VIFF 2011: Week 2 - What's wrong is wrong (A separation, Havre, Sleeping Beauty, Ms Bala, Anatolia, Footnote,Like Crazy, Starbuck, Elena, Turin Horse)

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Round up reviews of films I've seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival week 2, in order of preference/impact:

1. Jodái-e Náder az Simin (A separation) (Farhadi | Iran)

Impression: Iran's official entry for Foreign Film Oscar is a sophisticated, nuanced, meaningful portrait of Iran as it wrestles class, religion, gender, and the wheel of modernity in the frontier of its people's home. For an involving, intricate plot, there's barely any excess fat in the film to speak of. Every single character occupying the screen is an empathetic human being - there's no stereotype to be found, not even the usual dictatorial male figure in this deeply patriarchal society. It warmed my heart to see loving, respectful parenting figures in films, however flawed they were in other ways. The cast clearly infused their story with much pride and a deep knowing of their existential condition. There's no easy solution; the struggle between living the truth out loud and managing delicate human relationships can only be negotiated one step at a time. Farhadi captured its subtlety and drama with equal ease and wisdom. This is a rare family drama that works. I know what I'm rooting for comes Oscar time.
Reaction: What beautiful children.

2. Le Havre (Kaurismäki | France / Finland)

Impression: The set up of Le Havre, a stylized retro comedy of sort, was quite ridiculous: a shoe shiner in Normandy went on a mission to help a young refugee avoid being captured by the government and reconnect with his mother in London. It was more whimsical than serious, though there was enough humanity behind the film for us to care. Sometimes, a film is a romanticized version of a dream of a true emotion. This was such a film, and gosh darn what an absolute delight it was.
Reaction: Man, I love this movie.

3. Sleeping Beauty (Leigh | Australia)

Impression: Sleeping beauty is an austere, gorgeously shot fable about, on a literal level, a smart, young girl getting paid to go to sleep while her clients did what they had come for, and on a figurative level, a smart, young girl walk-sleeping her life away. "Sarah" turned herself into an object to be used by others in seemingly endless fashion, from science experiment to server to sex work. Her beauty was her calling card, and she used it like everyone else does: a functional object to act upon (she corrected the woman who would be her pimp that her "vagina is [her] vagina" and not a temple). No one was home; no one was interested. Her only human connection, beyond the veneer of manners, was with the Birdman, whom she would at times enact domestic scenarios with. Gradually, our girl began to take a vested interest in what was happening to her. The revelation was not exactly what she had in mind, and it only enforced the barren life she'd chosen for herself. The film ended at the moment of her realization, and it was a powerful punch of a scene to leave the audience with. And on that note, ladies and gentlemen, Julia Leigh has arrived.
Reaction: Is she serious? Only one rule? I can think of a million things that you'd want to put in that rule book and I have only seen one scenario!

4. Miss Bala (Naranjo | Mexico)

Impression: Mexico's drug war has become a breeding ground for crimes and corruptions. Naranjo anchored his pessimistic observations and damning critiques of the whole bloody affair to Laura, an aspiring contestant in a beauty pageant caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Much like a beauty pageant, the war on drug is a loud, glittery show that masquerades a seedy, ugly underbelly of humanity. The contestants are swallowed in the flow of power and money. The system is rigged - it can crown you a beauty queen one evening and throw you under a bus the next, and no one would bat an eye. Poor Laura's only trying to survive under fire, as she bends to the will and whims of the criminals and the government that fails to protect her. Along the way, she tries to find moments of grace, but they are so ever fleeting. Will the good people take a stand? We keep hoping, but does it matter an ounce if it's all just show and tell?
Reaction: Girl, DO SOMETHING!

5. Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da (Once upon a time in Anatolia) (Ceylan | Turkey)

Impression: I should've taken a hint from the title that Anatolia would be like a bedtime story, with emphasis on it being a story to be told before falling asleep. I went to see it at the end of a very long day, and I did not realize what a bad idea it was until half an hour into the film or so, when I started to drift away in the middle of yet another false body-ID alarm in the dark of the night. Once they hit daylight, however, the sleepiness lifted and I was able to enjoy the film for what it was: a procedural film about truth and discretion, and the shortcomings of a very human system. There were a number of laugh out loud and cringey moments having to do with police and hospital set up. It was a contemplative tragicomedy worth seeing, just not at the end of a very long day.
Reaction: Let there be light!

6. He'arat Shulayim (Footnote) (Cedar | Israel)

Impression: Footnote was a comedy about the fierce competition between intellectuals trying to survive in a world where they want to matter most: the archives of academic history. At its center was an elitist father who spent his life obsessing with the minutiae of Isreali's Talmud writings that he never got around to publish on time, when it mattered. His successful son's fortune exceeded his, and he grew envious of the son's achievements. Meanwhile, the son secretly idolized his father and did his utmost to realize his father's dream of winning the Israeli Prize. His father, blinded by resentment, arrogance and a dogmatic approach to their shared passion, proceeded to sabotage his only fan's effort. Cedar made a very charming Jewish intellectual comedy with Footnote, though it may have been a little on the light side.
Reaction: But isn't that what people have children for? To achieve what they can't in their life time?

7. Like Crazy (Doremus | U.S.A.)

Impression: Like Crazy explored gently the meaning of "can't live with you, can't live without you." A story about an encompassing connection between two people over time and space should've hit a home run with me, but it hit me a lot less than I thought it would. While Anton was sweet and Felicity's teeth were charming, their love was ultimately too precious and thin to make much of an impact. It wasn't particularly compelling, even if it got something worthwhile to say about the unpredictable course of chemistry and how a connection is inherently born between two people in their particular context. Some people are lucky enough to have plenty of meaningful, enveloping connections throughout their life, be it with the same or different partner. Some people don't find or know any at all. And then there are those who spend their lives trying to recapture the magic that came so easy at one time, only to find out that - like the first heroin high - it can not be experienced again, even with the same person. The cast tried their best to lend some heft to the story, and Doremus made an effort to frame them in a nostalgic, intimate postcard hue. Still, it felt a little too cute to warrant more than a cup of tears (tears are how I measure all love stories).
Reaction: *sniffle* when Anton broke up with Jennifer Lawrence. That felt real.

8. Starbuck (Scott | Canada)

Impression: A harmless feel-good Canadian comedy about what you make of a family. It was a true crowd-pleaser so I'm not surprised it was a runner up at TIFF. There's really not much else to write home about though.
Reaction: Oh no, not another emo running joke. But that's kinda sweet.

9. Elena (Zvyagintsev | Russia)

Impression: So, Zvyagintsev's The Return was really good. His new film Elena, Cannes' Special Jury Prize winner, came with high expectation as a consequence. While the film was well made, its principles were a crapshoot of unlikable people going about their life focusing solely on what they could take or feel entitled to. Other than the stark contrast between the lifestyles of the rich and the poor, there was not much that separated the interiors of their life. Elena was the conduit between the haves and have-nots, and the film almost in a cannibalistic way ate up its own titular character. She was an example of someone who didn't think her own crap stink, as she hopped on the high horse when it came to chiding her husband's rebellious daughter, but turned a blind eye to her own moral compromises. There was no sympathy for any class, and unfortunately, that didn't make the film a compelling story one would want to visit again.
Reaction: Gosh darn I want some sliding doors. I really don't like this character. At all.

10. A torinói ló (The Turin Horse) (Tarr | Hungary)

Impression: I wanted a Bela Tarr experience at the theatre, especially since it was going to be his last film. Sometimes, though, things sound better on paper than in real life. The film started out really promisingly, with a prologue explaining how this was the story of what happened to the farmer and the horse that came at a pivotal point in Nietzsche's life. The image of the poor horse trudging along to foreboding music was quite stark and beautiful. However, the harsh, repetitive, poor-in-every-way life of a doomed father and daughter pair (and their dying horse) told in excruciating, laborous details wasn't really something I prepared to spend 3 hours experiencing, however well photographed it was. I spent most of the film actively making up stories about people on screen in order to stay interested and awake. The film had somewhat of a punch line; I just wished it came an hour or two earlier.
Reaction: Ah, more potato munching. From a different angle. Very well. Why doesn't she have it with salt like her dad? Is she protesting? Such a rebel. Who does she look like? She looks like somebody. Shirley Duvall? Hm.

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