VIFF 2016: Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie, 2016)

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It’s already too late for someone. A rope is pulled down from a tree and strung back up again. Two shots, and a cloud of suicidal despair rolls in over the coming proceedings. The film stops briefly to introduce itself—the title appears as if clawed across the screen—and just as quickly director Ashley McKenzie plunges back into the lives of two lovers and recovering drug addicts living on the fringes of society.

Werewolf is an addiction movie. And like many films in the genre, its drama orbits around the twin poles of drugs and romance. The compulsive behavior brought on by both intoxicants proves an irresistible symmetry for filmmakers interested in that sort of thing. Narcotics as l’amour fou, or vice versa. The more clinical term is, I believe, co-dependency, and although Werewolf plays freely with the established image of the addict lovers, it distinguishes itself by honing in on the pharmacological ties that bind this relationship. Methadone treatment isn’t just a metaphor here, but a very real medical regime with rules, regulations, lockboxes, and psych evals, all of which are administered and enforced by the faceless social workers who hover around the edges of the rigid frame, abstracted as benignly indifferent voices or anonymous limbs. Snatches of poetry do enter this antiseptic world through McKenzie’s eye, and her Denis-like fascination with skin— real skin, not the finely polished alabaster of most movie actors—keeps things pulsing with humanity. Human moments, however, give way always to the exhausting task of navigating the social order of recovery, and the film remains steadfastly committed to depicting the same degrading ritual time and again: hauling yourself up to the pharmacist’s counter to guzzle down one more dose, the humiliation nearly unbearable save for the fact that it’s shared.

The tragedy, as the opening shots warn us, is that this life can’t be shared forever, and so Werewolf is finally a diverged path, a fork leading two places, one deathly definitive and the other indeterminate, lonely, but not entirely without hope.

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VIFF 2016: Maudite Poutine (Karl Lemieux, 2016) and Pop Song (Matthew Taylor Blais, 2016)

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The loudest film of the Future // Present series thus far is Karl Lemieux’s film about a drummer in a noisy band (I’m at least 20 years out of date on music genres) trying to make up for the fact that he and his bandmates, in an off-screen act of stupidity, stole a bunch of pot from local gangsters and now owe several thousand dollars they don’t have and can’t raise. The drummer, Vincent, walks and drives around, drinks beer, works at his job in a factory and tries to get his brother, a meth addict with connections to the mob, to help him out. It’s all shot in black and white, with long sequences scored only by music, recalling the hallucinatory interstitial passages of Jim Jarmsuch’s Dead Man, or the desperate final third of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. Jean-Simon Leduc, as Vincent, dominates the film, but he’s an incongruous presence in this world. Looking a bit like George Clooney and a lot like Jordan Catalano-era Jared Leto, he’s far too pretty to be a drummer, let alone to be trapped in this dead-end life.

Paired with the feature is one of the best films of the festival so far this year, a three minute short Pop Song (a perfect title), directed by Matthew Taylor Blais. Completely silent, it’s a visual experiment wherein images are layered such that they cancel each other out, creating black spaces in the frame, and then misaligned by a frame, creating a spatial and temporal discontinuity which, with the movement of the image, reveals flashes of gorgeous bright color. Documenting a few quotidian locations: a street sign, trees in a park, a woman, we see their beauty in an entirely new way. It reminded me of Lois Patiño’s Night Without Distance and the nature footage from Godard’s Adieu au langage.

VIFF 2016: Never Eat Alone (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2016)

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Of the three films in VIFF’s new Future // Present series that I’ve seen thus far, the program Sunday night of Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s new feature paired with three of her short films is the standout. The feature is a fictionalization of the story of her maternal grandmother, Joan Benac, playing herself, who in the early 1950s, appeared as a singer and actress on a kitschy television show. Remembering this in a dream, she tasks her granddaughter Audrey (played by Deragh Campbell, in one of her three films at VIFF this year) with finding the show and tracking down the boy she co-starred with and had dated briefly. She does, she thinks, and writes the man a letter. He’s living on the other end of the country, in a small town where he lives alone and teaches a choir. Audrey writes the man a letter, asking him to call, but he never manages to connect with the women in Toronto (he’s played by George Radovics, Bohdanowicz’s producer’s grandfather). The bulk of the film cuts between the three principals, usually as they’re eating, alone. The television episode is interspersed throughout, and there’s a digressive slideshow of the grandmother’s trip to the Bahamas, both of which are actual artifacts. But wholly fictionalized scenes abound as well, such as one where Audrey tries on a bunch of old clothes her grandmother is trying to get rid of while the two delicately balance familial niceness with the desire not to give or receive these gifts. It’s a found-footage film, using bits and pieces of the past to build a collage of a fictionalized history, an alternate reality version of her family’s history. It bears a kind of inverse relationship to Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide films, which use a highly structured script and compositional style to document her family’s life, their work and routines and relationships as they go about various tasks: cleaning the house, making leather goods, cooking dumplings. Bohdanowicz in contrast films with an off-hand directness, emotionally straightforward compositions chronicling wholly improvised interactions (both Campbell and Benac receive screenplay credits).

Even more astonishing though, are the three short films paired with the feature, chronicling Bohdanowicz’s paternal grandmother. The first, A Prayer, is a short documentary, following said grandmother around her house has she does various chores (and eats a meal, alone, naturally). The second, An Evening, is something special: a tour of the grandmother’s house shortly after her death, patiently documenting its spaces while one of her records plays on the stereo, intermittently marred by a broken needle, from late afternoon until the space disappears into the darkness of night. It’s a film Chantal Akerman would be proud of. The third, Another Prayer, replays the first short, but superimposed over the now empty spaces of the woman’s home, completely silent. Each film is prefaced by a poem composed by Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother, and the cumulative effect of the trilogy together is devastating.

VIFF 2016: The Lockpicker (Randall Okita, 2016)

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The promise of summer comes early in The Lockpicker in the form of a sailing trip, a post-diploma work opportunity that doubles, more importantly, as a dream of warmth and far-flung travels, a balm for the bleakness of winter. And Hashi could clearly use a lodestar to navigate his way through his final months of high school, which find him in an unsustainable cycle of drugs and outbursts. As conceived by director Randall Okita and played by Keigian Umi Tang, Hashi embodies a familiar vision of teenage masculinity: haunted, but sensitive, confrontational at times, but more out of hurt than genuine ill-will.

Okita’s film charts the teenage mind’s limited horizon, where just one school semester seems an uncrossable chasm between the present and the future. Admittedly, the present does look pretty dull. A slushy gray tone dominates the film and the soft textures of DP Jackson Parrell’s cinematography turn this small Canadian town into a blurred no-place. Only the crushed blacks of night provide an escape, although Hashi’s evenings morph into baroquely staged nightmares just as frequently as they take the form of drunken revelry. Okita is most at home with these party scenes; he understands how intoxicants heighten juvenile braggadocio, but also how those boasts paper over pain and vulnerability. The pain, however, proves too much for Hashi. His high school days end in violence and he’s cast out into unceasing winter, the film finally giving into the grim cliche it earlier strived to avoid. It needn’t end this way. A little more wisdom, and a little more time, might be enough to convince all involved that summer always, inevitably rolls around.