Wednesday, September 28, 2011

100 Essential Art House Films

I've often been asked to choose my favourite film. Why just one, I ask?

For those of us self-proclaimed film snobs, here is a list of 100 essential art house films to see if you crave something a little bit different, engaging and provocative. This is my list. This is not a collection of canonical works: for that, try the American Film Institute and choose from their many, many lists, or perhaps Sight & Sound magazine. These are my favourites. I have limited my list to one film per director, to cast a wider net. I've also chosen some less "institutional" works for this list: notice for instance that I have chosen Altman's Prêt-à-Porter because I love it, and I did not care for either The Player or Short Cuts. (Oh, I can hear the critics sharpening their knives now ...)

Try something from this list and feel free to add your own! This list is by no means exhaustive and you won't agree with everything here. But let's debate what else should be here, what we should see, what we should skip!

In alphabetical order (with a tie for certain titles – because it makes sense once you see them):

1. 8 ½ (1963; Italy; Fellini)

2. Actress (1992; Hong Kong; Kwan)

3. Ali / Fear Eats the Soul (1974; Germany; Fassbinder)

4. All About My Mother (1999; Spain; Alomodovar)

5. Amadeus (1984; U.S.; Forman)

6. Angels & Insects (1995; U.K.; Haas)

7. At Five in the Afternoon (2003; Iran; Makmahlbaf)

8. Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987; France; Malle)

9. Autumn Sonata (1978; Sweden; Bergman)

10. Bad Education (2004; Spain; Almodovar)

11. Barry Lyndon (1975; U.K.; Kubrick)

12. The Battle of Algiers (1966; Algeria; Pontecorvo)

13. Before Night Falls (2000; U.S.; Schnabel)

14. Before Sunrise / Before Sunset (1995 / 2004; U.S.; Linklater)

15. Being John Malkovich (1999; U.S.; Jonze)

16. Belle de Jour (1967; France; Bunuel)

17. Bill Cunningham New York (2011; US; Press)

18. Breaking the Waves (1996; Denmark; von Trier)

19. Broken Embraces (2009; Spain; Almodovar)

20. Cache / Hidden (2005; France; Haneke)

21. City of Lost Children (1995; France; Caro & Jeunet)

22. The Celebration (1998; Denmark; Vinterberg)

23. Clean (2004; France; Assayas)

24. Le Confessionnel (1995; Canada; LePage)

25. Contempt (1963; France; Godard)

26. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1990; U.K.; Greenaway)

27. Cries & Whispers (1972; Sweden; Bergman)

28. Cyrano de Bergerac (1990; France; Rappeneau)

29. Dancer in the Dark (2000; Denmark; von Trier)

30. Day for Night (1973; France; Truffaut)

31. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (2007; France; Schnabel)

32. Drawing Restraint 9 (2005; U.S.; Barney)

33. The Edge of Heaven (2007; Turkey; Akin)

34. Edward II (1991; U.K.; Jarman)

35. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004; U.S.; Gondry)

Monday, September 26, 2011

VIFF 2011: Preview 4

With just days left to the opening of the VancouverInternational Film Festival, we take time to spotlight another ten noteworthy films playing. If you haven’t done so already, you can read up my earlier entries for VIFF here.

First Position (US; directed by Bess Kargman) 

Those of you who watched a little too much Black Swan will be relieved to hear that the ballet world is less about self-mutilation and perverted fantasia, and more about the hard work and toll it takes on the human body. This documentary follows six young children from around the world as they strive to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, a fiercely competitive international ballet competition that can launch an aspiring dancer from obscurity into the upper echelons overnight. The film is presented in numerous languages with English subtitles, as director Kargman travels the globe to visit with each of her subjects. Although most films for VIFF are unrated, First Position one of the only films that has been classified – with a “G” rating – so that those under the age of 19 may attend and be inspired by young artists at the outset of their careers.

White (South Korea; directed by Kim Sun and Kim Gok)

This title should appeal to those of us who remember the remarkable 1999 anime horror film Perfect Blue. South Korea’s White (its original title literally translates to “The Memory of the Curse”) details what happens to a fictional all-girl pop group who record a new single to revive their flagging careers. The problem? The song comes with a lot of baggage (think of the curse attached to The Exorcist when it was in production). Those who have recorded the song and released it have had bad things happen to them … really terrible things. Can the curse be lifted? In addition to being a horror film, this is also an examination of the contemporary music business in Asia and the pressures it places on its young stars to remain forever young – and profitable. You can preview a trailer, albeit without subtitles, here

The Green Wave (Iran; directed by Ali Samadi Ahadi)

You can’t talk about this year’s Arab Spring uprisings without referencing social media. This was arguably the first time in history that social media surpassed mainstream media in reporting unfiltered, hard-hitting, play-by-play accounts of the systematic abuses and crimes that accompanied political revolution. Inspired in no small part by Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis, Ahadi’s Iranian-German collaboration recounts the true stories of people who witnessed the Arab Spring first-hand by blending live-action documentary footage with stylized animated accounts of what happened. The film’s titular colour refers to the movement and symbol for those seeking Ahmadinejad’s removal from office after what was regarded as his fraudulent election as president in 2009.

No One Killed Jessica (India; directed by Raj Kumar Gupta)

How can 300 people at a crowded nightclub not see that the bartender was shot dead, point-blank, in the face, right in front of them? This is a fictionalized account of the sensational 1999 killing of Jessica Lall, an aspiring model and bartender who was shot dead by a politician’s worthless son for refusing to serve him alcohol after last call. The scandal rocked the Indian justice system and exposed the corruption coursing through its veins. Although the assailant went free, justice is indeed served eventually, as an outraged nation finally understood for the first time the systemic abuse of the rich and entitled to absolve them of their crimes and responsibilities.

Elena (Russia; directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev)

What would you do to save your son? Elena drastically tries to put the money together to buy her ne’er-well-do son’s way into university and prevent him from military service, but can she put it together in time? She must resort to desperate measures with some unsavoury characters in an attempt to keep her family together. Elena received the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes film festival and boasts a score by British composer Phillip Glass.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

VIFF 2011: Preview 3

Further to my preview of the 2011 Vancouver International Film Festival, which you can read about here and here, here are ten more noteworthy films that are playing at VIFF.

Miss Representation (USA; directed by Jennifer Seibel Newsom)

Rosario Dawson interviewed in Miss Representation
Newsom’s bold documentary explores the (mis)representation of women in contemporary American society and culture. Gathering her considerable resources, Newsom (wife of progressive San Francisco Mayor Gavin) explores what it means to be a woman in 21st Century America, through interviews with such luminaries as Gloria Steinem, Dr. Condoleeza Rice, Rachel Maddow, Katie Couric, Nancy Pelosi and Jane Fonda. In early 2011, no less than Oprah Winfrey announced her acquisition of this film for her OWN network, to be aired at a later date. Why wait when you can see this at VIFF first?

My Little Princess (France; directed by Eva Ionesco)

Still of My Little Princess
Isabelle Huppert seems to be no stranger to controversy to film festivals. Her prize-winning role in 2001’s La Pianiste caused outrage thanks to its volatile subject and presentation, but that didn’t stop the film from clearing the board. Director Ionesco is known as the former five-year-old whose mother sold erotic photographs of her and caused international scandal as a result. Huppert will embody that infamous mother, Irina Ionesco, in one of her trademark difficult but eminently watchable performances. (Those with a long memory will recall that the controversy inspired Louis Malle’s 1978 film Pretty Baby, starring Susan Sarandon and Brooke Shields.)

The British Guide to Showing Off (UK; directed by Jes Benstock)

One of this year’s LGBT entries is this enticing, comic documentary on the Alternative Miss World pageant. Originally started in 1972 as a fringe festival-type event, it has since become a hallmark of London gay life and has attracted the participation over the years of Elton John, Derek Jarman, Andy Warhol, the Sex Pistols, David Bowie, Brian Eno and Boy George. The event has grown in stature and size since, and combines fashion, music and dance in an “anything goes” show that elevates it to the level of high performance art. You can read more on this unique phenomenon on festival founder Andrew Logan’s website.

The Front Line (South Korea; directed by Jang Hun)

Chosen as South Korea’s official entry for this year’s Academy Awards, The Front Line chronicles a battle during the Korean Warand the heavy toll it takes on both sides. Stylistically reminiscent of 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima and Saving Private Ryan, this work gets up-close-and-personal with numerous soldiers in the hours leading to the signing of the Armistice in 1953. Hun’s young career has made him one of the foremost Korean directors, and includes the romance 3-Iron and The Bow, which was screened at Cannes in 2005.

The Turin Horse (Hungary; directed by Béla Tarr)

We’re aware of Nietzsche’s body of work, but what happened to him in the end? It is rumoured that his witnessing the whipping of a horse caused his mental breakdown in 1889, one that caused him to go silent and live in relative obscurity for another ten years. But what happened to the horse? Who owned the animal and how did they react? This film provides a speculative look at the quiet, desperate lives of its owner and his daughter, their hardscrabble survival, and their encounter with one of the foremost philosophers in history. Winner of the Jury Grand Prix at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, this is influential director Tarr’s final work, as he has announced his retirement from filmmaking.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Modern Film Classics: “Prêt-à-Porter”

Original American poster
 The great filmmaker Robert Altman was never concerned about the fashion industry. However, in the winter of 1984, he found himself in Paris during Fashion Week, was brought into a darkened tent to view a fashion show, and claims that he was absolutely dumbfounded by the power of the show. This was the circus, he thought to himself, and he resolved to make a film about the fashion industry.

Given that Altman’s career was in the doldrums at the time, following the stinging failure of his misbegotten Popeye motion picture in 1980, he didn’t have much creative freedom or financiers to realize his vision. However, the one-two punch of 1992’s The Player and 1993’s Short Cuts returned him to the forefront of American film directors, capped off by back-to-back Best Director Oscar nominations. The then-new generation of stars, along with his former 70s acting stable, clamored to work with him. It was in this atmosphere that he made 1994’s Prêt-à-Porter.

In the winter of 1994, Altman was granted permission to make a multi-narrative comedy about the fashion industry. Accordingly, he was given unprecedented access to a number of fashion shows to give verisimilitude to his film: Sonia Rykiel, Issey Miyake, Jean-Paul Gaultier and many others. He was therefore also able to film a number of international models at work, including Helen Christensen, Tatjana Patitz, Carla Bruni and “the triumvirate” of Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington. Even Icelandic singer Björk makes a cameo on the runway in the Gaultier show. The inclusion of actual designers and their shows into the film lends it greater credibility, and a much better sense of time and place.

The cast itself boasts a “who’s-who” of international film stars and acclaimed character actors. These include (and this list is by no means exhaustive): Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Lauren Bacall, Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Rupert Everett, Anouk Aimee, Richard E. Grant, Forrest Whittaker, Ute Lemper, Lili Taylor, Kim Basinger, Rosy de Palma, Tracey Ullmann, Teri Garr, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sam Robards, Chiara Mastroianni, Jean Rochefort, Michel Blanc and Sally Kellerman. A number of other celebrities and designers make appearances as well, including Cher, Harry Belafonte, Thierry Mugler, Paolo Bulgari and Elsa Klensch.

Crowd scene: Bacall, Kellerman, Hunt, Basinger, Grant
The film follows a fashion designer whose son has been bankrupting her business and who cheats on his wife; two gay fashion designers whose aesthetics clash but who carry on a secret affair; an incompetent American fashion reporter whose sincerity is no match for the outrageous answers designers give to her inane questions; a husband-and-wife from Marshall’s who appear to be on a covert mission; a “bad boy” fashion photographer who is courted simultaneously by the (fictional) editors-in-chief of Vogue, Elle and Women’s Wear Daily; two American reporters who hate each other but end up in bed together all week long; and two old lovers meeting again for the first time, after many years. (That last one stars, for those who love Italian film, Loren and Mastronianni, who re-enact the iconic seduction from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow one more time.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

VIFF 2011: Preview 2

Following up on my last post on the Vancouver International Film Festival, here are ten more noteworthy films that you may wish to catch during VIFF. Tickets can be purchased online using your Visa card, as Visa is the exclusive credit card for VIFF. (You take your chances at the door for more popular screenings, but more on that later.)

Take This Waltz (Canada; directed by Sarah Polley)

I have been remiss in forgetting to mention a single Canadian film in my first blog post on VIFF. Polley’s story of a woman (Michelle Williams) married to a perfectly nice guy (Seth Rogan), but who becomes drawn to a handsome stranger (Luke Kirby), is being presented ahead of what might be another awards season run. Williams received an Oscar nomination this year for Blue Valentine, and Polley’s debut feature Away From Her earned Julie Christie a nom. Polley herself has developed into an accomplished writer-director and the film received a rousing reception at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (United States; directed by Sean Durkin) 

Ever wonder what it’s like to escape from a cult? A young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes an abusive relationship with a cult (led by Oscar nominee John Hawkes of Winter’s Bone) and asks her sister (Sarah Paulson) to pick her up and take her home. She is slowly assimilated into society, but … is the cult still watching her? Do they know where she goes, who she’s with, can they read her thoughts? Winner of the prestigious Best Director prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this disturbing character study features Olsen (yes, the younger sister of the Olsen twins) in a breakthrough performance that has many already talking up an Oscar nomination for her, and plays VIFF ahead of its commercial release in late October / early November. The film also stars Hugh Dancy. (Also, the film has what might be the coolest and creepiest website domain name ever.)

Harakiri: Death of a Samurai (Japan; directed by Miike “Beat” Takashi) 

The man behind the internationally acclaimed Fireworks is back with another wildly madcap feature film. Set in the peaceful Edo era of Japan in the 17th century, this 3-D(!) Japanese Samurai epic spins a tale of desperate Samurai who are now without jobs and go to the Ronin’s palace to commit seppuku, but secretly hope that they are bought off. One such Samurai embarks on such a quest, secretly hoping … to avenge his son, who committed seppuku in front of the Ronin. Takashi’s films make nearly annual appearances at VIFF, and they always remain crowd-pleasers. This film also had the honour (?) of being the first-ever film screened in 3-D at Cannes.

Buddha Mountain (China; directed by Li Yu)

While this film’s premise sounds like a pedestrian drama – three young roommates looking for a new place to live end up crashing with a former Chinese opera star – what sets the film apart is its cast. Buddha Mountain stars China’s biggest film star, Fan Bingbing, and given the ever-increasing Chinese demographic in Vancouver, it is a natural selection to play VIFF. Playing the opera star is none other than Taiwanese grand dame actress Sylvia Chang, who many will remember from her impressive supporting role in the Oscar-winning Canadian drama The Red Violin. (This is a tip for VIFF: some of these films you’ve never heard of, if it speaks to the local expatriate community, will end up being the most popular and sell out the fastest. Get your tickets early.)

Lost in Paradise (Vietnam; directed by Ngoc Dang Vu) 

Billed as the first-ever gay-themed romance made in Vietnam, the film sounds at first blush like a riff on Wong Kar Wai’s acclaimed 1997 gay-themed drama Happy Together. The film opens with a naïve young man moving to Saigon from a small village and is fleeced by two gay conmen who are in a toxic relationship. When the couple breaks up, one of them meets up with the country boy and they begin a romance. As there have been almost no films on the gay experience in Vietnam, this film’s subject matter was considered groundbreaking. This is also holds the distinction of being the first-ever gay Vietnamese film released in the foreign cinema market.

18 Days (Egypt; various directors)

Earlier this year, ten directors, two dozen actors and numerous film crew members banded together with a mission: to capture the events of the Arab Spring in a series of short subjects that, together, form a cohesive portmanteau film with a common theme. Done in the style of such omnibus films as I Love New YorkParis Je T’aimes and Visions of 8, everyone on this project worked under tight constraints and, due to the highly volatile political situation, did not even tell authorities that they were making a film for fear of retaliation or interference. You’ve heard of guerilla warfare? This is guerilla art, and quite possibly the most daring entry in this year’s VIFF.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

VIFF 2011: Preview 1

Ah, fall … the return of the cooler climes heralds the return of rain on what we call “the wet coast” of Vancouver, BC. For Vancouver cineastes, September brings with it excitement surrounding the new fall films that offer something more substantive than the usual summertime diversions. And the end of September, as usual, the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) kicks off.

Following on the heels of Venice and Toronto, VIFF doesn’t boast a lot of stars coming up to do red carpet appearances for their movies, so if you’re hoping to get into a screening and after-party with Gwyneth Paltrow and George Clooney, you’re out of luck. However, that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t get to see the occasional screen star sneaking into a crowded screening while on break from making films up here (no less than Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman and Jodie Foster are all in town filming their latest projects). In 2009, I attended a screening of a film fest sensation, a little indie film called Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. By that point, Oprah had attached her name as executive producer and the film was presented at its sold-out gala screening by no less than its director Lee Daniels. Four months later, he received an Oscar nomination for his work. You never know who’s going to come up here.

What VIFF might lack in star power, it makes up for in terms of volume. A staggering 300 films will be shown at various cinemas in downtown Vancouver from September 29 to October 15, 2011. Due to our massive Asian population, VIFF brings in works from China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India, the Philippines and many other nations in that part of the world. To showcase and promote these hard-to-find – and often sold-out – rarities, VIFF annually presents its “Dragons and Tigers” Award to the most popular young Asian entry in the festival.

VIFF also has a number of other series to demonstrate the vast range of works presented here. The “Canadian Images” series spotlights Canadian cinema, and a number of our homegrown directors have presented films here including Guy Madden, Thom Fitzgerald and Oscar nominees Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley. “Heaven and Earth” showcases a number of works focusing on environmental issues. “Cinema of Our Time” presents contemporary works from around the globe, always including a number of award winners from other festivals. This year’s series will include the reigning winner of the Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival. And as is expected for our fair city, a number of LGBT-related films will be showcased in a series, no doubt inspired by the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

In the run-up to VIFF, which kicks off on September 29, I will post a few previews of upcoming films on this blog. Here are ten notable films being presented at VIFF:

The Skin I Live In  (Spain; directed by Pedro Almodóvar) 

Presented at Cannes and Toronto to sensational reviews, and gearing up for a commercial release at the end of the year, Almodóvar returns to Vancouver two years after Broken Embraces with his latest entry. Antonio Banderas makes his first appearance in a Spanish-language film in many years as a surgeon who tries to develop new skin (yup), which he tests on an enigmatic young woman he keeps imprisoned day and night in his Xanadu-like estate. Almodovar has said that this film fulfills his desire to make “a horror story without screams or frights”. Given his penchant for creating melodrama and the rapturous reception accorded so many of his films, this should become a new art-house favourite. The Skin I Live In is presented as VIFF’s sure-to-be-sold-out opening gala on September 29.

Wish Me Away (US; directed by Bobbie Birleffi & Beverly Kopf) 

An intimate documentary on country singer Chely Wright’s agonizing struggle to remain in the closet and then coming out in the country music world, the chanteuse allows unprecedented access to her first-hand eyewitness account of the prejudices that are still present in certain sectors of the arts. Wright talks about how her record sales dropped substantially due to negative (to say the least) reaction from the deeply conservative country music world. What’s exposed here is just how deep the pockets of conservative America still run to this day and how their corporate decisions target and negatively affect talented artists.

Sleeping Beauty (Australia; directed by Julia Leigh) 
A sensation at Cannes, this film’s shocking premise is of a young woman (Emily Browning) trained to become a high-class prostitute specializing in fulfilling men’s fairy tale fetishes. The woman in question plays Sleeping Beauty, but in the morning, the young woman wakes up and remembers … nothing. And she does the same thing that evening. The film is presented by Oscar-winning director Jane Campion, whose film The Piano took home the VIFF Audience Award in 1993.

Friday, September 16, 2011

For Your Consideration: Sofia Vergara

Dear Emmy voters:

This year’s category for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series boasts an impressive list of nominees:

  • Julie Bowen, Modern Family
  • Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock
  • Jane Lynch, Glee
  • Betty White, Hot in Cleveland
  • Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live

Now, each and every one of these nominees deserves recognition in the category. Bowen’s balancing act of an uptight mother trying to contain chaos and yet in need of considerable release continues in a long line of Desperate Housewives types, a comic tradition that also includes the likes of Jane Kaczmarek in Malcolm in the Middle. Krakowski brings Broadway glitz to her role as the insecure starlet on Tina Fey’s artfully genius comedy. Lynch's consistently glorious line readings make her monstrous character just a shade more human than what we should be comfortable with. Wiig’s chameleonic sensibilities make her not just a comic treasure, but also a brilliant character actor in the making. And whoever thinks that White can’t light up a room should not be reading my blog and instead be shipped straight to North Korea.

However, there is just one name that matters to me, and the one who truly deserves your attention and your vote as this year’s Best Supporting Actress: the sixth nominee, Sofia Vergara for Modern Family.

If Gina Lollobrigida came back to life and carried on with Sophia Loren’s regal air, but were in love with life the way Vergara is as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, then the world would be a better place.

Initially written as a trophy wife for the show’s patriarch Jay (Ed O’Neill), Gloria is not at all the gold digger that one might have suspected her to be. In fact, an entire episode was devoted to this sensitive topic in the first season of Modern Family, and the character is surely aware that such thoughts must fill the heads of so many others who see them together. The fact is that Gloria doesn’t care what you think, because she is in love with her family, her country and her life. When Jay’s gay son and his partner adopt a Vietnamese baby, she is only too happy to babysit whenever possible because she sees it not in terms of politics, but as a show of their love for one another. Plus, she loves karaoke, and whoever does not love karaoke hates life in general. Gloria is an endless optimist, and it’s too bad that you don’t have the cajones to tell her to her face exactly what you’re thinking.

There are several reasons why Gloria is my clear favourite in the show’s excellent cast. One is that she is gifted with wonderfully mangled English colloquialisms that are endlessly quotable: in one episode, she refers to sugarcoating the truth as “putting on the sugar jacket”. She gives Jay a phone in the shape of a giant pair of lips, because he once mentioned that he would like a saxophone and she (deliberately?) misheard it as “a sexy phone” … and he got it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Master Class: "Tootsie"

No one will work with Michael Dorsey. Played by Dustin Hoffman, he’s the main character in Tootsie. An intense, intelligent actor in Manhattan, he’s also difficult and needs to rationalize everything, often driving directors mad with his “suggestions” and “helpful hints”. He’s so method and exacting that when he played a tomato in a Fruit of the Loom ad, he refused to take direction because it’s not logical for a tomato to do that. His agent angrily bellows at him, “You were a tomato! A tomato doesn’t have logic!” At the end of this conversation, the agent (also the film’s director, Sydney Pollack) informs Michael that no one will work him in New York … or in Hollywood, for that matter.

Just before this meeting, Michael took his acting colleague and needy sometime lover Sandy (underrated comic genius Teri Garr) to an audition for a soap opera. The part required someone “different”. In what must be a stroke of genius or pure insanity, Michael dons a wig and women’s clothing to another audition for the same, and is nearly turned away by the soap’s lecherous director (Dabney Coleman) until Michael, as “Dorothy Michaels”, hits him and jumps into a tirade on gender parity and unfair casting practice. A casting director, who happens to be a woman, steps in and gives “Dorothy” the part. Before the success of Mrs. Doubtfire, the cross-dressing comedy that everyone remembers and loves is Tootsie.

Michael Dorsey (Hoffman)
Dorothy faces the world differently at work. Michael’s a straight man simply playing the part of a woman (playing the part of another woman) just for the money. He knows his reputation for being difficult has preceded him, he’s losing parts, and he needs a steady job to pay the rent on a flat he shares with a deadpan playwright (Bill Murray in an amazing film debut). He shares his dressing room with a perpetually half-naked bombshell, played by Geena Davis in her feature film acting debut. An aging, vain actor (George Gaynes, two years before he starred on Punky Brewster) pursues Dorothy romantically at work and in her private life, and Michael doesn’t have the guts to tell Sandy that he won the part in the soap opera. (Sandy is a study in comic paranoia.) Dorothy becomes close at work with his co-star Julie (Jessica Lange, who won an Oscar for her performance), falling for her even as Dorothy coaches Julie on how to stand up for herself against the director with whom she’s been having an affair. To complicate things further and build up a rising comic house of cards is the presence of Julie’s father (Charles Durning), who falls madly in love with Dorothy. At some point, the deceptions wear Michael down, and the only two people who can keep his secret are his agent and the playwright, who advises Dorothy, “don’t play hard to get” on a date, because that’ll just make the man want her more, right?

Julie with "Dorothy"
Released at Christmas 1982, Tootsie was a runaway smash. This film’s antics remain a master class in how you do cross-dressing situational comedy right. Why? Because while the characters respond to Michael / Dorothy’s antics, and he may be playing them all the fool, they themselves are not foolish. With a couple of exceptions, these are warm, funny people with their own neuroses, insecurities and foibles with which to contend. The longer he spends in character as Dorothy, the more Michael sees with his very eyes the rampant sexism prevalent in the acting profession and the world at large. He grows sensitive to Dorothy’s needs, because his experience enhances and informs his mindset. Hoffman himself said he spent weeks in drag on the streets of New York, where no one noticed him but where he saw the world through a woman’s eyes for the first time. It’s not a surprise that his performance in the dual role of Michael / Dorothy is so on the nose: he’s lived this out. Even the film’s title comes from a sexist nickname given to Dorothy when the director forgot her name.

Monday, September 12, 2011

VLAFF 2011: Abel

Meet Abel (newcomer Christopher Ruíz Esparza). He’s nine years old, and when he just got out of an all-female mental institution. He is the subject of the Mexican film Abel, which recently screened at the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival. For the last two years, he has not spoken a word to anyone. His family’s living condition can best be described as marginal poverty. The father, as we discover, took off for the United States but no one has heard from him since Abel last spoke. Abel’s mother Cecilia (Karina Gidi) works menial odd jobs just to survive. His older sister Selene (Geraldine Alejandra) is a spoiled teenage brat who thinks that just because she had her quinceañera, she is permitted to date men ten years her senior. The younger brother (Esparza’s real-life brother Gerardo) is inquisitive and perhaps the only undamaged member of the family.

Abel’s mother brings him home. He stays up all night watching television and draws on his hand a lot. Eventually, he speaks, and since he has been mute for so long, everyone wonders what compelled him to verbalize again without stopping him. What’s truly shocking is that Abel has assumed the vacant role of his father: he critiques his older sister’s report card and refers to her as his daughter. He provides constructive criticism on his younger brother – now “son” – and his homework, with the promise of a trip to a water park for good behaviour and test scores. He expects to eat like an adult and is soon wearing sweater vests and ties at the breakfast table while reading the newspaper. It’s dastardly comic and the role gathers more and more Oedipal undertones and overtones. The doctor who has been responsible for Abel’s health recommends not disrupting Abel’s peace of mind by reminding him that he is a child and not his own father. The family eventually comes to accept this new status quo, as order has been restored and they co-exist harmoniously. And then one day, a man appears in the kitchen, claiming to be Abel’s father …

To put it colloquially, this could have been really, really icky material. Or as the young’uns might say, “ewwwwwwwwwwwwwww, gross!!! Your brother’s your father? How f***ed-up is that?” Very much so, reader, very much so. But there is so much more to Abel than the “ick factor”, and the director has a lot to express in this confident film.

The film’s director is the esteemed and much-sought after actor Diego Luna, famed for his breakthrough performance in Y Tu Mama Tambien and also appeared in Milk, Rudo y Cursi and The Terminal. Abel is an accomplished absurdist black comedy where ordinary lives are thrown into disarray, but re-arrange themselves into a new and unexpectedly harmonious whole. Despite the rather absurd premise and escalating comic hi-jinks that compel raucous and often uncomfortable laughter, a dark undercurrent courses this film and also in Abel’s veins. Abel thematically owes a great debt to Louis Malle’s 1971 Oedipal film classic Murmur of the Heart (Le Souffle au Coeur).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

VLAFF 2011: También la lluvia

“Water is life, you don’t understand.”

So says Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), the local indigenous community leader in the town of Cochabamba, Bolivia, in También la lluvia. His town’s water has just been privatized and even the local well purchased and maintained by a local indigenous group has been co-opted by a large water company based in California. The local laws seem to be complicit in this privatization scheme, as no one is permitted to own a private water reservoir and that it’s illegal to collect even the rain and turn into drinking water. (Although it’s curious that such a scheme for recycling rainwater is perfectly legal on the other side of the world, in Australia, and so many other cities have such green initiatives in place.)

A Mexican film crew has arrived to make a film about Columbus’s arrival in Bolivia, the missionary who opposed their draconian governance, and Hatuey, the legendary local hero who leads the revolt against the oppressive Spanish Conquistadors. Since Daniel is the unknown actor cast as Hatuey, the parallels between his role in the unnamed film-within-a-film and his fight to stop the privatization of water are unmistakable. The film is directed by artistic, slightly mad Sebastién (Gael Garcia Bernal), who casts the untrained Daniel and his charismatic daughter Belén in the film against a coterie of blowhard, self-satisfied actors, and produced by the pragmatic Costa (Luis Tosar), who is financially-minded and risk-averse but has an unexpected social awakening over the course of filming and the film. As the local political situation becomes more intense, so too does the filming, and it doesn’t seem like a complete accident that the film and the film-within-a-film have storylines running in parallel.

The film-within-a-film structure is not new, but here it takes on an added level of superficiality that contrasts the hostile political situation surrounding the filmmaking. The film opens with a helicopter carrying a large, stories-tall wooden crucifix over the city, much to the filmmakers’ delight. Cineastes will undoubtedly recognize this as a parallel to the opening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, with the helicopter flying over Rome carrying a giant statue of Jesus Christ. The difference is that although Fellini’s seminal film explores the vacuity of the characters, Bollaín’s film is full of urgent political purpose.

Director Icíar Bollaín makes her political film without any subtlety, and that adds to the ferocity of her work. Daniel makes an impassioned speech at a demonstrating asking, if they take away their water and can’t even gather the rain to survive, what more can they take: the sweat from their brows, or even their tears?

Bollaín deftly masters the art of contrasting both the Columbus film and the actual political struggle. The scenes with Columbus are majestic and vividly pulse with exceptional detail to time and place, even if the drama is overly scripted and contains some rather overripe dialogue from time to time. Yet she shows complete control over these epic crowd scenes, so much so that I had hoped to see the film-within-a-film released on its own as a separate project. The water war in the town has immediacy and captured by an always-vibrant camera, zoning into the action with an intense focus that lends the film a documentary film, as if we were following a news crew into the centre of the action.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pop Art Confessional: Enya

It all started when The Blogger was very young. One day, after plowing through music videos in the early 1990s on MTV, back when MTV used to play music (yes, such a time existed not too long ago), I was taken aback by the sight of an angelic, impeccably dressed woman moving in slow motion, opening her mouth to emit a sound that is clearly her voice dubbed about two hundred times over to make her sound like a choir of seraphim. So this is what God must have intended an angel to sound! The video must have had something to do with it: waves belonging to no ocean in particular crashed over beaches while calla lilies magnified several times in height bloom menacingly yet serenely in the background behind the temptress. The woman calls to me like the sirens to Ulysses, on his way home to Penelope. This … was “Orinoco Flow”. This was Enya.

And I couldn’t help myself. It seemed so innocent and yet so wrong! I would go to the record shops (back when they had records – Ed. Note: I feel old), gloss carefully over the latest bestsellers by Nirvana, U2, Boyz II Men and Pearl Jam, I would glance to see if I saw anyone I knew from school. Then, tiptoeing to the New Age section, I would carefully run my fingers with one eye on the door to the shop to see if anyone I knew would wander in, and plucked out the incriminating copy of Watermark. With my selection in hand, I cupped the disc in both hands and hurriedly dashed to the register, only mumbling a polite thanks as I flung my money on the counter, demanding to have my purchase brown-bagged and running with my head down out of the store, hoping no one would have seen me.

But what sweet, sweet temptations the siren offered to me! I started to think of the sounds of Enya as being almost vaguely sensual, but in a non-threatening manner. If this is what lovemaking must be like, I thought, then no longer will women close their eyes and think of handbags, nor will men have to close theirs and think of England in the middle of Business Time. All they need conjure is the sound of the siren Enya to call to them and they can get to that post-coital cigarette a lot faster.

This wasn’t something that I could deny about myself. It felt right. I was uncontrollably attracted to the sounds of Enya’s music. I couldn’t control it and it wasn’t a choice. But I couldn’t live a lie and hide my love. I would have to face my toughest critics’ judgments, sooner or later.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

VLAFF 2011: Post Mortem

It appears that the first two films I have seen at this year’s Vancouver Latin American Film Festival are both about neighbours. This, I assure you, was not planned, but for purposes of thematic continuity seems to have been a happy accident.

Following the stunning El hombre de al lado, my second film at VLAFF is Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s stunning, sobering Post Mortem. While the world prepares to recall the tenth anniversary of September 11th, there is for Chileans an equally emotional and personally felt event that happened on 9/11 that coursed through the country’s veins and informs its political character to this very day. For the uninitiated, September 11, 1973 was the day that the democratically elected Marxist Chilean president Salvador Allende addressed his nation in an eloquent, optimistic radio broadcast, just as his government was in the throes of a coup by notorious dictator Augusto Pinochet. Later that day, Allende committed suicide with an AK-47 rifle given to him by political ally and personal friend Fidel Castro. There are still reports to this day that he was actually assassinated and that the official cause of death was doctored, in both terms of the word, by the new government in charge.

Our entry point into Post Mortem is Mario (played by mercurial actor Alfredo Castro). He is 55 years old and lives in Santiago at the time of the coup. Mario identifies himself as a funcionada, or civil servant. What he really does is record medical findings on autopsies for the government in a morgue. He’s one of those unassuming, laconic types who wears a current haircut but for which he is about 20 years too old to pull it off. His loneliness is abated when he falls in quick, passionate love with his neighbour, the magnetic burlesque performer Nancy (Antonia Zegers) who lives across the street from him. Her family is a well-known supporter of Allende. One day, a loud commotion occurs at the house across the street, but Mario doesn’t hear it. When he finally realizes something has happened, he steps into an empty street and sees that Nancy’s family home has been decimated and everyone, including Nancy, is gone. Was the family attacked for supporting Allende?

Meanwhile, Mario’s work becomes involved in office politics of a different stripe. He arrives to find dozens of armed guards roaming the hospital, questioning the doctors not just on their professional integrity and competency but also on their political affiliation. Trucks show up, each time bringing more and more dead bodies freshly scraped off the pavement in the aftermath of the violent coup. Mario is tasked with piling the corpses and trucking them down the anonymous, dimly-lit hallways on their way to be autopsied. One of those bodies is Salvador Allende. It is not enough to simply accept this as life carrying on, as Mario’s colleague grows slowly insane from grief and when she asks what has happened in their country that has reduced them to this state, she is met with pitiless silence.

Friday, September 2, 2011

VLAFF 2011: El hombre de al Lado

Opening this year’s Vancouver Latin American Film Festival is a nervy black comedy about two neighbours and a wall, the Sundance Jury Prize winner El hombre de al lado (The Man Next Door) is directed by the Argentine filmmaking team of Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn.

Leonardo (Rafael Spregelburd) is a highly successful architect and furniture designer, sort of a cross between Arthur Ericksen and Eames. His designs have been sold around the world and admirers remark on the astonishing prices he charges on a basic chaise lounge. He lives in the only house Le Corbusier ever designed for South America, in La Plata, Buenos Aires. His wife Ana is a yoga instructor who seems to natter about inconsequential matters that can only be characterized as first world problems. They have a daughter who spends most of her time in her room, with headphones on, practicing the same set of dance moves as if she were learning them to audition for Lady Gaga’s next tour. They have a housekeeper. The house is an architectural wonder, one that compels tourists to stop outside and photograph it at all hours of the day. Into this world enters the next door neighbour, a middle-aged cowboy type named Victor (Daniel Aráoz) who decides to open a giant hole on the dividing wall between their properties so that he can let natural light into that side of his house. Naturally, Leonardo is aghast by this latest development.

Leonardo huffs and puffs around Ana, lawyers, friends etc. about the window being intrusive, since it overlooks his house. It is a clear invasion of privacy. As with most egotistical intellectual types, his resolve crumbles around Victor, but he reverts to his passive-aggressive behaviour in any situation except in an actual confrontation. What, Victor asks, is the problem? He just wants to build a window. Victor sees through Leonardo’s veneer of constant busyness and lets the air out of the balloon of his ego a little at the time, thus irking the latter even more. He invests a lot of himself into this game of intimidation, but what’s really at heart here? (Warning: mild spoilers to follow!)

What the directors try to show is that Leonardo’s most meaningful relationship in this film is with Victor, the villain type who lives next door and does pretty much whatever he wants. Leonardo is perpetually annoyed by Ana’s whining about her clients and admonishes her every time she wants a “peck”. Her response is to tell him off for being a jerk. He tries to communicate with their daughter, but all she does is nod, smile slightly, and look away into the distance. Although the actress playing the daughter is credited, it is essentially a non-speaking part, as people talk at her but she never responds to anyone. The comedy is not about the antagonist next door, but a character study about Leonardo himself.