Sunday, 6 September 2009

TIFF '09: Picks & Pans #2

HOUSE OF BRANCHING LOVE Finnish director, Mika Kaurismaki’s latest film is a domestic satire with a bit of the criminal element thrown in to keep things weird and seedy Kaurismaki-syle (his brother is director, Aki). Divorcing couple, Juhani and Tuula have agreed to remain in the marital home, but things quickly get out of control as jealousy interferes with their already acrimonious relationship. Their attempts to one-up each other with their new partners are ridiculous and hilarious! (On, what a tangled web...) The odd mix of supporting characters (the nosey neighbour, the over-sexed gynecologist, the wanna be geisha…) adds to the insanity of Juhani and Tuula’s crazed world. You can practically hear the boxing ring's bell as this comedy match moves from one round to the next. The mishmash of genres doesn’t always work, and the pacing for this screwball comedy needs to be a bit faster, but the vicious, below-the-belt fighting between Juhani and Tuula make up for these minor faults.

LIFE ACCORDING TO AGFA Legendary Israeli actress Gila Almagor is superb in her role as Daliah, a jaded Tel Aviv bar owner and mistress to a married filmmaker. Most of the film takes place in Daliah’s bar, a small unglamorous place where the social critic piano player sings songs that are not flattering to the powers that be; the staff are dealing with personal issues of bad relationships, drugs, and harassment; and the clientele is a mix of undercover cops, criminals, and people just looking for a place to land late at night. Tensions ebb and flow as personal dramas play out over the course of an evening, resulting in an ending that some may or may not agree with in this 1992 Israeli classic.

MACHOTAILDROP I love it when filmmakers create a fantasy world and than have the guts to stick with it, no matter how absurd their creation is. In Machotraildrop, Corey Adam and Alex Craig have created a world that I absolutely adored! (Wouldn’t want to live there, mind you, but it’s great fun to observe.) I didn’t realize I was on the same wavelength as TIFF programmer, Steve Gravestock about the film being like Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory until I read the description on line after seeing the film! (Great minds think alike, eh, Steve?) No doubt, you will have the same thoughts too, as you follow skateboarder and winner of the Machotaildrop contest, Walter Rhum, into the Baron’s headquaters. (For me, the Baron is a cross between Willie Wonka and Virgin founder, Sir Richard Branson.) As a huge fan of everything Machotaildrop, young Walter is easily seduced by his new world of corporate branding, mass-market advertising, and celebrity until a chance encounter with a pretty librarian opens his eyes to resistance skateboarders and sweat factory Oompaloompas. Great fun for those of us who love a good wacked-out fantasy. Rated: PG TRIVA: the Baron's "castle" was once slept in by Beethoven.

MY DOG TULIP This one is for dog fanciers, lovers of James Herriot, and those who appreciate the art of animation. Narrated by Christopher Plummer and based on a novel by J.R. Ackerley, the film documents the deep friendship that develops between Ackerley and his Alsatian, Tulip. Through house breaking, misbehaving in public, and the hilarious and graphic attempts at “marrying” Tulip we learn to appreciate the depth of the love that bonds together Ackerley and his long time companion, Tulip.

What makes this film a treat for non-pet owners is the captivating hand-drawn, and varied animation style used to bring this simple, but emotional, story to life. It’s enough to make you consider heading off to study animation at Sheridan College:) I also loved the adversarial relationship between Tulip and Ackerley’s cantankerous sister, Nancy, voiced by Lynn Redgrave. Rated: PG

ONG BAK 2: THE BEGINNING I have never seen a boring martial arts movie until this one. Boy, was I surprised. I can make many allowances for this genre, including low budget, bad dubbing, lack of plot, but I have never seen a martial arts film with such bad pacing. The “you killed my parents in front of me, so I’m going to kill you when I grow up” is a standard plot device that I have no problem with, but I do have a problem when the director slows the plot down with a badly acted “drunken fighter” scene and an unnecessary, drawn out, floor show to reintroduce a character. More action, please! I longed for some old-school “snake” or “scorpion” style. There is an amazing fight scene at the end of the film that raised my interest (elephants!), but that alone was not enough for me to demand the sequel that this director so obviously wants you to beg for.

VENGEANCE There was a time when I couldn’t get enough of Johnny Halliday stories is Paris Match. I don’t read the magazine any more, but I was definitely interested in the teaming of one of France’s biggest stars with one of Hong Kong’s biggest filmmakers, Johnnie To.

Hallyday plays Costello, a killer turned chef, who is brought back into his old trade when his daughter’s family is executed. Hallyday is perfect for this role. His icy blue eyes and tough, craggy face makes my spine tingle. You know how there are characters you don’t want to meet in a dark alley? Well, Costello is someone you don’t want to meet in the light of day, wearing body armour and surrounded by a cadre of bodyguards. Whether you have ever used the words “badass-mofo” in real life, you will think them when you first see Costello beside his daughter’s hospital bed. This is not your average Dad.

Johnnie To has toned down the non-stop violence this time around, creating a character that is gradually losing his memory. The film asks the question: what does vengeance mean if you can’t remember whom you are avenging and why? The director still offers plenty of his signature stylized gun battles; I just don't want anyone walking in expecting Election 1 and 2. Some of the best scenes in the film occur as bad guys and momentary amnesia simultaneously besiege Costello. These shots are brilliantly composed as branches ricochet, bullets fly, blood spurts and umbrellas confuse. The elements of the classic American Western add a nice touch to the film--watch what To does in substituting paper for tumbleweeds and how he stages some scenes to echo western showdowns. All that's missing is the coral and some horses tied outside the saloon.

The third act of the film is a bit long in the telling, but who cares? I enjoyed seeing Hallyday on screen, and the trio of characters that assist Costello on his quest lend solid support. Would see this one again.

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