The Calgary Underground Film Festival runs from April 7 to 13 at Globe Cinema.
(USA 2014) directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett April 10 7:30 p.m.; April 12 2:30 p.m.
There’s a good chance you’ve already seen a few minutes of this Sundance audience award-winner. A clip of an Alzheimer’s patient named Henry responding to a beloved jazz number with ecstatic smiles and excited howls was a massive viral hit when it first surfaced in 2012. The attention helped director Michael Rossato-Bennett finance the completion of his documentary about the efforts of social worker Dan Cohen to get iPods into nursing homes and raise awareness of the extraordinary potential of music therapy for elderly sufferers of dementia.
The magic power of song is plain to see on the subjects in Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory many of whom have transformations that are just as dramatic as that of Henry. Those scenes also give considerable emotional power to a documentary that loses force and focus when it tries to tackle the much wider topic of elder care in America. Nor does Rossato-Bennett dig too deeply into the complexities of the relationship between music and our minds — for that interested parties are better off with Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia . Unsurprisingly the author supplies some wise soundbites for Alive Inside as does singer Bobby McFerrin. Of course it’s Henry who steals the show.
(Canada 2013) directed by Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver April 11 9:45 p.m.
The unrepentantly rough-hewn handiwork of illustrator Shayne Ehman and animator Seth Scriver Asphalt Watches is dumb as rocks and ugly as sin. But those are actually virtues in the case of this autobiographical animated saga about two squiggly dudes named Skeleton Hat and Bucktooth Cloud who hitchhike their way across Canada a journey that entails encounters with foul-mouthed weirdoes of every conceivable stripe. Think South Park or the wildest provocations of the Adult Swim school except the characters are stuffed with Timbits and Boston Pizza slices.
Of course it only seems stupid. For one thing Asphalt Watches ’ defiantly un-picturesque version of this country — all railyards industrial parks strip malls and dumpsters — is almost Boschian for its intricately detailed vision of hoser hell. Another element that betrays the duo’s craftiness is the deft intermingling of the vulgarity-strewn vernacular of the misfit characters and the no-fi hip-hop tracks that comprise the soundtrack. And while the episodic nature of the barely-there narrative causes the film to stall out from time to time or get caught in maddening loops Asphalt Watches is also the rare road movie that fully evokes the mixture of wonder disorientation tedium and WTF incidents that are essential components of any bold (or stoned) venture into places unknown.
For No Good Reason
(UK 2013) directed by Charlie Paul April 13 7 p.m.
From the 1980 semi-biographical comedy Where the Buffalo Roam to Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the legacy of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson has long been a fascination of filmmakers. In fact the counter-cultural icon’s life may have been so studied by cineastes that director Charlie Paul had to switch to chronicling Thompson’s longtime illustrator Ralph Steadman instead.
Narrated (and at certain times hosted) by Johnny Depp (who’s twice played the role of Thompson on film) For No Good Reason surely proves that the 77-year-old Englishman has a bounty of beautiful drawings and paintings in his own right but the casual documentary always feels anchored and weighed down by the artist’s mere connection to Thompson. That said it was the journalist’s success that made Steadman’s ink-splattered work so recognizable.
The documentary may hit a polished pace when studying the septuagenarian’s political activism and artistic process (especially a sequence where Steadman creates a compelling painting entirely from scratch) but at times the film meanders into pointlessness. It’s during those slack scenes that many audience members will begin to mull over whether this picture really was made for no good reason.
(Ireland/UK 2014) directed by Lenny Abrahamson April 7 7 p.m.
The trouble with films about “indie music” is that they often fall apart under the weight of their own whimsy. Thankfully Frank tempers the twee and prevents preciousness by adding a sobering dose of realism to its admittedly quirky tale. The bleak Irish comedy follows an experimental American indie band with the unpronounceable name Soronprfbs. As prone to noise freakouts and theremin experimentation as they are heart-tugging pop songs they’re at least believable as a project — imagine the sort of twee experimental band that would’ve done okay on the Asthmatic Kitty label a few years ago.
What really sets Soronprfbs apart from the pack however is that their frontman is a weirdo named Frank (Michael Fassbender) who never takes off the enormous paper mache mask that covers his entire face. As much a guru as a supposed musical genius Frank is the source of wisdom and strength for his ragtag backing band that includes the abrasive Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the depressed Don (Scoot McNairy). When Irish normie Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) unexpectedly joins the band he’s thrust into their dysfunctional world as they try to record an impossibly ambitious album and eventually struggle their way across the border to play SXSW.
Like the massive dome-shaped head mask on its titular character the premise of Frank occasionally feels clunky and in-the-way. Fortunately the film also offers a fascinating perspective on the crippling nature of artistic ambition. It’s a welcome fresh perspective in the rock flick premise as much about a band not making it as it is about success.
(Canada 2013) directed by Bruce McDonald April 12 7 p.m.
The torments weighing on the mind and soul of The Husband ’s lead character take a terrible toll on his posture. At times Henry (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) is so heavily burdened he seems doomed to face his latest humiliation while slumped forward at a right angle. That pent-up rage and sorrow is understandable given that the Toronto ad man is overwhelmed by both his duties as a new dad and his shame over his now-incarcerated wife’s affair with an adolescent student.
It also makes for an unusual and sometimes frustrating sort of protagonist even in a movie that continually shifts between tragedy comedy and a Cassavetes-style study in compromised machismo. Henry is the kind of character who seems doomed to get stuck in one cringe-inducing situation after another especially after a chance encounter with the kid who cuckolded him fires up his desire to exact some payback. Still McCabe-Lokos (who also co-wrote the script) and director Bruce McDonald largely succeed in making viewers care about Henry’s travails as he tries to find a way out of his morass. Likewise the character’s tightly coiled fury keeps the rest of the movie from ever going slack.
(UK 2013) directed by Caradog James April 12 7:30 p.m.
There’s nothing new about a sci-fi movie exploring the concept of sentient machines but that doesn’t mean the idea is played out. There are many options from the action-packed guns-and-explosions style of the Terminator franchise to films like The Machine which takes a more thoughtful look at what it means to create artificial life (with some guns and violence thrown in for good measure).
The story follows Vincent a genius researcher in artificial intelligence as he toils in an underground lab for Britain’s ministry of defence working to create soldier/machine hybrids capable of dealing with the Chinese with whom the West is locked in a cold war. Enter Ava the idealistic assistant who’s leary about working for the military and asks too many questions.
Without spoiling the plot Vincent and Ava create a sentient cyborg innocent but easily manipulated. We get a sense of the machine’s vulnerability and power as opposing forces try to bend it to their will.
Well-written creative storytelling with an appropriately dark and dystopian aesthetic The Machine is a worthy addition to the artificial intelligence canon.
(Japan 2013) directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto April 8 9:45 p.m.
A regular middle-class man named Takafumi Katayama who works in a department store finds himself in over his head after he joins an underground bondage club. The club has an annual membership and there is only one real rule: you can’t opt out of your membership. The bondage “queens” attack in public places with no real warning. The longer the membership goes on the more dangerous and humiliating the acts become.
The man has a son at home and a wife who is stuck in the hospital in a coma. The public bondage sessions take his mind off his troubles and many times put him in a state of euphoria (shown by wavy circles that bubble around his head). Once the bondage sessions mix with his personal life and start to intensify however he reconsiders his decision.
R100 was written and directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto who was responsible for the weirdo film Big Man Japan so it was bound to be along the same lines as far as wackiness is concerned. On that note it does not disappoint. The pacing goes a little crazy in the last act throwing the audience a curveball. Otherwise if you are into escalating public bondage and strange mutant people this movie is for you.
(USA 2013) directed by Ti West April 12 9:15 p.m.
The punchline writes itself. The Sacrament Vice ’s foray into feature-length film reads like their headlines: We had a near-death experience with a Christian cult in paradise. Yet the Eli Roth-presented film’s premise is precisely why The Sacrament works; along with being a terrific faux-doc horror picture it’s also a self-aware throw to the type of immersive journalism Vice is known for. (Lest we forget they snuck into North Korea and hunted down illicit drugs in Colombia.)
Indeed in marketing-speak director Ti West is on-brand: When cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) and journalist Sam (A.J. Bowen) are invited to visit a cult’s overseas commune they as Vice employees seize the opportunity. They encounter something akin to actual paradise — the cult’s charismatic Father (Gene Jones) has built a happy community that’s rehabilitated addicts welcomed the old and rescued families from poverty. All’s well of course until one mother in confidence suggests that brainwashing has occurred — and begs the team to rescue her daughter. Standard cult stuff right?
Yes but no. When the journalists dig deeper and threaten to expose the goings-on of the cult pandemonium ensues. And despite several truly horrifying scenes The Sacrament elevates itself to more cerebral levels by openly questioning Vice ’s real-world gonzo journalism: Can the camera change an event’s outcome simply by the merits of its presence? Do journalists have a responsibility to remain detached from their subjects? How immersive can reporters get before bending ethical guidelines? The Sacrament asks more questions than it answers but results in a rarity for the genre: thoughtful horror.
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears
(France/Belgium 2013) directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani April 13 7:30 p.m.
With their lavishly orchestrated and unabashedly lurid displays of sex savagery and shiny black leather gloves the Italian giallo thrillers of the 1970s make the vast majority of today’s genre cinema seem both hopelessly timid and tragically unstylish. It’s no wonder they provide a cinematic vocabulary for an array of young filmmakers like the team of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. With their dazzling 2009 debut Amer the Belgian couple emerged as the most ardent acolytes of the unholy church of giallo. Now they go several steps further into the abyss with The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears a sophomore effort that’s consistently startling for its visual bravura. That said its story is mystifying even by the spotty storytelling standards of Mario Bava Dario Argento and other giallo godheads.
The very mysterious mystery at hand concerns a man’s search for his missing wife. He soon discovers that her disappearance may have a great deal to with other happenings in their gloriously garish art deco apartment building. Indeed the few neighbours who haven’t already been swallowed up into walls ceilings or secret passageways are threatened by various menacing figures one of whom has a forte for attacking its victims from underneath their skin (you have to see it to believe it). All of this will elicit a keen state of delirium in viewers willing to surrender to Cattet and Forzani’s ultra-vivid nightmare and ignore the fact that none of it makes a lick of sense.
We Are the Best!
(Sweden/Denmark 2013) directed by Lukas Moodysson April 8 7:30 p.m.; April 13 1:30 p.m.
Punk movies almost never work so the thought of a punk movie being at once heartfelt hilarious and accurate is nearly laughable. Especially when you consider that it’s the followup to director Lukas Moodysson’s human trafficking drama Mammoth (2009).
But there’s no other way to say it — We Are the Best! is perfection. The film which recalls Moodysson’s earlier work about Swedish teens follows Klara and Bobo a pair of 13-year-old girls who are misfits in every regard. Bullied at school misunderstood at home and disillusioned with life in general they take solace in dubbed cassettes of moody melodic Swedish punk of the time (the film’s set in the early ’80s). But even enjoying punk is taboo — Klara’s older brother who introduced the two to the genre is already over it instead getting pretentious with Joy Division records. Everywhere they go they’re told that punk is dead.
Regardless they teach themselves to play instruments well enough to form a charming juvenile punk band bringing on their clean-cut Christian schoolmate Hedvig. The three bond over crushes punk zines and stolen beers all while improving as a band. Though there’s some inevitable turmoil in their relationships the trio figure it all out in the end.
Packed with charm and plenty of solid laughs We Are the Best! lives up to its title and then some. Highly recommended.
(Germany 2013) directed by David Wnendt April 10 9:15 p.m.; April 13 9:15 p.m.
It’s fitting — oh so fitting — that Wetlands features Peaches prominently on its soundtrack. Because in many ways the “Fuck the Pain Away” singer is the perfect musical representation of the film: It’s garishly occasionally challengingly loud. It’s hyper-sexualized. It’s cartoonishly crass. And it’s the reason why Wetlands might be one of the most memorable films screening at the Calgary Underground Film Festival. Indeed Wetlands isn’t for the faint of heart even stylistically — it’s visually scorching in the way that Irvine Welsh’s flicks like Trainspotting or the forthcoming Filth are.
Following the hyper-sexualized 17-year-old Helen (Carla Juri) the film is continually and delectably challenging. It opens with Helen wading through a filthy sewage-covered washroom where she rubs her bare genitals over a toilet seat. She uses her downstairs musk to attract a boy without even removing her pants all while comparing the consistency of her loins to “cottage cheese.” Its central conflict occurs when wait for it she nicks her sphincter shaving; the injury becomes inflamed when it rubs against Helen’s hemorrhoids. Best friends show their loyalty by swapping tampons. And this all happens within its first half-hour.
But Wetlands isn’t simply an assault on conservative-minded viewers (though there’s certain ahem sticky things that are done to a spinach pizza that are definitely NSFW). It’s also through Helen’s monologues a film that impresses a certain wisdom and while visually dazzling and end-on-end hilarious Wetlands — despite the fact that Helen has her finger perpetually up her butt thanks to those hemorrhoids — never feels pornographic. We repeat: If you stick it out it’s one of the most memorable and funny movies you’ll see. Consider Wetlands endorsed.