Tuesday, September 22, 2015

TIFF '15 Part Two: Dreams and reality

The Forbidden Room

The 2015 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival has drawn to a close, the ticket stubs have been swept up, the people from elsewhere have all gone back to elsewhere and the weather has chilled. After so much time watching movies, staying up too late, drinking too much and having fleeting close encounters with those passing through, it’s hard not to feel like I just experienced some rich, dense, prolonged dream. Especially when so many of the most striking films at TIFF 2015 possessed the feverish pulse or seductive fluidity of dreams—yes, I’m thinking of you, The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s intoxicating and hilarious nesting-doll mega-narrative, which transports us into a volcanic island, a submarine where sailors eat pancakes for extra oxygen and a wolf’s den where bizarre tests of brain and braun are undertaken. Those are just a few of this film’s hallucinatory rest-stops, many of which feature cameos from the likes of Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling and Udo Kier. Maddin has made the most dynamic next step possible in his extremely particular oeuvre, and The Forbidden Room will be writhing its way into a theatre near you soon.

Arabian Nights

More sober by comparison—what wouldn’t be?—but no less errant and wide ranging in its trajectory, Tabu writer-director Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy was presented at TIFF both as three separate screenings and as a single back-to-back six-hour marathon. Gomes hasn’t adapted Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights but, rather, borrowed its episodic structure as a means of casting a panoramic view of his country in the midst of its ongoing austerity crisis. Gomes and his collaborators spent eleven months traversing Portugal in search of stories, places and faces, blending these elements into an unforgettable, anachronistic, documentary-fiction hybrid. At one point we meet a dog who gives what may prove to be the single greatest performance of 2015 by man or beast. Cinema doesn’t get a lot more inventive, resourceful, socially engaged and daring than this.

Neon Bull

The Forbidden Room and Arabian Nights both premiered at major festivals earlier in the year, but of the new or nearly new films at TIFF 2015 my favourite was easily Brazilian filmmaker and visual artist Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull, which follows a handful of people doing the grunt work on a traveling vaquejada, or Brazilian rodeo show. Featuring rapturous photography from Diego García—who also shot Cemetery of Splendour, featured in last weeks’ TIFF report—Neon Bull brims with sensuous, gorgeously composed images of people and animals in settings where the indoors and the outdoors meet. It introduces us to memorable characters struggling against confining economics but dreaming nonetheless of bigger things. Near its finale is one of the most astonishing, beautiful and moving love scenes in recent memory, incorporating themes of work, class and gender in a single, perfect, unbroken shot.


Neon Bull was one of a dozen films featured in TIFF’s new Platform section, named after Jia Zhangke’s masterpiece, which “spotlights the next generation of masters.” Platform is a competitive section and its winner gets $25,000. The inaugural judges were Jia himself, along with Claire Denis and Agnieszka Holland—a very formidable jury, which made it that much more surprising when it was announced that their prize would be going to Hurt, Toronto director Alan Zweig’s documentary about Steve Fonyo. Knowing that I will be seeing Hurt soon enough I didn’t catch it at during TIFF. Zweig has made at least one truly superb film—A Hard Name—and I have absolutely no doubt that the film is very good, though knowing Sweig’s work it is very hard to imagine that Hurt, pegged as an outlier from the outset, meets the criteria for auteur-driven innovation that Platform seems to imply. Perhaps this is what happens when you get three very opinionated cinematic giants—one of whom is my favourite living director—trying to agree on something.


Still, it doesn’t take cinematic giants to arrive at a frustrating compromise. This year’s International Critics Prize in TIFF’s Special Presentation section went to Desierto, Jonás Cuarón’s exceedingly cliché-ridden thriller about Mexican migrants getting hunted down by a xenophobic, murderous lunatic. Were this an exploitation flick made by Larry Cohen in the 1970s it might have had its shaggy charm, but this vehicle for Gael García Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, helmed by the son of an extremely successful director, is riddled with the sort of things that should send Cuarón to screenwriter’s jail and features only the most superficial of polemical threads. Perhaps better compromises can be arrived at by thousands of people who have never really met: the People’s Choice Award, a prize one doesn’t usually expect to go to challenging or especially artful films, went to Lenny Abrahamson’s surprisingly strong adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s bestselling Room.

The Assassin

A few more notes-in-brief before I close this. Hou Hsaio-hsien’s martial arts film The Assassin is as exquisite and a lot more heartfelt than its reputation suggests. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, which chronicles an increasingly ridiculous competition to be “best at everything” between a half-dozen men on a yacht is truly one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in ages. Lucille Hadžihalilović’s haunting Evolution is set in some strange seaside place where there are only pretty little boys and women with mask-like faces and whatever is really going on here is super-sinister. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion Anomalisa, about a middle-aged motivational speaker staying at a Cincinnati hotel, is an absolutely ingenious conception, with every tiny detail tweaked so as to speak to its theme of the world’s numbing sameness and the way that sameness can be alleviated—however briefly—by falling in love. Unfortunately it is also one of these films where once the initial mystifications dissolve and you realize where it’s all going it no longer seems as emotionally resonant as you’d hoped.

The Event

Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie is a first-person documentary bidding farewell to the director’s late mother and is so very knowing about the struggles involved in watching a parent age. Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button considers the exploitation of Chile’s indigenous people under Pinochet and, like the director’s rigorously associational masterpiece Nostalgia for the Light, a great many other fascinating topics. Lastly, Sergei Loznitsa’s The Event is a elegantly constructed collage of archival footage shot in Leningrad in August 1991 during what was effectively the fall of the Soviet Union. This mesmerizing, lively film chronicles an even that’s still less than a quarter-century-old, yet it’s almost impossible to believe these days that Russia was once so full of optimism, marveling at their country’s new possibilities. What stays with you most are the faces of those people filling the streets in the days before social media, all of them wanting to know what’s going to happen, wanting to be part of something. I love sequestering myself in the cinema, but The Event makes you long for the open air, for the clamour of your fellow citizens, and, even more than in the most finely tuned drama, for a reason to wonder what will happen next.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

TIFF '15 Part One: High and low

The Toronto International Film Festival moved its base of operations downtown a few years back with the grand opening of TIFF Bell Lightbox, an elegantly designed five-cinema arthouse multiplex, complete with offices, restaurants, an art gallery, a bookstore and, wink-wink, a high-end optometrist. Being at the corner of King and John places TIFF smack-dab in the heart of one of many Toronto urban zones that, like urban zones the world over, is being rapidly overtaken by high-rise apartments—in fact there is a high-rise apartment building attached to TIFF Bell Ligthbox. It’s thus all too apropos that one of the most highly anticipated films in this year’s Festival is a film about a high-rise, one that harkens back to the early days of this particular architectural-lifestyle phenomenon while looking forward to the rampant, violent psychopathy the phenomenon obviously engenders.

Based on one of the late J.G. Ballard’s most essential novels and directed by Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field in England), High-Rise is, naturally, a horror movie. The story, faithfully adapted by Amy Jump, Wheatley’s partner in life and cinema, follows the same trajectory of many Ballard narratives, obsessed as they are with the way that civilization and capitalism reach critical mass and plunge us back into primitive anarchy. Set in the 1970s, the film is brilliantly designed, often outrageously funny, and features excellent performances from Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss and Jeremy Irons as the titular high-rise’s architect, who near the film’s end wonders if perhaps his creation “will become a paradigm for future developments.” (That line got a big laugh at the screening I attended today.) It’s not easy to make a well-shaped narrative film from Ballard, and High-Rise does indeed run out of steam in the second half—and then gets it right back again in a beautifully gauged finale.

From High to low, both with regards to economic status, architectural latitude and geography: Bleak Street is the latest film from the great Mexican auteur Arturo Ripstein. Based on a true story about two midget wrestlers accidentally murdered by two middle-aged sex workers in a dingy Mexico City love hotel, the film is one of Ripstein’s finest, most eerily beautiful explorations of the strange and sad destinies of the down and out, captured in spectral black and white camerawork that floats adrift through the poor places where the sun only enters from very high above and the residents struggle always to get by. The film brims with black humour, yet it also carries with it a peculiar compassion that is the opposite of sentimentality—Ripstein, like his one-time mentor Luis Buñuel, refuses to make the marginal into saints, but by telling their stories with focus and fascination, he brings them closer to us.

Closeness and the ways in which time and truth-telling can eat away at it is central to 45 Years, Weekend director Andrew Haigh’s slow-burn stunner of a relationship drama. The film features magnificent performances from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as an elderly English couple whose preparations for their wedding anniversary party are curtailed by the news that the remains of a woman Courtenay loved and lost before he and Rampling met have been discovered. Constructing his film from many quiet, exquisitely composed scenes where much drama goes unspoken, Haigh achieves the very impressive feat of conveying how a couple who have lived the majority of their lives together could be tossed into an emotional tempest by events that took place five decades ago. 

The present is also impinged upon by the past—the long, long, long-past past—in Thai maestro Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s haunted and haunting Cemetery of Splendour, which largely unfolds within a small, improvised hospital in which a group of soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness are cared for by nurses and volunteers and overlooked by these weird and beautiful luminous tubes. We learn early in this latest film from the director of Syndromes and a Century that the hospital has supposedly been built on top of a centuries-old cemetery for kings—and their spirits may be involved in the onset and alleviation of the enigmatic affliction. In one of the most imaginative and moving sequences I’ve seen in any film this year, a psychic gives one of the hospital volunteers a tour of a building that no longer exists.

Such sequences cast the real world about the cinemas in new, more vivid shades. As I wander the streets of Toronto after another triple-feature, already over-caffeinated and somewhat dazed, it’s films like those listed above that make me pause to consider the allure of something as ephemeral as the changing autumn light. Movies are commonly thought of as machines of fantasy, but they can also make the world more real. I’m not just saying that because I stood beside Mathieu Amalric at the bar of the Bovine Sex Club, saw Jia Zhang-ke dine with his family at a mediocre Chinese restaurant, or got to share come canapés with Laurie Anderson. It’s the images and sounds infusing our collective psyches as we sit and watch film after film here: they change us. And if I try to watch the good films and avoid the stupid ones, I sometimes believe that may be changing me for the better.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Early onset nostalgia

When I saw Stand By Me (1986) I was exactly the same age as the kids in it. I was 12-years-old and, watching Stand By Me, I experienced a midlife crisis—the movie made me feel like my life, the good life, was already passing me by. Which is what the movie is designed to do. I completely identified with Richard Dreyfuss’ narrator, who, if I think about it, is about the age I am now. He’s the grown-up version of Gordie (Wil Wheaton). I identified with Dreyfuss when I was 12, but I don’t much now that I’m actually his age. I don’t relate to the ridiculous assertion that, at 12, he and his friends “knew who we were and exactly where we were going.” And I don’t relate to his closing sentiment that he never had friends like the friends he had when he was 12. Stand By Me, at least to me, is a film about an adult man who misses the kinship he felt with other kids when he was 12, but the adult man only makes sense to you when you’re 12, which is very likely a time in your life when you don’t feel such a strong kinship with other kids. It’s a 12-year-old’s idea of being a nostalgic adult. Is there a word for nostalgia you feel for something you never experienced?

The film was perfectly well directed by Rob Reiner, who apparently could only get enough money to pay for about 20 seconds of any period song. If you don’t know the story, it follows Gordie and his buddies—crazy Teddy (Corey Feldman), gullible Vern (Jerry O’Connell), and the wounded, brave and beautiful Chris (River Phoenix, whose hair in the sunshine looks like spun gold)—as they go on an overnight excursion in search of the dead body of a missing local boy. It’s small-town Oregon, Labour Day weekend, 1959. Also looking for this dead body are a bunch of older idiots led by Kiefer Sutherland, who has a terrible dye job and sculpted stubble. The confrontation with the Sutherland gang near the movie’s end is pretty dumb. There is a scene in which Chris talks about his family to Gordie and cries, and a scene in which Gordie talks to Chris about his family and cries, and those scenes aren’t exactly silly but simply too on-the-nose and, more to the point, poorly written. The adults are all cartoons. There is a superfluous dream sequence that feels like pure filler—the source material is a Stephen King novella and I guess they felt they needed to pad it out to make it a feature—and a barf fantasy that is, frankly, awesome. But the scenes of the boys just hanging out, doing stupid kid stuff, are gold. Walking down train tracks, spitting into a tin can, sitting around a fire, insulting each others’ mothers—it’s precisely in the scenes not working hard to feel poignant that feel most poignant. It’s lines like “Pile of shit has a thousand eyes.” It’s seeing 12-year-old boys with their arms around each other because why not throw your arms around each other?

I didn’t see a dead body when I was a kid. (That came later.) I didn’t fend off bullies with bad stubble with a .45. (That, thankfully, still hasn’t happened.) When I first saw Stand By Me I mourned the lack of such experiences in my life, which was already hurtling mercilessly forward. But what matters more to me now is that I never had friends like the boys in Stand By Me. Or I had friends, but never felt so easily part of a group of friends, that sense of acceptance and camaraderie. Did you?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The murderers are among us

Adi Rukun is an ophthalmologist living and working in the Indonesian province of Aceh. He’s handsome and soft-spoken and seems very patient. He embodies an ideal of the country doctor, but for many members of his community a visit from Adi comes with a heavy burden. Over the course of The Look of Silence, U.S. director Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his 2013 film The Act of Killing, Adi calls on several neighbours, sometimes with medical equipment in tow, sometimes not, and begins to ask questions about their shared past. “You ask too many questions” and “I don’t want to remember” are common responses. On one occasion Adi is told that if people of his generation aren’t careful, if they don’t leave well enough alone and learn to “get along like the military dictatorship taught us,” what happened in the past will happen again.

What happened in the past, some 50 years ago now, was the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians, ostensible communists, in the wake of a military coup. One of those murdered was Adi’s brother Ramli, killed by the Komando Aksi. His story is not unusual. Ramli was hacked by machetes. He ran home, was stolen from his home under the pretence of being escorted to a hospital, then he was hacked some more, his intestines spilling from his torso, and thrown into Snake River. And when it seemed to his murderers that he was still alive he was fished out and dismembered and thrown back in. Those murderers became the leaders of Adi’s community, where they remain in power to this day. A scene in The Look of Silence finds a teacher explaining to schoolchildren that the slaughtered communists were evil and the government had no choice but to exterminate them. In another scene one of the leaders of an Aceh death squad declares, “We did this because the Americans taught us to hate communists.”

The Act of Killing, in which Oppenheimer, collaborating with several locals forced to remain anonymous, focused on the perpetrators of the killings, their legacy and continued self-glorification. The Act of Killing is the only film I can think of that afflicted me with prolonged nausea. Not because of the physical violence, which we don’t see (except in the bizarre, crude reenactments staged by Oppenheimer’s subjects), but because of the film’s portrait of human nature. Call it existential nausea. The Look of Silence concerns the same horrors as The Act of Killing, but it’s the reverse shot: it assumes the perspective of the victims. As he makes his rounds, Adi isn’t out for revenge. He’s too young to remember the most violent years—though he lives in a world permanently transformed by those years, one where living in fear has become the norm for much of the population. But his unwavering, silent gaze, one of this film’s most potent motifs, feels like the gaze of an entire traumatized nation’s conscience. Talking to the children and spouses of killers or to the killers themselves, Adi is out for forgiveness—this is what makes The Look of Silence one of the most moving films I’ve seen. But in order to forgive a crime the crime must be recognized, which is something almost no one Adi visits is willing to do.

The Look of Silence features no scoring, no voice-over commentary, no archival footage (save a brief NBC report from 1965, one of many videos we watch Adi watching on TV), but it is a film in which every frame is infused with context, compassion, curiosity, and over a decade of Oppenheimer’s life, doing the hard work, opening his heart, earning people’s trust, finding the story. And Oppenheimer is an inveterate storyteller. There are many images of people in repose and every one seems essential. There is a central question woven through the film, one concerning the value of remembering versus that of forgetting, and Oppenheimer conveys this question elegantly and diversely through interviews with killers who jocularly boast of their acts of torture, rape and murder, through the contrast of Adi’s mother, who remembers everything, and Adi’s father, who is severely demented, believes he’s an adolescent and sings naïve love songs, though in certain moments of confusion is overcome with panic and terror.

Taken as stand-alone films, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are masterpieces of the documentary form at its most rigorous and creative. Taken as a pair they constitute one of the most important cinematic events of our time. I had the honour of attending the Canadian premiere of The Look of Silence at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where both Oppenheimer and Adi were in attendance. After the screening they took the stage to answer questions, but Adi was overcome with emotion and, weeping, was unable to speak. Perhaps sharing this story with so many people at once yielded more feelings that he’d expected. But his presence was intensely affecting, and, as though so much of the film, his silence spoke volumes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Licking against the pricks

How many times in the history of the medium have we seen a single film rattle as many socio-cinematic paradigms—and done it with as much bio—as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)? Scripted by Hanif Kureishi—his first film credit—and directed by Stephen Frears, this incendiary entertainment made movie stars of London’s teeming South Asian community, featured a central romance that was both interracial and gay, and embraced the tenants of Thatcherite hyper-capitalism only to expose it as fundamentally corrupting and ineffectual with regards to the populace at large. Yet at no point does the film draw attention to its importance or iconoclasm. In one of the excellent supplements contained on Criterion’s new DVD and BD releases of My Beautiful Laundrette Frears claims that he initially didn’t really notice the fact that the story was queer. The film feels so utterly focued on story, character development and milieu that I’m inclined to believe him.

My Beautiful Laundrette begins with second-generation Anglo-Pakistani Omar (Gordon Warnecke) essentially trading in his former socialist journalist father, Hussein (Roshan Seth), a man seemingly broken by emigration, for his businessman uncle, Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), a man eager to assimilate—complete with white mistress—and capitalize on every carrot of opportunity life in Britain dangles before him. “You have to know how to squeeze the tits of the system,” Nasser insists, and Omar is an apt pupil, rapidly going from washing cars in a garage to refurbishing a dilapidated old laundromat in a predominantly Asian South London nieghbourhood. Omar does this with the assistance of a lanky white working-class factotum named Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis in his breakout role), who along the way becomes Omar’s lover, a development which seems perfectly natural—though its not to interfere with Omar’s single-minded fixation on making lots of money. Homophobia takes a backseat to racism in any case, with the local white thugs threatening Johnny simply for accepting a brown man as his employer. Eventually, in a sequence Frears stages like a late western, those thugs launch a vicious attack on the whole lot of them, making for a ugly climax—though that’s not the end of the story.

So few films had previously plunged a mainstream audience in what was until then an all but invisible immigrant community, with its own rules and ideals and wild contrasts. My Beautiful Laudrette launched a new wave of Asian-centered British films, not to mention Kureishi’s career—he would go on to script Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), My Son the Fanatic (1997), The Mother (2003) and Venus (2006), continuing a thread not only of immigrant representation but sexually audacity. Frears would begin a winning streak that would peak with The Grifters (1990) and Day-Lewis, having emulated Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood here, would become like them a star of the first order, known for transforming himself through methody immersion in vocal and body work. Though one could argue that the greatest moments throughout the rest of Day-Lewis’ career, from Christy Brown to Lincoln, are only ever on par with that delicious furtive lick of Omar’s neck, a gesture Criterion has fittingly placed right on the cover of its superb new package.