Festival du Nouveau Cinéma Reviews

Wolf Children, by Mamoru Hosoda

Wolf Children Dir. Mamoru Hosoda

Initially, it’s a bit of a shock to see a movie like this in the Temps 0 section of the FNC. A Japanese anime tale of a mother’s struggle to raise her kids doesn’t exactly scream daring and wild. It’s a children’s film through and through, the morals of the story nicely wrapped up by the end to teach an important lesson to the kids. So it’s a bit of a head-scratcher to find it with “the wild ones” of the group, like a schoolgirl with perfect grades who bumps into a group of delinquent punks and gets arrested along with them.

And yet funnily enough, Mamuro Hosoda’s Wolf Children does fit in an odd kind of way. Though it primarily deals with the struggles of parenting, the clincher is that the children are part wolf and must be raised in hiding. It’s an age-old tradition in Japanese cartoon history to have the supernatural (emphasis on nature) play a vital role, but Hosoda finds a unique way to use that tradition and keep you fully devoted to the story. The schoolgirl actually belongs with the punks.

Yuko narrates the tale of her mother Hana and how she raised her and her little brother Ame, after falling in love and being with a wolfman. A charming tale of courtship and love ends in tragedy and Hana is left on her own with the two half-pups, finally deciding to move to the countryside where they can be safer from society. The courtship and love between Hana and Ookami with the reveal of his true nature was the moment when I realized I was watching a serious children’s film. Along with the important lessons, there is a study of a woman and her determination.

I immediately think about Miyazaki’ Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke or Satoshi Kon’s Paprika when I think about Japanese anime, and Mamuro Hosoda has just joined that club. Not only is the story of the growth of these children, their personalities and the life in the country realized with sublime delicacy but the aesthetics of this film only add to the spell Hosoda puts you under. It’s no wonder that the guy comes from an oil painting background because the seasons, the nature and the sky in Wolf Children are nothing short of beautiful. I was glued.

Wolf Children is a big win for the FNC. There’s a little bit of everything here, a roller coaster of emotions and the best thing is that the “children’s movie” label doesn’t hurt it one bit. In fact, it’s a film I would love my future kids to watch but the adult in me has more than enough to appreciate the intricacies of the storyline and the powerful moments this anime is full of.

Francine Dir. Brian M. Cassidy & Melanie Shatzky

Directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky deliver a compelling slice of life with Francine. In the vein of independent movies nowadays, it has a familiar style and approach in its character study of a woman attempting to adjust to life on the outside after being released from prison.

What’s not so familiar is what probably got it nominated for the Gotham Independent Movie Award for Breakthrough Directing. Like a lucky orphan puppy, there’s something special about Francine that separates it from the pack: the use of sound and Oscar winner Melissa Leo.

It’s a shame that I had to run for another screening before getting a chance to participate in the Q&A with the directors because I would’ve loved to hear how Melissa Leo became involved in a project with such a micro-budget. An actress who’s no stranger to small indies (see her Oscar-nominated turn in 2008’s Frozen River), Leo was famous for TV work (vintage cable network cop drama Homicide: Life on the Street) until she gained recognition with her Oscar winning-performance in David O. Russell’s The Fighter.

That she still takes on projects like Francine is a testament to her open mind and devotion to the business. Her Francine has the impenetrable sadness and hermetic stoicism of a woman beaten and abused by The Man. The pieces that make her whole are too shattered and scattered for a proper reconstruction and the title character wears this testament on her sleeve as she goes through the motions—job hunting, filling out paperwork, stealing cat food and listening to screaming metal bands.

If that last one made you go “Whaa-?” you’re not alone. Francine finds herself at a garage sale and there is a musical transition from Skeeter Davis’s wistful “The End of the World” to live screaming metal that draws her nearer. As far as audio shifts go, think of it as channel-switching your mom’s favorite cooking show to watch an episode of Jackass.

It’s brilliant and the best example of where the directors use Leo’s acting talent and the dynamism of sound to create something unexpected, unique and full to the brim with emotion. A life long forgotten is being remembered and the search for the liberated spirit continues.

Francine is, for me, about that search for liberation, the freedom from the shackles of society and its conventions. It’s pretty telling that the expression Francine wears on her face is one of a Death Row inmate when she gets released from prison. She doesn’t know how to cope with this idea of freedom and regular human interaction is foreign to her, so she attaches herself to animals.

The moments that see her caring for animals, which are as important as anything else in the film, are simultaneously heartbreaking and creepy. Here is a woman who connects with trapped animals because she understands them better than any human can understand her. It’s a compelling inspection of the free spirit doctrine.

The immensity of the soundtrack and the sound design that accompanies some of the scene shifts serve to forecast the quiet storm that brews in the interiors of Francine’s psyche. Melissa Leo carries the film on her shoulders like a universal Joan of Arc, the technique of sound and editing are what makes the experience indubitably cinematic but it’s Cassidy and Shatzky who deserve the most praise.

Their 70-minute dissertation on trapped souls and the struggles of everyday life is set to become one of the indie gems of the year.

La Cicatrice Dir. Jimmy Larouche

Around halfway through La Cicatrice (The Wound) I honestly thought that I was watching the best film from Quebec yet. Then something happened which messed with the tone of the film and, after ending abruptly, I was left dumbstruck. Formulating my thoughts for it brings back this feeling because I have no idea where to place it. On the one hand, the cinematography and the performances are first class but then on the other; the logic of the storyline wobbles in the middle only to trip and fall by the end. My cinematic preferences are being put on the test.

The opening sequence that comes after the first chapter, titled “Paul,” is a great moment where a father is teaching his son, Paul, street hockey. Paul is the goalie and his dad is shooting pucks at him, with an occasional disapproving and insulting remark. A slither of tension creeps into a traditional father-son moment when Paul gets ready to save one of his father’s shots and his dad tells him “Get ready. This one’s gonna be a fast one.” BOOM. Smack in the face, cutting to the next shot as quickly as the gasps that come from the audience. I leaned forward.

For Jimmy Larouche, the man behind the camera of this debut feature film, the subject is a bold one to tackle on-screen for the first time. Bullying has become something of an epidemic; we hear far too often of schoolchildren and teens ending their own lives because of relentless attacks from their peers. Not only is it seriously relevant, it’s also a very sensitive subject for many people.

In this story, it is the middle-aged Richard (Marc Beland–more about his standout turn a little later) who suffers from the trauma of a bullied past. An alcoholic whose wife and son left him like his mother did when he was a boy, Richard is also the goalie of a hockey team. One day, when the middle-aged Paul (Patrick Goyette) scores a goal on him and, in a rare humorous moment, gets up all in his face, Richard decides to takes the matters of his damaged life into his own hands.

More so than the performances of the two leads, who had a lot of help from the sharp screenplay, the stand-out has to be cinematography. It took me by pleasant surprise because the subject doesn’t exactly call out for an emphasis on lighting and composition but the shots of the barren fields at dusk, a car ride where all we see is a reflective windshield and Richard looking through the window at some kids playing hockey are just a few examples of the artistry behind this film. The visual style is specific and doesn’t falter, and the performance from Beland and Goyette deserve praise. Beland especially plays the introverted, passive-aggressive and broken Richard wonderfully.

But like I mentioned in the beginning, there is an interesting choice that Larouche makes halfway through that will spoil too much if explained. Logic seemingly escaped through an open window at one point, and the breeze that was left spun my feelings towards this film around almost 180 degrees. Unfortunately, I experienced the ending as a pretty big anticlimax, which only added salt to the wound of disappointment.

But hey, the bottom line here is that La Cicatrice is more than worth your while. During the Q&A, the director did mention that there will be deleted scenes for the DVD release, so the story might yet be salvaged. What’s more important is that Larouche has arrived on to the scene as someone worthy of following. His debut feature has a visual power that can only be rivaled by the intensity of the performances in it, and the theme is one that should never be ignored and continuously probed.

Laylou Dir. Phillipe Lesage

This film was one of those festival occasions where I knew nothing about what I was going to watch before going in. The director, Phillipe Lesage, is so tucked away in Quebec cinema that he doesn’t even have an IMDB page. He has one documentary to his name, The Heart that Beats, in which the character of Laylou first appeared and that’s all I read before going in, avoiding the full official description to make way for a completely new discovery. The experience was a mixed bag.

A high school graduation kicks things off, with the camera following Laylou as she greets her classmates for this momentous occasion in a teenager’s life. Galvanic classical music marks the opening sequence, but as we’re taken inside the party, the Top 40 takes over the speakers and we get the first taste of Lesage’s authentic eye. We become privy to private gossip and cringe-worthy flirting skills, the cheesy decor and the awkward moments of indecision on the dance floor–the stuff that makes you recall high school’s growing pains with a tinge of nostalgia.

It becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly that plot structure, narrative, character development and all of that stuff they teach at most schools don’t exist in this film. It even feels kinda weird to refer to these teenagers on screen as “characters”–that’s how genuine their actions and reactions are. We move from the graduation ceremony to soccer fields, lakes, houses and the campfires, and just like in the first scene, the camera merely observes, witnesses and records.

What sets Laylou apart from other ultra-realist features that are more documentaries than fictions is a type of stubbornness with the camera. It simply refuses to cross-cut during any conversation and stays fixated on a single person so that no detail is missed. In a sequence that sees Laylou serving customers at her fast food job, we don’t even know where she works. Just a restaurant.

The details of the lives of these characters, who they are, where they come from etc., these things are of no consequence to the director and his interests. Admirable though it may be, this approach to visual storytelling also becomes the film’s biggest hindrance. There is a “Scategories” scene that for me ends up being, by far, the most engaging part of this collage of fleeting moments because it presented some kind of conflict and wit.

The film’s troubles get in bed with boredom, attention span is teased and shortened and we come to the end when the camera just stops rolling, deciding that it’s enough. Now I think back on Laylou with no regrets, a film that is technically and artistically sound in its presentation and one that genuinely portrays the twilight years of teenagehood, youthful restlessness and anxiousness for adulthood. That said, it’s a bit unnerving to sit through, making the whole experience like a high school subject you respect but wouldn’t take again.

Post Tenebras Lux Dir. Carlos Reygadas

This is a pretty difficult movie to wrap one’s head around; revisiting it almost gives me a headache from the workout my brain is getting. For those familiar with Carlos Reygadas, they know he’s a peculiar kinda fellow. Influenced by the likes of Bresson, Tarkovsky and Dreyer, his creations follow a specific code. With Post Tenebras Lux he dives deep into a spiritual-philosophical cinematic psalm of a film: unforgettable images, enchanting camera work and a fascinatingly original look at the nature of sin.

As far as any semblance of a narrative is concerned, I’ll just say that the main part revolves around Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), a wealthy couple with two small, adorable, children and a lot of dogs. They own an estate and are part of a small community in the Mexican boonies. That’s all you’ll get because this film is too deep for any more plot digging.

Looking a little more into the title, the themes and overall ideas of this film start to take some shape. Without going into a theology lesson, Post Tenebras Lux was the slogan for the Calvinists, who believed in total depravity, the idea that man is born with too much sin and inclination towards evil to be able to choose God as his savior. In the beginning of the film the devil makes an appearance, toolbox in hand, and the rest of the way we are witness to key scenes of human interaction where the battle with this idea of total depravity is at the forefront.

If you’re stuck on that whole devil bit, you should know that this is a new kind of Reygadas, unafraid to show an abstract part of himself. Temporal space is tampered with and intellectual discussions of Russian masters segue into a brothel scene with the rooms named “Hegel” and “Duchamp.” The cinematography, a clear stand-out from the experience, is used with a camera effect unlike any other you’ll see any time soon. Edges are blurred out and objects are visually echoed, emitting a strikingly poetic aura around the images. It’s stunning and worth the price of admission alone. And I have to confess that there are moments in some of Reygadas past work, especially Battle in Heaven, when his use of non-actors really gets to me. But even though this code is not broken for his latest feature, he’s found genuinely talented people this time, making me appreciate the film so much more.

Reygadas won the Director’s prize at this year’s Cannes Festival for Post Tenebras Lux and it’s a bold choice. The more I think about it (which is more and more as time passes) the more I see why it won. It’s unlike anything else you’ll see and though it won’t appeal to many because it plays so hard to get, if you walk in with an open mind there’s a volume of power to be consumed.

Stories We Tell Dir. Sarah Polley

Here’s a prediction: Sarah Polley’s semi-documentary is going to be hard to beat as the best film I’ll see at this festival. It’s a sigh of relief when everything works in a film because the time you spend watching it enriches your life and doesn’t waste your time. Stories We Tell is a huge sigh of relief.

It focuses on Sarah’s family, her mom in particular and Sarah’s birth, as told through various points of views of her family members and friends. But it also succeeds in being an essay on the art of storytelling, an experiment in alternating narratives and how points of view can shift the “truth,” and the impact that can have.

Polley has decided to put on film something that is incredibly personal and through her honesty she tells a universal story. The candid interviews don’t take long to get the viewer comfortable with Sarah’s circle of people, as if you’ve seen them before, members of your own family. The jokester, the worrier, the shy one, the lively one like Sarah’s mom used to be, everyone has one or more of these examples from their own little circle.

Through brilliant editing, the interviews are interwoven with home movies of Michael and Diane’s past on Super 8, while the grainy 16mm bits have actors playing the roles of the young Diane Polley, Harry Gulkin, Michael Polley–the key figures in this engrossing tragicomic tale of ordinary people–seamlessly. The faces found for these parts must have been a tough process all on its own, but it pays off big time because you forget that you’re watching actors.

Oh and it’s really, really funny too. It’s hard to pick out a stand out moment that made me laugh uncontrollably because there are so many to choose from. Whether it’s Michael’s honeymoon videos where the camera finds rooftops more interesting than people or the discussion of Michael and Diane’s sex life or Sarah receiving an important phone call wearing Neanderthal make-up, it’s tough to say. Besides, you should see this film with eyes as fresh as possible because part of that enriched feeling you get depends on how little you know about Sarah’s story beforehand.

It’s mighty hard to criticize a project like this just because it’s done so well with the use of music, the editing (it’s so good, it deserves a double shout-out) and the rich content. There are a few twists in here that, if you aren’t aware of Sarah’s personal history, are as stirring as anything you’ll see in a fiction film this year.

I have a few reservations about Sarah’s line of questioning, the ending’s attitude toward Harry Gulkin and the strong sense of the importance of the untold, but this is Sarah’s project and hers alone. Like Michael told her about his writing, the choice is hers to make as to what she does with it, and how she presents it on film.

The fact that she made it public when she could of just as easily kept it to herself is something we should just be grateful for, without nitpicking. But coming back on what I feel is the major theme of this project, reaching beyond any personalized memory or recollections of the past, Stories We Tell is about the poignant power of ordinary stories and the way they’re told. How you dig through the crevices of your memory to verbalize the feelings and impact an individual has had on your life, and seeing that realized through images and sound. It’s extraordinary stuff, the stuff that cultivates minds, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Antiviral Dir. Brandon Cronenberg

The TEMPS 0 branch of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema opened up with Brandon Cronenberg’s debut film Antiviral and it’s everything the demented mind can hope for.
Controversial and shocking, beyond the close-ups of needles and ailing faces, it’s a surgical critique on a specific type of disease that’s a powerful contagion in today’s society: celebrity mania. With this hefty ideology backing up a fascinating premise, Antiviral could have been so much more than the detached, disturbing final product it ends up being.

Operating in a society in which fandom has a reached a whole new level, Syd March (Friday Night Lights’ Caleb Landry Jones) works for The Lucas Clinic, an industry leader in providing starving fans a biological connection to their favorite stars vis-à-vis viral injections. People chose their favorite celeb from the Lucas Clinic catalogue, chose the type of virus they want (herpes, fever..) and Syd advises them on what’s the highest current seller and what suits their crazed desire the most.

Like a plastic surgeon who flips a sample book of celebrity lips for someone who wants that special Hollywood smile, Syd takes pleasure in his work. Megastar Hannah Geist is the clinic’s biggest commodity, but news of her untimely death shifts the gears to frenzy mode because Syd injected himself with her own blood right before she died. Now he fears what killed her will kill him and as his body slowly decays his quest for a cure and the mystery surrounding Hannah’s death begins.

Antiviral is worth your time if you’re a fan of David Cronenberg’s early bodily horrors like Rabid, The Fly and Videodrome. Let’s face it, the son will inevitably learn from the father if he chooses the same career path. One particular hallucinatory sequence when Syd attempts to analyze Hannah’s blood (after injecting himself, silly man) sees machine fusing with flesh and it’s vintage Cronenberg Sr. These sequences are few and far between, however, and unlike dad’s films, the shortcomings of this story, together with its tepid protagonist, are not.

The sterilized look of the film, with its abundant whites and grays recalling the coldness of hospital hallways, is understandable but it also works to detach the viewer from feeling any connection to what’s going on. Emotional investment is kept at arms length due to Jones’ languid acting and the overall idea of Syd March, the person who is at the forefront of almost every frame here. I kept thinking to myself, why do I care about this guy? Sure it’s unjust and on a basic human level I feel for him, but his serial killer glares give off a creepy vibe and, isn’t he at least partly to blame for all of this?

The choice of ending, crucial to any story, has a lot to do with this overall feeling of indifference. It’s like a syringe that digs too deep and you leave with feeling more pained than cured by the overall experience. Part horror, part mystery, Antiviral ultimately succeeds in making you look at billboards and celebrity ads a little differently and with a sense of dread, but it’s a film that indulges too much in its style, pushing the gravity of its contents away.

Like a man choking on his own blood, the film gargles to death because it refuses to turn on its side and look at its own themes from different angles.

Mars et Avirl Dir. Martin Villeuneuve

After watching FOCUS opener Mars et Avril, there’s one thing I can’t fault Martin Villeuneuve for: lack of originality.

It’s not every film you’ll get cocktails from the future called Fueltinis, musical instruments designed from drawings of live female models, a _Futurama_-like public transport system with an attitude and immortality through holograms. The imagination behind the design of this film is never boring, which turns out to be a crucial factor because the script and characters are a different story all together.

The plot is hard to put in a nutshell, but basically, Jacob Obus (a very tender and introverted Jacques Languirand) is a 75-year-old musician and he works with the Spaaks who design the instruments he plays. Arthur Spaak (eyebrowlesss Paul Ahrmarani) draws them and his father Eugene, who is a walking-talking-interacting hologram, creates them. Robert Lepage plays the head. Jacob and Arthur both meet a photographer, April (Caroline Dhavernas), and fall in love. Meanwhile, a parallel storyline about three astronauts visiting planet Mars for the first time gets mixed up and the lives of all three are changed forever.

It’s not often I wish movies to be longer but if this was a three hour movie, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing. Too much is crammed in and the characters start becoming two-dimensional too quickly for this hold any emotional weight by the end. Too many themes and motifs are thrown around and you start losing your own breath by trying to keep up. The dialogue is clichéd, and we have to take scenarios like Jacob’s doctors prescribing the “fusion of souls” instead of medicine seriously. The structure feels messy and the acting from the principal cast, though solid, isn’t enough for full a commitment to this story.

The art deco comes to the rescue. The aesthetics of the film and the little quirks like the waiters, the T.V. and various nuances of the kind of future we’re looking at is the eye candy of this picture. Story’s a mess, bit of an overindulgence in ideas, but the art designers did a fantastic job in realizing an inspired vision of a futuristic Montreal. For that and for the humour thrown in, I’d recommend it.