Sunday, November 30, 2008

Shake Hands with the Devil


Directed by Peter Raymont

Although the fictionalized version of General Romeo Dallaire's Governor General's Prize winning account of the Rwandan genocide was uneven and rather poorly put together, the documentary version of the the book, if you can call it that, succeeds brilliantly as both an account of the UN's failures to stop one of the 20th century's biggest bloodbaths as well as the unbelievable emotional torment experienced by Dallaire during and after the genocide.

Raymont's "Shake Hands with the Devil" follows Dallaire as he travels back to Rwanda to mark the 10th anniversary of the genocide in 2004. As the camera follows Dallaire and his wife, Dallaire and others who were involved in either attempting to prevent the genocide or in document it, from President Paul Kagame to BBC foreign correspondent Mark Doyle, recount their version of the events leading up to the genocide and how it unfolded over 100 bloody days. The film generally takes a sympathetic views towards Dallaire's plight and paints him as a sort of tragic figure who did all he could to save Rwanda but was prevented from doing so by the UN's legendary incompetency and limp wristedness. This is a fairly accurate picture of the situation, and it is good to see that Dallaire is finally being recognized as what he was--a man putting his life in danger and fighting ridiculous odds in an attempt to help out his common man.

"Shake Hands with the Devil" generally does a good job at allowing Dallaire to tell his own story and does not really infuse any overt policking in the film, aside from implying that the West should be ashamed at themselves and that the genocide could have been stopped if wealthy nations such as the United States and Canada had of given a damn. That, however, is not politicizing the situation, only revealing the truth which was that fo a horrible failure by western countries and the international community as a whole to protect innocent civilians. Some of the most poignat moments in the documentary come not from Dallaire's recollections, which are touching in their own way, but in some of the old news footage of the genocide. In one rather chilling scene, Belgian soldiers are busy evacuating their own civilians while a number of Tutsis plead for help, attempting to explain that they are about to be killed by the Interahamwe. The Beglian soldiers wanton disregard for their plight perfectly illustrates the rather deplorable actions commited by Western nations while Rwanda was spiralling into chaos.
The documentary unforunatelyu tails off towards the end and Raymont seems to have been unable to properly edit the film, but I certainly understand his reticence to cut certain moments from the film since "Shake Hands with the Devil" stands primarily as a documentation of the atrocity and there really isn't much impetus to tidy up a film dealing with such a horrific act into a manageable, watchable package. Despite this, "Shake Hands with the Devil" is an important film and serves to highlight the continued plight of the Rwandan people as well as General Dallaire's continued search for peace in the wake of such atrocities.



Directed by Beat Takeshi

Takeshi Kitano is one of my favorite directors and some of his films are brilliant, but "Takeshis" just mystified me. The pointlessness of this movie seems almost beyond debate and the only thing making it even halfway likeable is Kitano's immense talent at delivering playful, quirky images and dead pan humour, so completely wasted on this effort that I almost feel like giving it an "F" just because I know Kitano can do so much better.

The plot of "Takeshis" sounds like it was thought up in a pinch and delivered to a studio head off the cuff. Takeshi plays himself, as a succesfull, rich director and leading man (which he is) but also plays his doppelganger, named Kitano, who is basically a chump version of "Takeshi." Kitano, who works in a convenience store and tries out for films Takeshi stars in, only to be rejected again and again, suddenly finds his life resembling Takeshi's films, from the violence to the multitude of yakuza to the appearance of fast women who seem suddenly infatuated with him. Why this is happening, I can only guess, but that's pretty much the gist of the film.

"Takeshis" appears to be Kitano's "Day for Night" or "8 1/2," his film about film. Unfortunately, however, unlike the latter two films,. which were both by filmmakers about the process of making films and both happened to also be brilliant, "Takeshis" is a convoluted, senseless mess. The plot is thrown out the window early in the game and Kitano seem content to string together a number of "Kitano-esque" moments of wimsy and deadpan humour and expects the audience to buy into it. Sure, there are some hilarious and very authentic moments of Kitano brilliance, such as a scene in a film Takeshi is filming in which he is playing mah jong with a floosy and gets annoyed by the sounds of chicadas outside his window and opens fire on them, then turns around and inexplicably murders the girl, but these scenes are simply kernels of greatness in an otherwise lackluster whole. It's too bad, really, but there appears to be a good reason why "Takeshis" has never been mentioned in the same breath as "Sonatine" "Hana Bi" or any of Kitano's best works.

Thursday, November 27, 2008



Directed by Kore Eda Hirokazu

I firmly believe that Kore Eda Hirokazu, along with Kiyoshi Kurosawa, is the best Japanese director working today. Director of such gems as "Nobody Knows" and "Afterlife," Hirokazu has a unique ability to deal with huge issues, such as death, abandonment, or betrayal, in a way that is both simple but essentially very profound and wise. "Moborosi," although a maybe not as good as his other major works, is another good example of the depth and breadth of Hirokazu's abilities as a filmmaker.

After the untimely death of her husband, (played by none other than Tadanobu Asano!) Yumiko agrees to an arranged marriage and relocates to the coast of the Sea of Japan to start her new life. When she arrives, she is thrown into a life that moves at a significantly slower pace than what she was used to back in Osaka, but with time Yumiko comes to enjoy her surroundings and love her new husband.

Hirokazu is often compared to Ozu due to the aethetic similarities of the two director's works, but the comparison shoujld also strethc to the content of both their films. Like Ozu, whose films used small, almost anecdotal vignettes to tackle much bigger issues, Hirokazu's films also employ the same type pf slow, meditative pace in their examination of personal trials and tribulations which are used to illuminate the bigger picture. Also like Ozu, Hirokazu is a filmmaker who possesses a great deal of emphathy for humans and their struggles. Watching a Hirokazu film, like watching an Ozu film, is most notable for the amount of sympathy he can garner for characters whose struggles are not that out of the ordinary, in many ways. (well, maybe not for the kids in "Nobody Knows"...) In this way, "Maborosi" succeeds greatly insofar as the trials and tribulations of not only Yumiko but of her son, her new husband and his daughter all face in attempting to rebuild their lives. My main criticism of Maborosi is that the relationship between Yumiko and her new husband was barely fleshed out and we were not allowed to see the awkwardness and the loneliness that we are led to believe existed between the two before they finally came to love each other. This contrasts rather visibly with the portrayal of Yumiko and her ex-husband's relationship which is fleshed out in remarkably good detail for the length of time Hirokazu spends on it. Nevertheless, "Maborosi" is a strong effort by a wonderful director and is worth a look for anyone who wants to see one of the major works of one of Japan's foremost living directors.



Directed by Federico Hidalgo

I wanted to like this movie for two very biased reasons, firstly because the director is a Concordia alum and secondly because the film was shot entirely in Montreal and its surrounding area. To my disappointment, however, "Imitation" is an extremely uneven work and suffers from unconvincing acting and a horribly clunky script, dooming it to the dustbin of mediocrity.

"Imitation" opens with a chance encounter between Fenton, a rather frail looking Montreal deadbeat youth, and Theresa, a Mexican woman in town to find her lost brother. Fenton, mesmerized by the Latin bombshell, offers his help in finding her lost sibling, even after she treats him rather badly and takes off with his car. The movie's plot revolves around Fenton and Theresa's continued search for Theresa's brother (who turns out to be her husband, but I'm hardly ruining the surprise, here...) as well as the romantic relationship that begins to grow between the two.

Although "Imitation" likely had good intentions, probably being originally designed as a sort of slow, meditative piece of urban cinema that touched on multiethnic relations in a multicultural city, the film is soo sloppily put together that any effort to enjoy the film is betean into submission by the shear clumsiness of the whole thing. The script, co-written by Hidalgo and Paulina Robles, is both thin and unbelievable and is delivered in a robotic, unnatural fashion by both Vanessa Bauche, who plays Theresa, and her counterpart Jesse Aaron Dwyre (who is the prime culprit here, to be fair to Bauche. When all is said and done, "Imitation" unfortunately comes off like a student film with a bigger than usual budget, which is too bad because the film does boast some stunning shots of Montreal which almost make the film worth watching for Montreal lovers such as myself. Ultimately, however, "Imitation" is much to flawed for me to even half heartedly recommend it to anyone.

Suicide Club


Directed by Sion Sono

Sion Sono, a Fantasia regular and director of such weirdness as "Strange Circus" and "Hair Extensions" has built his career on producing odd and unsettling work while at the same time seeming to willfully court a reputation as a shock director. The controversial moves that Sono makes often benefit and suffer simultaneously from his efforts to shock and awe his audience, and "Suicide Club," his best known and most succesful work, is no exception.

"Suicide Club" opens with a gaggle of teenage schoolgirls happily filling towards a busy subway platform in Tokyo, clasping hands, and throwing themselves en masse in front of a moving train, sending bodies parts and blood spatter all over horrified onlookers. This grisly act of collective suicide, rather than an isolated act, appears to be part of a larger wave of suicides gripping Japan, and local detective Kuroda attempts to tackle the case. As the case unfolds, however, Kuroda realizes he may be up against something bigger than a simple fad and that anyone, even Kuroda himself, can become a victim. (GASP!)

The above summary does not at all do justice to Sono's complex plot, which actually completely shifts narrative point of view midway through the film, a feat I found completely brilliant and unsettling. Suffice it to say, Sono is a smart guy and he unleashes the full power of his intellect in creating a storyline that is multilayered and complex, acting as both a gross out horror film, critique of pop culture and a barb directed at Japan's apathetic youth. Surprisingly, Sono is able toconstruct a movie that does all of these things quite well and with style left to burn. My biggest gripe with "Suicide Club," however, is that it does eventually get partially lost in the murk of Sono's own intelligence and the film at times seems to suffer from the weight of its own ambitions. Sono, as already mentioned, is a smart guy and seems to know this full well, which is both beneficial and detrimental at the same time to "Suicide Club." Indeed, although Sono never drifts into the Charlie Kaufman zone of extreme navel gazing where the film becomes purely a vehicle to advertise the filmmakers superior intellect, he does still struggle with bouts of cinematic hubris. Despite this, "Suicide Club" is still a wildly entertaining and completely original work which well deserves the cult like status it currently enjoys.

Sunday, November 23, 2008



Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Those of you who read my blog already know that I'm a big fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa and think that his entire body of work up to the present stacks up to almost any other Asian director currently making movies. His ability to create suspenseful, eery films that are nevertheless beautifully shot and multi-layered to an extent almost unheard of in contemporary film is reason enough to get exited when I run accross any Kuroswa film, even a movie like "Seance" which is widely recognized as one of his lesser works.

Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho plays the role of Sato, a sound engineering leading what appears to be a boringly normal life with his wife Junco, who happens to be a psychic. All appears to be well, albeit it extremely non-eventful, in Sato and Junco's life until they accidently get embroilled in a kidnapping of a local girl gone awry. Rather than reacting trhe way a normal couple would, however, an contacting the authorities with information on the whereabouts of the girl, Junco convinces Sato to devise a scheme which will allow her to showcase her psychic "powers" to the world.

"Seance" is far less complex and also far inferior to Kurosawa's masterwork of suspense, "The Cure" but that doesn't meant that it doesn't have plenty to offer in its own right. Like all of Kurosawa's films, "Seance" is imbued with a creepy mood that is anchored not by creepy music or black bait and switch set pieces but rather through a sophisticated mix of sound and image, giving "Seance" the same type of cold, supernatural aura of films such as "The Cure" and "Doppelganger." "Seance" also follows the Kurosawa mold of peering into the darker corners of the minds of "normal" people, not to reveal them as heartless agents of evil but rather to remind viewers that normality often masks the possibility, if not the willingess, of commiting acts of evil.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Shake Hands with the Devil


Directed by Roger Spottiswoode

Based on general Rome Dallaire's biography of the same name, Roger Spottiswoode's "Shake Hands with the Devil" gives a semi-fictional account of Dallaire's time in Rwanda during the 1994 Rwandan genocide which resulted in the deaths of between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandans, most of them ethnic Tutsis. The genocide was orchestrated by hardline Hutu political leaders who began putting into motion plans to exterminate the country's Tutsi population even as they signed the UN brokered Arusha Accords which were supposed to bring a stop to violence in the country.

"Shake Hands with the Devil" opens with Dallaire beginning his peace keeping mandate in Rwanda only to find out that tensions between the two ethnic groups are already at a breaking point even though the ink on the Arusha Accords is barely dry. Things begin to spiral out of hand when Rwanda's moderate president Juvenal Habyarimana's plane is shot down over Kigali, setting off a rash of violent clases in the capital city. Dallaire soon begings to receive reports of indiscriminate killing of civilians in the capital city and starts looking to the UN for a way to stop the violence. As nyone who has knows anything about the UN is aware, this is always a bad idea since the United Nations has, since it's foundation, done a whole lot of nothing to stop civil strife, ethnic cleansings, or genocide and has been content to sit on its hands in New York City and pass resolutions condemning violence as people die in faraway places. "Shake Hands with the Devil" documents Dallaire's increasing frustration as he tries to get the UN to authorize the use of force to protect his own men as well as Tutsi civilians who are being massacred throughout the country only to find UN officials unreceptive and most western nations only eager to evacuate their own citizens from the country. The film, like Dallaire's book, places the blame fully on the UN for failling to stop the carnage, something it very well could have done with only minimal effort.
The biggest problem with Spottiswoode's film, however, is that it is horribly uneven and seems to struggle to say anything interesting or new about the subject, almost buckling under the weight of all that has been written about it already. In the same way that many films about the Holocaust often seem oddly cold even though they are dealing with an issue that should raise the ire of the viewer simply because so much has been said about the subject already, "Shake Hands with the Devil" comes off simply as a fictionalized account of a very good book which was made into a very good documentary, which it is. Spottiswoode's intentuions are honorable, and Roy Dupuis practically kills himself trying to bring this picture to life, but overall there is a weird lack of passion in the film and it is almost instantly forgetable which, for a film about such a grave topic, it really shouldn't be.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ashes of Time Redux


Directed by Wong Kar Wai

The recent revelation that Wong Kar Wai's "Ashes of Time" was going to be refurbished, re-scored, and re-released in theaters over the Fall was music to many film lovers ears, my own included, seeing as how "Ashes of Time" is one of the most difficult Wong Kar Wai films to actually get ahold of and when one does, in fact, get their mitts on a copy, it's usually a crappy DVD or a scrambled VHS. The possibility of watching one of Wong's films on the big screen was an added bonus and I looked forward to going and seeing this film in theaters and finally did this evening with my long suffering girlfriend.

"Ashes of Time" stands out as a completely unique film in Wong Kar Wai's ouevre in that it is the only one of his films that is a classic martial arts film and is also his only film set outside a specifically urban setting. Indeed, "Ashes of Time," which tells the story of a number of Wong-esque characters grappling with loneliness and love, is set in a sweeping Chinese desert (perhaps the Gobi!?!) which features vast, open spaces the likes of which will never be seen again in a WKW film until the rather unfortunate "My Blueberry Nights." The harsh, windswept desert serves as a backdrop for various characters (played by a veritable who's who of Wong Kar Wai players including both Tony Leungs, Bridget Lin, Carina Lau, Maggie Cheung and the late Lieslie Cheung) who form a variety of complex love triangles, the type of which have since become associated with Wong through film's such as "Days of Being Wild" and "2046." In many ways, "Ashes" is in its plot very similar to Wong's earlier films in its concern with the concepts of loneliness, time, and memory. What has always perplexed me about "Ashes of Time," however, is that it was completed in 1994, the same year as "Chungking Express" and four years after "Days of Being Wild" yet doesn't contain nearly the emotional depth of either work. Indeed, when comparing the three films it seems as if "Ashes" was completed before the two other films since many of the subjects he deals with so well in "Chungking Express" and "Days of Being Wild," he appears to have diffulty communicating to the audience in "Ashes of Time." This may be due to the fact that Wong felt contrained while making a wuxia film and his characters couldn't develop in the same way as they do when Wong sets his stories in his beloved Hong Kong.
Even if "Ashes of Time" is one of Wong Kar Wai' weaker efforts, it is still a satisfying film and contains moments of epic beauty which proved long ago that Wong didn't need to make a film in Hong Kong for it to be visually stunning. I think that one of Wong's enduring legacies whenever he stops making films will be his ability to have made movies that were both cerebral and genuine but anabashedly romantic at the same time, something that Wong in "Ashes of Time" succeeds in doing, albeit to a far lesser degree than in his best work.



Directed by Ho Cheung Pang

I first saw "Isabella" at last year's Fantasia Film Festival and at the time didn't know it was directed by Ho Cheung Pang, director of the excellent "Men Suddenly in Black" and Beyond our Ken" which makes me even more grateful I happened on this film by chance. When I watched it at Fantasia I loved it which was why I was delighted to see it sitting in the DVD racks at the BANQ, albeit graced by one of the gaudiest cover designs I've ever seen.

Unlike "Beyond our Ken" and "Men Suddenly in Black," Ho Cheung Pang this time sets a film in Macau, a welcome changeup from the marvelous but admittedly familiar streets of Hong Kong. The fikm begins scandalously enough as detective Shing, a dirty cop embroiled in a drug smuggling scandal, ends up sleeping with a young lass he met at the bar who, after the deed, informs him that she is in fact his daughter and requires $3,000 to disappear from his life forever. Of course, this isn't a Todd Solondz movie (thank God for that...) so the uneasy incest plotline only stays alive for about five minutes before we find out that, although the young girl is in fact Shing's daughter, they never actually slept together. Phew!
The rest of the film unfolds at a rather leisurely pace, following Shing and his daugher's growing and at times uneasy relationship as the law begins to bear down on Shing for his past crimes, threatening to tear asunder the new bond between father and daughter.

The plotline of "Isabella" is simple enough and no conventions are broken in Ho Cheung Pang's film, which is frankly a good think because he the simplicity of the story allows the film to breathe, in a way. The DP, whoever he is (I was too lazy to check, Ill admit it) does a wonderful job, filling the film with wonderful images and an overall aesthetic that at once recalls Ho Cheung pang's earlier films while being quite unique in it's own right. Much like Ho Cheung Pang's previous work, "Isabella" doesn't seem to be geared towards teaching the audience a particular moral lesson aside from the fact that redemption is possible and humans can get past their problems easier together than alone.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Time is it There?


Directed by Tsai Ming Liang

Tsai Ming Liang is one of Taiwan's major cinematic exports, right along with Edward Yang and Hsou Hisao Hsien. The winner of several major film awards and critically acclaimed accross the globe, Tsai's films deal mostly with alienation and the breakdown of communication within society (or at least I think they do...). His films are also notorious for their languid pacing and sometimes frustrating vagueness, two characteristics that are fully on display in "What time is it there?"

"What time is it there?" opens with the death of the main characters Hsiao Kang's father. Hsiao Kang's mother goes into a rather intense period of mourning while Hsiao Kang copes by trudging through his day to day existence selling watches on the streets of Taipei. While working, he meets Shang-Chyi, a local girl about to leave on vacation to Paris who desperately wants to buy Hsiao Kang's watch since it displays two time zones. Shortly after Shang Chyi's departure, Hsiao Kang, trying to cope with his mother's increasingly eratic behavior, attempts to escape it all by setting every clock in Taipei to Paris time. Meanwhile, in the City of Lights, Shang Chyi is slowly slipping into urban ennui and begins to desperately seek some type of human contact.

Like most of Tsai's films, "What time is it there?" has some brilliant and beautiful moments. The winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival for cinematography, "What time is it there?" is worth watching simply for its beautiful imagery. Tsai also has some worthwhile insight on the value of human contact and on the importance of establishing connections with others, no matter what their relationship may be to us. Loneliness is a fascinating topic in film and Tsai certainly does an admirably job of sketching out a trio of characters who are all dealing with feelings of loneliness and emptiness in their owns ways.

The problem, as is the case with many other of Tsai's films is that the pace of "What time is it there?" more often than not slips from meditative and slow moving to simply mandering and lost. While watching "What time is it there?" I got the same feeling as when I watched Jia Zhangke, namely that I was watching a supreme talent behind the camera who just didn't seem capable of either shouting "Cut!" or working to tighten up his film in the editing room. Many scenes in "What time is it there?" were overlong and, rather than adding to the mood Tsai was obviously attempting to infuse the film with, seriously detracted from it. As stated beforehand, Tsai is a critically acclaimed talent and he certainly has talent to burn when it comes to making movies, but I must say that I unfortunately cannot count myself as one of his admirers.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Eye


Directed by Pang Brothers

Over the last few years I had been hearing from several sources that Thailand's vaunted sibling filmmaker duo the Pang Brothers had been, since the release of their breakthrough horror flick "The Eye," on a steady, unstoppable decline. After finally watching "The Eye," I must honestly say that it is the worst Pang Brothers film I've seen to date and I'm mystified how this film was considered the peak of their career.

"The Eye" opens with Angelica Lee's character (whose name I have since forgotten, unfortunately...) about to receive a cornea transplant to restore her eyesight which she lost as a child. Sounds like a pretty happy beginning but things go awry when Angelica (sorry, I'll have to call her that from now on...) begins to see dark, shadowy figures accompanying people right before their deaths. Could it be that Angelica can now FORESEE people's deaths before they happen? What is in these corneas anyways?
The film attempts to answer these questions and spook us out simultaneously, doing neither very well in the end. "The Eye" does succeed in keeping up a spooky-ish mood but it doesn't sustain it long enough to really give you the hibby-jibbies and the plausibility of the story is not strong enough to really convince the viewer that fear is in order. Most maddeningly of all, however, is that the Pang Brother's visual flair, which was often on display even in their weakest efforts, is nowhere to be seen in "The Eye" which has a strikingly generic presentation throughout.

The Hollywood ramake of this clunker is coming out sometime this year and for once there may be hope that the American remake of an Asian horror films rises above the film it is emulating. Wouldn't that be the day?