Thursday, December 3, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part Seven

The Lobster 

The dreaded English-language debut has confounded international talents greater than Yorgos Lanthimos, but the Greek director’s mordant absurdity remains well intact in The Lobster. The film is a perverse nesting doll of dictatorships, with one system of control giving way to another as the rules of romance become iron-clad laws, complete with brutal punishments for transgressors: singles are given 45 days at a quasi-resort/prison to find a suitable mate, or else be turned into an animal of their own choosing. The desperate mating game that results—imagine a version of The Bachelor that involves hunting people for sport and ends with the rejects being turned into dogs—centres on the importance of finding common traits between couples, whether constant nosebleeds or icy, emotionless cruelty. David (played with a hilariously stunned deadpan by Colin Farrell) ultimately rebels against this system, escaping into a secret society of loners that adheres to an equally grotesque set of strictures. Bleak humour verges on outright horror as viewers discover that there is no sane world beyond these perversely mirrored systems of control (in Dogtooth, one could at least take comfort in the knowledge that reality was on the other side of the fence). Lifestyle choices become oppressive whenever rendered on such a large scale, and Lanthimos pushes the concept to bizarre, terrifying extremes.


Stanley Milgram’s famed obedience experiment is much abused and easily distorted. Heard second-hand, the set-up—a subject is told by an authority figure to deliver a series of increasingly painful shocks to an unseen victim—suggests a sadistic vision designed to confirms our worst beliefs about human nature. But Milgram was at heart an optimist, and Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter strikes a suitably bright tone in its deft, playful tribute to the man’s life and ideas. Arch artifice defines the film, with Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard, in a comically fake beard) frequently addressing the camera as meta-jokes pass by in the background. There’s even a literal elephant in the room—an eye-rollingly obvious gag that tickles Almereyda so much he does it twice. Clunkers like that aside, the film is typically sharp-witted and engaging, particularly as it moves past the obedience experiment and into Milgram’s later career, when the doctor was encouraging students to engage in goofy social experiments more suited to Candid Camera than a New York classroom. The film smartly contrasts Milgram’s twin experimental modes, the sinister and the benign—suburban housewives convinced they had electrocuted a stranger or students fooling pedestrians into staring up at nothing—and suggests both stem from the same idealistic belief that the invisible social cues shaping our lives could at least be exposed, although perhaps not eradicated.

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi 

Three films into a ban on filmmaking, Jafar Panahi is putting the lie to the Iranian state’s ability to silence its critics with his remarkably prolific post-imprisonment output. Jafar Panahi's Taxi, his latest effort, proves to be a witty and outward-looking follow-up to the often-frustrating solipsism of Closed Curtain. Forbidden from using a camera, Panahi uses a mix of dash-cam and cellphone footage as he plays the part of taxi driver, offering acerbic commentary on matters of gender inequality and the challenges of making art under authoritarian rule with staged episodes, such as a sequence where an injured man makes a video will urging his family not to kick his wife out of their home should he die. No less cutting is Panahi’s debate with his young niece, who in the midst of seeking filmmaking advice lectures her multi-award-winning director uncle on the rules of what can be shown in Iranian cinema (the pieties of the censor rendered ridiculous when coming from the mouth of a child). “Sordid realism” is the great enemy of the theocrats, but in scene after scene, the director constantly asserts reality’s refusal to be censored. He does not so much break free from his shackles as prove their ultimate irrelevance.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part Six

Lost and Beautiful 

Fate forces a left-turn upon Pietro Marcello’s Lost and Beautiful, and if the results don’t entirely hang together, they nonetheless reveal a director possessed of a uniquely adventurous sensibility. Initially, the film follows Italian shepherd Tommaso as he struggles to preserve a crumbling palace against the indifference of the state and the threats of the mafia. After the shepherd is felled by a heart attack midway through production, the film veers into the story of Pulcinella—a Comedia dell’arte clown depicted here as a kind of immortal sprite—who is given charge of Tomasso’s buffalo calf. As the film blends documentary with folk tale, the curious bond between man and beast provides an outlet for the grief over the shepherd’s passing, and the unlikely duo become tragic figures of their own. The clown yearns to renounce his immortality and live a normal life, while a farmer plans to fatten the calf for slaughter, uninterested in the fact that he is caring for a talking animal. The fantastic is set on a collision course with mundane reality, and there is little doubt as to which one will prevail: Pulcinella becomes a man and the calf becomes meat. Myths, the supernatural beast sadly muses, must above all else be true.

The Pearl Button  

In The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzman uses the ultimate free-floating signifier—water—to explore Chile’s history of violence. Following the 1973 military coup, over 1,000 people were dropped into the ocean after being tortured and murdered as the regime settled scores and silenced opponents. Guzman explores the grisly process in frank detail, even using a dummy to show how the victims were wrapped up and tied to a rail—often the only remaining trace of these people, whose bodies have long since dissolved into the sea. But the film reaches back further to consider the country’s mistreatment of its Aboriginal population, who were once hunted for bounty (one pound was the price for a man’s testicle or a woman’s breast). The titular button, either encrusted in a rusted rail or used to lure a native of Tierra del Fuego to the new world, becomes a stand-in for the false promises foisted upon history’s victims. The violent stories, recounted by long-silenced voices, sit uncomfortably alongside stunning footage of glaciers and rivers, gentle rains and moonlit seas, and the profoundly unsettling effect is that these crimes seemingly become written across all of nature. Even the beauty contains echoes of the horrors.

The Assassin 

The rumours of The Assassin’s beauty have not been exaggerated. Coming seven years after his last feature, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s wuxia debut is a marvel of meticulous care and precision, all reflecting the patient labour of a master filmmaker. The film, swathed in veils and lit by candle, is a glory of texture and colour. But visual splendor is thin compensation for the film’s jarring tonal shifts and frustratingly shapeless narrative. Hou’s approach to storytelling is typically elliptical—and usually to good effect—but his style seems ill suited to a sprawling medieval saga of vengeance and political intrigue. The director’s dream-like flow of languid long takes remains, but now interrupted by periodic fight scenes that often end as inexplicably as they begin. The titular assassin defers delivering the fatal blow several times, out of what is derided by her mistress as mere “human sentiment,” yet sentiment is sorely lacking in this bloodless wuxia, which is so weighted down by its portentous beauty that it can scarcely move at all. The failed attempt to synthesize such disparate styles—Hou’s meditative “slow” cinema and a visceral martial-arts epic—results in a film that seems to toggle between entirely different modes. The sumptuous atmosphere beguiles, but there is little to see behind the veils.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part Five

Night Without Distance 

Few films at the festival could match the potency of this 23-minute experimental short by Lois Patino. Filmed in Galicia on the Spanish-Portuguese border, Night Without Distance uses a distinctive combination of negative photography and colour treatments to transform the world into a hauntingly strange landscape. Patino’s human subjects are smugglers (portrayed by actors, it should be noted), but he captures them in abbreviated moments, in mid-conversation or simply standing watch. Motionless, they resemble less human beings than trees transplanted from another world. An opening epigraph speaks of “souls in landscapes,” and the abstract beauty of the film does indeed destroy the distinction between human and environment. Nothing captures this leveling effect quite so forcefully as the image of the distant landscape billowing like a sheet in the wind, whose persistent howl defines the soundtrack more than any of the human voices heard. But look closer, and you see that the movement comes from tiny figures seeming to emerge out of the waving grass. In this strange night, the people flow from one country to another like water. Borders, of course, are nothing but imaginary lines on a map, and Patino’s film is a poetic assertion of their permeability.


The uneasy relationship between industry and the environment forms the foundation of Peter Bo Rappmund’s Topophilia, which follows the Trans-Alaska pipeline—and by extension, the oil moving within—across the continent. Notably, the film actually begins in Long Beach, California, where the oil ends its journey. Focused on the monumental machinery of the coastal port, these early moments are almost entirely devoid of any signs of nature, save for the sea: no trees, no grass, no undeveloped space, and just a handful of humans buried beneath coveralls and safety gear. From there, the film leaps thousands of kilometres to a drill site on the Arctic tundra. Using time-lapse photography, Rappmund follows the line south as it cuts through the seasons; humans and animal appear occasionally, but the focus is always on the pipeline, which carves out abstract compositions on the canvas of the northern landscape. The accompanying field recordings meld the sounds of the pipeline—groaning metal, oil humming as it rushes by—with the crackling of leaves shuddering in the wind. Industrialization disfigures everything around it, until all of nature begins to seem like a massive grinding machine. Even the shimmering surface of the sea takes on the appearance of television static.


It does not bode well for Pema Tseden’s Tharlo that one of the funniest sequences in the film scarcely even involves the titular character, a rural Tibetan shepherd visiting the city to get his first-ever official identification card. The scene comes as he waits in line at a photographer’s studio, nursing an orphaned lamb while a middle-aged farming couple stiffly poses against painted backdrops depicting everything from Tiananmen Square to New York City. Dressed in ill-fitting western garb, the pair try to make themselves a little more at home by borrowing the animal, resulting in an absurd photo of two Tibetan farmers bottlefeeding a lamb against the iconic outline of the Big Apple. The image aptly conveys the sense that we’re watching the old ways slowly eroded under the pressures of modernity, but it also speaks to Tseden’s conservatism, which ultimately turns this gentle comedy of manners into a sour polemic. Stories of farmers seduced by the big city are certainly not novel, although they surely must resonate more in increasingly industrialized Tibet than the western world. Tseden’s film even adopts the familiar stock villain of the money-grubbing woman exploiting the naïve country boy to carry out Tharlo’s corruption. Between the narrative clichés and dour traditionalist view of women, the film fails to interrogate just what might actually deserve to be left to the past.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part Four

A Flickering Truth

Evidence of the lingering effects of a nation’s massive loss of its own artistic heritage abounds in A Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly’s documentary on efforts to salvage the Afghan film archives from years of abuse and neglect. Hauntingly, a man recalls being ordered by the Taliban to burn reels of film or else face death; he sorrowfully describes the now-lost films “bleeding into the ground,” rendering cultural destruction in terms more fit for a mass killing. Elsewhere, Brettkelly contrasts present-day Afghanistan with the remnants of its once-vibrant film industry. Students dressed in black and covered in head scarves watch old footage of an actress running through a field, her hair flowing freely as the screen bursts with bright colours. Yet as striking as these moments may be, the film often seems overwhelmed with the wealth of material, archival or otherwise, and Brettkelly seems to struggle at times with bringing everything into tight focus. Is the film about efforts to screen long-suppressed films in the rural regions, where the threat of the Taliban still lingers? Is it about how the challenge of restoring the film archives mirrors the nation’s larger struggle to return to normalcy after decades of strife? Or is it a tour through the rich but largely forgotten history of Afghan cinema? There are worse crimes for a documentary than having too much to tell the audience, but one nonetheless yearns for more details that sadly never come.

Right Now, Wrong Then 

An artist of Hong Sang-soo’s caliber might balk at being described as a social scientist, but it’s no diminution of the man’s talents to consider Right Now, Wrong Then as something of a behavioural experiment. Divided into two near-identical scenarios, the film follows the consequences of even minute changes in words or actions in a married filmmaker’s flirtation with a young painter. In the first section, the encounter ends poorly, with the filmmaker showering the woman’s work with phony praise and omitting any mention of his marriage until it comes out awkwardly at a drunken get-together (this being Hong, soju remains the river of life from which all things flow), and a disastrous post-screening Q&A completes his humiliation. Hong tinkers with behaviours in the second half and introduces honesty into the equation: the painting critique is perceptive and sincere, the filmmaker’s revelation of his marriage coupled with a confession of love for the painter. The get-together still ends poorly—the filmmaker drunkenly strips at a party—but the duo part ways with a warmth and friendship far removed from the bad feeling and regret of the first section. The lesson is clear: bare your soul, but perhaps not your ass.


Scruffy, endearingly odd, and running just 70 minutes, Slackjaw knows when to quit before its charms are exhausted. Essentially, director Zach Weintraub has welded a low-key buddy comedy to a paranoid anti-corporate dystopia—even the soundtrack evokes John Carpenter at his most sinisterly synthetic. The film’s hero, an aimless 20-something musician named Rob, is torn between loyalty to his absent best friend and an old high school buddy who now works for the blandly menacing EV Corp. Signs supporting or protesting the company’s presence cover seemingly every lawn in the neighbourhood until the town mirrors Rob’s own internal conflict between conformity and rebellion. Meanwhile, strange happenings—mysterious figures covered in white sheets, cryptic symbols scattered about on posters—only add to the creeping sense of alienation that threatens to overtake him. Amusingly, this is made literal by the titular affliction, which renders Rob voiceless and forces him to converse through the robotic voice of a text-to-speech program, as if his flirtation with the machinery of capitalism might deprive him of all humanity. For all its low-stakes drama, this gentle affirmation of friendship over finance serves as a thoughtful consideration of how corporatization corrodes community.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part Three

 Arabian Nights, Volume Three (The Enchanted One) 

Mischevious genii abound, while choirs of children and birds serenade us. Who knew the line between European art-cinema and Disney blockbuster would prove so thin? Certainly, the third volume of Arabian Nights is the most hopeful of the trilogy, ending on a simple gesture of kindness and even tacking on a consider-the-children parting shot. But this may also be the most challenging of the three films, if only for the fact that Miguel Gomes has given over the bulk of the running time to a documentary on the world of competitive songbird training. After four-plus hours of far-flung satiric fancies, it can be a bit hard to take your reality straight, you know? The men who handle the birds cut a stark contrast between brute strength and delicacy, and the director seems drawn by the sight of burly workers and ex-criminals caring their finches with an almost child-like gentleness. Much like Scheherazade, who begins this volume in a state of self-doubt and despair, the trainers function as storytellers of a sort, fighting to preserve the bird songs and revive nearly extinct melodies by playing recordings for the finches to mimic. Their redemption—like hers, and Gomes’, for that matter—is gained through a dedication to their art.

My Internship in Canada 

Crowd-pleasing Canuck comedies are rightly viewed with suspicion—the stench of Score and Men With Brooms still lingers, years later—but My Internship in Canada has largely succeeded where so many others have failed in embodying a distinctly domestic mainstream cinema. Philippe Falardeau’s buoyant political comedy is slick without being soulless, and it wields its Cancon with aplomb. Propelled by a jaunty, memorable score, the film follows a washed-up hockey idol turned independent MP from backwater Quebec who, through a series of complicated and highly implausible events, winds up holding the balance of power in a hung parliament contemplating war. The film’s greatest joke may be the very notion that a Canadian political crisis could be this dramatic, but there’s also ample comedic grist in the juxtaposition of hyper-local riding realpolitik and weighty international affairs. Consider it a PG version of Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop, with lower stakes and less swearing—and that may well be the film’s largest flaw. Falardeau is clearly having fun with the material, but he’s also wary of cutting too deeply or directly. Even his parody of Stephen Harper, almost always shown playing music in what can only be seen as a desperate humanizing gesture, is surprisingly mild. Who wants a political comedy that strives to be nice?

Sleeping Giant 

Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant is an unsentimental study of thwarted maturity set against the shimmering green hell of Ontario cottage country. Three teens—Riley, Nate, and Adam—bond and bicker over the course of a summer until finally turning on each other. Cividino possesses an ear for the squawky rhythms of teenage speech, and the bantering between the trio is often as cringe-inducingly familiar as it is funny (I can offer no guarantee against traumatizing flashbacks to one’s own better-forgotten pubescent years). Rather than opt for a more obvious bullying narrative, the director allows the complex web of relationships to reveal how easy cruelty comes at age 15, when people are only just discovering the fraught ramifications of love and friendship and every emotion is projected through a megaphone. Where the film gains added bite is in its portrayal of the adult men in the summer village. Nate and Riley have no father figure on hand—they’re staying with their grandmother—while Adam’s father is a case study in mid-life sexual frustration. The only other man of any note is a drug dealer haggling with the teenagers over weed prices as he boasts of past glories and goads on the boys to monumentally dangerous stupidity. Sure, teenagers are a bunch of amoral self-destructing hormonal timebombs. More disturbing is the fact that so many adults are as well. 

Love And… 

There’s a lot of meta-cinematic sludge to wade through before one reaches the modest core of Zhang Lu’s Love And…. We begin with a love story between an elderly man and a cleaning woman in a mental hospital is revealed to be a film in mid-production, with the gaffer in full revolt against the director. These two slender contrary threads play out again and again in a series of variations that set image against sound in ways that are sometimes ingenious and sometimes tedious, but certainly surprising. One section drains the hospital of all human presence and sets loose a series of portentous symbols to roam the halls. Another draws on clips from Memories of Murder to suggest a police thriller starring the disgruntled gaffer. In the final chapter, an alternate version of the audio from the first section plays over footage of the empty hospital. Defined by a sense of perpetual absence, the film’s four segments seem to haunt each other, and Zhang approaches the question of filming love by outlining the empty spaces where genuine feeling might reside. Full marks to the director for his ambitious attempt at a Borgesian rom-com, but this unfortunately never really rises above the level of an academic exercise. In its exacting coldness, the film inadvertently proves its thesis.

The Forbidden Room 

Exhausting and exhilarating, The Forbidden Room is an exercise in arch-camp chaos, blending together pastiches of forgotten film genres into a singular narrative striptease courtesy of Guy Maddin and co-conspirator Evan Johnson. Stories nest within stories, which give way to further digressions and even the dreams of a moustache and one “valcano [sic].” The viewer becomes lost in a nightmarish labyrinth littered with mad doctors, amnesiacs, squid thieves, vampire bananas, and Udo Kier. This is a film that has not one, but three framing narratives: a lumberjack trying to rescue a maiden from a band of rogues, a group of sailors trapped in a submarine slowly running out of oxygen, and a tutorial on bathing starring national treasure Louis Negin. Delayed gratification is the film’s ruling order, and the viewer’s patience is rewarded with a book of climaxes stuffed with endings for stories not even in the film. Many of Maddin’s favourite themes are in evidence—narcissistic and ineffectual male heroes, dead fathers that won’t die—but Johnson brings fresh textures and eerie morphing techniques that add new layers to the director’s familiar style. If the jittery montage of recent Maddin films evokes repressed memories bursting to the surface, the constantly mutating surface of this film suggests a living, writhing beast—with, one assumes, multiple personality disorder.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part Two

 Arabian Nights, Volume Two (The Desolate One) 

Arguably the strongest film in the trilogy, the second volume of Arabian Nights is a multi-faceted portrait of community told through tales that bounce from pastoral calm to manic absurdity. The quietest episode in The Desolate One depicts the vagabond ways of Simao Without Bowels, an aging outlaw whose contemptuous loner lifestyle turns him into a mascot for the public’s contempt for the government. This is followed by one of the comedic centrepieces of the series, in which a dispute between a landlord and tenant opens up into a ceaseless string of injustices that seemingly implicate an entire town. The chain of troubles grows to encompass a genie, a talking cow (played by two people in costume), a band of masked marauders, a Chinese millionaire with 13 mistresses, and more. In keeping with the wild swings between fantasy and reality established in the first volume, Miguel Gomes moves from the strange comedy of the court to a delicate profile of the residents of a lower-class tenement block, structured around the fluctuating ownership of a dog named Dixie. Shifting between vignettes both funny and tragic, the film depicts the building as a crumbling world that holds even the dead captive until they are evicted. Even the pets, as the eloquent final image suggests, never really leave.

A Matter of Interpretation 

Lee Kwang-kuk is often pigeonholed as one of Hong Sang-soo’s disciples, but it’s hard to imagine the master making a film quite as whimsical and matter-of-factly surreal as A Matter of Interpretation. Hong’s films often play out like a series of alternate realities placed side by side, with minute variations suggesting the seemingly infinite ways people can utterly fuck up their lives. Lee’s second feature eschews that multiverse comedy of manners, but by telling his story of two actors dealing with the aftermath of their breakup through a maze of interconnected dreams, the director creates a haunting sense of unrealized and impossible fates. Still, for all its sense of loss, this is a work of exceptional lightness, where detectives prefer the imaginative play of dream interpretation to dull forensic science and a person locked in the trunk of a car can be transformed into a mass of balloons. Attuned to the struggles of the artistic life, the film evolves from a relationship comedy into something more idiosyncratic and poignant—a celebration of the shared imaginative space that unites people, whether audience and performer or two lovers that have been separated by a mixture of circumstance and choice, huddling around a dream of fire.

The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers 

The title of The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers promises a film far more apocalyptic than the one we get. Still, it suggests something of the disquiet and disorientation that powers this hallucinatory double vision of cultural collision by Ben Rivers. A blast of heavy metal splits the film in two, with the first section following a French film director (Oliver Laxe) working in Morocco. But Laxe soon abandons his shoot and unwittingly stumbles into a Paul Bowles story. Following a beating—in which his tongue is cut out and fed to a dog—the director is dressed in a suit of tin-can lids by four men. His voice reduced to nothing but pained, subhuman sounds, the newly christened King of Tin Cans is forced to dance for the men during a brutal trek through the Moroccan countryside. This section, often shot in claustrophobic close-ups that contrast with the cool distance of the earlier filmmaking scenes, becomes a perverse mirror of the director’s earlier creative endeavours. Whereas Laxe’s film flirted uncomfortably with questions of cultural appropriation and otherness, his transformation into a dancer forces him to become a tool for someone else’s vision and approach this foreign place from a position of submission rather than authority. Beneath the gritty beauty of Rivers’ 16 mm cinematography lurks a classic tale of comeuppance rendered with the frank brutality of a horror film.

The Club 

Having concluded his Pinochet trilogy, Pablo Larrain appears to be casting about for a fresh subject in The Club. What a pity that he’s settled on one of the slowest, fattest fish in the barrel—the Catholic church’s cover-up of pedophilia and other abuses. Inexplicably, he also maintains the grubby video look of No, which was at least justifiable in the context of that film’s mid-1980s setting. Here, it simply cakes an already grey environment in an extra layer of dinge and murk (apparently moral ugliness demands an equivalent visual response). In fairness, there’s certainly some amusement to be found in this story of a group home for excommunicated priests, and Larrain regular Alfredo Castro provides a soulful performance in a role that could have easily collapsed into caricature. Unfortunately, the director seems uncertain in his depiction of the priests, and he succumbs to an easy cynicism that finally renders the film incoherent. He wants to offer a damning reproach to the church’s refusal to acknowledge its hidden crimes, but he also can’t resist meting out some poetic justice. For what purports to be a bleak satire, the film finally strains to comfort rather than disturb.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part One

 Arabian Nights, Volume One (The Restless One) 

The bees are dying, the shipyards are shutting down, and the director is so overwhelmed at the thought of turning such misery into art that he’s become a fugitive from his own film crew. So begins the first volume of Arabian Nights, Miguel Gomes’ ambitious three-part epic of modern Portugal in the grips of austerity. Mixing self-referential farce with sober documentary, the film gleefully cartwheels over the divide between fact and fantasy. The Restless One, the most eclectic of the three films, shows Gomes testing the limits of the robust storytelling contraption he has engineered, cobbled together from the structure of One Thousand and One Nights and fed by the findings of Portuguese journalists. In this volume alone we move from a clairvoyant talking rooster to an arson-driven love triangle acted out by teenagers and narrated in text speak. Silliness and subversion—abundant in the story of how Portugal’s political and economic leaders were cursed with permanent erections—exists alongside compassionate portraits of the country’s unemployed, who offer some of the film’s most stirring moments. The most profound rebuttal to a ruthless economic system can simply be to assert the humanity of those left outside it, and the unconscious smile on a woman’s face as she listens to her husband’s description of their first meeting holds more power than any polemic. 

One Floor Below 

Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas was a domestic drama stretched taut until it became a thriller. His latest, One Floor Below, is the opposite: a flat, uninspired suspense setup that ends up as a pointed study of family dynamics. Sandu Patrascu, a kind of oracle of the Romanian DMV helping people navigate the punishing bureaucracy surrounding vehicle registration, overhears a violent argument between a neighbour and her lover. But when the woman is later discovered dead, he declines to tell the police about the incident, either out of shame over his voyeurism or guilt over his inaction. Enter Vali, the creepy maybe-murderer, who swiftly insinuates himself into the Patrascu family. While Sandu seems more at home jogging alone with his dog, Vali enjoys an easy rapport with the man’s family, offering computer advice to his wife and bonding with his son over videogames. From a certain angle, the tension between the two men could even be read as more a matter of jealousy than anything else. But Muntean, committed to making a sober study of a man plagued by his own conscience, dutifully follows the familiar story to its expected conclusion with little to offer that would elevate it above a dozen other routine protect-your-family thrillers. 


There’s only the slenderest spine of a dramatic arc in Paradise, yet every mundane moment is ripe with dread in this closely observed portrait of life for women in Iran. Hanieh, a 25-year-old single teacher living with her pregnant sister, struggles to get a transfer to a school closer to home, but director Sina Ataeian Dena is more often drawn to the cruel details that provide texture to her day. Elderly women chastise younger ones for talking to men on the bus. Groups of men make catcalls. A harsh bang that sounds like an explosion turns out to be nothing more than a soccer ball kicked into the schoolyard by a group of boys playing outside, roaming freely while the girls endure break-time in an Orwellian indoctrination factory (recess is scored by the voice of the principal barking out commands on how to dress and behave). Hanieh—portrayed with sullen gravity by Dorna Dibaj—drifts through it all in a half-numb haze, often filmed in shallow focus by Dena in order to isolate her even further from a society she loathes. Meanwhile, news of two missing girls drops from the television like a casual threat, and the film’s ambiguous final moments underscore the fear that follows Hanieh. Every stranger holds the promise of good or evil, help or homicide, and the only certainty the women can have is that he is the one who holds all power in the encounter.

The Thoughts That Once We Had 

After the festival’s screening of The Thoughts That Once We Had, Thom Andersen remarked in a Q & A that it would be his final film about film. So it should not be surprising that the film serves more as a loving compendium of the director’s obsessions than a focused essay. Taking the film theories of Gilles Deleuze as a starting point, the film launches into a distinctly personal history of cinema, making it a curious combination of academic argument and private reverie. Perhaps that explains why the film feels at times so obscurely organized as to seemingly be devoid of structure altogether. Even though the film lacks narration—too polemical, he explained afterwards—it is loosely arranged around quotes from Deleuze and others, in addition to brief textual interjections from the director himself. Not that obliqueness needs to be a complete liability, particularly when dealing with a sharp wit like Andersen. Often, the most compelling sections arise from the director pursuing his own idiosyncratic interests into such strange cul de sacs as Timothy Carey’s acting career and the similarities between Chubby Checkers and Hank Ballard’s respective versions of “The Twist.”

But does it add up to anything more than a bravura exercise in cinematic scrapbooking? Given that the director seems more interested in creating an open-ended meditation rather than a conclusive statement, that question may be impossible to answer. I would suggest that the deeply private significance of these clips—clear for Andersen, if not always the viewer—is crucial to the film’s effect, however. The orphaned quotes and stray images are like ghosts, and like ghosts each contain the flickering vestiges of something that once lived. They also contain traces of the viewer. When Andersen watches Debra Paget dance her snake-dance, he sees not only her lost youth but something of his own. Every image we consume becomes remixed in our private mental cinema, playing out in an unending loop in our imaginations and covertly tracing the shape of our own lives in the process. Every movie is a home movie.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Second Game

Calling The Second Game a glorified DVD commentary track seems unfair. After all, who would bother to put this muddy video of a 1988 Romanian soccer match on DVD? As per every snide joke ever aimed at professional soccer, the game even ends in a riveting 0-0 tie. And while there is some ancillary entertainment value in following the players as they slip and slide their way through a snowstorm, nothing on the field can match the subtle battle of wills occurring in the conversation between director Corneliu Porumboiu and his father Adrian, the referee of the game on display. True, the pair’s debate over Romanian history and the art of soccer periodically rambles off into dead ends or dull tangents, and one has to wonder whether Corneliu even planned to release this audio when he first recorded it (the occasional ding of a cellphone notification suggests the conversation was taped under rather relaxed conditions). But the game—featuring a team associated with the army and another with the police—is also rife with the everyday absurdities of life during the twilight of the Ceausescu dictatorship, such as when the camera pans across the audience to avoid showing an on-field argument. Good communists, we’re told, are expected to play nice.

Adrian’s initial response to his son’s questioning over every detail of the match is bemused. He can’t quite understand why anyone should be concerned with a 25-year-old soccer match. The game exists to entertain in the moment. Once over, who cares? The man seems blasé about his precarious position—an opening title card reveals that a young Corneliu even received an anonymous threat against his father—balancing the egos between the rival instruments of state oppression, police and army. There is a generational divide opening up in these responses to the pained history of the Ceausescu years, with the younger generation pushing for more answers than their elders care to give. But as the film progresses, the lulls in conversation stretch out like taffy as both father and son become increasingly absorbed by the game. The father is pulled back into the match, critiquing his calls and gruffly admitting that he is enjoying the spirited play between the two teams. Still, he denies the past, and for good reason. Those long-gone days remain too painfully vivid to be embalmed in history just yet.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


So much occurs within the deceptively static frame of Manakamana. Never moving beyond the four walls of a cable car riding to and from the eponymous temple in Nepal, the film consists of just 11 trips, each captured in a single uninterrupted take of about 10 minutes. Some passengers sit in an awkward silence only broken by the periodic metal-on-metal screech of the car rattling past another tower. Others idly remark upon the beautiful landscape below, play music, or bleat, in the case of a carload full of goats being transported toward their sacrificial end at the temple. Yes, there are life-and-death stakes in this humble film about people trying to sit quietly with a rooster on their lap.

The film’s restrictive concept liberates the viewer’s attention, and the world within and without the car reveals an abundance of little wonders. A bird flies past the window so quickly it vanishes like an apparition, calling to mind the disappearing bird swooping through the inner rooms of the Zone in Stalker. Blurry figures wade through the rippling waves of foliage covering the hillside or shout half-heard taunts at the swiftly moving car. In the wordless ride that opens the film, a young boy and old man—the youth agitated and uncomfortable, the elder stiff and stoic—look from side to side until the rhythms of their turning heads seem somehow choreographed. Everything is important when nothing happens.

Every detail, however innocuous, feels like a potential key to the mysterious vignettes unfolding before us, and the film invites the audience to approach each ride like a fresh puzzle to be solved. Consider one of the earlier sequences featuring a solitary woman carrying a basket of flowers. Viewers may feel a twinge of anxiety when the car jolts into motion—are we expected to just stare at this woman in silence for 10 minutes? Give it a few moments. You may notice that she is holding her basket at chest level, in an awkward position that no one could be expected to hold for the entire ride. So why does she do it here? For the camera, of course. Midway through the ride, she shifts to the centre of the seat to better frame herself for the viewer, and a brief, embarrassed smile betrays her ulterior motive before she returns to her nonchalant pose.

This episode, the second in the film, hints at the game being played by directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, who are both actually riding in the cable car with passengers. The couple carrying their rooster to sacrifice at the temple sit stiffly with downcast eyes, but it is not necessarily fear over the car’s rickety ascent that pins them to their seats. Rather, they have been instructed to not look at the camera, and they are so painfully aware of the camera’s presence that they cannot act naturally. By comparison, more experienced performers like the three metalheads inexplicably travelling with a mewling kitten—not intended for sacrifice, don’t worry—take selfies and chatter away for the benefit of the camera. What’s one more lens in their lives? Even the hum of the cable wire begins to sound like a film projector after a while. Or is that just the noise of the unseen 16 millimetre camera?

The verisimilitude of the film has been crafted for its own corruption, just as all of the trips have been carefully edited into a single continuous round trip that nonsensically goes up six times in a row, and then down five times. The directors, both veterans of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, even allow the film to run out on the final ride as the sound carries on, which only highlights the artifice binding the other sequences together. Whereas other films from the Lab aim for sensory immersion—the GoPro pandemonium of Leviathan, for example—this curious hybrid of documentary and structuralist filmmaking prefers sensory deception. Blurring of the line between performance and reality, the film reveals more about the viewer’s biases toward documentary form than anything of the customs and culture surrounding the unseen temple. If Spray and Velez are conducting an ethnographic study, then the true subjects are to be found in darkened theatres around the world, not the green hills of Nepal.