Friday, October 30, 2009

Favourite Films of the Decade #9 - Irreversible

What happens when a filmmaker wants to beat the shit out of his audience? Not just give them a grueling experience, but fuck them up for life? Gaspar Noe's masterpiece in nihilistic filmmaking, Irreversible, is the film equivalent of a drop kick to the face into a vat of acid while your significant other makes sweet love to a close relative.

There's a quote I quite like from Chan-wook Park that goes, "I don't feel enjoyment watching films that evoke passivity. If you need that kind of comfort why wouldn't you go to a spa?". I may not agree with him 100% of the time, I love the odd mind numbing movie, but I certainly love me some dark, dark stuff as well. I get a certain type of enjoyment when I can feel emotions that I don't ever want to experience in real life within the safety of a film. Once the film is over and the emotions wear off you have either learned a valuable lesson, seen a different worldview or just had an experience that isn't easily duplicated (and in Irreversible's case, thankfully so).

Noe does all in his power to assault the audience with his film. There is an ever moving sweeping camera seemingly designed to induce vomiting, a sound design laced with white noise that police use to end hostage situations and a script with atrocities committed with and without consequence. But behind these shock tactics is a filmmaker with something to say. Life isn't fair, and neither is Irreversible.

The film starts in chaos (following a little cameo by our friend The Butcher from I Stand Alone and Carne. Why wasn't he in Enter the Void Noe!?) as we enter The Rectum, a gay S & M sex club, and our 2 crazed male leads hunt down "The Tapeworm". What follows isn't for those with weak constitutions, but anyone who entered the film by accident (I remember when I went to see John Hillcoat's The Proposition, there was an old couple beside me wondering why Kenneth Branaugh hadn't showed up. I guess it happens) hopefully will have fled by then. There be mucho gay S & M sex before any of the really rough stuff starts.

We soon realize the film is being told in reverse (so it is reversible!) and what we have is essentially a rape/revenge film viewed in a different light, where we see the revenge before we see the crime. That's a pretty cool idea in it's own right, but add to that Noe's distinctive, though nihilistic voice, tons of style and great performances and you have a must see in my humble (that's fuckin' right, humble motherfucker!) yet correct opinion. The three central characters are Alex (Monica Bellucci) who is dating Marco (Vincent Cassel) and the third wheel and Alex's former boyfriend Pierre (Albert Dupontel). The viewer is meant to sympathize with Pierre, the sensitive ex boyfriend, as he tags along with macho and prickish Marco and Alex. He obviously still pines for her, but hides it in order to still be with her even if it's only as a friend. And it's obvious he is so much better for her than that Marco cretin! Sounds like something out of a romantic comedy, don't it? With Noe's expert handling of the material and all the actor's great performances it seems very real and not at all manipulative. The way their stories end (which is at the beginning, but I'll still avoid spoiling anything) is heartbreaking as more and more is revealed about their characters. We see them at their worst at the beginning of the film, and the more that is revealed on how they got there, it becomes clear that the way the story is being told makes perfect sense. Unlike most stories, once the crime is committed, the character essentially becomes their crime, where in this, their crime becomes a character (hopefully that makes sense).

Much has been said about the long and unflinching rape scene and I really won't add much more than to say I definitely admired Noe in his attempt to give the audience absolutely no thrills during the scene and it's a troubling and disturbing scene to watch. With no edits and a single wide shot, the audience suffers through the scene, which seems right. It is rape after all (well... pretend rape, but in the context of the movie).

At the screening I saw at the Toronto Film Festival, it seemed that a lot of the audience I was overhearing sounded more like they were going on a roller coaster ride rather than seeing a film. Irreversible's reputation seemed to precede it and it sounded like some people were there more to test their stamina and endurance rather than having a genuine interest in the subject matter. I believe that though Noe did his best to command your attention, when an audience member goes in already resisting getting involved with a film it also makes a film harder to like. If you watch any film as an outsider I don't think you can get the same out of it, though it is completely understandable why people would be trepidatious about losing themselves within this film.

Noe set out to make a film that was about darkness, hopelessness and the meaningless of all our suffering and he did so in such an interesting, cinematic and sometimes heartbreaking way and that is quite an achievement. I really believe that this film will be remembered for a long, long time as masterpiece by one of the true innovators of cinema. But it won't be remembered forever, time does destroy everything.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Favourite Films of the Decade #10 - Exiled

What's a top ten list without a Johnnie To film? And I mean any top ten list. Top ten recipes? Gorgonzola gnocchi while watching The Mission at #7. Top ten automobiles? A brown trans-am driving to the theater so I can see Vengeance at #3. Top ten films of the 2000s? Johnnie To's Exiled at #10.

I had a hard time choosing between his and To's 2 Election films (that's right, if they were picked I would have counted both parts as one film!). Whereas the Election movies are gritty looks at the evil behind the Triads with some very surprising and shocking moments, Exiled is a heroic bloodshed type of film where the characters are tough, cool, honourable and ass-kickers. I love all the films, but maybe what put Exiled over the top was it encompassed everything I love about Asian action films with just a sprinkling of Leone.

As you'll see later in this list (if you continue to read my poorly worded ramblings) the last decade was essentially when I became enthralled with Asian cinema. After an amazing year for Hollywood in 1999, it seemed that with the exception of an occasional American Psycho or Traffic, American films had become predictable, routine and above all else, boring. Where was the invention and creativity? I really wasn't seeing anything new. Then I stumbled upon Takashi Miike films and Battle Royale. Here's what I was fuckin' looking for. And then the rest of the decade was spent discovering the many amazing genres of Asian cinema.

I had previously seen The Killer and Hard Boiled (like any cinema lover worth their salt) and, of course, loved them. But when John Woo left for America, there was a big hole where Hong Kong's kick ass action used to be. Granted, I don't hate a lot of recent HK action as much as some fans, but there wasn't a director that a fan could rely on the same way they could on Woo. Then good ole Johnnie To entered into the picture. I had seen Full Time Killer at the Toronto Film Festival, followed by PTU and loved them dearly. The Election films I unfortunately only saw on DVD, but it seemed To was stepping up his game. Not only were they great, intense films, but dramatically they were possibly the best he's produced.

So it was with much anticipation me and my good lady wife went to see Exiled when it played the fest in whatever fucking year it was there. Waiting in the massive line I was happy to see that so many folks out there loved To as well. And I don't think anyone but the motherfucka sitting beside me (of course) were let down. On the bright side though, despite the dude sitting beside me complaining through much of the film, I was loving it so much I couldn't be bothered to be upset. That never, ever happens.

Exiled starts out with a CU of a hand knocking on a door. A haggard looking but beautiful woman opens up and is greeted by two ruffians looking for Wo (no that's not a cute euphemism for sex). She tells them she's never heard of him and they leave. Moments later, another CU of the door being knocked on and two more scallywags (one being a surprisingly cool looking Anthony Wong) are asking for Wo. Same response. As the four obviously shady characters wait outside the home for Wo to show himself, it's obvious that at one time they had all been friends. 2 are there to protect Wo, and 2 are there to kill him.

Leone is immediately brought to mind. All of the criminals are wearing overcoats and smoking cigars (though not cigarellos) much like The Man With No Name, and even as they wait for Wo, it somewhat reminded me of the killers waiting for The Man With Harmonica at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West. Essentially, the audience knows some shit is going to go down. And when it does, it's spectacular. Wo arrives and one person from each set follows him up to his home as the other two wait outside (when a cop shows up there is a scene with a can that seems plucked from A Fistful of Dollars). The gunfight that follows is great, but what is even better is how it's followed up. After they try and kill each other, and only stop because of Wo's infant son, they decide to talk about Wo's crime instead, and help the small family cook and cleanup while they're at it. It's this feeling of kinship, honour and friendship that elevate this far beyond a gangster shoot em up. After To gets us worked up with the scene leading up to the gunfight, and the fight itself, he makes us laugh as the ruthless hitmen roll up their sleeves to move a crib or make soup that still has bullets in it from the gunfight. Amazing opening for a film. This film is about memories and regrets. And people getting shot.

As for the action scenes, it seems To keeps trying to outdo the previous set piece. There are shootouts in a hallway, a restaurant, a makeshift doctor's office, a field and a hotel, and each scene is more impressive than the last. Sure it could be argued that the CGI Red Bull can in the last shootout takes one out of the moment, but it could also be argued that whoever thinks that is actually just an asshole.

Also, the characters in Exiled are fantastic. Not only are our protaganists cool as fuck, but we really care about them because they care so much for each other. Anthony Wong is amazing as the ringleader, completely changing his usual image as a weirdo or a sage like mentor. Here he plays a man whom I suspect may have become a hitman to make him feel better about himself. During a scene where he is being bullied by a former boss, it felt like this wasn't something he was unaccustomed to . Also, one of the final shots in the film is of him putting on his shades, trying to remain cool despite what has just happened.

Also, I loved at a certain point in the film, he decides to leave everything to chance. His decisions were not helping anyone, so he let the flip of a coin decide their fate. The payoff to this is very powerful.

Also, Simon Yam was hilarious as the villain in the film, hamming it up while remaining a complete asshole. He would have made a great heel in wrestling in another life. Also, who couldn't love the hotel owner/pimp/gangster Jeff? A scumbag until the very end. And the female characters are great. As opposed to the usual love interest, our central female character is Wo's wife, heartbroken because of Wo's choice of lifestyle and the friends that go with it. As much as you like our group of criminals, it's hard not to side with her by the end of the film.

I could go much more into the film, but if you haven't seen it I'd hate to spoil anything for you. There is definitely more of that "Leone" feeling nearing the end and some wicked tough guy bonding with a corrupt cop.

Exiled is a semi follow up to To's The Mission in the same way Fierce Creatures is a follow up to A Fish Called Wanda. It's not necessary to see The Mission before seeing Exiled (I didn't) but the two films are great companion pieces. The Mission explores much of the same themes and has most of the same actors playing similar parts. So if you happen to love Exiled you'd really be doing yourself a disservice in not seeing The Mission.

Almost done, just wanted to say I was surprised when this film came and went in North America. I didn't think the film would connect the same way Woo's films did, but I did expect some fanfare. It seems a lot of people I know, when it comes to foreign films, think that if they've seen what is considered the best from a certain genre (Woo's heroic bloodshed films) that they've done their job as a filmgoer and there's no need to explore further. Maybe I'm being critical of them since I love discovering films that don't have a lot of shelf space at Blockbuster, but I really expected To to be a household name by now.

Exiled is a great place to start if you want to get into To's films. It's got everything you need in a heroic bloodshed film. And if you're a fan of Leone (and really, who the hell isn't?) you'll be even more satisfied. Considering it's on my list for best films of the decade, it goes without saying that this is a must see.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Coming Soon! Favourite Films of the Decade!

You read that right. I'm going to get an early start on counting down my favourite films of the decade. I'd never be so bold as to call them the "best" films of the decade, but look into your heart and you'll know I'm right with every one of my picks. I figure, if I start the countdown now, there is a good chance I can have it done by the end of the decade. And seriously, what are the chances that a film will come out between now and 2010 that will make the list? One trillion to one? Maybe more. It's only Oscar season coming up. Nevertheless, most lists I make up (and I loves me my lists) are out of date once I see all the movies I've missed from such and such a time. I'm confident that the first couple films will likely stay put, but #8 and up are on very shaky ground. It's not like I've seen every film of the decade (just the ones that matter holmes).

Also, I probably won't have many recent films on the list. It's easy to get gung-ho after seeing a Drag Me to Hell or Watchmen, and maybe want to throw them high on the list. I'd like to give them a little more time to gestate, and who knows, something like Drag Me to Hell may eventually make number one once I watch it multiple times and make a tradition out of it. So remember, this list is really fucking unfair to new films. That's the kind of piece of work that I am.

These films are not up for debate, because I'm actually using scientific methods to judge their merit. After I've done all the tests in my laboratory, I'll put them up you lucky devils and then you can nod your heads knowingly are rearrange your list accordingly. Have fun!