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TIFF 2015. Correspondences #11

Our TIFF 2015 correspondence continues with Trojan-horse provocations, prankish and murderous families, and more.
Dear Danny,
Generally (and melancholically) speaking, I’m in the process of wrapping up my TIFF experience. Literally speaking, however, I’m sitting before a flatscreen in the Bell Lightbox Theatre’s lobby, seeing Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton for the second time in a row. Brother Sicinski in his essential Wavelengths report has astutely written on this singular 30-minute whatsit by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson, though I couldn’t resist adding my own appreciative two cents. You’ve heard the story: Paul Gross aims to promote Canadian patriotism with his Afghanistan War would-be blockbuster Hyena Road, a project dismantled by Maddin in a remarkable, psychedelic behind-the-scenes documentary/demolition job. Presenting himself as broke, livid and roasting under the sweltering Jordanian sun, Maddin posits his role as “a Trojan horse inside a Trojan horse,” his hallucinatory camera turning the arid landscapes and squid-equipped actors of Gross’ nationalist epic into a mirage of bleeding colors, pixilated skies, and stalactite-like shafts of light. Something akin to an extraordinarily defective night-vision mechanism, the effect slashes through the questionable illusionism of war pictures with a force at once sardonic and vehement. Featuring intertitles, Sun Tzu quotes, and possibly my favorite sight gag of the festival in the form of an undersized green-screen, this is a thrilling gesture against what’s described as “passive eyeballs.” Where were Maddin and company when Black Hawk Down was being filmed?
Jason Bateman might have admired Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton’s puckishly confrontational quality, or at least the parents of his character in The Family Fang would certainly have. Played by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett, they’re die-hard pranksters who fancy themselves as incorruptible avant-gardists, blithely incorporating their kids into shake-up stunts like phony bank robberies and disruptive beauty pageants. Grown into a frazzled actress (Nicole Kidman) and a blocked writer (Bateman), the two children raised in creative disturbance yearn for its opposite, stability; grudgingly reconnecting with their roots, the siblings face bittersweet recollections, the vestiges of old relationships, and what may or may not be their parents’ most consummate fake-out yet. I was a fan of Bateman’s first directorial effort, Bad Words, a snide roasting of children’s spelling bee competitions that seemed to flow directly from the former teen actor’s lopsided showbiz experience. The Family Fang feels no less personal. Alternating strangely murky interiors (seldom has a comedy been shot with such deep shadows) with the luminosity of memories (their glow made grainy by video recordings), it’s a damaged family portrait suspended deftly somewhere between forgiveness and parricide. Reading a synopsis beforehand, I expected a feature-length version of one of the J. Walter Weatherman bits from Arrested Development; having now seen Bateman’s distinct mix of the antic and the grave, Danny, I’d instead double-bill it with the empathy you describe in Chang’s Murmur of the Hearts.
After the revelation, a disappointment: Pablo Trapero’s The Clan, another movie with an aberrant family at its center, huffs and puffs laboriously but doesn’t do much justice to its true-story source. Recounting “el Caso Puccio” that shook Argentina in the early 1980s, the film charts the thin line between business and crime straddled by a middle-class Buenos Aires family with a middling clothing shop but a thriving side trade of extortion and murder. Arquimedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella) presides over the operations, organizing kidnappings and ordering executions once the ransom has been paid; his elder son (Peter Lanzani) runs them with growing unease, dreaming of an escape overseas but essentially too weak-willed to confront the steely patriarch. If that sounds like a potently allegorical concept for the monsters and collaborators of a nation divided between dictatorship and democracy, that’s just what it remains, a concept, an idea shorn of illumination in favor of facile juxtapositions. To that, Trapero merely adds a sheen of sub-Scorsesean hustle, slithering camera movements and ostentatious needle-drops and all—a typically slick shot follows a dinner tray from kitchen past cozy bedrooms down to the cellar where the latest captive pleads and whimpers. (Trapero caps that midway through by intercutting between a sex scene and a shooting. Best Director winner at Venice, Danny.) In sharp contrast to the film’s noise is the chilly reserve of Francella, a popular Argentine comedian who invests Puccio with a sense of avuncular manipulation key to fathers as well as businessmen. His performance, along with the real story, deserves a more searching film.
Let’s see, what else? Sandra Kogut in Campo Grande gives what has become a perennial Brazilian story (abandoned children, class discrepancies) a striking view of Rio, overcast and choked with construction dust and noise, a bustling city where virtually everybody is alone. Joko Anwar’s A Copy of My Mind has a captivating Indonesian couple (a peddler of pirated DVDs who specializes in lousy subtitles, a beauty salon servant with a kleptomaniac streak) and a wryly observational flow that’s unfortunately interrupted by a thriller plot. Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side continues the Italian director’s detached docu-hybrid tours of American netherworlds, searching for grungy dilapidation and lyricism amid the racist, paranoid dwellers of a backwoods corner of Louisiana. And then there was one of my very favorite TIFF events, a screening of Michael Mann’s 1995 matchless epic Heat with the filmmaker in attendance for an exceptionally intelligent discussion afterwards. Viewing it for the first time on the big screen since my days as a ravenous teenage moviegoer, I was struck by Mann’s use of Los Angeles as a panorama of impermanence, where connections made in glassy modernist houses are as fleeting as brushes in diners, nightclubs, and hotels—emotional bonds flaring and fading like neon signs in the city’s nocturnal topography. The greatest (unofficial) Western in two decades, Mann’s dance of obsessed cops and taciturn criminals never fails to bring me to tears.
So off I go, Danny. I’ll miss our excited exchanges of notes and thoughts between screenings, to say nothing of our searches for savory Thai dinners and late-night discussions of the underappreciated career of John M. Stahl. Looking forward to the rest of your reports, and to the privilege of picking up our dialogue once again for more cinematic agonies and ecstasies.
See you next year!
Fern

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