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My Winnipeg

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Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- "Docu-fantasia" is too mild a label for "My Winnipeg," Guy Maddin's simultaneously heartfelt and mocking ode to the hometown he describes as the coldest, most soporific city on Earth. Hilarious for those on Maddin's mad wavelength and more varied than his strictly fictional features, it should draw an audience comparable to his recent efforts.

Declaring his fevered intent to break free at last from the Canadian town's shackles, Maddin admits the hardest part will be staying awake until he reaches the city limits. While the director narrates, an actor (Darcy Fehr) portraying Maddin boards a train of lost souls, pointed out of town and praying the burg's dark forces don't compel it somehow to circle within.

While dozing alongside drunken fellow passengers -- "Stay awake!," he begs his weak-willed body -- Maddin recalls the sites and peculiarities that give the city such nostalgic power over him.

Viewers will suspect, then grow certain, that much of what they hear is fairy-dusted fantasy, but many of the most dubious claims have such a weird poetic loveliness you want to believe them. The lifeforce-sapping chill of the town, for instance, has turned it into the sleepwalking capital of the world. Ten times as many somnambulists prowl the midnight avenues here than in any other town, leading city fathers to pass a remarkably hospitable law: Citizens are permitted to retain keys to every house and apartment in which they've lived, and current tenants are obliged to let sleepwalkers enter their homes undisturbed.

Without sleepwalking as an excuse, Maddin is forced to rent out his childhood home for a month, hiring actors to play his siblings with his real mother (no, not his "real" real mother) re-enacting some of the psychodrama that -- as those who witnessed the Freudian horror of "Brand Upon the Brain!" can attest -- scarred him so. This supplies the film's itchiest moments, but also one of its funniest: the description of Winnipeg's popular TV hero "Ledge Man," who every day found a reason to threaten suicide, and every day was talked out of it by Mom.

Interwoven are recollections that will ring true even to Winnipeggers without access to Maddin's inner world. He mourns fallen landmarks, and even goes to document the demolition of a hallowed hockey arena that has been replaced by a vulgar new one with luxury boxes -- the closest the director will get to a Michael Moore moment.

The episodic structure lets Maddin indulge tangents like a graceful bit of dance (shades of his ballet film "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary") staged around an occult ceremony held by Winnipeg civic leaders. The variety of action and the inspired imagery here -- from secret rivers beneath the town to a frozen lake with horse heads sticking out of it (don't ask) -- make the movie more engaging for audiences who may have had difficulty with some earlier features.

Happily, the variation does nothing to dilute the singular, bizarrely comic vision for which Winnipeg should proudly claim some credit.

MY WINNIPEG
Documentary Channel/Buffalo Gal Pictures/Everyday Pictures
Credits:
Director: Guy Maddin
Screenwriters: Guy Maddin, George Toles
Producer: Jody Shapiro, Phyllis Laing
Executive producer: Michael Burns
Director of photography: Jody Shapiro
Production designer: Rejean Labrie
Editor: John Gurdebeke
Cast:
Guy Maddin: Darcy Fehr
Various: Ann Savage, Louis Negin, Amy Stewart
Running time -- 80 minutes
No MPAA rating