AFF Day Eight: So Long

Well, this is it. We've reached the end of the 36th Atlantic Film Festival. Having viewed a grand total of 29 features, I present some thoughts on the final two. I say "so long" because, besides being the preferred parting words in closing gala film Manchester By The Sea, it's that expectant type of goodbye that suggests reunion. And, as I'll mention in my closing below, we at Carbon Arc hope to see you very soon.

 
Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)

Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)

 

I've talked a lot in my coverage about themes that run through various films in the festival, but yesterday I happened upon one so strong that I'd readily pair the two selections as a double feature. Previously, I reviewed a New Zealand acting school dramedy called The Rehearsal, talking about performance as a way of choosing whose stories get shared. Kate Plays Christine, a new documentary by the daring and cerebral Robert Greene, takes that concept to a new extreme. Actress Kate Lyn Sheil is at the centre of the film's conceit, preparing for a role in another movie where she will play Christine Chubbuck, a newscaster from Sarasota, Florida, who committed suicide on live television in the early 1970s. The film starts out as a procedural look at how actors prepare for roles, already interesting material for cinephiles, but Greene and Sheil soon begin to layer on meta-narratives. Is performance an unhealthy impulse? Can a role ever be factual, or is acting necessarily a form of fabrication? Sheil's participation makes her less a subject of documentation and more a medium, in two senses of the word. Not only is she trying to channel a spirit of someone long departed and largely unknowable, but Greene is able to position her as a canvas on which to display the thesis of the film. There are pointed discussions about not fetishizing or glorifying the life (and especially the death) of Chubbuck, and the film thankfully remains more provocative than exploitative. As the movie-within-a-movie progresses through the phases of production, we see scenes that look like something cut straight from a cheesy daytime soap, likely a further comment on the artifice of the whole situation. The film skews didactic in its final moments, but makes for compelling viewing on the whole.

 
Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

 

Kenneth Lonergan's latest, a parable of grief in a New England community, makes good on its title immediately with a sweeping opening shot that skims over the water along the coast of an unmistakeably Atlantic fishing village. In Manchester By The Sea, Casey Affleck plays Lee, a janitor from Boston who returns to his hometown following the death of his brother, Joe. Suffering from a terminal heart condition, Joe (Kyle Chandler) was seemingly prepared for his inevitable passing and names Lee as his son's guardian. This comes as a surprise to Lee, who isn't ready to confront his past and return — to Manchester or to parenthood. Affleck has always been skilled in conveying a kind of wounded inner flame, a tortured and oft-underrated contrast to the broody charisma of big brother Ben. His performance here is perfectly calibrated, bringing intensity to the sadder scenes and painting even the many moments of levity with a heartbreaking undercurrent of deep sadness. Some of that credit can undoubtedly be shared with Lonergan's emotionally precise script that combines pathos and humour in an achingly honest and beautiful understanding of how people process loss, or don't. Behind the camera Lonergan is showing signs of growth, rendering the choppy seas and snowy bluster of New England in gorgeous, cold light that suits the tone of the whole production. The cast supporting Affleck is just as strong, especially Michelle Williams as Lee's ex-wife and rising star Lucas Hedges as his nephew, Patrick. The talk is that this might be one to watch at Oscar time, but I'll do you one better: this is one to watch as soon as you possibly can.

Now, maybe you're feeling a bit verklempt. You're wondering, without all the great movies at AFF and without Carbon Arc's blog coverage, how you'll scratch that movie itch. Worry not! We're only one week away from the beginning of our fall season and we're excited to be bringing you more of the best in arthouse cinema. Check out our schedule for exciting listings, including pictures from Greece, Korea, and Guatemala. And, once again, thanks for reading!

AFF Day Seven: Poetry in Motion

Over the course of seven days, I've developed a bit of a routine around my festival attendance. I wake up thinking about the films from the previous day. I head downtown, walking through the Public Gardens, making sure to take a different path each time. I sit at Smiling Goat, the café nearest the cinemas, and write a post just like this one. Then, of course, I watch more movies, restarting the cycle. Call it mundane or call it meditative, some of yesterday's films hit me on a similar wavelength.

 
The Rehearsal (Alison Maclean)

The Rehearsal (Alison Maclean)

 

Transformation is the heart of drama. It's what makes the coming-of-age formula so appealing as a plot, so much so that writers tend to forget that it doesn't have to apply just to adolescence. In The Rehearsal, Alison Maclean's adaptation of a novel by New Zealand author Eleanor Catton, a well-regarded drama school serves as the background for the metamorphoses of young adults training to become professional actors. It's a sort of thespian puberty, emphasized by Maclean and her cast through awkward framing and line deliveries that slowly grow more confident as the students develop into layered, performative versions of themselves (do they sound like teenagers yet?). The script and performances are as much about what isn't being said as what is, especially in the case of standout James Rolleston, who plays the main character, Stanley, from the eyes outward. Stanley's relationship with a younger girl whose family is tangled up in a highly-publicized scandal adds layers about the line between truth and fiction and asks how, as an actor, do you choose whose story gets told? It's one part deadpan Kiwi humour, one part Whiplash, and one part creative ethics, a procedural post-coming-of-age pleasure.

 
Chicken People (Nicole Lucas Haimes)

Chicken People (Nicole Lucas Haimes)

 

Did you know that breeding chickens can be a competitive endeavour? I grew up in a rural town, so I guess I knew somewhere in the back of my mind, filed away with other mindless facts like how many varieties of blueberries can be grown in Nova Scotia (it's over 30). What I didn't know was that, in the United States, there are roughly 230 competitions annually. At each show, up to 10,000 birds in one of 154 different breeds are judged on how well they fit the Standard of Perfection, a set of breeding and grooming guidelines that are more than 100 years old. Forget white meat or dark; Nicole Lucas Haimes' documentary Chicken People wants to teach us about the real world of poultry and the people who raise them. She tracks three subjects — Shari, Brian, and Brian — as they prepare to head to Ohio for the biggest feathery face-offs of the year. The trailer draws on the goodnatured humour of the film to such an extent that it looks like these fanatics might end up as the butt of a Christopher Guest-like joke, but Haimes is much more compassionate in her execution. Through their stories, we learn about the different modes and purposes of passion and obsession: Shari needed an immersive hobby to steer her clear of her alcoholism, one Brian uses the farm work as a way to connect with his father, and one was simply raised to find something you love and never to stop short of perfection. Their interest is infectious, aided by informatively edited segments from the shows and lots of cut scenes displaying the chickens as living works of art. The topic may be insubstantial, but examining the peculiarities and cachés of human culture will always place a documentary above more common "message movie" fare for me.

 
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

 

Speaking of peculiarities, they're a noted specialty of Jim Jarmusch, who hasn't changed his tune a bit with his latest, Paterson. Adam Driver stars as Paterson, a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, and the winking doesn't stop there. Paterson lives a quiet life with his girlfriend, writing poetry in a "secret" notebook during spare moments. She's an artist too, but she can't seem to slow down and focus on a single pursuit, always looking for a new angle that will bring her fame and fortune (or, ultimately, fulfillment). It befits her, then, that she always appears in black and white to match her monochromatic project-of-the-week, be it paintings, or cupcakes, or shower curtains. In contrast, the blue of Paterson's work uniform matches the blue of his lunchbox, the tips of his matches, and the waterfall where he goes to scribble his thoughts at lunch — his life is in balance. Somehow, thanks to Jarmusch's dreamy magic touch, none of this is nearly as pat and obvious in the film as it sounds to describe it. Driver is fantastic as a silent observer, making the tiniest of expressions into a performance that steals every scene. The relaxed cinematography offers a truthful view of the city; as buildings roll by in the reflection of the front window of the bus, you're left with a strong sense of how Paterson must see each day. In one poem, Paterson muses on a line from an old song, positing that "Would you rather be a fish?" is evocative enough on its own that the rest of the song need not even exist. Jarmusch has achieved the same contented minimalism with this film: no scene needs to be there, but you'll be glad that they are.

 
Below Her Mouth (April Mullen)

Below Her Mouth (April Mullen)

 

After a movie about simply watching, it was the audience's turn to become the voyeurs. Below Her Mouth, the latest feature from Canadian director April Mullen, goes beyond the typical intimate observances of its whirlwind romance plot and gets downright physical — in case you weren't sure what to expect upon entering the theatre, the film starts with an orgasm and builds from there. Erika Linder and Natalie Krill respectively star as Dallas, a roofer, and Jasmine, a fashion editor. The two meet at a bar and, though Jasmine is engaged and initially persistent in turning down Dallas' advances, the stereotype of the predatory lesbian converting the straight girl wins out and a spark of passion ignites between the two. The film is wonderfully shot, and the two women look great cavorting around sunny Toronto, dancing under neon red lights, or having very graphic sex in apartments that wouldn't be out of place in a design magazine. Mullen has stated that she was very concerned with authenticity in a queer relationship and with representing the female gaze, and she does a lot in terms of visuals and choreography to overcome a clunky script that feels too tidy about sexual orientation and repression. In fact, their romance might even work better as a silent movie, with the existing sleepy score adding an ethereal ambience. The real triumph of the film is that it was made with an entirely female crew, a simply miraculous feat in a completely inequitable industry (a post-screening Q&A unearthed a funny story about how the only man on set left the toilet seat up on his first day). I'm on board with everything Mullen and her crew are trying here, and I hope that they can continue making films that cash in on the promise shown in the elements from Below Her Mouth that didn't materialize.

Sadly, tomorrow will be my last daily recap of the 2016 Atlantic Film Festival. The menu includes Kate Plays Christine and major awards contender Manchester By The Sea.

AFF Day Six: Controlled Demolition

After nearly a week of constantly watching and writing about movies, I'm beginning to experience an interesting phenomenon. As I become more and more steeped in cinema, my intros and closers in each post are getting shorter, harder to write, while my reviews are starting to flow naturally and stretch out in their word count. I think that's at least part of the point of a festival, to open up and truly engage with the films. I hope any Carbon Arc readers out there are enjoying my coverage as much as I enjoy writing it. If you're just joining us now, here's day five of my coverage, which will also lead you back through to the opening moments of AFF 2016.

 
Growing Up Coy (Eric Juhola)

Growing Up Coy (Eric Juhola)

 

I have to imagine that much of parenting is making tough decisions and hoping that things don't blow up in your face. That, even if the consequences aren't in your favor, you can protect your children from the fallout. That's definitely the case for the Mathis family in Eric Juhola's socially conscious documentary Growing Up Coy. The Coy of the title is the 6-year-old daughter of Kathryn and Jeremy; her school has just forbidden her to use the female restroom. In what has since become a landmark civil rights case for Colorado and other parts of the United States, the Mathises decide to fight back publicly when the school won't budge during private negotiations. Juhola follows the family in the lead-up to their decision, through a gruelling media schedule, and to the eventual verdict. At every turn, the subtext of the film is writ large: was this decision the right one? Coy quickly tires of the constant stream of reporters with their constant stream of questions, and her siblings don't fare much better, dragged along for the highs and lows of the ride but earning none of the attention. Kathryn and Jeremy's relationship grows strained. That's to say nothing of the vitriol that bubbles out of the internet and mass media cesspools, exposing the entire family to dehumanizing levels of hate. Mercifully, being open to more negativity also creates wider opportunities for love and support worldwide, and the outcome is uplifting enough to quell any doubts. The filmmaking itself is adequate — nothing to write home about, even — but in a week where I've spent countless hours analyzing and dissecting everything that happens on a screen, Growing Up Coy was a helpful reminder of all the humanity that happens off of it.

 
Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet)

Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet)

 

On a metaphorical level, Danish WWII film Land of Mine might consider Growing Up Coy a close cousin: in the abstract, both are about trying to rid a society of the artifacts of deep-seated hatred and violence. In Martin Zandvliet's period drama, the society is Denmark's western coastline and the artifacts are over 2 million land mines buried by the German military during the war. Based in truth, the story focuses on a group of young German prisoners of war who are told that they will not be freed until they have done their part to atone for their country's atrocities. This means crawling across expanses of sand in a literal game of Minesweeper, uncovering and defusing the dangerous devices to make the area safely passable. This story stands in contrast to the typical broad and bloody depictions of the era, opting for small-scale tensions that are wrapped up in passionate ideas of national identity and rebuilding after a calamitous six years. Anger, the film wisely observes, cannot be signed away by a peace treaty, and it does not treat innocence or villainy as absolute conditions. Seeing young, scared, homesick boys subjected to horrible acts of retributive justice highlights how raw the wounds on the world, and Zandvliet renders it all with excellent, barren cinematography and convincing special effects. Land of Mine has been announced as Denmark's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Academy Awards, and it stands a solid chance of going the distance; for my dollar, it's certainly got more to offer than bigger, louder war pictures that have come before it.

 
Juste La Fin Du Monde (Xavier Dolan)

Juste La Fin Du Monde (Xavier Dolan)

 

No land mines are present in Xavier Dolan's Juste La Fin Du Monde, but that doesn't stop the film from being about as subtle as a warehouse of weapons-grade explosives. To say nothing of the filmmaking quality, this film is a truly miserable experience. The script is based on a stage play of the same name by the late Jean-Luc Lagarce, and the result is so blustery and overwrought that one of two things must be true: either Lagarce considered himself as the heir apparent to the gauntlet of family dysfunction thrown down by the likes of Tennessee Williams, or Dolan is up to more of his tricks as the edgy enfant terrible of domestic anguish. Amid high contrast closeups and soft-focus medium shots, each member in the bloviating cast of (usually) excellent French screen talent is reduced to a minimum defining quality. Trapped in scene after scene with Lea Seydoux (loud/mad), Marion Cotillard spins her tires to no avail as the meek wife of Vincent Cassel (louder/madder). Fans of Dolan will recognize his oddly-soundtracked diversions that here function as flashbacks for the main character, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel, quiet and, thus, salvageable). He has returned home to his family after being away for 12 years, hoping to share with them the news that he is soon going to die. He can't get a word in edgewise with everyone screaming, though, and when his opportunity finally arrives — in a providential burst of saturated orange sunlight, no less — he decides that some things are better left unsaid. With the histrionics cranked up to eleven, any observations on familial anxiety or obligation are lost in sound and fury. Dolan has never been one for a light-handed touch, but his previous work has at least shown some semblance of dynamic range. As an advocate of those films, and of Canadian cinema in general, I can only hope that with this primal scream out of his system he can return to films that wear their heart on their sleeves instead of tearing their shirt completely off.

Adam Driver and competitive chicken breeding are on the schedule for Wednesday as we draw near the finish line of the festival. Check back tomorrow for news on PatersonChicken People, and more.

AFF Day Five: Yesterdays

If you've been following along with my festival posts so far, you'll notice that I tend to start off by reminding everyone about my entry from the previous day (on that note, here's Monday!). Sure, it's a convenient bit of web marketing, but I also like to think that reflecting on the past can provide context for the present. It just so happens that the filmmakers I tangled with on the fifth day of the festival seem to agree.

 
She Remembers, He Forgets (Adam Wong)

She Remembers, He Forgets (Adam Wong)

 

The cinema of Hong Kong, historically a unique mix of Eastern and Western influence thanks to their geographical and political position in relation to mainland China, was inarguably changed by the 1997 transfer of the country to Chinese rule. While Adam Wong's Cantonese-language feature She Remembers, He Forgets isn't specifically about "The Return", it presents a bifurcated story of life in Hong Kong before and after sovereignty was handed over from the British. In 1997, Gigi and Shing-wah were high school classmates on the cusp of a budding romance. Present day, they're a married couple struggling for happiness; Gigi is unsatisfied in her career, Shing-wah is inattentive and unfaithful. Cutting back and forth between these two storylines, Wong builds a "what could have been" narrative as we see the young Gigi with her other almost-sweetheart, Bok-man. The parallels to the film industry are intriguing, but the product feels ultimately uneven as it grasps at sentimental threads and tries to build an unsolved mystery angle to the early scenes that never gets off the ground. Even the soundtrack is unfocused, drastically shifting from tinkling pianos to rising strings to kazoos and ukuleles, even beatboxing. It's not a movie to be disdained — some scenes are so stubbornly earnest that you can't help but chuckle — but it takes a certain kind of sweet tooth to be able to stomach the cloying highs with the heftier subtext.

 
Head Space (Nicole Steeves)

Head Space (Nicole Steeves)

 

From macro to micro, Head Space shrinks its introspection to a single man, and that's not the only thing tiny about it. Writer/director Nicole Steeves made the film on a budget of only $1000 as part of the Women in Film and Television's 1KWAVE program. It stars local comedian Struan Sutherland as Floyd, an ex-standup and infomercial star living with severe anxiety that keeps him confined to his home, mentally replaying his past failures. The film flirts with dark comedy while servicing honest and noble ideas about mental health. When Floyd can't successfully commit suicide (he needs to Google how to tie a noose) he turns his efforts to self-care, making "self-help" tapes that are no help at all and attempting yoga in his tiny hallway, a brilliant bit of physical comedy given Sutherland's 6'8" frame. His unlikely bond with his pizza delivery guy is his ultimate salvation, casting the film with a positive message about outreach and support for those who might be struggling around you. Steeves' stretches her constraints for all they're worth, so that even when the seams of the film's construction show the low-fi quirks add intimacy and honesty to Floyd's struggles. Head Space is a testament to creativity, allowing artistic vision and heart to shine through under the most austere conditions. 

 
The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse)

The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse)

 

The Dressmaker has no such small-scale goals in mind. From it's True Detective-like opening credits that fly us into the dusty town of Dungatar, the film quickly announces its broadly entertaining B-movie intentions. Kate Winslet stars as Tilly Dunnage, an exile who has returned for "revenge" on the coterie of despicable characters that we meet in a whirlwind tour through each building as she pelts them with golf balls from "The Hill" (the town's only), a bandolier of tees at her waist. At first, her plot to corrupt the town is wonderfully vague: armed with a Singer sewing machine, she'll make lavish dresses for the women in hopes that dazzling them will erase her past from their memory. If the film continued on this tack, leaning in to the absurdity and coasting by on the comedic talents of the cast — Judy Davis is a standout as "Mad" Molly, Tilly's lush of a mother — it could have been a joyous, campy romp, albeit a weightless one. Attempts at explaining the inexplicable machinations cause the film to flag in places; the most enjoyable developments are the truly ridiculous curveballs that have no regard for Tilly's history or her supposed "curse". There's plenty to latch onto, though, even if you view it purely as a Kate-Winslet-in-fab-costumes delivery vehicle.

 
The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi)

The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi)

 

You can imagine that a filmmaker who literally made a film called The Past might be heavily invested in how dramatic events can shape the course of a person's life. That's exactly what you can expect from writer and director Asghar Farhadi, who has a innate talent for filtering human folly through a unique lens of Iranian experience. His latest, The Salesman, showcases his trademark escalation of an inciting event, as we watch a teacher and his wife move into a new apartment that soon plays host to a violent intruder. Violated and victimized, Rana (played by a quietly wounded and simmering Taraneh Alidoosti) doesn't want to go to the police, but her husband (Shahab Hosseini, winner of the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance) is not able to let go of his hope for justice. A series of tense and tightly scripted encounters ensue, wrapped around the framing device of a translated production of Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman" starring the two leads. The social commentary echoes loudly, even for those unfamiliar with Iranian culture, and Farhadi's camera is often freer than it has been in previous films, making his movie about a play ironically his least stagy. Complex and wholly empathetic, The Salesman is an engaging and urgent experience.

Looking forward instead of back, tomorrow will cover Danish Oscar submission Land of Mine and the latest from Canada's enfant terrible, Xavier Dolan, among other selections.

AFF Day Four: Less is More

My Sunday brought about four films with different approaches to similar strengths (well, let's be honest, one was mostly weaknesses). In the spirit of today's minimalist theme, I'll jump right in.

 
Women Who Kill (Ingrid Jungermann)

Women Who Kill (Ingrid Jungermann)

 

As you might expect from a movie about podcasters, Women Who Kill is unapologetically current. Living in the hip New York neighbourhood of Park Slope with her ex-girlfriend, Morgan (director Ingrid Jungermann) works at a food co-operative and watches live performance art. When she meets the dark and mysterious Simone (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night's Sheila Vand), their budding relationship draws scrutiny from those close to Morgan for myriad reasons — not least so because Simone may or may not be a murderer. Jungermann's script follows the comedic trend of (perish the word) millennial metapsychology, where every dry quip is an externalization of someone's flaws, less jokes than weapons to be wielded against an enemy or accidental moments of vulnerability. Just as the serial killer podcast is a framework to ease the introduction of an alleged serial killer, Simone's presence is in turn surrogate for Morgan's inability to let go of her past. In the end, it doesn't matter if Simone did or didn't murder six women; whether that feels like a cop out to you very much hinges on your tolerance for a specific and recognizable type of wry anti-anything (in this case, crime-thriller-that's-not-a-thriller). I found it a fresh and funny, if not totally cohesive, debut from another much-needed female voice in independent cinema.

 
Author: The JT LeRoy Story (Jeff Feuerzeig)

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (Jeff Feuerzeig)

 

Fresh, though, is decidedly not a term to be used for Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Meant to be an inside look at the pop culture craze caused in the early 2000s by the fabricated alt-identity of author Laura Albert, Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary shirks tough questions and neglects any attempt at cinematic craft. The story is recounted almost exclusively by Albert herself in a series of talking heads that amount to hand-waving and enthusiastic rationalizations of what she did, raising questions about the very notion of truth without ever so much as feigning interest in addressing it. Supplementing Albert's account are grainy voice recordings of phone conversations that she had with doctors, authors, and celebrities over the years. Not only do these scenes grind the film to a halt by having nothing of interest visually, opting to just show a cassette tape slowly spooling as we listen in, but the filmmaker and subject have drawn public ire for using several of the recordings without consent from the people heard speaking. In fact, Author (and, it would seem by extension, Albert) appears downright gleeful over the big names it was able to fool, at one point whipping through a montage of celebrity photographs and plastering their names across the screen like badges of honour. The least of the film's transgressions are corny sound and visual effects throughout, like when digital rain streaks down the camera lens, obscuring an still image of Laura holding an umbrella. The sum total is an endlessly interesting story told in a wholly disinteresting way, failing the basic benchmark for documentary filmmaking.

 
L'Avenir / Things To Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)

L'Avenir / Things To Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)

 

After two high-concept stories, fictional or otherwise, it was an absolute treat to watch Isabelle Huppert in a character-driven drama written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. In L'Avenir (alternately titled Things To Come in English), Huppert stars as a philosophy teacher named Nathalie who has to confront happiness, aging, and the search for purpose in the face of some major life events. It's important to notice that I didn't say "as her life falls apart" or "life-changing events" or "Nathalie must find the strength to carry on" — this is a graceful and understated film, free of the typical melodrama that can be conjured by synopsizing the film as "a career woman goes through a divorce". Actor and filmmaker are in perfect harmony, operating the same register as Huppert's quiet resolve and self-fulfillment match the elegant movements of the camera and the script's languid pace. The characters are almost exclusively philosophers, placing the film in a recognizable realm of European hyperintellectualism, but it never condescends so much as it simply muses. Backed by strong performances and confident direction, it is a low-key masterpiece with an unwavering air of contentment in the face of change.

 
Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie)

Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie)

 

Yesterday, I hinted that one connection in today's films would be the female creators at their helm. After seeing them, though, what stands out most about the three woman-led offerings is their restraint. It was present in varying levels in Women Who Kill and L'Avenir, but it took center stage in Ashley McKenzie's Werewolf. Set in Cape Breton, it's barely-there narrative is concerned with two recovering heroin addicts who are trying to get by on mowing lawns and other odd jobs. It is not a "drug movie" in any configuration you might imagine: nobody sneaks off to shoot up, there are no screaming, writhing withdrawal scenes. Nobody steals a TV or holds up a convenience store. There are just dirty socks, extreme close-ups, and moments of heartbreaking intimacy. McKenzie's framing does as much as her script to remind us that these people are not monsters — that addicts are not monsters — showing eyes and lips and fingers, as if taking a visual inventory of what makes them human. A bold approach to raw material puts Werewolf in rare company with the few Canadian films that don't confuse representation with advertisement or try to fit in with high-drama Hollywood fare. It's not a stretch to consider this work the Closet Monster of 2016, a strong and convincing showing from a breakout talent, but McKenzie has declared herself as a singular voice in Atlantic filmmaking with this debut.

Tomorrow holds She Remembers, He Forgets from Hong Kong and The Dressmaker from Australia, along with Canadian comedy Head Space and The Salesman, the latest from master Iranian screenwriter Asghar Farhadi.

AFF Day Three: Howl at the Moon

Yesterday I wrote briefly about the unexpected connections you can find in festival films. To my surprise, evidence was soon to follow as I saw two films, at first glance thematically unrelated, that incorporated wolves as significant symbols. In fact, if I really wanted to stretch for a third link, I could also say I saw one about the moon, its mystical powers whipping nations into a frenzy so their howls may be heard by others. Let's start there.

 
Operation Avalanche (Matt Johnson)

Operation Avalanche (Matt Johnson)

 

On any list of associations brought to mind by the Apollo 11 moon landing — Armstrong's "small step", JFK, the Cold War — it shouldn't take long to come across one conspiracy theory or another. While none are particularly convincing, their air of global intrigue can make them endlessly fun to dive into. Operation Avalanche, the new faux documentary-cum-thriller from Canadian director Matt Johnson, understands this well and sets out to build its own theory with just that in mind. Johnson plays a bizarro version of himself that lived in the 1960s and was hired at the CIA to work in the audiovisual department. After making a pitch film that sends him and his team to NASA to find an undercover Russian spy, he discovers that he could fake the moon landing and end the Cold War by doing what he loves most: making a movie. From its crackling, grainy opening, the film takes a found footage angle that allows for some amusing tricks in visual and sound editing. The entire plot coasts on a winsome sense of humour grounded in Johnson's incredulity and contagious enthusiasm. When some chase scenes ramp up the tension near the end, it works because neither the comedy nor the thrills need to be sustained beyond their shelf life.

 
Tharlo (Pema Tseden)

Tharlo (Pema Tseden)

 

Back down on Earth, somewhere in Tibet, Tharlo slows things down. And I mean way down: this slice of life of one Tibetan shepherd opens with a single unbroken take as the protagonist recites a 1944 speech by Mao Zedong from memory, his inculcation having turned it into more of a rhythmic chant. His memory is praised throughout the film, though he can't remember his age and barely recognizes his own name. He lacks identification, figuratively and literally, which sparks a journey into the nearest town to have his picture taken for an ID card. The initial scenes in the town are fascinating, an understated juxtaposition of Tharlo's simplicity with the relative chaos of modern culture. Blinking lights and reflective surfaces are foregrounded and the soundtrack is constantly undercut with the murmur of a TV or radio in the next room. As he is drawn into this world and begins to acquiesce, smoking menthol cigarettes and singing karaoke, the metaphors start to get a bit heavy-handed. A nagging cough returns, he stumbles through his chant, and my aforementioned wolves show up to eat a number of his flock. The exquisite formalist framing and greyscale photography make the film consistently pleasing to look at, but the final result is cynical and preachy in a way that undercuts the meditative beauty of the opening half.

 
Window Horses (Ann Marie Fleming)

Window Horses (Ann Marie Fleming)

 

Just as philosophical with none of the didacticism is Window Horses. It's the story of Rosie, a young poet living with her grandparents when she is selected to perform at a workshop in Iran. A lover of all things Parisian, she would rather the workshop was in a more "romantic" locale, but is soon overwhelmed by all that Iran and its people have to offer her. Animated by Ann Marie Fleming and a team of artists, this exploration of personal and cultural history, subtitled The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming, is made up of many unique and eye-catching styles. Rosie, drawn by Fleming, is a featureless stick figure with a moon-white face (I won't even try to connect that one) and a few sprigs of hair. The people she meets are more detailed and cohesive, their faces drawn as if by a single, looping line. They coexist on collage-like backgrounds and drift through expressionist dreamscapes when their poetry is read allowed. In a Q&A session after the screening, Fleming talked about where the story came from:

 
That’s a long story! But it really started because I’m from a lot of places. I’m part Chinese, part Australian, I wasn’t born in Canada, I’m an immigrant. I was brought up with so many stories of people talking about where they came from, but you can’t tell unless you ask, and not everybody wants to tell you their story. I was at an artist residence in Germany about 20 years ago with a lot of international writers, and I actually met an exiled Chinese poet who has since gone back to China. So, everything in it is true... except for the bits I made up. This is like a big journey. I like these “string of pearls” stories: Rosie is going on a journey, she’s going to met people, they’re all going to tell her stuff.
 

With Window Horses, Fleming weaves her broad cultural context into a beautiful lesson about discovery and open-mindedness through the lens of art and travel. 

 
American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

 

Andrea Arnold's intimate epic American Honey closed out the night in a Gala presentation at the Oxford Theatre. Through her other works like Fish Tank and Red Road, Arnold has established herself as somewhat of an expert in capturing the misery and poverty of lower class society in a way that neither glamorizing or judgemental. Here, she has transported that sensibility from her British roots to the American south, where a ragtag clan of magazine salespeople travel from state to state, knocking on doors by day and living it up at night. Led by Crystal and Jake (Riley Keough and Shia Labeouf), the vendors seem more like family members than coworkers as they welcome newcomer Star (the equally fresh-faced Sasha Lane). The trail that they blaze across the country, leaving dollar bills in their wake, allows Arnold to showcase the highs and lows of the American dream in sun-drenched montages. Likely in a bid to highlight the animalistic nature of these nomadic youngsters, wildlife is a strong presence in the film, with the camera panning away to follow a bird in flight, a dog in a puddle, or a bear that gets too close for comfort before lazily wandering off without a fuss. And, yes, there are wolves, even though we never actually see them. Jake, the alpha male, frequently unleashes tortured howls to the sky as a means of reassembling members of his "pack" that have gone astray. Coupled with his predatory nature towards the young girls he recruits, it brings to mind the wolves of Tharlo. Both films tackle the dangers that lurk in the pursuit of something more than the simple life, cautioning that anything more than just getting by brings new complications. If American Honey is the longer film and tends to drag a bit in the final act, it's also the better film for its naturalistic touches and the connection and chemistry of the young cast.

As day two wrapped up, I was left wondering what connections my Sunday slate might be harbouring. Check back tomorrow to find out the secret threads running through Women Who KillAuthor: The JT LeRoy StoryThings To Come, and Werewolf. I'll give you a freebie now: 3 of the 4 are directed by women.

 

AFF Day Two: Weirdos and Wonders

Still riding high from Maudie the previous night and equipped with my critic's toolkit (eyeglasses, two pens, notebook, bottled water), I wandered into Park Lane Theatres on Friday to begin my festival experience in earnest. The red carpets and speeches that accompany each gala are an integral part of AFF, but there's something to be said for the workmanlike schedule of the first full day. It's nice, if not a bit daunting, to face down the prospect of sitting through five potentially great films in a single day, especially after a summer at the movies that was even dry by tentpole standards.

 
Old Stone (Johnny Ma)

Old Stone (Johnny Ma)

 

First on the docket was a Chinese slow-burn drama, Old Stone. It centers on Lao Shi, a taxi driver who rushes a cyclist to the hospital after an accident and gets stuck paying the medical bills as the man falls into a coma. With its tone of bureaucratic immobility and a questioning eye towards society, it sounds like a plot ripped straight from the Romanian New Wave. A long fade in from red sets a mood of rising tension that is underpinned by a dissonant and percussive score. Gang Chen brings a weathered stillness to the lead role as he tries to get out of his situation by calling on favours from friends or winning people over with perpetual offers of "here, have a cigarette". Chinese-Canadian director Johnny Ma piles on dramatic irony, even in the final moments when the film veers into a hiccup of magical realism. Even if the ending is a bit off-key from the rest of the film, the overall effect is an engrossing social drama.

 
Multiple Maniacs (John Waters)

Multiple Maniacs (John Waters)

 

My second film of the day, however, I struggle to fit under any such terms. Perhaps keeping the "gross" from "engrossing" and tagging on a prefix to make "antisocial" will get us close enough to describe a John Waters' 1970 cult curiosity called Multiple Maniacs. A new restoration of the low-budget bacchanal is making rounds courtesy of Janus Films and I was curious to see what it was that they were snatching back from the unforgiving jaws of time. To their credit, the film looks... well, as good as it possibly could, to not say much. And that's where their credit ends with me. Waters can barely keep the camera in focus and the actors in frame as they stumble through what they remember of their lines. That's certainly not to say that cheap, guerilla filmmaking can't hold merit, but when the only discernible purpose is to offend delicate (or not-so-delicate) sensibilities, it's hard to count the result as anything more than puerile provocation.

 
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

 

Up next was Moonlight, a late addition that barrelled into Halifax on a train of praise from Telluride and Toronto International Film Festival. I'll elaborate, but just so I don't mince words: Believe The Hype. This triptych following the life of Chiron (by times also known as Little or Black) is a subtle and overwhelmingly rich examination of modern black masculinity. Barry Jenkins directs the film with supreme confidence and a keen eye for the smallest gestures and moments. Questions of nature, nurture, and self-invention are foregrounded as we see Chiron grow up trying to fit in, silently latching on to friends and father figures, looking for the bricks that will build his manhood. Under a sheen of dazzling colors, gorgeous cinematography, and stunning performances, Moonlight is a melancholy and original work of true art.

 
Weirdos (Bruce McDonald)

Weirdos (Bruce McDonald)

 

Sometimes two movies at a festival can clash in interesting ways, revealing hidden commonalities that you wouldn't expect on the surface. Sometimes, though, the connections are blatant, like seeing two movies about a bunch of weirdos shot in black-and-white. While the kitsch of Multiple Maniacs wasn't my cup of tea, I found lots to enjoy in Weirdos, a Nova Scotia coming-of-age tale from director Bruce McDonald. It follows Kit (Dylan Authors) and Alice (Julia Sarah Stone) in 1976 as they hitchhike from Antigonish to Sydney, where Kit plans to move in with his glamorous, Andy Warhol-connected mother. Everything about the film draws you in to the time and place of their journey: a jangling soundtrack spotlights Harry Nilsson, The Stampeders, and other radio staples of the era, while DP Becky Parsons' camera captures sights of Atlantic scenery that go beyond the usual crashing surf and fishing villages. To watch this movie is to grow up in rural Nova Scotia for 89 minutes; a rare treat of specificity on the big screen.

 
Tower (Keith Maitland)

Tower (Keith Maitland)

 

Spinning the dial back another 10 years, we land in Austin, Texas for a documentary about the 1966 mass shooting at University of Texas. It's called Tower, for the structure on campus where a gunman hid and opened fire at strangers for nearly two hours (an eternity for those present). Using a mix of survivor accounts and archival interviews filtered through the lens of rotoscope animation, director Keith Maitland tracks the events of a historic day almost in real-time. For most of the runtime, the film powerfully eschews the story of the shooter by not saying his name or showing his face, opting instead to focus on the stories of the victims and how it felt to be there on that 100-degree day, a prisoner in your own city. The decision stands in stark contrast to modern media coverage that headlines the "villian" of every story, which makes the closing minutes of Tower a bit disappointing when clips of innumerable shootings from the past 50 years are spliced in. Still, as an achievement in tension, tragedy, and unfortunate societal relevance, this documentary is unmissable.

 
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)

 

At the end of a long day filled with more serious fare, it's nice to wind down with a comedy — even if that comedy is 3 hours long and mostly in German. The hulking riot in question is Maren Ade's newest effort, Toni Erdmann. On a meta-conceptual it's perfect: a comedy entirely about needing to laugh. Sandra Hüller plays Ines, a hardworking career woman visited by her father (Peter Simonischek), who believes that she is stressed and suffering. He creates the fabrication of Toni Erdmann, a vaudevillian life coach complete with false teeth and a bad wig, and infiltrates her work life to try and cheer her up. Ade's script is both broad and sly, mining as much humour from Toni's ridiculous behaviour as it does from Ines' (and presumably Ade's) acerbic views of sexism and gender roles. It doesn't feel a fraction of its protracted runtime, sustaining a great pace and delivering jokes for twice as long as most comedies while feeling half as stale. 

So, after a jam-packed first day with lots to praise, what will Saturday hold? Check back tomorrow to hear about Operation AvalancheAmerican Honey, and others.

Maudie opens the 36th Atlantic Film Festival

Those who have set foot in the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, a mainstay of the Halifax arts community, know that there isn't a bad seat in the house. Last night, at the opening gala of the 36th Atlantic Film Festival, I put that notion to the test at the very back of the room.

 
 

From seat 3 in row HH, which one could call "the balcony's balcony", I watched as Executive Director Wayne Carter welcomed a full house. His remarks echoed strongly what we here at Carbon Arc feel before every screening: there is something magical about an experience that is at once personal and communal. The power of cinema is never more evident than when you laugh or cry along with the person next to you. There was certainly a healthy dose of both during the night's feature presentation of Maud Lewis biopic Maudie.

The film chronicles the life of famous Nova Scotian folk painter Maud Lewis and her relationship with her husband, Everett. A mumbly Sally Hawkins and a grumbly Ethan Hawke star as the couple and, though they both give terrific and touching performances, Hawkins absolutely steals the show.

 
Sally Hawkins wows as famous folk painter Maud Lewis

Sally Hawkins wows as famous folk painter Maud Lewis

 

The Everett of this story is a man of few words and a foul temper, but Hawke is just tender enough below the surface that he never comes off as a monster. His mean streak only serves to further highlight the quiet ferocity with which Hawkins brings Maud's indomitable spirit to the screen. Behind her soft-spoken manner is an unmistakeable brand of Maritime wit and sarcasm, each barb delivered with a kind but knowing half-smirk.

If the acting talent on display is the muscle of the film, the ligaments holding everything together are the sharp direction of Aisling Walsh. Each scene is beautifully framed and lit (speaking at the gala, Walsh hailed Guy Godfree, her cinematographer, as "a genius") and there is a distinct visual sense of humour that playfully complements the script. The tone is deftly controlled, never overplaying a moment for false drama nor shying away from the tough moments in the relationship.

 
 

When the film ends with a truly moving moment of wordless reflection from Everett, we're left with somewhat of a design for living that seems handed down from Maudie herself: don't want for much, find the beauty in every season, and surround yourself with artefacts of your joy. Unlike most biopics that feel the need to construct some grand thesis about their subjects, this one is content with simple pleasures found in a simple story. Maudie doesn't need to explain to us why she was great because, of course, we here in Nova Scotia already know.