Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ten more VIFF previews, plus H&G mini-interview

I have liked all films I've been able to preview for VIFF 2013. My ten favourites so far are a few posts back; here are ten more VIFF previews, closing with an outtake from my interview with the director of H&G, a Canadian updating of Hansel and Gretel.

Exit Elena
If a great many American independents (of the movement formerly known as mumblecore, for instance) owe a great deal to the film practice of John Cassavetes, Nathan Silver appears to owe more to Henry Jaglom - a lesser-known filmmaker who, while apparently inspired by Cassavetes' iconoclasm, rough-and-tumble style, and emotional fearlessness, was noted for making films that are more personal, smaller scale, and unafraid to bring to light a less-than-flattering vision of himself and his collaborators (see the documentary Who Is Henry Jaglom? for more on that - or Jaglom's film New Year's Day, which is a must for David Duchovny fans, since Duchovny is interrogated, bullied a bit, and ultimately - and literally - stripped naked in weirdly public ways). As Jaglom sometimes does in his films, Silver appears in Exit Elena, along with relatives of his; without meaning to insult, both he and his mother are grating to the point of making your skin crawl (though both become sympathetic by the film's end). Thankfully, they're not the main characters: the focus is on co-screenwriter Kia Davis, who plays a young live-in nurse - the title character - who briefly integrates herself within a dysfunctional American family when she is hired to look after the man-of-the-house's mother, Florence. Elena herself is vulnerable and passive, seeming to have no place for herself outside work, and her struggles to draw boundaries with her new "family" and still function within it make up most of the drama of the film. The most touching moments are small, sweet, honest observations of everyday realities seldom presented on cinema screens, such as when Elena leads her senior charge Florence patiently and kindly up the stairs. I've spent a fair bit of time helping a senior get around in the last few years and find it striking how such a commonplace experience is so seldom represented on screen; these scenes moved me more than I expected they would. People hungry for emotionally honest independent cinema should check out Silver's films in this years' VIFF (also screening is his film Soft In The Head), but they should also be prepared for the occasionally abrasive aspects - he's unafraid to torture his audience a little bit, getting his finger into uncomfortable places and poking repeatedly... Note that Nathan Silver will be a guest at the festival, and presumably attend some of the screenings.

There was a time when I would have been really angry with the filmmakers behind Halley. "Self-pitying adolescent crap! What's it all an excuse for, anyhow? These losers need to get girlfriends or boyfriends or lives or jobs and stop making so much of their neuroses; nobody cares, and there are real problems out there to grapple with - ones that are not self-created!" Grr! It would be an entertaining rant to go on, and not entirely inappropriate, but thankfully I am not as reactive as I once was - and I have to admit that Halley, whatever nerves it touches in me, is still a very potent, original, artful and ambitious film, which takes the body horror genre to a new level: the emotional one. How would it feel to be a (fully animate) decomposing corpse? What would it do to your relationships with your coworkers? How would you feel looking in the mirror? Would you still go on dates? How would you feel about watching healthy people exercise? This is a lonely, minimalist exercise in alienation, zombie-style, which depressed and miserable viewers prone to self-indulgence (you know who you are) will quite possibly love; it certainly stuck with me. Those horrified at their own flesh should find much in common with poor Beto, the main character (the title is actually a reference to Halley's comet...).

Breathing Earth: Susumu Shingu's Dream
Thomas Riedelsheimer's new documentary - also identified as Breathing Earth: Susumu Shingu Working with the Wind - explores similar territory to that of Rivers and Tides, looking at another nature-based artist who makes breathtaking works that interact with the environment - though Shingu is more interested in wind than land, and is somewhat less engaging than Andy Goldsworthy as a film subject, since his eccentricities and ambitions are filtered through several layers of Japanese politeness and refinement. Still, just as Rivers and Tides followed Goldsworthy on international trips to work on various installations and art pieces, Breathing Earth follows Shingu to Italy, Scotland, Germany, and Turkey as he attempts to find a site for a proposed wind-powered utopian village he has imagined, from which the film takes its title; and as with Rivers and Tides, the real pleasure of the film is seeing the artists' work in the landscapes where he has placed it. These include windmills, mobiles, and other moving sculptures, some challenging description. This time, Stefan Micus provides the soundtrack, but it's every bit as enjoyable as Fred Frith's for the Goldsworthy doc. An appealing film experience.

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors 
Not likely a crowd-pleaser, but definitely a memorable and affecting experience. As Hurricane Sandy looms, a young autistic boy wanders off into the New York subway system and loses himself there for eleven days. His world-weary, illegal Latin emigre mom frets; his self-involved teenaged sister seems mostly unaffected; and his father, working out of town, takes his time before coming to help. Everyone in the film seems a little too passive - the autistic main character, Ricky, most of all; he observes his fellow passengers, keeps his earplugs in long after the battery dies on his MP3 player, and loses himself in ambient patterns and his own interior monologues, but he doesn't seem that concerned about getting home, contacting his family, or even eating. The film spends so much of its time in a numb, drifting mode of consciousness that the passivity of its protagonist rubs off a bit, which takes some of the drama out of the narrative, but perhaps that's partially the point - to show how we have become numbly acclimatized to urban environments, surrendering so much of our lives to a drift through alien spaces? Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is a unique, finely-crafted piece of cinema that will surely find an appreciative audience. The lead actor, Jesus Velez, actually has Aspergers...

Antisocial is a game independent Canadian indy “Rio Bravo scenario” horror film - where a small group of people find themselves locked-in and besieged (see also Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13). This time, New Year’s Eve partygoers hole up as something that just might be the zombie apocalypse gets underway outdoors, brought to you courtesy of social media. There’s a bit of a logical disjunct between ills like cyberbullying and rage-infected zombies bursting in the windows; the filmmakers aren’t going to fool anyone with their token attempts to make the movie seem like it’s set in the United States (so why bother?); and there are opportunities for gore that get squandered due, presumably, to budgetary requirements. Still, it’s neat to have a Rio Bravo film where everyone has a smartphone or laptop, connecting them to other trapped souls elsewhere; and there were things in Antisocial I have somehow never seen in a horror movie before (like a zombie wrapped in Christmas lights, or someone forced - spoiler! - to self-trepanate with an electric drill. By the by, I looked at my girlfriend during the buildup to that scene and said something like, "okay, if it turns out she has to drill a hole in her own head I'm going to say good things about this movie." Voila). This is the sort of film that I am most familiar with from the Rogers Video PV bin (RIP) - a little indy horror movie you pick up for the hell of it for $3.99 and like just fine. It's screening as a midnight movie, and is the most fully genre-identified film in that series, so it should get an appreciative audience...

XL's main character, Leifur, is a debauched Icelandic politician of considerable arrogance, girth, and appetite - especially for sex and alcohol. En route to the mud at the bottom of his long sink, he endures almost as many humiliations and defeats as he inflicts on others; these range from mild insults to public sodomy (something we see far too little of in cinema, really). All the while - possessed of a talent for denial almost the size of his ego - he insists that he is rising and rebuffs any attempts to help him. The story is presented as a bit of a jigsaw, with scenes shown out of sequence and effect often proceeding cause, which help keeps the viewer attentive and compelled; it may even reward a repeating viewing, though I am somewhat afraid of the prospect of sitting through it twice. Fat men with big egos may find some of Leifur's humiliatons catharic and/or instructive, and there's definitely a blackly humourous assault on powerful male assholes - no reference to said sodomy intended - which might lend the film appeal to anti-authoritarians and feminists. There's possibly also a level of political commentary that will be lost on those not from Iceland, where, I'm told, alcoholism and corruption are rife. Stay til the end of the credits without erupting into conversation, because there's a spoken passage you'll want to hear (and a final image, too).

 A Field In England
Honestly, folks, I don't know what the hell to make of this one. It's shot in gorgeous black and white, the faces of the characters are appealing, and there's a certain charm to any film where the narrative mostly revolves around two English civil war deserters and a cowardly alchemist's assistant being forced to dig a hole in a field. Also, as the program suggests, magic mushrooms abound -- though these seem to be used mostly as an excuse for some trippy eye-candy camerawork, and not a deep deconstruction of the characters on hand a la Nic Roeg's Performance. But while I didn't understand the half of A Field In England - quite literally, at times, because people muttering in British accents, absent of subtitles, can be hard to make out - I enjoyed the experience of watching it, albeit in a somewhat idle and undemanding mode; it felt at least somewhat akin to Monty Python doing El Topo. The only thing that annoyed me was a bit of precious quirkiness that director Ben Wheatley incorporates periodically, having characters strike poses at the start of various scenes and hold them. Fans of Jim Jarmusch or (heaven help me) Albert Serra (who also has a new film in the fest) will definitely want to check this one out, as will people who enjoy surprise intrusions of the male penis into their cinema (I've gone and given away the best shot).

This film is just dark enough that I feel a bit guilty about having enjoyed it as much as I did... The main character is a suicidal shoe salesman, Holloman (Daniel Arnold), who has a depressingly buttoned-down, joyless, riskless existence and a tendency to morbid fantasy. At first Holloman hopes his boisterous, positive-thinking, and arrogantly intrusive coworker Lawrence (Ben Cotton) is offering him a model for remaking his life - or at least has advice worth considering, and tags along, playing straight man to Lawrence's excesses and malapropisms. When Lawrence starts experiencing mishaps that seem calculated to undermine his positivity, Holloman is there to console him. Then it starts to look like maybe Holloman himself is the engine of those mishaps... There's a lot of resentment and negativity packed into the humour of this film, but at the same time the movie is has a light touch and is clever, witty, and playful. The leads turn in enjoyable performances, too - including a small role for Katherine Isabelle. The film is based on a play by openly gay Canadian playwright Morris Panych, but Lawrence and Holloman's relationship only gets more disturbing if you read it as a sort of romance... Filmed on location in Vancouver, Mission, and Maple Ridge, with particular use of the Hotel Patricia. Evil, but kind of fun!
The Spirit of '45
If I had unlimited time and resources and didn't have to skew my film viewing to meet the tastes of others, I think I would like to see every single thing British leftie Ken Loach has made. I've liked every one of his films I have seen, but at present count, that's only three, Land and Freedom; The Wind That Shakes The Barley; Hidden Agenda. This documentary is the most inspiring of them, interviewing British old-timers about the post-war years in Britain, when there was energy and commitment and passion for eliminating poverty and creating a socially just state - in radical contrast to the pre-war years, when poverty and inequity were rife. One of the people interviewed - alas, I didn't scribble down attribution - explains the drive to make changes as a sort of offshoot of the collective action of having been at war: "the experience of the war taught people that when the state needs you to be organized collectively, in fact they'll force you into the army to be organized collectively. And you can be incredibly powerful. You defeat fascism, and then you come back involved with that spirit of saying, 'anything is possible.'" Of course, we now live in a time when the wealthy and their representatives want us to be disorganized, distracted, disempowered and depressed; there is definitely a need for a rousing call for rallying our energies to collectively right some of the wrongs around us. People who agree with that statement will find a lot to like in Loach's new film. Alas, my Mom wasn't finding it at all interesting, so I didn't even make it all the way through, but I saw enough to re-confirm that Ken Loach is one of the good guys out there... 
A moving Manitoban reworking of "Hansel and Gretel," themed around the horrors that wait for kids in a contemporary landscape, H&G follows two young children into the forest where they end up in the care of a pig farmer with dubious intentions. I ended up interviewing the director, Danishka Esterhazy, for the Straight; to some extent, I may have taken the film further than she actually intended in reading it as being "about" the Pickton pig farm and the missing women inquiry, but she certainly admits that Pickton was on her and her co-screenwriter's mind when they were making the film. If you DO look at H&G from that angle - considering, for instance, that every single one of the women murdered on the Pickton farm was at one point as vulnerable and innocent as Harley and Gemma - what you get is as moving and provocative as if you look at it as being about child poverty. The film has my favourite final line in recent memory; apparently Esterhazy wrote and shot a different ending, which was included in the rough cut, then "realized that we didn't need it."  She explained it thus:
When you’re making films, you have lofty goals, but in the execution, you’re disappointed, or sometimes what you plan doesn’t really work out... On the other side, things sometimes work out better than you’d planned. With that scene, I saw the performance of our little actor, Breazy, was so powerful - and the way she delivered that line summed up everything I was trying to say. It was a happy, creative accident that that scene was more powerful than I imagined it would be. I think when you get those kind of creative accidents, they’re like gifts - you have to honour them and you have to recognize them. 
I hope people interested in Canadian cinema give this film a shot; it screens Saturday. Meantime, I'm gearing up for the late night screening of Willow Creek on Friday - supposedly Bobcat Goldthwait will be in attendance! 

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