Monday, December 20, 2010

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Joe Dante has a brief vocal cameo in Gremlins 2: The New Batch as a television director, but the role he was really born to play was mad scientist. He should be in some 1950s horror film, where all the monsters are rubber and dry ice, and everyone still screams no matter how fake they look. Until he perfects his time machine, he’ll always be a man slightly out of time, but that’s what makes him such an effective satirist. He’s just slightly out of sync with reality. And Gremlins 2 is one of Dr. Dante’s more devilish experiments, an imagined world where Hulk Hogan exists alongside Rambo, while Batman shares a room with Alvin and the Chipmunks and Bugs Bunny introduces a story that includes characters based on Grandpa Munster and Miss Piggy. This is the quest for a unified theory of pop culture.

The film begins with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck squabbling over who gets to ride the Warner Bros. shield. It’s a characteristically cheeky move on Dante’s part, a sly feint that momentarily confuses the audience. Did we pick up the wrong movie? The reassuring chirps and squeals of little Gizmo soon come along to set us straight, so quickly that we don’t even realize Dante just tricked us into staring at the Warner Bros. logo for a good minute. Not that he's being a good company man here. He's just reminding us who signs the cheques. Beneath all of the film’s haphazard pop-culture references, there is some semblance of order after all. There is indeed a place where Bugs Bunny and Gizmo can plausibly and peacefully co-exist—on a legal document in some lawyer’s office listing the intellectual property of Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

Dante is tuned in to the signals that clutter the air. The film feels like 50 different television channels playing at once: pure buzzing information overload. Do you want narrative cohesion? Do not look here. The film is not the story, but the nonsense that flies above it like a flock of well-fed pigeons (no one escapes untarnished). The only unity in all this chaos is the monolithic corporate order that underwrites the proceedings, from the familiar shield at the beginning to the film’s fictional Clamp empire, which swallows up everything in sight and spits out a newer, shinier, crappier version of the world it is devouring. It’s an awful reality, and all we can do is live in, whether we’re eternally guileless Billy, who deals with the devil as honourably as one can or tenacious Grandpa Fred, a washed-up horror-movie host who seizes hold of the Gremlin crisis to become the reporter he always wanted to be.

The anarchic energy found only briefly in the original—mostly in the debauched all-Gremlin party in the town bar—takes over the sequel. The wildest parts of Dante’s imagination are given free rein, to good effect. All of the references may threaten to overwhelm the film, but the director is keen on pushing towards the breaking point. There’s even a mid-film interruption where the Gremlins take over the projection room and threaten to put on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Luckily, Hulk Hogan is in the audience—one ripped yellow tank top later and we’re back on track. The film abounds in scattershot satire aimed at the media and corporate culture; every scene is rife with parodies and homages, surprising visual conceits and ridiculous puns (two characters meet in a chic Canadian restaurant which seemingly exists only to provide an excuse for a chocolate moose gag).

Unlike the first Gremlins, this film doesn’t really have anything lucid to say about the world, preferring to echo the noise of modern culture rather than trying to shout above the din. This is less a coherent story than a foundation for sight gags. But if anything, it’s superior to the original. This is a lesson in kamikaze sequel-making at its finest. The small-town hokiness of the first film is roundly mocked, while the normal expectations of a sequel are avoided (cute little Gizmo spends much of the film being tortured instead of making cooing sounds and puppy-eyes for the camera). Dante dive-bombs the original, blasting it out of our memories and making the possibility of further sequels all but inconceivable. Could you follow this mess with anything other than a broom?

Monday, December 13, 2010


In hindsight, I have no one to blame but myself. After weeks of hectoring questions, I found myself frustrated and panicked. I didn’t know what to say anymore. What do you want? I don’t want anything. No, what do you want? Finally, I broke down and blurted out a confession, grabbing whatever word was closest to the front of my brain, if only to put an end to this Kafkaesque farce. In the end, they were not fishing for a specific fact. They simply wanted me to admit to something, anything. And that’s the story of how I got a blender for Christmas.

Now, I haven’t gotten the blender quite yet, but its presence is all but assured beneath that Christmas tree—courtesy of my mother, who for weeks demanded that I tell her what I want for Christmas, even though I truthfully could think of very little that I needed or desired. The whole ridiculous game feels mildly sinister, and I can’t help but suspect I have contributed in some small way to the continued global dominance of the American military-industrial crap complex. Do you ever wonder if our whole civilization stays afloat due largely to a sea of ostensibly useful kitchen appliances? I certainly do. If people were to rise up and start chopping their onions by hand, would the last teetering fragments of our broken economy finally collapse into the abyss?

Paranoid ranting? Just shut up and get yourself a goddamn Magic Bullet and make me some delicious salsa in three seconds, you say? The defense begs to differ, and would like to call to the stand its chief witness: Gremlins, that 1984 yuletide classic depicting the complex relationship between mass-marketed movie toys and the people who love them.

The person in question is Billy, a hard-working bank clerk supporting his inept inventor father. The toy is a little creature called a mogwai, which father brings home to Billy as Christmas gift. That’s our introduction to Gizmo, the original Gremlin and an atom bomb of sweetie-pie adorability, a godless mixture of Ewok and Tribble. Defy him if you can. (You can’t.) But if you can get past the ready-to-be-merchandised qualities of the film, there’s actually a lot of bleakness lurking around here. Yes, obviously, this is a silly film, but there’s also a dark, strangely serious aspect to it as well. It sets out to remind us how truly depressing and downright awful the holidays can sometimes be.

The film takes perverse pleasure in reminding us of the lonely few. “While everybody else are opening up their presents, they’re opening up their wrists,” say the sulky, proto-emo Kate, Billy’s love interest. Turns out her father died in a freak chimney accident on Christmas Eve, dressed as Santa and loaded with presents. No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus. He broke his neck bringing presents FOR YOU.

Amazingly, this was written by Chris Columbus, whose career in Christmas films would trace a descending arc from this point, moving on to Home Alone before hitting bottom with the odious Christmas with the Kranks. Much credit for this film’s sharpness lies with director Joe Dante, a cartoon satirist with a keen eye. Aside from crafting moments of skewed beauty out of this deformed kid’s movie—dig the lovely use of both sides of a movie screen featuring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—Dante gives the film a bit of sting simply by making the violence as convincing as the comedy.

There’s something rather satisfying in seeing Billy’s mother kill the evil Gremlins with the aid of a variety of kitchen tools, most notably the microwave she uses to explode one of her tormentors. The anti-social eight-year-old boy in all of us is engaged by the prospect of blowing up things in the microwave, while the middle-aged parent no doubt appreciates the efficiency of the appliance (mere seconds until your enemies are reduced to goo). Such is the ambivalence of the sleekly modern kitchen. Does that microwave make cooking as easy as pressing a button? Will a Mix Master change your life? If you’re beset by little nattering Chinese demons, the answer to these questions just may be yes.

Like our own appetites, the demons are quite harmless when held in check, but dangerous once turned loose. Rules—broken as soon as possible—are created to keep the demons under control. Gizmo is the good child, always well behaved, but the other Gremlins are like greedy little brats, devouring everything in sight and always demanding more. If you’ve seen Dante’s Matinee—and you should, it’s excellent—you might recognize the crowd of Gremlins in the movie theatre throwing popcorn around, screaming and laughing. That same scene reappears in Matinee, but the monsters have now been replaced with children. Hard to say which version is more terrifying.

But the Gremlins aren’t just naughty children. The film uses them as all-purpose signifiers of mayhem. Problem with your car? Gremlins. Television signal fuzzy? Gremlins. There’s an anti-consumer rant going on here, but it’s not about how we’re too greedy—it’s about how what we consume is crap. This is the joke behind Billy’s father and all his ridiculous inventions. He’s essentially creating things that don’t work to fulfill needs no one has. His smokeless ashtray spews smoke thicker than a tire fire. His coffee machine spits out a hearty caffeinated gelatin. His juicer simply spits, period. Who asked for this garbage?

This applies to the Gremlins as well—they’re just as much useless gizmos as any of the other inventions, and like anything mass-produced, quality declines quickly. The first Gremlin, Gizmo, is a wonderful novelty. But the next batch is rowdier, less cute, and just not as good, frankly. The awful truth of advanced consumer society is that producing junk is better than producing quality, because junk encourages more consumption while quality satisfies demand (always a bad thing when your whole economy rests on producing more than you can ever need).

This is the dark side of Christmas giving— pointless novelties, dubious devices, all waiting for us as we begin to consume and consume around the clock. The season creates appetites not based in hunger but habit, demands without necessity. We ask for things not because we need or even want them, but because we’re expected to ask for things. And rising up to meet this useless demand is equally useless supply, an army of crap invading our cupboards and closets through hundreds of gift-wrapped Trojan horses.

My mother was very insistent that I tell her what I want for Christmas. I was hesitant—what if I don’t want anything? What if I’m satisfied with what I’ve got? Well, tough luck, because this woman is wrapping something so I damn well better tell her what it is. I suggested a blender, and now I can see that appliance’s whole life stretched out before me, from beneath the Christmas tree to the back of my cupboard to a dumpster years from now when I finally get sick of it taking up space. Imagine my horror upon re-watching Gremlins and seeing myself in it—not in earnest Billy, or mopey Kate, or even harmless Gizmo, but in those little green goblins, gnawing their way through life.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Furies

Few directors took so strongly to heart the mythical undertones of the western as Anthony Mann. His films are not nation-building legends (looking at you, John Ford), but tragic myths of cruelty and longing, more concerned with tearing apart individuals than building up communities. Sometimes they are the twilight of the gods (Man of the West), and other times tin-plated Passion plays (The Naked Spur), but they rarely explore a specifically American mythology. Dress up his characters in togas or robes, and the action could be transplanted two thousand years in the past without a hitch.

The Furies makes its connections to Greek lore fairly explicit—right there in the title, see—and it’s tempting to view the whole thing as a cattle-baron epic starring Zeus and Hera (if Zeus and Hera were a borderline incestuous father-daughter pair instead of bickering married couple, that is). Like Greek gods, T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and his daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) seem to exist on a different plane than the mere mortals that serve as pawns in their games. Both glow with an inhuman will. It’s there when a wrecked T.C. asks his bride for money, and in the face of rejection still drinks a toast to her—and means it. It’s there when a heartbroken Vance cries about losing the only man who ever hit her, and you see that she makes no distinctions between violence and love.

Out on the plains of New Mexico in 1870, perhaps such distinctions are a hopeless luxury, better suited to well-heeled eastern types than gruff cattlemen (and women). T.C. has built up his ranch from nothing but blood, sweat and tears—just not necessarily his own. Vance preens for daddy like a little princess, but she’s perfectly willing to play rough as well. Seemingly just to irritate T.C., she courts the revenge-seeking son of one of her father’s victims, although it later occurs to her to fall in love with the man. She willfully defies her father whenever it suits her, which is about every five minutes.

These being intemperate folk, defiance can take some rather extravagant forms. T.C. threatens his daughter’s position on the farm by bringing home a Washington-bred fiancé, a society dame given to genteel political maneuvering. When the wicked stepmother dares to come between daughter and daddy dearest, the fairytale turns more Grimm than Disney, and suddenly the baffled matron has a pair of scissors stuck in her face.

Understandably, T.C. is annoyed at the permanent disfiguration of his bride, but he’s also been blind to how Vance’s efforts are the only thing keeping the ranch afloat despite his profligate ways. The man has handed out so many IOUs they’ve become a currency in the county (all sporting an image of Vance, as if T.C. were slowly spending away his daughter’s love for him). One bad turn deserves another, so T.C. hangs Vance’s only friend, as well as the only decent man who ever loved her—a Mexican squatter named Juan who has survived on the land thanks only to Vance’s influence over her father.

The hanging is a thing of beauty, a shadow play lit only by a thin sliver of light between ground and sky (the film may not be a showcase for the masterful use of landscape that would mark Mann’s later westerns, but it’s a gorgeous example of western noir). The scene is pure theatre, clearly staged to humble Vance. But she refuses to give in, and sets about to destroying her father by yanking the ranch right out from under him.

Given how casually T.C. courts disaster, you start to think he wants his daughter to take away the ranch. He approaches each calamity with a weary shrug and a sigh, as if he were finally about to be crushed, but he always walks away with a skip and a grin—failure is the man’s greatest source of energy, apparently (Huston performs some masterful emotional sleight-of-hand in conveying these shifting moods). But the daughter is no less perverse, and she seems to understand on some level that to defy her father is to prove her love (she treats his dying wish like a private joke between the two, cheerfully ignoring it). In Vance, T.C. has very carefully crafted the engine of his defeat, and it may be his greatest triumph. What would have happened had he survived on the ranch? Poverty, decline, stagnation. There is no crueler fate for a god than to become a mere man.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pistol Opera

In the world of Pistol Opera, there seem to be only two types of people: assassins, and their victims. And among the assassins, the greatest and most feared is Hundred Eyes, who sees everything. The calling card of this killer is a single shot through the back of the skull, piercing the brain in just the right spot to produce a smile on the corpse’s face. A fitting poetic touch for Seijun Suzuki’s immaculately shot and incoherently told film, which turns all violence into a kind of performance art. With death reduced to harmless prettiness, who wouldn't greet it with a grin?

The plot could have been stolen from some forgotten B-movie (in a sense it was, being loosely derived from Suzuki’s own 1967 Branded to Kill); the style would make the avant-garde blush. Good luck making sense out of any of this. We’ve got a female assassin named Stray Cat, ranked No. 3 by an unseen guild. She finds herself the target of No. 1 (Hundred Eyes), who is mowing through the rest of the top-ten assassins, wiping out the competition. For the sake of her own survival, Stray Cat must somehow lure Hundred Eyes out of hiding and defeat the great killer.

People die. Sometimes they reappear. Narrative cul-de-sacs are everywhere. The film periodically stops—not that it ever really builds up much momentum to begin with—for characters to tell us about their dreams. The final shoot-out occurs on a sound stage made up in pseudo-Grecian style, filled with savage slave-mutes wielding battle-axes. Do not ask why. Why does someone drop their pants and start pissing in the street? Why does someone wander the grocery store muttering, over and over, “I’m Blanche Dubois”? Sometimes there is no reason. They’re just fucking crazy.

Yet we should be careful to distinguish—this may be madness, but there is nothing manic about it. This assassination tango is violence devoid of viscera. Viewers expecting the usual kinetic kick of cinematic violence will likely be baffled by Suzuki’s languid style. When someone is shot in the back, they do not jolt or spasm. They merely pause, as if to contemplate the bullet breaking the skin, and then gracefully collapse. When a woman is shot while diving into a pool, the water turns deep red—except directly around her, where it remains a serene, untouched shade of blue. One of the assassins, No. 5 according to the latest quarterly report, is aptly named Painless Surgeon and never loses a drop of blood, even when repeatedly stabbed. For a film filled with so much death, there’s a surprising absence of red outside of the production design (where it abounds in poppy fields and flags).

You can appreciate the aesthetics of Suzuki’s violence, the purity of each gesture and pose. It’s a rare scene that isn’t at least worth a holy-shit-lookit-that double take. But the futility of this violence is also evident in every mannered moment. The position of No. 1 is a dubious prize—all it means is that everyone else is going to be taking shots at you (no wonder No. 1 decides to take out everyone else first). Between the images of mushroom clouds and talk of bloody flags, you can sense an underlying repulsion towards the pageantry of violence, although perhaps not a lucid argument. I’m not saying the film makes sense, but there’s at least a coherent nihilism in its final howling outburst of “Idiot!”

By that point, frustrated viewers may echo the sentiment, but the film is curiously affecting in its maddening way. I’m drawn to the old woman’s strange baroque-poetic description of her dream about a giant goldfish dying on a beach, its scales catching the light of the setting sun and turning decay into a beautiful sight. And then night falls, and the beauty disappears in the dark, and yet, the old woman says, still there is something comforting about living so close to death. Befitting a film made by a 78-year-old, Pistol Opera possesses a benign fascination with death, exploring its beauty and discovering comfort in the banality of its repetition. Suzuki does not tremble before it, possessing a calm mind and steady hand—a painless surgeon draining the blood from the greatest terror.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Millennium Actress

Dense yet graceful, Satoshi Kon’s 2001 anime masterpiece Millennium Actress bursts with sublime possibility. It is both a meditation on aging in film and the timelessness of the medium. It contemplates the power of fantasy to overwrite life even as it suggests all our stories are but our own lives in disguise. The richness of this film comes from its imaginative juxtapositions, which take us from a snowy field to the surface of the moon in a single step (that’s one small step, indeed). With a single tumble, we can fall from a samurai fight into a prison in Kyoto.

Kon blends together reality and fantasy in the story of Chiyoko, a beloved actress-turned-recluse recounting her life to Genya, a documentary interviewer and doting fan. As a young girl in the years leading up to the Second World War, she encounters an artist running from the police. The man gives her a key to hold for him, promising to meet her again the next day. But the promise goes unfulfilled, and she spends the rest of her life clutching that key and searching for the man across a millennia’s worth of film fantasies stretching from medieval Japan to the depths of space.

Yet the core of these stories remains Chiyoko’s search for that one man, uniting the disparate places and times into a single thread. This is a purely cinematic fable, one that makes full use of film’s ability to collapse thousands of miles and years into the blink of a single cut. The boundaries between reality and imagination are buried beneath the layers of stories upon stories. Kon’s game involves making Chiyoko’s memories and films interchangeable. When she pleads, “I’m sure he’s around here,” you don’t quite know if she’s speaking as a character or herself.

Kon exalts film’s capacity for truthful illusion. You can’t tell Chiyoko’s real life from her films because the distinction is irrelevant. True, she spends her life chasing a phantom, but who’s to say this robs her life of meaning? If anything, this is precisely her life’s meaning. Are we any different, those of us who have invested so much of our hearts in following the lives of these ghostly lights upon the screen?

Monday, November 15, 2010


One night, after leaving a bar, Mark Hogancamp would be savagely beaten by five strangers. He was comatose for over a week and awoke permanently damaged, forced to learn how to live again like a child just born. Indeed, he was a child, in certain regards. He had to learn how to write again, how to interact with other people. But most significantly, he had to learn who he was again—his memory of life before the accident had vanished, reduced to a few incomprehensible snapshots of lost moments. It was as if, Mark explains, “they kicked the memories out of my head.”

Marwencol, a fascinating and moving documentary from director Jeff Malmberg, explores Mark’s unique form of self-therapy. Struggling to find an outlet for his grief and anger, Mark constructs Marwencol, a Belgian town during the Second World War populated by Barbie dolls and miniature models representing his friends and family. Mark’s doll stand-in—an American soldier—discovers the town deserted, save for 27 women who avoided the Nazi purges. Unsurprisingly, he chooses to stay as de facto leader of the Barbie tribe, setting up a bar for passing soldiers looking to relax with a beer or two while watching one of the nightly catfights held for entertainment (don’t worry, Mark explains, all catfights are staged).

Much like a child at play with his toys, Mark invests the figures of Marwencol with a great seriousness (you can see for yourself on the film's website, which features a large selection of Mark's work). When he speaks of them, he speaks as if they were real. What happens to them really happens, at least in Mark’s telling. He takes photographs of these miniaturized backyard sagas—entire boxes filled with snapshots chronicling the history of Marwencol—until a neighbouring photographer discovers the man’s unique talent and brings it to the attention of the New York art world, where an eager cult following awaits. Little wonder—the photographs are beautiful. There’s no glibness in Mark’s scenes. The dolls move in the photographs much like real people, with expressive gestures and tragic weight. They live and they die, often violently.

Malmberg has given the film something of a redemptive arc—we follow Mark’s anxiety over his ultimately successful first gallery showing in New York—but the town casts a melancholy shadow. Mark not only invests Marwencol with his trauma, but also his loneliness. He craves companionship so nakedly it can almost be embarrassing (at one point, noting the marital status of a coworker, he sighs loudly, visibly disappointed). The dolls mediate Mark’s romantic frustrations, allowing him to build relationships where he cannot in real life.

In a certain sense, Mark is simply building up a world to take the place of the memories he lost, but the past finds its way into Marwencol, often in surprising fashion. In order to gain intimate access to the rich world contained within the Mark’s imagination, the film clings to his perspective, with the side effect being that we know as little of his past as he does. What does come out is that he was once married (where she went, we never learn), an amateur artist, and a drunk.

Remarkably, Mark has not touched a drop of alcohol since the attack. It’s as if he were a new person built out of the fragments of the old, with pieces missing. “I can’t remember what it tastes like,” he says impassively as he looks at a wall of liquor bottles at the pub where he works part-time in real life. And yet in his fantasy world, a determined gang of Nazis looking for Mark’s bar disturbs the peace of Marwencol. “Gimme a drink!” Mark rages for the camera, telling us how the Nazis cry out—how he once cried out, in his past life—while searching for booze.

So they capture his stand-in, and they torture him. One Nazi leaves a scar on the right side of his face—where he was most damaged after the assault, Mark notes—but he won’t tell. Another character is killed in a church, refusing to squeal. The town becomes a space for Mark’s anxiety over his drunken past to surface, and the storyline reveals a deep fear over this forgotten part of his self. If he were to recover his memory, would he recover his alcoholism as well? In glimpses of Mark’s old art, there is a self-portrait: Mark tied to a wooden post, shirtless, while a woman scars him with a knife. It is disturbingly echoed in the photograph of Mark’s stand-in, strapped to a post in the church, under the knife once again. There is continuity between the two halves of this man, buried however deeply.

Doll Mark is rescued this time, you’ll be thankful to hear (by the beguiling Belgian witch of Marwencol, who owns a time machine built out of the VCR that ate Mark’s favourite porno tape). But there’s something very poignant at work here beyond the fanciful escapes and surprise plot twists—a tragedy acted out with children’s toys, Shakespeare performed by Barbie dolls. At first, the town allowed Mark to imagine himself whole and healthy and loved. In the film’s crushing final moments, we see that this dream of a perfect self is no longer possible, as Mark’s stand-in inches closer to his real scars, both physical and emotional. This fantasy world accumulates sorrows of its own, until it is at last no longer an escape from reality, but rather a mirror of it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Devil is a Woman

“To reality one should prefer the illusion of reality.” So said Josef von Sternberg, whose films bear the proof of this philosophy in their carefully sculpted worlds, typically crafted entirely in studio settings where Sternberg was free to indulge the exacting whims of his tyrannical imagination. The Devil is a Woman, his final collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, is no different. Set in turn-of-the-century Spain during carnival, the film is fittingly raucous, but with melancholy and violence behind its revelries. Free-spirited mobs dancing through air thick with balloons and streamers, giving way to empty streets where the streamers now reveal themselves as cobwebs, swamping our protagonist Antonio in desire and memory. All the settings, the lights, the costumes, are designed to drive us straight to the face of Dietrich, her mature eyes and childish mouth, those meticulously drawn features. At times, she seems the only real thing in this fantastic world. In Luis Bunuel’s no-less-masterful That Obscure Object of Desire (based on the same Pierre Louys novel), Dietrich’s character Concha is played by two actresses, emphasizing the fundamental capriciousness of the woman, and her unobtainable and indefinite essence. But here, all that is needed is Dietrich. Her smile shakes the world.

Considering the title, the film might at first appear like some musty old-world misogyny, but the sympathy of the story is clearly with Dietrich and not the pompous, frail male egos that frame her (“You’ve always mistaken your vanity for love,” she tells one, demolishing her entire suite of suitors/tormentors in a single blow). She draws them near and pushes them away, but it’s clear she’s just a woman looking to survive while adding interest to her assets. Her last line—“I used to work in a cigarette factory”—says it all. “I began with nothing, but now look at me.” And while she needs the men to climb out of her humble beginnings, it’s also clear that giving herself entirely to one would destroy everything she has worked for. None of the men are satisfied with this state—preferring, perhaps, a reality to the illusion she offers—and so she dispatches each in turn. But how startling to see the final shot set not in one of Sternberg’s studio sets, but the real world, where a carriage drives Concha not deeper into the tyrant’s dreams but out of them. A final bittersweet parting between director and star—she is banished from the dreamland, but at last free, free to go where you see not through a veil of rain and streamers, leaves and lace, but clearly, in harsh, unyielding light.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Never Let Me Go

Completely tasteful and entirely bland—that’s the central problem of Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek’s adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel. Set in an alternate past where boarding schools prepare clones for a life of donating organs until they “complete” (in other words, die), there is a certain haunting quality to the film’s banality, the dullness masking the horrors of this brave old world. But the film’s self-regarding artfulness becomes so intrusive that we’re soon watching nothing more than a scrapbook of the most common sins of the cinema of quality. The score, in particular, is a grade-A exhibit in preening musical affectation (seriously, do everyone a favour and choke a violinist today—at the very least, punch a harpist). This is the sort of film where people stare into empty fields at sunset and cry while the voiceover tells us what to feel. I get it, you’re serious and meaningful and profound, big deal. If I had a voiceover following me around whenever I gazed vacantly at fence posts, I’d probably look pretty deep too.

The love triangle between three of these future organ donors, supposedly the human spark at the core of this otherwise cold piece of work, remains hopelessly inert throughout (the film contains the seeds of a great piece of exploitation trash, perhaps titled “Young Clones in Love,” but opts for safe respectability instead). The bright young things—Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley—play the trio with a restless seriousness that suggests all are awaiting their turn to make sad faces at the camera. There is a tragedy here, in these three slabs of meat slowly discovering their meatness, just as the film has some real and true things to say about the painful revelation of mortality we all must experience and the feebleness of art in the face of this terrible knowledge. None of which can excuse the feebleness of this particular art in the face of the blackness that lies beyond harvest time at the organ farm.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Atomic Cafe

“Risk is part of a pattern of daily routine.” Quite true—and what better way to illustrate this than by showing an obese opera singer stepping on a bar of soap in the shower and taking a vicious (and very possibly fatal) pratfall?

This hilariously offhand sequence from an old propaganda movie is just one of the many nuclear-age curios unearthed in The Atomic Café. Directed by a trio of anonymous artisans (Jayne Loader, Kevin and Pierce Rafferty), the film is a collage of newsreel footage, army instructional films, television broadcasts, and other assorted audio-visual artifacts of Cold War dementia. Film essayists as diverse as Adam Curtis and Michael Moore bear the influence of this epochal 1982 work and its blending of archival footage and music, but those directors typically rely on narration to carry their arguments. In The Atomic Café, the images are the argument.

The film begins rather prosaically with an old interview with Paul Tibbets (pilot of the Enola Gay) framing the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But as American society struggles to rationalize life under the bomb, the film’s tone grows more mordant, the footage simultaneously more disturbing and more ridiculous. There’s plenty of atomic kitsch on display here, from the well-known Duck and Cover, with Bert the turtle and his far-from-reassuring advice on how to respond to a nuclear attack, to a child in a radiation suit awkwardly riding his bicycle to the sweet country twang of that Lowell Blanchard and the Valley Trio classic, “Jesus Hits Like An Atom Bomb.”

But the film is more than a repository of outdated paranoia gathered together for our amusement. The directors construct two major threads running through the film: first, the propaganda and news footage serenely explaining the imminent threat of total death and the many forms this death will take, and second, the average American devouring all this heady information. A favourite device of the film is to introduce its next propaganda clip with some 1950s American family turning on their radio or television.

This isn’t just a glib narrative technique. The overwhelming subtext of the propaganda films is that the bomb can reach any American, anywhere, even in their most private and protected moments—even in the shower, for instance. The campy humour of Duck and Cover derives from its depiction of people in the middle of normal activities—picnicking, bicycling—dropping to the ground and cowering at a sudden flash of light. In traditional war, there is a home front and a battlefront, but in nuclear war the distinction disappears. You are vulnerable wherever you live. The front lines are everywhere.

This culminates in the film’s tour-de-force closing montage, which depicts an all-out nuclear assault cobbled together entirely from images both real and staged, all taken from news and propaganda films. The final punch line is not just how persuasive this sequence is, but the fact that it has been taken from films talking vigilance and safety, from the government’s feeble attempts at reassuring and educating the populace. The final assertion is that this endless talk of nuclear safety is specifically designed to spread nuclear fear and terrify the public into subservience.

This imagined nuclear blast essentially wipes out the film. The atomic-era domestic sphere reconstructed by the directors is finally obliterated not by war but the images of war. In the aftermath, a survivor calmly—because everyone in these films is insanely, terrifyingly, oozingly calm—says, “Nothing to do now but wait for orders from the authorities and relax.” And to the man lying in a wet pool at the bottom of the shower—paralyzed by confusion, pain, or helplessness, it doesn’t matter—this must sound like a very good plan indeed.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


“Is it real?” The question periodically buzzes through the mind. We ask it often of ourselves, perhaps as we’re walking down a summer street, light breeze flowing by and our brains on a cloud, feeling so good we suspect we’re in a dream. We ask it of reality television and gossip rags and porn stars. We ask it of those flowers in that vase in the hall and the silhouette of the cat that sits in the window across the street watching us. We ask it all the time, except when we need to know the answer.

Then we’re all too happy to go along with whatever sweet lie is proffered—a basic truism of human nature illustrated by Catfish, a sort of docu-thriller from first-time directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. Facebook offers many beautiful illusions amid its imitation of human connection, not least of which is the idea that we’re at the centre of a great network of associates, the star of the story of our lives with a captive audience attentively watching. Yaniv “Nev” Schulman—a New York photographer and younger brother of co-director Ariel—is one such star, discovering the dim edges of the stage and realizing what lies behind the footlights for the first time.

When Abby, an eight-year-old girl from Ishpeming, Michigan, begins sending Nev paintings of his photographs, the young man is at first flattered by the attention and even a little awed by the girl’s talent. But the relationship doesn’t stop there, and as his office fills with paintings his inbox fills with friend requests from Abby’s family. He talks on the phone to Angela, the mother, while kindling a fiery virtual romance with Abby’s older sister, Megan. Soon, he has an entire cyber-life centred on the Ishpeming clan, including cousins and friends, all keeping him up-to-date on the latest exciting developments in Abby’s painting career and egging on his romance with Megan.

Despite its ostensible documentary origins, Catfish is shaped like fiction, right down to the pervasive Mark Mothersbaugh score that coats every sequence in thick sonic shellac (direct cinema, this ain’t). The film has been promoted as a thriller, and the story certainly takes on that shape as it works its way towards the truth behind the Ishpeming family. I don’t doubt this is a savvy marketing move, but there are dangers here as well. Other films before have merged documentary and thriller conventions to ramp up the drama—The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, for instance—but they were pure fantasy, while Catfish tramps through the lives of real human beings. A little more responsibility and maturity is required, to say nothing of a more sensitive touch (I’m not sure if secretly filming people necessarily qualifies as any of these things, is what I’m getting at).

The directors happily, if somewhat blithely, flirt with fiction, although the ambiguity is surely part of the point. We spend 90 minutes being taught to doubt everything we’re told, so little wonder we doubt the teacher. But this blurring of fact and fiction often feels less sophisticated technique and more side effect of fumbling filmmaking. The revelation that Megan has been claiming other people’s songs as her own to impress Nev, for instance, is so curiously condensed and neat that it appears to have been staged for our benefit. Now perhaps the scene really was staged for the sake of convenience, or maybe just edited so tightly that it lost all naturalism, but I don’t trust it either way.

Regardless of the explanation, this is definitely a far cry from unruly documentary truth, as some critics have commented. That’s no great sin necessarily, but what really makes the scene questionable is the fact that one of the songs Megan steals credit for is “Truman Sleeps,” the distinctive Philip Glass piano piece from The Truman Show. It’s just too much—Nev, trapped in a false world, is sent a song from a film about that exact subject? Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it’s rarely so convenient, is it?

But such doubts begin to fade once we meet the Christof of Nev’s world, the person who has been pulling the strings and building the sets, constructing a pseudo-world around Nev in order to fulfill some obscure personal need. Once this person enters the scene, the film, seemingly linear and constrained, opens up with some surprisingly emotional and complex questions about identity in the digital age. More than anything, the ability to assume a new life online has shown how malleable our identities truly are. We are not merely who we are in our daily lives, but also an accumulation of possibilities and regrets, who we were once and who we never were at all.

These are fascinating questions posed by an imperfect film. The greatest drawback of the film’s reliance on thriller archetypes is how it pits Nev against his deceiver, when the relationship is clearly more complicated than that. The film does much to compensate for this in the end—the last third is surprisingly tender and sympathetic—but the imbalance is clearly felt. All this subterfuge and suspense turns the film into a sort of labyrinth, and we all expect to find a monster at the heart of each labyrinth, right?

Of course, this isn’t a thriller, there are no monsters in real life, and the person at the centre of the maze is more complex and sympathetic than you would imagine. It’s notable that when the trio is steps away from the truth, they almost turn around but for the goading of Nev, who taunts them into staying. Callow youth? Perhaps so, but they might simply sense that there are questions here too big for them to answer (their suggestion that life requires people who fool us and keep us on our toes is a feeble attempt at insight, and somewhat narcissistic to boot, as if everyone in life is just here to make things more interesting for them). We’ve created a vast web of digital connections and transformed human relationships into electrical commodities that can be numbered and ranked, collected like bottle caps and discarded as easily. But when you look a person in the eye and ask yourself just who they really are, no amount of programming ingenuity can solve that problem. “Is it real?” Don’t ask—you don’t want to know.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Vancouver International Film Festival 2010: Part Three

Thomas Mao
Consider me charmed. Here we have a culture clash comedy that actually breaks free of the stifling clichés of the genre and creates something unique and truly engaging. The film merges documentary and fiction by using an entirely imagined context to examine the relationship between two real people—Thomas Rohedewald, friend of and model for Chinese painter Mao Yan. However, in the film, Thomas plays the artist, and he comes across Mao running an inn on a remote Chinese plain. Director Zhu Wen finds the expected humour in miscommunication, but he takes these ideas to some strange places. A typically garbled exchange between the two men involves Thomas contemplating the existence of life on other planets while Mao replies that yes, it will snow in October. Rather than leave the joke at that, the film combines the two ideas into a single entity, giving us the lovely spectacle of aliens landing at Mao’s inn during a nighttime snowfall. The film’s skewed sensibilities go even further with a second part that portrays Thomas and Mao in something more closely resembling their real-life personas (although still not quite documentary fact). As Wen explained after the screening, the first part can be seen as a house, and the second part as its reflection. The two are inseparable from each other and yet uniquely different—much like Thomas and Mao, it could be said.

Crossing the Mountain
Even by the standards of the slow, painfully slow art film, Crossing the Mountain is a challenge. There’s presumably a narrative in this Chinese film, but it’s buried as deep as a stone idol from a long-dead tribe. Set in a remote village, the film hints at violence. We see armed squads and hear talk of the dangers of unexploded grenades in the jungle. People tell stories of past human sacrifices (the head of a man with a beard and long hair is good for the rice crops, apparently). A stunning (and stupefyingly long) shot of two people watching a funeral procession in the distance is punctuated by several distant explosions, with clouds of dust cascading down a far-away mountain. The film carries a tantalizing aura of mystery and death. It prickles my imagination even as it numbs my mind. I don’t want to hate, but I don’t know how to love!!!!!!DOESNOTCOMPUTE0100110100101

Sorry, but I don’t know what I can say about this one. Director Rui Yang has undoubtedly created something beautiful—I just don’t know what that something is, and after a long day of festival going I’m certainly in no shape to find out (apparently I shouldn’t struggle with the avant-garde too close to my bedtime). With so little in the way of coherent narrative, each scene becomes its only element, removed from any organizing pattern, an artifact of the present. As an aesthetic experience, there is something to be said for this. Even if you’re half-asleep, you can be lulled into the film’s beauty as if it were a waking dream (I can testify to the lusciousness of the film’s sound design, which is quite enveloping if you shut your eyes—just to rest them, of course). But I don’t feel like I can seriously speak to the film’s merits at this point, without repeated viewings. I sense something moving just below the surface, and that’s all I can say for now.

In the Shadows
A quiet German film about a man fresh out of prison and restoring contact with his old criminal friends. Seriously, another one of those. But Thomas Arslan approaches the clichés by completely underplaying the drama, turning the story into something so banal it almost becomes original. There are the usual corrupt cops and implacable low-lifes, as well as our ex-con, Trojan, who is planning an armored car robbery with a few old associates. Obviously, things go wrong—the violence in this film has the cold, sickening feeling of slabs of meat being dropped on the floor. There’s none of the usual crime-movie glamour here, nothing grandiose in this modest drama. It’s almost like a documentary of these clichés, trying to provide us a new perspective on an old story by removing the usual excitement and stylistic flash. A respectable approach, and perhaps the only way to successfully film this kind of plot anymore, even if I ultimately would prefer that Arslan avoided these worn-out tropes altogether.

Surviving Life
Although I was initially disappointed by this film in comparison to director Jan Svankmajer’s last feature—Lunacy, with its deliriously macabre combination of Poe and de Sade—there’s still a lot to appreciate in this deliberately ugly, but often funny film. Svankmajer mixes photo cut-out animation with live action (including plenty of his trademark close-ups of mouths—no dancing meat this time around, though), achieving an effect that is jarring but also surprisingly fluid. The unnatural aesthetic allows for dream and reality to remain indistinguishable, which is perhaps Svankmajer’s intention, even if he does begin the film by explaining he is doing this strictly to save money. I suppose we should be grateful that an eccentric like Svankmajer can find any sort of budget to make a film at all.

The story itself is a mish-mash of psychoanalytical humour. Eugene, a middle-aged office clerk, finds himself falling in love with a woman in his dreams, which turns out to be his anima (that is to say, his mother). He impregnates her—a rather sneaky way of inserting a bit of incest into the film—and develops a sort of dream-life infidelity that angers his wife. Freud and Jung duke it out on the walls of his therapist, who thinks having sex with Eugene will resolve all of this angst and frustration. Surprisingly, this does somehow cohere in the end, and while the film doesn’t really feel like first-rate Svankmajer, it’s too witty and imaginative to be a waste of time.

Mysteries of Lisbon
Somewhere around the middle point of this four and a half hour epic, perhaps just after the latest random supporting character has decided to tell us their entire sordid life story, you might reasonably wonder just what sort of nonsense you’ve committed yourself to watching. Brilliant, beautiful nonsense, that’s what. Raul Ruiz’s epic adaptation of the eponymous mid-19th century Portuguese novel (unavailable in English, to the best of my knowledge) is on the surface nothing more than ravishing soap opera silliness, but he brings a sophistication and intelligence that adds greatly to the experience. So yes, random monk, tell me about your wayward youth, because I would dearly, dearly love to hear more.

The story is an overstuffed concoction of false identities and secret affairs, perhaps best described as an elaborate costume ball played out over the span of a hundred years and five countries. Pedro, a young boy of unknown parentage, lives in a boarding school where his closest parental figure is the kindly Father Dinis (himself a former gypsy slave trader and Napoleonic soldier, among other identities across the continent). After a violent altercation with another student, Pedro falls into a feverish state where a mystery woman, apparently his mother, visits him. His noble roots are uncovered in an ever expanding circle of coincidences and chance meetings, a beautiful organized chaos mirrored by the graceful peregrinations of Ruiz’s camera, which argues more persuasively for the art of the long take than any other film I’ve seen in the past decade.

Ruiz is capable of a remarkably tricky tone, poised somewhere between sincerity and ironic mockery. He is clearly aware of the absurdity of the plot, but nonetheless savours it as a platform for meditation upon many things—the art of storytelling and the nature of history and memory, for instance. Each character holds another fragment of the central tragedy, creating a sense of history as something shared, a communal storytelling in which each person passes off the tale to the next teller, and on and on until a grand saga is at last revealed. But Ruiz encourages viewers to look at the story from the outside as well—a favourite example of this being the beggars at the end, who scoff at how what is the common stuff of life for the poor becomes unbearable tragedy for the nobility. That’s all part of the essential generosity of Ruiz’s vision here, which even allows space for criticism of the complex world it invests so much time and energy in creating.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2010: Part Two

A Somewhat Gentle Man
The latest example of a loosely defined genre that could be termed Scandinavian deadpan—those films where lots of pasty, sad-looking people stand around chatting endlessly in uninflected tones about ridiculous things. A fair example: Ulrik, just released from prison, meets up with two former criminal associates who begin arguing over whether or not he was supposed to be released from prison today or tomorrow. Gentle absurdity rules the day, and the film plays a game of thwarted desires. Women repeatedly throw themselves at Ulrik when all he wants to do is sit down and eat. His criminal buddies want him to kill the man who ratted him out when all he wants to do is to live a quiet, good life as a mechanic. The film is certainly funny, even if the humour starts to taste a bit sour after a while (much of it is based on the basic ugliness or stupidity of the characters). However, a touch of violence is required for the crime story to play out, and this is where the film shows its weakness. Once that dark cloud appears, the film loses its bearings—it can’t quite find a believable way to resolve the drama and maintain the comedy.

When Mija, the grandmother protagonist of Lee Chang-dong’s excellent Poetry, is told that her Alzheimer’s disease will cause her to first forget nouns, and then verbs, she sighs fretfully, telling the doctor that the nouns are the most important words. But for Mija, verbs are what give her the most difficulty. She struggles throughout the film with finding the correct course of action in response to her slowly collapsing world. Mija (a complex and powerful performance by Yoon Jeong-hee, who came out of a 16-year retirement for the role) is a woman faced with some difficult moral questions. She ekes out a modest living with a part-time maid job for an elderly stroke victim, who takes Viagra and wants her to make him feel like a man again, much to Mija’s disgust. Meanwhile, her grandson is accused of raping a classmate recently driven to suicide. In the faint hope of avoiding a scandal, Mija must pay off the mother of the dead girl. At the same time, she seeks relief in the form of a poetry writing class.

What might seem overbearingly trite—a journey of self-discovery through the art of poetry—is instead something subtler. The actions Mija settles upon are perhaps not the wisest or even most moral choices, but they are the only ones she has left in her vocabulary by the end. And the film’s final sequence serves as an eloquent demonstration of the necessities of art. Only by learning to speak for someone else does Mija at last find her own voice.

Winter Vacation
Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation might be one of the weirdest and most unexpected pleasures of the entire festival for me. There were a fair number of walkouts when I attended, but if you’re on this film’s wavelength you’ll be aching with laughter. This is a comedy of nothingness—pauses and blank stares, empty lots and dead space. The film is essentially a series of vaguely related vignettes focusing on a group of bored kids on their winter vacation. Every actor is directed for maximum stiffness, heightening the absurdity of each awkward conversation. In this strangely lifeless industrial village, children say they want to grow up to be orphans and father keeps forgetting to take his medicine. Everyone sleepwalks through a slow-motion farce on the tedium of wasted lives.

The only reference point I can think of for this idiosyncratic sense of humour is Sweden’s Roy Andersson, who specializes in a more apocalyptic variant. So to give a sense of the film’s peculiar charms, it’s probably easiest just to describe a typical gag: a woman goes to a cabbage seller and begins peeling off the wilted outer leaves before handing the vegetable to the vendor, who then weighs it, taking his time fiddling with the measures and just generally drawing out the process to absurd lengths. They haggle on the price, settling on $2.10, but when the woman opens her purse she says that she doesn’t have the $0.10. Exasperated, the vendor agrees to sell the cabbage for $2.00, and as the woman leaves, she grabs up all the leaves she had peeled off. “It would just go to waste otherwise,” she explains, scurrying away. That’s a long walk for a short gag, but so what? A good stroll improves the constitution, I say.

After Nicholas, a young Georgian filmmaker, finds his work banned at home, he heads abroad to France for a bit of free expression, only to discover a new set of barriers comparable to what he left behind. Director Otar Iosseliani has a lot of interesting points to make here about art under oppression and the plight of the expatriate filmmaker, but he also has an irritating tendency towards cuteness, including the rather questionable addition of a mermaid. I suppose this is some sort of symbol for Nicholas being swept away by his artistic indulgences, but it could just as easily be Iosseliani who is being dragged under by own whimsy. Still, there’s a lot of admirable wisdom in this film, and it possesses a hazy, meandering sort of beauty at times, despite its unevenness. In his final, best joke, Iosseliani also suggests that even if you are free to say what you want, there is no guarantee that anyone will listen—or that what you are saying is even worth listening to. A pity Iosseliani didn’t apply this self-questioning instinct to improving the film itself.

Sadly, this film about a sentient rubber tire that explodes people’s heads with its telepathic abilities is not the cult oddity you would hope. Mind you, it’s still an oddity, but more of a high-concept, self-aware meta-film than campy horror. A stirring manifesto kicks things off as a character looks into the camera and delivers an impassioned defense of the “no reason” aspect of art, the senseless whims that can be found in every film (“Why is E.T. brown? No reason!”). An audience is transported into the middle of a desert to watch the film through binoculars. Characters in the film attempt to poison the spectators in the hopes that they can finish the film early if no one is watching. And yes, a tire rolls around, following a beautiful young woman like a horror-movie stalker, and blowing up random animals and the occasional human head. It’s funnier than you would expect, and mastermind Quentin Dupieux has a passion for the aesthetic possibilities of man-made objects that makes for a weirdly pretty ode to the inanimate. Dupieux reserves his most loving gaze for the tire, while the humans are treated more like props. Still, precocious high-concept trash only goes so far, and by the end I found myself yearning for a bit of low-concept reality after all this empty cleverness.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2010: Part One

Cold Fish
The film begins with pounding drums and staccato credits announcing that what we’re about to witness is based on a true story (aren’t they all though?). Perhaps it really is based on fact, but I think the strangest true story can’t begin to compare to the delirious imagination of Sion Sono. While Cold Fish finds him working in a relatively restrained mode after the four-hour epic Love Exposure, I doubt there will be a more grandiose orgy of depravity on screens this year. Charting the moral decline of meek tropical fish seller Shamoto, the film follows its hapless hero as he is taken under the wing of an aggressive alpha-male type named Murata, who goes on to sleep with Shamoto’s wife, steal the man’s daughter, and then force him to become an accomplice in a series of brutal serial killings.

Not being one to flinch from such details as how to dismember a corpse, Sono provides plenty of blood—consider this a film noir crossed with a family drama, all painted sloppy red and dressed up in that meat gown Lady Gaga wore that one time. Sono has a real talent as a button pusher, and he knows how to scramble an audience’s instincts with his schizophrenic shifts in tone. Mundane moments of family interaction are laced with so much shuddering dread you’ll feel nauseated, while grotesque sequences are pushed towards comedy (when Shamoto punches out his daughter whilst raping his wife, the laughter produced by the inappropriate slapstick is enough to send you out of the theatre and straight into the shower moaning, “Unclean, unclean”). Sono dances upon a pile of corpses, all to the tune of “life is pain” (as one character observes, quite reasonably given the circumstances). Profound it ain’t, but you can’t really turn away once you enter this moral freakshow.

Oh, speaking of piles of corpses…this subdued, enigmatic Quebec film from Denis Cote has got ‘em too. But Cote is working in an entirely different vein than Sono. Julyvonne, a twelve-year-old girl, discovers a mound of frozen bodies in a field near her home in a quiet Quebec village, but after her initial horror, she becomes accustomed to the pile, even making snow angels in the midst of it one day. This might seem like a curious reaction, but Julyvonne has been almost completely shut off from the world by her neurotically protective and emotionally damaged father. Her general sense of how reality works is naturally a bit shaky.

In a Q&A after the film, Cote spoke of the forest as a place out of a fairytale, a place where anything is possible. Perhaps it is this playful tone that makes the film stand apart so successfully. Filmmakers who like to withhold narrative explanations for the sake of effect are fairly common on the festival circuit, but few share Cote’s sense of humour: a scene where father and daughter sit stiffly listening to “I Think We’re Alone Now” is hilarious even as it is kind of heartbreaking. Cote is obviously aware of the danger of taking this sort of loneliness too seriously. Instead, he prefers to follow this pair (superbly played by real-life father and daughter Emmanuel and Philomene Bilodeau) back into the world, with all its attendant dangers and joys.

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields
If there is one aspect of music documentaries I truly, deeply, madly hate, it’s the part where famous people stop by to testify to the genius of whatever lesser-known luminary is in the title of the movie. For this film, we get Sarah Silverman and Neil Gaiman fluttering by to sprinkle a bit of their celebrity pixie dust on Stephin Merritt, the acerbic and occasionally brilliant songwriter responsible for the Magnetic Fields. Because if there’s one thing Silverman and Gaiman know, it’s songwriting.

But to credit of co-directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, these cameos are mercifully brief and dispensed with early on as a bit of distasteful necessity. Instead, the film maintains a strong focus on Merritt himself, a somewhat cagey interview subject who often hides behind a sharp wit. The results aren’t always illuminating, but Merritt is too smart and funny to be less than engaging. In fact, he’s downright hilarious in an appearance on a local morning show, where the sleep-deprived singer must perform a morbid children’s song for the chirpy host (“Do you think kids will like it?” the host asks, to which Merritt flatly replies, “They better”). The directors dig up some intriguing angles for the film, particularly by focusing on the intense long-term friendship between Merritt and collaborator Claudia Gonson. Other noteworthy issues—such as details of the band’s own internal workings and the bizarre controversy over Merritt as musical racist—are dutifully explored, punctuated by the expected live and rehearsal footage. Basically, it stays true to the typical form of a music documentary. That’s not always a good thing, but when the subject is worthy of the attention—as he is in this case—it’s hard to go wrong.

Barney’s Version
The great dream of CanCon junkies everywhere—looks like Hollywood, smells like Hollywood, but by god it’s a genuine Canadian movie based on a genuine Canadian book (by Mordecai Richler) set in a genuine Canadian city (Montreal). That faint quivering noise you just heard was the sound of a hundred CBC executives swooning. But if I set aside my knee-jerk snark towards an overhyped domestic behemoth like this, I can at least appreciate the film for what it is: a slick entertainment with a good cast that more or less does right by the source material. Some of the striking literary features of the novel—notably the way Barney’s son annotates and corrects his father’s life story—can’t translate into film, and the filmmakers (director Richard J. Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves) sensibly don’t even try to find an equivalent. Given the richness of the plot, they have enough to keep themselves busy.

At its best, the film compresses the novel nicely with some smart little moments, like that great suspicious look Barney gives to an onion he finds in his freezer, unaware that he put it there himself. It’s a funny aside, but it also lightly suggests his growing forgetfulness and the coming revelation of his Alzheimer’s disease. In these moments, the film best captures the tricky funny-sad tone of Richler’s original. But the film also overplays the novel’s sentimentality, and the final revelation is condescendingly drawn-out and over-explained We’re miles away from Cote’s deliberate withholding here. Surrounded by so much oblique and artful filmmaking, a five-tonne giant like Barney’s Version can’t help but feel a little obvious and leaden at times.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

EIFF: Soul Kitchen

It can feel a bit callous to dislike a Fatih Akin film, particularly one like Soul Kitchen, a frenetic comedy that tries so very hard to inject a little bit of mirth into the joy-sucking void of early 21st century living. But it’s also that same earnest effort that makes Akin so hard to enthuse over. Like his previous film—low-key cross-border drama The Edge of HeavenSoul Kitchen is well-meaning and well-crafted and, well, lifeless.

Not that the film lacks for energy. The plot piles up with eccentric characters and sudden complications, operating under the principle that a lack of anything to say is best hidden beneath a cloud of noise. The story revolves around the titular Soul Kitchen, a restaurant run by Zinos, a Greek man who wants to finally pull the struggling business into shape so that he can leave it in the hands of his brother and run off to China to reunite with his reporter girlfriend. The expected colorful cast of broad types duly arrive to entertain us, whether we like it or not—the criminal brother and his cronies, a crusty old captain who lives in the restaurant, the fiercely principled gypsy chef with a fondness for knife throwing, the raunchy, scheming old school friend, and so on.

Madcap farce can be a kind of music created out of voice and movement. When it’s working, the audience is swept along, startled by its whirlwind incidents, which are completely unexpected and yet somehow logical. But in Soul Kitchen, the humour is too often predictable and flat, each setup telegraphing an all-too-obvious payoff. I found myself tapping my foot during the film—not to the music, unfortunately, but impatiently as I waited for Akin to finally reach the expected conclusion of each gag. Given the retro stylings of the film, there’s perhaps a touch of ironic self-awareness to these stale jokes, a winking “This is so obvious and corny that it’s almost funny.” I suppose that’s a kind of humour, but I also think I would rather the film was just plain, old-fashioned funny.

Still, there’s something vaguely appealing in Akin’s social mishmash, where a Greek restaurateur can go with a German physiotherapist to see a Turkish healer, and real estate tycoons and tax collectors can party with ex-cons and squatters. Music and food are mediums of cultural exchange, where different groups express themselves and swap ideas. Akin seems aware of this, which is perhaps why bringing in live music and authentic ethnic food saves the restaurant. Too bad he provide us with recycled pratfalls—a key scene for the plot involves Zinos throwing out his back while trying to lift something heavy by himself—instead of some fresh and funny insights into these colliding cultures. I’m not asking for more earnest drama from the director, but I do expect something beyond this empty energy. Doesn't he have anything to bring to the table?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

EIFF: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

A princess who hides her ugliness behind a veil leans over a pond and catches a glimpse of herself in the water, but beautiful now, the beauty she feels is her right but has been denied her. A catfish surfaces and begins to speak, praising her loveliness, and she enters into the water, dropping her jewels as an offering as she asks to be made as beautiful as her reflection. Finally, she floats in the centre of the pond, and the catfish begins to, um, pleasure her.

This rather odd folktale/digression/past life(?) is dropped into the middle of Apitchatpong Weersethakul’s beguiling, baffling, and altogether astounding Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. More a drifting dream than narrative film, this curiosity from Thailand nonetheless tells the story of Boonmee, an aging farmer whose kidneys are failing him. As the end of his life draws near, he is joined by the ghost of his dead wife and his long-missing son, who appears in the form of a monkey spirit with eyes that glow piercing red in the dark.

Don’t ask me what any of this means on a literal level, or how it relates to the story of the princess, but let me assure you no other film this year has offered me as much pure delight per square inch of celluloid. The key is to not allow the idiosyncrasies of the storytelling distract from the fundamental, and rather simple, theme. Much like how Weersethakul’s earlier Tropical Malady was a deeply strange yet completely clear love story, exalting romantic surrender in the most mystical terms, this film hinges on the idea that any death is also a birth, and then allows us to take that notion in any number of directions.

For instance, in various interviews Weersethakul has spoken of the film as an ode to the dying medium of film. Certainly, you can see a reverence for cinematic history in such disparate reference points as Thai costume drama (the sumptuously shot story of the princess and the catfish) and Chris Marker’s La Jetee (Boonmee’s dream of the future, told in a series of still photos). The darkened cavern Boonmee and co. enter at night is both a womb and movie theatre, the shadows on the wall and primitive cave paintings pointing to the beginnings of all visual arts. It’s the origins of man and the origins of cinema—and the primal place where Boonmee goes to die.

You can take a lot of different ideas from this, which is perhaps the point. Weersethakul carefully avoids overexplaining his films in interviews, and his reasons are obvious. He’s after a sense of wonder above all else, and wonder cannot exist without at least some level of mystery. If you completely understood the significance of the red-eyed monkey spirits, if you knew that they were meant to symbolize such-and-such thing, would you feel that mixture of dread and awe at their appearance? Would you feel anything at all?

Perhaps this sounds like a cop-out, but we’re so used to our cinematic pleasures being parceled out through a neatly organized delivery system that we lack the language to properly praise a film that provides such unfiltered delight. If anything, the real problem is whether or not we would be so accepting of this mystical weirdness from a western director. The last thing exoticism should be is an excuse to engage with art we would deny if it were domestic.

But I can think of no director quite as guileless as Weersethakul, whose work is so open and gentle, even as it looks unblinkingly at the darkness of the world (the violence of his homeland is never denied, with Boonmee even wondering if his illness is karma for the communists he killed in his youth as a soldier). There’s no sense of calculation here—in fact, the story might make more sense if there was. It’s also worth noting that Weersethakul’s father died of a kidney affliction similar to Boonmee’s, suggesting that part of the film’s strangeness comes from how it pulls on private experiences and distorts them for cinematic effect. Like North American eccentrics such as Guy Maddin and David Lynch, Weersethakul’s unique sensibility comes from the way his films derive from his own memories and dreams. He’s probably as much a curiosity to his countrymen as he is to us.

None of which is any help for the hapless viewer approaching this remarkable work. We cannot see this film through Weersethakul’s eyes, only our own. But to my eyes, this is a beautiful film by any measure, open with possibilities for anyone willing to enter its mysteries. This is perhaps what the director intends with the multiple worlds we see at the end of the film. In one alternative, three characters sit in a hotel room, transfixed by the dull glow of the television set, frozen into complete passivity. In the other, two of these people leave the room and head to a karaoke bar, where they may or not sing, but regardless, they are free and moving through the world. I cannot tell you which alternative the director intends as reality. But I can tell you which one is more fun.

EIFF: Let Me In

Near the beginning of Let Me In, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the March of 1983, Ronald Reagan appears on a television in mid-speech. He’s giving the infamous “evil empire” address, and the film turns on the moment when Reagan quotes de Tocqueville. “America is good,” he says. “And if ever America ceases to be good—”

The film cuts away at the crucial moment, letting the unfinished thought hang over us like a knife waiting to drop. The missing line: “America will cease to be great.”

Heavy burden for what is one of the bottom-feeding entities of the American film industry—the dreaded remake of a foreign cult hit—but writer/director Matt Reeves has high ambitions for his version of the much-loved Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In. He has clearly thought long and hard about the problems of adapting this story to American soil, and he’s pulled together an excellent cast to make it work (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz as the boy and his vampire, with Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas providing a bit of soul to the supporting parts).

The original’s lonely mood and wintry pall are faithfully aped, and the basic shape of the story remains intact—Owen, a bullied 12-year-old boy with divorcing parents and no friends, develops a relationship with Abby, the new girl next door, who turns out to be an ageless vampire. Where Reeves’ version of this story defines itself is in the details. The wall of Owen’s bedroom—where he taps out morse-code messages to Abby next door—is a giant moonscape, frozen and eternal and empty. His gym teacher, who promises to make Owen strong if he comes to after-school weight lifting, is Russian (American strength during this era being spurred on by perceived Soviet might, this is a particularly nice touch). The Cold War lingers on like the stubborn New Mexico winter.

But it’s that speech from Reagan that registers most strongly. Although the film is less persuasive the more we see of the vampire’s activities (low-budget horror effects are too cheesy for this story’s essential solemnity), it nonetheless remains a rare remake that justifies its existence. Using the original film as a springboard, Reeves meditates upon the “evil empire” speech. Late at night, after witnessing Abby brutally savage a neighbourhood woman, Owen tearfully calls up his father and asks, “Do you think there’s such a thing as evil?” You can find Reagan's reply in part of his speech to the National Association of Evangelicals that remains unquoted in film: “There is sin and evil in the world.”

Notice: this isn’t just a matter of evil, but sin. Owen’s mother is devoutly religious, and God dwells inside the story like a wraith, on the dresser in a picture of Jesus watching Owen steal money from his mother’s purse, in the schools lurking inside the pledge of allegiance. Reeves has injected a good dose of old-fashioned American religion into the original story, opening up new possibilities in an already richly suggestive premise.

One of the chilling things about Reagan’s speech was how he used religion to bolster the image of himself as leader of a righteous nation, beset by evils both without (the evil empire) and within (abortion, the less famous but almost more frightening part of the speech). It’s the notion of evil that drives the nation into his cold arms; it’s the fear of evil that leaves people seeking refuge in dreams of power. And Abby, more than anything else, is Owen’s dream of power, his escape from isolation, from terror, from the bullies that loom in his mind as the greatest threat in the world.

Abby destroys Owen’s tormentors, but it’s not quite clear if he fully understands at what price this release has come. There’s a brief flicker of awareness, though, in one of the most painful scenes in the film. Owen enters Abby’s apartment after the disappearance of the man we assume is her father. (He is actually her servant, a weary old soul with cracked glasses and a dead expression finding fresh blood for the vampire’s hunger.) On a table, Owen finds an old picture, in faded sepia tones, where Abby is next to a young boy with large glasses. The look of horror Owen gives her in that moment is perhaps the only time he sees her truly. But he still returns to her, and he still chooses her. Reagan’s prophecy comes true, and the evil empire is real. Its anthem is tapped out in frail, desperate code, and its borders stretch from an empty room beneath a New Mexico street to the surface of the moon itself.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Edmonton International Film Festival: The Loved Ones

Visceral, sticky, and avert-your-eyes ugly—that’s not just a description of most people’s high school years, but also The Loved Ones, Australian writer/director Sean Byrne’s lively marriage of teenage melodrama with splatter horror. Part of the fun seems to be finding suitable reference points for this genre mash-up—the festival programmer introduced it to us as the combination of John Hughes with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—which makes the film seem much more glib and gimmicky than it actually is. Even as the violence goes for grisly excess (there were a few walkouts once feet started getting nailed to the floor), Byrne remembers to treat the emotional wounds of his characters with respect and sincerity. The threat of bodily mutilation is always good for prompting some reflexive cringes in the audience, but the real horror lies in discovering the massive psychic scars nurtured by these characters.

The film—Byrne’s first feature—is helped immeasurably by Robin McLeavy’s high-wire performance as Lola, an awkward girl who asks Brent, the boy of her dreams, to be her prom date. He politely declines and heads to the school parking lot, where he steams up some car windows with his girlfriend. Perpetually wounded and completely domineering, Lola witnesses everything and has her servile father kidnap Brent and bring him to a private prom / torture chamber (as if anyone needed to underscore the connection between high school dances and sadism), complete with a disco ball twirling throughout the madness. Mutilation inevitably ensues.

The film, much like one of its fumbling teenagers, is not without its awkward moments. A subplot featuring one of Brent’s friends taking a curiously beautiful goth girl to the prom feels tenuously connected to the rest of the film, even if it does provide a bit of relief from the gruesomeness of the Lola scenes. Built around the contrast of slobbish, overeager boy with hardened, indifferent girl, these scenes are mostly played for light comedy. But there are also hints that this girl loved one of Lola’s earlier victims, with the implication that this traumatic loss left her in the damaged state in which we discover her. All of which is thematically sound, but functionally irrelevant. The central conceit of the film is so potent that this innocuous subplot does more to distract from than enrich the main story. Two girls wearing prom dresses wrestling over a knife speaks more eloquently to the primal truths of high school than a thousand tuxedo t-shirts.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Eden Log

Here we have a science fiction film that dares to ask the big questions. Such as: if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be? If your answer is, “A mystical tree used to power cities and turn people into braying man-pigs with its poisonous sap,” then you’re in luck, because Eden Log is clearly your soul mate. Don’t get me wrong—I love me a bit of ponderous, humourless allegory (honest, I swear!), but everyone has limits, and here are mine. Shot in a murky, drained palette, Eden Log is a reflection in a mud puddle, with all the expected depth. The film moves between scenes of plodding, mostly wordless action in shadowy caverns and equally gray, talky scenes of pure exposition—not the most nimble storytelling technique, you have to admit. Franck Vestiel has a perfectly sensible idea behind his obfuscating stylistics, which is that corporate corruption and dehumanization are rife in society and must be resisted, and this is a moral choice we must all make, and it involves magic trees. But why must Vestiel be so afraid of injecting any sense of personality or character into his solemn signifying? He has a message, but lacks a film, which is equivalent to setting out to sea with cargo but not a ship. Little wonder the whole thing sinks—there’s a lot of weight with nothing to support it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Get Low

Who wouldn’t want to attend their own funeral? Count the tears shed, mark attendance, enjoy some free sandwiches—plus, it’s so much more fun than being dead, wouldn’t you agree?

Felix Bush would. After 40 years of living in his remote shack with only a graveyard of deceased pets for company, his idea of a good time has unsurprisingly taken a turn to the morbid. He intends to throw the biggest funeral in four counties, luring people with the promise that he will raffle off his land (300 acres of pristine timberland, he claims), and all he has is one simple request—if you attend, you must tell a story about him.

As an isolated, angry coot, there are surely some colourful legends floating around regarding the man and why he withdrew from civil society in the first place. His only human contact appears to be the local children, who throw rocks at his windows when they’re feeling particularly brave. He’s the local monster, existing in the public’s mind only as a way of frightening the young. In Get Low, director Aaron Schneider sets about to the task of redeeming this forbidding figure and revealing the decency and suffering that are buried somewhere behind that scraggly beard and crazy mountain-man eyes.

The film spells out its redemptive intentions in very clear terms. At the funeral, an old friend of Felix introduces the hermit by declaring that good and evil are not separate, but rather exist in us entangled. In this rather innocuously drifting tale, such a loaded pronouncement appears as if underlined, circled, and with arrows drawn to it from a hastily scribbled note that says—nay, shouts—“THIS IS THE POINT OF THE MOVIE.” So pay attention, will you?

You could be forgiven for not watching too closely until that point. The mystery of Felix’s past—involving a torched house and the deaths of its inhabitants, which Felix may or may not have been responsible for—lends a bit of foreboding to this otherwise sleepy Depression-era tale. The drama is inert, despite some half-hearted complications intended to ramp up interest, but the skill of the actors involved enlivens the film. Robert Duvall, as Felix, is as magnetic as ever, and the film couldn’t function without his uniquely cranky charisma. (As an actor, Duvall has a special talent for making peevishness not seem ignoble. Clearly, this man has a bright future playing weirdo hermits and gummy coots should he so wish.)

And Bill Murray, as Frank Quinn, the greasy funeral director, brings his dependable deadpan to assure us we’re never too far from at least a dry, bemused chuckle or two. Yet despite being largely comic relief, Murray still finds opportunities for little doodles of middle-aged melancholy in the margins of the story. Quinn is shown as a drunkard and divorced man. He reveals himself in moments of sad, lonely desperation, such as when he asks to walk home Mattie (a widow and Felix’s ex-girlfriend, played by Sissy Spacek), only to be rebuffed with a gentle pity that hurts more than any open cruelty.

Such details are sadly rare to the film, which is partly why it’s so underwhelming despite sporting such a banner cast (a sense of detail, particularly regarding secondary characters, is not one of Schneider’s talents, meaning this film built around a single community feels inhabited by about five people and some extras). The other significant problem lies in the clumsy mishandling of the climactic revelations of Felix’s past. Actually, let’s modify that statement: Schneider tanks the entire final third of the film. Felix’s past 40 years were apparently a kind of penitent exile, except that his confession comes wrapped up with a convenient scapegoat—someone guilty of even worse sins—to ensure that he gets his teary reconciliation at the end. If the film intended to show us how good and evil co-exist in one man, then perhaps it should have allowed a bit of actual evil in Felix’s character. Otherwise, his 40 years in the woods are nothing more than one epic pity party.

If I was standing in that crowd at Felix’s funeral, I’d feel a bit cheated at all of this (I suppose, in a sense, the film’s audience is part of that crowd). Imagine: here I had come from across the county to tell my story about the time the loony hermit guy shot at me when I was picking blueberries on his land, and when I get there, all I see is some old guy giving a woe-is-me speech addressed to someone named Mattie (Mattie?), and then there’s a raffle and we all go home. Frankly, I think I would prefer a few tall tales to the mawkish truth.