Monday

VIFF '13: Best of the Fest  photo Film-still-from-The-Past--005_zps75f38e52.jpg
01. The Past (Farhadi)
02. All Is Lost (Chandor)
03. Rhymes for Young Ghouls (Barnaby)
04. A Touch of Sin (Jia)
05. Stray Dogs (Tsai)
06. Our Sunhi (Hong)
07. Nebraska (Payne)
08. A Field in England (Wheatley)
09. Just in Time (Greenaway)
10. Gebo and the Shadow (de Oliveira)
VIFF '13: Of All These Friends and Lovers
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Bends Carina Lau turns in a superb performance as a well-heeled Hong Kong housewife who, suddenly (though perhaps not entirely unexpectedly?), has the economic rug pulled out from underneath her. If this debut feature by Flora Lau feels decidedly more polished and assured than most debut features, that's due in large part to both Carina Lau bringing the movie-star goods and ever-dependable DP extraordinaire Christopher Doyle following each eye-popping composition with another more gorgeous. It's a one-two punch that would no doubt leave other neophyte filmmakers feeling more than a little jealous.

Longing for the Rain The program guide for Yang Lina's film promised something "unprecedented in Chinese cinema: a truly erotic depiction of female desire, shot from a woman's point of view." In execution, the film is almost as radical as that pull-quote would suggest. Initially, Longing for the Rain felt like a reaction to the Fifty Shades phenomenon--the sexually frustrated protagonist pops some porn into the DVD player while her husband and daughter are out for the day, receives a vibrator as a "naughty" gift from a girlfriend, etc.--Chinese only insofar as the story is playing out in Beijing, which, in the early goings, seemed (pointedly) like it might just as well be New York, London, or Tokyo. As the film progresses, however, it takes on an ethnographic specificity that serves to steer the narrative in strange, unexpected directions. The final act--set in a remote Buddhist commune--feels curious and somewhat unsatisfying, yet completely appropriate in these respects.

Our Sunhi Wherein Hong Sang-soo tackles the classic trope about the moody-elusive-charming young woman whom no male who makes her acquaintance can seem to resist. It could be, say, Sooki in True Blood. Cameron Diaz's Mary. Or Audrey Hepburn at the peak of her waifish prowess. But here it's Sunhi, equal parts might-be-smart aspiring artist and blank slate, ripe for the projection of romantic, idealistic notions by her assortment of male admirers. Hong handles this familiar material with a lightness and wit that renders it very nearly fresh. It's a pleasure to watch, from its opening moment to its last. Yet beneath its breezy comic surface, there is the subtlest undercurrent of melancholy here, emanating not least from the distaff center of attention. "Our" Sunhi, after all, has to shoulder the weight of all that smitten affection, which Hong wisely realizes might be a less enviable, more burdensome task than inferior rom-coms prefer to let on.

3x3D Of course the Godard entry was the reason this omnibus was a must-see. Somewhat paradoxically, though, The Three Disasters is only essential viewing for serious Godard completists, and yet I'm not so sure that those completists will find anything particularly new here--the 3D format notwithstanding--in relation to his late-career body of work. We shall see; I'm certainly not anticipating the forthcoming Farewell to Language any less eagerly after this teaser. Surprisingly, it was the Peter Greenaway effort, Just in Time, that stole the show for me. Greenaway picks up from where he left off in recent work like Rembrandt's J'Accuse, but rather than re-treading the same meta-historical territory to similar effect, he utilizes the distinctive quirks of 3D to push the thematic points he's pursuing further while fruitfully reformulating them. To his credit, Greenaway seems neither intimidated by the technology nor constrained by the brief runtime, which lends his entry a dexterous vitality that Godard's interesting work-in-progress ultimately lacks. Edgar Pera's Cinesapiens, meanwhle, is insufferable trash. Had it not been sequenced in the middle of the triptych (preceding the Godard), I would have walked out before it hit the five-minute mark.

Wolf Children I must admit, in the interests of full disclosure, that I'm not an anime guy. To be sure, I enjoy and/or admire the same small canon of Japanese animated features that other non-anime people enjoy and/or admire: most of Miyazaki's films, a few other Ghibli titles, the too-small oeuvre of the brilliant, sadly departed Satoshi Kon. But press me beyond these mostly safe picks and my (admittedly, probably at least partly unfair) genre prejudices become apparent. Happily, I enjoyed and admired Hosoda Mamoru's Wolf Children considerably more than I expected to, even while a) commenting to Teresa, during the film's poignant, largely "realistic" opening section, that Wolf Children would be better without its fantasy conceit of people who can transform into wolves; and b) finding distractingly silly the (for lack of a better word) "romantic" appearance of the adult wolves that the titular children grow into, which, in my view, seemed representative of the grating anime cliches that Mamoru mostly manages to eschew.

Thursday

We Run Things, Things Don't Run We
Brava!
VIFF '13: The Past Is a Foreign Country  photo england-post_zpsbe79b15b.jpg
A Field in England If noting that Ben Wheatley's latest plays like a heady mix of Samuel Beckett, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, and Monty Python riffing on The Seventh Seal doesn't exactly add much to the critical conversation, I think it nevertheless goes some way toward providing a sense of how pleasurable (if occasionally trying) and strange a film this is. The titular field is an Early Modern purgatory, a seemingly mundane space that serves as a fitting backdrop for the confusion, madness, violence, and dark humor that ensue, ad infinitum. In other words, this is an ideal midnight movie, which we had the good fortune of attending as such. I'm only a touch jealous that Teresa was nodding off periodically during the screening, which I suspect added serendipitously to the film's hypnotic, somnabulistic rhythms.

Gebo and the Shadow It's unfortunate the impact a bad performance can have on a film that is, in nearly every other regard, exquisite. In this case, if it wasn't for Ricardo Trêpa's highly off-putting turn, as the greatly troubled prodigal son of a lower-class nineteenth-century French family, this might well have been the best de Oliveira film in years, perhaps since my favorite of his features, 2003's A Talking Picture. Instead, it's--please excuse the easy pun--a shadow of the film it could have been sans Trêpa's obnoxious performance. The rest of the cast is splendid, especially Michael Londsdale as the world-weary patriarch and Jeanne Moreau in an amiably scene-stealing supporting role. Trêpa (de Oliveira's real-life grandson) has been servicable enough, if never impressive, in past de Oliveira films; he's generally better in comic roles or in parts that aren't particularly crucial to the fabric of a film. His role in Gebo and the Shadow is of the utmost importance to the narrative--truly a shame.

Nebraska In anticipation of seeing Alexander Payne's new film, my first screening at this year's fest, I found myself listening to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (one of my all-time favorite albums). However, beyond a few kindred aspects (Phedon Papamichael's ashy black-and-white cinematography pairs nicely with the way Springsteen's stark, stripped-down aesthetic for the album evokes the flatness and plainness of the Husker state landscape), these are ultimately works of art that share little save for a common title. Where Springsteen's record is dark and mostly pessimistic, imagining the sad fates of small-time outlaws, Payne's film is perhaps the warmest and most humane that he's directed to date. Even when he seems to cast judgment on his characters, Payne's sketches of cranky curmudgeons, their naggging wives, and ambivalent thirtysomething offspring ring true to this born-and-raised Midwesterner. There's an honesty to Payne's satiric eye that doesn't preclude affection. Scenes of old men gathered together in a modest-sized living room, collectively snoring in front of a television set; or drawn-out, alternately boastful and mocking, discussions about how long it takes, or should take, to drive from one town to another are ethnographic Americana in the sense that Kathleen Stewart does it--that is, in the best possible sense.

The Past Ashgar Farhadi's follow-up to his superb A Separation is an even stronger piece of work; indeed, it's the best film that I've seen at VIFF this year. True to its title, The Past is not so much a critics' film as it is an historian's film--in terms of themes and methodological concerns, if not period per se. To be sure, it's one of the most thoughtful and provocative filmic meditations that I've encountered concerning the myriad ways that the past presses up threateningly against the present while actions in the present often seek--consciously or not--to recreate moments or feelings from our past--always, of course, to imperfect effect. At the same time, Farhadi considers, in both epistemological and psychological terms (insofar as these modes can be cleanly delineated), the knowability of the past and the ultimate importance, or (perhaps) lack thereof, of knowing precisely "what happened" at critical junctures in our respective, convergent pasts. In fact, most of the key "events" that compel the actions and decisions of Farhadi's characters actually occurred off-screen in the days, weeks, and months preceding the start of the in medias res narrative presented here. This is, above all, a profound study in causality and consequence, yet unlike A Separation, otherwise excellent, The Past never feels schematic or contrived. Instead, the sequence of connections in The Past registers as unsettlingly natural, forcing the viewer to reflect in similar terms on the causal dynamics of his or her own past and present.

Wednesday

VIFF '13: Crimes and Misdemeanors  photo A_Touch_of_Sin_4-620x316_zpsf47e3efa.jpg All Is Lost There has been no shortage of late of films centering on people (literally) stuck in perilous situations, from James Franco's headstrong spelunker in 127 hours to Ryan Reynolds' interred war-zone contractor in Buried to, most recently, the stranded astronauts in Gravity. What separates All is Lost within this crowded subgenre is not just that it almost entirely eschews the exposition that other such films sneak in through the narrative back-door. It's also every crag and line in Robert Redford's face as he grimaces at his bad fortune, his long-gestating gutteral "Fuuuuuuuuuuucckk" when things go further south, his methodical movements aboard his doomed boat, signifying, perhaps, his stubborn will to survive against the odds yet never eclipsing, via heavy-handed semiotics, the specificity and instantaneity of a given moment's particular task. Likewise, the film allows, in its final sequence, for something like spiritual or metaphysical redemption, but without forcing the issue.

Miss Violence Sometimes I wish festival program guides were more forthcoming--worries over "spoiling" gradually revealed plot points be damned. Not that the VIFF program's entry for this Greek feature is completely vague, but some topical tags like "incest as alleged political allegory," "raping children," and "pimping children" could really go a long way. I can't say that Miss Violence is a bad film, nor am I going to claim that films like this one should not be made or don't serve a certain social function. But, personally, I would rather not sit through them. Call me squeamish if you'd like; that's fine. As Miss Jean Brodie would say, "For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like."

Rhymes for Young Ghouls It may be Tarantino who, over the past few years, has received the lion's share of credit for demonstrating that historical tragedies can be treated thoughtfully on film without didactic solemnity standing for Moral Seriousness. But it's the spirit of Rob Zombie--whose effusive affection for the horror genre comes sans quotation marks and the brand of inescapable irony with which Tarantino, despite his well-noted movie-geek reputation, approaches generic pastiche--that Jeff Barnaby is most distinctly channelling here. It's a fruitful model, to be sure. Barnaby's examination of Canada's notorious residential school system is imagined as an historical horror movie--by turns, hallucinogenic and painfully prosaic. The forbidding haunted house on the hill is a site of cultural genocide and institutionalized abuse; the gooseflesh-inducing chills are collectively remembered instances of trauma. The cumulative result is a bloody, well-deserved "fuck you" to the not-distant past, as powerful as it is irreverent.

Stray Dogs If this is indeed Tsai Ming-liang's swansong, it's an exceptionally haunting final note, though not necessarily a representative example of what has made Tsai of one of Taiwanese cinema's finest practitioners. From its sustained opening shot to the pair of stunners that close the film, Stray Dogs practically oozes melancholy, all unfillable voids and cryptic despair. Yet, for a director who has proven a master at balancing such emotions alongside a singular deadpan humor, this is without doubt--a few droll moments notwithstanding--his least funny effort, an aspect that threatens to render the film as a whole nearly oppressive in its bleakness. That's not to say that Stray Dogs is less than completely indelible and poignant; just that last year's classic short, The Walker, might finally be the more apt send-off.

A Touch of Sin By moving slyly from the quasi-documentary territory that Jia Zhang-ke has recently staked out toward an (at least ostensibly) more accessible aesthetic mode, A Touch of Sin makes certain integral themes in Jia's work more readily apparent than ever. For instance, it now seems quite clear that, for Jia, there are (at least) four Chinas, or layers of China: an extremely diverse and beautiful, if sometimes dauntingly rugged, landscape; an "ancient," semi-mythic civilization represented by the material traces of the past that remain standing; the expansive industrialization of the Mao era that sought to eradicate much of that imperial past; and the aspects-of-capitalism free-for-all of the present moment, wherein a small handful of often thuggish elites have come into copious amounts of money while, for the vast majority of the populace, life remains, at best, rather drab and decidedly less than promising. The action in Jia's latest takes places simultaneously in each of these Chinas, overlapping stages that converge in fascinating ways. The similarly overlapping narrative strains are variations on a revenge-of-the-repressed theme, allowing Jia to play explicitly with genre tropes in a manner that is unmistkakably new within his oeuvre. Yet the grim question remains of whether these are ultimately trees falling in a forest with no one around to hear them--or to care (or remember), at any rate. This lingering point suggests the presence of a fifth essential layer: China as paradox, an overpopulated echo chamber.