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.

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