Watching Sundance from Afar

I’ve never been to the Sundance Film Festival, and have no burning desire to hang out with the stars in a ski resort in Utah, but I have been trying to follow a bit of what’s going on. Here are a few films that I’m hearing good things about and which, with any luck, will make it to Toronto either at HotDocs or TIFF:

The film summaries are from the much more attractive and usefully-designed Unofficially Sundance site.

Lights in the Dusk

Lights in the Dusk

Lights in the Dusk (Finland/Germany/France, director Aki Kaurismäki): This is the third film in Kaurismäki’s “Helsinki Trilogy” (the others are Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002)) While I haven’t seen the first, this film shares many thematic and formal elements with the second film, and I enjoyed it just as much.

Koistinen is a lonely security guard who is ignored by his co-workers; that is, when he’s not being teased by them. His life is soon turned upside down by a femme fatale, with heartbreaking results. Despite the grim-sounding plot, the film is full of the director’s trademark deadpan humour. And I’m in awe of how he can make the film just radiate love despite the mannered acting and awkward staging. Perhaps it has to do with the warmth of the lighting and the colour palette, as well as the use of nostalgic music and art direction. Whatever it is, from the first frame, you know the director loves this sad sack and wants us to love him too.

The films of the Helsinki Trilogy all deal with people on the margins, and it’s clear that Kaurismäki’s sympathies lie with the common people and not with those whose success or power has dehumanized them. He is a true humanist, and his “heroes” all bear their sufferings stoically; in fact, they quite literally personify a “never-say-die” attitude, and that makes them admirable. Their hangdog expressions may make us pity them, but it’s their core of inner strength that makes us love them.

9/10(9/10)

Lake of Fire

Lake of Fire

Lake of Fire (USA, director Tony Kaye): A monumental (152 minutes!) documentary on the abortion issue filmed over a 15-year period, Tony Kaye’s film is likely to become a classic. The film covers all kinds of ground and features interviews with many people on both sides of the issue. Perhaps surprisingly, quite a few of them have intelligent things to say.

There is quite a lot of (and I’d say too much) coverage of the extreme fringe of the pro-life movement, including the string of killings of abortion doctors in the 1990s, and a very strange and possibly insane man who runs an organization called Lambs of Jesus. Too often, the pro-life camp is described as simply an extension of the Christian Right’s agenda. While that may be largely true, there are millions of other people with pro-life views that are much less extreme, who are not necessarily marching or picketing abortion clinics. It would have been nice to hear from some of them. One interesting pro-life advocate was writer Nat Hentoff, a liberal atheist. In the pro-choice camp, there were a few notable voices, including lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice. Then there were those who appeared to be in the middle somewhere, including several medical bioethicists and even Noam Chomsky, who was perhaps the most eloquent voice in the film.

I suppose the extensive coverage of the shootings of abortion doctors may have been included to balance the equally disturbing images of abortion procedures, including the doctor “piecing together” the body parts of the fetus after the procedure. Any honest film about abortion needs to address these very real images.

I believe it may have been Chomsky who stated that abortion comes down to a difficult choice between two (and possibly more) competing but authentic values. He also pointed out that if pro-life supporters claim to be concerned about children, there were lots of easy ways to help the many suffering children in the world, but that few were actually doing much about it.

The film concludes with two segments where I found the use of music to be manipulative. One is the statement by a nurse who was severely injured in an abortion clinic bombing, and the final longer segment follows one woman as she goes through the entire abortion procedure, from filling out forms to her sudden breakdown as she tries to tell the interviewer she’s “relieved.” The images and stories were powerful enough without the need for swelling strings in the background. As well, it’s not always clear when each part of the film was shot, or whether we’re seeing things in chronological order at all, and for a film that covers 15 years of a changing political landscape, it would be nice to have a timeline and even some statistics to see how things are changing.

Other than those relatively minor misgivings, this is a landmark film and has set a high standard for feature length documentaries dealing with this relatively neglected subject. The two and a half hours went by very quickly, and I was even left wanting more. Director Kaye says he has lots more and could even make the material into a television series. I for one would be interested.

8.5/10(8.5/10) – my graphic doesn’t show half-points

El Ratón Pérez (The Hairy Tooth Fairy)

El Ratón Pérez (The Hairy Tooth Fairy)

El Ratón Pérez (The Hairy Tooth Fairy) (Argentina/Spain, director Juan Pablo Buscarini): I don’t think I can write a substantial review of this film since I was so sleepy during it. The week is catching up to me, and because I was with my wife and sitting in such a comfortable and dark environment, I dozed off a few times. The film itself was quite good, though. A combination of CGI and live-action, El Ratón Pérez is the story of what happens to children’s teeth when they place them under their pillows. Unlike in North American and northern European culture, the Latin American and Spanish legend is that a mouse named Mr. Perez takes the tooth away and replaces it with a coin. Nothing terribly original about the film, but it was well-made and charming, and the many children in the audience seemed to appreciate it. One distraction was that they had someone reading the English subtitles into a microphone for the younger viewers. Having that competing with the Spanish-language soundtrack as well as the subtitles made watching the film more difficult.

Visit the film’s web site

7/10(7/10)

Exiled

Exiled

Exiled (Hong Kong/China, director Johnnie To): Among lovers of Hong Kong cinema, Johnnie To is legendary. He had three films showing in this year’s festival (Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006) screened together, as well as this film) and this was my first experience seeing one of his films. I’ll be seeking out some others. Exiled is an incredibly well-constructed film. It’s like a Swiss watch, with every scene precisely set up and choreographed and nothing wasted. To has created a self-contained world and set his characters loose in it. Set just around the time of Macau’s reversion to the Chinese government, it concerns a group of hit men who come together when their boss orders a hit on one of them. Two pairs of men arrive at the target’s new home. The first to warn him, the second to kill him. After a kinetic set piece involving three shooters, precisely 18 bullets, and the target’s wife and infant son, the group ends up helping still-alive Wo move furniture into his new place, before settling down to eat.

The mixture of action, comedy, and sentiment is probably a staple of Hong Kong gangster films, but I found it fresh. The plot continues when the assassins agree to give Wo some time to carry out one last job to make some cash for his soon to be widowed wife and orphaned child. Things don’t go as planned, however, and the film bumps along from set piece to set piece until an inevitable but satisfying end. Each choreographed set piece is set up in such a way as to heighten the anticipation, and you almost don’t mind that none of these trained killers seems to be a very good shot. It’s enough that they’re all ludicrously macho, swilling scotch from the bottle and smoking as they fire bullets at each other.

Seeing this one on the big screen is a must, just for the sound. The musical score, by Canadian Guy Zerafa, veered between James Bond and spaghetti westerns, with a bit of mournful harmonica thrown in. It worked perfectly, as did the fact that the viewer can hear every single shell casing hit the ground throughout the film. Even the gunshots themselves seemed different from those in American films, with less blast and more metallic sounds. It certainly helped create atmosphere. While this and the choreographed gunplay never let you forget you’re watching a created thing rather than any semblance of reality, that actually made me more appreciative of the creator. He’s certainly created another Johnnie To fan.

Visit the film’s web site

8/10(8/10)