Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Vancouver International Film Festival 2012: Part Three

The Minister 

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 fa├žade. 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.

The Flat 

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.

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