Tuesday, May 05, 2009

International Secrets: Revanche and Tokyo Sonata

This pair of films is a true testament to how incredibly little interest I have in seeing Every Little Step. I was sort of planning to hit the Coolidge on Sunday because I was trying to find a comic shop with a copy of Star Trek Coundown #3 and there are two between my house and the theater (neither of which had that particular issue; it seems to have completely skipped Boston). ELS was the Chlotrudis Monday night movie, but I opted to meet Gil & Amanda for supper and then see this thing I had a pass for by a director I really like.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure Every Little Thing is a nice enough movie. But I'm pretty sure A Chorus Line by itself is more "love the theater! Love it!!!" than my low tolerance can take, and this, then, would be a documentary of the casting process of a Broadway play about casting a Broadway play. If there's a making-of feature on the eventual DVD, it could collapse into a singularity of self-referentiality.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 May 2009 at Coolidge Corner Theater #2 (first-run)

The Best Foreign Language Film Oscar often drives film nuts crazy. The countries' film boards don't submit the movie we consider their nation's masterpiece for the year, and then at every cut (short list, nominees, winner) we get a little more agitated, wondering how this film which we haven't heard a single decibel of buzz on makes the cut, and we can't even see it to form an opinion. At least, not until it sneaks unheralded into a boutique cinema for a week and we say, okay, maybe Revanche belonged there.

Revanche was Austria's submission, and after a brief glimpse at a quietly domestic scene in the country with policeman Robert (Andreas Lust) and his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), we're in Vienna, where ex-con Alex (Johannes Krisch) works at the Cinderella club/brothel, tidying the rooms and keeping the bar stocked. He's dating one of the more visible employees, Ukranian immigrant Tamara (Irina Potapenko). Alex isn't really a bad guy; he rides out to his grandfather Hausner's farm on his days off to cut the old man's firewood. When Cinderella's "manager" Konecny (Hanno Poschl) starts pressuring her to leave the club and into an apartment he'd rent for her, Alex decides to push their plan to move to Spain forward. That takes money, though Alex has a plan for that, one that just can't fail.

Let's stop there, because that brings us up to the point where everything changes. Writer/director Götz Spielmann doesn't so much throw a plot twist our way as allow a scene we've seen hundreds of times to play out realistically, and then track the aftermath of it. The movie slows down for this, pushing one set of subplots aside for another, but for the most part this works. One development seems kind of arbitrary and forced, but most of the rest seems natural. The second half of the movie becomes much more somber when we realize that we haven't heard from this character in a while, so maybe Alex and Tamara just aren't as important as a movie would generally make them. The pressures on the characters in the second half are internal and self-inflicted, rather than the result of outside pressure.

The cast handles that wonderfully. Johannes Krisch and Irina Potapenko have a chemistry that is passionate but private; they've each come to an understanding of what is and isn't safe in the quasi-legal world they live in. Krisch manages to infuse a little more optimism into his character despite his being worn-down by years and jail time, while Potapenko manages to communicate a pragmatic intelligence despite speaking imperfect German, if the subtitles are a proper guide. Andreas Lust and Ursula Strauss give us a couple that is a bit more strained; they're in a newly-completed house with a nursery that was completed before Susi miscarried in her third month of pregnancy, but going through the motions of their life. Lust does a fine job of playing Robert as a proud cop who feels unmanned, and Strauss gives perhaps the best in a film full of fine performances as the wife who finds a certain amount of happiness opening up to her elderly neighbor. Hannes Thanheiser has a nice bead on that old farmer, too, playing Hausner's pride and physical fragility in a believable balance, giving him enough individuality that he's always "Hausner", rather than just "the old man".

As impressive as Spielmann's story and cast is, though, what impressed me the most was how he put the movie together. The lovemaking scenes of the movie's various couples establish their relationships and the tone of that section of the film, for instance, and I think it's actually a while before we learn Tamara's actual name (she's referred to as "Angel" often enough that we don't realize it's her "work name" until Alex calls her something else, cementing that he is not like the other men in her life). The pacing he and editor Karina Ressler establish is impressive; this is a two hour movie whose second half is filled with more introspection than activity that almost never seems to drag. Spielmann, Ressler, and cinematographer Marti Gschlacht also put on a clinic on how to establish the details of a location when the action of a scene may depend on that information. The photography itself is striking and put to good use; I'm a little bit in awe of a crucial shot where the play of light across a lake's surface seems to further bury something that has been thrown in.

I saw Revanche a bit by accident; the theater was in the direction I felt like walking that afternoon and I was actively avoiding the other film playing there. It's a thoroughly impressive film, well deserving of the bit of attention its nomination has given it here, and then some.

Also at eFilmCritic.

Tokyo Sonata

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 May 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (preview)

There have been many sequences in movies where someone loses his or her job, but few have been so callously cruel as the one that opens Tokyo Sonata: A pretty girl walks through an office, drawing all eyes. She goes into a room and briefly greets an executive, who is impressed with her Japanese; they can move this division to China and hire three like her for what one of their current Japanese employees costs. Before she's left the building, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), a twenty-year employee, has been called into the Vice President's office and asked what position he can fill in the company with his department being outsourced. None? Then pack your things and go.

That this is happening all over doesn't make it any more palatable for Sasaki, and doesn't keep him from considering it a shameful failure on his part. He tries to sneak into his house that evening, and the next morning leaves without telling wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) that anything has changed. Meanwhile, Megumi continues to keep house, with older son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) coming and going at odd hours and younger son Kenji (Inowaki Kai) getting in trouble with his teacher before his chance passing of a piano teacher's house inspires him to ask for lessons, which his father refuses. He signs up anyway, paying Ms. Kaneko (Haruka Igawa) with his monthly lunch money.

This may not sound like the material for a movie by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, one of Japan's most popular horror filmmakers, at least not at first glance. Look a little closer, though, and it doesn't seem like such a stretch: Kurosawa's films straddle the art-house and the grindhouse, and they've seldom been entirely or even primarily about ghosts and monsters. The source of the unease in his films is less something hideous that may jump out at you, but a world that no longer operates by familiar or logical rules. Tokyo Sonata presents us with a world where the rules no longer apply because of economic malaise rather than the supernatural, but this is still prime Kurosawa territory.

Which is not to say it is a horror movie in disguise. It is, instead, a family drama with frequent streaks of bone-dry comedy. There's a frequently hilarious recurring joke about how Ryuhei isn't the only man pretending that he is still employed, which even manages a nice call-back after we've seen the worst of where that line of thinking can lead. Kenji is less than thrilled by how his talking back to his teacher effectively destroys order at his school, although the complete shift in the class's behavior is pretty funny. Koji Yakusho has a bizarrely funny role.

The cast is great at showing the audience what this strange situation is doing to the the family. Kagawa radiates embarrassment and shame as Ryuhei, cranking it up a notch in job interview scenes, where we see that working at the same place for so long has made it almost impossible to look for another job. Kagawa also does a nice job of transforming that shame to anger when called upon to do so. Kyoko Koizumi is excellent as Megumi, gradually revealing her as the down-to-earth glue that holds the family together, without making her early simplicity seem out-of-character. Inowaki Kai is wonderfully awkward as Kenji, just this awkward kid trying to do well and do the right thing and not understanding why the adults just won't let him.

As great as much of the movie is, it threatens to go completely off the rails in the last act. A good chunk of the audience seemed to feel like it did at the time, as things get very strange for all three of the main characters at once, and they do things that on the face of it don't seem to make a whole lot of sense. I think it works, playing on the idea that things just seem so out of whack for the Sasakis that running away is what makes the most sense. It comes together, especially with how Kurosawa makes use of the repeated shot of an intersection on the Sasakis' street, but it's such a severe shift toward downright strange events and dark tone that he may lose a chunk of the audience there.

I admit, he nearly lost me; as much as I enjoy the occasional "what the hell, Japan? what the hell?" movie, it didn't seem like the right time. Kurosawa makes it work, though, well enough to pull the whole thing together.

Also at eFilmCritic.

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