Monday, October 18, 2004

The 40th Chicago International Film Festival 2004 - Part 4

The festival winds down, and the film gorging must (temporarily) come to an end. Overall I had a good experience. I saw better fare last year, but I saw some excellent films this year, too, and I came away with a list of films to look out for on release, including the Scottish film Dear Frankie.

Moolade - Let's get this out of the way up front: the film is about the problem of female genital mutilation in Africa. Nonetheless, the film barely dramatizes the actual practice, and the tone of the film is surprisingly light--though not in an inappropiate or offensive way, so just you set those hackles right back down, thank you kindly. You get a portrait of a village, a rural African way of life, that is colorful and truly fascinating, esp. (as master critic Stuart Klawans points out) the way that modern life has infiltrated in the form of radios and television. (As a portrait of a communit on the brink of unrest, B brilliantly suggested that it'd make a great companion to Do the Right Thing.) I was surprised by the superstitious beliefs depicted, which caused me to ask myself, What in our culture might appear superstitious? (I thought of plenty.) The direction by that king of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene (also a novelist), is masterful. The director visited the fest in person, quite agile for a man in his early 80s, and told us through a translator that he didn't have all the answers to this problem but that he was dedicated to fighting it and travels from village to village to hold discussions. The relationship between the sexes is largely the focus here, and there's a bit of Lysistrata in the story, and some scars from real life. I was afraid of a tiresome "issue" film, but it never felt that way to me because the filmmaking is alive and 3 dimensional, with complex characterization and the profound aspect of truth. Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Kontroll - I'm disappointed that this film took the fest's top prize, and I was puzzled that of all 8 films I saw at the fest, this one caused the most stir (aside from Moolade it was the only film I saw that sold out). Its look, its aesthetic, and its mood are fantastic, but they come direct from Fight Club, and I mean exactly. (Remember the surreal touch of the penguin in Fight Club? Here there's an owl. The film also borrows from Trainspotting and The Matrix trilogy's subway scenes, but Bergman, Egoyan, Van Sant and Gilliam come to mind, too.) The film is a crude allegory (in the worst European style) about man's inner conflict of good versus evil. Set in the Hungarian subway system (a location clearly crying out to be filmed), it involves groups of workers whose job it is to check people's tickets. They group themselves into rival gangs, but mostly spend their time moping about...what? Their very existence, it seems. There's hardly any story, but what there is deals with someone or something that is pushing people in front of trains. The solution to that mystery turns out to be a cliche exercise in ambiguity (there are two ways to read it, but neither one of them matters). The cast is excellent, with rich faces full of character. I could spend hours looking at the leading man's face, those purple recesses around his eyes, that fantastic nose. Likewise the guys in his gang, and his uncle, an actor with amazing presence (IMDB says he was in Faraway, So Close and Sunshine, but I don't remember him.) The lead's romantic interest is a beautful young woman in a bear suit. You have to like that, but I kept thinking, Oh! what a waste! What Jim Jarmusch could do with these actors! Hollywood is apparently set to remake the film, which is completely redundant. The original could be a relatively big hit here, which isn't a bad thing. I just wish the film were better. It's thin on story, and as episodic narratives go, it's lacking, though it begins with an amusing intro, in which a subway official justifies the system's cooperation with and endorsement of the filmmakers. It plays like the real thing, and the filmmakers have wisely included it in a manner that brings to mind old cult films from mid-century in which an authority figure tried to responsibly place a film in its moral context. Funny. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

Kings and Queen (Rois et Reine) - My companion observed, "Well, that was full." Too true. Indulgent might be another way to put it. Lacking economy, certainly. (The character Jean-Jacques goes nowhere.) The film is overstuffed, switching tones from scene to scene, its characters and even its pov so variable that it's almost (unintentionally) cubist. Halfway through the film, I was a little exhausted. The French don't make bad movies; this is what they do instead, tossing off bizarre yet intriguing philosophical generalizations along the way. Deneuve is a treat in a small role that never causes her to break a sweat. (Says the combative patient suddenly to the doctor, "You're beautiful!" She answers, dismissively, "So I've been told before.") The leads, Emmanuelle Devos (Read My Lips) and Mathieu Amalric (Alice and Martin), are highly talented, two of my favorite French actors, and they're certainly in top form, here, but the restless story keeps the film from ever building a sense of progress or resolution. What, for example, are we to make of Nora's fathe r's dying words of poison? They seemed unfair to me, ridiculous, but neither the director nor the actress show us much of an opinion on the matter. There were moments of great energy and accomplishment: the grocery store hold-up and its workout punchline, the Epilogue's fantastic extended lecture of advice from father-figure to child (I can't imagine having had an adult level with me like this when I was a boy), and the celebrity therapist. The analysis of Ismaël's dream was excitingly complex and interesting--the use of Yeats here and of various lines of poetry throughout was refreshing. And it raises at least one excellent question, especially for filmlovers: How does beauty influence us, stymie us, bias us? This is definitely one of the best films I've ever scored so low, possibly the work of a genius, but the truth is I couldn't recommend the film to anyone I know. Rating: 1 and 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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