Sunday, February 27, 2011

2010 in Review: The Ten Best Films of the Year

While I'm well aware that 2011 has been going for eight solid weeks now, it takes this long to gain relatively comprehensive viewing of everything 2010 had to offer. As it happens, that turned out be a lot, even if it was heavily reliant upon European arthouse gems, animated features, and savvy documentaries. As usual, my criteria for a "2010 film" means one that was released theatrically, in any country, in 2010. To demonstrate how this differs from other assessments: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," were it worthy of any championing, would be a 2009 film by my rules, as it first played over in Scandinavia two years ago today.

In the next week I intend to write up a review of the Oscars, an assessment of the year in general, and cite what I see as its major acting and technical achievements. For now, here's what I feel represented the best films of 2010, along with also-worthy offerings that didn't quite make the cut:

1. "The Illusionist"
2. "October Country"
3. "Blue Valentine"
4. "Poetry"
5. "Life During Wartime"
6. "The Fighter"
7. "Toy Story 3"
9. "How to Train Your Dragon"
10. "The Social Network"

Runners-Up: "Animal Kingdom," "Black Swan," "Catfish," "Easier With Practice," "Exit through the Gift Shop," "Last Train Home," "On Tour," "Potiche"

Friday, February 25, 2011

Final Oscar Predictions: Part 2/2

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

"127 Hours"
"The Social Network"
"Toy Story 3"
"True Grit"
"Winter's Bone"

Predicted Winner: "The Social Network"
My Favourite: "The Social Network"

Writing (Original Screenplay)

"Another Year"
"The Fighter"
"The Kids Are All Right"
"The King's Speech"

Predicted Winner: "The King's Speech"
My Favourite: "The Fighter"

The screenplays are pretty much a done deal. I still think "The Social Network" is way stronger than any of its competitors, and Aaron Sorkin has too much respect to lose.

Actor in a Leading Role

Javier Bardem in "Biutiful"
Jeff Bridges in "True Grit"
Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network"
Colin Firth in "The King's Speech"
James Franco in "127 Hours"

Predicted Winner: Colin Firth, "The King's Speech"
My Favourite: Jesse Eisenberg, "The Social Network"

I think this category is eminently improvable, but Firth is a decent winner.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Christian Bale in "The Fighter"
John Hawkes in "Winter's Bone"
Jeremy Renner in "The Town"
Mark Ruffalo in "The Kids Are All Right"
Geoffrey Rush in "The King's Speech"

Predicted Winner: Christian Bale, "The Fighter"
My Favourite: John Hawkes, "Winter's Bone"

Rush only wins if a big sweep happens, which I don't think it will. Bale has everything going for him as an Oscar candidate, and Dickie has significantly more impact as a character than Lionel Logue.

Actress in a Leading Role

Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All Right"
Nicole Kidman in "Rabbit Hole"
Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone"
Natalie Portman in "Black Swan"
Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine"

Predicted Winner: Natalie Portman, "Black Swan"
My Favourite: Nicole Kidman, "Rabbit Hole"

It would be rather amusing watching the celebrity mags guffaw over a loss for the blushing Natalie Portman (she's PREGNANT, wouldn't you know?) but even I can't really justify a Bening triumph (either qualitatively, or prognostically.)

Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams in "The Fighter"
Helena Bonham Carter in "The King's Speech"
Melissa Leo in "The Fighter"
Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit"
Jacki Weaver in "Animal Kingdom"

Predicted Winner: Melissa Leo, "The Fighter"
My Favourite: Jacki Weaver, "Animal Kingdom"

The interesting category, which unfortunately should be over fairly early in the ceremony. Unless they're somehow aware that this one's a closely-fought battle. I suspect it's less close than people think, because no one woman has been able to mount a challenge against Leo's precursor-winning trashy Mom turn. Maybe Helena at a push, but I don't see it happening.


Darren Aronofsky, "Black Swan"
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "True Grit"
David Fincher, "The Social Network"
Tom Hooper, "The King's Speech"
David O. Russell, "The Fighter"

Predicted Winner: Tom Hooper, "The King's Speech"
My Favourite: David O. Russell, "The Fighter"

I don't want to predict this, but I feel I must. I will admit that the rare occasions that DGA has not correlated with Oscar, it's usually been for more well-known directors, and Hooper hasn't really managed to win anything beyond that guild prize. But still, you sense that there is an awful lot of love for this film, and Fincher himself doesn't project much likeability.

Best Picture

"Black Swan"
"The Fighter"
"The Kids Are All Right"
"The King's Speech"
"127 Hours"
"The Social Network"
"Toy Story 3"
"True Grit"
"Winter's Bone"

Predicted Winner: "The King's Speech"
My Favourite: "The Fighter"

This seems nailed on now.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Final Oscar Predictions: Part 1/2

It's difficult to believe that "The Hurt Locker" took home the Best Picture prize almost a year ago, but here we are again. I always love Awards Season, but these last few weeks have seemed particularly long, tumultuous, and bitter, so it'll be kind of a welcome relief when we have a whole host of OTHER films to talk about.

For now, here are my final Oscar predictions for the fourteen categories that aren't the perceived "big eight":

Animated Feature

"How to Train Your Dragon"
"The Illusionist"
"Toy Story 3"

Predicted Winner: "Toy Story 3"
My Favourite: "The Illusionist"

The single best year for this category will surely see a repeat of last year's "Up" winning, crowning "Toy Story" in consolation for their expected loss in the Best Picture category. The nomination is the reward.

Art Direction

"Alice in Wonderland"
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"
"The King's Speech"
"True Grit"

Predicted Winner: "The King's Speech"
My Favourite: "Inception"

I'm holding off on predicting a Speech sweep, but this should be one of the easier gets for the period piece.

"Black Swan," Matthew Libatique
"Inception," Wally Pfister
"The King's Speech," Danny Cohen
"The Social Network," Jeff Cronenweth
"True Grit," Roger Deakins

Predicted Winner: "True Grit"
My Favourite: "Black Swan"

It could go to Cohen (god forbid) or Pfister (up-and-comer) but doesn't it seem like it's Deakins turn by now? The film probably won't win anything else.

Costume Design

"Alice in Wonderland," Colleen Atwood
"I Am Love," Antonella Cannarozzi
"The King's Speech," Jenny Beavan
"The Tempest," Sandy Powell
"True Grit," Mary Zophres

Predicted Winner: "Alice in Wonderland"
My Favourite: "I Am Love"

It's Atwood or Beavan, but they like SHOWY.

Documentary Feature

"Exit through the Gift Shop"
"Inside Job"
"Waste Land"

Predicted Winner: "Waste Land"
My Favourite: "Exit through the Gift Shop"

Perhaps the case of a split? Inside Job's topic is formal, and Exit's is too out-there. Word on Waste Land is that it's a crowd-pleaser, so why not?

Documentary (Short Subject)

"Killing in the Name"
"Poster Girl"
"Strangers No More"
"Sun Come Up"
"The Warriors of Qiugang"

Predicted Winner: "Poster Girl"

Judging from the themes of each doc, Poster or Strangers seem the most sympathetic. Children in a school, or fallen war hero? Plumming for the latter.

Film Editing

"Black Swan," Andrew Weisblum
"The Fighter," Pamela Martin
"The King's Speech," Tariq Anwar
"127 Hours," Jon Harris
"The Social Network," Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter

Predicted Winner: "The Social Network"
My Favourite: "The Social Network"

Going to go for this, because I only think the film will win 1 or 2 awards elsewhere.

Foreign Language Film

"Biutiful" (Mexico)
"Dogtooth" (Greece)
"In a Better World" (Denmark)
"Incendies" (Canada)
"Outside the Law" (Algeria)

Predicted Winner: "In a Better World"
My Favourite: "Dogtooth"

"Biutiful" and "Incendies" are both unrelentingly heavy, and without a great deal of sentiment. I think they'll go for Susanne Bier's film.

Original Score

"How to Train Your Dragon," John Powell
"Inception," Hans Zimmer
"The King's Speech," Alexandre Desplat
"127 Hours," A.R. Rahman
"The Social Network," Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Predicted Winner: "The King's Speech"
My Favourite: "How to Train Your Dragon"

Original Song

"Coming Home," from "Country Strong"
"I See the Light," from "Tangled"
"If I Rise," from "127 Hours"
"We Belong Together," from "Toy Story 3"

Predicted Winner: "Country Strong"
My Favourite: None of them.


"Barney's Version"
"The Way Back"
"The Wolfman"

Predicted Winner: "The Wolfman"

The most obvious styling of the bunch.

Short Film (Animated)

"Day and Night"
"The Gruffalo"
"Let's Pollute"
"The Lost Thing"
"Madagascar, a Journey Diary"

Predicted Winner: "Day and Night"


Short Film (Live Action)

"The Confession"
"The Crush"
"God of Love"
"Na Wewe"
"Wish 143"

Predicted Winner: "Wish 143"


Sound Editing

"Toy Story 3"
"Tron: Legacy"
"True Grit"

Predicted Winner: "Inception"
My Favourite: "Inception"

Sound Mixing

"The King's Speech"
"The Social Network"
"True Grit"

Predicted Winner: "Inception"
My Favourite: "Salt"

Visual Effects

"Alice in Wonderland"
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"
"Iron Man 2"

Predicted Winner: "Inception"

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Review of Incendies (Villeneuve, 2011)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Lubna Azabal, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz
Grade: C+

Oscar’s Foreign Language committee this year selected “Incendies,” the latest project of Canadian-born Denis Villeneuve (Maelström, Polytechnique) as one of its five nominated picks. The film first premiered as part of the Critics Week at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and has since gone on to showings at Toronto, and more recently Sundance. “Incendies,” which translates from French as “fire,” follows in the mould of Villeneuve’s previous forays into personal self-discovery (particularly of women) and the cultural hybridism which makes us who we are.

After the death of their mother Nawal, twin siblings Jeanne and Simon are read her will, which states that she’d like them to travel to the Middle East to find their estranged father and brother. Carrying resentment towards his mother, Simon’s immediate reaction is hostile, but Jeanne is eminently more curious about her ambiguous upbringing, and so abandons her studies in search of answers. The film features extended flashbacks of Nawal searching for the son she had as a teenager, and how she is led into a world of criminality and shame. As Jeanne ventures on her journey she finds herself taking a path parallel to Nawal’s, and as the film interchanges between each woman’s stories, the murkier elements of their family history are revealed.

Despite there not being many specific locations in the film, “Incendies” possesses a surprisingly powerful sense of visual scope, heavily aided by the methods of director Villeneuve. He exercises an assured ease of storytelling; unfussy and simple across sparse terrain, effective in drawing us into a scene and generous in allowing us to recognise where we are in his puzzling wilderness. Save for some liberal use of Radiohead tunes, “Incendies” bears a mythical aesthetic refinement, and without seeming at all over-stylised or idyllic. It meshes well with the general uncertainty of the characters and their quest for closure, the large desolate expanses alluding to a realm of unknown possibility.

“Incendies” is comparable with Julian Schnabel’s Miral in terms of structure, depicting women in search of solace at the same points in their life, but in different points in time. While Schnabel’s film toys with that structure to tremendous self-detriment, the way “Incendies” runs its old and new story strands parallel to one another enhances our view of the women, and ties the film’s themes together well through cross-generational relativity. It’s an astutely interdependent way of presenting Jeanne’s cultural homecoming, how in retracing her mother’s steps they share some form of cyclical, realised strength. We don’t really know much about Jeanne’s character, since she becomes a passive component of a deluge of revelations, but the fact that we’re undergoing this Middle Eastern learning curve with her allows us to somewhat identify with her naïve, misunderstood outlook on heritage and belonging.

The film’s key misfires emerge when it comes to generating drama; effective certainly, but flagrant and undeniably contrived. A scene in which Nawal is the only survivor of a massacre reeks of religious symbolism and doesn’t fit well within the grand scheme of things. Worse still, the final discovery in the film is an emotionally manipulative device that feels orchestrated to make “Incendies” feel that bit more impacting as a dramatic showcase. All this revelation does is leave a bitter taste in the mouth, and ensures that the film has straddled both the sublime and the ridiculous. For long periods “Incendies” is basically a heavy-set version of reality television show “Who Do You Think You Are?” providing genealogical information as its primary dramatic impetus. It’s an interesting way of relaying exposition, but, considering the rather aimless way in which Jeanne embarks on this journey, there’s an awful lot of amateur-sleuthing going on. It’s somewhat remarkable, for example, how she so fortunately stumbles upon key figures of her mother’s past without really encountering any resistance to her cause.

The encroaching impression you get while watching “Incendies” is that it has somewhat taken the easy way out; that by making the entire film a slow-burning discovery, all of the major plot points are mapped-out so that we can’t really challenge them. This has already “happened,” therefore we’re supposed to accept it? Once Jeanne has learned all that she can about her family it becomes clear that the film has always been working towards this dark emotional payoff, promoting the expanse of its cultural network before then asserting that “It’s a small world after all.” The sensationalist culmination detracts from the natural feel of the film, and disappointingly undermines the patience with which it documents Jeanne’s cultural enlightenment.

Villeneuve’s visual flair makes “Incendies” more of a compelling mystery than it really ought to be, ambitious in terms of structure and theme, but far too rash with its dramatic devices. Above all, it makes you think about this family; why this mother was so alienated from her children, and is so well-crafted overall that the late, arrogant element of surprise feels like a betrayal. Is this manipulation part of a desperate ploy to shock? Either way, the fire analogy rings true: the lost souls of “Incendies” suffer severe burns, but sadly, so do we.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Review of The Whistleblower (Kondracki, 2011)

The Whistleblower
Directed by Larysa Kondracki
Starring: Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, Vanessa Redgrave, Roxana Condurache, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Monica Bellucci
Grade: C –

Larysa Kondracki’s issue-driven “The Whistleblower” emerges at an opportune time to raise public awareness, since the issue of sex trafficking has been particularly prevalent in the news lately. Kondracki’s directorial debut received its premiere in Toronto this past September, and will likely make its way into Western cinemas in the second half of 2011. It features Rachel Weisz in a role that resembles in nature her Oscar-winning performance as a humanitarian activist in 2005’s The Constant Gardener and establishes an eminently happier ending for her character here.

“The Whistleblower” is the real-life account of Kathryn Bolkovac (Weisz), who encountered and exposed a large-scale cover-up of sex trafficking in post-war Bosnia. Assigned to a peacekeeping role in 1999, Kathryn excels, successfully securing a domestic violence conviction, and attracting the attention of women’s rights advocate Madeleine Rees (Redgrave). Madeleine offers her a job heading a branch of the United Nations, which she accepts despite her keenness to move back closer to her ex-husband and teenage daughter.

When Kathryn’s position leads her to a raid on a local bar, she discovers two beaten girls, who later confide in her that they have been trafficked into the country under false pretences. Acting swiftly to assess the severity of the situation Kathryn finds herself under pressure from senior figures, and her attempts to address this issue and enact justice are continually thwarted by internal conspiracies and community kingpins. The dawning conclusion is that this is a far bigger web of corruption than anticipated, which reaches beyond the confines of her department and involves many of her colleagues in the UN.

Aesthetically severe, “The Whistleblower” has elements which hark back to Lukas Moodysson’s alarming Lilya-4-Ever, concerning the ease at which young girls can be lured into the sex trade. The women are splayed across grubby scenery, presented in lewd images of torture, and engaged in particularly harrowing depictions of sexual abuse. Impassioned first-time director Kondracki has amped up the degradation well, but is far more competent at instigating shock through de-humanising imagery than developing insight into the underlying factors that have propelled the women into such a compromising position. Kondracki litters the film with confined close-ups of victimised souls (whether that be Weisz or one of her women) in dingy apartments, exercising a brand of sinkhole cinema that gives us little idea of the surrounding community or the network of criminality which governs it. External shots and neutral surrounding scenes would certainly aid this problem in providing scope, but the real problems lie in the muddled, wafer-thin script.

“The Whistleblower” has been written in the vein of a political disquisition; coursing through an unambitiously lineated narrative path to justice with few interesting dramatic shifts or relationships to speak of. It’s assumingly political, thematically brave, but seminally lacking in cinematic worth to justify existence beyond the duty of the documentarian. The attempts to branch off from the main strand are so terribly underdeveloped, featuring a back-story for one of the trafficked girls which tells us virtually nothing about their way of life other than “domestic violence is commonplace.” The film is constantly re-iterating this same theme without truly making these families accessible, reproaching their frayed relationships with pale single-mindedness. The villains of the piece aren’t sketched with any more shade either, recalling the two-dimensional depictions of corporate and ego-centric opposition to justice that we saw in last year’s Green Zone — albeit without a performance quite as bad as Greg Kinnear’s. Even Kathryn’s allies, the chief of which comes in the form of political-humanist project stalwart Vanessa Redgrave — who waltzes into scenes in an array of dinky hats to dole out solemn advice — hardly convince us that they know what they’re talking about.

If nothing else, “The Whistleblower” at least places us firmly on the side of justice, and expresses the procedural difficulties encountered when facing corruption through emotive force rather than boardroom chatter. A scene where Kathryn is trying to persuade one of the girls to go into protective custody with her, while one of her corrupt colleagues is intimidating the girl in the same room, is a particular highlight in terms of rousing our emotion. Kathryn’s palpable frustration at being continually undermined in her profession is laid bare, and her fury at the dissolving degree of control she has over these women is one of the film’s more emotionally honest moments. Weisz too is good in this scene, and fine overall, despite being shoehorned into the Charlize Theron/North Country role of battling sexual discrimination and political injustice while simultaneously trying to rescue a relationship with her family.

Kathryn’s familial difficulties are outlined in three moments: where she clutches a letter of rejection to her state police transfer request; where she cries during a telephone conversation with her daughter, and when she’s asked by a diplomat why the courts gave custody of her child to the father because that’s “so unusual.” The final instance of this trio of unthinkably lame methods of lumping a murky history onto our professionally-compromised heroine asserts that Kondracki really doesn’t have a handle on who Bolkovac was at this time, apart from a troubled divorcee (for reasons unbeknownst to us) and a valiant crusader. At one point Kathryn even cites her daughter as a reason for defending these young girls, as if the mere issue itself weren’t enough to capture all of her moralistic fibre.

As a political thriller of sorts, “The Whistleblower” is a tired venture, content to place its subject on a pedestal (like a documentary would) without endeavouring to make the story cinematic, or allude to the motivations of the characters involved on both sides. It feels strangely throttled as a conversation piece, with half-hearted attempts at generating interest beyond an historical timeline — all of which are rendered irrelevant anyway. There’s surely passion behind this project, but it’s made with such colourless labour that it’s difficult to care about what’s presented on screen, and almost impossible to recognise who Bolkovac was in the first place. Stick to the news.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Susan Hayward

Susan Hayward in "With a Song in My Heart"
Lost the 1952 Best Actress Oscar to Shirley Booth in "Come Back, Little Sheba"

Grade: **

During one of our recent Twitter conversations about Susan Hayward, James Henry, of Rants of a Diva, observed that even her "bad" performances are interesting. This philosophy perhaps best applies to her turn in Walter Lang's "With a Song in My Heart," in which she plays Jane Froman, a woman who juggles physical ailments and love triangles throughout her successful singing career. The opposing outcomes of Jane's personal and professional life do little to distill the fact that Walter Lang's film has relatively little to say as a biopic, content to become a glorified concert consisting of old favourites, a new title track designed to pluck at the heartstrings, and some blatant nationalist pandering.

As capable an actress as she is, I've continually felt that Hayward's exertion of effort is often her wrongdoing, much too eager to implant empathy with outward physical elasticity rather than introspective thought. It feels as if she's trying to win us over too much with her shifting, overly-inclusive "poor me" expressions, and one may even be forgiven for thinking that there are only two gears to Hayward's characterisation of Jane: the charismatic entertainer, and the sacrificial victim. It's a bit more than that, but the structure of the film hinders her impact considerably, and it appears as if she's modulating too plainly between vulnerability and heroism.

The bright spots occur in the romantic strand of the narrative, where Hayward telegraphs the fear of loss (not just of her leg, or career, but of her marriage) well, and does a fine job of conveying Jane's affection for romantic interest John, while simultaneously fostering guilt for their mere association. In truth, these scenes are too few, far-between, and estranged from what the filmmakers are concerned with, that there's little real opportunity to string an effective characterisation together. Far too much of "With a Song in My Heart" is dedicated to the musical aspect, and sadly the songs which Hayward must perform bear scant resemblance to Jane's actual concerns.

Hayward can't utilise the musical address to create any lasting poignancy in the proceedings, her deep voice perfectly competent, but lacking emotional register. The final act, in which she visits and performs for American troops, allows her to show more character and attitude, but both her and the film give no indication as to whether Jane is eager or fearful to return to her homeland. It's an altogether puzzling anti-climax to the production, unambiguous in theme (if not narrative) and typifies the failings of an actress and story which surely bore more promise.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A Review of He's My Girl (Zilbermann, 2009)

He’s My Girl
Directed by Jean-Jacques Zilbermann
Starring: Antoine de Caunes, Mehdi Dehbi, Elsa Zylberstein, Judith Magre, Micha Lescot, Taylor Gasman
Grade: C

Written for Subtitled Online:

It's been over a decade since Antoine de Caunes broke through the French cinema barrier with a starring role in Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s Man is a Woman. Zilbermann and De Caunes -- who earned a Cesar nomination for his depiction of closeted, married gay man Simon Eskenazy – return with “He’s My Girl,” a sequel which sees Simon much more settled in his new life, and with significantly different emotional problems to conquer.

While “Man is a Woman” was primarily about Simon confronting homosexuality, the allusion of gender play in “He’s My Girl” is a reference to Simon’s current on/off male lover Naim (Dehbi), who dresses up as a waitress for a local entertainment venue. In their early scenes together Simon appears to be tiring of Naim and his slender, feminine frame, coolly sending him packing the morning after a sleepover. He seems much more concerned with courting the affections of young student Raphael, who’s in a relationship with a woman but clearly struggling with his sexuality.

Simon is forced to address his living situation when his mother Bella (Magre) injures herself in a fall and moves into his home to recover. While he himself grows resentful of her presence there Naim develops a bond with Bella, managing to convince her that he is a female law student, and eventually becomes the woman’s full-time live-in nurse. Simon’s life is further complicated by the arrival of his estranged famous ex-wife Rosalie (Zylberstein) and Jewish convert son Yankele (Gasman), who come back into his life while on a visit from New York.

Simon’s existential crisis ceases to be about sexuality itself, but rather how to embark upon a lifestyle change, and the difficulties of trading in one rulebook for another. There’s a definite charm about “He’s My Girl” in the way that it doesn’t milk its characters’ faults to generate humour, more whimsically comedic as a film of little manners, rather in the vein of 1978’s La cage aux folles. It’s admirably never overwrought or gaudy with the more serious elements of the narrative, keen to focus on the intricacies of Simon’s interaction with the people in his life, hinting at the reasons why those relationships are frayed by interspersing their exchanges with sprightly quips and tense glances.

The general disappointment of the film lies is in how alarmingly ordinary it feels, even as it portrays a fanciful, occasionally interesting view of family-life. Essentially, it has a very conventional narrative, bearing overly familiar tropes of the selfishness of the bachelor; his inability to fully commit to the people around him, and a general dearth of emotional intelligence. While it maintains a flavour of camp, “He’s My Girl” can’t escape the pitfalls of compartmentalising its central character into a vain male paranoid jerk, who is only capable of realising what he wants when everybody else in his life bends over backwards to tell him. The film is by no means exceptionally offensive in the way that it telegraphs this philosophy, but nevertheless lacks real insight into the crux of Simon’s disconnection, surrounding him with people who rarely challenge the status quo.

“He’s My Girl” debilitates in impact by being too non-committal about its characters (ironic since it’s about a non-committal man in the first place), and seems continually afraid to create genuine dramatic conflict amidst this cavalcade of people who have no idea how they stand with one another. This becomes particularly clear in the weak final act, where the film admirably doesn’t make Simon’s epiphany too clear-cut, but leads us to speculate how big of an ‘epiphany’ this is in the first place. While De Caunes is introspectively thoughtful, his character’s arc is so uninteresting, and the ensemble exhibits such a conciliatory lack of self-respect that it’s difficult to care about them at all. The weakly-conceived eventualities in the script make us dubious about how things will be better for Simon; how on earth the communication issues in his life can be resolved.

‘Competency’ shouldn’t be the primary attribute for a follow-up that promised to be so colourful, but however much “He’s My Girl” does the basics right, coaxing an able performance from De Caunes, and relative newcomer Dehbi, there’s an overall slightness to the film’s themes. It’s a slow-burning flaky, ineffectual tale that finds solace in not rupturing the products of the first film, without building solidly upon it, and feels strangely like a sitcom pilot with its ephemeral storm-in-a-teacup attitude to melodrama. Confidently-played, but limply finalised, “He’s My Girl” represents a fine look at the life of a perpetually unsettled man, but one ultimately wonders whether it’s more of a shrewd capitalisation than a natural necessity.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

A Review of Confessions of a Dog (Takahashi, 2009)

Confessions of a Dog (2009)
Directed by Gen Takahashi
Starring: Shun Sugata, Harumi Inoue, Jun’ichi Kawamoto, Kunihiko Ida
Grade: B -

The DVD cover of "Confessions of a Dog" is emblazoned with the words, “banned in Japan,” a false claim which nevertheless mirrors the film’s struggle for justice. The political motivation behind Director Gen Takahashi’s barely-allegorical story of corruption within the Japanese police force is evident in this brazen marketing ploy, and certainly in its scathing depiction of bureaucracy. This three-hour-plus indictment of a state’s entire justice system spans several years, and is based upon the investigative work of Yu Terasawa, a journalist who has since campaigned against pro-police propaganda and for amendment to the way that the service is overseen.

The themes of the film are mainly chronicled through Takeda (Sugata), who begins as a lowly neighbourhood officer and eventually rises to a powerful Detective position in the force, with the help of a tyrannical Chief Inspector. Despite some early scepticism Takeda becomes a mentee of the Inspector and heavily involved in his questionable mode of operation, which entails of physical intimidation, bribes, and appeasing gangsters who serve him best. He also adopts the untouchable attitude which many of the officers in the film demonstrate, an arrogance that extends to bully-tactics, drugs, infidelity, and a general distancing of his familial relationships, content to ply his wife and child with corrupt money instead of giving them emotional affection.

Increasingly frustrated with the police’s conditional attitude towards crime, renegade Kusama (Kawamoto) seeks to uncover their ways and expose them publicly, first happening upon a photo which demonstrates their laissez-faire attitude towards drugs, and then filming a fake gun-siege designed to enhance the force’s reputation. He and photographer Chiyoko attempt to use Chiyoko’s links with a prominent newspaper to force the issue into the public sphere, but later resort to more desperate measures in the heart of the city’s criminal underworld.

As a social commentary Confessions is incredibly single-minded in its view of the Japanese police, setting up situations designed to flaunt their exploitation of power. In the first scene, a young cop collars a teenage girl for not being at college, in the hopes of eventually seducing her, only to be prevented from doing so by an aghast Takeda. The scene is repeated later in a different form, as an inebriated citizen is cruelly cajoled into sub-consciously committing a crime he ordinarily wouldn’t. They are juxtaposed as the first scene of two acts, as the film is split either side of an invisible intermission that simply reads “Five years later.”

Even if the flash-forward narrative device reads as a mechanism of stretching the story to create a bigger, somewhat falsified level of scope, the decision to make the second half of the film feel more of a product of the first is definitely a wise one. There’s an element of Godfather-style ethics to Confessions; that protecting the brethren of policemen, judges, and officials will allow this breed of law enforcement to be preserved. Takahashi’s success comes from emulating that film’s insight into mafia reverence of trust, and the volatile barriers between inclusivity and exclusivity that are bound by psychological impulse. In the end, however, the film has more in common with Lumet’s Serpico in the way that Takeda ultimately suffers for realising the extent of damage his profession is having on his city’s infrastructure - just as Al Pacino’s cop did in the 1973 classic. Visually the film also bears more Lumet traits, assuredly dense without being so off-putting, and visually thoughtful in its confined, dour depiction of seedy illegality. Its final, arresting scene captures this influence more than any other, capping its assessment of the devolved nature of state protection with a harrowingly regressive image of a man’s final fall from grace.

The main issue with Confessions is that it reiterates this point without altering the dynamic between the characters, so we don’t necessarily see things shifting for ourselves – just a “before” and “after”. It consistently spurns opportunities to create new dilemmas for its characters, or chart their descent into profligates in fresher terms. We aren’t encouraged enough to delve deeper into the lives of college dropouts burgeoning into power, or explore their moral consciences — and even when we are, a particularly severe act of violence by previously naïve local beat cop Kunii comes as such a radical about-turn that it is difficult to take seriously. The instantaneous indoctrination of these men expose the too-freely-integrated motivations of the project, crudely manifested in some of its characterisation. It reads as much too eager to initiate a rebel-rousing rally cry, intent on making us sit up and listen by focusing predominantly on indefensible action and general injustice.

Kusama’s strand of the narrative is easier to digest, and his relationship with Chiyoko gets much more convincing in the film’s second half. Ironically, Confessions succeeds more in its portrayal of outsiders to the police force than the members of this insular racket, considerably less definite about these people and therefore less preachy or overwrought. The film owes a great deal of its intermittent success as an internal affairs drama to Shun Sugata, particularly compelling scenery-chewer Takeda in the second half of the film, and without being as cartoonish an orchestrator of villainy as his Inspector predecessor.

"Confessions of a Dog" is a mammoth, meaty slice of crime drama, which is too long for what it essentially contributes. It bears a vehemently sure sense of direction that carries it through its sketchier moments, but requires more intrigue, variation, and a bigger network of characters to truly make the most of the running time. Projects like this are probably reserved for the term “ambitious failure” but as long as people see it, one doubts Takahashi will care. The primary purpose of Confessions is to educate, and it definitely does that.

"Confessions of a Dog" is being screened at the ICA Cinema in London on Wednesday 16th February, and is released on DVD on March 14.