Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part Seven



The Gardener 

Faith and filmmaking lie at the heart of The Gardener, an idiosyncratic essay film by the father/son duo of Mohsen and Maysam Makhmalbaf. Beginning as a simple introduction to the particulars of the Baha’i faith, the film turns into a wide-ranging exploration of modern religion, alternating between Socratic dialogue and familial bickering (Mohsen’s embrace of spirituality seems driven partly by a desire to annoy his proudly agnostic son). Admittedly, the film treads on some familiar theological grounds, with both men falling back on banal stock arguments at times, but what compels is how the spiritual debate doubles as a cinematic one. Mohsen pushes his contemplative, exploratory style, while Maysam stumps for a more direct, mainstream approach—he even teases his father by suggesting they hire George Clooney or Brad Pitt if they want a bigger audience. A concluding maze of mirrors and roses allows Mohsen to fold questions of religion and filmmaking into a single stream of stunning images. Everything comes down to perception: what matters the creed as long as it leads to beauty? 


Manuscripts Don’t Burn 

Manuscripts Don’t Burn lays bare the workings of the secret police in Iran, where writers and intellectuals hide their thoughts in cupboards and wash their phones for fear of bugs. Years after a failed state assassination attempt, these men now try to preserve a written record of the crime, despite police efforts to intimidate them into silence. Director Mohammad Rasoulof’s depiction of this paranoid place is unflinching and controlled, but it doesn’t mask the anger that drives the film (his crew is largely anonymous to avoid reprisals). Most chillingly, the film shows police and rebels equally ensnared in the same oppressive system. The ground-level agents—those often conscripted to do the dirty work—are no freer than the people they terrorize. Rather than privileged elites, the state thugs are lower-middle-class grunts punching the clock and struggling to pay the bills like anyone else. Khosrow, one of the central characters, may dutifully torture helpless academics for a living, but he’s really just trying to support his ailing son. This is a society bound by guilt and fed on disparity, and Rasoulof lays bare its brute machinations. A brief dream sequence makes the point even clearer—the only thing that trickles down in this bankrupt moral economy is blood.


Blind Detective

Johnnie To is in full-blown comedic mode in Blind Detective, which is something of a mixed blessing. Yes, the film is funny. Yes, the set pieces are big and wacky and weird—one even involves several people re-enacting a murder by wearing helmets and braining each other with hammers. But do we really need two-plus hours of slap-happy thriller-farce about a blind detective cracking cold cases? Even To’s relentless pacing can’t hide the fact that this film feels padded, with an episodic structure that makes it seem as if we’re watching the first three episodes of a weird new CBS procedural smashed together. To be fair, there are connections between the various tangents, which often deal with women devoted blindly to men (who typically prove to be unwilling or unlikely objects of affection). But this is just part of the film’s more-is-more strategy—why have one variation on the theme when you can have three? Why use any restraint at all? It’s not a running gag until it has collapsed from exhaustion apparently. Fittingly, the film makes a joke of Johnston, the sightless super-sleuth, constantly gorging himself with food in the middle of each caper. Audience members will feel a comparable gluttony as they try to digest this overstuffed comic confection.


You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet 

Death has never seemed so benign as it does in the hands of Alain Resnais in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, an autumnal masterwork of exceptional grace and wit. Following the death of a playwright, the man’s friends and colleagues gather at his mansion to fulfill his final wish. The group is filled with actors (and Resnais regulars) who have all performed in their friend’s adaptation of the Eurydice myth, and now must watch a young troupe interpret the same play. There’s a beguiling simplicity to the conceit, and it’s ripe material for Resnais, who has been mining these themes of memory and performance for decades now. As the actors watch their young counterparts, the play steadily breaks down the barrier between past and present. The elder actors begin mouthing the lines of their juniors, Eurydice overlapping Eurydice, Orpheus echoing Orpheus. (Three actresses play Eurydice in the film, but you could just as easily say Eurydice plays three actresses.) The performance overwrites reality itself, as the mansion becomes a train station, a hotel, a café. In the director’s capable hands, the concept is less an intellectual game and more a serene response to the shocks and sorrows of time and mortality. All the world’s a stage, indeed. So who will play us when we’re gone?


Vic + Flo Saw a Bear 

If Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is any indication, Denis Cote must have had some awful camping experiences as a child. The director’s vision of rural Quebec is consistently sinister, and his forests offer death in the place of fecundity. His latest wilderness excursion involves Vic, a 61-year-old lesbian on parole and holed up at her catatonic uncle’s sugar shack with her girlfriend, Flo. Each equally and uniquely damaged, the pair struggle to create a kind of domestic bliss, but they’re menaced by the enigmatic Jackie—a cutthroat terror from Flo’s past with a knack for gardening and existential paradoxes (“Awful people like me aren’t supposed to exist,” she admits at one point). Indeed, in this film, few people outside of the titular duo, save perhaps for Vic’s stern yet forgiving parole officer, seem to even exist at all. People materialize out of the forest like phantoms before vanishing once again. These are not normal human interactions, but rather hauntings, and Cote’s outsider protagonists struggle—and fail—to bridge the gulf that lies between them and the rest of the world. Or perhaps, perversely, they finally achieve a kind of communion with their surroundings in the end, and at last find their place in life. Opinions may vary. Also, the moral of the story: phosphorous is good for the roots.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part Six



Termitaria 

Based upon the true tale of a nine-year-old girl in the Philippines who was impregnated by her own father, Termitaria balances a sensationalist premise with a dispassionate approach. Director Joseph Israel Laban has a background in journalism, and it shows in the film’s probing exploration of each character’s psychology, as well as the unfussy, patient style. Under his steady hand, what could easily have been a simple melodrama turns into something more unsettling. One can see how forgiving the father’s past transgressions put him into a position to abuse his daughter, yet forgiveness remains the only way to move past this tragedy. Both parents each cling to easy rationalizations to move past what has happened, but victimized Krista (Barbara Miguel) is devoid of any illusions. The anger written on the child’s face at the end—Miguel’s bruising performance is incredible—is all the more terrible for its lack of resolution. Awful as the crime itself may be, the real horror lies in contemplating life in its aftermath.


The Missing Picture 

Rithy Panh grapples with the challenges of depicting atrocity in The Missing Picture, a deeply affecting personal account of his childhood under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Given the short supply of footage from this period in Cambodian history, Panh is forced to re-create his memories with little clay figurines, who bear witness as stoic stand-ins for the legions silenced by the regime. Yet they cannot mask the countless absences that pervade this film; this is a history book with pages ripped from the spine, where what is missing speaks as eloquently as what remains. The director recounts a litany of losses, from his brother’s disappearance to his father’s slow death by starvation (he preferred death to the indignities promised by the Khmer). Panh himself survived while carrying out the dead at a hospital, and he still carries those people with him years later—no mound of dirt is ever high enough to cover a mass grave. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, he’s torn between his fear of reliving this painful past and his duty to create a record of people and events that have all but vanished from the historical record. Poetic and pained, the film is equal parts requiem, apology and act of defiance.


GriGris 

Beneath the art-house gloss, GriGris is pure B-grade noir, complete with two-bit hustlers, double-crossing crooks and even a gold-hearted hooker. Writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun dredges up these familiar tropes to examine lower-class life and smuggling in Chad, but the film is at its most vibrant when it ventures onto the dance floor with GriGris (Souleymane Démé). Otherwise, everything progresses the way these things do, with betrayal and heartbreak and dumb mistakes by wannabe criminals and petty thugs. Even with the paint-by-numbers plot, the film feels sloppy: GriGris is driven to crime to pay for the medical expenses of his father-in-law, who goes from sitting around at his photography studio one moment to wheezing on his death-bed the next. Still, the film does take a curious and compelling turn once it leaves the city behind for a remote African village. It’s not uncommon for a film noir to climax with a journey from the sleaze of the city to the Edenic promise of the country, but the contrast between urban and rural remains particularly sharp in underdeveloped Africa. And the film ends in a way few classic noirs ever would—as a left-field paean to girl power, where the strength of women offers salvation, instead of doom, for the man.


Camille Claudel 1915 

Can a performance be too good for a film? Camille Claudel 1915 offers an instructive example. As the titular sculptress unjustly committed to an insane asylum, Juliette Binoche is fragile, defiant, bitter—and about 10 feet taller than anyone else in the film. The rest of the cast barely registers, save perhaps Jean-Luc Vincent as Paul Claudel, Camille’s pious brother. No wonder Bruno Dumont leans so heavily on the clash between rebellious sister and priggish brother. The alternative is sitting back and letting Binoche rage against the other inmates and attendants, all of whom watch her with the same awed expression as the audience. Still, there’s something fascinating in how Dumont attempts to pare his filmmaking down to its most simple and direct form. The film is not about religious hypocrisy or patriarchal repression, however tempting it may be to read it on those terms. At the same time, the narrative, such as it is, has been undercut by history. Camille’s fate is written before the film even begins, and the only real question is whether or not she will learn to love her cage. All that remains is grace, or possibly madness. In Dumont’s world, there is little difference between the two.


Fifi Howls From Happiness 

Fifi Howls From Happiness documents the final days of Bahman Mohassess, a radical gay Iranian artist playing out his dotage in a cluttered hotel apartment in Rome. As a subject, he’s witty and combative, punctuating each bon mot with his inimitable phlegmatic, shuddering cackle. Filmmaker Mitra Farahani has crafted a sensitive and keen character study: call it a portrait of the artist as a cantankerous old coot. Never happier than when he’s pissing people off, Mohassess unsurprisingly faced a great deal of censorship in his homeland for his outspoken views (his fondness for covering his work in giant penises may have also played a factor). Recalling a request to destroy one of his sculptures, he retorts, “I am not Medea and I do not eat my own children.” Yet that is precisely what he does, crowing about the many works he has destroyed for his own private reasons. This is a man who flaunts his contradictions: he seems indifferent to posterity, but he’s not above using the film to build up his own legend. His entire life—and death, for that matter—seems one monumental act of will, and that spirit of defiance represents his artistry better than any gallery show. His work remains vital precisely because of his willingness to destroy it. Only the living can die.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part Five



Anatomy of a Paperclip 

Writer-director Ikeda Akira draws life lessons from droll weirdness in Anatomy of a Paperclip, an ultra-deadpan look at the life of Kogure, a schlubby loner consigned to the drudgery of working in an artisanal paperclip shop (which is not really a thing, but let’s just roll with it). Berated by his boss and bullied by a syphilitic street tough, our hero—shackled by an unexplained neckbrace—sits back and accepts the endless humiliations of existence with inscrutable calm. It’s only after setting free a butterfly trapped in his apartment that he begins to pull himself together, with some encouragement from a mysterious gibberish-spouting woman who invites herself into his life. The film’s humour doesn’t always work—wit this dry easily turns arid, and the film’s longueurs can drive one to contemplate just how slight this story actually is—but Ikeda’s fantastic tale gets by on screwy charm alone. Like any good fable, Anatomy of a Paperclip offers a wealth of fine moral advice, ranging from the virtue of selfless kindness to the wisdom of avoiding sketchy street vendors.


Rhymes for Young Ghouls 

First-time director Jeff Barnaby tackles the abuses of residential schools in Rhymes for Young Ghouls, but rather than a tactful history lesson he offers a blood-soaked crime saga. And why shouldn’t he? These scars are still fresh, even if the film takes place over 30 years in the past. Indeed, Barnaby is often at his best exploring the fraught relations between the generations, such as that between teenage artist–drug dealer Ayla and her fresh-out-of-prison father. But the film never fully dispels the lingering staleness of its many borrowed genre tropes, nor the blandness of the second-hand characterizations that populate much of the cast. It sounds strange to complain that the film’s representative of colonial oppression is too one-dimensional, but the Indian Agent Popper is stock villainy incarnate, lacking everything but a moustache to twirl and a cat to stroke as he plots his next cruel act. He’s a snarling manifestation of all that is vile in Canada’s treatment of aboriginals, embodying a host of ills and injustices, which are then easily dispatched with a bullet to the head. For all the film’s promise, it never quite realizes a way to reconcile social critique with Tarantinoesque revenge fantasy.


A Touch of Sin 

Wuxia by way of the arthouse, A Touch of Sin is Jia Zhangke’s L’argent—a work of unrestrained anger from a supremely restrained filmmaker. It’s not quite on the same level as Bresson’s masterpiece, but Jia nonetheless injects a newfound sense of urgency to his critiques of the pitiless modernization of China. Over the course of four segments, he looks at men and women pushed into violence by injustice and economic disparity. One man rails against the corrupt village chief; another survives as an itinerant gunsel. A woman is mistaken for a prostitute and lashes out to defend herself, while a young man moves from job to job as any hope for the future shrinks from view with every vanishing dollar. These little parables of despair and violence speak to the loneliness of a rapidly industrializing society and the impotent rage of the weak against the strong. Fittingly for such a consciously theatrical venture, the film ends with an audience watching a travelling show, with the performers singing of sin while the masses watch impassively. It’s a moment of self-reflection for Jia, who aligns his own work with a larger artistic tradition—a rare moment of continuity in a violent, changing world.


Redemption 

Redemption—Miguel Gomes’ short, sort-of companion to last year’s Tabu—imagines a series of melancholy inner monologues for some of the chief actors in recent European history. The soundtrack suggests we’re in for a sober reflection of the costs of power upon those who wield it; the visuals suggest something more puckish. As the actors narrate the semi-fictious personal lives of four different politicians, Gomes illustrates the speeches with seemingly irrelevant—or at the very least irreverent—stock footage. People leap from buildings and African dancers spin, offering a mocking counterpoint to the bittersweet musings of the leaders. Yet the faded images also fit with the overriding nostalgia of the monologues. Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, laments missing his daughter’s childhood, before shifting gears to contemplate the loss of his own youth. It turns out even neoliberal bagmen can cry. Decide for yourself whether they deserve pity or scorn.


The King’s Body 

Quiz time! Who was the first king of Portugal? Give yourself a pat on the back if you guessed Dom Afonso Henriques, a Galician who proclaimed himself Afonso the First. And if you guessed incorrectly, fear not, because you’re no more uninformed than the 24 Galician bodybuilders interviewed in The King’s Body. João Pedro Rodrigues quizzes the group about the king, asks about their tattoos and scar, and has them strip down to their skivvies while posing in front of a green screen. The film recreates the dead king through the body politic, but what makes the film compelling are the interviews. With a bit of gentle prodding from Rodrigues, the group speaks about the ways life has marked their bodies, and in the process many reveal a yearning for the mythological not far removed from the legendary sovereign. (One man even reveals that he has tattooed his own name on his arm in Elvish.) Considering the self-serious nature of many of these men—everyone seems really intent on appearing as badass as possible when posing with a broadsword, for instance—it would be easy for the film to lapse into derision. But Rodrigues finds something touching in these genial muscleheads. They share with the king a yearning for grandeur and myth-making, and their strength will fade as surely as his legend.


Mahjong 

Last year, João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata teamed up to make The Last Time I Saw Macao, a unique blend of documentary, memoir and science fiction. They return to that same reality-bending format in Mahjong, but with diminishing returns. The noir-inflected plot concerns a vanished mystery woman and two agents of a shadowy organization stalking each other through Chinatown at night. The narrative is shaky at best, and it strains to hold together even a modest half-hour film. Outside of a few key images—fluttering toy hummingbirds, a warehouse of mannequins, shoes littering a pile of rubble—the film seems casting about for purpose. The directors challenge xenophobia in general and anti-Sino sentiment in particular, with one character even asking, “Why are the Chinese always the villains?” Sadly, the film runs out of steam before finding an answer.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part Four


A Place to Take Away

Somewhere from 500 to 600 tourists visit Brazil’s impoverished favelas each day, according to A Place to Take Away. It’s hard not to feel uncomfortable about this fact, but Felippe Schultz Mussel’s documentary is a measured examination of slum tourism and its effects. Favela residents often staff the tour companies, which some argue are bringing business to cash-strapped neighbourhoods. Or is this just, to borrow the old Situationist line, “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery”? Mussel mostly holds back from editorializing, save for one misguided sequence where tourist photos overlay the favela until the city is all but invisible beneath the beaming smiles of pasty vacationers. Fortunately, such lapses are rare, because the film is much more compelling when it allows its subjects to speak their minds. Near the end of the film, one of the tour guides enthuses about creating a museum to memorialize local crime scenes, complete with bullet holes in the walls. Community renewal is all well and good, but too much improvement and you could start to lose business.


Closed Curtain

Iranian director Jafar Panahi continues his struggle to make films with another film about his struggle to make films. Closed Curtain finds the director turning inward, as he begins to survey the damage a 20-year sentence to house arrest has wrought upon his psyche. The story concerns a writer hiding out in an empty house with his beloved dog, who must remain hidden due to Iran’s injunctions against the “impure” animals. All the man wants to do is write in peace, but he’s disturbed by the intrusion of a potentially suicidal woman on the run for unknown reasons. At first, the film seems to be building into a fine chamber piece, with two people struggling to form some sort of common bond under the weight of political repression. But the film takes an unfortunate—if inevitable, given the circumstances—meta-fictional turn near the middle and never looks back. Man and woman become angel and demon whispering into the director’s ear, one urging him to continue his work while the other contemplates darkness and defeat. I can’t deny Panahi his right to self-pity, but it limits his artistry even beyond the physical constraints placed upon it by the regime. He may not be able to leave the house, but surely he can still open the window a little?


The Dirties

Every school shooting seems to prompt some tongue-clucking censor to decry the pernicious influence of violent videogames and movies on malleable young minds. The Dirties, Matt Johnson’s disturbing and hilarious first feature, takes that idea and stands it on its head. Students Owen and Matt (played by Johnson himself as a hyper-verbal teenage Tarantino) are making a film about bullying, and the two movie-mad geeks have turned the project into a ridiculous mishmash of references, including homages to testosterone-addled touchstones like Scarface and Pulp Fiction. Rabbit holes abound: the film about bullying is a reflection of the real-life bullying faced by Matt and Owen, while Johnson’s handheld camera style suggests a documentary about two teens making a movie. There are films within films within films, and as Matt grows more unstable and Owen more distant, fact and fiction become harder to separate. Johnson’s well-observed comedy of teenage life transforms into a brilliantly cutting examination of what it means to see the world through the eyes of a burgeoning killer.


Distant

Distant is built entirely around a lone formal conceit: each scene is a single shot filmed from some far away vantage point. Over the course of 13 shots, director Yang Zhengfan muses upon distance, both physical and emotional, with varying success. The strongest scenes are those that manage to hint at larger narratives, such as a wedding party slowly fragmenting in the park. Others verge upon the bleak deadpan of a Roy Andersson tableau, most notably when an old man collapses by the side of the freeway. (A person comes running from off-screen, offering a brief hope of rescue that is dashed once we realize they’re just jogging by.) But much of the time, the scenes feel thin and underdeveloped, as if the ingenuity of the conceit were enough to carry them. Sadly, it’s not. The greatest distance is the one between film and viewer, and Yang never quite manages to bridge the gap.


La última película 

Both love letter and eulogy, La última película is a bittersweet farewell to celluloid, combining visions of annihilation with self-effacing wit. Riffing on Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, the film follows the exploits of a brash American director and his bemused local guide in Mexico. He’s come to the country to film the Mayan apocalypse, and in the process make the last movie to be set to film. No such luck, though. In this endearingly chaotic film, a nice simple apocalypse would come as something of a relief. Directors Mark Peranson and Raya Martin draw upon at least nine different formats, ranging from iPhone to 16 millimetre. The film celebrates the future of the medium as it mourns the end of an era, and its mash-up of styles offers a vivid snapshot of cinema in transition from analog to digital. Years from now, this film may well seem like a lost artifact, nothing but a curio of a lost time and a strangely doom-obsessed people. So what? The Last Movie is already 40 years old, and we know how well that apocalypse turned out. Every time is the end times.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part Three



The Story of My Death 

A sort of high-historical game of let’s-you-and-him-fight, The Story of My Death meditates on desire and mortality through the unlikely pairing of Casanova and Dracula. Albert Serra’s film is compelling, challenging and all but unclassifiable, a sui generis work as seductive and sinister as its two iconic subjects. The first half of the story takes place in Switzerland, where Casanova holds court on life and art in between feasting and fucking; the second half shifts to a remote cottage in the Carpathian Mountains, under the growing shadow of Dracula’s corrupting influence. Much of the film consists of conversation, but Serra possesses a deft mastery of mood that allows him to shift easily from languid afternoons and pastoral reveries to nighttime murk and fire-lit violence. Casanova’s daytime delights collide with Dracula’s nocturnal agonies, and the combination results in a rare and strange beauty. Alchemy serves as one of the film’s central images—everything climaxes with the transformation of a dung heap into gold—and also as a metaphor for Serra’s own unique form of cinematic sorcery.


A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness 

Ben Rivers and Ben Russell combine talents in the visionary film-essay A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. From an Estonian commune to a lonely Finnish forest and a Norwegian black-metal band, the film is searching for something, but for what? A sense of community? A connection to nature? Transcendence? In the commune, people contemplate utopia as a party, trance music, or just naked people groping each other in a sauna (“Maybe there is a person with no finger up his bum,” one man muses, “but I pity him”). Later sections of the film contrast this makeshift mini-society with a man alone in the woods, or on stage at a sweaty underground music club. If the first section defines life in terms of community and the second in terms of individuality, then the third combines the two: enveloped by the music, the performers and audience members are united by their own private ecstasies, each perfectly alone and yet joined together by the music. Perhaps these are feeble consolations against the darkness, but take what light you can find in a void.


3X3D: Just in Time 

Peter Greenaway makes his 3-D filmmaking debut with Just in Time, and the director has leapt feet-first into the third dimension. Through dint of sheer excess, this short film serves as a fertile laboratory for just how far 3-D can be pushed. In a single shot, Greenaway leads viewers on a tour of Guimaraes, Portugal, throughout the centuries, introducing a sprawling cast that includes priests, popes, and an anti-fascist physician dancing the Charleston. As the camera loops round and round through a museum, text hangs over the screen like a curtain and images beset us from all sides. The film uses 3-D to overwhelm viewers with information, both verbal and visual. By the time the director starts pulling out the triptychs, I was deep in the throes of sensory overload, utterly dazed and yet no more knowledgeable about Guimaraes, Portugal, than when we first climbed aboard this multi-dimensional whirligig. The film’s entire method and purpose is stupefaction, and it succeeds marvelously on these terms. Good job, Peter. Now never do it again.


3X3D: Cinesapiens 

Goofy, gaudy and finally tedious, Cinesapiens hews rather too closely to the long-standing tradition of 3-D films shoving crap in the faces of viewers. As a meta-commentary on the way the technology is changing the relationship between the audience and cinema, this is all perfectly valid. As filmmaking, it’s nigh unbearable. Pera tours through the history of the medium, moving from shadows on the wall to the Lumiere Bros. and their train, with nods to the death of Valentino and The Jazz Singer. None of this is particularly fresh, but what ultimately drags the film down are its own mannered cuteness and oppressive whimsy (neologisms like Celluloid Kreatures and Filmitis, clowns and witches jumping off the screen, etc.). It’s all very quaint, and after five minutes I was ready to claw out my eyes.


3X3D: The Three Disasters 

Easily the strongest film in this 3-D trio, The Three Disasters finds Jean-Luc Godard in his cinema-poetic mode. You know what that means: dense video collages, gnomic proclamations about history and cinema, and layered with quotations ranging from anonymous porno films to The Lady From Shanghai. Godard makes few concessions to 3-D, although he does throw in a few pop-out shots for laughs. Mostly, he uses the technology to add texture, much like how a painter might vary the thickness of his paint. The effect is uncannily beautiful, and quite unlike what anyone else has done with 3-D. Admittedly, unpacking Godard’s dense array of allusions is impossible on a single viewing, but the overall thrust seems to be that perspective—the original sin of western painting, he says—offers a false sense of control over space, and 3-D is the natural outcome of that arrogance. Clearly invigorated by the fresh foe of 3-D, the director has produced some of his liveliest work since Histoire(s) du cinema. If digital is a dictatorship, Godard appears ready to take to the underground and lead the resistance.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part Two



Stray Dogs 

Will no one shed a tear for Miss Big Boobs? The surrogate mother of a homeless brother and sister, she meets a grisly end when the children’s father, drunk and weeping, devours her. (Fortunately, she’s just a cabbage with a face drawn on it, but don’t let that numb you to the tragedy inherent to the situation.) Tsai Ming-Liang fills Stray Dogs with such bizarre touches, which will surely confound viewers expecting a more traditional social-realist vision of poverty. Instead, the director combines a vivid sense of physical reality with a dream-like narrative. The children pass through the city unnoticed; life carries on, unaware of the hungry ghosts that haunt the streets. Tsai pushes his shots to such lengths that they begin to add to this feeling of unreality, and the result is not only a stylistic tour de force but one of the most powerfully direct films in his career. As others have mentioned, poverty is a recurring theme in his work, but the film also poignantly touches on one of his other great concerns—time and entropy, particularly as seen in the aging face of his eternal lead actor, Lee Kang-Sheng. In one of the greatest and most challenging scenes in the entire film, a woman stares at a mural in an empty factory until the rocky shore depicted in the crumbling painting seems to blend with the rubble-strewn floor of the abandoned building. Watch anything long enough and you can glimpse the decay.


Yumen

Part documentary and part performance art, Yumen strives to transform an abandoned Chinese oil town into something poetic and beautiful. In theory, I’m on board for that—let’s make us some art, fuck yeah!—but in practice the po-mo whimsy of rabbits hopping happily amid the ruins and naked people standing on pillars and et cetera tends to drag. Filmmakers Xu Ruotao, J.P. Sniadecki and Huang Xiang are making playhouses out of rubble, leading to a film that feels, perhaps intentionally, like a collection of discarded scenes and half-formed ideas. In its more lucid moments—like the scene of a woman strolling through a crowded market while quietly singing Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown”—the film skillfully evokes the loneliness and longing that lie at the heart of this desolate place. People vanish, and art springs up like flowers on a grave. It’s an affecting idea, but the film is too scattershot to fully develop it. Every beautiful and surprising image is balanced with a stale idea—shiny pop songs echoing through dead spaces, faded film stock for a faded memory.


Matterhorn

Diederik Ebbinge’s Matterhorn may be little more than a genial but largely unambitious parody of parochial bitterness, but there’s something to be said for a crowd-pleaser that conducts itself with a little restraint and self-respect. Ton Kas plays Fred, a dour widower living a life so cloistered and lonely one can practically smell the mustiness of his neatly ordered home (the persistent fly forever buzzing around his kitchen is a nice touch). But his life is upended by the presence of semi-mute Theo (René van ’t Hof), who, aside from the occasional animal noise or impolitic outburst, spends most of his time in a catatonic stupor. In a bizarro-Pygmalion setup, Fred makes a project of training Theo in the ways of civilized society, which involves a brief detour through the world of children’s entertainment for reasons better left to the film to explain. Needless to say, the community does not approve, and from there it’s a flurry of cabaret singing, cross-dressing, and fisticuffs before all is right with the world once more. Building a film around the clash between a stuffed shirt and an unkempt weirdo is hardly new, but Ebbinge deftly uses eccentric comedy to keep this paean to tolerance from drowning in sentiment. 


Our Sunhi 

Another assured outing from Hong Sang-Soo, Our Sunhi finds the director sifting through the minutia of romantic entanglement with his characteristic wit and playful sense of structure. It’s another exploration of the sex lives of high-functioning alcoholics, with the focus this time on a young female film student who must parry the unwanted affection of three different men. As always, repetition is key to understanding Hong’s world. Phrases crop up again and again in unexpected places: the clichés of a reference letter from Sunhi’s smitten professor are echoed by two rival suitors, growing more ludicrous with each repetition. (According to everyone, Sunhi has artistic sense, whatever the hell that means.) It’s one of the film’s funniest gags, but also one of its most pointed. Everyone has this woman figured out, yet no one apparently knows the first thing about what she actually wants—least of all Sunhi herself, who seems in the midst of a mid-20s identity crisis of some sort. What else can she do but rebel against the smothering attentions of this love-struck trio? The men hold on to the fantasy, while the real thing slips away.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part One


Gebo and the Shadow 

The tendency as one ages is to move into consecutively smaller spaces. A house becomes an apartment becomes a room becomes a hospital bed. Manoel de Oliveira, still spry at the age of 104, appears to be going through a similar downsizing process with his filmmaking. Gebo and the Shadow mostly confines itself to a single, lamp-lit apartment, save for a few brief location shots, but those are so spare and devoid of context that they feel more like the haunted dreams of a shut-in than any real-world place. Indeed, the entire world feels like a shadowy thing just beyond the simple lives of elderly Gebo and his impoverished family. The only hope for a break from their grinding low-rent existence is the return of the long-vanished prodigal son, and even those dreams are ultimately dashed. With graceful economy, Oliveira crafts a suffocating atmosphere of stasis and isolation—the film rarely strays from a few basic shot setups, never mind the room itself. At the end, when sunshine from the street pours into the apartment and slices through this dark tableau, the effect is shocking. This is not a world you wish to see in the harsh light of day.


A Field in England 

So now we know what happens when an English civil war re-enactment society gorges itself with mushrooms and is set loose in the woods. You get something like Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, a hallucinogenic occult freak-out spiked with droll humour and grisly violence. At times, it can be hard to shake the suspicion that the director has no more idea what he’s doing in this field than his poor confused characters, but the film’s sinister charms and sheer bravura balance its flaws. Focused on just five people wandering the countryside, the film feels at once earthy and detached, a floating psychedelic trip grounded only by the occasional nod to base bodily matters (behold the challenges of shitting in the 17th century). Dodging the war, these characters are hunting for a vaguely defined, possibly supernatural treasure, but the search is merely pretext for daffy conversations and a delirious climactic montage that essentially breaks reality. All bonds are broken; all class divisions dissolved. Society tears itself apart, and the image follows suit.


A Long and Happy Life 

Astute viewers may sense a tinge of irony in calling this High Noon rehash A Long and Happy Life (I guess calling it "Russia is a Joyful and Prosperous Land" would have been too on the nose). Sadly, the rest of the film is as thuddingly obvious as the title. Sascha, the young leader of a farming commune, is forced by the government to sell his land, but his workers urge him to fight back. Against his better instincts, he agrees, only to watch helplessly as the rest of the commune abandons the cause. From there, the descent into violence is as inexorable as it is incoherent. Bricks start flying, brains are bashed, lives are ruined, and fatalistic gloom hangs over the proceedings like a suffocating fog. Director Boris Khlebnikov clearly has something to say about the danger of clinging to a past long since faded into ruin. Too bad he has to impose a grand finale on this modest tale, and in the process crush whatever credibility he had earned with his hitherto competent naturalism. Frankly, I would have been content just to watch Sascha build a chicken coop.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Drug War


Facing a death sentence, a criminal leader bargains for his life by helping the police infiltrate the underworld. Will he betray them? Do you even have to ask? Drug War’s premise may sound as generic as its title, but Johnnie To’s film is stranger than any of the familiar genre tropes it draws upon. Like a coke-addled tribute to M, the film lays bare the intertwining structures of the police and criminal worlds, and then shoots everyone in the head for good measure. What began as a terse procedural ends with such grisly violence that any distinction between cop and crook has been blasted apart in the crossfire. Fortunately, To has more on his mind than doodling in the blood spatter, although his intentions only begin to become clear late in the film with a surprise reference to Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, of all things (it turns out chaining your main character to a corpse is a metaphor made for any occasion). By the time we reach the climactic schoolyard shootout, the clinical detachment of the early scenes has long since melted into festering disgust, leading into a conclusion that is as inevitable as it brutal. Drug lord and prison guard both peddle their wares, and the war begins and ends with a needle: the junkie’s syringe or the state’s lethal injection. Pick your poison.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Rope


Eight years of faithful service to Hollywood apparently drove Alfred Hitchcock to the experimentation of Rope, his first self-produced feature. Drawn from the Leopold and Loeb case, the film’s plot is very much Hitchcock in black comic mode: two bright young men murder a college chum, stash the corpse in a trunk and then invite the dead man’s friends and family over for fine dining and innuendo (every second line of dialogue is laden with morbid double entendres). But the stylistic conceit—the entire film consists of 10 shots stitched together to look like one long take—marks it as a key inflection point in the director’s career. Rope would serve as a corrective to the disappointing commercial and critical failure of The Paradine Case, much like how the low-budget experimentation of Psycho years later was partly spurred by the unfortunate reception of Vertigo. Even if it doesn’t qualify as major Hitchcock, the film remains a tribute to his willful perversity and restless creativity.

John Dall and Farley Granger work reasonably well as the ambiguously gay duo—the ultra-smarmy Dall is particularly fine in his role as an arrogant young killer—but Jimmy Stewart would do better work for Hitchcock than his performance here as Rupert, a rather unlikely fount of Nietzschean wisdom. When Stewart speaks of offing people to get better tickets for the theatre, his winking manner turns the entire speech into a tongue-in-cheek provocation from someone’s eccentric uncle. Confronted by the persuasive power of this philosophy, he renounces his ideas with almost inexplicable vehemence. Who knew he actually believed this stuff all along? I assumed he was just making conversation. The bemused tone Stewart brings to the film is at odds with the darker undercurrents of the story, where murder becomes a sublimated sexual act for the repressed killers. After strangling their victim, the pair slump into a post-coital haze, with Dall smoking languidly as Granger whimpers, “Can we just stay like this for a while?” I guess he wants to cuddle?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Blue Jasmine


More character assassination than character study, Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s mordant takedown of the widowed wife of a disgraced real-estate profiteer and her feeble attempts at rehabilitating her ruined life. As the broke (and broken) Jasmine, Cate Blanchett serves well as an imperious one-time millionaire reduced to popping meds and boarding with her grocery-bagging adopted sister. Dubious scenario aside—and this one is a bit of a tough sell even with the adoption copout—this is some of Allen’s most focused and effective filmmaking in ages, revealing a lighter touch that helps mute many of the director’s familiar shortcomings. Some secondary characters may still seem cobbled together from a few Borscht Belt jokes—Michael Stuhlbarg’s horn-dog dentist, for instance—but others have been elevated by imaginative casting, such as Louis C.K.’s genial turn as one of the biggest assholes in a film littered with them. Indeed, the worst of all may be Jasmine herself, who takes the fall for a self-destructing moneyed elite that has reduced the working class to collateral damage in its own petty games. For once, Allen’s scorn towards his characters feel earned, and he leaves this woman to the mercy of her own memories. She is reduced to a muttering mess of grief and guilt, while everyone around her repeats the useless refrain, “The past is past.” Anyone who has ever held a debt knows better.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Computer Chess


A primitivist techno-fable set at an early 1980s computer chess tournament, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is a devious study of loneliness in the cybernetic era. Strand a man on an island and he’ll find a soulmate in his volleyball; lock a programmer in a room with a computer and he’ll see a sentient machine with malice flickering behind its green CRT eyes. Given enough time and isolation, a person could anthropomorphize the air itself. All of which lends an unsettling aura of doubt to the revelation that Caltech programmer Peter may have stumbled upon genuine artificial intelligence in a computer that kind of sucks at chess. With his hunched shoulders and startled eyes, the young man seems to cringe his way through the world. When a pair of middle-aged swingers staying at the same hotel as the tournament try to seduce him into a threeway, the terrified youth flees the room before he can be afflicted by anything resembling human contact. Later, talking a female colleague—whom he clearly has a helpless, chaste crush on—Peter’s references to chess take on a repressed erotic tinge. “Did two bodies collide and one disappear?” he asks. Clearly, this is a man who would write love poetry in Boolean logic.

But Bujalski is interested in more than mere sniggering at the sex lives of computer nerds, however much fun that may be (and it kind of is, sad to say). Using a degraded video aesthetic, the director has created a film that seems to dissolve alongside the sanity of its own characters. One tournament contestant, the prickly Papageorge, ends the film trapped in a loop like a faulty piece of programming. Another imagines the competitors moving around the room like chess pieces on a grid. The madness culminates in one final deranged vision: a prostitute peeling away a chunk of her skull to reveal the blinking circuitry beneath. Compare this to Richard Brautigan—another Caltech poet, like Peter—who once wrote of a faux-paradise where technology and nature mingled in cybernetic forests and meadows (home on the range, where the deer and the androids play). For Brautigan, the rise of the computer world would push humanity back towards its stinking, root animality, reducing men and women to little more than pets beneath the benevolent watch of these “machines of loving grace.” Rather than the poet’s mock-innocent techno-utopia, Bujalski offers a more profane union, with man acting like machine and machine acting like man. Damaged loners living life through a screen, these programmers steadily lose their sense of where humanity ends and technology begins. Watch the world through a camera long enough and you might begin to think it was part of your eye too.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Branded to Kill


The avant-garde lives next door to the B-movie ghettos, and Seijun Suzuki razes the fences with Branded to Kill. Theoretically, there’s a plot—assassins, butterflies, betrayal, something something, death—but its presence is more out of habit than choice. If nothing else, it provides a structure for Suzuki to dynamite, and images sprout like flowers from the ruins: a dead woman’s hair swirling in the toilet, a live woman’s face shellacked with rain, an apartment wall pinned full of dead butterflies. Whatever emotional coherence lacking in the story’s discombobulated gangster clichés is found in these startling visions of annihilation. Not that the film is entirely abstract: Suzuki makes a concentrated effort to articulate this loopy system of ranked hire killers jockeying for position while engaging in slapstick assassinations or other inexplicable adventures. Yet the director’s inner anarchist will not be calmed, and if the film sometimes resembles a towering monument built upon a swamp, that’s probably the point. Suzuki is a cinematic saboteur par excellence, but his primary target is most often himself. Every character with more than one line may be a murderer, but this is still a film where the hero has a fetish for sniffing boiling rice, which does tend to somewhat deflate the tough-guy mystique that comes with being the third-ranked killer in the country, world, or whatever.

Over 30 years later, Suzuki would return to this same set-up for Pistol Opera, a vastly different yet equally powerful take on the material. Sporting the director’s trademark monochromatic colours, the later film emphasizes the unreality of the story, stylizing the settings into something theatrical, treating the characters as little more than lifelike dolls to be posed in elaborate playhouses. Freed from the shackles of his Nikkatsu studio contract, Suzuki would completely unleash his formalist tendencies in Pistol Opera as he stared down death with a steeliness that would make even the unflappable Joe Shishido tremble. Politely put, Branded to Kill is just slightly more unhinged (actually, it’s utterly bugfuck). Like its successor, the film is obsessed with mortality, but it offers the frenzy of youth in the place of the serenity of age. At once terrified and mischievous, Branded to Kill doesn’t gaze into the abyss so much as just throw a few firecrackers into the void and then run like hell. Perhaps there is some comfort to be gleaned from Suzuki’s conception of living with death as a hyper-violent buddy comedy. Perhaps it’s just more fun to laugh as you tumble into your grave. Or perhaps the real truth is found in how Hanada, No. 3 killer and No. 1 chump, faces a paralyzing despair like something out of Beckett: “I must kill, I can’t kill, I’ll kill.” What does it matter? The final outcome is the same.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Frances Ha


Many a soul has been swallowed up by the great gulf between post-adolescence and adulthood, and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is a knowing survey of the wreckage of 20-something ennui. Frances is a 27-year-old dancer that doesn’t dance, a dream girl without a dreamer, a whirling mess of a woman. She’s charmingly whimsical and infuriatingly impractical. The beauty of Greta Gerwig’s portrayal of Frances lies in how she can capture this clumsy vitality without becoming completely obnoxious. Good thing, too, because her buoyant presence serves as a counterbalance to the occasionally leaden touch of the director, who sometimes seems like he would be happier just stomping all over the dreams of these deluded art-school kids without all this pretence of comedy—and that is hardly the only way he creates trouble for himself. Drawing stylistic inspiration from the French New Wave (there’s also a Leos Carax homage thrown in for good measure), Baumbach invites unflattering comparisons to the most iconic cinematic representations of wayward 20-something dreamers. For all the film’s liveliness and wit, the director is too calculating to match the loose energy of early Truffaut, much too constrained to recreate the probing methods of a young Godard. But perhaps that is the point, as he treats his cinematic forebears with the same wry fondness he feels for Frances and her cohorts. The film’s black-and-white look, couched in New Wave mannerisms, is equal parts tribute to and critique of those lost in the romanticism of youthful freedom.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Savage Innocents


Nicholas Ray’s Hollywood career was well into the final curves of its flaming death-spiral by the time The Savage Innocents was released in 1960. He was fighting a losing battle with his addictions, and only two more troubled mainstream productions stood between him and a decade wandering the artistic wilderness, teasing out interest in dead-on-arrival projects while limping by on the largesse of friends and admirers. A short porn film and a couple of collaborations—the recently re-released We Can’t Go Home Again and Lightning Over Water, co-directed with Wim Wenders—would eventually surface, but The Savage Innocents can be seen as the last truly personal film Ray would make inside the studio system, his last complete attempt at injecting his hot-blooded artistry into the cold machinery of commercial filmmaking. The film ends with a tense farewell between two friends who must become enemies for their own survival, and I can think of no better epitaph for this stage of the director’s working life.

The Savage Innocents is a mess of good ideas executed badly, flashes of brilliance followed by scenes as flat as the Arctic plains where the action takes place. Much effort has been put into researching the life and customs of the Inuit, and the story charts a fascinating progression, beginning with the hunter Inuk (Anthony Quinn) squabbling with a rival over potential mates before moving on to first contact with western civilization. Unfortunately, the early scenes often resemble a backlot re-staging of Nanook of the North, and Ray’s sub-Flaherty impulses—pedantic narration, for one—rarely bear good results. Even worse, any attempts to recoup some authenticity are scuppered by the appalling Pidgin English that accounts for the bulk of the dialogue. Reportedly, Ray wanted to use a more poetic style of speech, but Quinn apparently preferred this crude jabber. (I’m sure it made it easier to memorize his lines, if nothing else.) At its worst, the film imagines the Inuit as cheery simpletons—Inuk is treated like an overbearing puppy in one particularly uncomfortable scene—and the ill-advised treatment of language scarcely helps on this front.

Fortunately, everything we understand about this story shifts radically midway through the film. Inuk readies to throw his spear at a polar bear, but as the animal rears up it is laid low by some unknown thunder. Not only is this the first appearance of a rifle in the film, but it is also the first indication that the story is taking place in the modern Arctic and not some immortal, snow-covered Eden. The horror of that realization would be meaningless were it not preceded by nearly 40 minutes of fumbling Inuit bedroom farce. The film’s flaws are tangled up in its greatest strengths, and Ray rarely flinches before the brutality of Arctic life. Indeed, he allies himself so closely to the Inuit perspective that viewers may scarcely recognize western society when it finally appears. Ray isn’t showing us an alien culture so much as alienating us from our own culture—a gambit that becomes clear only once Inuk has been captured by two troopers for his part in accidentally killing a man. Compliant but confused, the hunter wonders why he must be dragged across the wasteland just to be put on trial and hanged. Why not shoot him now and save the trouble? One of the troopers, clearly unaware of the absurdity of his own words, merely says it is what their laws require. At that moment, it is tempting to imagine a different film, where the Inuit speak beautiful, flowing English while the westerners communicate in harsh, incomprehensible gibberish.

Ray surely must have seen a mirror of himself in this story of an outsider brought into contact with an unyielding system far beyond his control or comprehension. Seduced by the baubles of the modern world, Inuk is drawn deeper and deeper into this culture until it becomes clear that he will be destroyed by it. Alcohol unsettles him; the jukebox blares at him like an air-raid siren. His wish to please the White Man overrides everything, even his need to care for his family. In his own land, where he thrives effortlessly while the troopers stupidly stumble into every threat, he is a prisoner. He cannot reason with the White Man because his reason is not their reason. His name is written down in a book, he is told, and it will remain there long after everyone else is dead. But one of the troopers, grateful to Inuk for saving his life, offers to report him dead and erase his name from the book in an implausible gesture of kindness. Inuk is granted the rare opportunity to return to his Arctic idyll, as if he had never encountered the trading post or its gaudy trinkets. He is allowed to remain free and untouched by civilization, but only if he no longer exists. With the wooden buildings of the fort slowly creeping closer along the horizon, oblivion is the only sanctuary for the innocent now.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Tokyo Drifter


Tokyo Drifter is an all-out open assault on pulp cinema, less an exemplar of low-budget B-movie craft than a savage rebuke of tough-guy gangster films and pop culture in general. Seijun Suzuki, the avant-trash auteur, elevates the material through his sheer contempt for it. The pop-art gloss of the film is beauty with an edge, the seductive shine of a glittering blade or polished bullet. Every frame exhudes tension, from the disjointed editing and flattened compositions to the hysterical shrieking of the colours. Money and power rule everything while honour is dead, and presumably Suzuki is talking about modern capitalism and not just his day job (he was just two years away from being bounced from Nikkatsu Studios for making one too many incoherent pop-art provocations like this). In this world of violence and neon, titular drifter Tetsu risks self-destruction through an old-fashioned sense of loyalty. Duly chastised, he swings so far the other way that he severs all human connection rather than risk being hurt again, or as he sneeringly tells his lover, he can’t walk with a woman at his side. Commerce corrupts all human bonds, and pop culture provides a front for the sick system. A secretary giggles at comic books while mobsters wheel and deal around her. Teenagers dance continually in a frenzied bebop delirium as bullets whizz by. People are never happier than when discussing their hair dryers.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Angels' Share


There are cringe comedies where you feel embarrassed for the characters, and those where you feel embarrassed for the director. The Angels’ Share is one of the latter. Despite adding a touch of grimy realism to the early scenes, Ken Loach quickly falls in line with the dull plot of this rote comedic caper. There’s a distressing lack of humour or personality in this tale of four petty criminals plotting to buy a better life with a few pilfered bottles of rare whisky, and the stakes remain so low that a toddler could vault over them with ease. Group leader Robbie is given some depth through a vivid, pained reconciliation with the victims of his criminal days, but the rest of his gang remain interchangeable cyphers, adding little more than a chorus of bodily functions in the background. The comedy finds no footing in either the setting or the people; the film’s unfunny gags would be just as home in any Hollywood bro-comedy as they are on these grey Glaswegian streets. As the title suggests, the film hinges on a series of metaphorical transactions: the uncompensated suffering of Robbbie’s victims, the unbreakable blood bond between two rival families, and the irredeemable debt to society held by those who can least afford the payments. Of course, this being a comedy—albeit more in theory than in practice, if we’re going by laughs—all accounts are settled with minimal effort, burying the numerous shortcomings of the underdeveloped script. Loach, more accountant here than filmmaker, dutifully cooks the books.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

To The Wonder


The Tree of Life may have been messy, confused and pompous, but there was at least a great film buried somewhere in that bloated carcass. To The Wonder, Terrence Malick’s follow-up, is pure rot. The director’s characteristic flourishes have deteriorated into self-parody: the camera constantly drifting through the world like a drunken ghost, the narrators whispering sweet nothings in our ears, and light forever flickering on the lens. Frankly, the most surprising thing about this uninspired film is that everyone isn’t blind from the sun constantly shining in their eyes.

Consider the plot, such as it is: Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris, fall in love, move to America, split up, get back together and marry after Neil frolics with Rachel McAdams for a while, break up again after Marina cheats on him, and a priest loves god and Marina’s daughter loves the supermarket and love is love is love love love, to paraphrase the film’s hushed, faux-poetic narration. (Mumble, mumble, says Ben Affleck.) “What is this love that loves us?” Marina actually says at one point. Indeed, and what is this hate that hates us? What is this dog that dogs us? And what is that bison that bisons us? Only Terrence Malick or his understudy, God, knows the answer.

For all his dreamy obscurity, Malick is rarely a very subtle filmmaker, and his limitations are piercingly clear in To The Wonder. So much of the film is spent watching the characters dance over lawns, toss leaves into the air, twirl in the magnificent light and gawp at the world in a state of uninhibited joy. But when these people aren’t drunk on the intoxicating beauty of life, the universe, and Bumfuck, Idaho (or wherever the film is set), they’re staring blankly at nothing as the pain of existence chews up their souls. Malick’s manic-depressive style oscillates between exaltation and sorrow with little time for everything in between, which is unfortunate since that is where most of life is actually lived. Between his lean, stolid men and willowy, petite women, the director’s vision of humanity is little more nuanced than a perfume ad.

Mere life can hardly stand up under the self-conscious gravity of the film. Javier Bardem—who is surely as confused about his role here as the rest of us are—plays a priest going through a rather lackadaisical spiritual crisis. Poverty and pain shake the man’s faith; helping the impoverished and suffering restores it. As far as theological threats go, this is DEFCON four, at best. The film’s environmental concerns are similarly sketchy, amounting to little more than Malick frowning at pollution. Neil takes readings at industrial sites and talks to people living in the shadow of smoke-belching refineries, because these are apparently things he is paid to care about, but that’s about it. (Mumble, mumble, says Ben Affleck.) The director is so divorced from earthly matters most of the time that he’s ill-equipped to say much about the planet. However, the film does offer one powerful, if unintentional statement: against the banality of the modern city, the blandness of the suburbs, and the numbing uniformity of the supermarket, even the poetic ecstasies of Terrence Malick have become feeble and trite.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Upstream Color


If Primer came from the left side of Shane Carruth’s brain, then Upstream Color is from the right. Both films showcase their creator’s puzzle-box approach to narrative, but the former is austere and antiseptic while the latter is sensuous and dreamy. Carruth has moved from the cool intellectualism of his first film to a more sentimental strain of science fiction, and the difference is as stark as the contrast between Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick. Brooding over the ethics of science, Primer explored how new discoveries illuminate not the world, but our own moral failings. In his latest, Carruth’s fantasies grow more elaborate as he strives to reveal—and finally, perhaps, even heal—the gnawing sickness of life in a numb world where no one loves each other and everyone’s spirit animal is a pig. For all of Primer’s oblique twists, one suspected the film’s secrets were neatly laid out somewhere in a spreadsheet. Whatever mysteries can be glimpsed in Upstream Color will more likely be catalogued in a pile of paper scraps at Carruth’s bedside table, written in an illegible midnight scrawl.

Is it strange to admire a film that cannot be summarized without eliciting embarrassed laughter? It can be hard enough to simply describe what you’ve seen on screen, never mind digging into its deeper meanings. “And then they drank the, um, worm-tea, and those kids we never see again auditioned for the Happy Hands Club, I guess, or something, and there’s the director going for a jog, and did that lady just stab herself?” So simply accept that this is what a sci-fi B-movie would look like if Terrence Malick directed it, and focus on the damaged couple at the heart of the film, Jeff (Carruth) and Kris (a particularly strong Amy Seimetz). Both are victims of a white worm that burrows into the body and takes control of the mind, or something like that (let’s not get too science-y, please). The two combine the ruins of their lives and slowly dissolve into each other until they can no longer tell where one’s memories end and the other’s begins. Like two cleaned-up junkies, they lean on each other as they hobble down a steady path towards obliteration.

High-concept weirdness draws the viewers in—just ask anyone who has seen Primer—but it often exacts its own toll on the film. In constructing this arcane mythos, Carruth forces the audience to enter the film on his terms, to trust that he actually understands the rules of his own game and isn’t simply making it all up as he goes along. He throws away anything that might anchor the film to a set time and place. Cut loose from the particular, we drift into the universal, where Carruth’s ideas on free will and nature are supposedly floating free in some kind of Platonic intellectual paradise, unsullied by distracting, earthbound details. But the mechanics of a world populated by brainwashing thieves and pig-farming foley artists will invariably demand more attention than the themes uniting it all. Viewers are apt to spend as much time parsing the significance of the telepathic worm-tea as they will actually working through the emotional effect of the film on them.

That would be a shame, because there is something deeply affecting buried withinin this hollow world Carruth has deliberately crafted. The bond between Jeff and Kris exists in a vacuum, unhindered by any relationships beyond their lonely pairing. Where are their families? Where is the rest of the world? Where is life? The film takes place on a planet seemingly constructed by aliens who read a book about humans once but got bored before the last chapter. Absence defines this place: the absence of nature, of society, and of humanity. In the end, Kris cradles a piglet as if holding the child her damaged body will never produce, caring for this animal with a tenderness missing from most of the human interaction in the film. This is either the first step towards learning to feel again, or the final cold delusion that proves everything is already lost. The beatific lighting and uplifting score gild the scene, suggesting either redemption or deeply sarcastic mockery. There is a faint sense of euphoria, or perhaps madness. This is a shining dead world.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Tin Drum


German history is a carnival freak show in The Tin Drum, and the geek is as disgusted by the audience as they are by him. I speak, of course, of Oskar, the chief exhibit in this cabinet of horrors and the narrator who will guide the viewer through the rise of the Third Reich and the invasion of Poland. Repulsed by the adult world, he refuses to grow up, preferring to hide from cruel reality in the safe shell of a perpetually prepubescent body. With his wide eyes and angry mouth, David Bennent plays Oskar as a wrathful innocent, equally uncomprehending and unforgiving of the madness around him. This disconcerting performance is only occasionally matched by the film itself, which batters viewers with indiscriminately applied shock effects (grotesque images, filtered lenses, speeded movements) in one of those strained outbursts of Art that occasionally afflict otherwise healthy people. Director Volker Schlondorff’s feeble magical realism is as disconnected from the film as Oskar is from history. Key sequences—the doomed relationship between Oskar and the dwarf somnambulist Roswitha, for example—are dispatched with a hurried clumsiness that belies their significance. Adapted from the first two-thirds of the Gunter Grass novel, the film is both too long and not long enough, crammed with incident yet disjointed and incomplete. Schlondorff reportedly added 20 minutes to the film for its recent re-release; he might as well have added another hour for all the good it does him.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Garlic Is As Good As 10 Mothers


“Long live the living!” Those words, spoken by a dead pig destined for the spit, sum up best the verve of Les Blank’s documentary Garlic is as Good as 10 Mothers: in this gourmand’s paradise, even the food can’t wait to be eaten. Blank’s offbeat ode to the stinking rose treats garlic as the nexus of all life’s pleasures, and for proof he turns to a parade of garlic-loving musicians, dancers, cooks, writers and flat-out nutjobs. One man, for instance, argues it is garlic’s flavourful nature that repulses vampires, who drain the energy from life through sheer blandness; his favourite example of a likely blood-sucking agent of the damned is a historical figure who was reputed to eat plain boiled rice seasoned only with dew. Documentaries about colourful obsessives are a genre unto itself at this point, but Blank, whose technique is as eccentric as his subject matter, never looks down at anyone. His gregarious approach to filmmaking even ropes in random schoolyard children and a befuddled Werner Herzog, who patiently discusses the absence of garlic in his version of Nosferatu before staring into the camera and wondering, “Why are you asking me this?” The unspoken answer, and presumably what Blank also said to himself when contemplating whether to include the scene: well, why not? Life’s a feast, and this is hardcore food porn.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Wake in Fright


In Wake in Fright’s delinquent version of Australia, everyone’s skin is crispy-cured with sweat and heat and the incessant buzz of flies suggests the land isn’t populated by human beings so much as walking slabs of slowly rotting meat. In other words, Ted Kotcheff’s hellish walkabout is pure Oz-ploitation. Schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) gambles his savings away at a high-stakes underground coin-toss—yes, that’s a thing—and finds himself stranded in yobbo paradise. The only crime in this wild frontier town is refusing a pint, and the populace consists primarily of thick-necked thugs guzzling beer by the bucket-full (water’s for washing, you see). Trapped by the town’s sick gravity, John transforms from aloof man of learning to shambling drunk with a two-day beard and torn clothes. His nearest companion is Dr. Thyne—Donald Pleasence, crumpled like a tissue thrown away—who provides an even darker picture of what happens to an educated man gone to seed. Dignified and debauched, Thyne lives off the largesse of the town, granted an endless supply of beer out of respect for his medical abilities. In the land of high-functioning alcoholics, the local rummy is king, apparently.

The pretensions of civilization are washed away by a tidal wave of stout lager, and it’s all as overblown as it sounds. But Kotcheff and his performers are ferociously committed to this perverse vision; the loss of self-control in the characters is mirrored by the film’s increasingly unhinged development. Most shockingly, a gruesome kangaroo hunt spirals into pure bloodlust: animals were most definitely harmed during the making of this film. Afterwards, in a self-disgusted haze, the film offers us its most representative scene: John passed out, two Aussies brawling in the dirt, and Thyne inexplicably howling, “What about Socrates?” (Yes, what about Socrates?) Yet for all the commentary on masculinity run amuck, the film seems more interested in its pitiless depiction of addiction. John awakens each morning in an ever-widening pool of sweat, blood, vomit and other assorted fluids, as if this constricting world was steadily pounding him into pulp. Shackled to his teaching job by a thousand-dollar bond, he’s a slave of civilization seeking escape; set free for a brief time, he turns into a prisoner of his own impulses. The tidy ending of the film masks the impossible choice between these warring forms of servitude. As the camera pans across the empty expanse that surrounds his schoolhouse, the vastness seems as claustrophobic as a concrete cell.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Young Mr. Lincoln


The great emancipator can’t dance.

The titular character of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln is shown to be many things: persuasive speaker, fearsome autodidact, prankster, pie-eater. “Dancer” doesn’t even scrape the bottom of the list. As portrayed by Henry Fonda, Lincoln moves like a bug pinned to a board, his legs kicking out as the life steadily seeps from his body. (“You said you wanted to dance with me in the worst way, and you kept your word,” Mary Todd, his bemused partner, quips.) This being a Ford film, dance—and music, for that matter—are extensions of community, articulating the social bonds otherwise left unspoken. But this Lincoln, mythic figure and gangly dweeb, struggles to understand these ceremonies. Capped off by that stovepipe hat, he towers over everyone so conspicuously he comes across as an alien creature desperately trying to imitate human beings. Even his taste of music runs towards the oddball choice of the Jew’s harp, much to the amusement and/or irritation of all around him.

Ford and crew take great pleasure in complicating a figure who long ago left the world of facts for the more nebulous realms of rumour, apocrypha and Steven Spielberg movies. Against such foes, clumsiness and self-doubt prove to be one of this Lincoln’s most devastating weapons. Rather than the wise old leader, we get the young upstart, learning law from a couple of books off the back of a wagon, defending two men accused of killing a deputy in a legal trial-by-fire (moreso for the lawyer than his clients). But his stumbling dance steps, his goofy affectations and his dry wit—these wipe the dust from the statue. If it were not for such touches, this character could easily become too overpowering a persona. Look at his masterful handling of the lynch mob that has come for the two accused killers in prison. He calms the mob, amuses them, shames them and finally wins them over. “I’m not up here to make any speeches,” he says, and then makes a speech.

Fonda’s face is often as stony as the monument that flashes at the end of the film, but it masks a figure far stranger than the secular saint found in most popular histories. This Lincoln is something of a trickster. Like a shapeshifter, he moves from solemn moralizing on capital punishment at one moment to cheating at tug-of-war in the next. He’s the smartest man in the room, and it would be too easy to dislike him if the same qualities that make him great didn’t also make him so comical. His judgment finds no greater challenge than the choice between peach and apple pie. His diplomacy involves tricking illiterate farmers into settling their disputes out of court (admittedly, some less-than-subtle threats are also needed to close the matter). He deploys his laconic style and self-deprecating humour with all the shrewdness of a master chess player. He’s the ultimate self-made man—and once you’ve made one self, what’s the difficulty in creating a few more?

Actually, “self-made” may be a misleading term. People often cling to the myth of the self-made man as if there were no society buttressing the triumphs of these apparent loners. Ford captures this most succinctly in the curious relationship between Lincoln and the Clay family. Not only do Matt and Adam Clay serve as Lincoln’s first clients, but the family years earlier also gave him the law books that provided the foundation of his legal education. Yet if they recognize each other, neither party shows it. When Lincoln wins freedom for Matt and Adam, there is a sense that they owe him; one could just as easily say he owes them for the revelation of his talents and for the tools that nurtured his legal acumen. The nation does not owe the great leader so much as the great leader owes the nation. The man enters into legend not entirely because of his own merits—although the film certainly holds him in awe—but rather because the country needs its own self-defining legends.

Such contradictions are key to the man. Ford’s Lincoln embodies the American ideal: a simple man from a lowly background, who achieves greatness through a combination of innate ability and hard work, with a bit of luck for good measure. Through the Emancipation Proclamation, he fulfills the egalitarian promise of the United States (well, there’s still a ways to go on that front, but it was a good start, I suppose). Perversely, he is also a walking rebuke to that promise. In myth and history, he has been raised to levels as lofty as any king, a coronation crowned with his own early death. He looms so large he threatens to dwarf all around him. Any child can grow up to be the president, the saying goes, but not any child can be Lincoln.

Beneath the cornball jokes and glimmers of pastoral beauty, the legal duels and high-minded speechifying, there is a clear-eyed depiction of the complex relationship between Lincoln and his public. This may seem surprising coming from John Ford—who has been known to lapse into easy sentiment and misty nostalgia from time to time—but a master myth-maker obviously knows the tricks of the trade. This Lincoln betrays hints of self-satisfaction and egotism; there are moments when he is caught savouring his own storytelling prowess, like a child dipping his finger in the icing when your back is turned. But most of the time, he seems chagrinned by his own authority. When he walks out of the court in his moment of triumph, the wild cheers of the crowd greet him; a crowd, it should be noted, that earlier wielded torches and rope on the jailhouse steps while howling for vengeance. Facing these people, Lincoln’s expression is blank, as if he were uncertain of whether or not to accept this gift. It is perhaps a little difficult to feel at ease with the applause of a lynch mob.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Leviathan


Does Leviathan feature the finest performance in the overlooked cinematic career of hippoglossus hippoglossus? Has anyone even been keeping track? (The Halibut Stu episode of The Beachcombers doesn’t count, so don’t even ask.) At the very least, the film is a rare example of the species earning an acting credit, as befits the egalitarian philosophy of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s dazzling, sensuous documentary, where puffinus gravis is granted equal billing next to Paul Brenner. Leviathan levels the hierarchy of man and nature during a fishing trawl off the Atlantic coast, watching with equal fascination a fish head bouncing around the deck and the sea gulls wheeling above this floating chum buffet. A fisherman lulled to sleep in the lunchroom by a colon cleansing commercial is treated with the same impeccable curiosity as the frantic shouting and jostling of the crew hauling up the nets. The camera, unburdened and as insistent as a small child, seems awestruck by it all. One minute we see the world as a fish sees it, with unknown hands snatching away our peers; the next we’re gazing intently at the head of a man shucking scallops, his brow so close to the camera he scarcely appears human. Ethnography of the most peculiar sort, the film suggests man cannot be understood without context: the vessel bobbing in the dark, the gulls piercing the water, the coughing diesel engine and chattering chains of the winch. Consider it a nature film told from nature’s perspective.