Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Miscellany
Miscellany is the theme of this final colonial report on the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, for this is ultimately the fest’s greatest stock in trade. One of the truly delightful activities during the Dominion of Canada’s greatest cultural event (bar none) is watching a variety of motion pictures from EVERYWHERE. So here, dearest scavenger of all things cinematic, is a grab bag of product I snuffled up during 10 days of movie gluttony. No better place to experience a whack of movies than in the colonies.
Tracks (John Curran, 2013) **1/2
Robyn Davidson (played by Mia Wasikowska) was an Aussie hippie chick who abandoned a formal post-secondary education and instead lived with a bunch of radical animal-science types in Adelaide (where she learned a whole ton about God’s creatures). She subsequently joined a left-wing organisation of wanker egghead fruitcakes in Sydney (that included the likes of Germaine Greer) where she grooved the Bohemia Electric. In the 70s she settled in the middle of nowhere and learned everything she always wanted to know about camels (and was, decidedly, not afraid to ask). Her first experience was with a brutal camel farmer who exploited her until, finally, she met and worked for a kindly camel expert who taught her a great deal and partially bankrolled what was to become her biggest challenge – a 1700-mile trek alone across the deserts of Western Oz from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Well, she wasn’t completely alone – she had her faithful mutt and a handful of ornery, but loyal camels. Since the National Geographic Society financed the sojourn, she was occasionally in the company of Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), a photographer who would add the pictorial materials to Robyn’s eventual story in the famous wildlife magazine. The two enjoyed an on-again-off-again love affair and eventually Robyn wrote a memoir that this film is based upon.
This is by no means a dreadful film. Wasikowska is a pleasing screen presence and very easy on the eyes. The camels, being insanely cute, are even easier on one’s ocular orbs. Unfortunately, the movie feels like a Walt Disney True Life Nature Adventure crossed with a Harlequin Romance in the wilds of Australia, with occasionally chaste boinking twixt the human lovebirds, and sadly none involving the camels.
Watch the trailer for Tracks:
Le démantèlement (Sébastien Pilote, 2013) *****
Who is Sébastien Pilote? Seriously, who the hell is this guy, anyway? These were questions I asked myself upon seeing his extraordinary first feature film Le vendeur. This stunning Quebecois kitchen-sink drama was so raw, real and infused with a seldom-paralleled acute pain that the film’s quiet power instantly revealed its creator’s cinematic genius. Starring the great Gilbert Sicotte as an ace car salesman in a small factory town in Quebec on the brink of total financial collapse, this staggeringly powerful, exquisitely-acted and beautifully written motion picture was, for me, the first genuine Quebecois heir apparent to the beautiful-yet-not-so-beautiful-loser genre of English-Canadian cinema (best exemplified by films like Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road, Peter Pearson’s Paperback Hero and Zale Dalen’s Skip Tracer). As if making a modern masterpiece of Quebec cinema as a first feature wasn’t enough, I eventually caught up with Pilote’s earlier short film Dust Bowl Ha! Ha! , which featured André Bouchard as a hard-working family man in small-town Quebec who stoically maintains his dignity in a world where nothing and nobody escapes the crushing weight of the financial crisis. This turned out to be one of the best short films I had ever seen – period – a phenomenal portrait of humanity, so graceful and so simple, that upon first seeing it I felt about as winded as I did after I first saw Le vendeur.
So now I have even more reason to ask: Who the fuck is Sébastien Pilote? His second feature Le démantèlement completely and utterly knocked me on my ass. Starring the legendary Gabriel Arcand as a Quebec sheep farmer, the film extraordinarily blends a neo-realist sensibility with the sort of pace one takes while appreciating a work of visual art. As such, it is not only thought-provoking drama, but visually astonishing, gorgeously lit and composed by cinematographer Michel La Veaux in a classical tradition not unlike that of Haskell Wexler’s heartbreakingly beautiful work in Bound for Glory.
Gaby Gagnon (Arcand) has worked the family farm his whole life – long after his brothers abandoned rural life, long after his wife left him to say farewell to a suffocating existence and now he continues to painstakingly toil away, often missing, but seldom seeing, the daughters he loves so dearly and who live far away in Montreal. He has friends: his loyal pal and accountant (Gilles Renaud) who brings good humour, fellowship and counsel into his life (along with an unwanted clunker of a computer); a neighbouring widow (Dominique Leduc) who endows him with warmth and commiseration; and he has a sweet-eyed, 10-year-old dog who sticks to his side faithfully. They all offer some solace to Gaby’s isolation, but when his accountant pal speaks disapprovingly about how the family seems to have all but abandoned him, Gaby shrugs it all off as being an inevitability. Thanks to Arcand’s extraordinary performance, we don’t really buy his expectations of abandonment and disappointment. If there is anything that provides Gaby with genuine solace, it is the work itself. During the first third of the film, Pilote painstakingly details the drudgery of Gaby’s daily chores, almost to the point where one feels like the movie could be a sumptuously photographed documentary about sheep farming in rural Quebec (instilling avid interest in the rearing of mutton to the unlikeliest candidates for such tutelage). I might be insane, but I could have watched Gabriel Arcand tending to this farm in Frederick Wiseman-like breadth and girth for hours.
It is in this section of the film that we get an acute sense that Gaby’s heart and soul is farming, so much so that when we eventually get to the action of the film’s title we’re devastated in extremis. This is where another aspect of Pilote’s brilliant storytelling approach sneaks stealthily upon us – we not only understand why Gaby would never imagine another life, but it seems like there isn’t a single shot or story beat employed in which we don’t fall in love with the world of the farm either. There’s nothing overtly sentimental about this approach – Pilote never tempers his gaze upon the hardships and/or challenges of farm life, but in fact creates a sense of life’s infinite give and take. To put too fine a point on it: climbing Mt. Everest is full of pain, hardship and requires a meticulous attention to every detail, but Good Goddamn (!) it’s worth it.
Watch the trailer for Le démantèlement:
When Gaby gets a visit from his oldest daughter Marie (Lucie Laurier), he’s informed that her marriage is over and she needs a $200,000 loan to buy out her debt-ridden husband’s share of her home. For both her sake and her kids, he agrees to look into finding the money by using his farm as collateral. His youngest daughter Frédérique (an exquisitely radiant Sophie Desmarais), a carefree Montreal stage actress, actually seems to have more sense than her older sister and points out to Gaby that he’s being taken advantage of if he risks the farm. And like all good fathers, he shrugs and admits he knows this.
Almost as painstaking in its detail as the recreation of farm life is the ‘dismantlement’ (the English title is The Auction), and it is here where the elements of tragedy kick into high gear. There are several subtle allusions in the film to Shakespeare’s King Lear, and as in that immortal work, I defy any audience member to not be moved to tears on several occasions throughout this emotionally devastating series of events. There are sequences of almost unbearable pain. A visit to an animal shelter to ‘take care’ of the dog nobody wants rivals the old man’s visit to the dog-pound gas chambers in Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D, while a scene where Gaby tours a decrepit, low-income housing unit is equally fraught with the same grim, stark power generated by the Italian neo-realists. The final half of the film is thoroughly heart-wrenching, but most astoundingly, it is here where Pilote demonstrates such world-wise maturity that we come to recognise and accept with both sadness and joy that it is indeed death that yields regeneration. And what soaring, truthful and deeply moving regeneration the film offers.
Who is Sébastien Pilote?
One of the greatest filmmakers of Quebec, and that means something.
A lot, actually.
Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975) *****
A delivery boy strolls down the hall of a new luxury high rise just as a grotesquely corpulent old woman pokes her head out of a doorway and moans lasciviously: ‘I’m hungry.’ She waits for a response, then parrots petulantly: ‘I’m hungry!’ Lunging violently at the lad, her teeth bared, she screams, ‘I’m hungry for love!’ As she sates her unholy desires, a gelatinous blood-parasite is deposited down his throat as she sucks face with him. This is one of many vomit-tempting moments in David Cronenberg’s first commercial feature film, Shivers, which happily inspired incredulous Canuck pundits to demand government accountability, as the picture represented an early investment from the Dominion’s federal cultural funding agency. The 1973 horror classic has been restored by the Toronto International Film Festival, and premiered during the 2013 edition. It’s not only a scare-fest, but is also replete with all manner of nasty laughs, all of them wrenched naturally out of an utterly unnatural situation. Pre-dating the AIDS crisis, Cronenberg links sex with death. The delightfully simple tale involves a new form of parasitical venereal disease spreading like wildfire within a Montreal luxury community, gated by its island borders on the mighty St Lawrence. The disease turns its victims into homicidal sex maniacs.
Allow me to repeat that:
HOMICIDAL SEX MANIACS!!!
And what a frothy concoction Shivers truly is with all manner of viscous emissions:
• Blood parasites being vomited from a balcony onto an old lady’s clear plastic umbrella;
• Parasites roiling and bubbling just under the surface of Alan Migicovsky’s sexy, hairy belly;
• A lithe, nude body of a lassie formerly adorned in a school uniform has her midriff sliced open, her insides then drenched in acid.
Add to this frothy concoction a whole whack o’ babes, from pretty Susan Petrie as a weepy wifey, Lynn Lowry as a drop-dead gorgeous nurse, to the heart-stopping British scream queen Barbara Steele.
Stunningly, Cronenberg manages, in one salient area, to match the great Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hitch, of course, infused utter terror in the minds of millions who dared to take a shower. In Shivers, Cronenberg delivers one of the most horrendous bathtub violations ever committed to celluloid. Best of all, the sequence involves Barbara Steele. ‘God bless you, Mr Cronenberg, God bless you!’
Watch the trailer for Shivers:
L’intrepido (Gianni Amelio, 2013) *
When someone annoys you, tell me you don’t want to just deck him, right? I mean, really fuckin’ deck him – just coldcock the sonofabitch with a solid roundhouse to the face. It’s perfectly understandable, yes? Alas, life and art are the great divide. In life, you deck the fucker. Art’s another story. If you put your fist through the movie screen, you’re guaranteed a trip to the hoosegow. Here I was, then, at TIFF 2013, watching Gianni Amelio’s latest movie – bad enough, I know – and I’m staring up at the BIG screen and forced to stomach a character I want to punch in the face.
Let me then introduce you to Antonio (Antonio Albanese). The guy’s a real piece of work. His eyes are always sparkling and he’s usually got a stupid half-smile plastered on his face. Life has dealt the loser with more than his fair share of crummy cards, but he’s so gosh-darn kind and cheerful all the time that your first impulse is to, well, you know – smash the fucker square in the face. He’s a great intellect, yet Italy is in such a financial mess that there’s no decent place for a middle-aged man like him to ply any reasonable sort of craft. He toils mule-like as a replacement worker in a myriad of menial jobs, and to add insult to injury, his wife has left him. (Any guesses why?) In spite of this, he’s such a happy fellow that when some scumbags steal pizzas out of his delivery container, he shrugs it off, goes back to the pizza joint, barters for more pizzas, delivers them to a bunch of old ladies in a sewing factory and, upon realizing that he might have a problem getting the dough he’s owed from these ravenous pizza-slurping harpies, he dazzles them with his prowess at the sewing machine. Adding to his coldcock potential, Antonio ‘meets cute’ with a gorgeous young babe. Obviously, it’s only in Italy (or in a Gianni Amelio movie) where grinning, balding, middle-aged losers with no secure employment have no problem charming the pants off young fillies. This, however, being a Gianni Amelio movie, he of the ‘I believe in the indomitable spirit of the EVERYMAN’ school of proletarian-boosting, the sickly sweetness of the tale will be tempered with bitterness, but goddamnit, we’re going to learn a good lesson.
Frankly, the only lesson I want to learn is how to coldcock a movie character living on-screen and/or in the mind of the insufferable director who’s foisted him upon me. Until then, I’ll find some dweeb in a film festival line-up, whacking me with his goddamn knapsack, shovelling granola down his throat and talking loudly with his detestable mouth open whilst his barefoot, granny-glasses-adorned, hippie-chick girlfriend who smells like she hasn’t seen a bathtub in weeks hangs on his every word. I’ll coldcock him and his girlfriend to avoid hoosegow-incarceration for vandalising a screen in a movie theatre by punching a huge hole or two in it.
Border (Alessio Cremonini, 2013) ***1/2
Fatima is a new bride. Her husband has gone to war and she lives a quiet life with her sister Aya in the conjugal flat. The sisters are extremely devout and spend a great deal of their time devoted to practising their faith. When news comes that Fatima’s husband has left the Syrian Army to join the Free Army of ‘rebels’, they have very little time to react. Aya is already a survivor of gang rape, torture and incarceration, and while she understands what could well await them, she’s also wary of the complete stranger sent by Fatima’s husband to whisk them out of Syria to safety and freedom in Turkey. Still, there’s really no choice for either woman. The actions of a totalitarian government and, to an extent, Fatima’s husband, have pretty much removed any vestige of self-determination in the matter.
After hurriedly throwing together a few essentials, they are plunged into following a man they do not know through ‘enemy’ territory. The only real choice the two women make, and it’s at great risk to their safety, is that they both refuse to remove their religious headgear which, while on the road, could well give them away. The trip is fraught with several unexpected turns that keep them from moving as quickly as had been hoped. Deception, double-crosses and danger lie around each corner.
When they discover a recently tortured and slaughtered family deep in a Syrian forest, the stark, brutal reality truly hits home, but upon discovering a lone survivor of the massacre, the women both realise that this might well be the symbolic hope they need to find safety. In so doing, however, they will also have to protect this person.
There are no false notes in Border. The superb performances, the exquisitely structured screenplay (by director Cremonini and Susan Dabbous) and finally, Cremonini’s terse helmsmanship of the action, create a tension that, at times, becomes far more unbearable than if the story had been presented in some overtly overwrought manner (as might have been the case if directed by an American). Border is, in its own way, a kind of celebration of self-determination in a world where so much is awry due to the warmongering of men, and where every step these women must take might be one step closer to the most unimaginable horrors.
Watch the trailer for Border:
Child of God (James Franco, 2013) *****
‘Everybody knows you never go full retard…Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man, looks retarded, acts retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic yes, but not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump . Slow, yes. Retarded, no… Peter Sellers, Being There. Infantile yes. Retarded, no… Never go full retard… Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed…’
Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder
Scott Haze as Lester Ballard, the inbred, slow-witted Tennessee cracker-barrel hero of James Franco’s stunning film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Child of God, takes a crap on-screen, wipes his poopy-butt with a stick, delivers plenty of buttock flashes (replete with ass-crack) and dolls himself up in the most hideous drag ever wrought on the silver screen, but he most surely, undoubtedly and definitely does not serve up the aforementioned ‘full retard’. Haze’s genuinely affecting and bravely brilliant performance does, however, offer something a tad more egregious than ‘full retardation’ to keep him from his date with Oscar.
The family farm has been auctioned off and our hero, shotgun in hand, takes to an old hunting shack in the deep woods where he lives out his life. Sheriff Fate (Tim Blake Nelson) and Deputy Cotton (Jim Parrack) keep a healthy watch on Lester, since the boy occasionally flies off the handle and needs to be given some quality rest time in a padded cell. They seem oddly sympathetic to Lester, but ultimately, what can they really do when naughty shenanigans occur in the county? They’ve got to target someone. After all, our boy Lester is just plumb crazy.
Lester is also a full-bodied young lad, and when he discovers a lovers’ lane area in the backwoods, he develops a healthy penchant for peeping through the back seat windows of parked cars. As the vehicles bob up and down to the strokes of amore, the dulcet tones of moans wafting through the air, Lester handily (so to speak) beats his meat to the proceedings. One morning, he spies a vehicle still running. In the back seat are the bodies of a young couple locked in a lovers’ embrace, and they are stone cold from carbon monoxide poisoning. With keen interest, Lester notices that the young lady is awful purty. Hmmm. What’s an ornery country boy with a hard-on supposed to do in a situation like this? Well, he does what no Oscar-winning performance will ever be acknowledged for. And he does it repeatedly. Subsequent recipients of his man-juice are not quite stupid enough to die of carbon monoxide poisoning and leave their bodies lying around for pubic penetration from randy Lester. Luckily for our boy, he’s mighty handy with a shotgun.
Franco has managed to do the near impossible, in rendering a character (especially via Haze’s performance) who gains our empathy to a point where we even get the ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, Lester, ya’ shouldn’t oughtta be doin’ that’ feeling.
Watch the trailer for Child of God:
Child of God is a genuine triumph. Franco handles the picture with verve and style. He even manages to utilise chunks of McCarthy’s prose in a series of odd ‘conversational’ voice-overs and literal title cards splashing across the screen. This technique cleverly roots the film in the glorious American literary tradition of Southern Gothic. Franco elicits a wide range of great performances and his actual coverage and composition of the dramatic action feels like the work of someone who’s been directing movies his whole career. The picture is grotesque, at times sickening and often shocking, but it is rooted in genuine humanity and is easily one of the best films of the year. (It also prompted more walkouts at the screening I attended than anything I’ve experienced at TIFF in quite some time. This alone says EVERYTHING).