Monday, September 10, 2007

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

The year is 1987, and the setting is Romania, a mere two years before Nicolae Ceauşescu's Communist regime will be overthrown. The opening moments of Cristi Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days capture an elusive, detail-lacking conversation between two college roommates: jittery Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and proactive Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), who together vaguely discuss the particulars and cost of some unspecified future event. Gabi is visibly fretful and unable to take action ("I can't handle the money part", she shudders), so the no-nonsense Otilia assumes the lion's share of the work. She then sets out on an excursion that will involve (unfruitful) attempts to book a hotel room, tracking down a mysterious stranger, and appeasing a demanding boyfriend. From the start, it is clear that Mungiu is interested in the bartering and exchange of commodities and capital between individuals. The two girls live in a co-ed college dormitory, but it seems more like an underground marketplace than anything else. Cramped bedrooms become sites of transaction as opposed to spaces dedicated to intense scholarship, some students even stocking highly sought-after British and American brand name goods (Nestle chocolate powder, for example.) And as Otilia ventures out into the streets of Bucharest, she is forced to play a public relations mastermind, making up seemingly credible stories when put on the spot, manipulating suspicious authority figures to aid her friend. It soon becomes clear that Mungiu is setting up the moment when this kind of business dealing will play out physically upon the (female) body.

*The rest of this review will contain spoilers, minor or major depending on what one has already read about the film*

Anyone who kept up with the Cannes Film Festival last spring (the film deservingly picked up the Palme d'Or) must already have read commentary that would suggest the film is ostensibly about illegal abortions. Indeed, it is Gabi that is unhappily expecting, and dutiful friend Otilia is exhausting the avenues for this procedure to take place, as soon and as inexpensively as possible. Yet the screenplay also pursues another complex politics about the human body - the demands placed upon it, the physical restriction of its movement and, of course, how it is exploited sexually. Otilia is soon unable to navigate the city as easily as she once did, and she is constantly asked questions about her whereabouts and motivations. Suspicious hotel clerks demand she submit her identification when venturing outside, so that her movement is always monitored. Even more troubling is the amount of pressure and responsibility placed upon Otilia by friends and others - Gabi expects her to make all the arrangements, while her boyfriend Adi insists she stop by his mother's birthday party later that night. Otilia is stretched thin between all these characters, all of them expecting something very specific from her.

The most powerful sequence in the film involves the arrival of the abortionist, who accompanies Otilia to the hotel room where Gabi is waiting. His name is Bebe (a frightful and commanding Vlad Ivanov), and he is not happy to learn that he has been misinformed regarding the specifics of the pregnancy (she is four months pregnant, not two, which is not a good thing.) This drastically changes the logistics and severity of the procedure, he argues, and proceeds to bully them into offering more than the agreed payment. She and Otilia uncomfortably listen on while he lectures them on the severity of the situation and what he perceives to be a lack of respect for his services. Otilia is needlessly apologetic, trying desperately to save the situation, but when she finally loses her patience and asserts herself, he lashes out - "Don't get snotty." The girls promise more cash to follow in a few days as compensation for the unexpected complications, but ultimately have to offer more than that. The girls do what they need to. The audience is mercifully spared any detailed visuals, but it is difficult to watch how he turns paternal and overly concerned following their intimate encounters. He proceeds to abort the fetus, and leaves the two girls in silence to consider what just transpired. When Gabi can only offer a weak "thanks", Otilia's stony reaction is devastating - "If you're going to lie, warn me." She further wonders: had she gone with the slightly more expensive female abortionist during the negotiation stages, would the same thing have happened?

*End Spoilers*

Anamaria Marinca's performance as Otilia is a must-see; it's the kind of turn that rips a viewer's heart out without turning to victimhood histrionics. No matter how badly things spiral out of control, Otilia must forge onwards, and Marinca achieves that conflicted determination tinged with crippling fear. What was once a confident, shrewd personality is left shattered and disillusioned by the film's closing scene. There is one sizable scene - consisting of single straightforward shot by Mungiu - that is particularly lasting in my memory. Otilia has decided to attend Adi's mother's birthday dinner after all, and she joins the guests at the dinner table. However, only her physical body is present at his moment; her thoughts are clearly with the ailing Gabi and truly digesting the horror of what transpired earlier that afternoon. The rest of the cast members receive much less screen-time in comparison, but Laura Vasiliu's work as Gabi is equally memorable. The actor accomplishes the difficult job of making us care for the character despite her total ignorance, and her constant dependence on Otilia. Vlad Ivanov is appropriately complex as Mr. Bebe, able to come across as genuinely invested in the girls' situation despite his reprehensible methods of manipulating them for his gain. And Alexandru Potocean is quite captivating as Adi in his mere two scenes opposite Marinca, conveying impatience and exasperation without making the figure a villain (the stock jerk boyfriend.)

Mungiu's work as the film's screenwriter and director is without fault; he trusts his audience enough to let them work out lapses on their own. The first twenty minutes are utterly disorienting, offering few concrete details about what Otilia is organizing, but they are exciting for that very reason. There are only a few scripting choices that feel manufactured, in order to make Otilia's actions potentially life-threatening and even more difficult to accomplish (thereby making these scene more suspenseful and potentially gasp-worthy.) For example, it is a stretch to believe that her character would leave her identification behind carelessly, considering how vital it is for her clandestine tiptoeing. This conveniently allows the hotel's front desk personnel to berate her (once again). Or that the street-smart character would walk through poorly-lit alleyways following the day's ugly and traumatic events. In the end, however, these points perhaps seem inconsequential; they do not damage the film's (considerable) successes. Brimming over with sympathetic (but not saintly) characters and a demandingly entangled (but not overstuffed) narrative, Cristi Mungiu's acclaimed film is a rarity. B+

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Three out of Four? Not bad.

(Note: This TIFF entry was originally posted on The Film Experience, as part of my guest blogging duties during the festival. I am reprinting it here for archival/linking purposes.)

Caffeinated products consumed today: 4
Solid food products consumed today: 0.5

So guys and gals, listen up. Not only did I get to fulfill my celebrity-sighting dream yesterday; I was able to do it twice, both times in close succession! First, I got to see the ethereal Tilda Swinton in all her statuesque glory during the introduction to The Man from London screening at 6pm. Director Bela Tarr spoke first (offering up the expected thanks and appreciation to the festival programmers for including the film and to audience members for attending), and called this effort "straight from the heart." Then... he brought Tilda up to the front. (If you must know Nathaniel, she was rather conservative this time around in a black knee-length dress with her hair swept back as usual.) She talked about how she was thrilled to do this film even though she only appears for about four minutes or so (actually, I'd say it's more like seven to nine, but more on that later.) She ended off with calling this latest project of his "medieval, but truly modern in a super-sonic way." Thought it was strange at first, but now having seen it, I couldn't have said it better myself. Oh Tilda.

She was unable to attend the Q&A session following the film, since Michael Clayton was enjoying its North American premiere at Roy Thomson Hall at roughly the same time. I happened to walk by the venue after the London screening (around 8:30-ish) and miraculously caught sight of her again inching down the red carpet and posing amidst the blinding flashes (although I had to strain considerably to do so, on account of the huuuuuuuge crowd that had gathered outside with cameras in tow.) I wish I could find a picture right now; perhaps one will be up in the next couple of hours on the TIFF website, or the in today's newspapers/on-line magazines (I'll use an older one for now.) I will be watching the Tony Gilroy film tomor-- yikes, in a matter of hours! Films that play at the RTH usually have a smaller-scale screening the next day at the Ryerson, so do you think I'll be lucky enough to see her again? Celebs usually skip early morning to noon-ish time slots on account of partying hard the night before, but Tilda is not just any other celeb, as you know. Imagine a triple-dose of the Swinton in one festival! Last year, I had that streak with James McAvoy.

So what was on the itinerary today? I spent the entire day at the Scotiabank Theatre (formerly known as the Paramount), heading outside only for coffee breaks and to stretch my ever-cramping legs.

My day began early with You, the Living by Roy Andersson; you can read my full-length review over here. You may recall that he won the Jury Prize at Cannes a couple of years ago for Songs from the Second Floor. I haven't seen that film, but I wasn't too impressed with his latest effort... the many segments (starring a cast of dozens and dozens) are entertaining enough in parts, but randomly assembled and barely hold together.

Also, my review for Barbet Schroeder's disorienting (in a good way) L'Avocat de la terreur [Terror's Advocate], a documentary about Jacques Vergès, the outspoken French lawyer who defended a host of disreputable figures, from terrorists to war criminals... why?

California Dreamin' (Endless) is on a lot of people's minds right now, not only because the attention is on Romanian cinema these days, but because of the project's tragic behind-the-scenes history. About a year ago, the film's director Cristian Nemescu died unexpectedly in a car accident (along with Andrei Toncu, sound designer, and the taxi cab driver in the driver's seat.) Thematically, the film deals with the issue of border-crossing and how this relationship between national powers is not always reciprocal and marred by unequal power dynamics and double standards (specifically between the United States and most "Third World" countries.) I will pass on writing a review (for now), only because my handwritten notes go on for yards, and there's simply too much to cover. Suffice it to say, it is a shame that this talented writer-director will not be able to follow up in the future. The length is somewhat of an issue (which will not be tampered with, since this is the cut that Nemescu left us with) , but overall I was excited to see that his critiques are subtle and well-articulated. Highly recommended, and I'll report back with more thoughts once I think it through a little more. B

Finally, my review for The Man from London should be up in a couple of hours. (Pst, it's a B as well.)

So, three out of four isn't bad at all for Day One. I've had worse starts to the festival in previously years.

Celebrity sightings of the day: Tilda Swinton, Bela Tarr and Jamie Elman (one of the leads of California Dreamin')

The Rest of the Fest:
For thoughts on Michael Clayton and Juno, click here.
For thoughts on Nothing is Private, click here.
For closing thoughts on the final set of films I watched, click here.

L'Avocat de la terreur

In his documentary L'Avocat de la terreur, Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune, Murder by Numbers) sits down with controversial French lawyer Jacques Vergès, who has represented infamous figures such as Klaus Barbie, Slobodan Milošević and high-profile militant political figures throughout the course of his legal career. Staunchly anti-empire and in support of aggressive decolonization tactics, Vergès and his life achievements serve as absolutely fascinating subject matter. Equal parts exposed and elusive, he chainsmokes his thick cigars as he retraces some of the most notorious moments of his professional and personal life. Particularly when he defended prisoner Djamila Bouhired of the French-Algerian resistance (they later married) and the aforementioned Barbie in the eighties, for crimes against humanity. Even more fascinating than the much-publicized trials and roster of clients is the period in his life from 1970 to 1978 (called "The Missing Years"), when he seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. Much speculation ensues to this day about what exactly he was doing and who he was working for/with (he is smilingly tight-lipped on the subject), although he published books and pamphlets during this time period as well.

The documentary is almost paralyzingly thorough in the wealth of information it presents and the various documents employed to tell the greater narrative. Present-day interviews with Vergès and other key personalities, archival and secret government footage, photographs, audio clips, phone interviews, and newspaper clippings... With all these valuable sources in his arsenal, Schroeder is able to transcend the kind of dull history lesson lecturing most films like these fall back on. However, the fact remains that there are five potential films contained within this beast of a project. With a running time of 135 minutes (feeling quite longer), at times the piece seems over-researched to a fault. After sticking to a fairly coherent and linear time line with the Algerian struggle for independence and Vergès' increasing interest in the Palestinian cause, the film goes off on several tangents. One issue, the most fascinating for my money, is raised fleetingly and never quite explored fully - in response to criticism by a close friend for daring to defending Barbie, Vergès states that he wished to make a comparison between the Nazis' role in the Holocaust and the violent measures deployed by the French government in Algeria during the struggle for autonomy. It is a difficult question, and I wish Schroeder had paused here for longer and asked Vergès to expand a little more. As it stands, a strong B. A true wallop of a film and a lot to digest in one sitting, but well worth the head spin.

Screened on Friday, September 7th, 2007 at the Scotiabank Theatre (#3) during the Toronto International Film Festival.

You, the Living

"Tomorrow is another day" is the refrain that regularly resounds throughout Swedish director Roy Andersson's You, the Living, a quirk fest populated by tuneless musicians, weepy alcoholics and all-around awkward types. A self-deprecating and existential downer about the monotony of day-to-day life in present day Stockholm, the film follows countless individuals who suffer from an array of social dysfunctions and personal crises. The frustrations on display range from dealing with mild annoyances (noisy, tone-deaf neighbours living on the floor above) to truly devastating situations (losing a parent to Alzheimer's disease.) It is soon evident that the walls between their professional and private lines frequently collapse in the most mortifying ways; during one scene, a teacher breaks down in front of her young kindergarten students because her husband called her a "hag" earlier that morning. Andersson's work is surely attention-grabbing from the start - the film never quite settles on a singular tone, instead straddling the line between poking fun at these bizarre creatures and also expressing great sympathy for their plights. And yet, the problem is not the constant oscillating wildly between these registers. It is the reliance on visual gags and one-note jokes to stitch together the wildly disparate stories that soon works to undermine the film.

For the first twenty minutes or so, You, the Living manages to coast by on amusingly irreverent material and deadpan line deliveries. Soon enough though, the approach feels outright gimmicky. For example, a character eventually breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience about a nightmare he had the night before. After unsuccessfully attempting to pull off the tablecloth trick at a dinner party, he destroys a priceless heirloom and is arrested for his destructive actions. The traumatic dream sequence is then re-created in full detail, in which he is ultimately put on trial and berated by beer-sipping judges. This sequence goes on for several minutes, strung together by a series of random one-liners. Each sentence feels as though it should be followed by a desperate rim shot or canned studio audience laughter, as if all these responses were already anticipated by the filmmakers from the get-go. Sustained over a feature-length running time, the film seems over-confident in this regard.

True, not all of the vignettes fail; in fact, some of them are genuinely inspired; take for instance a running visual motif that concerns wary commuters trying to avoid all-too-familiar vexations like crummy weather and traveling during rush hour. More highlights include recurring scenes with a tipsy, loud woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She constantly berates her lover, screaming at him to leave her alone before finally finally giving up and returning home with him. Also quite endearing is an unrequited love story, with a young girl pining away for a cool guitar-player named Micke. Plus, the film's visual properties are also an asset - cinematographer Gustav Danielsson drowns the actors in a sea of muted beiges and grays. One can understand how these environments must be claustrophobic and stifling for these already-disheartened individuals. Yet for all the film's successful threads, there are just as many that irritate: a culture clash gone sour between an Arab hairdresser and a prejudiced customer, or a posh dinner party turned ludicrous with guests taking turns standing on their chairs.

The need to be understood, loved and acknowledged is apparent in all these characters' struggles, and this is what largely works in You, the Living, albeit to varying degrees of success. Mostly centering on the struggles of the working class, alienated and depressed, Andersson focuses on the need to get through today. Tomorrow is, after all, another day. But as I sat through the film, I kept thinking to myself, "This could have worked much better as a short story." Either way, stick to Miranda July's indie delight Me and You and Everyone We Know for now. C-

P.S. - If you still decide to watch the film, the final shot is definitely worth sticking around for, only because the first few moments are rather bewildering (it took me several seconds to understand what I was looking at.) Getting the full picture is pretty neat, I must admit.

Screened on Friday, September 7th, 2007 at the Scotiabank Theatre (#4) during the Toronto International Film Festival.