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.