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It’s that time in the festival when there’s less that I’m desperate to see, and I’m beginning to be disappointed that (inevitably) I had to miss certain films in favor of others. Not stuff like Brokeback Mountain, despite a wave of acclaim, because that’ll be easy to see soon enough. But things like Three Times, Thank You For Smoking and The Giant Buddhas, all of which I hope make it to North American cinemas, mostly so that I can see if my friends were right.

I almost felt bad at first about missing Harsh Times, but after talking to some who made the screening, my tension eased. Prevailing opinion is mixed at best; I’ll still give it a shot when possible, but I’m no longer sad that I skipped it for what was, amazingly, only my second documentary of the festival.

Why We FightWhy We Fight
[USA; Eugene Jarecki]

There are many great anti-war documentaries. Fog of War is a recent highlight, and Hearts and Minds is rightly cited as a perennial classic. After seeing Why We Fight, which examines the cause and effect related to the buildup of the American industrial-military complex, I feel that it will soon be on the list with those movies.

The film begins with the final address by outgoing President Eisenhower. After two terms, the five-star general chose to take leave of his office with the following words:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. (Read the full text here.)

That dire warning, and our failure to heed it, is largely the backbone of the film. Jarecki traces the collusion between Congress and defense contractors, and examines how the presence of a perpetual war machine dictates American policy both at home and abroad.

The implications, as most would imagine, are chilling.

Through archival footage and new interviews the film builds a frightening picture of the way in which the American people have effectively allowed power to be placed in that hands of un-elected individuals. Think tanks and corporations are obviously the largest targets, and though most of the arguments and evidence are nothing a sharp reader hasn’t encountered before, the film’s organization is compelling.

In addition to the obvious interviews with VIPs, Jarecki draws two sideline narratives focusing on a retired NYC cop and a young New Yorker eager to join the military. At first, these storylines with their heavy 9/11 imagery seem almost superfluous. And while the teen’s story doesn’t achieve more than basic emotional manipulation, the cop’s is telling, as his post 9/11 thirst for retribution is followed by a keen sense of bewilderment at his own manipulation by ‘the system’.

In many ways, this is what Michael Moore’s movies should be like. It’s far from unbiased, but it features clear arguments and evidence laid out in an intelligent design. (That’s a little creationist reference for the kids.) Take your conservative friends to see Why We Fight.

Where The Crap LiesWhere The Truth Lies
[Canada/USA/UK; Atom Egoyan]

Where The Truth Lies could almost be the title of any Atom Egoyan film. The director is consistently creating narratives in which the truth is first obscured, then revealed.

In some ways, this is no different. Vince Collins and Lanny Morris (Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon) are a comedy team loosely derived from Martin and Lewis. We initially find them at the height of their popularity, when telethons draw millions of viewers and their power is exceeded only by the mob.

But the death of a young female hotel employee deeply affects the pair, and their careers soon slide into obscurity. Enter Karen O’Conner (Alison Lohman), a young journalist eager to tell the real story behind the girl’s demise.

At first, I was excited by the film. The first act is breezy in a way that Egoyan has never managed.

Then there was the interest thanks to a nearly infamous three-way sex scene. It’s got the MPAA if not up in arms, at least irritated enough to slap an NC-17 on the film. In reality, the scene is nothing special or even terribly offensive; if Oz could air for years on HBO, there’s no reason this film shouldn’t play in American cinemas.

Far more worrying than the sex is the fact that the movie really isn’t good. Egoyan’s elegance seems to have fled; the script is leaden and obvious. Instead of allowing the audience to find the truth through characters and events, we’re handed a creaky hard-boiled voiceover. Alison Lohman may at times be a terrific actress, but her VO skills aren’t up to the same standard. When an entire audience laughs as you muse over a dead girl’s fate, things aren’t going well.

In the end, nothing goes well for Where The Truth Lies. It falls apart, finally settling in a muddled mess of overwrought confrontations. I didn’t care much for the heartache of the three opportunistic leads, and never could manage to figure out why anyone else would. And for the love of god, (swipe the spoiler) the butler actually did it! (End your swipe, and your interest in this movie.)

Sympathy For Lady VengeanceSympathy For Lady Vengeance
[South Korea; Park Chanwook]

I’ll cut to the chase: it’s good. If anything, I think Chanwook Park has increased his abilities behind the lens. Sympathy For Lady Vengeance isn’t just a spiritual sequel to Oldboy and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance; it’s a visually stunning movie that goes well beyond what we’ve seen from him before. It’s also more complex, morally and in narrative, and that makes it very satisfying.

Some things never change, though, and this film is centered around ideas about incarceration and retribution. Lady Vengeance is Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae), who has just spent the past thirteen years in jail after falsely admitting to the murder of a young boy. She was persuaded to do so by Mr. Baek (Oldboy‘s Choi Min-Sik) who, needless to say, is at the top of Geum-Ja’s shit list.

But this is far more than a simple revenge fantasy. Geum-ja isn’t as isolated as the hero of Oldboy; she has an extended family of prison friends and a daughter of her own. Those connections build a story that deeply explores the ripples of violence and revenge. The best idea in the film is that retribution cannot always be so easily obtained because too many lives are wound up even in the existence of a terrible person.

I liked Lady Vengeance much more than Oldboy, though it doesn’t have the same visceral effect. Violence isn’t the film’s driving force; the effect of violence is. Fittingly, the most disturbing offenses take place off screen. But the events of this film are far better considered, and there’s a sense of cause and effect that goes beyond the operatic conclusion of Park Chanwook’s last film.

Bangkok LocoBangkok Loco
[Thailand; Pornchai Hongrattanaporn]

I don’t know what the Christ I just saw. I think it was a movie about Bay, a drummer trained in Drums of the Gods, who is framed for the murder of his landlady but must still play in a cosmic drum duel against his demonic counterpart. Could that be possible?

The program guide tells me that yes, I did just see that film. And it’s crazy. I’ll never say it’s the best mind-boggling Thai movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely one of the most memorable.

The film is loaded with in-jokes. Some are aimed at western film, others at Thai releases, and many many more at elements of Thai culture, both traditional and popular. There’s a Star Wars opening crawl, music cribbed from Bond, drumming with meat cleavers, a horny dog and a detective who doesn’t realize that perhaps not every door has to be kicked open.

Visually, it’s simply packed with weird sights, and I felt as if I understood only a fraction of them. (It doesn’t help that many are in the form of written jokes. What did that blood on the wall say?) Moments lifted right from the Zucker Brothers are also plentiful. When Bay complains that he’s been stabbed in the back, knives actually prodrude from his body.

For the Thai-centric gags, those who have seen Beautiful Boxer or can recognize the signature hair of Thailand’s most famous forensic scientist (Pornthip Rojanasunan, also alluded to in Last Life In The Universe) will be on firm ground. But for the rest who don’t know anything about Thailand, there’s so much shit happening in Bangkok Loco that is probably won’t matter.

And a footnote. If you were doing to throw a crime flick on late night TV right now, what would be your pick? I’ve stumbled in from Bangkok Loco and turned on the set for noise. What do I see? Hard Rain. Mere weeks after Katrina, some brain trust has programmed Hard bloody Rain. Like the movie I just saw, I don’t know if that’s brilliant or remarkably dumb. Probably both.