Editor’s Notes: The following capsule reviews are part of our coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée
Wild follows the journey of Cheryl Strayed (Reece Witherspoon) as she tackles the Pacific Crest Trail. Like other films of this nature, Cheryl carries mental baggage while she battles her inner demons. Plot elements include: Bobbi (Laura Dern), Cheryl’s mother, and Cheryl’s failed marriage to name a few.
Jean-Marc Vallee employs a simple yet highly effective storytelling technique. At the beginning of the film, Cheryl can barely lift her overstuffed pack. As the plot progresses, Cheryl removes the unnecessary equipment in her pack, bringing only the basic necessities. In a sense this is much like Jason Reitman’s Backpack analogy from Up in the Air. Cheryl meets supportive characters along the way. The only misstep is a character thrown in to remind the audience that Cheryl is a vulnerable, lonely woman and that there are dangerous men in this world. It’s an important lesson but it’s a major speed bump in the narrative that could easily be cut.
Witherspoon delivers one of her best performances to date. Her character arc transitions nicely from lost frailty to strong with a sense of purpose. It’s a wonderful story with a lot of heart. Dern’s performance anchors Wild, bringing a comforting, motherly heart and soul. Vallee’s follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club is strong, making him a director to place on your radar. Wild is a film worth seeing on the big screen.
Men, Women & Children
Dir. Jason Reitman
Jason Reitman has a lot to say with this film but it’s presented like a 12 course meal where every dish is undercooked. There are far too many characters in this film that detracts leading to a frustrating experience. Reitman is telling us that we as a society are allowing the Internet to destroy: relationships, social interactions, friendships, and self-confidence. He isn’t wrong with throwing caution to the wind when it comes to the dangers of the Internet. Take a ride on a bus, go to a coffee shop, go to a movie! Not a single person will look you in the eye; we’re all too pre-occupied with reading the latest outburst by so and so celebrity or sexting with our significant other/friend/classmate/co-worker/stranger from the Internet, etc.
This film lacks subtlety and a cohesive narrative. The voiceover work from Emma Thompson is a lazy narrative device that feels like it was added in post to drive the message home. Roughly 90% of the voiceover is completely unnecessary but Reitman and company feel the need to spoon feed the audience, one of the most insulting things a filmmaker can do to his audience. When any side story flirts with the idea of becoming remotely interesting the audience is pushed into the next underdeveloped story.
The characters and stories weave together with the grace of a newly born fawn learning to walk for the first time. The audience watches in agony as the fawn nearly stands up only to tumble over and we cannot help but feel embarrassed.
The performances feel too “Oscar-grabby” at times, especially with Jennifer Garner. Not all performances are poorly executed – Kaitlyn Dever and Dean Norris deliver stand out performances. Otherwise it’s a struggle to find positive things to say about this film. Reitman has talent. Take a look at his resume. Let’s hope he bounces back strong after a couple of stinkers.
Dir. Xavier Dolan
Mommy gained a ton of momentum this year when Xavier Dolan was a frontrunner for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. We’re thrilled to report that Mommy surpasses the buzz. Dolan captured the strongest of human emotions, assembling the perfect cast that delivered the goods in the best way. Diane “Die” Despres (Anne Dorval) is a widowed mother struggling to control her hyperactive son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). The two share the most extreme measures of love and weather the storm together. An incident introduces Kyla (Suzanne Clement) into the mix and the framework delves into wounded souls working together to repair each other.
Mommy works well because of the cast and masterful direction from Dolan. Shooting this film must have been a great challenge because each scene is more intense than the last. The emotions in this film practically burst at the seams. Thanks to snappy editing and sharp pacing, the audience is given room to breathe and absorb everything. The audience is given just enough to root for the characters, even smile; then Dolan snatches that away in the next moment. It’s a fine line to walk and Dolan waltzes down the line with grace that is a rare gift to cinema.
The film is presented in a 1:1 ratio, beautifully shot by Andre Turpin. Dolan and Turpin draw the audience in with an intimate shoot that results in one of the best-shot films of the year. There is a shot in Mommy that is by far the most beautiful, most wonderful shot that is so simple and has never been done before. Surely other filmmakers and cinematographers will kick themselves for not employing that technique before. We’ll save that moment for you, be sure to see this film on the big screen.
Mommy is a must-see. There is little to nitpick here. It’s just a great time at the movies with iconic frames and bold, fearless performances. This is art at its finest. Everything lined up beautifully. This will likely go down as the top film of Vancouver International Film Festivals and will find a place in many end of year recap lists. Do yourself a favor and see this as soon as possible and on the big screen.
Two Days, One Night
Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
The premise of this film puts the magnifying glass on humans and how we react when others are in need. At the tail end of her medical leave from work, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) receives a call that rocks her world. Her employer put 16 employees to a vote: Receive a 1,000 euro bonus and Sandra loses her job, or keep Sandra and lose the bonus. It’s an unfair scenario that triggers the conversation well after the credits roll. Sandra’s manager agrees to a second vote on Monday, so she has the weekend to convince her co-workers to keep her.
Two Days, One Night is a fine film elevated by a superb performance from Cotillard. The pain she displays on screen is heartbreaking. She displays great range, restraint and economy of movement while on-screen. When she approaches a co-worker you can feel her humility shrinking, her reluctance to ask someone to pass up a large sum of money. While the approach to each interaction is the same, the audience witnesses a wide array of reactions. Some co-workers express empathy, some are greedy and some get physically aggressive. Labor laws aside the story feels genuine, honest and heartbreaking. The narrative is straightforward which leads to a static feel to the film. There are no twists and turns, no big reveal during the film or any surprises really. It’s an examination of greed, humility, empathy and global economic conversation. What would you do?
This is a fine film with an outstanding lead performance with solid supporting performances. The stripped down narrative, terrific performances and thought-provoking discussion make this a worthwhile watch. I hate to deal with “what ifs” but it’s hard to imagine this film would work without Cotillard. Any other actress and this would be a pass.