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 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.


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.


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.