Friday, October 8, 2010

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.

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