Sunday, October 11, 2009

Final VIFF recommendations for 2009

They didn't make the print edition of the most recent Skinny, but a few more of my VIFF recommendations for this year made it onto their website. Of these, the two I'd underscore as worth checking out, screening over the next few days, are Can Go Through Skin - a harrowing and intimate portrait of a woman fighting her way back from a traumatic experience - and John Rabe, a formula film to be sure (the "reluctant hero" forced to rise to the call) but one that works very well, telling the story of the "good German of Nanking," a German industrialist and Nazi party member who presided over a "safety zone" during the brutal Japanese invasion of China. It's a big-budget international production that has pleased audiences in Germany greatly - Steve Buscemi, in a supporting role, even won an award there usually reserved for Germans. Not an art film, not a mold-breaker, not even entirely historically accurate (they invent a wife for Rabe for dramatic purposes and have a predictably virtuous young Japanese officer who - highly unrealistically - speaks up against the execution of prisoners, following the Hollywood formula of having "one good guy" in the criticized group, to save the filmmakers from accusations of being prejudiced); but it still works as a movie, tells an important story about someone who was sadly forgotten by history; and it's way better than Schindler's List, the obvious point of comparison. "You'll laugh, you'll cry" - but sometimes that's okay.

As you may imagine, given the circumstances of my move and the fact that I now live in the suburbs, there hasn't been much filmgoing going on since the fest started. I managed to see Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, which should really have been titled An Ordinary Guy Without: The Mundane Love Life of Glenn Gould, since the film spends a great deal of time on Gould's relationships, which are about as messy and ordinary as one might expect. One of my Russian friends who loves classical music and greatly esteems Gould was scandalized that there was far too little of his music in the movie, and far too much of his women; by contrast, I rather liked its humanizing touch, and there was a lot I didn't know about Gould before I saw it that I was interested to learn. It remains a rather typical "talking heads praise the dead genius" movie, in the manner of that Cassavetes doc, A Constant Forge, which Ray Carney so reviles; but it will still interest people who have a concern for the subject matter.

Speaking of Cassavetes, the mumblecore proponent most frequently likened to Cassavetes, Andrew Bujalski, has a new film, Beeswax (official site here) that has yet to screen. It deals with two sisters, one of whom, wheelchair bound, runs a vintage clothing boutique. It's true, as the VIFF program says, that it's an ambitious "step forward" for Bujalski - into colour and into ever-more complex human relationships; it has fine (non-professional) performances, and it's a sharply observed film that, one feels, does exactly what the filmmaker intends... but I suspect it's going to be a tough moment in the filmmaker's career, no less, since his intentions remain rather opaque throughout. Unlike some critics who have panned it, I vowed to finish the film before judging it, but the kindest thing I can say is that I didn't get it - had no clue what I was supposed to be making of these people or their relationships, or what Bujalski was saying about them. I suspect that even were I to watch it again, I'd be no more sure. That may end up drawing people back to it in future years, after Bujalski has become a name known across America - or else it might make it very difficult for him to make a fourth film. I'd prefer the former fate, but I still can't get very enthusiastic in recommending the film, since it sidelined me. Maybe if you're a big Eric Rohmer fan (or if you're a woman who runs a clothing boutique...?).

The other films I've seen don't screen again. That Evening Sun has a solid performance by the aging Hal Holbrook, whom I have always liked, but is not a particularly engaging or well-made film; Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo has great bugs, and filled me with fondness at times for Japan, where I lived from 1999 to 2002; but it's over-full of an entirely uncritical brand of Japanese self-mythologizing, and it was strangely missing some of the most prevalent insects one sees there - cockroaches, mantises, and cicadas (of which there is only one that appears). It's true, no one collects them, but cicadas in particular are so omnipresent that I felt like they got cheated a bit; and the mantises are too cool not to merit a nod. Finally, I walked out of Kamui - allegedly "the best ninja movie ever," but it felt like a highly abridged manga adaptation, skipping so briefly from episode to episode that I didn't know who was killing who or why; after about an hour of this, it stopped mattering. But I also shut off Lady Snowblood at the 20 minute mark, so maybe it's just me...

I don't know that there will be any future VIFFing this year, alas. Various cinephile friends have recommended We Live In Public, The One Man Village, Material, and Police, Adjective; these all seem of interest, but chances are I won't be able to catch a-one of them. Maybe next year things will be a bit calmer for me... Here's hoping other folks out there had a good VIFF, though!

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