Wednesday, October 24, 2012
An unsentimental look at poverty in rural China, Wang Bing’s immersive documentary Three Sisters spends month following the lives of a peasant family making do in the shadow of the Chinese industrial colossus. Agriculture isn’t much of a way for anyone to make a living in modern times, but especially on the small scale practiced by the family here. So father heads off to the city to find work with his two youngest daughters, while his eldest stays with grandfather and minds the farm (the mother’s whereabouts are less clear, although she’s been out of the picture for a while, it seems). But Wang is less concerned with sculpting a grand narrative arc out of his material than he is with teasing out the daily rhythms of his subjects’ lives. The ordeal of separation and reunion largely exists as a backdrop to the unending grind of chasing sheep and harvesting dung from the pastures. Survival makes its own demands of life, and chores take precedence over drama.
Everybody in our Family
Unconditional fatherly love can be a very scary thing, as evidenced by the vicious hilarity of Radu Jude’s Everybody in our Family. Early on in the film, divorced dad Marius goes to visit his own father, revealing a strained collegiality that dissolves into a torrent of accusations and abuse. Yet moments after nearly coming to blows, the pair is back to normal—such as it is—with Marius’s father even telling his son to drive safe. The scene’s horrifying (and horrifyingly funny) emotional pivots can only hint at the carnage to come. As Marius finds his efforts to spend time with his daughter rebuffed by his ex-wife’s boyfriend and mother, the man’s desperation escalates so naturally you likely won’t blink once he starts tying up people and dodging cops. Gifted with a stellar troupe of performers, Jude uses the cramped confines of a single apartment and a nimble handheld camera to emphasize the humanity of people doing inhumane things. Emotional Grand Guignol on an intimate scale, the film lays bare the extremes of love and hate that can be contained within the family unit. Like the best black comedies, the laughter sticks in the throat.
Something in the Air
Considering how much Something in the Air draws on the radical youth of writer/director Olivier Assayas in the 1970s, it’s impressive how much the film avoids the seductive glow of nostalgia. In fact, this double-edged ode to France’s post-1968 generation is many things: brisk coming-of-age drama, political thriller, even love story (most notably between Assayas and cinema itself). Alternately giddy and mournful, the film surveys the chaos of the French left following the failed dream of the 1968 rebellion. Young feminists argue with old chauvinist radicals while Maoists cling to their delusions like European communists at the height of the Stalinist purges. Heady times, and Gilles, the director’s stand-in, wanders amid the ruins, painting and fucking his way to Italy and back in a search for purpose. Assayas shows his younger self trapped between the warring factions of politics and art, and the film’s achievement is bridging the gap. All false mistresses abandoned and all failed masters betrayed, Gilles embraces the cinema in the film’s final rapturous moments under the benediction of the Situationists (the corpse of Guy Debord appreciates the work, I’m sure). By simply succumbing to his best self, Assayas discovers his own private revolution at last.
The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man
After the screening, writer/director Arturo Pons described his debut feature, The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man, as an “existentialist emigration” tale. It’s an apt summary of this gently absurdist fable about a boy named Chencho determined on riding a wagon all the way from Mexico to meet his brother in Chicago (God is his copilot, a corpse his navigator). Along the way, he picks up a misfit crew of others set adrift by the violence and poverty that has wracked rural Mexico: a soldier who accidentally kills his commander, professional wailing women who have run out of men to mourn, a one-eyed boy with a three-legged dog. Occasionally, the film lapses into overloaded symbolism and cutesy characterizations—the Sisyphean push-cart man who gathers rocks he has stumbled over is probably the worst of this tendency—but this isn’t so much bargain-basement surrealism as it is a documentary of everyday eccentricities. Pons sketches the splintered communities of his Mexico with affection and sorrow, while also striving for a transcendental release that seems beyond him as a filmmaker. He’s far more profound when being profane. Funnier, too.
War is hell, but so is growing up, which is perhaps why so many filmmakers love to depict war’s brutalities through the eyes of a child. Cate Shortland’s Lore offers a neat inversion of this old formula, her shell-shocked brood not ordinary innocents but doe-eyed Hitler youths. The children, led by eldest sister Lore, make their way through the devastated ruins of Germany in the dying days of World War Two after their Nazi parents are arrested. Who can resist that hook? I’m as eager as anyone to see how the children shake off their master-race programming, but the initial tension and dread dissipates into bland simplifications and overwrought visuals (Shortland never met a sun-dappled meadow she didn’t like). Final message: strict dining etiquette is equivalent to Nazism. Miss Manners is surely unamused.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
My Father and the Man in Black
Any film that touches on Johnny Cash’s pills-and-booze days can’t be that bad, right? And sure enough, Jonathan Holiff’s documentary peaks behind the curtains at a singer on the verge of self-destruction. However, the real subject is the filmmaker’s father, Saul, who shepherded Cash through the peak of his career from 1960 to 1973. Following decades of battling a few demons of his own, Saul committed suicide in 2005, leaving his son with a shed full of Cash memorabilia and a lifetime of unanswered questions. The portrait of a distant, cruel father is buttressed with striking archival finds, such as Saul’s audio diaries and recordings of his phone conversations with Cash, but Jonathan’s need to push the film towards some sort of cathartic revelation can only end in disappointment. The big reveal is that his father was as self-doubting and tortured as the rest of us, a mundane epiphany by any standard. “A Boy Named Sue” offers just as barbed a portrait of father-son relationships in less than four minutes.
Much like the F.W. Murnau masterpiece of the same title, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is a tale of paradises lost and found. Divided between present-day Portugal and Africa during the burgeoning uprisings of the 1950s, the film focuses on a woman named Aurora. In the present, she’s a doddering old lady, lonely and paranoid as she loses her life savings to a gambling addiction. In the past, she’s the radiant young wife of a successful colonial landowner in Africa, willing to throw it all away for a passionate love affair with a musician. Dreamy and sensual, this dialogue-free section is narrated by Aurora’s long-lost former lover, who sorrowfully recounts the passions that would destroy the pair. But beneath the doomed affair lies the threatening shadow of colonialist oppression, personal shame merging with public crime in a phantasmic vision of self-recrimination and horror. Sublime.
The Last Time I Saw Macao
During the question-and-answer session following The Last Time I Saw Macao, an audience member spoke what was on most of our minds and invoked the name of Chris Marker. High praise, to be sure, but it doesn’t quite capture the peculiarity of this B-movie documentary, to borrow a phrase from co-director Joao Pedro Rodrigues. In this distinctive hybrid film, Rodrigues’ directing partner Joao Rui Guerra da Mata is returning to the city of his past after decades of separation, eager to rediscover the city that has dwelled in his mind for so long. Yet what the pair finds is a world of glory and decay, lonely side streets and desolate buildings. Over top the images the filmmakers impose a lurid sci-fi radio play featuring a missing transvestite, a criminal kingpin named Madame Lobo, a handful of stray allusions to Josef Von Sternberg’s Macao, and a glowing birdcage that turns people into beasts. Fascinating as much for its low-budget formal ingenuity as its twisty narrative, the film plays with memory and fantasy in its efforts to recapture a city lost to time. What else can it finally do but blow it up? The city is gone. The city never was.
The VIFF program guide name checks Guy Maddin for The Metamorphosis, and it’s hard to argue the point. Like the Canadian master, this South Korean short (directed by Yun Kinam) trades in silent film aesthetics, amped up to borderline camp—and it even has an absent father figure, as per Maddin, although daddy in this case is thrown out of the house for turning into a vampire and attacking his daughter/mime/whatever. Is it a tortured vision of domestic abuse and dysfunction, or a semi-coherent parade of hyper-stylized tropes stolen from the graveyard of film history? Well, it’s fun while it lasts, whatever the hell it is. Sadly, for all the dramatic posturing—Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight Rises sounds like the Beach Boys next to this film—the ending fizzles, with the film clumsily rushing headlong towards its conclusion.
Emperor Visits the Hell
Several chapters from the 16th century Chinese epic Journey to the West are reworked for modern times in Li Luo’s Emperor Visits the Hell, with mixed results. In a mere 67 minutes, Li unpacks a varied tale involving a pool-hall hustler who loses his head to a dream, forgery in the book of life, stray ghosts, and the emperor’s titular trip to deal with the ramifications of it all. Yet as fantastic as this all sounds, Li sticks to a deadpan realism. Hell is a room as bland as any other, while the gateway to the underworld is, amusingly enough, a non-descript bus stop. The mundane grounds the mythical, allowing the director to emphasize the satirical undertones of the story—it turns out even the emperor must learn to kowtow sometimes—rather than getting hung up on supernatural visions. Unfortunately, the narrative is stitched together with little picture-book interludes and climaxes with the lead actor drunkenly ranting at the wrap party, lending a haphazard air to what is otherwise a powerful concept.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
The audacity of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Walker lies in its simplicity. Lee Kang-Sheng, Tsai’s favourite actor, dons bright red monk robes and walks down the bustling streets of Hong Kong—but slowly, very slowly. Shots are held for minutes at a time, mirroring the glacial pace of our faux-monk friend, whose every step seems to occur in super slo-mo. At times, this short film resembles a kind of artful “Where’s Waldo?” as Tsai buries the monk deep inside the frame, forcing viewers to scan for that telltale splash of red. Other times he’s front and centre, standing in the middle of a busy street as onlookers gawk and snap photos (the crowd parts around the man, as if repelled by a force field). Either way, every shot is a living tableau, rich in detail and unexpected beauty in a cinematic experience of unparalleled purity.
Style and substance do battle for the heart of modern politics in Pablo Larrain’s No, and the results are about as shocking as an Iranian election. But more than a mordant political satire, Larrain’s retelling of the referendum that brought down Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship is also a brisk, funny piece of high-powered filmmaking. Fortunately, even as he delivers his most mainstream work to date, the director remains his stubbornly eccentric self. The film’s washed-out video aesthetic is just as much a rejoinder to commercial slickness as it is a riff on the dated look of its 1980s setting. The decision to focus on the boldly irreverent advertising campaign against Pinochet yields much humour, while Gael Garcia Bernal’s conflicted adman provides the pathos. His haunted look at the end speaks to the powerful anxieties just beneath the surface of this otherwise jubilant tale. Once he sold freedom—now he sells soap operas.
First-time director Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul (or Billy, if you prefer) looks to his own life for inspiration and settles squarely on his mother. No wonder—the woman seems on the verge of self-destructing, with a broken leg and weak kidneys hobbling her body while depression and kleptomania cripple her mind. Billy blends documentary footage of his family with fictional tangents, but the technique is mostly one of expediency (he wasn’t there to film his mother stealing from a grocery store, so he re-creates it with actors instead). Sadly, the jumble of reality and fiction leaves each scene unmoored. A painful sequence where the director captures his mother sobbing helplessly as someone off-camera browbeats the anguished woman over her failings is so isolated from the rest of the film that the powerful emotions stirred up are only muffled. The last thing we see is Billy’s message, “This is what I can do”—an admission of the film’s loving sincerity, as much as its own shortcomings.
Most films from Apichatpong Weerasethakul feel like overgrown trees deep in the jungle, entangled in the surrounding world and teeming with life. Mekong Hotel, on the other hand, is more like a meagre sapling on a well-groomed lawn. That may be partly due to the film’s unusual origins: based on an old script, it forms the kernel of a larger project currently underway. Everything that you would expect of Apichatpong is here, from the familiar faces in the cast to the flattened mysticism of the story. Scenes of entrail-eating ghosts and thwarted love affairs mix with offhand moments from the film’s own creation, such as the soundtrack being recorded and the director advising his star to wear the tight pants. The director’s fascination with the hazy border between truth and fiction remains, but only in its most rudimentary form. At most, the film holds a passing interest as a sort of sketchbook, offering viewers little more than the unfinished doodles of a keen mind.
In Another Country
A typical Hong Sang-Soo interrogation of feckless masculinity gets a shot in the arm from a game Isabelle Huppert, providing a welcome dash of culture-clash comedy to In Another Country. That may sound unlikely at first—cultural differences are more often sources of lazy humour—but Hong’s eternal preoccupations ensure the film strays from the ordinary rather quickly. Huppert plays three different French women in South Korea alternately fending off or inviting the advances of the locals in an unending quest for some kind of happiness. The casual tone and goofy bonhomie belies Hong’s meticulous construction, which lays bare the unseen patterns that shape his character’s lives, for good and ill. With its intricate layers of interlaced fictions and dreams, all blurred together with constant repetition, the film could easily be mistaken for a surrealist comedy of manners akin to Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
The Minister makes good use of a rock-solid Olivier Gourmet in the titular role of Bertrand Saint-Jean, a French transport minister who steps into the midst of an ideological firefight after he speaks against privatizing the country’s train stations. Basically, his government supports him until it doesn’t—which happens once everyone realizes that the market calls the shots and there’s not much a few measly politicians can do anyway. Powered by brisk, compelling storytelling, Pierre Scholler’s film strips away the illusions of state power, revealing a hollowed-out institution beholden to the whims of the private sector. However, this political cynicism is matched only by the cynicism of the film’s biggest lapse—a series of stylized dreams designed to emphasize the minister’s increasing sense of isolation and helplessness. Were the filmmakers worried audiences wouldn’t be interested in a bunch of suits talking policy? Did they just want something snazzy to put in the trailer? Apparently we are not yet trusted to take our medicine without a dollop of sugar.
Somebody Up There Likes Me
The best comedies are the the saddest ones. Case in point: Somebody Up There Likes Me, a beautifully absurd take on mortality and maturity by writer/director Bob Byington. The aptly named Max Youngman exists in a state of arrested development, emotionally uncommitted and disinterested in his own life—a condition made literal when he gazes into a glowing blue briefcase and ceases to age. Skipping forward every five years, the film takes us through a succession of failed marriages and relationships, all the detritus and drama of a lifetime reduced to droll snippets of deadpan whimsy. Max’s unchanging appearance seems more psychological than physical; it goes uncommented on by his friends, while the ravages of time take root behind his unwrinkled façade. He doesn’t age so much as the world ages around him.
Berberian Sound Studio
Peter Strickland has set up quite a challenge for himself in Berberian Sound Studio. How do you make a horror film without horror? Turns out it’s all about the noise—the crunch of bones breaking, the sizzle of flesh burning—and so the film makes full use of the hallucinatory power of sound. Strickland teases the audience with descriptions of an unseen Italian horror movie, filled with tortured witches, perverted goblins, and red-hot pokers in all the wrong places. Instead, we’re left to follow the misadventures of English sound engineer Gilderoy (a wonderfully befuddled Toby Jones) as he works on the film. As the man chops up vegetables to recreate the sounds of the Italian movie’s blood-soaked visions, he begins to succumb to his own guilt over the imaginary violence he is perpetrating—a shot of the rotting food felled by his knife evokes a mass grave, in one particularly amusing example. Unevenly paced, but odd enough to remain engrossing, the film works as a fond tribute to Foley artists, with one caveat—no good can come of being too consumed by your own work.
Let’s just get this out of the way—the score for The Flat is astoundingly, distractingly terrible. It’s like music from a 1960s sitcom, jaunty and tacky and obnoxious, belabouring each emotion and idea on screen. Which is a shame, because Arnon Goldfinger’s documentary is otherwise a nuanced exploration of the ongoing struggle to reconcile with the history of the Holocaust. After discovering Nazi propaganda in his deceased grandmother’s flat in Tel Aviv, Goldfinger unravels a winding tale that finds his grandparents befriending Baron von Mildenstein, a Zionist SS officer whose role in the Nazi regime’s crimes is clouded and contradictory. Remarkably, the baron’s daughter is still alive, and even more remarkably, Goldfinger’s grandparents remained in touch with their German friends after the Holocaust. The film charts the inevitable effect of history on two separate but intertwined family trees: the first generation acts, the second forgets, while the third painfully, haltingly struggles to remember before everything is lost.
A visual treat and formal puzzle, Bestiaire is among director Denis Cote’s most accomplished and provocative works yet. The film covers a year at Parc Safari in Quebec, depicting the animals and their human handlers on equal terms, both framed by the fences that hold them captive. But Cote’s interests extend from these sociological observations to more playful musings on voyeurism, as evidenced by the film’s two basic recurring shot types. One features an animal lurking on the bottom margin of the frame, while the rest is overtaken by negative space—an idiosyncratic choice quite unlike how most others would film animals, and one that produces some glorious, even witty, images (Cote won me over with the ostrich). The other shot faces the animals head-on, allowing them to stare straight into the camera for an uncomfortably long time. As the viewer is increasingly confronted with the sense of their own role as spectator, the temptation to sneak a glimpse at one’s fellow theatergoers becomes hard to resist. Sure enough, they met the animals’ gaze with their own blank stare.
Monday, October 8, 2012
Rumour has it The Hunt is a return to form for director Thomas Vinterberg. Well, perhaps. It does involve child molestation—the subject of The Celebration, his best-known work—so it has the sense of a homecoming (no joke intended). But if we’re talking in terms of merit, then I will have none of it, because this is a rank piece of filmmaking, dull and mean-spirited despite whatever minor interest its polished storytelling and acting may provide. Vinterberg works himself into a righteous lather over a vicious town that falsely accuses a kindergarten teacher of molesting a little girl,but the whole game is rigged from the start to confirm his general contempt for the brainless mob. After a couple of scenes of the girl confessing her lie to uncomprehending adults—they all but pat her on the head and say, “No, sweetie, trust us, you were molested”—the film begins to verge on comedy. While the teacher is weeping in church as a Christmas choir of children sing about baby Jesus, you may be wondering why everyone on Law and Order: SVU is speaking Danish. Is this what passes for high-powered psychological drama these days? All I see is cheap cinematic thuggery.
Thursday Till Sunday
Children are often reduced to baggage during the dissolution of a marriage, dragged along, fought over, lost. Dominga Sotomayor, perhaps unwittingly, makes this very point when the two children in Thursday Till Sunday are granted the privilege of riding on the rooftop luggage rack of the family car so that mom and dad can air their grievances in peace. Not that either child—hyperactive Manuel and his pensive older sister, Lucia—understand what’s happening. They’re just enjoying the ride. That split between carefree youth and embittered adults drives Sotomayor’s assured debut, which clings to Lucia’s perspective of the growing family discord over a four-day road trip. Set largely in the confines of a single junky Mazda, the film captures the nuances of expression and gesture that reveal these characters—a sour look, a turn of the head, a pregnant pause. Sotomayor captures this all with exceptional grace and skill, playing foreground calm against background disorder with great ease. Finally, the film ceases to simply echo Lucia’s perspective and becomes a larger vision of the family unit in turmoil, everyone alone and together simultaneously, as four private worlds orbit and collide.
Beginning as a humble drama about a single mother’s struggle to care for her aging father, La demora soon veers off into the same terrain as a Dardenne brothers working-class passion play. This is a good thing. Director Rodrigo Plas sketches out mother Maria’s dire situation in early scenes, but the crisis that drives her to abandon her father—who is displaying signs of encroaching dementia—is never quite brought into focus. Is it a money matter? Fear of her father’s growing senility? Sheer exhaustion and helplessness? All are suggested as plausible reasons, yet none are developed with enough force to make the woman’s lapse come across as natural. Still, Maria’s frantic nighttime journey from shelter to shelter as her father dutifully awaits her return is a powerful argument for the film’s merits. Mundane emotions—aren’t aging parents a pain?—take on renewed gravity, and Plas’ filmmaking grows stronger as the light dims. The city becomes a lonely landscape of shimmering lights and amorphous shapes, an alien place where the only solid thing for both Maria and her father is each other.
The young Cronenberg lad has taken up the family business, and comparisons are all but impossible to ignore. Indeed, it’s almost shocking just how many elements from the father’s early work—sinister corporate systems, bodily violation and mutation—are evident in Brandon Cronenberg’s first film. But then one realizes that David Cronenberg has cast such a long shadow over this sort of near-futuristic semi-satiric body horror that any young director would likely owe him a debt, never mind his own son. So instead of picking on Antiviral for what it isn’t (Videodrome, Naked Lunch et al.), let’s concentrate on what it is (a middling debut that fritters away its oddball premise with an aimless rehash of second-rate conspiracy blather). The film’s big idea turns out to be its only one: we’re looking at a skewed version of our own future, where celebrity is all and star-struck acolytes pay for the privilege of being infected with the same diseases carried by the rich and famous. But the film offers little beyond skin-deep riffs on the cult of celebrity while indulging in some baggy storytelling—two hours is quite a long time for such a simple sinister plot to unravel (even the welcome presence of Malcolm McDowell can’t sell this one, I’m afraid). At most, Cronenberg culls some cute jokes from his scenario, and the film’s striking white design ensures the visual pop even if the plot never does.
Friday, October 5, 2012
With Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen established his mastery of the cinematic essay. With Reconversao, his study of the works of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, he moves into the realm of the cinematic epigram. Blending Andersen’s own pithy observations with interviews and texts from Souto de Moura, the film offers a fascinating running commentary while portraying the architect’s work through stop-motion photography. It’s a curious stylistic choice, but one that ultimately does justice to the work: trees turn into amorphous masses of green and car lights burst into exploding stars, leaving the unmoving buildings at the centre of the convulsive world. Souto de Moura muses on the divide between building and nature, dismissing the false romanticism of ruins while embracing decay in his own work. He makes for a superb documentary subject—obsessive, observant, acutely aware of the subtle influences of architecture on the human mind, and not above the occasional dab of pungent humour. In short, a Portuguese Thom Andersen.
A Story for the Modlins
Sergio Oksman’s short A Story for the Modlins leads with its best trick: the film begins with the credits to Rosemary’s Baby. Confused, spectators craned their necks at the projection booth, wondering if someone mixed up reels. Then the film begins to fast-forward, and we are transferred from Roman Polanski’s horror to one of an entirely different stripe—a horror of thwarted ambition and family cruelty, Polanski’s devlish family replaced with Oksman’s pious oddballs. Built around the life of Elmer Modlin, a nameless extra in Rosemary’s Baby, the film uses a striking mixture of photographs and grainy videos to show the delusional artistic ambitions of Elmer and Margaret, his painter wife. Their only son is driven away by their increasingly hermetic lives, leaving the couple to spend their days bringing Margaret’s deranged spiritual visions to life. Often funny, the film’s strength becomes a weakness when Oksman makes a sudden turn towards pathos at the end. It’s hard to feel too much pity for a family you’ve just spent twenty minutes laughing at.
Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day
Is this the coyest zombie movie ever? A horde of young Lisbonites descend upon the early-morning city, lurching forward so haltingly that one wonders if they are undead or merely really hung over. Some are covered in blood, while others drop to the ground and heave their guts out. Largely silent, the film’s characters are essentially faceless, but one youth stands out for the small red flower he carries—part of a tradition carried out by couples on Saint Anthony’s Day. Everything feels like a lark, an art-film goof on zombie tropes, right up until the final scene when director Joao Pedro Rodrigues at last tips his hand with a single dramatic gesture and a few lines from Fernando Pessoa. The film revels in loneliness as an apocalyptic condition—a notion rendered simultaneously lovely and absurd under the director’s discerning eye.
Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenburg was a lo-fi cinematic gem, a scruffy deadpan riff on sexual confusion as nature documentary. Who could have expected her follow-up would be to run many of the same ideas through a surrealist dream machine, with late-period Jan Svankmajer serving as one of her stylistic templates? (Seriously, a show of hands, please.) A mere 35 minutes in length, The Capsule is a dense, dazzling tour through the sexual politics of a group of seven women living in an isolated manor. Describing narrative is largely irrelevant when dealing with a film where characters are birthed by domestic furnishings (one emerges from a cluster of chairs, while another rises out of a mattress). The film’s power is only momentarily dispelled by some questionably tacky animation, which is at odds with Tsangari’s more physical imagery. More often, however, Tsangari calls upon high style and high fashion to give flight to her opulent fantasies, and the result is a sensuous nightmare of domination and control. And top prize for the best goats at VIFF this year—a surprisingly competitive category—goes to the film’s well-coiffed herd of fashion-conscious ruminants.