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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Film Critics

Spirit of the Beehive

What happens when film critics critique film critics? You get a double-blind study! At least that’s what TIFF is treating us to this week with “Fifty Years of Discovery: Cannes Critics Week,” a film series celebrating the golden anniversary of that venerable sidebar to Cannes known as International Critics Week.

Find out all about the series and the answer to one of life’s burning questions (namely, “Critics, what are they good for?”) in my piece about the TIFF series at Toronto Film Scene:

Critics Vet the Critics in TIFF’s “Fifty Years of Discovery: Cannes Critics Week”

This week, TIFF Cinematheque is going meta with a screening series that celebrates the golden anniversary of another film festival, which is itself a sidebar to another pretty well known film festival (hint: it starts with a “C”). In the series Fifty Years of Discovery: Cannes Critics Week, TIFF has invited eight local film critics, or “opinion-makers” if you please, to choose favourites from the films discovered, showcased, and generally boosted by Critics Week, the now fifty-year-old sidebar to the Cannes International Film Festival. CLICK HERE TO READ ON.

 

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Review of The Last Dogs of Winter (2011)

The Last Dogs of Winter poster - Costa BotesThe Last Dogs of Winter explores Brian Ladoon’s struggle to preserve the Canadian Eskimo dog, or Qimmiq, the rarest registered breed of dog in the world, from extinction. Assisted by an adventurous New Zealander, Caleb Ross, Ladoon breeds Eskimo dogs against the harsh backdrop of Churchill, Manitoba and fights off polar bears to do it. As a documentary, The Last Dogs of Winter is bit uneven in focus, but the subject matter is engaging, and Ladoon is, shall we say, a character.

I suppose there is a lot to be said about the Inuit and the relationship they had with their dogs. This documentary does touch the topic, and presumes that this is a given. Not being Canadian, but having seen Nanook of the North, I get it. To lose these dogs would be a tragedy and they exist today only through the efforts of Ladoon and organizations like the Eskimo Dog Research Foundation. I would have liked for The Last Dogs of Winter to explore the topic a bit more, but it wasn’t the ultimate focus of the doc.

Brian Ladoon - The Last Dogs of Winter - Costa BotesWhat I would like to have know more about is the relationship between Brian Ladoon and his Churchill neighbors. Mention is made that he’s a divisive figure in the community and that many people do not agree with him, but it’s all expository and never really depicted. There is also mention made that people feel Ladoon is cruel to the dogs because he keeps the outdoors, at the mercy of the elements and the polar bears. Ladoon offers cogent explanations for both complaints. First, the dogs are made to withstand the harsh Canadian winter. Second, the dogs aren’t afraid of the bears. In fact, we are treated to much footage of dogs frolicking with bears. It’s riveting.

The Last Dogs of Winter also never addresses the question of why or for what the dogs are worth saving. It takes as a fact in evidence that they are worth saving and never addresses the issue of work. Brian Ladoon works very hard to maintain the integrity of the gene pool of Canadian Eskimo dogs, but they remain purposeless in the contemporary society. One suspects that Ladoon had something bigger and better in mind for his dogs (mention is made of running teams of dogs) but got bogged down along the way in the persnickety details of finances and resources.

The Last Dogs of Winter

It’s no surprise that a fiercely independent, abrasive, and obstinate character like Brian Ladoon would have both the gall and perseverance to save an entire breed of dogs. In the end, he strikes me as the human equivalent of his Eskimo dogs –  beautiful example of a breed teetering on the brink of extinction and already tumbling in the abyss of purposelessness. If The Last Dogs of Winter winds its way to your area, be sure to see it. Just expect to feel a little sad afterwards.

Watch The Last Dogs of Winter Trailer:

The Last Dogs of Winter director, Costa Botes, wrote a detailed blog entry on the making of the film.

Review of The Incident (2011)

The Incident - Alexandre CourtesAt the first TIFF screening of Alexandre Courtes’ The Incident two young ladies fainted and had to be carted away by ambulance. I wasn’t at that screening, but I bet I can guess when they passed out. The Incident starts out as a promising creepy but psychological thriller, and then… takes a sharp right into straight-up torture porn. I didn’t faint, but I did gag a few times. I left the theater shaky and disoriented, kind of like when you narrowly miss being in a terrible accident, but I was left ultimately disappointed in the uncapitalized promise of the movie.

So what if the inmates really did run the asylum? This question is the foundation of The Incident. We follow aspiring rock star George (Rupert Evans) and his garage band mates. Like most aspiring rock stars, George and his friends have day jobs, in this case they cook and serve to inmates at the Sans Asylum for the criminally insane. We spend a lot of time getting to know George and his band and become familiar with the interpersonal tensions (creative differences?) in the band. And then a terrible storm knocks out the power at Sans, effectively locking the staff inside while the loonies run rampant through the halls. Thank goodness Courtes tells us very specifically that we’re in 1989, since cell phone service would severely handicap this plot.

The basic setup for The Incident is the perfect foundation for a creepy shriek fest. There are some deliciously tense minutes when our intrepid heroes roam through the hallways trying to locate a phone (rotary, no doubt). Each dimly lit corridor has twenty slightly ajar cell doors shooting of it. There is no doubt that an insane inmate lurks behind each one, and the only question is will he be a sadistic killer or a benign nut job? Leaving aside the jump in your seat frights, just seeing a shuffling figure crossing the hall in the distance sends a little chill down the spine.

The Incident - Alexandre Courtes

And then, for some reason, Courtes takes all of this dramatic tension, all of the psychological fright, and flushes it down the toilet. Or rather, boils in a pot of inmate piss along with a sundry of human body parts. Guards are decapitated, noses are ripped from faces, George gets a light flaying… you get the picture. I’m not a big fan of slash and gore in the first place. After I’ve been elevated to a state of high tension, all this torture porn culminates in some pronounced nausea. Worst of all, it feels cheap, as if Courtes (famous for directing music videos – this is his first feature) had no idea what to do with all of the narrative capital he had accumulated.

The wrap up of The Incident is what you will expect. I think I can tell you, with out spoiling because you’ll see it a mile away, George ends up quite mad. But Courtes does not provide a clear narrative path to get us there. There are some seriously unresolved narrative issues which are ultimately just ignored. The Incident does not conclude so much as it just stops. In fairness, after all the sadism you’ve watched, the stopping is a relief, but still not a conclusion.

Q&A with Alexandre Courtes

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Short Cuts Canada: Programme 6

In thinking about choosing my tix for TIFF 2011, I knew I definitely had to hit one of the Short Cuts Canada programmes for two reasons. The first, short films strike me as quintessentially film festival-ly. Watching a short film is often like peeking into an artist’s sketchbook. You get the opportunity to see a new technique being explored,  or a narrative in its infancy. Sadly, short films struggle for outlet and film festivals are it. My second reason is the shorts at TIFF are all Canadian, and I’m still trying to pass. It was important to me to hit some specifically Canadian screenings this go round.

So my logic in choosing Short Cuts Canada was sound and the decision paid in spades. All of the shorts were interesting, one was just fantastic, and one might be the most eloquent and beautiful film I’ve seen since I first watched F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Here are the highlights”

Ora

Ora - Short Cuts Canada - TIFF 2011

The TIFF program describes Ora as a game changer. I’m not sure I would go that far,  but it is novel. Ora was shot on an infra-red thermal imaging camera in 3-D. That’s a mouthful, but the result in visually intriguing. The only light source in Ora is the body’s own heat. Modern dancers work their way through some bodily contortions, leaving behind smears of heat and body imprints. It is absolutely gorgeous. However, it was also kind of dull. Perhaps its a symptom of an over stimulated contemporary mind, but the novelty wore off in about  three minutes. The technique and the technology offers a lot of promise though, and Ora is definitely worth seeing.

The Red Virgin

The Red Virgin - Short Cuts Canada - TIFF 2011This is the film that ultimately landed me in Programme 6 of Short Cuts Canada. The Red Virgin is a taut, intense, and intensely stylized study of the most contentious relationship in the known universe – that between a mother and her daughter. The story is told in 3 thematic acts – Love, Fight, and Murder. Which sounds about right if you’ve ever been a daughter to a mother or a mother to a daughter. Often short films go wrong by being too ambitious, but trying to tell a feature length story in mere minutes. The Red Virgin side steps this issue by going big instead of small. It’s a broad point this eternal mother-daughter warfare, but The Red Virgin hones in on the emotional conflict and relies on the impact of visual styling rather than exposition. And you’ll be chilled to the very bone when mama deadpans to the camera, “The sculptor, after discovering minimal imperfections in his work, destroys it.”

Trotteur

Trotteur - Short Cuts Canada - TIFF 2011And what to say about Trotteur? My notes say this: Jesus, this is gorgeous. If SSC 6 was screening again, I would shell out full fare just to relive this eight minutes and change. Trotteur does not shy away from narrative in the way that The Red Virgin does. Rather, it pares a narrative down to its bare elements – this is the conflict, this is the resolution. We have a young man, abused and ostracized by vicious children, who believes he can outrun a train. The village looks on, perhaps mockingly, and they all know, as do we, he can’t possibly win. The bitter irony is of course that all of these people will lose this race and that belching, snorting, fire breathing mechanical beast will beat everyone in the end.

Trotteur is a visual feast. The cinematography, in glorious black and white, simultaneously demonstrates the barrenness and the beauty of the winter landscape. There is no dialogue. There is no exposition. There is a boy and a machine and sheer will, both mechanical and human. In his review of this year’s silent film novelty The Artist, Chris Edwards at Silent Volume wishes for a “a silent feature that isn’t about its own silence, or the Silent Era, but simply about something else.” I wish for the same thing, and I nominate Trotteur’s director Arnaud Brisebois for the job.

If you have the opportunity to catch Trotteur somewhere, do so without hesitation. You can watch the trailer here, but I warn you that a low-res video viewed in a tiny window will not do this beautiful film an ounce of justice.

Intruders

Clive Owen in IntrudersJuan Carlos Fresnadillo introduced Intruders at its TIFF premiere by saying, “It’s about how we create monsters when we’re kids, alone in the dark, and about how we pass those fears to the next generation. Fear becomes a legacy.” Intruders delivers on the potentials, large and small, in that statement. Not a “horror flick” in the gory slasher sense, nor a jump in your seat affair, the movie is a lyrical mediation on the origin of our fears and the dire consequences of allowing those fires to burn uncontrollably.

The plot unfolds episodically and follows two parallels stories, a young boy name Juan sometime ago in Spain, and a young girl name Mia today in Britain. Both children are terrorized by the same closet dwelling monster, Hollowface. Each child  conjures Hollowface from stories they tell themselves, “alone in the dark” as the director notes. But the threat becomes more real as the parents become involved. Juan’s mother seems to share his delusions as does Mia’s father. Viewers are left suspended in an ambiguous netherworld of understanding that there is a threat yet not understanding exactly which quarter it comes from.

Typically in these kind of ogre-under-the-bridge fairy tales, love is a talisman that provides not only solace, but protection and passage. In Intruders love, specifically the fierce love of a parent for a child, is a far more complicated affair. The profundity of that parent-child connection is underpinned by an electric current of fear – fear of the unknown, fear of loss, fear of damage. Intruders asks the question, “When does that fear become more harmful than helpful?”

While the movie seems to veer into supernatural territory, the narrative is ultimately rooted firmly in reality. Intruders illustrates the danger of dealing with fear by avoiding and obfuscating, thereby creating a far more slippery and unkillable beast. While you can watch this movie as a taut, psychological thriller, a ripping good yarn, it’s difficult to ignore the broader references to our current climate of fear. The message is clear – the only way to banish the bogeyman beneath the bed to address how he got there.

The release date for Intruders is October 7, 2011. In the meantime, watch the trailer:

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