Monday, October 06, 2014

VIFF Reviews, 2014: All The Time in the World, and others

To my surprise, VIFF 2014 has been dominated by a film I wouldn't even have seen if it hadn't been for my girlfriend, Erika; All the Time in the World, a documentary about a family's experiences - as shot by the Mom! - going off the grid in a cabin in the wilds of the Yukon, with no electronic devices besides the equipment used to document the experience, no neighbours, no school, no grocery stores - nothing but the family and the forest and the cabin. They live there for nine months, wintering there. There are no cell phones, no TV, no internet, and no one for the three kids (two girls and a boy) to play with other than each other (and their parents, and two cats and a dog). While much of the warmth of the movie comes from the family's interactions, there's a serious and rather inspiring message about our overreliance on technology (also including clocks!) and about how really we're not as dependent on it as we might think - if we're willing to do a bit of work, that is. I normally don't recommend family-friendly, heartwarming, uplifting films, but this one is all of those and yet still terrific and important.  That I see, there are no added screenings of the film at present but the director, Suzanne Crocker, advised us to keep an eye on the website for news, as they try to find a distributor. I wonder if there's any way to get a copy of it to Ted Kaczynski? The guy probably could use some cheering up. VIFF listings for the film here.
Nothing else I've seen has quite captured me the way that documentary did - it's head and shoulders above all other films so far - but I've liked several of the movies I've seen. Probably the second-most interesting one I've caught is Elephant Song, a film which reminds one of Equus on a few levels, since it's based on a play in which a psychiatrist talks with a patient at length, where both are vulnerable to the other's observations. Plus it has a dominant animal in the background (I'll let you guess which). The film reminded me of a Jay Haley article I read a long time ago, "The Art of Being Schizophrenic," which, if memory serves, posits that schizophrenics are engaging in purposive behaviour, using their own mental illness to manipulate relationships in their family - though in this case, the family is the doctor, played by Bruce Greenwood, and a nurse who is his ex-wife (Catherine Keener). Quebec director Xavier Dolan, as the patient, really steals the show; I have yet to catch Mommy, the film he directed in this year's fest, but I enjoyed Tom at the Farm last year, and Elephant Song convinces me that whatever happens with his own career, he may just end up as a superstar actor in English-language cinema, if he's not careful. It's an attention-getting role. And of course, Bruce Greenwood is always great to watch.
The Two Faces of January is very much made in the mode of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and based on a novel by the same author, Patricia Highsmith, whose works, as readers of my blog may know, I rather love. The film touches on several aspects of her work - murder, ambivalent father-son relationships, forgery, guilt, and the state of being an expatriate; Highsmith herself, Texan by birth, spent most of her adult life in Europe. There may even be a hint of homoeroticism in the relationship between the two male characters, though that element is kept well in the back of things compared to the very overtly queer-themed Matt Damon Ripley adaptation. It's is a solid, nicely realized thriller, involving an American couple (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) who are taken under the protective wing of a morally questionable young tour guide (Oscar Isaac) in Greece. There's a striking lack of trust all around, which proves more than justified, the more we learn about our characters, and there's a lot of tension generated by not knowing who is going to be the "bad guy" or how the relationships will play out... but in order to create this tension, the film holds us at a very deliberate distance from the three characters, so that you don't over-invest in any one of them and are kept off centre, not knowing who you're rooting for. That very strategy works on one level but also limits emotional involvement, at least until the film's last act; its virtue is, in a way, its downfall. Only then does it come clear what the film's themes are. It will play the Vancity Theatre after the festival, so fans of Highsmith should check it out.
Can't exactly recommend the other Viggo Mortensen film I caught this year, but it's a very different offering, called Jauja, with Mortensen ably handling both Danish and Spanish for the dialogue, as part of a group of male soldiers exploring the Argentine coast (superficial resemblances to Beau Travail deserve to be commented on but then ignored, since they are indeed superficial). It has an odd, sad, and at times strikingly surreal and dreamlike quality to it, particularly in an early scene where a soldier is seen masturbating in a rocky tide pool with elephant seals in the background. That's my favourite moment in the film, in fact. At times in my life when I was hungrier for "art cinema" I might have appreciated Jauja more, particularly in that it resembles a recurring dream structure of mine, where I'm lost in an unfamiliar landscape, trying to find someone I'm supposed to be taking care of, whom I know is likely in danger (in the case of the film, Mortensen's daughter, who appears to have been abducted by locals). But it requires a great amount of attention to stay engaged with Jauja: most scenes are presented as static shots, some lasting several minutes, with very little standard intercutting from character's points of view, and while this gives the film a painterly quality, it also ended up sucking more energy to stay attentive than it ever returned, and at times I found it nearly impossible to stay awake. I always think that film reviewers should refrain from criticizing films they admit they didn't understand, particularly if they napped several times during the course of the movie, but the whole thing seemed a bit pretentious to me, actually, was more of a headache than an inspiration; the amount of effort invested in making an arty, unusual film seemed out of whack with the rewards. I'll take Jodorowsky over this any day.
A more enjoyable - but far less ambitious - experience was The Womb, a Peruvian film about a wealthy woman who (more or less) abducts a girl with the intention of stealing her unborn baby. The director, Daniel Rodriguez Risco, present at the festival, told us how the film ended up becoming, against the odds, a big hit in Peru, getting major studio support; it's only just now begun to be shown outside South America. Risco seemed an intelligent, pragmatic man, and advised young filmmakers and screenwriters to follow his example and make genre films early in their career, rather than leaping right off to a "personal" film, as so many are told to do. The movie does have ideas in it, about class privilege and so forth, but it's mostly an effective, well-crafted thriller, made with Hitchcockian economy. The most striking moment for me was a scene where someone gets bludgeoned with a crucifix, since I had just written about the vintage noir, Edge of Doom, which also involves a crucifix-bludgeoning. It was nice to be able to ask Risco about this; turns out it was just a coincidence, - there was no reference or anything; he merely wanted to show after the various futile attempts of the protagonist to enlist the aid of the Virgin in her plight, she can get some use out of her faith (like, if nothing else, you can hit your enemies with a cross). The one issue I had with the film is that I could tell throughout that it was shot on digital video; I have no problem with that format, but I don't like its use to be obvious.
The other really worthwhile film in the fest was the transgendered sex comedy Two 4 One, in which a transman, helping an old girlfriend artificially inseminate herself, ends up accidentally impregnating himself. It's a rather charming comedy, written as "wish-fulfillment" by the director, insofar as there is almost no trace of transphobia or (a couple of references to "fruit beer" aside) even homophobia in plot - which is a good thing; since the main character's situation is quite challenging as it is. Gavin Crawford is really good in the lead role (Maureen Bradley did account to the VIFF audience why she couldn't get a transman to play the part; she did try!). Gabrielle Rose, who seems to suddenly be everywhere these days, is enjoyable as always, as our protagonist's mother. Filmed on Vancouver Island, over the course of - I think Ms. Bradley said it was a fifteen day shoot? I expected something a little more politically wrought and instead had a great deal of easy fun with the film (though as Bradley noted to us, none of the film's fun is at her main character's expense; we're laughing and groaning with him throughout).
There's still lots I hope to see. At the very least, I need to see It Follows (pictured above), which I'm told is quite terrific (and which does have a screening next week). I'd like to catch The Vancouver Asahi (added screenings October 9th and 10th) - I had initially assumed this was a mere documentary, but it's actually a Japanese feature film, directed by Ishii Yuya, who directed the previous VIFF film Sawako Decides, Then there's Still Life (with the always great Eddie Marsan - if you haven't seen The Disappearance of Alice Creed, don't let its ubiquity on discount racks mislead you; it's a terrific thriller, which I wrote about previously here), Altered States wise, there are also screenings of The Well, The Incident, and the Iranian vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Yep, an Iranian vampire movie! With luck I will catch a few of these - though it's unlikely I'll be doing further blogging on the VIFF (having a dayjob will do that to you).
One wee techical postscript: the Playhouse is an interesting alternative venue for films, but a) there is a problem either with the acoustics or the sound system, since it is quite difficult at times to make out dialogue; both myself and my girl found ourselves straining to hear parts of Elephant Song and The Two Faces of January, and another VIFF attendee reported a similar difficulty with a different film there. Also, it should be noted (b), that that glossy black paint on the stage below the screen is quite reflective, so those sitting higher in the house are going to have to contend with a shiny doppleganger of the movie immediately below, unless it's covered up, say with a black sheet? (However, those with screenings at the Playhouse should note - especially if you have longer legs or a bigger butt - that the seats in the front row are quite a bit wider than those in back, that you have a lot more leg room, that the reflective surface isn't so much of an issue from down low, and the screen is low enough and far back enough that you don't get neck strain trying to see it from in front. SFU's cinema is such that you needn't fear the front row, either!).

Happy VIFFing!

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