Ain't Them Bodies Saints

The Vancouver International Film Festival Top 10 (Out of 10)

Well, I hit the big time this year. The jackpot. I managed to get a media pass to the Vancouver International Film Festival. I threw some names around. Don’t worry about it.

This is, of course, the major festival for the West Coast of Canada, sort of the older sibling to the Victoria Film Festival, Whistler Film Festival, etc. When I went to university in Vancouver and lived there for four years I would go to VIFF every fall, spend some money to see a few flicks. Always had a blast.

Changes happen, seasons came and went, ashes to ashes and all that, and although I don’t live there anymore, I made sure to book my holidays for when it would be going on and got hooked up with the media credentials. So with my press pass clutched eagerly in my paw, I filled a rucksack and headed off, a country film fan in the big city.

Unfortunately, what with a regular job and limited funds and personal relationships to keep up and all that junk, I could only go for three days. But in those three days I saw 10 films. So, without further ado, here are my Top 10 Films of VIFF (Out of 10):

1) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), directed by David Lowery

While much of the rest of the world has seen this film already, thanks to a heavily staggered release schedule, us West Coasters had yet to have the chance. It caught my eye because it looked as though it had that Terrence Malick, Texas Southern Gothic feel going on and, as I have stated many times in the past: that’s my jam.

And boy, was I not disappointed. Lowery’s first film does have a Malick influence going on, what with beautiful shots of Texas wheat fields and big skies juxtaposing the crowded lives of the characters below. But more so it feels like the film of a new voice, one who revels in the past but has his own take on it, his own perspective.

Director David Lowery attended the screening and talked about how he tried to make the movie feel like a folk song, in its portrayal of characters and the way in which the tone of the film comes across through pacing, music, etc.

He has succeeded and it’s what stands Ain’t Them Bodies Saints apart from lesser films it could be compared to. In some ways it’s the opposite of a film like Lawless, which was essentially an exploitation film about the South. That film didn’t work partially because its characters were caricatures and hard to care about. Lowery cares about his characters and it’s their choices, their desire to do the right thing, their escape from the tropes of the genre, which makes the film work so well.

The tone of the film is hypnotic, the cinematography beautiful (particularly its use of natural light), but above all else it’s the characters, and the actors portraying them, which make this a great film. And it is a great film, the best at VIFF (out of the 10 I saw).

2. Whitewash (2013), directed by Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais

I have to say, I saw a lot of bleak, violent movies at VIFF. Lots of themes of despair, helplessness, and, perhaps above all else, solitude. Many of the films revolved around a single character seemingly taking on the world all on his own (I would say ‘or her own’ but I have no examples of that).

Of these films, Whitewash was the best, and the purest. This film captures the very core of being alone: a man, out in the wilderness, hiding, fighting the elements and, best of all, by choice. There is actually a gas station and hardware store not far away from where Bruce (Thomas Haden Church) is living out of his stuck snowplow. But he stays away.

For one thing, he is being looked for by the authorities. He went missing the same time a man who had been staying at his house went missing. And he has something to do with it. So it’s best, for now, if Bruce doesn’t have much contact with police.

But he’s also getting away from his life. His wife died and left nothing but boxes of marble doll eyes she hand painted to remember he by. He drinks, which has cost him his driving licence and his job. He hasn’t got a lot going for him. So when he finds himself stuck in Quebec woods, his incentive to leave is not strong.

Church’s performance is the highlight of a film which is at times tense, at other hilarious. It’s a dark tale, both in location and themes, but it doesn’t fail to come off as enjoyable in the end, despite its lonely core.

3. Grand Central (2013), directed by Rebecca Zlotowski

Starring current French film stars Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) and Les Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color), Grand Central is a look at the seemingly disposable lives of the workers at a nuclear power facility and the love triangle that arises out of the tension of living close to the edge.

I enjoyed the performances in this film and the juxtaposition of the detail-oriented work versus the messiness of the character’s personal lives. A decimal point on a radiation reader can be the difference between safe and in danger of “a dose” inside the walls of the plant, but outside it is alcohol, sex, fighting and speed which typify the lives of these lost souls.

The film is stunningly directed, with a great use of colour and scale, and the affair at the centre of the film is appropriately charged (pun intended). It’s simply a unique story, one which raises questions over the meaning of life, and the cost of consumption, while never being heavy handed or cliche.

4. 11.6 (2013), directed by Philippe Godeau

Another French film, 11.6 is a neo noir of sorts, and one that manages to be high in tension while minimal in action.

French Dustin Hoffman, Francois Cluzet, plays Toni, a security guard with a armoured car service, who is up to something. He’s bought a Ferrari, is creating a false wall in the back of a rented storage unit and is treating his girlfriend with unusual disdain and distance.

What he has been planning, and what plays out, is a caper more impressive for its simplicity than its carnage, and yet as tense as any shootemup Heat-style snatch.

While the ending is a little baffling, 11.6 is a compelling thriller and with more depth of character than one usually expects with this sort of fare. Nerve-wracking and exciting.

5. The Past (2013), directed by Asghar Farhadi

In Farhadi’s followup to the fantastic A Separation (2011) he again looks at the effects of a marriage torn in two, but with a more obvious dramatic flair than his previous work, which for me diminished the power of what is otherwise a magnificently wrought film.

Farhadi is best at his simplest and for my money is one of the best actor’s directors working today. There is nothing flashy in his style, but in his ability to wring superb performances from his actors he is superb.

The first half of The Past carries on this tradition, with simple delights and empathy found in watching his characters interact with one another, their words and body language conveying all the complexities of human relationships. It’s far more captivating than such a simple film has any right to be.

From there, however, the film turns into a series of dramatic reveals and a whodunnit investigation into, well, the past. It’s all quite intentional, but whereas Mike Leigh understood in Secrets and Lies that the past is merely a detail of the present, Farhadi gives it a legitimacy which is hard to care about.

By the time the film finishes tying up all the loose ends it has created, it has overstayed its welcome and lost the grounded appeal which makes the first half, and his prior film, so powerful.

6. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (2013), directed by Sam Fleischner

Following the journey of an autistic teen who spends over a week lost in the New York City subway system, Stand Clear… is almost as much an experiment in perception as it is a harrowing story of a mother’s search for her son.

Ricky isn’t running away, he is merely following his instincts, oh and a pair of sneakers he really likes. As he rides the trains he thinks his own narrative to himself while observing and occasionally interacting with other, sometimes strange, sometimes mean, riders.

Fleischner’s use of the camera, his attempts to capture the disjointedness of Ricky’s thought process visually, creates a captivating juxtaposition between the downtrodden lives of the characters and the vibrant world inside his mind. Tying the adventure in with the socioeconomic state of the family and the flooding of New York also gives the material a weight beyond its own story.

7. Heli (2013), directed by Amat Escalante

Steven Spielberg loves lesbian sex and violence. That was the word coming out of Cannes this year, when the Spielberg-headed jury picked a couple of shockers as big trophy winners, including Heli, which won the award for directing.

Quite frankly I’m surprised ole E.T. phone home, doe-eyed Spielberg could tolerate the level of sadistic violence in Heli, a film about stealing from Mexican drug cartels. I nearly couldn’t.

While, yes, it is incredibly well directed, and, yes, provides an unflinching look at an important topic, Heli is the kind of film you can respect but never love, it is just too hard to watch.

I’m still trying to figure out how the filmmakers even accomplished the special effects behind some of the horrendous torture seen in the film, and the outcome of the entire affair is as bleak as the desert terrain it is set in.

This is probably a great film. But I’d rather not see it ever again.

8. Another House (2013), Mathieu Roy

I started the festival off with this Quebecois drama and it really set the tone for what was to follow: pure, unadulterated sadness.

In a film about family, Roy follows the lives of two brothers attempting to take care of their elderly father, who has dementia. One of the brothers, Gabriel (Roy Dupuis), is a well-known journalist with many commitments, while the other, Eric (Emile Proulx-Cloutier), has the time but perhaps not the mental stability to provide care.

This is a fine film, with great performances, especially from Marcel Sabourin as the father, but my is it bleak. The selfish, self-destructive Eric is painful to watch as he pushes everything decent out of his life. Gabriel is more interesting, especially when on assignment, but the film as a whole is more hard to watch than insightful.

While much of the cinematography is a pleasure and the acting is top notch, I had a enough hard time trying to tolerate Another House, especially Eric, to be able to get much out of it.

9. Closed Curtain (2013), directed by Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi

Perhaps I didn’t know what I was getting into, and perhaps I missed some tremendously brilliant point, but I could not get into Closed Curtain. Granted I have yet to see This is Not a Film and I was a walking, sleepy zombie after a day of movies, but to me Closed Curtain was dull and pointless.

This is the latest from Panahi, who is under house arrest in Iran and therefore can only make movies within the confines of his property. There are no exterior shots here. The only views of the outside world are seen through windows. And yes, there are closed curtains.

This is an art film, and all that means. It has a purely abstract interest in perspective, in the effects of authoritarian control, in spaces. The narrative of the story is one which dissolves as the film goes on, breaking down into theory over practice.

In another mood I may have taken more away from this film, but as it was I had no time for it. While many hail Panahi as a brilliant fillmmaker, I found little of interest in this claustrophobic exercise.

10. A Long and Happy Life (2013), directed by Boris Khlebnikov

Another film with a strong start leading to a disappointing finale, A Long and Happy Life isn’t terrible but it lost me enough to make it my least favourite of the festival (out of the 10 I saw).

While I understand the film wants to convey the spirit of a Western, I wish it hadn’t been so literal about it. The shootout ending comes out of left field and makes no sense for the character or the tone of the film. I get how it is supposed to be an interesting turn of events, considering it was only the “ignorant” villagers who before spoke of turning to violence. But I never believed Alex’s quick trigger finger, his descent into violence.

The rural scenery is beautiful, some of the acting is decent, I really liked a lot of the setup but then it took its turn and completely lost me. Shame.

 

So there it is. After all this violence and misery I’m in need of a good comedy. Or a late start on Horror Pledge 2013. That’ll do.

The Vancouver International Film Festival continues until Oct. 11.

Side Effects

Side Effects (2013), directed by Steven Soderbergh

Dear Mr. Soderbergh,

I am writing to ask on behalf of my readers, my fellow filmgoers and the world at large that you not retire from filmmaking and continue your eclectic and delightful career.

Your latest and last film, Side Effects, reminded me once again why you are such an essential presence in our contemporary cinema. For one thing, at a very basic level, it seems as though most directors have forgotten how to tell a story and make it, you know, interesting. They think they have a decent story, with characters and a conflict of some sort, and that’s enough. They don’t understand that the real storytelling is in the medium, in the way the camera is used, in the editing and the music and the cinematography. They have forgotten what separates film from theatre.

You have never forgotten this. This is why Haywire is one of the best action movies we have seen in some time, and certainly the most thoughtful. It’s why Ocean’s Eleven is one of the best Hollywood popcorn movies of the modern era. It’s why Traffic is so much more than a story about the drug trade.

And it’s why Side Effects is a top-notch thriller and one of the best films of the year so far. It could easily have been a passable psychological thriller, even a decent neo-noir. What makes it both of those things and more, is your touch. It’s the dreamlike lighting and colours that add atmosphere and a sense of discomfort to the entire proceedings. It’s the pacing, the vignette-like sequences, the concise dialogue that forces the viewer to work to figure out just where your movie is going. It’s your talent that makes us care. It’s very rewarding as a viewer.

Listen, no one is perfect. Side Effects outstays its welcome and there is at least one too many twists at the end. It could have been tightened up. Watching Jude Law’s character crack the case is captivating, but by the end I doubt there were many who understood each twist and turn, and unlike a film like The Big Sleep, there’s not enough atmosphere to justify a senseless plot. Simple it up a bit, is all I’m saying. I like that you trust your audience to be intelligent, but we still like that sense of being effortlessly entertained.

But this just goes to prove why you should keep up with the filmmaking. You still have more to learn, more to offer. The greatest thing about your career has been the variety of your projects and your unwillingness to be categorized. Sure this has resulted in misses (I’m sorry Steven, but Full Frontal was terrible), but it has also ended up with some of the most interesting films out there, such as Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience, along with some of the most entertaining movies on our big screens, like Contagion or Magic Mike. And each, whether art house or multiplex fare, gave us something unique, something that looked and felt different from the other movies, and had your stamp on it.

It’s just a shame to lose that, is all I’m saying.

I’m sure you will enjoy painting. I’m also, despite not being a betting man, willing to put a few dollars down on seeing your name up on that big screen again someday. You’ll be back. And we will be the better for it.

Yours,

CineFile

Side Effects is in cinemas now.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), directed by David Fincher

Well it finally happened. I finally got to see David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In my fall movie preview post from September I listed it as my most anticipated movie of the season and wrote that it will either be a big disappointment or the best movie of the year. Well, it ended up in the number two spot on my best films of the year list, so I wasn’t far off. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is fantastic.

This is a fun movie to review and the series as a whole was somewhat of a mainstay for my blog in its former location. I read the books, watched the Swedish films, wrote lengthy reviews of them all, had mixed feelings overall and then waited with bated breath for the American adaptation. To some this may sound like biased philistinism. But personally I find a bias against anything American based on snobbery to be as bad, if not worse, then a lack of interest in anything foreign. “I don’t like American movies” irritates me just as much as “I don’t like subtitles.”

I too had the initial reaction of disbelief that Hollywood was already making an American version. I scoffed and ticked as loud as anyone (I know, MOI?). This dissipated when I heard that David Fincher was directing it and disappeared altogether when the first amazing trailer came out. Now I will eat my initial thoughts.

What Fincher has done is take a rather great book with a game changer character and made a rather fantastic movie that makes it all the more apparent how much we needed Lisbeth Salander in our lives. Purely as a movie The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is exciting, tight, extremely well filmed and edited, full of great performances and in general a hell of a good watch. Its running time is around two hours and 40 minutes but it never drags and does what the Swedish films failed to do, which is adapt the book in such a way that honours both the story and the characters without ever sacrificing one for the other.

What the Swedish versions really lacked is a budget. Don’t get me wrong, I am an outspoken advocate of less typically resulting in more when it comes to movie budgets, but in this case more is better. In order for Lisbeth to really have an large scale impact we needed a large, slick, pitch-perfect movie. This is the rare case where it is appropriate to glorify and elevate a character because the character is just that good. We should think Salander is cool as hell, because she is.

Some might argue that it’s inappropriate to feel that way about a character whose traits are a result of her being the victim of rape and violence. H+M, the clothing store, took heat last year when it released a line of clothes based on Salander, the argument being that we shouldn’t glorify being a rape victim, which, detractors argued, is the source of her violent and anti-social style. While it’s not entirely appropriate for me to have a concrete opinion on this, I will say that rebellion against an oppressive society isn’t a bad thing and IS cool and maybe by glamorizing it and making it mainstream it will make an impact. So although people’s primary reaction will be that Salander is awesome and I want to dress like her, it’s not the fact that she’s been raped that they find cool, but her refusal to play nice by the rules that breed a rape society.

Salander is our greatest modern character and Rooney Mara is perfect to play her. I loved Noomi Rapace in the role and I won’t go so far as to say one is better then the other because both are fabulous. First of all Mara looks the part. She is, or at least looks in the film, tiny but has those fierce eyes that show the fire burning within. Her “punk” or “goth” or whatever you want to call it look is very well done and I think having her with bleached eyebrows is a brilliant little touch. Mara infamously got all of Salander’s piercings for real (yes, including her nipple), which, although entirely unnecessary, attests to her commitment.

I have trouble writing about Salander without gushing. I’ll get it over with: I think she is so amazingly cool. Okay, that’s that. There is that level where I am in love with her spirit, her feisty resilience against the world, her no bs approach to life that makes her badass in an “I don’t need to act badass because I am badass” kind of way. She doesn’t take any guff.

But there is that other level that recognizes that she is how she is because of what she has gone through and it comes at the cost of her humanity. She has trouble being vulnerable, which is essential for love. The film explores this towards the end and I think it adds that much needed layer to her character that raises her from being simply cool to being relatable and a symbol of the damage that society can cause. But it never suggests that she should be anything else, that she should give up her individuality in order to obtain the rewards that society offers like security and love. It recognizes the cost but never criticizes the method; she is allowed to be, and is celebrated for being, who she is.

I think she is an important character, as loaded as that word can be, because she is a woman who refuses to live life by others, specifically male, terms, something that women have been having to do for, well, forever. Salander doesn’t though. She dresses and looks how she wants to, finds her own niche in life, sleeps with whoever she wants to, man or woman, and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. Many won’t agree, but that’s admirable. As I said, this comes at a cost but I also like that aspect of her character. The film recognizes that dilemma and her imperfections are what makes her relatable and human. She is not The Woman With No Name. She is a person, one who has been mistreated, has found the way to fight back but has also suffered damage. She is both heroic and complex. She’s wonderful.

Daniel Craig is perfect as Mikael Blomkvist and the realizing of his character is one area where the American version is far superior to the Swedish version. He got shortchanged in the Swede version as they stripped away his layers and the plot points that reveal to us what kind of person he is. Again, he is not perfect, and his steadfast commitment to truth results in an emotional distance that ends up hurting others. His honesty is commendable but he walks that thin line between being honest and being emotionally aloof. Again though, these are all points that make for an interesting character.

So what more can I say? I could write a thesis on this series but let’s leave it at the fact that I loved this movie and think we should all write letters to Hollywood imploring them to have Fincher, Mara, Craig and everyone else involved adapt the other two books. David Fincher is probably our best working director and the first to truly master digital moviemaking, as this crisp, beautifully dark film shows. Throughout my interaction with this series I have longed for someone to get it right and give Salander the movie she deserves. This is that movie.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is available on DVD and Blu-ray.