Category: Sydney Film Festival

Norwegian Wood (film)

How I missed those loving arms

It’s easy to have bad ideas. One such idea was “Let’s make Norwegian Wood into a movie!”
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami’s breakout novel, has in my uninformed opinion influenced Japanese cinema culture in the 24 years since it was first published. The nostalgic student romance genre has been essentially perfected as an art by a long series of directors – some distinctive, some interchangeable, but many worthwhile.

The same can’t be said of Anh Hung Tran, who has taken only the bad lessons and excesses of so much student melodrama and fashioned them into a movie that is not only superficial, but deeply unsatisfying. I don’t see how anyone who has read the book could be pleased with this result but, more than that, it is a failure of the cinematic form. Dull and soporific when it isn’t being irritating and shrill, there’s nothing here to recommend.

Beginners

No one on this poster is this happy in the film itself.

Beginners is the sort of movie that I’m required by law to love, but I couldn’t. Emotional distance is a huge factor in too many contemprary movies: fundamentally broken characters who don’t care about fixing themselves, choosing instead to fixate on their moping don’t make for particularly interesting movies. This is not to say that you can’t make films about depression or depressed characters, just that, like any other film, you should work on making them engaging in at least some regard.

That Beginners tells such a personal story makes its distance unforgivable.

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is recovering from the death of his four years out of the closet father Hal (Christopher Plummer).He meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent, who still hasn’t learned to pick them after Inglourious Basterds), an actress, and they kind of have a relationship but kind of don’t. The film features parallel story lines of the last months of Hal’s life and the beginning of Oliver and Anna’s relationship.

Mike Mills wrote Beginners in response to his own father’s coming out. You would think this would endow the movie with a degree of feeling, but it doesn’t. The whole exercise is remote. Oliver’s mother is represented in flashbacks reminiscent of Harold and Maude; Oliver tries to trace his melancholy to his parents’ presumed loveless marriage, but the answer is much simpler: he’s a sad sack, endlessly waiting for a lion.

It’s easy to blame your parents for everything, especially when you deliberately don’t seek parts of the story that make sense of their emotions and actions. The childhood flashback sequences of this movie don’t particularly prove anything except that Hal felt absent and Oliver misses his mother. These scenes are quirky but offer little. The film’s whole structure doesn’t make much sense; the parallels aren’t easy enough for us to draw, and what Oliver is doing always feels the same regardless of whether his father is alive or dead.

Periodically the film is broken up by Oliver’s illustrations of the history of sadness. These are for his job, where they prove profoundly unsaleable. They were drawn by Mills himself, and they seem too pithy to really reflect what is supposed to be fighting to release itself from Oliver. At other times the film tries to force collages of “these were the days”, utterly failing to set the scene and continuing to take the audience further and further away from the film and from Oliver himself.

Ultimately Oliver’s depression becomes the entire content of the film: that his father was gay and died seems incidental; that he can’t connect and commit to a potential girlfriend is symptomatic but irrelevant.  Depression can feel like your life has become a total blank, and largely meaningless to you. It can be frustrating. Oliver is undeniably frustrated; he can touch but he cannot feel. Mills has injected this melancholy into the very marrow of Beginners, resulting in a film that is bland and tasteless.

It’s disconcerting to feel this disconnect: dead and dying parents are supposed to be a safe way to get audiences to discover their emotions. Christopher Plummer attacks the role with gusto, but it’s always presented through the filter of Oliver. He is shown feeling grief, but we feel nothing. We’re given the memory of this grief, but it is the grief of a man looking at himself and thinking “where did I go wrong?”. I would dearly have liked to feel sad that Hal had died, but Mills never let me.

Any movie with a gay theme and a big name cast like this is going to get a special kind of attention from the outer limits of media. Beginners has been well received, and that’s the mystery: there’s really nothing to it. We’re bathing in misery which is only occasionally leavened by imagined subtitles from Oliver’s dog.

Beginners has nothing to say about romantic relationships, nor does it explore the particularly fascinating reality of a man finally allowing himself to be gay at 75.  A guy is sad, his father was happy. Guy continues to be sad, maybe thinks he shouldn’t be sad any more but he’s not sure.

You don’t have to like Beginners. It’s not really that good a film, tackling important and interesting issues in the least engaging way possible. Mike Mills was perfectly suited to make this film but he failed his material, gazing so far into his own navel that he disappeared into it.

I Am Love

Melodrama: I had completely forgotten about it. Several years ago, Todd Haynes of I’m Not There fame wrote and directed Far From Heaven, a sumptuous visual feast starring Julianne Moore that very deliberately tasted of arsenic. It was a tribute to the time of Douglas Sirk, Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, intense colour and extreme emotion.

I Am Love is an Italian return to the melodramatic form, but this fact is not so immediately pronounced as Far From Heaven. It differs in several key areas. When I started taking issue with the direction of the narrative, I recalled the conventions of melodrama and suddenly it all slotted into place, culminating in one of the most perfectly realised finales I have ever seen.

Yona Yona Penguin

What did Rintaro do to deserve this? I think that Yona Yona Penguin is a trick that the French played on the Japanese.

“We’ve got an idea about a girl who dresses as a penguin, who gets taken to the land of the Good Fellow Devils to defeat the evil being who rules their land!”

“It would never fly here … Maybe you could get the Japanese to animate it? We can pretend it was their idea!”

Rintaro made Metropolis, which was a great movie. He also made X, which was an incoherent movie. In Yona Yona Penguin he’s made a bland movie, and he’s compounded the issue by making it ugly.

Coco loves penguins. She loves them so much that a goblin thinks that she is the legendary flightless bird, and takes her to his village so that she may defeat the great evil. First, however, they have to deal with the fat kid Zammie who has been terrorising the village.

There’s not a lot to say about Yona Yona Penguin. It features unimaginative CG and ugly character designs. It lacks a lot of the sort of charm that this type of film needs to get off the ground, and amounts to nothing.

The big swelling realisation of the lead’s inner power is kind of offset by the fact that she ends up taking the credit for the work of the gods, and…

…Basically, this is a children’s movie made solely for children with no redeeming features for anyone else. It is not well crafted, nor is it nice to look at. I would not have seen it, but it had Rintaro’s name attached.

The French weren’t tricking the Japanese: this was an elaborate (and expensive) plot against me.

The Tree

You want a standard movie that features strong actors and performances, but never really goes anywhere or bothers to do anything with the flimsy scenario with which it has been entrusted? The Tree is your film.

Welcome to the Space Show

Welcome to the Space Show showed at the Sydney Film Festival before it saw its wide release in Japan. It is an impressive piece of science fiction work, albeit not the same film that I was expecting from the synopsis provided by the program (but then, is a film ever the same as its listing?), and one that is perhaps overloaded with ideas towards the end, but I came out of it glad for having seen it.

Au Revoir, Taipei

At last, a truly light movie in the Sydney Film Festival! Au Revoir, Taipei is obvious and insubstantial fun that provides quite a few good laughs.

Kai wants to go to visit his girlfriend in Paris, but he doesn’t have any money. He consults local crime boss Brother Bao to get the money for the airfare, but Bao’s henchmen want to get a cut of the job Kai has been given, and give chase to Kai and Susie, a bookstore worker.

Thus begins a crime farce that’s essentially Taiwan’s equivalent of Date Night.

Au Revoir, Taipei is a consistently funny film that never takes itself too seriously. There is no point at which the characters pull over and have a heartfelt talk about the state of their relationship (“you never give me a chance to help out!”). Instead you have dancing exercises and nice night food market scenes.

There’s not much more to it than that: there are perhaps more subplots than one might expect, but it’s light and fun and entertaining. The ending is a great scene, too. If you judge a movie on “feeling”, then “happiness” is the result of watching Au Revoir, Taipei. Plus it’s executive produced by Wim Wenders, of all people.

It’s nice to have some fluff amongst all of the “worthy” films you get in a film festival.

The Illusionist

Beautiful but disaffecting is probably the best way to describe a film like The Illusionist. It is very pretty to look at and can be quite funny in places but it feels a bit hollow. The back story that I was unaware of lends it slightly more depth, but I will be honest in my philistinism here: my limited exposure to Jacques Tati has not left me enamoured of him.

In 1959, A magician travels from job to job until he meets a young girl in Scotland, who then joins him. The magic business doesn’t run so well, but the girl is convinced magic is real – so the magician picks up odd jobs here and there in Edinburgh to keep the girl in material possessions.

True to Tati’s form, The Illusionist has almost no dialogue. The character of the magician is modeled after Tati himself, and the girl is apparently supposed to be based on a daughter that he allegedly abandoned.
What follows, based on what we can piece together from the largely emotive animation and gibberish speak, is a literal object lesson: nothing comes from nothing, all people in entertainment are suicidally depressed (and this is apparently funny), and young Scottish girls fail to understand the way the material world operates.

It would be a disservice to silent films to say that the lack of dialogue means we can never really know these characters: it is the disjointed nature and repetition of the film that means that we don’t really know that much about them or care much for them. They are simple caricatures who don’t really have many emotions beyond a baseline affection for one another.

While it’s engaging to look at, there’s something ever so slightly off about the film. One of the aspects of this offness is that in many places it’s simply annoying: the depressive clown, the ventriloquist, the effeminate mincing “Britoons”, aren’t so much a joy to watch as they are a protracted distraction to endure.

While Sylvain Chomet was awarded for his Triplets of Belleville, this is a simple case where nostalgia for a much-loved filmmaker triumphs over “proper” cinematic sensibility.

I fully expect to be contradicted by the professional critical establishment when The Illusionist reaches wider attention. I enjoyed it “enough”, but I didn’t think there was much more to it than the fluidity of its mostly excellent animation.

Postscript: On the advice of commenter Matt I append some more context for the film: Roger Ebert has publicised two sides of the argument. First is “The secret of Jacques Tati“, the second is “In defense of The Illusionist“. The key quote in the defence is the following:

The Illusionist” is a work of the imagination that seeks only to stand or fall as a film in its own right.

Personally, I think it falls. And that is all that really matters to me: it’s a movie that doesn’t quite work.

I Killed My Mother

Xavier Dolan. 19 years old when he wrote and directed I Killed My Mother! Instiller of fear and jealousy into the hearts of men and women alike!

Dolan is a boy of honesty, a boy of spite. A boy who loves pieces to camera, but only if he’s allowed to do them naked and black and white in his bathroom.

I Killed My Mother is a pretty good movie, but it’s rough around the edges and its protagonist is misplaced. There’s one great character here, but her whiney idiot foil has been mistakenly made the lead in her place.

The Refuge

The Refuge gets the heavy stuff out of the way first: two drug addicts. One overdoses. The other one wakes up pregnant. No more drugs. Five minutes down, on with the movie!

The Refuge is an imperfect wisp of a movie, with charming atmosphere and pleasant characters but a few key misfires that stopped it from being more than a passably good film.