Most people around me are living in the future. Everything is 2012 this, 2012 that, but I’m still focusing on 2011. I entered the world of film reviewing in July 2011, and as a result I’ve been playing catchup for the entire year. December was brutal, and it is only now that I feel I have seen enough of what 2011 had to offer to actually make a ‘best films of the year’ list. Since many people have not had a chance to see the films offered at the festivals in 2011, I have taken the privilege of separating my top 20 into the top 10 theatrical releases and the top 10 festival films. I hope you enjoy my lists, and if you agree or disagree then let me know!
About a week ago I surreptitiously put up a new page called ‘Entertainment Maven Seal Approval’. This is the best-of-the-best and the heart of what Entertainment Maven is all about. Post to post, the quality of the products reviewed will vary greatly, but clicking on the seal of approval trims the fat, even very positive reviews are excluded if the product is not GREAT.
Below are my seal of approval additions from TIFF 2011. Also, I realize the irony that the seal of approval does not have an actual visual seal, but I am graphically inept. I will try to change this in the future. Click on the title of the film to be linked to my review.
Tomás Lunák’s Alois Nebel was my final screening at TIFF 2011, a whole five days ago. I was maintaining a frantic pace of screening and reviewing, but it caught up with me in the end. I picked this film on a whim, because I am a fan of animation, especially foreign animation, and it looked dark enough to be up my alley. Alois Nebel was not the film noir murder mystery that I thought it would be, in fact it turned out to be something completely different. The film absorbed me from start to finish and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. It’s not that the film is disturbing or keeping me awake at night, it’s just a fine example of something different, executed almost flawlessly.
The story is set in 1989 and follows a middle-aged train dispatcher, named Alois Nebel, who works in Czechoslovakia, close to the border of Germany and Poland. Haunted by memories of the end of the cold war, when he was a small child, Alois seems to find little joy in life, however perusing the train schedules seem to keep him distracted. After losing his job and being admitted to a sanitarium for treatment, two chance in encounters, one with a mute man who has a hidden agenda, and the other with a kind widow named Kveta, have given Alois’s life some sort of meaning again.
The film is entirely in black-and-white and uses rotoscope animation, meaning that actual live-action footage was shot and drawn over top of using computer animation (rotoscope animation could also be done by hand). This unique process gives the film the fluidity of a live-action film, while allowing the director the almost limitless degree of artistic freedom that comes with animated projects; the scope of the artistic vision is only limited by the imagination and skill of the director and animators. Check out A Scanner Darkly for another example of rotoscope animation. The combination of black-and-white and rotoscope animation is stunning to watch, and immediately sets the sombre mood of the film.
None of the characters seem to be very joyous in the film, and the setting seems oppressive. These points are hammered home by the barrels of hard liquor and cartons of cigarettes that the characters consume throughout the film, and the numerous interactions with authority figures, such as soldiers, guards, sanitarium orderlies, doctors, etc. One does not immediately identify with Alois, but as we learn about his past, and the nature of his country in 1989, it is hard not to feel for the man.
I don’t feel comfortable commenting too deeply on the quality of the voice acting during the film, as it was in a foreign language, but I can say that the voice acting never detracted from the experience, and seemed convincingly emotional at the right times.
Alois Nebel is certainly a bit of a depressing film, but there are fulfilling moments. I’m having a difficult time explaining why I am still thinking about the film. The characters, story and visuals certainly possess a sort of ‘je ne sais quoi’ that must be experienced rather than discussed. Alois Nebel will inevitably be embraced by fans of art-house and foreign films, but I urge adventurous viewers to check it out when they are feeling like a totally different experience from mainstream North American cinema. I still feel haunted by the pasts of the downtrodden characters in Alois Nebel, but also stunned into silence by the otherworldly beauty of a lonely train, rolling loyally down the track.
Sitting down for The Raid, during the first night of Midnight Madness, the programmer, Colin Geddes, briefly went through the lineup with us. He told us about the action packed The Raid, the all-night game of cops and robbers in Sleepless Night, the crossbow wielding killers in You’re Next, etc. When he got to the closing night film, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, he said ‘You are going to walk out of here at 2am and not know where the fuck you are’. That was quite the introduction to a film, and could have been hard for the film to live up to. The Q&A after the film brought me back down to earth, but I have to admit, while the credits were rolling I did experience a mild case of amnesia and wondered why I was sitting in a movie theatre. That is the power of Kill List, unfortunately to enjoy the same experience you need to know next to nothing about the film, a difficult task given how easily information is passed around these days. Also, it kind of makes it hard to write a meaningful review and not ruin the film. Here’s my best shot.
Kill List is about a retired hitman named Jay (Neil Maskell), his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) and young son. Jay didn’t retire because of old age, rather we are lead to believe that an event eight months ago in Kiev forced him into retirement. As a result, Jay hasn’t brought home any money for nearly a year and the relationship with his wife has become quite unstable. One evening over dinner, Jay’s friend Sam (Harry Simpson) suggests returning to the profession for one job, a total of three hits and a pile of money for their troubles. Jay’s in a bind, and doesn’t take long to agree. However, this is one assignment that the friends will regret for the rest of their lives, that is, if they live through it.
I’ve tried to keep this write-up as spoiler free as possible. There are enough detailed reviews, trailers and just general spoilers out there to ruin Kill List for a large number of people. My advice would be to avoid all information about the film and just wait for a chance to watch it. However, if you need some information about the film, then let me tell you that Kill List is dark, violent, gritty, dark, almost humourless, and dark; an abysmal gulf of hatred lies at the heart of the film. The pace of the film is quite slow for the majority of the runtime, but when Wheatley changes gears, prepare for a unique cinematic experience. I couldn’t be higher on Kill List, and for an estimated budget of £500,000, Wheatley seems like a film guru.
Note: When I write reviews I try to stay clear of other opinions, so that I do not compensate for a film that I feel is being wrongfully dismissed, or conversely, come down too hard on a film that I feel is being overly praised. However, with Kill List it was impossible not to notice the polarizing nature of the film before I wrote the review. Many reviewers loved it, others despised it. I have trouble understanding why some would hate this film, but it is possible that some of these unhappy critics knew too much about Kill List going in, and in turn, were let down in some sense. Just a thought, and another reason to go into this movie completely ignorant of the plot.
The Sword Identity is the debut film from director Xu Haofeng. At first glance this film looked like a typical historical martial arts film, with plenty of action, but on closer inspection The Sword Identity seemed like it could be a very unique film. The multi-talented Xu has drawn on his knowledge of martial arts, Taoism and Chinese culture to create something more than a martial arts film. Xu gives the audience a look at the internal aspect of martial arts and the people who dedicate their lives to a technique, while shying away from the external aspect of martial arts, the actual fighting, which audiences should already be very familiar with.
The film tells the story of two wanderers in Southern China, seeking to prove their technique in the city of Guancheng. Within the city walls, four families, each with a martial arts school, mistake the wanderers for Japanese pirates, due to the unusually long swords the wanderers are carrying. The wanderers are not given a chance to prove the worth of their technique, but are driven away. During the conflict, one of the wanderers is taken captive, while the other takes shelter in a house boat, and defends it from the city’s soldiers using his superior technique.
Visually, The Sword Identity is a beautiful film. Vistas of mountains seen through rows of trees, expanses of wetlands and even the river running through the city of Guancheng are a pleasure to behold. The cinematography has a very unique feel to it and aside from the action scenes, I would say that it is a big part of the film’s charm. Also, a lot of time must have been spent designing the lovely period costumes that adorn the characters. Unfortunately, the action sequences in the film are a bit of a snooze-fest. I understand that action may have not been the primary goal of the film, far from it, but when the 10th or so character gets bopped on the head with a stick and falls down unconscious, it is hard not to groan. One of the more interesting aspects of the action are the sequences in which characters imagine how they will go about winning a fight before they make a move. I could certainly see this technique being lifted from The Sword Identity by future martial arts films.
The story of the film has a few strong points, but ultimately wasn’t as interesting as I hoped it would be. As I have said already, the focus is on the internal aspect of martial arts, rather than the physical techniques that win fights. Anyone that sits down to watch this hoping for action will be sorely disappointed. The traditional fighting certainly has some interesting qualities, but at times looks like a fight broke out at some sort of ninja retirement home. The story is definitely more philosophical and cerebral, but even as I experienced this side of The Sword Identity it still felt like something was lacking. The characters are often unpredictable, because not enough time has been taken to introduce them to the audience. Aside from the main character and the coast guard Captain, who was quite funny, I didn’t really feel like investing any time in these characters.
The visuals are great at times and attention to detail really makes this feel like a period piece, however there are too many issues with The Sword Identity to make it an enjoyable viewing experience from start to finish. I don’t think I would recommend The Sword Identity, however, since it is a debut film and there were some positives, I will be looking out for the next project by Xu Haofeng.