vampire’s hunger.) On a table, Owen finds an old picture, in faded sepia tones, where Abby is next to a young boy with large glasses. The look of horror Owen gives her in that moment is perhaps the only time he sees her truly. But he still returns to her, and he still chooses her. Reagan’s prophecy comes true, and the evil empire is real. Its anthem is tapped out in frail, desperate code, and its borders stretch from an empty room beneath a New Mexico street to the surface of the moon itself.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Edmonton International Film Festival: The Loved Ones

Visceral, sticky, and avert-your-eyes ugly—that’s not just a description of most people’s high school years, but also The Loved Ones, Australian writer/director Sean Byrne’s lively marriage of teenage melodrama with splatter horror. Part of the fun seems to be finding suitable reference points for this genre mash-up—the festival programmer introduced it to us as the combination of John Hughes with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—which makes the film seem much more glib and gimmicky than it actually is. Even as the violence goes for grisly excess (there were a few walkouts once feet started getting nailed to the floor), Byrne remembers to treat the emotional wounds of his characters with respect and sincerity. The threat of bodily mutilation is always good for prompting some reflexive cringes in the audience, but the real horror lies in discovering the massive psychic scars nurtured by these characters.

The film—Byrne’s first feature—is helped immeasurably by Robin McLeavy’s high-wire performance as Lola, an awkward girl who asks Brent, the boy of her dreams, to be her prom date. He politely declines and heads to the school parking lot, where he steams up some car windows with his girlfriend. Perpetually wounded and completely domineering, Lola witnesses everything and has her servile father kidnap Brent and bring him to a private prom / torture chamber (as if anyone needed to underscore the connection between high school dances and sadism), complete with a disco ball twirling throughout the madness. Mutilation inevitably ensues.

The film, much like one of its fumbling teenagers, is not without its awkward moments. A subplot featuring one of Brent’s friends taking a curiously beautiful goth girl to the prom feels tenuously connected to the rest of the film, even if it does provide a bit of relief from the gruesomeness of the Lola scenes. Built around the contrast of slobbish, overeager boy with hardened, indifferent girl, these scenes are mostly played for light comedy. But there are also hints that this girl loved one of Lola’s earlier victims, with the implication that this traumatic loss left her in the damaged state in which we discover her. All of which is thematically sound, but functionally irrelevant. The central conceit of the film is so potent that this innocuous subplot does more to distract from than enrich the main story. Two girls wearing prom dresses wrestling over a knife speaks more eloquently to the primal truths of high school than a thousand tuxedo t-shirts.