Tuesday

But tonight you presume too much


(Not my video, but I was there.)

Terrific show on the whole, though not necessarily the greatest setlist.

Highlights:
1. "Jack the Ripper" (one of his very best songs, stunningly performed)
2. "Why Don't You Find Out for Yourself"
3. "Is It Really So Strange?"
4. "Suedehead"
5. "Seasick, yet Still Docked"
6. "Everyday Is Like Sunday"
7. "I Wish You Lonely"
8. The fact that he didn't talk politics at all (a great relief!)
9. His story about how, when he retires from music, he wants to move to Ropongi Hills, Tokyo; the only trouble with this is that I'd really like to hear His Tokyo Record!

Gripes:
1. Too little Smiths (just the 1 song! by comparison, Marr played 6 at his show here last year)
2. Too little Vauxhall and I, or, as he referred to it last night, "Vancouver and I" (still by far his best post-Smiths album; at least "Why Don't You Find Out for Yourself" sounded really great)
3. Too much California Son (just meh af)
4. "World Peace Is None of Your Business" (Is Not a Good Song, and Also Suggests Some of His Worst Tendencies/Ideas)

Saturday

VIFF: Best of the Fest


(It was an exceptionally good year, so I've cheated a little here.)

FILMS
01. A Hidden Life (Malick)
02. Lost Course (Li)
03. Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (Gu)
04. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Sciamma)
05. The Lodge (Franz/Fiala)
06. MS Slavic 7 (Bohdanowicz/Campbell)
07. Oh Mercy! (Desplechin)
08. One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (Kunuk)
09. Young Ahmed (Dardenne/Dardenne)
10. The Lighthouse (Eggers), Parasite (Bong), and The Twentieth Century (Rankin) [tie]

PERFORMANCES
01. Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
02. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse
03. Riley Keough, The Lodge
04. Deragh Campbell, Anne at 13,000 Feet
05. Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
06. Roschdy Zem, Sarah Forestier, and Léa Seydoux, Oh Mercy!
07. The entire cast of Parasite
08. Valerie Pachner, A Hidden Life
09. Anthony Wong, Still Human
10. Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Joan of Arc
VIFF, pt. 4: One More


The Lodge In (another) strong year for interesting horror movies, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's English-language follow-up to Goodnight Mommy –- exploring much the same thematic territory –- is the best of the bunch. I'm usually not especially careful when it comes to "spoilers," but in this case, the less revealed in advance of seeing it, the better (don't watch the trailer!). Suffice it to say that Franz and Fiala's film is unrelentingly tense and unnerving, pervaded by a thick atmosphere of dread. Few horror movies in recent memory use sound (or near-silence) so effectively: the soundtrack is mostly dominated by the sound of wind sweeping over snow; when this ominous calm is suddenly interrupted –– by a church organ, or the sound of ice cracking, or a gunshot –– it provides a serious jolt. Yet, such shocks aside, this is, for the most part, not a jump-scare sort of horror movie, but one that digs deeper under the surface, gradually winding through its characters' (and audience's) psyches to disorienting and genuinely disturbing effect. Comparisons to Hereditary are inevitable –– the fractured family themes, the prominent, creepy use of dolls, etc. –– but The Lodge is more subtle and slow-building than Ari Aster's film; and the performance at its core, Riley Keough's eerily understated turn, is in some ways the opposite of the volcanic intensity of Toni Collette's. Both films, in any case, rank as instant classics of their genre, "prestige" or not.

Thursday

VIFF, pt. 3: Duos habet!


The Two Popes When Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are on screen together, this is a great movie. It really feels like we're watching the actual Popes Francis and Benedict XVI interacting, feeling each other out, quarrelling over issues of Church leadership and doctrine, learning to appreciate the other's virtues, despite their considerable differences in style, worldview, and ecclesiology (the papal names they've selected are deeply telling in this regard). These are two of the most fully realized portrayals of real, famous people –– familiar to us, but always at a remove –– that I can recall. When the leads are not sharing the screen, Fernando Meirelles's film is a very mixed bag: The opening act, from the death of John Paul II to Benedict mulling over his decision to abdicate, feels rushed, like a Cliff Notes summary of recent history; as a snapshot of intra-Vatican politics and factionalism, this is far less convincing than, say, The Young Pope (notwithstanding Paolo Sorrentino's series being a work of fiction). The lengthy flashbacks, providing exposition for the complicated pre-papal career of Francis (then Jorge Mario Bergoglio), are awkwardly inserted and shot (inexplicably, some are in black and white, while others are in colour). They tend to play like cheaply produced dramatic re-enactments in a true-crime show, the quality of which contrast sharply with the incredible performances of Pryce and Hopkins. While the past events depicted do help us better understand Francis and his reluctance to accept the papal crown, they could've been more effectively incorporated simply through more conversation between Pryce and Hopkins. Perhaps most problematically, one is never quite sure if The Two Popes is intended as a critique of the papal office and/or of the Church generally, or as a sort of love letter to these powerful institutions. The magnetic charisma of the leads, "humanizing" not just the well-loved Francis but also the more opaque Benedict, suggests the latter, even as Meirelles works in repeated references to the Church's chronic failure to address its legacy (and on-going crisis) of mass child abuse and its long history of tacitly supporting (or at least neglecting to oppose) murderous and oppressive regimes.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Céline Sciamma's follow-up to the terrific Girlhood also centres on two people who get to know one another under highly particular and unusual circumstances (although that's probably where its similarities with The Two Popes end). Set in eighteenth-century France, Sciamma's drama is historically specific with regard to the extent of the constraints placed on female agency and its excellent, if austere, period detail, but it also has a timeless, fairy-tale-like atmosphere that feels indebted to Jane Campion (especially The Piano, less so Campion's adaptation of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady) and to Perrault's tales. Some synopses of Sciamma's film place it in the 1770s, while others see it taking place "at the end of the eighteenth century." I'm assuming that the main story is set just before the events leading up to the French Revolution, yet, unless there was some explicit date marker that I failed to spot, this is not at all certain. Such ambiguity –– keeping such a world-historical event totally outside the narrative frame –– speaks to the laser-focused intimacy and thoroughly feminine orientation of Sciamma's film. More than a usual "period drama," it feels like a dream of the past, a subversive romantic fantasy doomed to muted tragedy by its time and place. Its power sneaks up on you, building to a final shot that is among the most indelibe in recent memory.

Oh Mercy! Arnaud Desplechin's latest is an abrupt change of direction in the course of his career, almost completely eschewing the layers of artifice and meta conceits so characteristic of his oeuvre. Instead, Oh Mercy!, adapted from police transcripts and a TV investigative documentary about Desplechin's rough, northern French hometown of Roubaix (the film's much-superior French title is Roubaix, une lumière), is a realistic police procedural and gritty mosaic of contemporary life in this city. It's tightly scripted and superbly acted, with stand-out performances by Roschdy Zem, Sarah Forestier, and Léa Seydoux. One can imagine this translating well, and pretty easily, to the stage, particularly a remarkable long scene near the end that is all about performance, staging, and direction. Yet, at the same time, Oh Mercy! is still quite distinctly cinematic. Desplechin captures the urban environs of Roubaix with both affection and uneasiness--there is beauty, but also real danger, here––lending the film a strong touch of noir style, evident too in its rumantive, pessimistic voice-over narration. In the post-screening Q&A, Desplechin cited Hitchcock (The Wrong Man) and Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest) as influences for this project. When a member of the audience asked whether he conducted interviews with the real Roubaisians represented in the film, he answered firmly in the negative. Instead, for "research," he re-read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in multiple translations.

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk Zacharias Kunuk's best film since Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner re-creates the 1961 encounter of the titular Inuit community leader with a Canadian government officer on Baffin Island. The white officer tries to convince Piugattuk to move his family from their ancestral home to a government settlement, and to send his children to school there. In return, he'll receive a wooden house, heated by a stove, a monthly family allowance payment, and access to desired commodities like tea, sugar, and tobacco. A local guide imperfectly translates the communication between Piugattuk and other Inuits and this government representative––a tense meeting that takes up the majority of Kunuk's film. What these scenes illustrate is the process of forced assimilation at work, in medias res. It only hints at the coercion and cultural destruction involved in this process, while suggesting that a profound lack of understanding was also partly to blame for it: first, at the level of language, though more generally of mutually incomprehensible mentalities and ideas about "home," identity, money, and productivity/utility. The flawed translation between English and Inuktitut feels wholly authentic, showing in vivid detail how such a meeting might well have played out. It also serves as a kind of microcosm for the ultimate failure in real communication that occurred between Inuit and other indigenous peoples across North America and the representatives of colonial governments. Yet, as in all of Kunuk's films, the situation is necessarily specific to Nunavut, the beautiful and severe Arctic landscape, and the Inuit culture. This film, after all, is set in 1961, by which time nearly every other corner of the continent had long since been enveloped by the "governmentality" of the Canadian or American state. Language gap notwithstanding, Noah Piugattuk clearly expresses his anxiety about the Canadian officer's proposal/command, though he refuses to directly state his choice. Despite his indecision, Kunuk frames this fateful encounter as a truly decisive moment in the modern history of the Inuit people and the (culturally and spatially) distant state imposing its will on them.

The Twentieth Century Matthew Rankin's bizarro biopic of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King is a weird, sporadically hilarious delight, like a cross between fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin (especially his Saddest Music in the World) and rightful cult classic Cabin Boy. To be sure, King was almost certainly Canada's strangest PM. For instance: "Not only did King speak with his dead mother, but he communicated with the ghosts of such famous figures as the former prime minister Sir Wilfred Laurier, and even Leonardo da Vinci. He used a crystal ball, now found at Laurier House." And: "King saw magical images in his tea leaves, and even more oddly, in his morning cup of shaving cream. On January 20, 1948, he visualized in his morning lather symbols of the Cold War, a polar bear and an eagle...Then a dog appeared, perhaps symbolizing Canada, which helped push the bear off the eagle." Even so, Rankin pushes his story into still odder, more aggressively surreal territory, skewering not just King and his era of staunchly elitist Canadian politics, but clichéd ideas about Canada, its history and traditions that survive up to the present, often generally accepted and unquestioned. The film gets a little tedious as it nears the home stretch, but on the whole, it's a lot of fun; I'll certainly never look at a Canadian $50 bill the same way again!

Edo Avant Garde As in Leonardo: The Works, the main pleasure in Linda Hoaglund’s documentary is "the works" themselves, in this case Japanese folding screens produced between the early seventeenth and mid nineteenth centuries, filmed in awesome, gracefully mobile HD by cinematographer Kasamatsu Norimichi. These extraordinary works, decidedly more unfamiliar to most Western audiences than Leonardo's masterpieces, are fascinating to look at (the more closely and patiently the better); and, as the films shows, they take up space and invite visual engagement in a way that is quite different from typical Western oil paintings. It's an important point, too, that something is inevitably lost from this experience by viewing these screens displayed behind glass in a museum or gallery. Hoaglund aims to place them back in their proper contexts, both by showing folding screens arranged in traditional rooms that could've been occupied by (sitting) Edo-era aristocrats or monks and by providing some useful historical information about the wider world of Edo Japan, particularly the shift in patronage to a wealthy merchant class, facilitated by Japan's rapid urbanization, and the combined influences of Buddhism and Shintoism on the art of this period. However, Hoaglund's primary argument--that in their non-naturalistic, "3D" perspective; lack of a clear centre or vanishing point; use of materials like goldleaf to form background space; and focus on animals, plants, and other elements of the natural world without direct reference to human beings, these folding screens were "avant-garde" art, conceptually and stylistically ahead of European painting in this period--is, ironically, too narrowly West-centric, tied to a flimsy History of Art master-narrative that few art historians today would accept and to an overly rigid East/West binary. Hoaglund compares the Edo screens to European art between the Italian Renaissance and the French Impressionists, noting that Van Gogh was heavily influenced by Japanese styles. But what if we broadened the scope to compare these works to Islamic or Persian art (flowing floral schemes and patterns), Byzantine art (particularly the use of goldleaf backgrounds), or even medieval European art (similarly de-centered works like tapestries, which invite a comparable type of nonlinear engagement), rather than only to Old Master paintings? In so doing, we might find that, while the art of Edo Japan was no doubt unique and spectacular, it was rather 400 years of European painting (ca. 1400–1800) that stand as the true outlier in the longer, global history of visual art.

VIFF, pt. 2: Making Connections


Parasite The first half of Bong Joon-ho's Palm d'Or winner, about a lower-class Seoul family of four who one by one con their way into jobs working for a wealthy family, is the funniest hour of any movie in recent memory. The performances are pitch-perfect across the board, and nearly every joke lands with maximum impact. Most of them sting, too; like last year's Korean Cannes hit, Lee Chang-dong's Burning, Parasite is an incisive social commentary centering squarely on class tensions and resentments in contemporary South Korea. More generally, there are also shades of Jordan Peele's Us, though Bong's poor family isn't composed of literal doppelgängers. Roughly midway through, Bong's film shifts gears, toward horror and tragedy––it's still quite funny, but more darkly so––yet without ultimately, fully succeeding as either. It is certainly suspenseful and occasionally disturbingly violent, though never truly scary. And its tragic final act feels too coolly calculated. Like Peele's Us, but very much unlike Lee's superior Burning, it explains much more than is needed. All things considered, this is a pretty terrific movie, probably one of Bong's (and the year's) best. Still, I suspect that, while it may remain just as funny, it won't otherwise reward repeat viewings the way a more ambiguous, less airtight version of Parasite might have.

Joan of Arc To be sure, the story of Joan of Arc has been one of the most frequently presented over the history of cinema, going back (at least) to Georges Méliès' 1900 short. Representations of Joan, her brief life, her trial, and her death have yielded some of the best films ever made (Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc), some merely fine, conventional biopics, and some bizarre misfires. Bruno Dumont's Joan of Arc (a follow-up to his 2017 Jeanette, which I didn't see) is firmly in the third category, closely rivalling Luc Besson's The Messenger as the weirdest filmic treatment of the Joan story. Where Besson's movie was a full-on action/war spectacle, starring Milla Jovovich in proto-Resident Evil take-no-prisoners mode, Dumont's includes no such action whatsoever (battles are merely hinted at, including in one long sequence wherein a horse dances, a touch that, for better or worse, felt straight out of Monty Python!) and features a 12-year-old actress as his Joan (probably 19 at the time of her death), radically reversing the usual problem of overly adult screen Joans. There are also songs, by the septuagenarian French singer Christophe, sporadically inserted into the narrative, and standing in, by turns, for the voice of God (or an archangel) speaking to Joan, Joan's prayer to God, and the questioning from one of her clerical inquisitors (Christophe himself, making a sudden cameo as a monk, lip-syncing one of his songs). The results are decidedly alienating––no doubt deliberately so, on Dumont's part. At the screening that I attended, there were at least a dozen walkouts, maybe more. I opted to stick it out, mainly because the less willfully idiosyncratic scenes of dialogue, particularly during the preparation for Joan's trial and the trial itself, are quite strong, thoughtful and well-performed (especially the young Lise Leplat Prudhomme, who is impressive despite being miscast as Joan). As provocations go, this one's a very mixed bag, but it's not without its peculiar charms.

Leonardo: The Works Speaking of venturing into well-trod territory, Phil Grabsky's latest fine-art documentary tackles perhaps the biggest name of all in the Western art canon. To his credit, Grabsky's film is acutely aware of how Leonardo, through pop-cultural osmosis, has come to stand in for Art with a capital 'A.' By taking the time to examine all of Leonardo's surviving paintings, together with some sketches and other paintings that he may have collaborated on (all beautifully filmed in pristine HD), Leonardo: The Works is able to carefully situate Leonardo and cogently demonstrate the nature of his legendary genius. Drawing on the expertise of scholars and curators, Grabsky's film also goes some way toward illuminating the specific cultural context of the Italian Renaissance, its competitive hotspots of Florence, Milan, and Rome, and its influence in neighbouring France. Of course, a 100-minute film is not the best source for this complex history, nor to learn about Leonardo's works themselves, topics to which specialists have devoted entire careers and countless books. But it's a perfectly fine starting point. For those who are already well-acquainted with Leonardo's paintings and their contexts, it's just a wonderful way to spend an hour and forty minutes.

Anne at 13,000 Feet Canadian director Kazik Radwanski's film, about a young woman struggling with (something like) manic depression while balancing strained personal and work relationships, is above all a showcase for actress Deragh Campbell. As the titular character, a daycare supervisor who has developed a fondness for skydiving (hence the "at 13,000 feet"), Campbell is revelatory, moving convincingly between uncomfortable laughter and sudden tears and awkwardly crossing others' boundaries while fortifying her own. Campbell's Anne is neither an opaque blank slate nor a showy caricature of mental illness, but something much more interesting and nuanced--namely, a dynamic person, constantly in flux, and "growing," though not simply in the usual, dramatic sense of linear personal progress.

MS Slavic 7 Deragh Campbell also stars in this film, which she co-directed with Sofia Bohdanowich. It's a sequel of sorts to Bohdanowicz's remarkable Never Eat Alone, and, like that film, it fruitfully blurs the normal lines distinguishing "documentary" from "fiction." The film's premise is based in fact: a young woman, serving as the literary executor to her great-grandmother's estate, discovers that some fascinating letters written by her great-grandmother, an accomplished Polish poet, to another important poet, have recently been donated to Harvard's Houghton library. This story is drawn from Bohdanowicz's family history, and, yet as a character in the film, "Audrey," she is played by Campbell. The narrative built around Audrey's research process and critical engagement with the letters is also fictionalized, although woven into it are, for instance, scenes shot at an actual anniversary party in suburban Toronto, at which Campbell's Audrey mingles with Bohdanowicz's extended family members as a kind of alternate version of her co-director. From this brief description, however, MS Slavic 7 probably sounds more aggressively "experimental" than it actually comes across in practice. Truth and invention are engaged with here in a way that feels mostly seamless and subtle. The film's formal playfulness is directly connected to its narrative and to its major themes, relating in particular to the relationship between content and form, the document-as-text and the document-as-material-object, with some passing gestures toward the ideas of Barthes, Derrida, Hayden White, and the like. MS Slavic 7 (appropriately, the title comes from a library special collections shelfmark) does a better job than any movie of which I'm aware at really capturing the excitement and pleasure of archival research––and it gets so many of the little details right: no pens in the reading room!

DANNY Another work deeply concerned with family history and memory, "by" Aaron Zeghers and Lewis Bennet. The scare-quotes are not meant as a slight to Zeghers and Bennet. In DANNY's closing credits, they cite themselves as editors, while "images and sound" are by Danny Ryder, Zeghers' deceased uncle. The 50-minute film is constructed out of home videos that Ryder shot in 1993, after being diagnosed with leukaemia. These video clips consist of Ryder, alone, speaking directly to his camera (he notes that photography and video technology are among his main interests, along with boating), usually in his Vancouver apartment or on its balcony. He reflects on his illness and mortality--alternately expressing hope, pessimism, and fear--but also on his frustrations in romance and sexuality, the difficult experiences of his childhood, his ambivalent relationship to his parents, and his worries about how others perceive him. This is extremely personal, indeed confessional, stuff, and at times it is discomfiting viewing. When Ryder, for instance, admits that he was once a "peeping Tom," the viewer of his (or Zeghers and Bennet's?) film can't help but feel a kind of queasy guilt, and pause to wonder whether they're also engaging in a type of voyeurism by watching DANNY. It's completely impossible to qualitatively assess a work like this one, but it is, in any case, genuinely moving and unforgettable, which speaks to both the skillful editorial efforts of Zeghers and Bennet in bringing this footage to light and the frank humanity of Ryder's self-portraiture. Whether he would've wished for his private videos to be presented this way, and screened at a film festival, is another, more problematic matter...

Still Human At one point during Chan Oliver Siu Kuen's film, I turned my wife, both of us teary-eyed, and whispered, "This is, like, Friday Night Lights-level sweet." And so it is! Following the symbiotic relationship of a Filipina nursemaid with dreams of being a professional photographer and her outwardly misanthropic but secretly tenderhearted employer, a lonely, paraplegic Hong Kong divorcé, Still Human is the kind of movie where you can see every dramatic plot development coming well beforehand, yet it still makes you cry when it gets there. It's not a great film, by any stretch: its treacly musical score is over-used and overly manipulative, most of the supporting characters are just faint sketches in service of the plot, there are some odd, unnecessary uses of slow-motion, and, most glaringly, for a film dealing with foreign domestic servants in Hong Kong, there could've been some acknowledgment of the many serious abuses suffered by such workers. Yet, these issues notwithstanding, it's a lovely, well-acted comic melodrama about being kind, decent, and compassionate to other people. And it's impossibly sweet.