Joel and Ethan Coen

Today marked the end of a fairly odd journey, tracking down the principles involved in making The Big Lebowski, and thanking them like a drooling fanboy for their wonderful work. With today's No Country conference, I finally had a chance to speak to the creators themselves. As expected, and as per their usual public demeanor, Joel and Ethan Coen just looked at me, unblinking, like I was a freak.

Ah, well.

I did get a fairly good response from Brolin, Bardem and the (gorgeous in person) Kelly Macdonald with a question about working with the boys. Bardem in particular went into some detail about his fear of working with the Coens, the respect he had for their work, and the uncertainty he felt about working in a language other than his native tounge. His English seemed impeccable and nuanced, equal to the caliber of his performance in the film.

With only fifteen minutes, the chat with the filmmakers was all to brief. Then again, with questions like "when are you guys going to work apart?" did little to engender them to the audience at hand.

The rest of the day was spent bouncing from screening to screening - once again, with the divorce from the public screenings that has been so carefully managed results in much less interaction with the casual film fest attendee. The buzz from the Industry lines, however, has been pretty positive for films like the Coen's, Jesse James, and especially Juno, which, if all goes well, could be the breakout film of the fest.

My Winnipeg
Glorious, sublime, the film Maddin was literally born to direct. Sure, he's toyed with the form before, presenting films that look like they're from some lost vault of early 20th century cinema, but with My Winnipeg he finally has a subject to tie all of the loose threads together, his hometown.

Part documentary, part autobiography, part psychotherapy, Maddin's smooth narration and pithy asides take us in his inimitable style on a journey through what he dubs "the coldest city in North America". The film is dreamlike, as we sleepwalk along with the narrator through stock imagery of bison stampeding, stark shots of wintry nights and street after street of banal architecture. This is a love story, warts and all, and the stories told are just weird and unbelievable enough to be true. There is simply a beautiful synergy between his stylistic schtick and the story of escape and loss that he's telling, with such a mash of humour and bittersweetness that it's hard not to fall in love with this mess of a hometown.

Talk of hidden streets and hidden streams, coupled with a sense of mysticism and awe that literally situates "Winterpeg" as the center of the continent (and, by extension, the center of the world). I've never been to Winnipeg, and based on this film, I don't think I ever need to - there's no way that the truth of the city can live up to this elegy to a lost town, it's impossible for the run down streets and destroyed landmarks to take on in person the mythic significance that the film presents.

In Maddin's hands, out-of-place bridges dream, trains circle endlessly, and a confluence of rivers takes on vaginal import. A haunting scene with dead horses trapped in ice is breathtaking. A sequence plays out as a silent film with beautiful score, a dance to a seance, giving a taste of his other works before the narration returns. It's all so great.

My Winnipeg gives us the idea of a city, an idea far more beautiful and insane than any city could ever be, and, luckily for the Manitoba town, that should be enough.
Directed by: Guy Maddin
Grade: A+
Ex Drummer
Ex Drummer is a mess of a film, a tawdry, bizarre tale that has enough visual style to set it apart, barely, from being a complete waste of several hours of your life.

A band of misfits get together and find a drummer to put together a musical group. Infants die, fat women have their wigs ripped off and are fucked by upside down manic guitarists, and the end sees a random shootout. It was sold as a Man Bites Dog-like black comedy, but there's little funny here worth sticking around for. A loveless, rambling, incoherent and offensive film, with little in the end to recommend to even the most ardent genre fan. Alas, even the music is pretty shit, so you can't even count on that to get you through the drudgery. Skip it.
Directed by: Koen Mortier
Grade: F
Glory to the Filmmaker
You'll ask yourself throughout much of the running time of Glory to the Filmmaker, "What in the hell is this thing about?" We get to experience dancing aliens, asteroid impacts, duck puppets and submarines, all products from the shattered brain of "Beat" Takeshi.

Roughly, this is a post-modernist take on the filmmaker's own impotence, his inability seemingly to move forward from the films that made him famous (gangster and swordplay), and to delve into genres that he has yet to explore. The conceit is funny and thoroughly enjoyable when it's working, and the first half of the movie is told with a wink and a smile, with each segment short and to the (ridiculous) point. It all kinda goes to hell once he settles on a truly insane genre: take one part Buñuel, add a dash of typically psychotic/sadistic Japanese game show, through in a bunch of wrestlers in masks, and you get a small sense of what's going on here. Oh, and let's not forget the repeated torturing of a fiberglass representation of the director himself.

Knowing the "what", in this case, does little to tell you the "why" in terms of the comings and goings of the film, and it's silliness will certainly not be to everyone's taste. Still, in a weird way it's enjoyable, certainly not something to watch on a whim, but has laughs and insanity to keep it chugging along. It's a dark and weird Monty Python sketch (complete with Gilliamesque animation and titles at the end), a kooky trip through the brain of a filmmaker who's looking for anything but glory with this work.
Directed by: Takeshi Katano
Grade: B-
Eastern Promises
Coming after last year's sublime A History of Violence, Cronenberg's second pairing with Viggo Mortensen comes complete with very high expectations. It starts very well, and we're immediately drawn into this world of dead pregnant teens, the Russian mob, the hermeneutics of tattoos and the archetypal disappointment of a father with his son.

There's a scene that will no doubt be the most memorable, a naked fight in a shower that's intensely violent and violating, classic Cronenberg in its best sense. The taciturn Viggo once again brings his Oscar-worthy A-game, and Naomi Watts' turn, while simpering, is nonetheless what the film calls for. Vincent Cassel once again turns being an asshole into a work of art, and the rest of the cast deliver top notch performances.

In the end, it is the ending that trips the film, a little too neat and abrupt for all the time spent creating such a delightfully intense mood. It's as if a more epic film was truncated in favour of getting things done, or the first chapter of a larger story that has set things up, only to have another tale to see things through. Still, this only partially mars another fine effort from DC, and while it's doesn't reach the heights of last year's flick, it still injects some fun and gore into a tired genre, and the master continues to show the almost-rans how it can be done.
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Grade: A-