Throughout the years of Noir City’s Seattle residency, the programming has taken brief detours from the mean streets of hardcore noir to explore side alleys, from early influences on noir to noir influences on other genres. The 2017 festival, which runs February 16-22 and is the biggest to date (20 films in seven days), takes more leeway than usual for “The Big Knockover,” a week of capers, heists, and holdups. A lot of the films don’t qualify as pure noir. The heist genre occupies its own corner of the crime movie universe, sometimes embracing the dark heart of film noir’s world of corruption and desperation and doom, just as often skipping into lighthearted crime comedy or slipping into cool, calculated caper spectacle. You could say that the heist film is the original antihero team endeavor, the supervillain squad combining their unique skills to a common cause—in this case, the impossible robbery. This is one of those times when we root for the bad guys.
Most of the time, anyway.
John Huston essentially launched the heist drama as a genre of its own with The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Constructed around the meticulous planning and execution of a caper, it transformed the crime drama into a mission movie featuring shady soldiers of the urban underworld: mercenaries seeking redemption through one last gamble of action, trust, talent, and sacrifice. It’s a model of elegant construction, street-level tragedy, and poetic justice, with Huston’s wry fatalism providing the noir sensibility.
I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.
Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’sNeruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.
The festival is over now and my report is a lot later than I intended but most (if not all) of the films I saw will be coming to a theater, disc, or VOD stream near you so here are notes on a few highlights from six days and two trips across the border.
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (South Korea), his first film since his superb but unheralded American debut Stoker, returns to the intense imagery, twisting narratives, perverse subcultures, and elevated emotions of his Sympathy trilogy with a story of con artists in 1930s Korea. His lush South Korean thriller, adapted from the British novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters (also made into a British TV miniseries), has the look of a lavish period drama, the elegance of an arthouse picture, the complex plotting of an ingenious caper that only the movies could sustain, and the sex and nudity of an exploitation picture. Park adds the setting: Korea under Japanese colonial occupation. The target is the emotionally troubled heiress of a Japanese family fortune (Kim Min-hee) and the Korean con man (Ha Jung-woo) drafts a street pickpocket and thief (Kim Tae-ri) to play his inside woman, the handmaiden to the Lady. That’s as much as you’d want to know walking in to the film, which lays all that out quite swiftly and wittily in the first few minutes of an involved film filled with set pieces, switchbacks, and flashbacks. It has all the elements you want from a good genre film and then it adds a fascinating dimension of national identity and appropriation as a matter of power, which is more a matter of gender than culture. What appears to be an elegant, self-aware exploitation thriller in costume drama dress reveals itself to be a love story hidden in a tale of exploitation and allegiance and it rewards us with a perverse fairy tale ending, albeit a fairy tale where the big bad wolves are pornographers, forgers, and pimps.
Pablo Larraín’s Nerdua (Chile) is ostensibly about the revered poet, senator, and face of Chile’s Communist Party in the 1940s when he went underground and into exile after the government started imprisoning Communist Party members, union leaders, and protesters, with plenty of poetic license applied to history. Call it Larraín’s Citizen Kane, the story of a man’s life as understood through the stories surround him and the power that such stories and perceptions have. As such, it’s a film about storytelling and cultural mythmaking as shaped by Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco as an artist and social bon vivant embracing bourgeois privilege while playing the voice of the proletariat in public) and narrated by his nemesis. Gael García Bernal is Police Prefect Óscar Peluchonneau, assigned by the president to arrest and, more importantly, discredit Neruda in the eyes of the adoring public. He’s the film’s answer to the Citizen Kane‘s reporter Thompson by way of a warped reflection peasant-born poet Neruda, narrating as if he’s the hero of the tale. He’s also a complete fiction, as if created by created by Neruda himself, a poet who carries around paperback detective novels as pinballs from one safe house to another. Larraín’s direction and lush images play up the mythopoetic angle while he undercuts the pretensions with reminders of the reality behind the theater with Peluchonneau’s barbed (yet woefully un-self-aware) commentary and glimpses of the heroes fumbling and stumbling through their imagined heroics. The gaffes and stumbles and failures are for us, a reminder that there are people behind the myth. The myth remains eternal, given life by art and by faith in our heroes.
Paterson (US) is the name of Adam Driver’s character, a blue collar city bus driver; the location, Paterson, NJ; and a reference to a book of poetry by William Carlos Williams, a son of Paterson (the city) and the favorite poet of Paterson (the man), who is also a poet. Got it? Paterson pens his modest odes—most of them inspired by his wife Laura (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani of About Elly), in the seat of his bus before beginning his route or sitting on a park bench at lunch, scribbling the phrases he’s worked out while watching the world go past his windshield or eavesdropping on the conversations of passengers. This is Jim Jarmusch in the mode of the unassuming poet of everyday American dreamers, surveying the rhythms of life in the blue collar city and celebrating the artistic impulses and creative projects that bring color to our lives: a teenage girl scribbling her own poetry, a bartender with a wall dedicated to the greatest sons of Paterson, NJ, Laura’s black-and-white designs adorning everything from her handmaid curtains to her fledgling cupcake business, though she has a new dream seemingly every day. The humor is low key and the narrative a lazy drift through a week in Paterson’s life, which has its own, inviolable routine. For Jarmusch, the wonder comes in the grace notes and delightful coincidences (watch for the twins that keep weaving through his story) and the warmth in the way he appreciates those moments. Paterson hasn’t any grand ambitions—even his poetry is a private pleasure, so different from Laura’s exuberance in sharing her creative activities with the world—but it doesn’t make his art or his life any less meaningful.
Staying Vertical (France), written and directed by Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake), plays like a metaphor for creative labor and writer’s block that got lost in the same loop that Léo (Damien Bonnard), a blocked screenwriter avoiding his deadline with a circular journey through the French countryside to the city and back, endlessly spirals down. It opens with him trying to pick up a surly, handsome young punk (Basile Meilleurat) and then shacking up with a single mom (India Hair) on a sheep farm on the prairie. It’s hard to measure time passing in this loop and before we know, he’s the father of a newborn that mom essentially leaves him in the break-up. This closed universe also includes the strangest naturopathic doctor you’ve ever met (she attaches plant fronds to Léo like cables to check his vitals) and a cantankerous old man who blasts prog rock from vinyl in the farmhouse home he’s let slide since his wife’s death. Along with the hardly-subtle symbolism stirred through the cycle (watch out for the wolves picking off the sheep!) is explicit sexuality (no surprise to anyone familiar with Guiraudie’s films but startling to anyone else) and naked desire. I found it overly glib and indulgent and the pansexual Léo is not exactly likable but fatherhood makes him sympathetic—it’s the only thing that motivates him besides his own desires and creative blocks—and Guiraudie brings an enigmatic beauty to the physical landscapes and Léo’s spiritual transformation and a sour twist to his satire on artistic purity in a world where wolves pick off the stragglers and loners abandoned to the wilds. By the end of the film I was, if not won over, at least intrigued by the earthy poetry of Guiraudie’s direction and the mix of resignation to loss and determination to survive.
Ken Loach won the Palm d’Or for I, Daniel Blake (UK), a classic Loach social commentary on the struggles of the working classes and underclasses let down by society. This one, about a 59-year-old carpenter and widower in Newcastle recovering from a heart attack while fighting for assistance, is at once an angry assault on a bureaucracy that treats people as case numbers to be filed and shuffled on, a defiant cry for dignity and respect for the folks at the bottom of the social ladder, and a touching portrait of human compassion and contact in the cracks of the system and the queues of people lining up for government assistance. The paperwork deems Daniel (played with incredulity and dogged determination by comedian Dave Johns) fine for work (no matter that his heart surgeon forbids him from returning to work) and cuts off his disability assistance, sending him through a surreal maze with no exit. Loach sustains the grueling ordeal with a tart humor, courtesy of John’s exasperated commentary at every bureaucratic roadblock, and his outreach to a single mother newly arrived in the area and struggling to feed her two kids while her assistance is on hold. It’s not just the compassion, it’s the feeling of being useful that the system his systematically beaten down. Katie (Hayley Squires) is not the daughter he never had, she’s just someone who needs someone on her side. That’s something Daniel can provide and it gives him reason to keep plugging away.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have their own way with social realism and commentary, one that that doesn’t have Loach’s humor but is just as good at capturing the textures and rhythms of lives and often better as sketching the anxieties and conflicts within communities. The Unknown Girl (Belgium) revisits themes from earlier films—poverty in poor communities, families going paycheck to paycheck, immigrants at the bottom of the social food chain—but views them through the eyes of a young doctor (Adèle Haenel). She’s on her way out of a small neighborhood office she has been running for a retired old doctor (perhaps a mentor, certainly a friend), treating folks on assistance and government insurance, at times paying out pocket in cash, at others putting off payments, and into bigger practice with prestige, resources, and an more upscale clientele. And then she discovers that a young woman found dead nearby had knocked on her door as she was closing and she ignored her. The police have no identity for the young woman, an immigrant and probably a streetwalker, so the doctor takes the responsibility upon herself and follows the trail into outskirts of the community she’s never really experienced. This is Dardenne redux in many ways, a film shot almost entirely with handheld cameras getting a little closer to the subjects than we’re used to, measuring both the connections she has built with some patients and the distance she keeps with others. But I also appreciate how her journey is initially driven by guilt but ends up powered by compassion and a sense of responsibility. Where I, Daniel Blake ends in frustration and rage and blame at the system, The Unknown Girl suggests that we can make things better one person at a time.
After the official fall film launch of the Venice/Telluride/Toronto triumvirate, the first significant American fest is the New York Film Festival. But due to the quirks of international film festival branding, another event that plays out during roughly the same period offers many of the films showcased in New York as well as a great variety of additional international films. While New York provides the American launches of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (among many others) to great media attention, Vancouver quietly screens them across the country almost simultaneously, hot off their respective World or North American debuts at Toronto. For folks on the West Coast, the Vancouver International Film Festival is not just a great alternative to see these and other films, it’s an easier festival to navigate and an affordable festival to play in. Plus, if you have a particular interest in Asian cinema, it’s the place to find films from those directors yet to be anointed and celebrated in the anchor festivals around the world.
Opening night was set aside for a Canadian filmmaker continuing his Hollywood success story. Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by novelist Nick Hornby (who also scripted An Education), is more than a vehicle for its star/producer Reese Witherspoon. It’s an odyssey on a human scale: a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1700 mile journey undertaken without any preparation or training. For Sheryl, pulling herself out of depression and a self-destructive detour into drugs, it’s an American walkabout cleansing by way of a dare, though the only person she has to prove anything to is herself.
It’s #SIFForty! The 2014 Seattle International Film Festival is the 40th edition, at least by the numerical count (SIFF jumped from the “Twelfth Annual” in 1987 to the “Fourteenth Annual” in 1988, skipping Lucky Thirteen just like a high rise, but when you survive this long, who really sweats the details?). It holds the claim to the biggest film festival in America, by both length (a marathon twenty-four days) and number of films. This year’s presented 270 fiction and non-fiction features—including twenty feature film world premieres, twenty-one feature film North American premieres and eight feature film American premieres—and 168 shorts.
SIFF has grown a lot in its forty years, expanding into education, special screenings and, in the last decade, year-round programming films throughout the year—and they celebrated by announcing two major events for the organization. SIFF just purchased the Uptown Theater, the three-screen complex just west of Seattle Center that they leased a couple of years ago, and along with that new mortgage they’ve taken on the lease of the Egyptian Theater, giving the Capitol Hill landmark and festival anchor that closed in 2013 a new lease on life. SIFF reopened the shuttered theater for the festival and then will close it again (temporarily) while it raises money for renovations and a planned fall opening as a year-round venue. Without SIFF’s commitment, that space would surely have been gutted or torn down and turned into apartments or condos.
All of that was announced at the opening night festivities before the screening Jimi: All is By My Side, John Ridley’s portrait of Seattle-born rock legend Jimi Hendrix in London the year before he broke in America at the Monterey Pop music festival. Once again, opening night took place in McCaw Hall at Seattle Center, a great place to experience dance or opera or theater but a lousy venue for movies, thanks to acoustics that send movie soundtracks reverberating through the hall. That might seem like a death knell for a music biopic but due to resistance from the Hendrix estate, Ridley was unable to use any of Hendrix’s original music or compositions.
Quadrophenia (Criterion), the 1979 film of Pete Townsend’s landmark rock opera (originally performed by The Who) about teen rebellion and alienation in 1965 London hit the screen under the direction of Franc Roddam with Phil Daniels as the restless, Vespa-riding Jimmy, a Mod in the rock and roll culture wars. The portrait of early sixties Britain, of young adults looking to carve out their own identity distinct from the glum middle class dullness of their parents, and of a music explosion that becomes part of their lives, is astounding, and the desperation of Jimmy’s dive into this vivid but undefined culture reverberates to this day. “I don’t wanna be like everybody else. That’s why I’m a mod, see?” Sting is memorable as the charismatic Mod leader with a working class secret, future Brit star Ray Winstone is a former mate turned rival rocker, and Timothy Spall has a small role as a fellow working stiff.
It’s not really a musical as much as a rough and ready drama inspired by the story suggested in the rock opera (though the Who’s music underscores the film quite nicely), and it has aged very well over the years. This entire last act is set to the final side of the Who’s album, a brilliant work of rock scoring that suggests the restless, frustrated impulses of confused youth, shouted out in Roger Daltry’s singing and pounded into urgency by Keith Moon’s drumming, as Townsend’s music and lyrics merge into a transcendent convergence of themes and strangled cries of identity. Roddam finds an evocative dramatic translation of the suggestions in Townsend’s lyrics and sends the film off with images as resonant as the music. Can you see the real me? Well, can you?
Screenings will continue late into the evening of Sunday, June 12, the 25th and final day of the 2011 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival (see below for the films scheduled in the numerous TBA slots of the program). But the festival marks the conclusion with its closing night gala film – the lovely Life in a Day (USA), which is being screened at the magnificent Cinerama (still the finest theater in town and sadly absent from the rest of SIFF this year) – and the traditional closing night party. I hope to rouse myself for the latter.
As for the Closing Night film itself, Life in a Day is a feel-good film (with some moments of sadness and emotional trials) about the global village that doesn’t sell out its integrity to go for the emotional tug. A mix of high concept ambition, low-fidelity tools and the networking possibilities of the web’s global community, the production is a collaboration between National Geographic and YouTube, which is also as accurate a description you can offer for its sensibility. Officially directed by Kevin Macdonald, who plays ringmaster to a circus of contributors, it is in fact shot and performed by you, or us, or the folks out there, using everything from high-end video equipment to flip cameras to smart phones. What unifies the footage is that it was all shot on July 24, 2010, and each piece used in the film relates to the way we live our lives.
SIFF’s program notes states that The Night of Counting the Years (1969, Egypt), directed by Chadi Abdel Salam, is “universally recognized as one of the greatest Egyptian films ever made,” a statement that isn’t quite accurate. I’m not refering to the “greatest” part of that statement, just that it is “universally recognized” for anything.
While it is indeed considered an Egyptian cinema masterwork by those with some expertise in the field, this is not a film that has been close to universally seen, which makes its appearance here all the more notable. All but unavailable for years (I had the good fortune to see a 16mm print at the Seattle Arab Film Festival in 2000, which even faded and worn communicated the great power of the film), a new restoration was undertaken in conjunction with the international offshoot of The Film Foundation founded by Martin Scorsese and a high-quality DCP digital print was shown at SIFF. (Given some of the issues with digital presentation at the festival this year, I am pleased to report that this was a stellar screening; any weaknesses in the image quality were clearly those of the original film materials.)
The story is inspired by a real-life incident of an isolated mountain tribe in the late 19th century that was secretly selling off ancient artifacts from the tombs of the Pharaohs, specifically a cache of mummies hidden in the mountain caves to hide them from looters, which the government discovers after the recovery of one of the treasures. The drama ostensibly sets the government against the insular tribe, where the elders justify the looting of its own culture to sustain the people (as well as enrich themselves), but it’s the reaction of the young men to this tribal secret that fires the film. They are appalled at the desecration of their ancestors and their refusal to be a part of it marks them as enemies of the tribe. Not an ideal situation in such an insular culture.
Seattle International Film Festival audiences bestowed top Golden Space Needle Awards on Paper Birds, To Be Heard and The Whistleblower (among others) while juried awards singled out Gandu and the documentary Hot Coffee at the awards brunch of the Seattle International Film Festival this morning.
Over 450 features, documentaries and short films from more than 70 countries were screened over the 25 days (and the last day is not over as of this writing, mind you) and 600 screening event. According to SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence, it was a record setting year in terms of attendance.
Emilia Aragon’s Paper Birds (Spain) took the audience award for Best Film, Larysa Kondracki won the Best Director award for The Whistleblower (Canada/Germany), Best Actor went to Bill Skarsgård for Simple Simon (Sweden) and Best Actress to Natasha Petrovic for As If I Am Not There (Ireland/Macedonia/Sweden). Best Documentary was awarded to To Be Heard, directed by Roland Legiardi-Laura, Amy Sultan, Deborah Shaffer and Edwin Martinez (USA) and The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore, directed by William Joyce (USA), took the Best Short Film award.
The crime-gone-bad thriller is a staple of the crime genre. Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea, a South Korean box-office hit making its North American debut at SIFF 2011, runs with the concept in a jittery thriller of a desperate taxi driver in Yanji (an autonomous region in Northern China dominated by ethnic Koreans) hired to kill a man in South Korea. Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is Joseonjok, a Chinese citizen of Korean ancestry living in the impoverished region across the border. His wife hasn’t contacted him since she left to work in Korea six months ago, he’s deep in debt to the gangsters who smuggled her across the channel (the Yellow Sea of the title) and he’s losing whatever he makes gambling at Mahjong. So a local crime boss, Myung (Kim Yun-seok), makes him an offer: wipe his debt clean in exchange for a simple murder.
Na takes us through the human smuggling process with a rapid-fire pace, jumping through the steps in the ordeal in a montage that makes its points without stopping to explain and sets the tone that will define the rest of the gangster drama: no sentiment, no hesitation, no warning, just keep moving, react immediately and don’t look back. There’s none of the John Woo bullet ballets here. Na Hong-jin goes for the unpredictability of violence and the chaos created out of panic and shoots Gu-nam’s action scenes—well, more like reaction as he improvises in the face of competition and goes on the run from both the cops and the crooks—with a jittery shakycam aesthetic. It’s an overused and abused technique to be sure, too often appropriated in place of building and sustaining effective action scenes, but here it’s saved specifically to put us in the agitated head of our hero, an amateur in a world of professional thugs running on panic and adrenaline. It drives his desperate flight from a careening mob of overeager cops colliding with each other in their pursuit to a runaway escape that is all desperation and reckless impulse at high speed.
The white meadows of Mohammad Rasoulof’s The White Meadows (Iran), a stunning and startling odyssey through the salt marshes of Iran’s Lake Urmia, are the desert islands where almost medieval cultures exist in isolated pockets on otherwise dead lands. The salt that coats every beach white has left this place bereft of vegetation, giving it an almost alien, otherworldly atmosphere: a visit to a small planet. And just as the salt chokes the life out of the land and water (there are no birds and precious little marine life), so does it starve the respective cultures, cut off from the rest of the world but for a boatman, Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi), the only outsider welcome in these lands. He is the “tear collector,” who comes to hear their woes and take away their sorrows by collecting their tears in a glass vial.
The mythology and cultural practices are more fictional creation than historical reality but they have the resonance of myth playing out in a place that is, practically speaking, out of time, with only stray clues (mostly in the coda) placing it in, more or less, the present. The various islands could be Rasoulof’s answer to Jonathon Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” relocated to an Iranian sensibility and contemporary political and religious reality. Brutal rituals (human sacrifice, politely referred to as a “marriage” and treated as a holy honor by all but the virgin bride) and punishments abound and a culture of conformity and intolerance rules, maintained by an unquestioned patriarchy that keeps the culture locked in a surreal state of blind obedience bordering on madness. Rebels, be they runaways, heroes or artists with individual visions, don’t survive the smothering culture.
Those of us outside of the Big Apple may not be able to join the crowds for the glory of such classics (both major and minor) projected on the big screen, but Fritz Lang is a filmmaker well represented on DVD so here’s my suggestion for your own festival: the best of Fritz Lang’s American films, designed for maximum small screen pleasure.
Fritz Lang’s American debut is an indictment of lynch mob justice starring Spencer Tracy as an honest man wrongly arrested and left to burn to death in a prison blaze started by a vicious mob of normal American citizens whipped into a frenzy of vengeance while his bride-to-be (Sylvia Sidney) watches, terrified and helpless. He escapes, though he’s believed to have perished in the fire, and from hiding he plots his revenge on the mob by indicting them for murder. It was the first of his loose trilogy of social justice starring Sidney (she returns in the equally searing “You Only Live Once”and the lighter “You and Me”) and it grabbed audiences by the lapels with its frank dramatic confrontations. The Warner features commentary by film historian Peter Bogdanovich, with excerpts of his archival audio interview with Fritz Lang. (Warner)
I love the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for a lot of reasons. This is just one of many, but one that defines the spirit of the festival.
Fernando Martín Peña spent twenty years trying to track down the holy grail that was the complete, long though lost Metropolis. In collaboration with Paula Felix Didier, director of Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, they found it, confirmed its authenticity and contacted the Murnau Foundation, which had undertaken the task to reconstructing the original version. It was only one of many elements that went into the definitive version now making the rounds in festivals and cinemateques around the world (lost footage was also recently discovered in a New Zealand archive, and better condition than the Argentinean print), but it was the essential missing link that provided not just footage unavailable in any form elsewhere, but an invaluable guide to the artists, historians and technicians doing the physical work of restoring and reconstructing the definitive version.
And yet he had not seen the finished restoration until its screening at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.