Anyhow, what the hell. Some very exciting stuff coming up this VIFF, and I have the time to take in a few films.
Bong Joon Ho's terrific Okja - which I've already written about on this blog, in a piece unambiguously entitled "I Love Okja" - is making a big-screen appearance. I am under the impression from a controversial Cannes screening that the Netflix original is not going to actually get theatrical distribution beyond festivals - which caused some to balk that it should compete in Cannes - so this will be a rare chance to see it projected with an audience. I recommend doing so: it's a terrific film, and will appeal to vegans, vegetarians, animal rights activists, and people concerned about GMO's - as well as to people who just like good stories (or Tilda Swinton, or Jake Gyllenhaal, who truly broadens his parameters for this role).
I actually have never seen the other Bong Joon Ho film that's screening, his 2003 breakout feature, Memories of Murder, but it's a film my Korean students have often praised over the years, dealing with a lengthy, complex, and frustrating investigation into the real-life Hwaseong serial murders. We used to do, every third term, a class presentation on movies and Memories of Murder was right up there with Silmido, My Sassy Girl, and Welcome to Dongmakgol as a consensus favourite. (I have heard the story explained to me several times, which may be why I've never sat down to watch it; I will spare you that particular disservice).
I've written about Okja for a Straight piece I did, as well, which also mentions Caniba (about Japanese cannibal-killer Issei Sagawa!). The directors are associated with Harvard Sensory Ethnography Labs; over the next day or two, I'll post an old interview I did with them about their previous VIFF entry, the Go-Pro-shot fishing trawler documentary Leviathan (no relation to that Russian film of the same name that came out a couple years ago). Speaking of ambitious documentaries in this year's VIFF, there is also Michael Glawogger's last film, Untitled, which he died while making. I'll leave my Straight article to fill you in more on Glawogger, but I will share one image supposedly from the film - one I actually forget seeing, though there are, weirdly enough, plenty of animals in transport in the movie, enough so that it becomes a kind of motif. If the idea of a shot like this gets you excited, Untitled is your film.
There's also the new film from Yorgos Lanthimos, whose The Lobster I loved and whose Dogtooth disturbed me; this film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, again features Colin Farrell, but expect something dark and surreal, not one of Farrell's more "Hollywood" roles. I thought The Lobster was the best neo-Bunuelian movie I'd ever seen, in the vein of films - since there is more than one Bunuel - like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, except as applied to dating and romance. Dunno what it says about our relationship (or past experiences with dating), but Erika liked it a lot too (her parents sure didn't). I am excited enough about Lanthimos' new film that I am reading nothing about it until after I see it, so you will have to research it yourself if you need more. What does the title refer to? What is Colin Farrell doing in this image? I don't want to know until I am watching the film.
Then there's a six hour miniseries from New Zealand auteur (and director of The Piano and An Angel at My Table, among others) Jane Campion, which I gather is a follow up to something I have not seen (and thus am unlikely to check in with, much as I admire Campion). And there's a new film by Michael Haneke (who terrifies me, rather, and whom I have stopped following, but you go right on ahead). All of these films look to be major cinematic excitements, which probably don't need my attention.
There's also what sounds like a must-see fictional feature called Lucky, which, fittingly enough, is a film about Harry Dean Stanton getting ready to die - starring, to be clear, Harry Dean Stanton. I didn't write an obit for Harry Dean Stanton when he passed last week, maybe because the last couple of years of cultural heroes dying have attuned people sufficiently to obituaries that it doesn't feel like a useful function for me to perform; you'll just read about it on Facebook anyhow (as we all did, though I didn't have much to say there either). But I loved his characters, respected his long career, and always enjoyed seeing him onscreen. One does gather from what other people say that he was a bit of a difficult guy to deal with at times (Alex Cox, in his memoir X Films, talks about Harry would go on about "the Jews;" and Bette Midler, in a featurette on The Rose, said that he was not pleasant to work with at all - and she was in the midst of giving one of those gushing "everyone is great" interviews that Hollywood people give, so for her to say that, there must have been pretty serious trouble between them). I was a subscriber to Roger Ebert's Stanton-Walsh rule, that "no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad," and though he later claimed that there were films that broke that rule, it has held for me, even in cases where the only thing I enjoy about a film is the presence of either Walsh or Stanton.
The Crescent, which I am going to heretofore think of as The Shadow Over Inverness (Inverness being the town in Nova Scotia where my father grew up; the beach house in the film isn't that different from the landscape of my father's childhood, though my reference to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" above is a bit spurious; other than it taking place in a coastal town where old, menacing weirdness lingers, there's not much the film has in common with that story - no half-fish people with allegiances to Cthulhu or what-have-you).
It is maybe problematic to build this particular film up too high: the VIFF catalogue likens it to Beyond the Black Rainbow, which is pretty serious praise, and even The Crescent itself gets you totally salivating for next-level cinema with its gorgeous credits sequence, involving close-ups of paint marbling and abstract, drony, vaguely Celtic music (by no one whose name appears in the opening credits, but it's the director's own work, it turns out). This is, no hyperbole, the most inspired and visually compelling title sequence I've seen in years. So you're getting geared up for a trippy cinematic masterwork...
...and then you get a hard lesson in just how indy this film is, as soon as people start talking: the images and performances all let you know within seconds that you're in the territory of the microbudget, shot-on-video Canadian horror. Which is fine, of course: that probably also means you're watching a labor of love, which is almost always going to be an interesting experience, and Seth A. Smith definitely has resources as a filmmaker - if not financial, than for striking compositions, which this film has throughout. But you have to adjust your expectations accordingly; going in expecting the East Coast equivalent of Panos Cosmatos will not serve you well. The biggest challenge of the film is that Smith's talent for striking compositions, like the title sequence or, say, an aerial shot of a house glimpsed from the ocean, or a great moment of a stripe of water disappearing into the sand, or some of the trippier hallucinations in the film - just doesn't mesh that well with the hand-held video technology he's using elsewhere, which gives much of the film a found-footage feel. You can't have storyboarded composition shots AND a found footage immediacy, since the former owes to a very different kind of cinema than the latter. I'm not sure a tripod would have been a solution, either; there's something about shooting on video that is simply different from shooting on film, which requires - unless you can "fake" the look of film - a completely different approach. Smith seems somewhat stuck between aesthetics.
That disjunct aside, I like the idea of a quasi-Lovecraftian Maritimes psychological thriller as much as anyone. After getting over the sugar crash that the film didn't quite live up to its point of comparison or the promise of its stunning titles, I (mostly) enjoyed it: a mother and child, mourning the death of the child's father, come to a sleepy beach town, to take brief respite and take stock. Things build slowly, from creepy encounters with neighbours - who may be ghosts - to a nicely weird moment with a hermit crab, complete with what seemed to be augmented, crablike sound effects (it's a brief moment but it made me smile; I would love to learn that they got the sound by putting a contact mike on an actual crab, but I doubt it). There are indeed some trippy visual moments, too, though you'll have to be patient to get to them. (Hopefully the dialogue is clearer when it is projected, too, since various key lines - especially spoken by children - were kind of indecipherable on my home video setup). The Globe and Mail review described The Crescent as "The Babadook goes to the beach;" esteemed colleague Adrian Mack mentioned Messiah of Evil and Night Tide (that Dennis Hopper-in-love-with-a-mermaid film that I've never seen, from the guy who directed How Awful About Allan, whose title I approve of deeply). Mack will have something on the film in the Straight, I believe. By me, The Crescent is a B minus movie (at best) with a few A+ moments, from someone who will, with luck, get a bigger budget to work with, sometime soon...
More to come re: VIFF... My Straight article expands on some of this... it ain't online yet, but will be soon enough, I imagine...