Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Thing From Another World

Is The Thing From Another World a paranoid Cold War nightmare or snide mockery of same? Consider the evidence: the desperate warning to watch the skies, the sense of betrayal from within and threatening aliens without, the treacherous crypto-Communist scientist berating the valiant army with un-American concepts like peace and knowledge. It certainly sounds like a lovely McCarthyite fantasy, yet this relentlessly chatty, easy-going film—directed by Christian Nyby, with a helping hand from producer Howard Hawks—makes a hash of its own paranoia. The anonymous chorus of wise-cracking GIs give the film a collegial atmosphere more suited to a weekend outing than a white-knuckled survival story, and whenever the alien beast mows down another one, three more smart-asses take his place (they seem to reproduce faster than the alien menace itself, growing its blood-fed podlings in the greenhouse). The film is defined by this casual attitude towards death, destruction, and the supposed threat of alien forces. While the journalist broadcasts history over the wireless, his pals knowingly smirk at the phony solemnity of every word, and the heroic captain canoodles with his girlfriend as the bodies cool in the hallway. Cold War? What Cold War?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part Five


Easily one of the highlights of the festival, this mammoth omnibus out of Germany combines three 90-minute features, each one exploring the escape of a convicted killer from different angles. The first part, Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, focuses on the hospital orderly whose carelessness allows the killer to escape. The murderer is barely a presence in this part of the trilogy—he’s less a tangible villain and more a phantom, haunting the orderly’s intense relationship with a troubled hotel maid. It’s a marvelously compact film, as powerful as anything else Petzold has done, and it captures young love with a potent mixture of sensuality and violence. The two lovers regularly traverse the forest where the killer supposedly hides, and that walk becomes laced with a dread and uncertainty that stands in for all the terrors and traps of their doomed relationship.

Dominik Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around is comparatively lighter on its feet, and may well be the highlight of the trio for me (it’s a toss-up between this and Petzold’s offering). While the first and third films maintain an icy style built around control and stillness, Graf’s contribution is loose and lively, a quick sketch drawn on 16mm. Our focal point this time around is Johanna, a police psychologist brought in from outside of town to help the investigation. Fascinatingly, Graf smuggles several different genre stories into the mix, including the manhunt and even some business about police corruption. But these all occur in the margins, similar to the police sirens that periodically roar through Petzold’s earlier film before disappearing into the forest. Graf’s real interest is the relationship between Johanna and her old friend, Vera. The pair discovers that they once dated the same man, years before they ever met, and the implications of that one coincidence play out in increasingly surprising ways in the lives of both women. The film turns out to have been a mystery all along, just not the one we were expecting.

The final part, One Minute of Darkness by Christoph Hochhausler, is a comparative let-down after the strength of the first two films, but that may be simply because the director takes on the greatest challenge of all three films. While Petzold and Graf benefit from having easily identifiable protagonists, Hochhausler splits his film between two equally inscrutable, reserved characters: Frank Molesch, the escaped killer, and Marcus Kreil, the police officer hunting him down. Between the man in the woods trying to hide and the cop brooding on how to find him, the film spends much of its time watching men in isolation. It’s a static film, in other words, but not without its own merits. Hochhausler plays on our prejudices against the killer—built up by two films where he was essentially a bogeyman under the bed—and twists around our expectations of who he should be. The film takes on an unreal quality and becomes a fable in which our own contempt for the man turns him into a monster. Hochhausler skews our perspective of everything that came before, provoking the viewer to return to the beginning and delve deeper into this complex and strange world. Any film that can do that after nearly five hours is a success by any measure.

Life Without Principle 

Johnnie To turns Hong Kong’s recent financial turmoil into a high-energy crime farce in Life Without Principle, an often funny film about economic corruption and greed on every level of society. Everything is set in motion by the murder of a loan shark—seemingly the only character not fretting about money in the wake of global financial chaos—with the killing examined through multiple, increasingly amusing angles. The plot is densely woven and rich in character and incident, and To keeps everything moving briskly, pausing only for the occasional oddball detail. The film works as a derisive response to the stock market and all its attendant greed: smart people fail, while fools flourish. But I’m not entirely sold on the ending, which essentially rewards the greed of the sympathetic characters, while ensuring that the expected villains get what they deserve. If the system is truly as random and senseless as the film makes it out to be, surely To’s favoured characters need to suffer as much as the rest? The director backs away from the harsher implications of his story, and the film’s satiric edge dulls noticeably in its final moments.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

The best parts of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia lie in the first half of the film. A man has confessed to murder, and the police, town prosecutor and a doctor now drive through the countryside in the dead of night, trying to find the body in the featureless grasslands. These scenes border on Beckett-like absurdity, with all the village authority figures forced to wander the desolate night roads while the self-professed killer tries to remember where he hid the body in his drunken rage. The black comedy continues even when they discover the body: while making his official statement, the prosecutor inexplicably describes the victim as looking like Clark Gable, leading to much teasing all around. But the tone twists in the daylight, and while the film remains worthwhile, it also seems to shed some of its more intriguing idiosyncrasies. Ceylan moves away from deadpan existential comedy to a more earnest, at times even sentimental drama about the nature of justice and the truth. It’s still a compelling film, shot and performed with great skill, but be wary of what you wake to find in the harsh morning light.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part Four

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga 

Has Werner Herzog become a brand? I fear so, because a film like Happy People seems designed almost solely to bank on his credibility as the going master-eccentric of the documentary form. Herzog co-directs with Dmitry Vasyukov and narrates, but he didn't have a hand in filming and it shows in every frame. This documentary about the isolated trappers of the Taiga region of Siberia is prime Herzog material—lonely men facing the majesty and mystery of nature—but it lacks the meditative qualities of his more personal documentaries, to say nothing of his unpredictable questions and endlessly wandering camera eye. The film is by no means terrible, but it is hardly any more distinguished than what you might find on the Discovery Channel on a Sunday afternoon. If anything, the film only proves the unique value of Herzog as a presence in the field. We may learn about the lifestyle and working methods of the trappers, but that’s about it. One imagines that the first question on Herzog’s tongue in this frigid wasteland would not have been how they live there, but rather why. The absence of that particular line of questioning is sorely felt in this mundane, uninspiring effort.

Here There 

Here There, Lu Sheng’s debut feature, weaves together three wayward threads, ranging from a Chinese student in Paris to a reindeer farmer in Mongolia and a young noodle restaurant employee in Shanghai. Lu subtly hints at the links between the three worlds, but he never stresses these ties—this is, after all, a film less about connection than separation. Still, the film’s reluctance to clarify its characters is not always the wisest strategy, especially when trying to cram so much into a slender 90-minute frame. The most notable casualty of this structure is the brief love affair between the restaurant employee and an insurance agent, which ends so suddenly that the tragedy barely even registers. But the cast—consisting of both professional and non-professional actors—acquits itself well with the material, and the final result is a thoughtful, if sometimes underwhelming work.

The Day He Arrives 

--> If you’ve ever seen a Hong Sang-soo film, you’ll already know the contents of The Day He Arrives. All the usual elements are here: lonely men, frustrated women, awkward romantic entanglements, and a great deal of social drinking. (At one point during the screening, the woman sitting next to me leaned over and exclaimed, “They must have spent their entire budget on beer!”) Yet Hong continues to refine his world in this latest effort, creating a witty, melancholy film that feels small without ever seeming slight. This time around, we’ve got a director visiting an old friend in Seoul, where he encounters an old flame, an aspiring actress, some film students, a lot of booze, and a perpetually late bar proprietress. In its repetitions, The Day He Arrives suggests a film trying to rewrite itself, struggling to find a combination that somehow breaks its characters free from the monotony of their lonely, blinkered lives. The scenes blur together, revealing a group of compulsive people beholden to their own bad habits, always finding new ways to fall into old traps. It’s life reduced to a series of running gags—hilarious, and pitiless.

It’s the Earth Not the Moon 

Goncalo Tocha begins It’s the Earth Not the Moon with a promise to film each of Corvo’s 440 residents (or 450, estimates vary), and even more—every cow, every pig, every single living thing on this tiny, rustic island off the coast of Portugal. By the time he gets around to filming the village dump with its attendant bird life, you may begin to suspect this is no idle boast. Over three hours and 14 chapters, Tocha explores every conceivable facet of the island—the scenic vistas, the local history (whale hunting used to be a major industry), colourful characters (a dancer performs in a mossy glen), and yes, even the local livestock. As a documentary, the film is almost naively generous, endlessly curious and beautifully expansive. Tocha may lack the ruthless analytical instincts of an editor, but he possesses the fine eye of a painter, and he fills the film with striking images plucked from the endless churn of his many days on the island.

One of the few storylines—if you could even call it that—found in the entire film involves an elderly island resident knitting Tocha a beret similar to those worn by the whale fishermen of old. The beret will allow him to be a genuine Corvo man, the woman explains. Tocha’s obsessive desire to capture the island in its entirety is bound up with his desire to become a part of it, even if local residents seem bemused by the strange presence of this film crew (one woman enters a friend’s house, laughing about these fools following her around). Shots featuring the shadow of the director abound; Tocha exists like a shade on the margins on the film, part of the world and yet not quite within it. The tension is finally resolved in a breathtakingly simple and moving shot of a cloud crossing the sun and swallowing up Tocha’s shadow in a wave of darkness. At last, if only for a flickering moment, he merges with the landscape. Don’t think of this as a documentary—think of it as a documentary maker’s dream.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part Three

Cinema Komunisto 

What happens to a nation’s cinema when the nation itself disappears? That’s the question that haunts Cinema Komunisto, Mila Turajlic’s mournful tour through the history of Yugoslavia’s national cinema. Aside from the occasional musical ode to Tito and the odd scene of bright young communists talking about how wonderful it is to do manual labour, the film largely avoids the obvious kitschy value of old propaganda. Indeed, Turajlic has little interest in exploring the tricky intersection of propaganda and reality. She also lacks the formal gusto or analytical insight to reinvigorate these films for a new time, which means all Cinema Komunisto offers is a lot of white-haired directors and actors standing in dusty warehouses reminiscing about the good old days. I came hoping for a raucous wake, but all I got was a polite eulogy.

A Simple Life 

When Ah Tao, a film producer’s maid, suffers a stroke, her employer offers to pay for her residency at an old age home—it seems the only decent thing to do, considering she has served his family for 60 years. Based on the real relationship between producer Roger Lee and his maid, Ann Hui’s A Simple Life is richly rewarding and quietly moving. It’s a potentially grim subject, but Hui approaches the story with resolve and warm humour, even as she refuses to shy away from the loneliness and fear that come with aging. Shot largely under the harsh fluorescent light of a Hong Kong retirement home, the film evokes the intimacy and unvarnished look of a documentary. But this is no sweeping exploration of what it means to be elderly in modern Hong Kong, nor does Hui care to offer any thesis on the bond between Roger and Ah Tao. No, the film is nothing more or less than a gesture of respect from one human being to another, a final duty and a kindness. Simple, not simplistic.

Quattro Hong Kong 2 

A short film package commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and as varied and confounding as the city itself. The only stipulation the four directors apparently received was that they should try to film in Hong Kong, and each approached the task from strikingly different angles. However, the package kicks off with its weakest effort, an unimaginative, clumsy short from Brillante Mendoza depicting two emigrants to the city buying flowers—an older man buying for his dead wife on their anniversary, and a younger man for his girlfriend after a fight. But Ho Yuhang’s oddball black-and-white crime comedy marks a considerable improvement. Featuring python smuggling and other assorted curios, the film invests even its throwaway characters with personality and wit, creating the sense of a fully developed world in just 20 minutes. It’s charming and frequently funny, if a bit scattered.

Apichatpong Weersethakul’s contribution, on the other hand, is narrowly focused on two men sitting by the window of a single hotel room—aside from a couple of enigmatic shots of the courtyard below, we don’t see anything else. The trick is that the image is grainy and washed out, while the sound is muffled and buried beneath the burbling of water (is this life in the fishbowl?). A voyeuristic film in which there’s nothing to see, Weersethakul’s film is formally playful and even a little beautiful, but it’s also a minor effort from a major talent. The last film, from Stanely Kwan, is possibly the strongest of the bunch. Set on a bus ride into Hong Kong, it captures the divide between the city and mainland China through the overheard conversations of passengers. It’s a thoughtful, affecting work, almost as finely tuned and elegant as the music from Bach that closes out the film.

Low Life 

A gloomy, doomy, dull work from Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval, the best I can say for Low Life is that it ends better than it began. The film charts the collision between a group of undergrads and illegal immigrants, and the results are unsurprisingly sophomoric. Early scenes with the pseudo-poetic, self-absorbed Charles drain the air out of the film, and it never really comes back, although things improve considerably once focus shifts to the love affair between a young student named Carmen and Hussein, an Afghani asylum-seeker. When the French government rejects his application for asylum, the relationship between the pair becomes a kind of crime against the state, and the film becomes suddenly urgent. Chilling signs of police surveillance and oppression abound, giving the film a nightmarish quality that at last justifies the numbing dread that has been there from the get-go. But I’m really only speaking about the last half-hour or so—the rest of the film is grimly aimless and wrapped up in a punishing score that sounds vaguely like Joy Division on barbiturates. What little fire the film stirs up with its political rage is snuffed out by its flat tone and stifling moodiness.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part Two


If you’ve been waiting for a searing drama about cattle hormone gangsters in Belgium, you’re in luck, because Michael Roskam has answered your prayers with Bullhead, his debut feature about a farming family drawn into the criminal hormone trade. The film is about as sturdy as Jacky, its beefy protagonist, but there’s little behind its critique of overcompensating machismo, beyond perhaps the idea that manliness is a dubious concept and best kept far away from blunt weapons. Jacky—castrated in a horrible incident as a child—gorges himself on testosterone supplements, while at the same time helping his cattle bulk up with illegal hormones. I know there’s something to be said for thematic unity, but Roskam lays it on pretty thick here. By the time we reach the end, Jacky is reduced to snorting like a bull and head-butting his enemies. What gives? Is subtlety not macho enough?


Over the course of his decades-long career in manga, Yoshihiro Tatsumi has helped forge a new genre—gekiga, the dark, mature stories that he specializes in—and earned a flood of late-career plaudits as North American audiences now discover his work. But does he have to be so damned happy about it? Tatsumi’s stories are grubby and depraved, acidic and angry. His scabrous critiques of post-war Japanese masculinity and sexual mores would feels like close kin to Shohei Imamura's films (The Pornographers seems like it could have been adapted from a Tatsumi story, for instance). But despite the bleakness of much of his work, Tatsumi himself is a contented old man, grateful for a long and successful career. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it certainly makes for an awkward juxtaposition with the dark, hopeless world of his art.

Unfortunately, Eric Khoo’s otherwise enjoyable Tatsumi fails to navigate that divide between the artist’s life and work. Combining biographical reflections with adaptations of five Tatsumi stories, the film reveals some striking connections between life and art, but the stories really carry the show here. Consider “Belove Monkey,” a prime bit of Tatsumi weirdness about a factory worker who loses his arm in an industrial accident and as a result must give up his pet monkey. When the man releases it into the monkey pen at the zoo, the other animals do not recognize the intruder as one of their own and viciously turn on the helpless beast. No less an outsider now because of his deformity, the man cannot even cross the street now after witnessing the slaughter of his pet. The oncoming rush of people merges in his mind with the animals in the zoo, and he is reduced to simpering terror as the monkey shrieks on the soundtrack. The whole thing borders on the ludicrous, but remains so deeply felt that it’s hard not to be affected by the revulsion expressed. Next to such violent emotion, the benign biographical sections feel out of place—cheery small talk occasionally interrupted by a scream.

Sleeping Sickness 

Ulrich Kohler’s Sleeping Sickness begins as a fairly straightforward story about a German doctor working in Africa, but it soon transforms into something far stranger—a fable about the complicated, damning relationship between Europe and Africa in the post-colonial era. The early sections focus on Ebbo Velten, a German doctor running a medical program fighting sleeping sickness in Cameroon. The doctor intends to leave and return to Germany to be with his wife and daughter, but flash-forward three years and the good doctor has now gone Kurtz and disappeared into the continent. A young French doctor from the World Health Organization heads out to find Velten, who eventually reappears married to one of the locals, proud father of a newborn child. He’s become deeply entangled with the place, loving it and yet hating it, desperate to leave but unable to find a way out. This is a smart, fascinating film, and Kohler provocatively alludes to the potential damage done by Western aid. Even more provocatively, he suggests that the West may be as transformed by this codependent relationship as Africa itself. That, or else the hippos will get us all in the end.

The Sandman 

Whimsical comedy-fantasies are a lot harder to pull off than they look, which makes The Sandman that much more impressive, because this film looks absolutely effortless. The premise is pleasantly weird, too: Benno, a failed composer turned haughty philatelist (is there any other kind?) discovers that his body dribbles sand whenever he tells a lie, and furthermore, said sand has the added benefit of knocking out anyone who smells it. To make matters worse, he can’t stop dreaming about Sandra, the aspiring singer who runs the cafĂ© below his apartment. Every morning, he heads down to buy a cup of coffee and insult her intelligence, looks, and talent; every night, he is beset by nightmarish visions of romantic bliss with her. Writer-director Peter Luisi keeps the film quick on its feet, and the story maintains a charming vein of dry absurdity. A few scenes mocking a phony television psychic veer a little too close to cheap sketch comedy, but otherwise this is a finely balanced and well-realized fantasy. More than a dressed-up romantic comedy, The Sandman is a surreal but keenly observant depiction of the often fraught relationship between artists.


He’s a lover and a fighter, a cop and a killer, a Buddhist monk and streetwise punk. He’s Tul, and he’s the hero of Headshot, an elliptical hit-man saga from Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Every few scenes Tul seems to be playing a different role, which could be a nod towards Buddhist notions of rebirth, or perhaps just questionable screenwriting. All of this would certainly be more palatable if the different incarnations of Tul weren’t seemingly ripped from some handbook on how to construct a generic crime thriller. The film’s non-linear structure and meditative mood spur a bit of curiosity early on, but the story wraps up in a flurry of contrivance and clichĂ© that essentially kills whatever good will the film had earned up to that point. Oh, and it should be noted that Tul sees everything upside down because of the titular shot to the head, and also that this detail is largely superfluous to the film, short of making it really difficult for the guy to drive. But sure, go ahead, toss another idea into the mix. What’s the harm in one more dead-end concept? It’s not like the film is going anywhere anyway. Wake me when this is reborn as a story I can give a damn about.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part One


Set in the small Quebec city of Saint-Hyacinthe, Marc Bisaillon’s Guilt is a quiet story of violence and its aftermath. Two young friends—Yves, a high-school football star, and Gabriel, a bright underachiever—accidentally kill a man during a druggy, drunken night out on the town. You can guess where it goes from there: Yves doesn’t want to tell anyone, Gabriel goes along with the cover-up and is consumed by guilt, arguments are had, confessions are made, and so on. Bisaillon employs admirable restraint, but there’s no shaking the sense that there’s nothing new here. It’s a familiar tale told well, but with little imagination.

Almayer’s Folly 

Liberally adapted from a Joseph Conrad novel—no, really, that’s what the credits say—Almayer’s Folly plays on the conflict between East and West, transposed to the relationship between a father and his daughter. Almayer, a European trader living in the Cambodian jungle, forces a “white education” upon his only daughter, in the process destroying his whole family. It’s a harsh portrait of patriarchal arrogance and pride, but surprisingly humane and tender as well—Almayer is both villain and victim, as worthy of pity as contempt. Employing delicately balanced compositions and fluid camerawork, director Chantal Akerman is in fine form here, turning the jungle into a kind of shape-shifting prison that refuses to give up its inhabitants. A flashback early on comes with the note that what we are seeing occurred “Before, somewhere else.” Likewise, the film refuses easy definitions and clear categories. A sometimes maddening, but strikingly beautiful work.

Kill List 

Beginning as a claustrophobic portrait of a family under financial strain, Ben Wheatley’s powerful Kill List soon twists into crime thriller and finally nerve-rattling horror. When an unemployed hit man gets back into the business in order to provide for his wife and son, he discovers himself in the midst of an occult nightmare, complete with pagan rituals in which the rich and powerful hide behind straw masks and sacrifice people. From there, everything falls apart so quickly the queasy feeling in your gut won’t be able to keep up. Wheatley never loses sight of that initial family picture, however, which immediately puts the film head and shoulders above other contemporary horrors. When the going gets gory, there’s actually something at stake. These are human beings, not just sacks of meat being tossed into the grinder. Angry, righteous, horrifying and unrelenting, this is not only an ingenious genre mashup but also one of the best films to come out of the recent financial crisis. So this is what it’s like to survive in cutthroat times? Best get used to the sight of blood.