Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Running Out Of Time

Johnnie To | 1999 | 93 mins | Hong Kong

It's neat when an action film doesn't have to rely on explosions to create the excitement and tension. I mean, I love the occasional Die Hard as much as the next guy (actually, probably more) but watching a film like Running Out of Time feels like a fabulous breath of fresh air once in a while.

The story centres around two men - Cheung, a dying young criminal mastermind (heartthrob Andy Lau) and Ho Sheung-Sang, the tough negotiator who's after him (played by Lau Ching Wan, who manages to out-hot the young heartthrob as the streetwise, hardened cop).

We find out from the start that Cheung's only got 14 days to live, so when he starts a 72 hour cat and mouse game with Ho Sheung-Sang, the mystery is only in what his motives and goals are. So begins a tense and hilarious 93 minutes of action through the streets of Hong Kong, as Ho Sheung-Sang chases after Cheung, who is trying to bring down an entire crime syndicate with a complicated double-cross scheme and an array of Mission Impossible-esque disguises.

The film is slick, fast paced, includes a few good chases, clever action sequences and very edge-of-your-seat moments, but it's got a low body count and an even lower explosion count, which actually works in its favour. Hong Kong uber-director Johnnie To apparently understands that allowing your audience to get wrapped up in the relationship between two witty, compelling characters and an intricate plot isn't such a bad thing in a thriller.

My Winnipeg

Guy Maddin | 2007 | 80 mins | Canada

I saw this film at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and had a chance to see it again months later at Cinematheque Ontario, but sitting down to review it has been a real struggle. I guess the problem is, I know that My Winnipeg isn't Guy Maddin's best film, but I'm coming to terms with the fact that (even as a big fan of his work) it's my favourite. A personal, intimate, absurd and funny portrait of his home town, the film is a seamless blend of local history and childhood memory. Maddin has referred to his approach to this film as "docu-fantasia", and that's pretty accurate.

The film is done in Maddin's signature old-timey style, inter-cutting archival footage with filmed scenes seamlessly. One strange exception is a segment about the demolition of the old Winnipeg Arena. Perhaps as a commentary on modernity, or the changes Winnipeg is experiencing, this portion of the story is jarringly filmed in colour video, not black and white film. It's the only part of the film that really didn't work for me.

The best part by far is Maddin's narration, a memoir of his love-hate relationship with the city that has been his home for his entire life. The most bizarre stories in the film are the true ones - snapshots of the city's strange history. However, they're sandwiched between absurd fabrications, reenactments of Maddin's home life with actors playing the parts of his family members, and occasional incisive commentary about the way the city has changed over the years. 40s cult icon Ann Savage is awesome as 'mother', a central figure almost as compelling as the city itself.

It's hard to distinguish between the real Winnipeg and the author's nostalgia-soaked private Winnipeg in this film, but it kind of doesn't matter. As much as Maddin's narrative remains comically obsessed with the notion that he must leave Winnipeg for good, the entire film is actually a tender love letter to the sleepy, snowy city.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

These Girls

Tahani Rached | 2006 | 68 min | Egypt

These Girls is a documentary portrait of a small group of girls who share companionship in the brutal and violent streets of Cairo, Egypt. Unfortunately, These Girls goes out of its way to insert so much whimsy and romance into the lives of these teenage prostitutes and runaways that virtually all of the impact is lost. The music, editing, and extended dances sequences all conspire to reduce this film to near parody. Yes, i said extended dance sequences. In one scene, a man washes out a found styrofoam cooler with rags to act as a makeshift crib for a girl's newborn baby. It is a disturbing moment- or it would be were it not played for laughs. The theatre thought it was adorable. Those homeless people are so inventive! Cute!

Also problematic is that the film gives no context to their lives or community so a great deal of cultural references are lost. The same can be said of the heavy reliance of euphemistic language like "slept with" or "love" to indicate rape, kidnapping, and prostitution. And to avoid any problems with what seems to be a predetermined story arc, when a girl is arrested or otherwise disappears, she is given no more than a quick mention and is quickly forgotten in favour of the other main "characters."

There is a great documentary that could made about these young women, who are strong, intelligent, and open about their day-to-day struggles, but this is not it.