Joe's Movie Reviews

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

MSPIFF 2009, Part Two (Conclusion)

1. "Getting Home". A middle-aged man is having a fine time getting thoroughly drunk with an old friend of his, when the friend suddenly and unexpectedly dies. Our protagonist knows that his friend was a firm believer in the notion that when someone dies they need to be buried at or near their home, or they'll become a wandering ghost. So our "hero", who has no vehicle of his own, has to get his friend's body halfway across the vast expanse of China on his own... sometimes carrying him on his back, sometimes as a passenger on a bus ("Really! He's just sleeping!"), or through whatever other creative means he can come up with.

Anyone old enough to remember "Weekend At Bernie's" (1989) might already be thinking of that decided non-classic, but "Getting Home" is definitely not made of the same stuff as that cheesy piece of Hollywood shlock. This is first and foremost a surprisingly touching story about friendship, and the extent a man will go to in order to keep a promise to a deceased friend. It's also a fascinating travelogue of rural China, a look at areas and types of people that never make the news (no Beijing or Hong Kong here) but that form as much of the nation's character as those large cities, as well as an examination of how the old values haven't always survived completely intact into the modern age. But before you get any misconceptions here, let me add that it IS also extremely funny in a much quieter, more subtle way than you'd get from an American take on the same story... that is, if an American studio ever DID decide to film this story.

Director Zhang Yang is best known for a film from a few years back called "Shower", and aside from that film's very urban setting, it shares a good deal of the quiet humor and subtle character insight that "Getting Home" contains. That may be a bit obscure as a reference to a lot of readers, but it would be a real challenge coming up with a mainstream release to which it can be compared. The film is so subtle, in fact, that it's only after the fact that you realize how surprisingly ambitious it is. Thankfully, it never draws any attention to that as you're watching it.

The Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival has long been one of the Twin Cities' premiere showcases for films the likes of which would probably never play anywhere else in the area if they didn't get a showcase here, but which are well worth seeking out. "Getting Home" is one of this year's best examples.

2. "Tokyo Sonata". A Japanese businessman loses his management job in the very first scene of "Tokyo Sonata", and the film seems clearly to become the story of how he continues to seek employment while not telling his family about his having been fired. The decidedly non-comic subject is approached with an astonishing degree of humor, too... particularly involving the man's downsized business associate who has developed an amazing array of methods to make it look like he's still thriving (such as programming his cell phone to ring five times an hour so he can constantly be interrupted by "business" calls). But having grown to think of the film as a comedy, the viewer will be taken rather aback by the dark shift in tone as the man is humiliated in job interviews by snide, superior bosses and begins to take out his frustrations on his family (who,of course, know nothing about why he is acting this way).

Furthermore, as the film goes on you gradually come to realize that this is a story about the ENTIRE family, as each member (including the man's wife and two sons) each gets their individual storylines in which their ambitions and goals are blocked and frustrated, as a result of which the family begins drifing apart and disintegrating. Sharp viewers will eventually realize that this isn't merely the story of a family, either... it's the story of a nation, and by extension the story of a lot of nations around the world, and how we relate to each other, or, increasingly, don't.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) has a reputation as being a modern master of horror films (none of which I have seen), but "Tokyo Sonata" shows a sure, steady grasp of human nature and relationships that is far beyond most specialists in that genre. It is, however, just as emotionally intense and harrowing as the best horror movies, in its own way. And what might be the most surprising about it is how a movie with such an extremely wide range of emotional tone from comedy to drama can still be so coherent and of one piece. This Kurosawa clearly has just as much of a mastery and control over his story as did the maker of "Seven Samurai" and "Ikiru".

And for those who might think the film I've just described is TOO emotionally intense to make for comfortable viewing... well, in a way that's true. It isn't reassuring every moment of the way. But ultimately it is a very hopeful story, with some important lessions about how our connections and commitments to each other can carry us through the most difficult of times. Let's hope that, as both families and nations, we can all learn those lessons and put them into practice.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

MSPIFF, Part One

For three years running (counting this one), it looked like this was going to be the first year since 1988 that I wouldn't be able to attend the annual Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF). But each time something has come along at the last minute to prevent that. This year, I got a last minute phone call from some very generous friends informing me that they had gotten me a five-film punch card. I've seen three of the five films so far (the other two to come this weekend, and to be reviewed next Tuesda). For starters:
1. "How To Be". American audiences have seen their share of movies about alienated youths who can't relate to their parents, have troubles romantically and pal around with friends who probably aren't the best possible influences on their lives. So how much of a difference is there in this mini-genre when the story is taking place in England? As it turns out, not all that much. "How To Be" is the story of Art, a young man who has moved back in with his distant parents after being dumped by his girlfriend, and who keeps the bills paid with an extremely boring job in a supermarket. When he inherits a goodly sum of money, he uses it to fly a famous self-help guru & author, Dr. Levi Ellington, from Canada to help him learn to become more "normal". The Q & A with director & cast after the screening made it clear that people as different from the lead character as a 40-something American woman could still identify with Art, and that's not surprising.

The story is nothing really new, but it is performed with enthusiasm by the cast. Robert Pattinson is certainly better as Art than he was in the drab "Twilight" (so he CAN act, after all!), and his more eccentric buddies, the hyper Nikki (Mike Pierce) and low-key Ronnie (Johnny White) are outstanding, as is Powell Jones as the last therapist you'd probably ever want to have in charge of your life. The script doesn't really contain many huge laughs, but provides more than its share of chuckles. "How To Be" might not be a classic for the ages, but it's a perfectly pleasant, amusing film that will leave audiences laughing.
2. "The Biggest Chinese Restaurant In The World". Actually, it's the biggest restaurant in the world, PERIOD. The West Lake Restaurant in Changshan, China has a staff of 1,000; including 30 waiters. It has seating for up to 5,000 customers and has numerous stages for lunch-and-dinner song, dance and theatre performances. When viewed from a short distance off it looks more like a walled city than a place of business. And it's all run by one person: Qin Linzi, who grew up in poverty and has worked her way up to running the largest restaurant on the face of the planet. There's certainly the makings of a fascinating documentary in all of that, and a large part of the time that's what we have here: a look at an amazing rags-to-riches story, an examination of the running of a business that would seem to be too large to possibly work, and (most interesting) a look at the growing gap between the rich and the poor in China (nothing like that happening anywhere else, no sir) as portrayed by contrasting the lives of some of its staff as they spend their working days in some of the most luxurious surroundings imaginable, then go home at night to the tiny, shabby hovels which are all they can afford on their low wages.

The problem: even with a running time of a relatively short 80 minutes, the film seems padded. The film often runs off track and goes into segments that don't seem to have that much to do with what the documentary is supposed to be about. 40 minutes would probably have been enough to do a really absorbing study of the West Lake Restaurant and what it symbolizes about the changing society of China, but instead we get 80 minutes, including the lives and birthday celebrations of customers, and not-always-insightful interviews with staff. One of the friends who provided me with the five-film pass isn't, as a rule, a fan of documentaries and has said that he usually feels most of them would be more interesting if they were short films rather than features. In this one instance, I understand completely what he means.
3. "The Tour". A very, VERY dark comedy from Serbia that is far and away my favorite of the three films I've seen so far. A group of theatre actors are contracted to put on a French Farce near a particularly war-torn area of Yugoslavia in 1993. A small theatrical tour develops that takes the troup through mine fields in which a friend of the troup (though no actual members of it) is killed, an outburst of violence with several fatalities, and encounters with hostile Croatians and Muslims. And yes, as I said, it IS a comedy.

My grandparents (mother's parents) were born & raised in Yugoslavia (he was Serbian, she was Croatian) and I spent my first 8 years (and many vacations after that) in a town that was essentially "Little Yugoslavia" (every other name in the phone book ended in "IC" or "ICH"), and this film is very familiar territory much of the time: in particular, the Serbian outlook on life of staring straight at some of darkest, bleakest circumstances and reacting to them with a laugh (because what else can you do if you're not going to go insane?). But in between the laughs there are brief little moments that powerfully point out the stupidity of this and any other war, and some surprisingly poetic moments as well (I'm thinking in particular of a scene in which a military doctor, washing up after an operation, delivers an impassioned speach on the stupidity of the war, not even noticing that he's continuing to wash off the blood long after it's no longer there, much like Lady MacBeth).

This is a film that American audiences may have to work with a bit... it doesn't make it easy for mainstream tastes. But when you travel a bit off the mainstream you can find some of the most interesting things. And "The Tour" clearly illustrates that darkness and humor are not mutually exclusive, and that it's possible to laugh at the same film that makes you really think about our humanity and our frequent lack of it. If you're willing to give it a little effort, it will be rewarded by this fascinating film.