Saturday, September 06, 2008

reviews: waltz with bashir; nick and norah's infinite playlist; heaven on earth; plus tard tu comprendras; wavelengths1

Waltz wtih Bashir is my first extraordinary film of the festival. Director Ari Folman explores the unreliability and explosiveness of memory - in this case, of being an Israeli soldier in the war with Lebanon in the early 1980s. Painkstaking animation, drawn largely from captured video and then adapted into drawings, helps to both detach us from too-familiar images, and also bring us into the horror in new ways. The film is similar to last year's Persepolis (Satrapi) by investing depth of emotion through the selective use of graphic detail and colour. But Waltz with Bashir is a documentary as much as it is a memoir. Its blacks, yellows, greys and steel blues convey the horror of how memory works, revealing only fragments at a time because the rest is too hard to bear. I was planning to warn of spoilers and tell you about its incredible ending, because to me the ending was what put it into the extraordinary category. However, I have decided to leave that discussion til after the festival. In the meantime, knock over all the obstacles in your way to see this haunting film.

Having hit a high water mark, it was perhaps bad timing to then try to take in Peter Sollett's candy cane of a film Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. There is so much going for the truly lovely Michael Cerra, who will be a wonderful actor to watch as he moves through his career of hopefully better choices of movies. Everything going for this film (which is not much) owes itself to his performance. His sincrity, humour, quiet intelligence and warmth are part of what allowed Juno to be the hit it was this time last year. However, Nick and Norah is no Juno. It is all about the writing folks, and the writing here is dreadful - a narrative spitfire of one-liners, most of which don't work. Kat Dennings is not convincing as the girl no one notices who loves our hero. She is also not a match as an actor for Cerra, who requires someone equal in sincerity and capacity to read more than one emotion at a time. I got tired of her eye-rolling acting and left. The only thing "infinite" about this film is its underestimation of its audience.

Those of you who tuned into CBC radio Metro Morning yesterday (I will post our conversation soon) would have heard fellow blogger Ali Ladhani (The Original Concept) and myself talk about how excited we were to be seeing Deepa Mehta's Heaven on Earth. I then did see it later the same day and after the Nick and Norah nightmare. Unfortunately, it too disaappointed me, though the loss is greater for me here. Mehta's craft as a storyteller and a weaver of emotional lines is hard to match in this country - and I have deeply admired her films to date. Heaven on Earth takes her into slightly new territory - that of magic realism. Bollywood megastar Preity Zinta plays Chand, a woman who comes to Canada from India to marry and is slowly oppressed by the family she has joined, to the point of great emotional and physical violence. As her state of mind deteriorates, the film moves into a series of episodes and sequences that are hard to call as being true or not true, an invention of her resourceful imagination struggling to be free, or the greater reality, under the surface of things, we're not sure which. This will be a matter of taste, but I myself feel manipulated by films that do this. (For instance, I disliked intensely A Beautiful Mind and I even found Schindler's List too manipulative. So bear that in mind!) For me when a film moves like this, I lose my grounding but not in a way that reflects the character's experience - which might be useful. I lose my grounding in the sense of feeling guided by the filmmaker of being on a journey that the filmmaker knows I will understand. The film is powerful in its message and its ability to convey the claustrophobia of people living truly on top of each other, of its cycles of domestic oppression and violence. And it has great performances. But to my mind it sacrificed its power by being too enmeshed in its magical elements.

A ridiculous (on my part) error of which theatre to be in (!), caused me to miss the first half hour of Amos Gitai's Plus Tard, tu comprendras, which was a heavy hitter for me. I had to negotiate my entrance (!!) at the half hour mark, but I'm glad they relented and let me in. To me, this film feels like a great departure for Gitai - certainly from his highly stylized and experimental Desengagement of last year. Featuring the still-luminous Jeanne Moreau, it tells the story of one man trying to uncover the story of his mother's Jewish heritage and her holocaust experiences, while the mother refuses to have the conversations. Gitai is remarkably subtle here, wonderfully using only one shot to convey an entire scene. What I love about Gitai is his constant experimentation with the language of cinema. This device here works breathtakingly: my favourite was a continued close-up on the man's wife as she listens to his despair and then tries to coach him to "let go" of his quest for understanding. I am going to see the first half hour of this film later today and will write more then, but I am very moved by it and as time passes, this film is rising steadily in my regard.

As readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of the Wavelengths program. Last night's opening night films by giants Nataniel Dorsky and Jean-Marie Straub (two separate films) set the standards for this finely-curated programme of the festival. I found Dorsky's question and answer period afterward filled with subtle putdowns and defensiveness which completely belied the beauty of his gorgeous images, pacing and quiet spirituality. His films, Sarabande (pictured) and Winter, were hypnotic with pulsed light and effusions of colour. Beautifully programmed by contrast with Straub's Le Genou d'Artimide, the rigid and even classical structures and rhythms of this film stood out even more. Working with/against great music by Pavese and Mahler, it had much spoken text, subtitled here in two languages, that showed two static characters engaging in profoundly unsolvable ideas of mortality. I found the quiet, dark moments of the music, good conrast and also welcome relief from my by-then aching head! Tonight's Wavelengths programme is one of my top seeds of the festival - so stay tuned for more.

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