Friday, March 27, 2009

CIFF 2009, Day Eight: Love and death

Back into the bubble. Here's more inelegant but timely reporting on the films seen Thursday at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

-The Candidate (Kandidaten) (Kasper Barfoed, 2008)

Country: Denmark
Genre: Thriller
Synopsis: A lawyer investigating his father's suspicious death is set up to look like a murderer.

Notes: This conventional thriller does nothing to distinguish itself from the many other boilerplate suspense pics that Hollywood churns out. Substitute English for Danish and Mark Wahlberg for this film's lead and you'd have something not only that looks wholly familiar but also wouldn't be deemed worth the time at a festival. Few surprises greet the nondescript main character. As urgent as the circumstances would seem to be, there isn't much tension as he runs around seeking the truth. I've been hoping to come across a solid genre movie, something the fest is light on, but the bland, mechanical Candidate fails to fit the bill.

Grade: C-

-All Around Us (Gururi no koto) (Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

Country: Japan
Genre: Marital drama
Synopsis: A couple experiences ups and downs during the first eight years of their marriage.

Notes: This is a nicely observed portrait of married opposites and the push and pull of their relationship through new and recurring challenges. Amid all of the misery the husband observes at his job as a courtroom sketch artist, the trauma the wife feels based on expectations of herself and the marriage, and the noncommunication between them, they discover what it takes to make it through the hard times. Unfortunately the image disappeared for a few minutes during a pivotal scene--if not the pivotal scene--so I feel like I may be slightly underrating this based on missing some key moments.

Grade: B

-Melodrama Habibi (Une chanson dans la tĂȘte) (Hany Tamba, 2008)

Countries: France, Lebanon
Genre: Melodrama (?)
Synopsis: A washed-up French singer who charted just one song in the 1970s and a lonely 30-year-old Lebanese beautician cross paths when a coffee magnate brings him to Beirut to sing at his wife's birthday party.

Notes: If my synopsis doesn't make this sound hopelessly convoluted, suffice it to say that there's even more nonsense that makes this a film in search of main characters and tone. (I didn't even mention the wheelchair-bound coffee baron's wife being accidentally carjacked and held for ransom along with the Mercedes.) At times it opts for wacky gags. Other moments mine a lightly mournful element. The larger problem, though, is the lack of a firm identification of whose story (or stories) it is. It's too scattered to belong to the singer, played by Patrick Chesnais, or the beautician but just concentrated on them enough to avoid being an ensemble piece. The conclusion seems particularly bizarre considering the relative lightness of everything preceding the downbeat ending.

Grade: C-

-Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2008)

Country: USA
Genre: Music documentary
Synopsis: The Sengalese pop superstar records, releases, and tours in support of his album Egypt.

Notes: Although the film provides a brief overview of N'Dour's career--most, like me, will know him from collaborations with Peter Gabriel--the bulk of the doc covers his album about the Sufi Islam saints. Reception outside of his homeland is favorable, but in Senegal the album is met with controversy because of the intermingling of popular music and religion. The film can be a bit repetitive, but there's plenty of joyful music to move things along and keep it enjoyable.

Grade: B-

-Quiet Chaos (Caos calmo) (Antonio Luigi Grimaldi, 2008)

Country: Italy
Genre: Grieving process dramedy
Synopsis: A man figures out his own method of dealing with his wife's death and raising their daughter on his own.

Notes: A gentle touch is deployed as Nanni Moretti's executive sets his own process and timeline for responding to the unexpected death of his wife. The actor's placid appearance and demeanor presents a character who must put on a brave face for his child, yet it's also a reflection of his own uncertainty regarding how he should be reacting. The film also utilizes some heartwarming humor, although nothing about Quiet Chaos could be construed as reaching for easy tugs at the heartstrings. With more time to reflect on it, I might be willing to bump up the grade a hair for this splendid film.

Grade: B+

-The Chaser (Chugyeogja) (Na Hong-jin, 2008)

Country: South Korea
Genre: Crime drama
Synopsis: A former police detective turned pimp searches for the man who he believes is capturing and selling his women.

Notes: My genre description and synopsis don't really do justice to what is an unusual movie in a familiar form. Director Na Hong-jin plays to the audience with liberal sprinklings of humor throughout and plays with the viewers as he frustrates satisfying expectations. It's a film that can be goofy in one scene and fairly brutal in the next. I'm not sure that these abrupt shifts are always successful, but it's a compelling film because of its loose spirit. I especially liked how the chases and fights are sloppy in ways that they might actually be in real life rather than the perfectly choreographed and executed action we're accustomed to seeing. One other observation...what is it with South Korean filmmakers and hammers?

Grade: B

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