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by Bill Chambers It's tempting to say that pop already ate itself, leaving a vast wasteland of remakes and reboots that can't possibly be fertile enough to cultivate imaginations; I sometimes lie awake worrying that one day all we'll be left with is the vultures and their Jane Austen mashups, their homemade Lord of the Rings prequels and Sweded Rambo movies. Should such a Doomsday scenario come to pass, let's hope it occasionally yields something as whimsical and obviously heartfelt as France's The Little Dragon (Le petit dragon) (animated; d. Bruno Collet; 8 mins.; ***/****), in which a magical force brings a Bruce Lee action figure to life, seemingly with the legend's identity, if not his soul, intact, as it is his impulse upon encountering a Chuck Norris cut-out to kick it down. (He also recognizes his name and image on other collectibles.) Decked out in his yellow Game of Death jumpsuit, he navigates a maze of cobweb-strewn movie memorabilia that appears to be some Harry Knowles type's bedroom; in a moment of quintessentially French cinephilia, Bruce, having been passed the torch (the Statue of Liberty torch from a Planet of the Apes model kit, that is), stumbles on a makeshift crypt lined with dolls of Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Louise Brooks, Robert Mitchum, and, erm, Robert Taylor. The stop-motion animation is charming--this scrappy little guy may actually be the ne plus ultra of Lee imitators, who are of course legion--and the tone is deceptively irreverent. This is fan art, executed with gusto--but does it have a function? Collet could be the next Nick Park--but is he hurting for inspiration?
*/**** starring Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Babak Karimi, Fereshteh Sadr Orafaee written and directed by Massoud Bakhshi
by Walter Chaw About 20 minutes into Massoud Bakhshi's shrill Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness (hereafter Yalda), I put my hands over my ears to blunt the constant keening. It's also the point where I started wondering what this film was on about. There's something brilliant and fascinating at the core of Yalda--a movie about an Iranian variety/game show in which the fate of someone sentenced to death hangs on the forgiveness of one of the people they've wronged--that makes its hamfistedness a real pity. Gathered are what we might call the plaintiff and the defendant to sit in an "Ellen"-style talk-show nook to tell their stories and air their grievances and then let the audience deliver a verdict via text message, whether or not a blood-money bounty will be paid to the aggrieved should they decide to exercise some grace. That's horrible. It's not more horrible than the U.S. justice system, which offers no such opportunity of recourse for the accused (heaven forbid a Christian nation ever exercise forgiveness and actually value life), but it's horrible just the same.
W. **½/**** starring Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn screenplay by Stanley Weiser directed by Oliver Stone
TROUBLE THE WATER **½/**** directed by Carl Deal & Tia Lessin
by Walter Chaw John Powers once called Nixon-era Oliver Stone our most Nixonian director: smart, driven, divisive, unlikeable. So the neatest trick of Stone's latest biopic, W., is to make George W. Bush--arguably the most reviled, detached, ideologically arrogant president since James Buchanan--a figure of genuine pathos. Never mind that this incurious, adolescent, fundamentalist fanatic is our proverbial Nero, fiddling while every foundational tenet of Lincoln's party is fed to anti-intellectualism and evangelical Christianity. George Orwell said something once about how the end of democracy is heralded by millionaires leading dishwashers; what's unexpected for me is the extent to which the Republican party in the new millennium has not only convinced the blue-collar to vote against its own self-interests by waging class warfare against liberals, but also begun to turn against the intellectuals in its own party. "Georgetown cocktail party" conservatives are now painted with the same broad brushstroke as "Latte-sipping" lefties--and this idea of abandoning the middle class takes on the onus of not just money and privilege, but education and eloquence as well. The logical end-point of wanting a President as ill-read, venal, and feckless as your alcoholic born-again Uncle Festus is a figure like Governor Sarah Palin, whose chief qualification appears to be her ability to blend into your local chapter of Oprah's Fan Club without a ripple. Hate, division, ugly innuendo, and racism: sowing fear and reaping the political benefits until the house falls down.
Un couteau dans le coeur ***½/**** starring Vanessa Paradis, Nicolas Maury, Kate Moran, Jonathan Genet screenplay by Yann Gonzalez, Cristiano Mangione directed by Yann Gonzalez
by Walter Chaw Yann Gonzalez's Knife + Heart is a smart film by a smart filmmaker. It's a movie-lover's fugue, a tribute to the heyday of gay porn and the grindhouse theatres that showed it, a salute to editors, a shrine to multi-cultural myths about birds. It's a deep well with obvious pleasures, a film with a recognizable structure complete with solution that still manages to avoid the standard exposition and perfunctory resolution. The spiritual brother to Brian De Palma's Body Double (exploitative and sleazy and also commentary on exploitation and sleaze), it's a movie about looking that has as its central image a blind grackle--an extinct variety of the common pest that used to bring folks back from the dead by burning off the ever-after as it flew too close to the sun. Its central couple is gay-porn director Anne (Vanessa Paradis) and her editor and former lover Lois (Kate Moran), who churn out the sort of softcore masterpieces of art-film erotica favoured once upon a time by your Kenneth Angers, your Paul Morrisseys and Radley Metzgers. All of her work is autobiographical in some way. There's no line separating Anne's reality, nor her dreamlife, from the mindscreen of her movies.
by Bill Chambers 15-year-old Mia (Luna Wedler) is struggling to fit in at a new school, feeling suffocated at home, and hormonal in the usual ways--physically lashing out at her mother (Regula Grauwiller), smoking, flirting on the Internet with men who should know better. She manages to break the ice with the cool kids by seconding their idea to take the school field trip to Switzerland's version of Coney Island, and earns the respect of pack leader Gianna (Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen) with a thrill-seeking attitude that in fact portends a self-destructive streak. Mia's body is changing; it starts with her toes growing together and a sudden appetite for the tropical fish in her mother's tank. Whether to feel desirable or because she senses that time is running out, she becomes promiscuous, but when she finally meets up with her Humbert Humbert (Nicola Perot) he shows a paternal concern about the mottling on her legs that sends her fleeing, while a subsequent "bounce" (the movie's--and, presumably, Swiss German millenials'--slang for sex) with a popular boy (David Oberholzer) leaves her unsatisfied. Though Blue My Mind is bound to alarm parents of modern teenagers, like David Cronenberg's gruesome remake of The Fly it's less a horror movie than it is a drama about prematurely waking up to one's mortality--although the bittersweet finish is more hopeful and casts an even wider metaphorical net. (I suspect the picture will resonate with trans viewers, or at least that it aims to.) Wedler and Holthuizen mature convincingly on screen together, their lovely chemistry filling out and filling in a relationship that is all too typical of director Lisa Brühlmann's sketchy screenplay. There are ambiguities, for instance, concerning Mia's provenance and how much her mom and dad know, but when her parents discreetly depart from the narrative, despite the unlikelihood that they'd abandon a daughter so clearly in the throes of a depressive episode (this part seems like it was concocted by an actual bitter teenager), it reduces those unanswered questions to so much pointless teasing. Perhaps, like its obvious inspiration The Metamorphosis, Blue My Mind was only meant to be a short story, and ironically endured growing pains of its own. Brühlmann has enough stunning images in her, including an especially striking one of a flooded apartment, that it's a shame she defaults to a muted, pseudodocumentary European aesthetic, which exposes some feeble writing to the harsh light of interrogation instead of safely locating the film in the realm of dream logic. Fantasia Fest 2018 - Programme: Camera Lucida
Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, runs April 28-May 8, 2016 at Toronto's Bloor Cinema. Visit the fest's official site for more details.
by Bill Chambers By coincidence or zeitgeist design, Sonita is my third consecutive Hot Doc about the disenfranchised's quest for "personhood." Here it's the titular Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghan teenager who fled the Taliban and, as the film begins, is living in a fleapit in Tehran with her sister and young niece; an unseen brother apparently resides nearby, close enough to duck in and trash her belongings while she's out. Sonita's nightmare family expects a lot from her--when they're evicted, her hookah-smoking sister barks, "Go find us a new home! Now!"--and that includes that she will one day soon return to Afghanistan to be sold into marriage. She has dreams of becoming a recording artist, though, and a wilfulness that director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami tries desperately to cultivate without violating the documentarian's Prime Directive of impartial observation. When Sonita's mother extorts Maghami for $2000 to buy her subject six more months in Tehran, Sonita and Maghami get busy and make a video for Sonita's prosaic but politically-charged rap song "Brides for Sale," which goes viral and attracts the attention of a nonprofit that wants to fly Sonita to America, birthplace of her beloved Michael Jackson. (In a memorable sidebar, she's baffled by an Iranian map of the world that colour codes the U.S. as a desert--propaganda at its most diabolical.) Because I didn't follow Alizadeh's story as it happened live, the final third of Sonita played for me like a heist movie, with Sonita tiptoeing back into Afghanistan to retrieve her passport while keeping her final destination on the down-low. But there's a sadness gnawing away at the suspense: Sonita's mother is determined to find a man who will pay nine grand for her so that one of her sons can afford his own $9000 wife (she's the kind of older person who enforces the awful traditions to which she was subjected out of spite), and in Iran Sonita's social circle is drying up because nobody wants to be seen fraternizing with an outlaw (given that women there are technically not permitted to sing)--institutionalized misogyny has left her without a sanctuary. Sonita's victories are by no means Pyrrhic, yet the lonesome final shot shows that freedom and isolation are sometimes uncannily similar.
BLACK */**** directed by Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah
Wir Monster, a.k.a. Cold Days **/**** directed by Sebastian Ko
KEEPER (pictured) ***/**** directed by Guillaume Senez
by Bill Chambers My random sampling of #TIFF15's Discovery programme yielded a loose trilogy of bildungsromane. The most 'problematic' of these, as the kids say, is Black, a West Side Story redux set on the surprisingly mean streets of Brussels, where rival gangs of Moroccan and (I think) Congolese immigrants antagonize the locals and each other. Marwan (charming Aboubakr Bensaihi) and Mavela (gorgeous Martha Canga Antonio) meet-cute in police custody. He's Moroccan, she hangs with "the Black Bronx," whose name very purposely evokes American ghettos for that soupçon of danger. When he hits on her, she asks him how he'd feel if his sister brought a black man home; Marwan admits there's a double standard, then reassuringly points out they're both African. Within days they're a couple on the DL, whispering dreams of an honest future together. Alas, Mavela becomes inextricably tethered to the Black Bronx when she baits a female member of Marwan's posse to their clubhouse to be gangraped, then endures the same torment herself after they find out about her affair with Marwan. Note that the first rape happens offscreen while Mavela's does not, and though I don't condone any rape scene, there is something ultra-nauseating about graphically violating the Maria/Juliet figure, like when Edith Bunker endured a rape attempt: It breaks some socio-artistic contract we have with our most wholesome archetypes. It didn't make me hate her attackers so much as it made me hate the filmmakers.
Raye makhfi ***½/**** starring Nassim Abdi, Cyrus Abidi, Youssef Habashi, Farrokh Shojaii written and directed by Babak Payami
by Walter Chaw It begins and ends with waiting, while the middle of Babak Payami's Secret Ballot (Raye makhfi) is invested in the Theatre of the Absurd--this is Samuel Beckett, in other words, applied to the Iranian voting process, as an unnamed election agent (Nassim Abdi) travels to a remote Persian island on a quest to gather votes from citizens who may not know that it's election time, are probably unfamiliar with the candidates, and almost certainly aren't affected by the outcome anyway. If anything, Payami's picture confirms that things are the same all over.
September 30, 2002|While flipping through a magazine on a flight to Chicago in April 1997, Swiss director Christian Frei became acquainted with the work of photojournalist James Nachtwey, one of the most decorated artists in his field and the subject of Frei's remarkable documentary War Photographer, which debuts this week in Denver at the Argus Human Rights Festival. A fascinating, almost Lacanian separation of observer and observed indicates the piece, a film shot with a specially designed camera-mounted camera that provides an intimate point of view of the photographer at work. I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Frei this morning on the telephone to Switzerland as the director, fresh from a trip to Kabul researching his newest project, The Giant Buddhas, spends the next week and a half in his homeland.