Saturday, May 5, 2012

Loose ends

The Betrayal (d. Karen Winther): The director returns to her spotty history in this intermittently affecting but mostly flat exercise. Winther combs through old journals and interviews both her parents and former friends in her effort to get to the bottom of a colossally stupid and damaging decision, when she was a troubled 15-year-old, to volunteer her far-left friends’ whereabouts to a known neo-Nazi group. As a portrait of 1990s Oslo's political bifurcations, the film is fairly compelling, but Winther is maddeningly vague about her ideological inclination in any phase of her life, and her frequent voiceovers about uncovering why she did what she did grate more than they illuminate. In any case, it's the wrong question. **/**** (Special Presentations)

Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story (d. Raymond De Fellita): In 1966, Frank De Fellita interviewed a man named Booker Wright for his NBC News documentary about racial tensions in Mississippi. Booker, a popular African-American waiter in a whites-only restaurant by night and bar owner by day, gave a brilliant and devastating monologue about the grin-and-bear it approach to racial discrimination, which saw him attacked, fired, and possibly killed as a result. (The circumstances of his death are suspect.) With Booker’s Place, Frank's son Raymond mounts an archival excavation of the elder De Fellita’s influential but rarely screened doc, while shepherding Wright’s monologue into the present and inviting his granddaughter to reintroduce it as a key document in the Civil Rights Movement. For the most part, this is vital and moving material, which doubles as a subtle lesson in the history of network television; it only flags when the director stops for too long to consider his own father’s cinematic legacy -- the least interesting part of the story.  ***/****  (Special Presentations)

Over My Dead Body (d. Brigitte Poupart): Brigette Poupart turns the camera on close friend and collaborator Dave St-Pierre, a Montreal-based choreographer who’s internationally celebrated and derided in about equal measure for pieces like A Little Tenderness for Crying Out Loud! A fittingly naked profile of a young artist whose work eschews politeness, the film follows St-Pierre, diagnosed in his teens with cystic fibrosis, over a gruelling 15-month period as he awaits a lung transplant. This is Poupart’s first feature, and while it sometimes shows in the overcranked editing and CSI-like trips into x-rays, it’s otherwise a visceral, moving, and wildly inventive film that effectively digs into its subject’s skin for the long haul. ***/**** (Canadian Spectrum)

Scarlet Road (d. Catherine Scott): Rachel Wotton is an Australian sex worker who focuses on an underserved client base: people with disabilities. Catherine Scott’s Scarlet Road does a good job of breaking the taboos surrounding both touchy subjects by simply refusing to take them seriously: the disabled have sex drives, it flatly asserts, and some women work in the sex trade. Period. It would be a more thorough portrait if the film invested more in these workers’ legal situation in Australia, which seems too complex for its somewhat cheery tone. But Scott brings a delicate touch to her coverage of both the clientele – plus their lovely, overwhelmingly supportive parents – and of Wotton, who moonlights as an activist and academic pursuing a Master’s degree in sexual health. What the film lacks in political nuance, Wotton makes up in her articulate commentary, especially her rebuttal to those who make offhanded claims about the supposed false consciousness of sex workers like her. ***/**** (World Showcase)

The World Before Her (d. Nisha Pahuja)

The winner of Hot Docs’ Best Canadian Feature award, granted just two weeks after it snagged top doc honours at Tribeca, Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her is a fearless and intricately structured portrait of a nation split down the middle. The film sets out to explore women’s uneasy place in an increasingly modernized and globally inflected but still traditional India by observing how a pair of institutions go about raising girls, and to what end. Pahuja’s riskiest and ultimately smartest move is to juxtapose the personality-making rituals of the Miss India pageant with a Hindu nationalist training camp that prepares young girls to marry young, obey, and take up arms against Muslim and Christian neighbours, should the good fight of a united Hindu nation come to their doorsteps.

Her access to both groups is astonishing. More importantly, in each group Pahuja focuses not on a cheerleader but on a prickly spokesperson, riven by her devotion to a cause that suppresses women even as it advances them. In the fundamentalist camp, for instance, we hone in on Prachi, a militant youth leader who preaches women’s deference to men even as she struggles against her abusive father to devote her life not to a husband but to the movement. To his flat assertion that she’ll marry, she demurs that she’ll be a “question mark,” but he won’t have it, on the principle that he’s made her, and “the product has to be perfect in every sense.” It doesn’t take much to see how this heated argument about reproduction, form, and the future is acted out on a different stage in the beauty pageant, where Indian women are manufactured into Botoxed, skin-whitened doppelgangers of both themselves and western celebrities – uncanny images of imitation as progress. Yet, as a title card early on points out, the beauty industry is one of the few venues in which modern Indian women can be competitive earners on the global stage. This is an impossible situation, and Pahuja refuses to map an escape route, leaving us with Prachi’s dilemma of a world before her with no firm ground to stand on. ***1/2/****   

PROGRAMME: Canadian Spectrum

Summer of Giacomo (d. Alessandro Comodin)

Conceptually sandwiched somewhere between Maren Ade’s terrific Everyone Else and Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Alessandro Comodin’s Summer of Giacomo is a richly textured portrait of dumb love in the grass, times two. As the lengthy credits of electric blue font superimposed on black and scored to languid birdsong suggest, this is chiefly an aesthetic experience, and Comodin delivers a gorgeously lensed (on 16mm) account of twentyish Giacomo and Stefani’s wayward hike through the countryside in search of a river by which to set up camp for the afternoon. The press notes tell us that Stefani is a childhood friend, but that hardly matters: all that we gather and need to gather is that something might have happened at some point, but outside of this hike, it’s over. What we’re left with, then, apart from their pathfinding and inevitable squabble, is a dense sensory record of the seriously goofy and – this is nicely underplayed – deaf Giacomo’s experience. His cochlear implant is briefly glimpsed in the first over-the-shoulder shot of him clanging randomly at a drum set, and you could happily read the film as an experiment in attending to the sounds, both slight and explosive, that pass through the device en route to his dufus skull.

I don’t mean that as an insult. Looking like a wiry young Patrick Bauchau, Giacomo is an original. He’s all jackal screeches and nihilist exclamations (“lousy nature!”), and his 16-year belated glee over the Chemical Brothers’s “Setting Sun” is infectious, even though he’s a total cad. A last act reveal introduces a beautiful third player who pushes things even further into the territory of Rohmer’s moral tales, but not always productively; this doesn’t feel like a dramatic monologue sort of movie, and doubtless Giacomo wouldn’t want to hear it. Summer of Giacomo is at its most remarkable when it hews closely to its star, whether he’s seducing a girl with mud clods to the face or chanting “We Will Rock You” wildly off key, for ages. ***/****

PROGRAMME: World Showcase

Only the Young (ds. Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet)

Like a delicate magic trick, Only the Young is best watched in a state of rapt fascination. An unostentatious feature debut from Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, the film chronicles a few months in the lives of three impossibly sweet teens in a desert town. Impressively, it does so without signposting major events along the way. Instead, we weave through their relationship and family dramas with only their changing hairstyles as obvious chronological markers, catching everyday lyricism in first car rides and teen girls’ catlike head nudges.

On paper it isn’t much: lanky Garrison and skittish Kevin have been best friends for years, and continue to be despite the impending threat of graduation and the complication of Skye, Garrison’s on-again off-again girlfriend and Kevin’s sublimated crush. That’s about it for narrative, though plenty comes out incidentally in their relaxed conversations. Garrison and Skye’s courtship is entangled, as these things tend to be, in a host of issues bigger than the couple, including an unexpected development in her living situation and, more importantly, his immaturity as a teen boy drawn to girls outside of his immediate frame of reference. Taking for granted the wholesome friend next door, Garrison briefly dates Kristen, another nice girl who Skye, in her best but still unconvincing impression of a mean person, calls “A hip hop dancing liberal. And short.” That all three subjects happen to be evangelical Christians is a bit startling at first, but Mims and Tippet take their faith seriously. Garrison and Skye banter about marriage, of all things, like reincarnated old souls; their earnestness is something we don’t see enough of in movies about teens. That’s not to say that Only the Young goes down like medicine: it’s above all a beautiful film, formally translating the wooziness of these kids’ sun-kissed days into graceful footage of their bodies gliding through abandoned skate parks like gangly Adonises. Children are the gods of this city, as Garrison half-jokingly announces over the opening credits, but Only the Young reassures us that they’re benevolent rulers. ***1/2/****

PROGRAMME: International Spectrum

Friday, May 4, 2012

¡Vivan Las Antipodas! (d. Victor Kossakovsky)

“The world spins, but they’re always below us.” That’s one of the many pearls in Victor Kossakovsky’s ¡Vivan Las Antipodas!, a high-concept travelogue that fleetly covers four pairs of dry-land spots at exact opposite ends of the earth. The opening epigraph from Lewis Carroll aside, Kossakovsky gravitates to such homespun maxims rather than headier stuff, and the film is all the more dazzling for it – an intoxicating riff on the Looney Tunes bit where Yosemite Sam digs through an outcrop and lands in China. While he’s interested enough in the locals, particularly the source of that comment, two guys who ferry busted cars over their pontoon bridge in Argentina, the director generally turns his Red camera to beautiful images of animal life, fauna, and architecture, weaving strange textures out of his startling juxtapositions between, for instance, a volcanic rock formation in Hawaii and an elephant’s hide in Botswana.

These conceptual match cuts might have felt precious in less assured hands, but Kossakovsky comes at his antipodes with a quixotic rather than a programmatic spirit. He’s happy to capture accidental overlaps and stark contrasts of this sort without jumping to inane grand statements about how we all inhabit the same earth. No such editorializing here. Shifts between locations are signalled by steady rotations of the camera – and occasional bits of digital trickery that see entirely different skylines reflected in geographically distant bodies of water – which throw us off balance, forcing us to cross that Argentinean bridge into an upside down tunnel in Shanghai. If the material he captures is fortuitous, guided only by a playful mandate to leave no strange cat or toothless dog unfilmed, Kossakovsky’s minimalism and formal rigor are nevertheless unimpeachable. This is the weirdest and maybe most rewarding film here. ***1/2/****

PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Frog Princes (ds. Omar Majeed and Ryan Mullins)

The Frog Princes is so big-hearted you wish it had more to say than “way to go.” Copping its framing device from Rushmore, the film shadows a theatre troupe over a few months as it prepares for its debut performance of The Frog and the Princess. The hook is that the performers all have developmental disabilities, and are part of an initiative headed by Stephen Snow, a psychotherapist who teaches drama therapy at Concordia. “Steve” to his players, Snow comes across as an amiable guy whose high standards inspire self-confidence and a good work ethic in people from whom society shamefully expects little. There’s joy in seeing actors like cutely named Ray-Man, a young man with Down Syndrome, channel their untapped self-confidence into something tangible. Ray-Man makes a sharp contrast with Tanya, a clinically depressed woman with Prader-Willi Syndrome, whose nastiness and frequent minor meltdowns give the film a welcome edge whenever she’s onscreen.

What we don’t get, unfortunately, is a strong sense of either the treatment or the play – not insignificant gaffes, considering Snow insists that the experience culminate in both good mental health and a watchable play. Directors Omar Majeed and Ryan Mullins capture some fun on-the-fly footage backstage when things head south in the first dress rehearsal, but their insistence on hammering home how charming these players are reveals a blindspot: they take no interest in the experience of being disabled except in the triumphant moment when an impairment is overcome. You wonder why Ray-Man is in therapy to begin with, but the film wishes you wouldn't. There’s no shortage of such overcoming narratives about disability, and likeable as its subjects are, this one does little to distinguish itself from the pack. **/****

PROGRAMME: Canadian Spectrum

Shut Up and Play the Hits (ds. Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern)

“It’s like a sad hipster DJ Revolutionary Road.” That’s recently-retired LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy on first single “Losing My Edge” in Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s by turns ebullient and funereal Shut Up and Play the Hits. “Losing My Edge” is one of the dance-rock act’s infamous “position songs.” You could think of it as a hunted gazelle’s lament before the wolves swoop in, masquerading as a thirtysomething’s off-the-cuff recitation of his musical knowledge before a pack of preternaturally all-knowing twentysomethings who are “actually really, really nice.” It’s probably the best example of Murphy’s uncanny ability to position himself at the edge of things – in this case between the accumulated experience of old-school music appreciation (it’s not for nothing that the last LCD album was called This Is Happening) and new digital ways of knowing by downloading in massive quantities. Credit Lovelace and Southern, then, for positioning their film at the same edge, and delivering a concert film of LCD’s last show at Madison Square Garden that’s a self-consciously dead record of a living wake, announcing itself as a funeral even before the credits.

Despite the inherent past-ness of the concept – it could well be called This Has Already Happened – Lovelace and Southern do a fine job of capturing the live experience of both an LCD concert from the  audience and a meticulously crafted last hurrah from the view of those onstage. Their footage of a dozen or so tracks from the show is sharp and unfussy: Murphy is generally shot from three different fixed angles at medium distance in mostly long takes, with the exception of an ambitious shot during “Us V. Them,” which takes its cue from the mirror ball and whirls around the theatre to track the crowd.  They’re also attentive to the state of suspended animation in which Murphy now finds himself, interweaving this concert material with vérité footage from the day after (mostly of him taking ages to shave and make coffee) and segments of an interview from the week before with Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman is insufferable, badgering Murphy into admitting that early retirement was a mistake he’ll soon regret. But this reliance on someone else’s interview is a refreshing conceit all the same – a way to tease out Murphy’s ambivalence about his age and about the young folk who will replace him without resorting to tired doc trappings like voiceover and talking heads. It’s consistently absorbing, as funerals go. ***/****