Monday, September 11, 2006

Day Four

In the tradition of Christopher Guest and his signature-style satire of by way of "mockumentary", British director Debbie Isitt's Confetti (U.K.) is a laugh riot through and through. Both directors focus on well-meaning, but ultimately clueless individuals too wrapped up in their own personal dramas and neuroses to notice how idiotic they look from the outside. Here, Isitt considers the desperate (and at times freakish behaviour) that emerges during the ordeal of wedding planning. Introducing the film, the deliciously witty director related that the idea for the film came to her a year ago when her own sister's expensive and detailed wedding ended up as a disaster. The film's title refers to a popular bridal magazine that attempts to shake up their readership by holding a contest: which couple can pull off a totally original, innovative concept for articulating their vows? The winners are handed the keys to a half-million-pound house and featured on the cover of the monthly digest. However, for the picky editorial execs (including Felicity Montagu, who played snooty Perpetua to perfection in Bridget Jones's Diary) the contenders leave much to be desired: a dowdy-but-cute twosome with a Hollywood musical theme in mind, an obnoxiously competitive tennis duo that alienate everyone around them, and a pair of "naturalists" intent appearing nude during their commitment ceremony. Throw in a gay couple - both professionally and romantically involved - in charge of planning the three events under one tight budget, and there's plenty of chaos in the works.

Beginning ten weeks before the curtain rises, the film showcases the development (or lack thereof) of the presentations. The "Confetti" staff, as well as the wedding planners Archie and Gregory, have to contend with bossy relatives hijacking ideas, bridal nose jobs gone awry and the insistence by Michael (the male half of the nudist couple) to remain unclothed for the ceremony (something the conservative magazine has no intention of tolerating.) Throughout the film, no one is safe from ridicule: every character is humiliated, exposed and eventually taught a lesson. But the tone somehow mananges to avoid condescension; there is bite to the humour, but it is not exploitative. Although these are ridiculous people, they are still human, and Isitt often shows the flipside of what is happening on the inside. The characters have chances to reveal their insecurities, and this attempt at a balanced depiction gives dimension to the film. What could have so easily been a repetitive, mean-spirited affair is tender and revealing in the director's hands.

The efforts here are even more impresssive considering that there was no script written beforehand. Every single line and blocking idea was made up on the fly; the actors were simply given a concept before the camera began rolling. When the audience learned this fact during the Q&A with Isitt, they broke into applause and amazed whoops. Indeed, learning this tidbit of information after watching the film only underlines the true improvisational genius of what she and the team pulled off in six weeks (!) of filming. The quips and one liners go down easy, and the film has quite its own share of so-funny-you'll-pee-your-pants moments. For most of its running time, Confetti simply breezes through, keeping a speedy momentum and switching up the scenarios. What a shame then that the film hits a wall in its final act, where watching the couples perform their all-too familiar weddings seems anti-climactic. But is it really fair docking the film overall for losing the reigns late in the game when so much of what came before bordered on brilliance? I'm still mulling it over, although this should not dissuade anyone at all interested in this gem. It's a must-see for comedy lovers (read: those of the Best in Show fanship, not those who frequent the Will Ferrell/Ben Stiller/Jim Carrey commodities of the month.) B/B+

Guillermo del Toro will undoutedly have fans salivating throughout all of Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico/Spain/U.S.), a meticulously-mounted fantasy that blends the dark fairy-tale world of children's stories and the harsh realities of war. In his comments preceding the screening, del Toro discussed how his prior film The Devil's Backbone premiered at the festival only a few days before 9/11, and how the experience moved him to conceive of a companion piece for it. One need not look hard to recognize the similarities - both concern the experience of children trying to cope with violence in suppressing environments. In between trying to survive their immediate situations, the protagonists become witness to supernatural events that may or may not be self-constructed. When the film begins, Ofelia and her very pregnant mother are on their way to meet Captain Vidal at his military base far noth. A very creepy Sergei Lopez plays Vidal, who is an important official of the newly-implanted fascist regime (and also Ofelia's stepfather.) The Spanish civil war is in full-force, and Vidal's primary concern is to obliterate the rebel forces that have made their base in the furthest recesses of the forestland. Ofelia at first attempts to adapt to her new life, but when her mother takes a turn for the worse and her stepfather takes no interest in her (he is awaiting the arrival of his "son"), the young girl is visited by strange, nocturnal flying creatures - "fairies", she calls them. Determined to investigate the origin of these beings, Ofelia ventures out into the night, and discovers something extraordinary in the maze of paths behind the house.

Pan's Labyrinth then proceeds to move in two different directions: the magical world that Ofelia immerses herself in, and the tensions that escalate with the battle between the two opposing political forces, with del Toro jumping back and forth. The two environments do not mesh well together, and at times it felt as though I was watching two separate films at once. The result is that neither payoff feels particularly satisfying. Ofelia's descents into the mezmerising and deadly other-worlds are undoutedly exciting, but her interactions with a grotesque-looking fawn (definitely not the stuff of your bedtime stories) or close encounters with child-eating monsters never come into focus with the rest of the film as a whole. The experience is not unlike watching imaginative vignettes set in nightmarish environments interspersed with lengthy sections about a band of rebels and moles trying to take down an evil authoritarian. All the moments with the adults feel obligatory, while the strengths of the story clearly lie with Ofelia's adventures.

However, this is still a unique fable that fans of fantasy and del Toro will want to experience. His sense of play and creation is truly commendable, and he has great fun bringing to life non-human beings and testing his audience's tolerance for gore and the abject. The film looks beautiful through and through (Oscar nominations for visual effects, art direction, sound and especially makeup are all deserved if the Academy is voting with their brains attached this time around), and all his actors are on-key (especially Y Tu Mama Tambien's lovely Maribel Verdu as Ofelia's confidante, and a housekeeper in the Captain's home.) Well recommended. B

Predictably banned in his home country of Iran (just like everything in his filmography), Jafar Panahi's Offside (Iran) is a critical look at the government's policy of banning women from attending sporting events. Packaged as somewhat of a light comedy (!), the movie impressively manages to hit at the major issues without being even a tad preachy in its politics. When speaking about why he was inspired to make this film, Panahi related a story of how his daughter insisted on accompanying him to a football match a couple of years ago (that's soccer for North Americans.) Sympathetic, he told her that she would never be let inside, but she insisted to a point that he relented. Ultimately she was able to make it past the police guards, and this moved the director to write a story pondering the ways female fans are able to sneak into these matches without being caught. First, some context: the Islamic government refuses to allow women into such arenas, insisting that the mixed gatherings must be avoided. The presence of profanity, sports fervor and other behaviour are deemed too inappropriate for women to witness. It is thusly why the teenage girls of Offside have to resort to posturing as boys to enter the 2006 Iran vs. Bahrain game (which qualified either team to move on towards the World Cup in Germany). But their true challenge is skillfully evading the security officials at the stadium gates, who are instructed to thoroughly search any suspicious individuals.

Offside opens on the road, with a shot of an panicked elderly man attempting to wave down a bus filled with jubilant football fans. The reason for his anxiety is soon made clear; his daughter left the house without informing anyone, which could spell disaster for the family's honour if word spreads to the community. "Her brothers will kill her," he shouts fretfully, utterly at a loss for his next move. The bus moves on soon enough though, although some boys begin to realize that an anti-social teen is not exactly blending in with the crowd. The flustered imposter manages to evade trouble on the bus, imploring a fascinated boy not to turn her in. It is at the gate that her confidence fails her, and soon enough, she is moved to a detention paddock where similarly shameless girls await the arrival of a van that will send them directly into the hands of the Vice Squad. Throughout the game, the guards attempt to keep the girls quiet, but their outrage will not be contained. The bulk of the film is spent outside the stadium while the match is played inside, roars by the crowd regularly echoing through the hallways. The clashing groups make some compromises: the captives can "watch" the game by way of one man providing commentary. One girl attempts to escape under the pretext of having to use the washroom, but since the stadium lacks facilities for women, one of the men instructs her to place a poster over her head so no one will recognize her. The security guards, initally high on their own sense of power, eventually admit that the rules banning women are without basis, but maintain that they don't make the rules. And that's that.

It is impossible to overlook Panahi's metaphor, as football in Iran is often considered as the unifying event in Irani patriotism. The clerics allow it because it fosters a sense of nationalism and religious fervor. The players in the game and the spectators shouting encouragement represent Iran itself, and inclusion in the spectacle is empowering. Men are active participants in the social, political and economic spheres of power, while women are excluded under flimsy regulations upheld by similarly flimsy moral rhetoric. The only way women can participate is if they adopt "masculine" characteristics (such as actually dressing as men here), but even then they are rejected. Offside then is not "only" about football, but is just as much about Iran's imbalanced power structures. In a key scene, the girls start to create their own playing field in their detention space, each one standing in for a beloved team player. This show of resistance is one of many important moments that provide the fire to the film's politics. It works marvelously, but Panahi only blunders when he drives home a conclusion that seems a little too optimistic and cheery for the subject matter. Even if it is intended as light-hearted overall, the final shots seem at odds with the clever debates that rage between the assertive girls and the frustrated guards. B+


JavierAG said...

"Confetti" seems quite awesome (first time I hear about it). "Offside" sounds a little less appealing to my particular tastes but I'll certainly give it a shot when the opportunity comes.

"Pan's Labyrinth" seems fascinating, if problematic. (Most people seem to have a similar problem with it - the divisiveness between worlds).

Ali said...

Particular tastes? Is it the soccer or the fact that it's Irani? I know a couple of people who just can't stand the pace of Irani films in general. I think you'll like Offside, for what it's worth. It's his most accessible film in my eyes.

Pan is a must-see, just because it's del Toro. But it won't live up to The Devil's Backbone for sure.

JavierAG said...

It's mostly the soccer, and the fact that most sports movies suck, though I'm completely aware this philosophy is ridiculous considering "Offside" is obviously not about soccer (football here) per se.

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