Top Floor Left Wing (Dernier étage gauche gauche, Angelo Cianci, France/Luxembourg)
The debutante French director Angelo Cianci set himself quite a task in his first feature film. He attempts to combine a tense hostage drama situation with broad, silly humour, and inject an undercurrent of biting sociopolitical satire and cross-cultural commentary as well. It’s not easy to make a film engaging and dynamic when it is set in a single cramped apartment with only three principal players, but while the result isn’t groundbreaking or spectacular it certainly achieves its aims with vigour and verve.
Mohand (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian Arab, lives in a high-rise public housing estate in France with his wife and the youngest of their two sons, Salem (Aymen Saïdi). Salem is a small-time drug dealer and wannabe rapper who continually agonises his parents with his delinquent behaviour, and when a gang of eviction officers arrive at their apartment to take inventory of their possessions, Salem mistakenly believes they are there to arrest him for the giant bag of cocaine he has hidden in his room. He makes the fateful decision to take one of the bailiffs hostage at gunpoint, and places his father in the delicate position of trying to protect his son from those who want to do him harm outside while also wanting to clobber him over the ears for his stupidity.
This situation is where the serious hostage drama part of the film is played out, but the mood is amply leavened by Salem’s complete unpreparedness for the situation he finds himself in control of, and the sheer ineptitude of the of the bailiffs and police officers who try to diffuse the situation. It’s a strange and delicate balancing act between tragedy and comedy, which never quite takes the step from good to great.
The one element which could conceivably have pushed the film over that precipice into greatness is its sly social commentary, which is never in your face but definitely has an impact on the overall feeling of the film. Unfortunately it comes far too late and isn’t quite impactful enough to give the film an extra dimension, and the result is a relatively prosaic thriller-comedy.
Rating: 3 stars
Route Irish (Ken Loach, UK/France/Belgium/Italy/Spain)
Ken Loach became an English institution with his honest, naturalistic explorations of the plight of the common man, and his best films present a microscopic view as the key to understand social issues from a macroscopic perspective.
Route Irish has none of the delicacy or deftness that Loach is known for, and in fact it is heavy-handed, ham-fisted and weak. If Kes is The Wire, Route Irish is CSI: Miami, over-explaining an already obvious plot and featuring some almost comically one-dimensional characters.
Fergus (Mark Womack) and Frankie are best friends and former British soldiers who work for a private security firm in Iraq, and when Frankie dies in an IED explosion in suspicious circumstances, Fergus takes it upon himself to investigate the real reasons behind the attack as grief takes over his judgement. As you would expect in a cheap thriller such as this, the conspiracy goes way deeper than anyone but Fergus suspects, but his despair and desperation to get the real story begin to affect his ability to separate truth from what he wants to hear.
Real-life incidents like the “collateral murder” video and the controversial practice of water-boarding are referenced as Loach makes sure his opinions on war are made excruciatingly apparent, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s the audience-insulting manner in which Loach made sure to explain what was happening every step of the way that I found most disagreeable.
Character development is a major problem too. Womack’s Fergus is a sweary, angry caricature, but by far the most paper-thin character is Rachel (Andrea Lowe), Frankie’s wife, who tears up in literally every one of her scenes except the one in which she has sex with Fergus and destroys any sympathy I might have had for her.
Loach’s standing as a director has not been diminished by several badly received films in the past, and it certainly won’t suffer because of this, but Route Irish is the currently leader for MIFF 2011’s “worst of the fest” for me.
Rating: 1 star
Outrage (Autoreiji, Takeshi Kitano, Japan)
A movie in which every character’s motives are deliberately obscure can be hard to follow, especially when it’s a yakuza film where double-crosses are the order of the day. Takeshi Kitano returns to the genre that made him an international star with Outrage, a confusing but satisfying story of power struggles, betrayal and revenge. And violence, always violence.
Kitano plays Otomo, a mid-level yakuza boss working for the Ikemoto crime family, who is tasked with bringing the Maruse gang into line after they move into the drug trade against the wishes of The Chairman, the yakuza’s boss of all bosses. What follows is an ever-increasing cycle of recalcitrance and retribution as the various factions all compete for superiority.
It’s a tried and true storyline but just when you think you have it worked out Kitano throws a few small spanners in the works to keep things interesting and ticking along at a brisk pace. And there is the most uncomfortable scene involving dentistry I’ve seen since Oldboy. Dentaphobes like me be warned, when shit starts to go down in the dentist’s office, look away.
Kitano is getting older but shows no signs of slowing down, and Outrage is a worthy if not shining addition to his famous yakuza films Hana-bi and Sonatine.
Rating: 3 stars