VIFF Review Roundoup #3

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In this last installment, we have reviews of:

Hunger
Three Monkeys
Eat, For This Is My Body
Tôkyô!
The Class

Basically, the last of the good. Click on the film’s title to jump directly to the review.

Hunger

Hunger Movie StillThe list of “must sees” at this year’s VIFF was slightly longer than last year’s. As I discover more festivals and track more films, the list of those to keep on the to see pile seems to get longer and Steve McQueen’s Hunger had been on my list for a few months. A trailer which surfaced in May suggested that this was going to be spectacular and I’m thankful to report, the film does not disappoint but not in the way I originally anticipated.

Focusing specifically on Irish Republican Army volunteer Bobby Sands, the film retells the events of the 1981 hunger strike at HM Prison Maze in which Irish Republican prisoners sought to regain Special Category Status. From the opening credits, it’s clear that McQueen isn’t interested in holding back and we’re immediately painted a picture of the flyblown conditions. In the opening few minutes we see a very thin man cowering in a corner of a room with a small window; the walls covered in brown muck, garbage in the corner. A short time later it becomes clear that the brown muck on the walls is feces and that these men have put it there on purpose – their method of strike. It’s evident that this isn’t going to be an easy watch and with every passing minute it’s clear that this isn’t going to end well, something which may not come as a surprise for those familiar with the strike but something which I wasn’t prepared for.

McQueen moves the story along at an intense pace and with every new scene we see more degradation. The conditions are unsanitary, the prisoners badly cared for and among all of this, we meet and see Sands in action. Regardless of political beliefs and affiliations, it’s clear to see why Sands garnered so much support among his brethren. In a brilliant 20 minute, single take conversation with Father Moran, we see the intensity of Sands’ belief and his dedication to “the cause”. Even those unfamiliar with the history and events that led to the hunger strike will quickly come to understand, however vaguely, the constant battle between the IRA and those who didn’t support the cause. Though McQueen gives us this great scene, the other 60 minutes of the film are an exercise in strength of stomach as the audience is subjected to scene after scene of physical abuse and squalor.

Although a harrowing to watch, there is much grace and power in McQueen’s film which interlaces moments of serenity and violence with ease, never letting go the audience’s attention. The intensity of the film is heightened by Michael Fassbender’s performance as Bobby Sands and though Fassbender plays Sands with seriousness and lucidity, I felt a sense of madness just beyond the surface and walking away, I was reminded of Michael Shannon’s brilliant performance in Bug.

Not an easy watch, one distraught woman attempted to leave the theatre 60 minutes in and didn’t quite make it (which added an additional layer to the already disturbing film), Hunger is none the less a film that deserves the big screen treatment for its gorgeously disturbing images and although it’s not recommended for those with weak stomachs, it’s a stunning first feature. McQueen is a director to watch.

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More reviews tucked under the seat!

Three Monkeys

Three Monkeys Movie StillAfter hearing much praise for Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates, I thought it best to catch up with the Turkish director’s most recent offering and though I’m not disappointed at having seen it, Three Monkeys left a lot to be desired.

The film begins with a hit and run. In the next scene we see a man, Eyüp, taking a telephone call in the middle of the night and we soon come to see the relationship between the two. The man responsible for the accident is a politician and he’s called his driver to ask him for a favour: take the fall for the accident and I’ll reward you well. Eyüp agrees to take the fall of his boss’ hit and run, going to jail and leaving his wife and son alone for a long stretch of time but when he is eventually released from prison, the situation is dire; son has gotten himself into a load of trouble and his wife has had an affair with the politician Eyüp went to prison to protect.

It’s not as convoluted as it sounds since Ceylan’s story is merely a vehicle to get at the emotions of the characters. Unfortunately the film fails to connect the audience with said emotions. Though it features excellent performances and is gorgeously shot with the setting and visuals paralleling the internal turmoil Eyüp is suffering through, the film failed to make me feel that turmoil. Yes, it was shown to me (and beautifully to boot) but it was distant, like something happening in a dream, or in this case a nightmare, rather than reality and though I don’t expect to find myself relating to the characters in every film, the lack of a relateable characters in this case, seriously hindered my enjoyment of Ceylan’s film.

Though gorgeous in its expressionist approach to the story, I was neither entertained nor in any way moved by Three Monkeys and the blandness of the story started to wear thin 60 minutes in with an additional 50 to go. Though beautiful, I must admit I’ve lost interest in tracking down Ceylan’s previous films. Here’s hoping the next one is more successful.

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Eat, For This Is My Body

Eat, For This Is My Body Movie StillIt’s been some time since I’ve seen a film as trying as Michelange Quay’s Eat, For This Is My Body but how often does one get the opportunity to see a film from Haiti? That, along with the haunting stills from the film (and a little push) was enough to convince me.

Quay’s film is many things but a narrative film it is not. It dwells heavily on metaphor, imagery and the emotion created by those images but it fails to provide any sort of coherent story. We have two white women, a negro servant and a group of negro children having a food fight (comprised entirely of a white cake) – among some other visuals of which the opening low flying helicopter footage is only the beginning. For Quay it’s very much about the black and white rather than the gray.

I can’t bring myself to recommend this film in any capacity yet, I find myself unable to write it off either. Though it lacks any sort of story it manages to crawl from one un-sequential scene to another taking the viewer along. Perhaps it’s my preconception that Quay has something important to say, which is suggested by the quietly and increasingly more disturbing images, or my inability to accept the fact that I’ve already sat though x amount of minutes but either way, by the time the credits started to roll, Eat, For This Is My Body had twigged a whole lot of race issues.

Though my gut tells me Eat, For This Is My Body would have made a fantastic short film, I find it impossible to conclude that a shorter running time would have the same effect as the barrage of quiet and powerful imagines that consistently attack the audience and I’m not mincing words, this is an attack on the senses but at the end of the day, an effective one. Though not for everyone, this is a powerful film that succeeds in what it sets out to do: show us race relations in a former colony while suggesting that the divide between black and white is as wide now as it has ever been.

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Tôkyô!

Tokyo Movie StillThree visionary directors. Three stories. One city. This could be the tag line for the new anthology film Tôkyô! which, much like 2006’s Paris, je t’aime and the upcoming New York, I Love You, brings together directors each of whom tell their stories which, in some way, say something about the city of Tokyo. I didn’t catch Paris, je t’aime so I’m not quite sure if it follows this same sort of style but Tôkyô! is very cryptic in what the stories say about the city and it takes the keen eye or someone familiar with the city and the culture to grasp the real genious of this film.

It begins with Michel Gondry’s “Interior Design”, the story of a young couple that moves to Tokyo and bunks with a friend in an apartment the size of a bedroom. The boyfriend is a filmmaker trying to make it big while the girlfriend doesn’t seem to do much of anything. The duo goes job hunting: he finds work and she starts searching for an apartment. Things don’t get any better and the couple ends up separating but not for the reason you’d expect. It’s a charming story that is both sweet and sad and Gondry hasn’t been this good in some time. I say he should stick to making more shorts.

Next up is French director Leos Carax whose work I’m unfamiliar with. His segment is hilariously titled “Merde” but it’s far from funny. Dark and moody it features a strange creature who lives in the sewers of Tokyo and over a period of days, makes his way to the surface, terrorizing citizens. It’s brilliantly absurd and though I can’t see what it says about the city, I did find it weirdly entertaining and a little twisted.

The film is closed off by Joon-ho Bong’s (of The Host fame) “Shaking Tokyo” which features a shut-in who falls in love with the pizza delivery girl. What follows is a gorgeously told romance which is sweet and beautiful.

Tôkyô! is entertaining but walking away, I couldn’t see the connection of the stories to the city other than he fact that they all take place there but speaking to a friend who was at the screening and had lived in Tokyo, I came to realize that the film does say a fair bit about both the city and the culture. Take, for example, Bong’s story of a shut-in. On the surface, it’s a simple romance but apparently, it gets at the point that in Tokyo, being a shut-in is easy since everything can be ordered in. So aside from simply being fun, Tôkyô! also provides, for those who are familiar with the culture, an insightful look at the metropolis and the people that inhabit it.

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The Class

The Class Movie StillThough Laurent Cantet’s The Class may have snuck up as the surprise winner at Cannes earlier this year, it’s not likely to sneak up on any other audiences and for good reason: it’s excellent.

Directed by Cantet based on François Bégaudeau’s novel and scrip, the film follows a teacher, played by Bégaudeau and based on his experiences as a teacher, and his French class (the equivalent of our English classes) in a suburb of Paris. It’s a mostly ethnic neighbourhood of low to medium income families and essentially, the class provides a cross section of what one can expect not just from schools in France but from an average school anywhere. The Class is like an updated, realistic version of Dangerous Minds except that between the shooting style and the performances, it feels more real than anything in John N. Smith’s glamorized “based on a true story” feature.

Shot over a period of a school year, the film takes a class of students and manages to capture their unique personalities. You’ve got the jock, the brown noser, the know it all, the quiet diligent student; they’re all here and though they all fit within the categories ascribed to them, they all feel eerily reminiscent of people you’d expect to find in any classroom, probably because they are real students. Though the film captures the students wonderfully, the real story is with Bégaudeau who tries to provide the students with a casual atmosphere while still getting to the tasks at hand but when things go wrong, we don’t see things neatly falling into place. At one point Bégaudeau is confronted with the fact that he compares two students to skanks. It’s an extreme situation but seeing the events leading up the confrontation, there’s a feeling that this could very well happen, especially when one considers the corner into which he is painted. The problem doesn’t simply go away, Bégaudeau has to deal with it and in the process, we come to see that he is no saint: he’s only human and a teacher trying to do what’s right.

The Class is nothing short of brilliant and a perfect embodiment of cinéma vérité. It doesn’t get much more real than this and one of the film’s major coup is the fact that the story, characters and location can be transplanted anywhere and still be relevant. This is more poignant than most documentaries about modern schooling and one that provides an insightful look at the realities of education. An engrossing, emotional and occasionally funny film, The Class is deserving of its accolades.

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Marina Antunes
Fassbender for life.