Cinequest 2016 Wrapup Reviews

by on March 17, 2016

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“Parabellum” normally refers to things ranging from a World War One machine gun to a Colombian extreme metal band.  For director Lukas V. Rinner, the title references the Latin phrase “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”

However, the war which provides a disturbing backdrop to Rinner’s enigmatic tale is limned in vagaries.  A radio talk show references some sort of Argentinian border unrest.  Occasional explosions could be either bombs being tested or bombs being deployed.  An aggressive film score plus quotes from the fictional “The Book Of Disasters” create an atmosphere of Something Bad coming.

One of “Parabellum”’s ironies is seeing the gulf between the Explorers’ desire for preparedness and the actual preparedness they undergo.  The Explorers is the name of a group of people who’ve chosen to go to a jungle compound to learn such survival techniques as unarmed self-defense and identifying edible wild plants.  The seriousness of their endeavor is conveyed by the blindfolding of these people during their trip to the compound, as well as their being cut off from all electronic communication.

Yet this supposed survival training feels more like a summer camp.  The Explorers get regular Jacuzzi access rather than real physical hardship.  Even the most overweight and unfit member of the group is kept in instead of being ruthlessly culled.

Rinner deliberately keeps his characters colorless.  Olveido, the first character introduced in the film, lives a lonely bachelorhood with his sallow features and dark non-descript clothing.  Without needing to elaborate, the impression is created that the other Explorers share similarly undistinguished backgrounds.  Only when one character tragically goes mad late in the film does “Parabellum” have an identifiable character.

Why that character goes mad stems from an overturning of viewers’ perceptions regarding the Explorers’ purpose.  A particular act puts the lie to any illusions that the group fosters personal self-reliance.  So what are the Explorers then?  They lack the discipline and/or ruthlessness to become jungle guerillas.  Despite the talk of theoretical education, the Explorers’ training seems more designed to provide a patina of empowerment while preserving the comforts of their middle class existence.

The director creates in “Parabellum” a world whose amazing images and sounds don’t spoon-feed Decisive Answers to the audience.  The opening shot of a clear blue sky that turns out to be a sky free of light pollution creates the illusion of a land untouched by humanity.  Constant rumbles could either be thunder or the explosion of distant bombs.  But it is the disturbing and haunting final image that reduces the Explorers’ high-sounding training and rhetoric into little more than survival theater.

***

What if the technology to re-animate corpses became the basis of national power?  Ryotaro Makihara’s anime feature film “The Empire of Corpses” runs with that premise in an alternate 19th century world where the Great Game centers on a search for the wellspring of that technology.

In this alternate 1878, corpse revivification technology has been used to create an unending supply of menial labor and literal cannon fodder to fight wars.  However, necroware and other technological revivification methods are only knockoffs of the long lost work of Victor Frankenstein.   The revivified corpse Friday gives brilliant young medical student John Watson a personal stake in finding Frankenstein’s notes.  Friday used to be Watson’s best friend.

A special “recruitment” offer by British intelligence head M aka Walsingham sets Watson and Friday on the hunt for Frankenstein’s lost work.   Protected by the hulking Frederick Burnaby, the duo travel to the mountains of Afghanistan to look for Alexei Karamazov, a brilliant Russian corpse revival technician rumored to have the legendary research material.  What they find instead is the start of a globe-hopping struggle for control and use of Frankenstein’s notes.  Players in the international pursuit include Japanese intelligence agent Seigo Yamazawa, The One (aka Frankenstein’s monster), and the mysterious “secretary” Hadaly Lilith.  At stake may very well be the future of the world.

The film’s themes suggest a blend of an allusion to a particular Alejandro Gonalez Inarritu film, “The Walking Dead,” and a steampunk sensibility.  How a viewer feels about the creative results depend greatly on their expectations.  Seekers of a cracking adventure story filled with zombie-fighting action will find Makihara delivers many such thrilling sequences.  Of particular note are the zombie version of suicide bombers, the Japanese corpse revival factory battle, and the final fight at the Tower of London.

Seekers of post-film discussion material on the other hand will look in vain through Makihara’s film.  The only societal impact truly noticed is seeing military battles reduced to exercises in military attrition.  The film’s ideas about the soul’s nature never reach touching levels of profundity.

Burnaby’s stock comic musclehead provides an amusing foil to Watson.  By contrast, eyerolls greet the realization that sole major female character Hadaly’s breasts could easily double as a generous luxury apartment balcony.

***

Slaves of the 9 to 5 grind will get a smile out of Meghann Artes’ live animated short “Sleepy Steve.”  Part funny wish fulfillment, part live-action “Wallace and Gromit” moment, Artes’ short makes its point without overstaying its welcome.

***

Historical grievances and human shortcomings become unexpected dance partners in Petr Zelenka’s comedy “Lost In Munich.”  Explaining why such an odd pairing works for the film without spoiling “Lost In Munich”’s game-changing twist will be tricky, though.

The title references the trauma inflicted on Czechs by the 1938 Munich Agreement.  Back in 1938, Adolf Hitler wanted to reunite Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland with Germany as part of his plans for an ultimate military occupation of Czechoslovakia.  The Czechs had a military alliance with France and hoped the French would help them if Hitler moved ahead with his war plans.   However, the French had for various reasons no desire to have a military confrontation with the Germans.  French premier Edouard Duladier joined England in a joint proposal to cede the Sudetenland to Hitler.  The eventual agreement, which Hitler accepted, proved particularly galling to the Czechs.  The nations making the agreement unapologetically left Czech input out to make this deal.  The controversial agreement would become a decades-long source of traumatic national humiliation.

Fast forward to 2008 and the 70th anniversary of the Munich agreement’s signing.  A press conference held by a French representative to heal wounds from that traumatic 1938 event gets begrudgingly attended by Czech journalist Pavel Liehm, who’s there under editorial duress.  Having the star of the press conference be Duladier’s grey African parrot Mr. P feels like a final professional humiliation for Pavel.  However, when the disgraced reporter learns Mr. P is parroting statements from Duladier indicating his contempt for the Czechs, the reporter’s publicizing of the parrot’s words sets off an international incident.

The legacy for Czechs of that controversial 1938 agreement provides a serious counterpoint to a comedy which also utilizes marital jealousy and hilariously nightmarish disasters.  Non-Czech audiences, though, will be puzzled by how much of the film’s historical discussions are generally agreed truth and how much is partisan speculation.

What will interest non-Czech audiences more is a deft tonal shift Zelenka makes partway through the film.  That shift allows the film to retain its historic theme while expanding the scope of the story being told. This expansion works in everything from comically disastrous allergies to marital jealousy.

It would be utterly churlish to spoil the exact mechanism the director uses to achieve his cinematic 90-degree turn.  To mildly increase the possibility of an American distribution deal, let’s just say that mechanism most resembles an incredible if unexpected chess move that turns out to be utterly logical upon reflection.

Whichever part of Zelenka’s film the festivalgoer sees, that viewer can rest assured that they will not be sitting quietly in their seat while watching “Lost In Munich.”

***

A character in the M. John Harrison story “The East” warns the tale’s narrator to never become a refugee.  The experiences of the refugees staying at “Problemski Hotel” demonstrate the truth of that warning.

Documentarian Manu Riche’s debut narrative feature is set in a Belgian refugee processing center.  Here, refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and the Russian territories await government permission to be allowed to permanently stay in Belgium.  Cynical long-time resident Bipul has given up hope of any sort until teenage Kazakhstan refugee Lidia arrives at the center with her pregnant friend Martina.  The younger refugees plan to push on to London and hope Bipul will join them.  But will the older resident accept the teens’ offer?

Riche’s adaptation of Dimitri Verhulst’s novel tells the story of the refugee center’s world as a tragicomic ensemble drama.  It slides without much disruption from tones of comic absurdity to tragedy.  A comic vignette about a constantly moved Christmas tree co-exists with the sour moment when a supposed moment of social acceptance turns into nativist rejection.

Bipul’s own situation particularly captures the tragedy and absurdity of the refugee situation.  Despite serving as a valuable linguistic intermediary between refugees and Belgian society, the multilingual translator knows his case worker is constantly trying to determine Bipul’s country of origin so he can be deported.  It wouldn’t be surprising if Bipul’s amnesia (the reason Bipul’s still in Belgium) was actually a sham.

Riche’s smooth storytelling eventually allows the viewer to see through Lidia the difficult actions a refugee must take to find a new country to call home.  What “Problemski Hotel” doesn’t deliver is an emotional impact greater than its individual stories.

***

Why is Chilean director Matias Bize still generally unknown in America?  His previous Cinequest film “The Life Of Fish” was an exquisite study of one man’s attempt to re-kindle an old love affair.  Bize’s new film, “The Memory Of Water,” takes another universal plot and reinvigorates it with penetrating insights into the human heart’s struggles to make peace with traumatic pain.

Javier, an architect, and Amanda, a freelance translator, are left devastated by the accidental death of their four-year-old son Pedro.   A voluntary separation intended to give both former parents space to heal instead sparks an unraveling of their marriage.   Javier secretly holds out hope for Amanda’s return home.  Yet Amanda has re-started her relationship with former boyfriend Marco.  Will Javier and Amanda help each other live with their grief?  Or are they doomed to be consumed by their emotional pain?

The piecemeal revelation of Pedro’s death turns out to be less important than seeing how Javier and Amanda live with things which trigger their memories of the tragedy.  The removal of a pool cover becomes a source of friction.  Seeing marks on a wall indicating Pedro’s growth reminds the viewer that there will never be another growth mark made on the wall for Pedro.  A computer password used by Javier’s father causes the son to involuntarily flinch.

The emotional discord that arises between Javier and Amanda involves more than just jealousy.  It reflects a clash between their professional attitudes.  To Javier the architect, the emotional structure that is his marriage to Amanda is still sound despite the damage brought by Pedro’s death.  He’s willing to rebuild that relationship with his wife’s help.  But to translator Amanda, the grieving process involves finding the right words or ideas to express her emotions.  If it means tearing down assumptions shared with Javier to find those words or ideas, then it’s an act worth doing.

Marco may call the grieving parents’ attempted healing process moving on.  But an emotionally shattering sequence where Amanda struggles to remain professionally calm while translating a lecture on the effects of drowning on the human brain shows that some people haven’t moved as far as they believe they have.

Bize leavens the film’s darkness with perfectly timed moments of joy and wonder.  The family dog joyously steals its scenes.  A conversation about pre-cell phone emotional connections offers wry humor.  The snowfall sequence takes the crown for sparking memories of past happiness.

If healing from shared grief happens at different speeds for different people, “The Memory Of Water” suggests sometimes that healing has to happen alone.

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

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