Calgary International Film Festival 2022 round-up

Eight films in 10 days isn’t much of a marathon, but it’s more in-cinema movie-watching than I’ve done in probably the last year combined. Via Letterboxd, here are some quick, capsule-style reviews of seven of them. The eighth was a screening of Murnau’s Nosferatu with a live score by Calgary’s Chad VanGaalen — a great experience but not one I was compelled to write about.

Presented in the order I saw them:

Broker

A very enjoyable watch, warm, funny, and maintaining Kore-ada’s knack for staying just on the right side of sentimentality. Writing this a week after watching it, though, not much of it has stuck with me. One thing that has is the shot of the police officer idly playing with a flower that’s stuck to her car window — such a lovely, spontaneous image.

Geographies of Solitude

In a way, it felt like there were three or four different films here, all of them interrelated and complementary. There’s the immersive nature documentary, shot with an eye for the transcendent; a character study revealed through action rather than interview; an experimental mixed media film, with cameraless animation and found sound compositions; and an environmental documentary illustrating our cultural wastefulness.

That last part was my least favourite, but it’s understandable and probably unavoidable that it would be included. The other three were all superb, though, and they combine into something much more experiential than your average doc.

A few stray thoughts:
• I love how much the film focuses on Lucas’ hands so much more often than her face. She seems to be a person defined by *doing* so it felt appropriate
• I’m glad they included the Cousteau footage with its sweeping helicopter shots of the island, but mostly because it highlights how different that approach to nature docs is from what Mills is doing here. Seeing things from a human vantage, with slow, deliberate movement and lingering on small details; it’s more about capturing the feeling of being there
• There’s an odd contrast between Lucas’ meticulous dissection and indexing of everything that happens on Sable Island, and her openness to Mills’ artistic impulses. Impressive that she seems comfortable in both of those worlds, but it really seems she’s held onto a sense of wonder
• The sound design is brilliant
• I appreciated how Mills and Lucas both found beauty in the whole of life, from birth to death. The film captured that well, even without the monologue at the end

Viking

If I’d seen Rehearsal I might call this the low-budget Franco-Canadian sci-fi version, but in all honesty I have no idea how accurate that is.

The tricky thing about a movie like this is that it needs to take its premise seriously to have any emotional depth, but the more seriously it takes it, the more obviously ridiculous the premise becomes. I won’t criticize a comedy for proposing an unrealistic means for managing group psychology on a mission to Mars, but the more the film wants to plumb drama from its setup, the harder it gets to ignore those issues.

Still, it’s a charmingly dry comedy with real nuance to its characterizations, sort of the definition of enjoyable mid-tier Canadian film fest fare. And Nana Mouskouri’s cover of “Feeling Groovy” on the end credits is delightful.

Decision to Leave

This might be the stifling heat in the theatre talking, but the final act felt unnecessary, or at least underdeveloped compared to the rest of the film. I appreciate the transition from surprisingly funny procedural to outright melodrama — an enticing mix of Hitchcock and Sirk — but after the methodical pacing of the rest of the film, the last act feels rushed, introducing a torrent of new elements that muddy an otherwise engaging story.

Smoking Causes Coughing

Of the three Dupieux movies I’ve seen (this plus Wrong and Rubber), this is easily the most consistently fun, even if it’s also the most straightforward. I wasn’t expecting it to essentially be an anthology film, but that structure suits Dupieux’s sensibility—and takes the pressure off any one story to stay engaging for more than a few minutes at a time.
It’s not very ambitious, but the brisk mix of gross-out gags, non-sequiturs and gentle nihilism (with a soundtrack dominated by Mort Garson’s chintzy synth daydreams) makes for pretty ideal late-night fare.

Something in the Dirt

A semi-satirical spin on paranormal investigation/conspiracy culture acts as a backdrop for an exploration of collaborative creation and the hollow desperation of Hollywood dreams. A difficult film to talk about, both in that it’s hard not to give things away, but also that it’s hard to be certain how to read any given scene, what with the metastructure introducing layers of unreliability into every part of the storytelling. But the half-baked research and pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo were (I think intentionally) laugh-out-loud funny at times, and the aura of unease makes it hard to look away.
Not what I was expecting it to be, that’s for sure, but it’s lingering with me.

Triangle of Sadness

In the first act, one of the main characters complains about how difficult it is to talk openly about money with people you care about. It’s such a loaded topic, with so much baggage around social status, gender norms, self-esteem, and on and on. That could’ve been a mission statement, but the film takes the easy way out instead—it gestures at ideas around money and class, but avoids any open, honest conversation.
Instead, it picks the easiest targets it can find, and does absolutely nothing to challenge your initial assumptions about any of the characters (or the segments of society they are meant to represent). Rich people are dumb, thoughtless, and useless. Working class people can catch fish with their bare hands and start a fire from scratch. Everyone is exactly what you expect, nothing more or less.
If I hadn’t gone into this with the baggage of knowing it was a Palm D’or winner, I might’ve enjoyed it more for what it is—a prestige gross-out comedy with some broad social commentary to add a patina of intellectualism to the poop and puke jokes. It’s beautifully made, and the theatre I saw it in reacted exactly the way the director intended, so it’s clearly effective in that regard. It just doesn’t have much to say. The characters may quote Marx and Chomsky, but the film’s critique doesn’t go much beyond “rich people are bad” and “power corrupts.”

Summer film roundup

Collecting some Letterboxd reviews from the past few months, some more obscure, some very much not so. I haven’t been watching as many films the past few months, but between the start of the Calgary International Film Festival and the looming winter, that’s bound to change—expect more of these roundups in the months to come.

The Northman

This is a strange thing to say about a bleak Viking revenge saga packed with bloodshed and laced with hallucinatory visions, but as much as I enjoyed the experience of The Northman, it’s missing the darkness of The VVitch and The Lighthouse. Maybe it’s in the relationship of their central characters to their worlds—Eggers’ first two films are about average people on the fringes of their societies, butting up against and succumbing to forces beyond their understanding. This is a hero’s journey, the toughest man alive receiving DMs from the fates themselves assuring him of his central role in a high drama of kings and conquerors. In some ways, it feels closer in tone to old Conan comics than to either of Eggers’ other films.

As an action spectacle, it’s impressive and enjoyable, and I’m glad the larger scale hasn’t diminished Eggers’ commitment to his historical worlds. I saw another review say what distinguishes his films is that they 100% believe in the mythology of their times, so you are seeing the world from within their reality—their histories are alien worlds, to some extent, and that really does seem to be the case. And I appreciate the seriousness of it, the acknowledgement that you can go big without having to bake in quippiness and meta-jokes. It’s a great action movie, one that holds on to a lot of what makes Eggers so unique—but not enough pair with his best.

The Velvet Underground

I adore the energy Jonathan Richman brings to his segments.

Haynes certainly does what he sets out to do, elevating his favourite band while also bringing them down to earth by spending so much time establishing their context. The pre-Velvets parts were maybe my favourite, the rest being a well-worn story and way too heavy on Warhol, who may be what made the Velvets’ career possible but isn’t what made them interesting.

What a band, though.

The Matrix Resurrections

In the first movie, “what is the Matrix” was a question about the nature of reality. In Resurrections, it kicks off a branding discussion. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie that so explicitly didn’t want to be made, that isn’t just aware that it is superfluous but that seems to want you to feel guilty for even being curious about it. Neo and Trinity are back because either Warner Media or the engagement algorithm that secretly drives the world have demanded it, and while the postscript grudgingly thanks the algorithm for the characters’ new life—and the opportunity to clarify a few ideas and shake up a few binaries—it never gets past the sense that this revisiting this story is more traumatic than cathartic for its creators.

Nope

Not trying to open up the genre debate because ultimately it’s just a label that doesn’t mean much, but this didn’t feel like a horror film to me. In that I didn’t feel the goal of the film was to scare me; it has more the feel of a pulp “men’s adventures” magazine, a tale designed to thrill more than to frighten. If Peele hadn’t already directed two horror films, I wonder if this would still be discussed in those terms.

Anyway, Nope doesn’t hold together as well as Get Out (that’s a high bar). It balances its theme and storytelling much better than Us, though, and the creature design is marvelous. Kaluuya is great in a mostly low-key and stoic role, “Antlers Holst” is a fantastic name, and all my criticisms are better suited to nitpicking over beers than essays on Letterboxd.

Inu-oh

Who even makes movies like this? Yuasa is one of the most unpredictable filmmakers working today, except inasmuch as everything he makes is worth watching. Which very much includes this 14th century Japanese mystical rock opera. Yes it’s a bit chaotic and inconsistent from the storytelling side of things, with uneven pacing and what feel like some fairly significant dropped threads.

But it more than makes up for it by force of imagination. The production value on the musical numbers is incredible, the animation is gorgeous throughout (even with a few jarring shifts in technique), and most importantly, it never once plays it safe.

How do you do this, The Night is Short Walk On Girl, Lu Over the Wall, Devilman Crybaby and more in a five-year span? It boggles the mind.

Three Thousand Years of Longing

So much of this film is so good. I’m a sucker for movies about storytelling and well-used narration and colourful world-building and genre-based tragic love stories, and apparently Miller is, too, because when he’s indulging in that side of things this film is so wonderfully alive.

The scale of those early stories is so ambitious that the more restrained back half can’t help but suffer in comparison—but it doesn’t help that it feels so rushed. Why raise a topic like bigotry and xenophobia, say, if you’re only going to give it one brief conversation and a cartoonishly simple resolution? There wasn’t enough room for the sweep of humanity that the script tries to engage with.

None of that changes the appeal of the first half, though. It reminds me a bit of The Brothers Bloom, although the content couldn’t be much more different, but that love for the very nature of storytelling, the embrace of bright colours, the playfulness and love of language will appeal to the same people.

Worth noting: it’s a very different film than the trailer had me expecting. Less chaotic, more constrained, very much not an adventure film. Hopefully that doesn’t hurt its reception.

Dozens of Norths

Somewhere between Seuss and Bosch—a journey through imagined landscapes full of people trapped in loops, stuck in traps, or engaged in endless work. Absurdist allegory that seems borderline nihilistic, although I’d be lying if I said I had a solid interpretation of it overall. Some of the metaphors were clear, but others sailed by me; the rough-hewn illustrations and the fantastic score and sound design were enough to pull me back in whenever I started to drift. The lack of dialogue in favour of title cards helps contextualize some of the more obtuse imagery while still keeping things wide open to poetic interpretation.

Certainly an imaginative film—if it’s even fair to call it a film, it doesn’t seem especially interested in cinematic language, pulling more from illustration and mixed media to create its mood. Animation doesn’t have to be filmmaking, after all, it is its own medium with the flexibility to pull from so many other visual traditions. But I guess that’s a whole other can of worms.

The Empty Man

An ambitious jumble of ideas and influences, some well thought out and others pretty half-baked, but executed with a whole lot of skill regardless. The (very) cold open and the scenes with Root are by far the most engaging; the procedural is a bit rote even with all the weirdness around it. Some of the images, though, especially the sequence at Elsewhere, flames tentacling into the night sky… I can see how this has attracted a cult.

Folks seem to be calling out the creepypasta elements like they’re inherently a bad thing, but I’d happily read the whole Pontifex Society wiki if it were posted somewhere. Candyman + Crowley + Creepypasta + Cults makes for an interesting blend.

The Timekeepers of Eternity

Certainly an interesting project. It’s a snappy edit, finding a solid Outer Limits episode in a much-reviled miniseries, and the unusual technique heightens the film’s themes, adding some interesting depth. Where I stumble is in whether it is its own film or something closer to a fan edit, or whether that matters.

If you go by sheer labour, then it isn’t hard to argue for it as a standalone artwork. If you go by originality of the narrative, it’s an edit. Is it transformative? Does it matter? The fact it prompts those questions is enough to make me glad I watched it.

Regardless, it’s easily the best film version of the Langoliers out there right now, so there’s that.

Nate Milton + This American Life tackle fossil fuels

Drawing of a hand holding a lump of coal between its thumb and index finger in front of a clear sky and glowing sun

Animator Nate Milton’s Eli was a highlight of 2019, a personal and highly ambitious dive into the worlds of manic delusion, magical thinking and high strangeness. Although he’s released a few odds and ends since then, he held off until yesterday to share another ambitious project: a trio of short films on fossil fuels and climate change, created in collaboration with This American Life and broadcaster Robert Krulwich.

Krulwich’s folksy narration and Milton’s loose, hand-drawn animation complement each other marvellously, each of them alternating between gravitas and whimsy, though not always at the same time. The science Krulwich shares here is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s presented clearly and creatively, outlining the scale of human consumption and not mincing words about the potential consequences. Milton’s love of science and reverence for the natural world come through in spades, his knack for distilling complex emotions into singular images serving him well in the world of science communication.

The trilogy premiered on CBS Sunday Morning in June, and all three together take less than 20 minutes to watch. Not a bad way to add some educational content to your media diet.

Habitual Contempt and Helvetica

Habitual contempt doesn’t reflect a finer sensibility

It’s been 15 years since design doc Helvetica came out, which means it has been 15 years since I noticed this quote in the background of their interview with designer Stefan Sagmeister. In that decade-and-a-half, my memory contorted the quote just enough to make the source impossible to find—I’d turned it into “habitual cynicism does not reflect a refined sensibility,” which I guess was closer to the insight I’d needed at the time. Snarkiness and cynicism were very much still in vogue I when I was trying to find my voice as a pop culture writer in the mid-2000s, and my jumbled version of the quote played a major role in my realization that advocating for the things I enjoy is a more valuable contribution than explaining why popular things are actually awful.

To celebrate the documentary’s anniversary, film and visual art collective is streaming Helvetica for free worldwide for the next week, which was as good an opportunity as any to track down the actual quote. Turns out it’s part of conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, 1978-1983, which to my modern eye is a real mixed bag of statements, from Tao-inspired wisdom (“at times inactivity is preferable to mindless functioning”, “the most profound things are inexpressible”) to misguided self-indulgence (“exceptional people deserve special concessions,” “giving free reign to your emotions is an honest way to live”). Even if I disagree with about half of it, though, it strikes me as a list worth spending some time with. Given how much a misremembered version of one line has impacted me, it’s bound to have some other useful prompts.

Sound of Ceres – Arm of Golden Flame

Sound of Ceres, the cinematic dream-pop evolution of shoegazers Candy Claws, has announced an ambitious new album “inspired by Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, and Les Baxter’s midcentury exotica.” The album follows a three-act narrative structure to explore the emergence of mind and meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe, which is quite a lot to tackle, but with narration by performance artist Marina Abramovic (who is set to restage her iconic piece The Artist is Present as a fundraiser for Ukraine) and dramatic orchestral accompaniment, the first single “Arm of Golden Flame” certainly sets the right tone. This will be one to watch out for.

Due out June 17, 2022 on Joyful Noise.

Monday Short: Dreamland

Monday Shorts is a blog series I write for the Quickdraw Animation Society, spotlighting an independent animated short each week.

Festivals and film critics are prone to splitting films into binaries to make them easier to talk about. Films are fiction or non-fiction, comedy or drama, animated or live action. Within animation, films are 2D or 3D, CG or hand-drawn, narrative or non-narrative. As useful as those terms can be in quickly conveying something about a film, they all share the same issue: none of those pairs are as binary as we like to think. The best art thrives on ambiguity, pushing back against easy definition in ways that challenge our need to categorize everything.

Mirai Mizue’s 2018 short Dreamland is a perfect example. The whole film is a rapidly-cut assemblage of rigid geometric shapes and patterns, with nothing resembling a representational drawing, let alone a character. If you were to judge it based on the looped GIFs that Mizue shares on his Twitter feed, it’d be hard to see it as anything but non-narrative. It epitomizes the “abstract shape” stream of animation that dates back to Oskar Fischinger’s optical poems from the 1930s—a stream that has a “love it or hate it” reputation among even the most dedicated cinephiles.

Abstract as it is, though, Dreamland has a real emotional arc…

[Read the full post on the Quickdraw Animation Society’s Monday Shorts blog]

Animal Collective – We Go Back (Video by Winston Hacking & Michael Enzbrunner)

Winston Hacking’s videos never fail to blow my mind. Whether it’s his work with musicians like Flying Lotus, BadBadNotGood, Washed Out, and Andy Shauf, or his own personal work, his endlessly inventive collages make for some of the most beautifully surreal media artworks out there.

His worlds are always in motion, and are never quite what you think they are. Scene transitions don’t follow any obvious logic. The ground falls out from under you. The camera rotates and reveals that what you thought was a flat surface is a 3D sculpture. Everything is collage and deconstruction, constantly reshaping and reorienting. As someone who’s never had much of a visual sense, I can’t wrap my head around what it takes to map out these kinds of nested illusions.

It’s basically a magic trick, and I’m more than happy to keep falling for it.

Andrew Wasylyk – Dreamt In The Current Of Leafless Winter

A gorgeous piece from Scottish musician Andrew Wasylyk, billed as “an attempted hypnagogic fog of meditation & possibility.” The 16-minute track builds slowly, a cloud of gentle twinklings and meandering melodies eventually coalescing into an insistent drum pulse, rising piano arpeggios, and inquisitive saxophone. The accompanying video, directed by Tommy Perman (of last year’s wonderful Positive Interactions project) ties the music to a multilayered, ever-shifting view of nature, echoing the song’s warmth in a bramble of soft light, tangled branches, and gently distorted reflections. The song and video both are bathed in twilight, comfortable, captivating, and kaleidoscopic.