SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 2

December 4, 2008 at 4:43 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | 2 Comments

Day 2: Saturday 11/15

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Slumdog Millionaire and Alone

Title: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Director: Paul Schrader
Country: Japan
Score: 8.5
Review:
Despite being well-aware that “Mishima” is 23 years old and that Criterion has put the restoration on DVD, I really wanted to see this on the big screen and was not disappointed. The movie weaves together three time periods, each in its own style. Mishima’s life growing up in shown in black and white. His final day plays in color, detailing his carefully plotted attempt to rally a pro-emperor military coup and his infamous ritual suicide. Most beautiful of all are the scenes from three of his best-known works, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” “Kyoko’s House” and “Runaway Horses.”

Schrader expertly weaves together Mishima’s biography and philosophy, creating a mesmerizing investigation of a body-building, hyper-nationalist, homosexual artist fixated on harmonizing life and art through suicidal glory. The soundtrack by Philip Glass is central to the mood, and feels perfectly at home with the themes of trance-like passion and transcendence. The theatrical staging of his novels, while confusing at first, melts into the spirit of the film and is ultimately more revealing about the author than the more strictly biographical segments. The sets for these vignettes are precisely geometric and richly color-coded islands in a sea of black.

Last year, Paul Schrader’s “The Walker” left me pretty unimpressed, so I’m glad this one restored my faith in him. I didn’t see “Adam Resurrected,” his latest film, when it played Friday night, but I’ll probably visit it on DVD. The only other directing work I’ve seen by Schrader is “Affliction” and “Light Sleeper,” neither of which stand out in my mind as great works. I suspect, therefore, that Schrader is getting this year’s SLIFF lifetime achievement award as much for his writings on and for cinema as for his directing. It’s interesting that SLIFF [almost] gave last year’s award to Peter Greenaway since the two are probably the most vocal directors when it comes to declaring the death of cinema. The film walrus does not agree.

 

Title: Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle
Country: UK/India
Score: 8.0
Review:
Boyle continues his successful string of high-energy entertainment with this slick Indian production based around “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Ironically, contestant Jamal Malik, a poor orphan raised on the tough streets of Mumbai, is more interested in reuniting with his lost love from childhood than winning the money, but he just might get both wishes. The inspired structure has Malik narrating his life story to the police, as a way of explaining how a “slumdog” with no formal education could know each answer without cheating.

As with all of Boyle’s films (“Shallow Grave,” “28 Day Later,” “Sunshine”) the style is unabashedly populist, characterized by rapid cutting, throbbing music and aesthetic hedonism. While it isn’t surprising that this formula worked well for his films about gangsters, zombies and astronauts, I was surprised how easily it integrated with the more serious setting of India’s megaslums. It helps that the writer took care to channel the excitement, humor and optimism of youth even as he bares the pain and viciousness of poverty and crime. Even the visuals manage to strike a unique beauty, finding splashes of joy in human faces and dyed cloth against backdrops that include sprawling dumps and open sewers.

The final third of the movie becomes more subdued and saccharine, turning into a more conventional love story complete with overtures about destiny, smirking villains and tragic sacrifice. It’s likely to rub the wrong way with many who enjoyed the freshness of the rest of the film, but I suspect that it’s an intentional nod by Boyle towards the traditions of Indian cinematic romances. The ending credits are done as a Bollywood music video, making a more explicit reference to Indian pop culture.

With his kinetic storytelling, emotional range and engaging story, Boyle’s likely to have another hit on his hands. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he walked away with the SLIFF audience award. At the same time, I suspect the critical elite will turn their noses up at the flashy style, cheesy ending and occasionally hokey acting and they’d probably have a good point… but I have to say it was one of the most entertaining releases I’ve seen this year.

Title: Alone
Director: Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom
Country: Thailand
Score: 7.0
Review:
The Pisanthanakun/Wongpoom team (“Shutter”) continues to make a name for themselves in the international horror scene with this creepy tale about cojoined twins and the strange separation anxiety and survivor guilt that results when only one survives into adulthood. Pim seems to be doing well with her loving husband Wee, but when her mother becomes critically ill and they return from South Korea to Thailand, painful memories of her twin sister Ploy begin to drive her towards insanity.

Though “Alone” is unmistakably genre-bound, it is far less interested in the grotesque body-horror possibilities of its premise than the intensified intimacy of its relationships (twin sisters, husband/wife) and their psychological ramifications. This is more “A Tale of Two Sisters” or “Sisters” (1973) than “Basket Case” or “Dead Ringers” (1988) (interesting to note that this split seems to run down gender lines). The directors are quite skilled, if not particularly original, at developing atmosphere, tension and curiosity around their setup.

Horror fans will be particularly pleased by the sheer quantity of scares, which are thankfully not all hoarded for the finale. These are almost all of the loud-noise/sudden-image variety that I’m not usually impressed by, but I give “Alone” credit for actually scaring me time and again. I wish the directors would have tried to sustain the terror, however, since most of the fear-climaxes lasted only a single shot (sometimes with a reaction shot) and I was too often able to assure myself that “it will be over in just a second.” Though the film tarries a little long in the one-scene, one-scare purgatory of horror set pieces, the directors get the plot out of a rut and managed to admirably surprise me (and everyone with me) with a solid final act.

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