Friday, September 05, 2008

TIFF Day 1

Waltz With Bashir

In June of 1982, Israel and Lebanon were at war. Israel entered Southern Lebanon. On September 14th, Bashir Gemayel, the newly elected president of Lebanon (about 3 weeks earlier), was assassinated. This led his followers, the Phalangists (Lebanese Christian Militia) to retaliate. They were allowed into two refugee camps to hunt down PLO fighters. This led the massacre at Sabra and Shatila.

Waltz With Bashir is the story of an Israeli man 20 years later who can't remember his role in the war. As he says, it's just "not part of his system". He's disassociated himself from whatever role he played as fresh 19-year old recruit. After talking to a friend who has been having a recurring dream connected to the war, he has a flashback to a scene that makes no sense to him. He beings investigating by tracking down squadmates, other soldiers, and asking questions. Slowly, his memories return.

This is Ari Folman's autobiographical account of what he went through. His role in the war, and his quest to uncover it. It's a documentary mixed with acted flashbacks to the events of 20 years ago. And it's animated. The rotoscoping works incredibly well here. It's not the dream-world effect of Waking Life or the drug-addled device of A Scanner Darkly. It's fairly simple, straightforward, and eye-catching. As Ari himself said last night in the post-move Q&A, it had to be animated, otherwise it would be a bunch of old guys sitting in chairs telling war stories. The animation keeps you engrossed and absorbed. This works incredibly well when the end comes.

If you've never seen a film where the audience goes dead silent for minutes on end, then you're missing something. During the end of the film, you could have heard a pin drop on carpet in the packed theatre I was in. As the director said, "it's hard to say 'enjoy the film' because it's a tough film. But I hope you get to experience it."

This is a straightforward description of war, through the hindsight of a man in his 50's looking at his youth. Religious, social, or racial lines are barely drawn. This is a personal account that tries to stick to the facts as he creator remembers them. And very worthwhile viewing.


"I was standing outside the theatre and thought, 'I can't believe the best movie I've seen in Cannes is a Jean-Claude Van Damme film'."
- Colin Geddes - Midnight Madness Programmer

A night for biographies it seems. JCVD is a fictional account of the Muscles from Brussels returning home after losing a custody battle for his daughter in LA. His career is in the shitter, his agent is screwing him over, his lawyer hasn't been paid, and he's a mess. He goes home, where he's still a huge star, to spend time with his parents and try and clean up his life.

Yes, it actually does star Van Damme. But I assure you, that this is a Van Damme you've never even heard of. Gone is the action star, replaced with a broken-down 47-year old man who is tired of the same old shit, but has zero respect from anyone he works with. Upon getting home, he heads to the post office for a money transfer, and gets caught up in a bungled robbery. The police believe HE is holding the place up, and hilarity ensues.

Except despite its build-up as a comedy, it really isn't. Sure, there are funny parts. In-jokes and jabs at his stardom that get laughs, but this isn't a farce. It's an incredibly clever look at the pitfalls of fame. Van Damme has his acting strengths played to here. As in he speaks very little, and his usual delivery is played for deadpan. I've seen his performance compared to Buster Keaton a few times, and that is pretty high praise, and not entirely undeserved.

It also helps that the majority of the film is in his native French, so the accent and awkward intonation and emphasis of English is gone. It makes a big difference. Usually with subtitled films, you miss the acting for the words, but in this case, Van Damme carries it. The climax of this is a monologue he gives towards the end. The fourth wall is broken down and he addresses the audience in what is one of the greatest, most touching, heartfelt, and honest monologues I have ever seen. Seriously. There were people in tears at the end of it. Nobody left unimpressed.

And then it picks back up with a dose of action and then reality. There's a damned good reason it's one of the most buzzed-about and highly-rated films of the festival circuit right now. This could resurrect the man's career.

In fact, as I was leaving, I couldn't help but think how much I'd like to see him in something like Banlieu 14, a slick, stylish action movie in his native language. Which was odd, since there was practically no action in JCVD.

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