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.

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