VIFF: Two More
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Nine Behind Sophy Romvari's short film concerns a film student's phone conversation with her estranged grandfather. The title, presumably, refers to the time-difference between Vancouver, where the film student resides, and Budapest, her family's ancestral origin, still home to her grandfather. Beyond this present-tense distance in time, however, the film is concerned with the idea of 'distance' in various forms: across geographic spaces, generations, cultures, and the distance separating our hazily retained memorial selves from our current lives - a more complex form of temporal distance than the artifice of time zones. Speaking of time, Nine Behind clocks in at just slightly over 11 minutes, and yet, remarkably, it is legitimately moving and poignant; off the top of my head, I'm not sure that I've ever felt particularly moved by a short film before, as normally I need to spend more time with the character(s) in order to feel engaged and to really care. But the actress (Noémi Fabian) who plays the film's lone on-screen character is so expressive and at the same time so natural; and the filmmaking itself so (literally and emotionally) economical, that it caught me off-guard. Within the space of seconds, the long-distance conversation moves from catching-up chit-chat to much more emotionally fraught terrain - and it is really affecting. To be sure, this a very personal story for Romvari. [Full disclosure: the filmmaker is a friend, and while knowing something about its personal aspects may have contributed to the film's overall poignancy, I strongly suspect that these aspects would have still been discernible without possessing any first-hand familiarity.] Yet, through the open-ended manner in which it mines its themes, Nine Behind prompted to me to reflect on how, when we're very young, we tend not to think too much about family/ancestry/tradition, but as we get older these things do start to matter more, and we have certain questions about things that we might have earlier just taken for granted or not cared much about. And also, how what we've retained of our early memories - particularly those situated within the context of the family - take on a kind of mysterious quality as we get older and further away in time from the 'event' that's been retained but also, perhaps, distorted, recolored, partly misremembered, or misunderstood. As I've formed my own family and begun raising a child, I often wonder what sense he is making of things happening around him that he can't possibly fully understand, and how these moments or events will appear to him in his memory as he grows up; this in turn makes what I recall of my own early life seem stranger, because I know there's a lot that I do vaguely recall but which I don't really understand even (or especially?) now. Nine Behind made me pause to think about these things, which is itself an uncommon achievement.

Soju and Ice Cream Like Nine Behind, Lee Kwangkuk's film includes strained (or severed) family relationships, feelings of filial guilt and/or responsibility, and tense phone calls. But while its magical-realism conceit is initially charming, it fails to accomplish in 37 minutes (it's a stretch to call this a 'short') what Romvari's film does in 11: that is, it's finally too maudlin to be moving, to my tastes anyway, and its central performance borders on the histrionic. It's not bad per se, but it's fairly unremarkable. With Soju and Ice Cream serving as the over-long appetizer before Hong Sang-soo's latest triumph (Yourself and Yours, below), I was mostly just impatient for the main course to arrive.


VIFF: Best of the Fest  photo quiet-passion-02_zpsbql6ecom.jpg

01. A Quiet Passion (Davies)
02. Life after Life (Zhang)
03. The Death of Louis XIV (Serra)
04. Personal Shopper (Assayas)
05. Paterson (Jarmusch)
06. Our Love Story (Lee)
07. Yourself and Yours (Hong)
08. Toni Erdmann (Ade)
09. Lights above Water (Lachappelle/Lamoureux)
10. Maliglutit (Kunuk) and In a Valley of Violence (West)
VIFF, pt. II
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Love, Death, and more Emily Dickinson!

The Death of Louis XIV Watching someone die (fairly quickly as deaths go, I guess, but slowly in cinematic terms) of gangrene, with the forward movement of time signified by an increasingly blackened leg and the soundtrack dominated by the buzzing of flies around the rotting limb, sounds like a borderline masochistic way to choose to spend one's time at the movies; escapism it's decidedly not, except insofar as whatever problems you have will probably pale in comparison to the Sun King's grim decline. But I'd heard good things about Albert Serra's film, and all of them were warranted, particularly that it's very funny and droll, and also that it's a near-perfect balance of the microhistorical with the expansively metaphorical: clearly the infected body of France's most notoriously, excessively decadent sovereign serves to stand in for, or foreshadow, the necrotic institution of the French monarchy. Yet, it is also a fairly secure fact that Europe's longest-crowned monarch did die of what seems to have been gangrene - a malady so uniquely conducive to allegorical figuration! - and it's the vivid, imaginatively recreated minutiae of Louis' last days that mark Serra's film as singularly brilliant. The great Jean-Pierre Léaud plays the dying king as equal parts despondent and terminally embarrassed, a helpless subject for the comically wrong-headed doctors and sycophantic courtiers who bicker and whisper around him. Naturally, the film's denouement is a (fairly graphic) autopsy; but in its dark, understated way, it might be the single funniest scene that I saw at this year's festival, Toni Erdmann notwithstanding. Maybe it's great escapism after all, as what's more freeing than an invitation to laugh at death and what comes after it?

Personal Shopper This genre-bending star vehicle may stand as the best-possible hybrid of the two, distinctly different types of Olivier Assayas films: the quieter, more contemplative Assayas (think: Clean, Summer Hours, Clouds of Sils Maria) and the 'edgy,' globe-traversing thrillers (e.g., demonlover, Boarding Gate, Carlos). Almost everything attempted here works -- the well-executed nods to supernatural horror, the technology-driven intrigue, the sexual provocations, the pointed jabs at celebrity culture -- and while it leaves some of its various, intertwined strands loose (a big plus, in my book) it never feels disjointed or like less than the sum of its generic parts. This is principally because Personal Shopper is, start to finish and above all else, a sharp and very honest character study, and that sharpness and honesty are due to Kristen Stewart, who proves herself a star worthy of such an excellent vehicle. Her performance is thoroughly inextricable from the film itself; she holds all of its narrative pieces together. The result is a work of real mystery and strangeness, one that plays in some sense like a cross between Don't Look Now and Eyes Wide Shut (two of my all-time favorites!) while also registering, unmistakably, as the apotheosis of Assayas's aesthetic(s).

Yourself and Yours and A Copy of My Mind Unusual romances, centering on idiosyncratic characters: Hong Sang-soo's latest considers post-breakup misery and the role-playing, (necessarily?) amnesiac aspect of initiating romantic relationships, here heightened for deliriously comic effect. Yourself and Yours concludes on an ambiguously optimistic note, that might best be interpreted broadly as a reminder to - as Tony Soprano once put it - focus on the good times. Joko Anwar's film, for at least its first half and nearly its first two-thirds, eschews the genre elements that define his earlier films, like Dead Time and The Forbidden Door. Up to that point this felt like his best work to date: the cleverly imagined love story of a movie-obsessed beauty-salon worker and a guy who applies subtitles (with help from Google Translate) to pirated DVDs, and is thus able to supply her with the goods she craves. This stretch of Anwar's film abounds with endearing, sweetly realized early-relationship moments, best of all a dance scene against a backdrop of shiny, reflective DVDs decorating the wall of the subtitler's otherwise spartan Jakarta apartment. Unfortunately, after such a strong start, A Copy of My Mind switches abruptly into a somewhat half-baked political thriller, including scenes of torture that felt extra-manipulative given the considerable goodwill Anwar had earned for his characters. Where the film's romance felt intriguingly unpredictable precisely because it wasn't overly constrained by plot, the much plottier later section comes off as fairly pro forma - inevitably sad for what happens to these characters we've come to like and care about but more blandly disappointing than tragic, which is itself a shame.

Gimme Danger Jim Jarmusch's documentary paean to the Stooges is so much fun, and so infectiously enthusiastic, that it seems like quibbling to note that it's kind of a mess, in a way that's characteristic of Iggy & Co., and arguably a fitting tribute to their music, but formally (not spiritually) incongruous with Jarmusch's typical restraint and control. With its tiring animated reenactments of Stooges anecdotes and stock-footage literalizations of passing remarks (Iggy compares music consumers to sheep, so we get a clip of...sheep), Gimme Danger feels at times like the kind of too-busy, Michael Moore-indebted straight-to-YouTube doc that one would never mistake for the work of one of America's great living filmmakers. But, again, I'm quibbling here--I enjoyed the hell out of it.

A Quiet Passion I couldn't resist seeing Terence Davies' latest masterpiece again, at its second screening, even if it meant bumping another film slotted into my fest schedule. I found it even more moving and impressive and beautiful upon repeat viewing, and I took particular notice this time of just how good the supporting performances are, especially, but not limited to, Keith Carradine, Jennifer Ehle, and Joanna Bacon, who, as Emily's hermetic mother, feels like a melancholy, nineteenth-century spectre returned to semi-life but lost again in a fog of memory. Cynthia Nixon's lead performance is as heartbreaking as any I've ever seen in a movie.


VIFF, pt. I
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Two genuinely great movies thus far, another that's awfully close, and a small handful of 'very good':

Life after Life This strange and disarming film is the best I've seen from China in years. It was produced by Jia Zhangke, and, like Jia's best films, it has a rigorously austere style that aims to say, or suggest, something about China's past and present by concentrating on the largely neglected, economically undeveloped margins of the world's largest country, so noted for its rapid rate of change. Life after Life, a ghost story, is itself haunted by the effects of that accelerated change - but all that 'progress' remains outside the frame. Its landscapes and characters (including a 10 year-old boy temporarily possessed by the spirit of his deceased mother) are hypnotically static, very nearly frozen in time and place. Zhang Hanyi's film is less explicitly, urgently political than Jia's own directorial efforts. Instead, Zhang channels some of the best aspects of Kiarostami (the ambiguous spiritual dimension, esp. Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us) and Apichatpong (the understated yet playful mysticism of Uncle Boonmee and the second half of Tropical Malady), tempering his Jia-esqe formal aesthetic. Yet, if these big-name reference points seem to imply that Life after Life is a derivative, greatest-arthouse-hits collection, nothing could be further from the truth. While the influences underlying Zhang's film are discernible, its seams are mostly concealed by its fog-like spell, which persists well beyond its 80-minute runtime, resulting in a film that feels new and vital.

Paterson and A Quiet Passion Often it is said that a film is "poetic." Sometimes this adjective is quite appropriately applied, other times it's a kind of lazy critical shorthand; in both cases, it is too infrequently explained what is meant by describing a work of art in a medium other than literal poetry as being, in whatever sense, "poetic." In any event, what's considerably more uncommon than the purportedly "poetic" film is one that engages with the process by and circumstances under which poetry itself is created. Admittedly, to a far greater extent than, say, painting or performing music (both of which have been well represented on screen), the activity of writing poems does not lend itself naturally to cinematic representation. Yet, here are two films that are not only about poets as people, but about the affective, environmental dimensions that facilitate and inspire the composition of poetry. Jim Jarmusch's latest, with Adam Driver as a city bus driver and amateur poet (named Paterson, living in Paterson, NJ, the hometown of William Carlos Williams, Driver's character's favorite poet), remains in the assured, unhurried, philosophical mode of Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control, and Only Lovers Left Alive--arguably the mode of nearly all Jarmusch films, but refined to something like perfection in this current phase of his career. Paterson is about the ordinary pleasures and cyclical rhythms - and the variations upon those rhythms - of everyday life, and the potential for the seemingly mundane to take on the appearance of the wondrous in just the right light, or when viewed from the right angle. Such quotidian rhythms, and the daily ephemera that produce periodic variations or inflections thereof, directly inform the poems jotted down by Driver's Paterson. The same can be said, to a certain extent, of Terence Davies's film on Emily Dickinson: the sights and sounds and local goings-on of mid-nineteenth-century New England, and particularly around the Dickinson family home in Amherst, Mass., provide the productive context for Emily's writings. Yet, in contrast to Driver's sweet, even-tempered Everyman poet, Davies' subject is a very particular poet, a genius famous as much for her legendary eccentricities as for her enduring, widely influential art. It is to Davies' enormous credit, and especially to Cynthia Nixon's (in one of the best performances I've ever seen in a biopic), that A Quiet Passion does not offer up a caricature of the semi-reclusive, depressive 'Belle of Amherst.' Indeed, at least for the film's first half-plus, Nixon plays Emily as an amiable social creature, preoccupied with the affairs of her family and community. When frustrations, unfulfilled desires, and physical illness begin to wear her down, in the film's later stretches, Emily's deterioration feels as powerfully tragic as Lily Bart's fall from social grace in Davies' adaptation of The House of Mirth, yet, crucially, it is not presented as a fundamental, melancholic precondition to Dickinson's poetic output (though surely it is reflected in some poems from that period). Both Paterson and A Quiet Passion are formalist works through and through, but where Jarmusch's formalism is loose and breezy - for lack of a better word, 'zen-like' - Davies' is intense and ultimately overwhelming. As the camera glides slowly and mournfully over top Emily's increasingly enfeebled, finally lifeless body, and then over the hearse-carriage that she anticipated in verse, the impact is devastating.

In a Valley of Violence and Maliglutit (Searchers) Two different, but not incompatible, takes on the Hollywood Western. With In a Valley of Violence, Ti West does for this deeply coded genre what he did for the '70s/'80s horror movie in his excellent House of the Devil. It's terrific fun, and less smugly ironic than such film-nerd pastiche tends to come off. It might be fairly said that West is too unquestioning of his simple, bloody revenge narrative, that he's too effusively delighted with its telling to pause for moral considerations. This tendency, however, is significantly mitigated against by the surprisingly earnest, lived-in performances of Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. While West's western, shot on pristine 35mm, is hard to experience as anything but, or beyond, a devout cinephile's movie-movie, Maliglutit, which translates as 'Searchers,' presents the opposite problem: as with Zacharias Kunuk's previous films, the temptation to read his latest as a (non-fiction) ethnographic document must be consciously resisted. Kunuk insists, through the film itself (as he did repeatedly at the post-screening Q&A), that this is a resolutely fictional film, inspired by his long-held enthusiasm for the John Ford/John Wayne westerns, albeit set in his native Nunavut rather than the American West. Not only is the basic plot of Maliglutit taken from Ford's greatest film, Kunuk has also sought to echo that film's formal language in his dramatic compositions of heroism, villainy, and perilous adventure--not so far, after all, from West's Valley of Violence, despite the geographic distance between their respective settings. [Read Teresa's more considered review of Maliglutit here.]

The Unknown Girl and The Road to Mandalay Conventional critical wisdom holds that Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are incapable of making a bad, or even mediocre, film, and that as a consequence of their remarkable consistency their films can sometimes be under-appreciated. I agree in principle with this view, but that doesn't mean that some Dardenne bros. films aren't better than others. Their last one, Two Days, One Night, was particularly strong (to my tastes, their best since 2002's The Son); working with a major movie star, Marion Cotillard in peak form, added something very interesting and effective to the Dardennes' familiar, reliable toolkit. By contrast, The Unknown Girl, although driven by another standout female performance (this time from Adèle Haenel), seems like a more minor contribution to their corpus. The new film, an attempt at the murder mystery genre, feels rather schematic and closed-off where the Dardennes' films normally provide ample space for moral ambiguity and possibility. It also contains at least one crucial scene (maybe two) that clumsily undermines the effectiveness of much of what's preceded it (or them). To be sure, 'clums(il)y' is not a word that one would typically expect to find applied to a Dardenne brothers movie, but the genre story mechanics seem to trip them up at times. [For an alternate take on The Unknown Girl, see Teresa's review.] For most of its duration, Midi Z's The Road to Mandalay is, arguably, a better Dardenne bros. movie than The Unknown Girl. Following the hardships encountered by Burmese non-status migrants in Thailand, the film is structured around a deadeningly repetitive series of interactions/transactions in which money, documents, or both are demanded from the struggling migrants. These daily burdens, however, are offset (for the film's audience if not its characters) by the ephemeral beauty of landscapes urban and rural, captured in a few breathtaking moments by Midi Z's active camera. Unfortunately, what is otherwise an impressive film is seriously marred (more fatally than the Dardennes' missteps) by its heavy-handed final scene, which hammers home a message that already had been ably delivered in more effective, less extreme ways.

Our Love Story Lee Hyunju's lesbian love story doesn't do anything new, but sometimes that's for the best. It is subtly revelatory for the sensitivity and maturity with which Lee presents the bittersweet, hot-and-cold relationship of its principal characters, both of whom feel like fully-developed, complicated human beings (well-played by Lee Sanghee and Ryu Sunyoung). Even its minor, supporting characters - friends, roommates, parents, teachers - come across as interesting people, where in a lesser film of this type they'd be one-dimensional sounding boards for the frustrated lovers. The narrative is well-paced, its arc directly informed by the ups and downs of the characters' relationship, and throughout Lee makes the most of her minuscule budget; this is the rare first-feature-made-on-the-cheap that almost completely transcends these circumstances. One need not reinvent the wheel when they can do so much so well.

Tales of Two who Dreamt Andrea Bussmann and Nicolas Pereda's film, which, on its more concrete level, concerns a Roma family in Toronto seeking refugee status, is at times engaging and at other times somewhat boring. To an extent, this is fitting given that the process of awaiting government hearings and decisions on such matters can be as tedious as it is tense. In this regard, the film registers as exceptionally timely and perceptive regarding the experience of migrants living lives in flux, shot through with uncertainty. But Bussmann and Pereda's experimental whims - involving the making of a film-within-the-film and relating to the nature of telling stories on film - threaten to obscure this topical immediacy. These 'meta' aspects of the film don't really come together, though the enigmatic video coda stuck with me.

Two and Lights above Water The former is a short film 'co-directed' by a father (Christopher Spencer-Lowe) and his now five-year old daughter - and this is not a gimmick at all. Rather, the touch and voice of the younger Spencer-Lowe, who reflects via voiceover on memories brought back by Super 8 footage of herself at 2 years old, tangibly contributes to the film. Two is sweet and lovely, but also imbued with what the older Spencer-Lowe termed 'nosticholia' (I think that was his neologism), a mixed feeling to which this father of a child growing up way too fast can wholly relate. The medium-length Lights above Water made for an excellent screening companion to Two, as both films are about capturing fleeting moments of childhood, and also the fleeting ideas and feelings and constantly developing mentalities of children, in a manner more abstract (but not less poignant) than, say, Linklater's Boyhood. Nicolas Lachapelle and Ariel St-Louis Lamoureux's film bears the fruits of a year spent observing the kids in a Cree community in northern Quebec. In the film's too-brief 71 minutes, there are several effortlessly beautiful and indelible moments: a street hockey match played against a brilliant, painterly sunset; a group of Cree girls dancing spontaneously to a Rihanna song; the kids watching from a bridge as fireworks light up the sky and reflect back in the water below (hence the film's title). It would be great to see more of what Lachappelle and Lamoureux caught on film, and to spend more time in the lively Waswinipi community.

Toni Erdmann Yes, it's very good, and it's very funny, and I enjoyed every minute of it, but I also wonder whether the superlatives it's elicited aren't evidence that film critics don't often enough watch really funny movies.


We could get something right

Polly Jean Harvey is still such an incredible, singular performer. And so too, for that matter, is Steven Patrick Morrissey.

When your favorite artists aren't coming to a city near you anytime soon, good-quality YouTube videos are the next-best thing.