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The Tyee’s VIFF Riff: Ten Bite-Sized Film Reviews, Plus More Tomorrow

Our film critic is really, really bleary-eyed. She does it for you, readers.

Dorothy Woodend 20 Sep

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Gather round little cowboys, cowgirls, and non-gender binary cowpokes — it’s time for The Tyee’s annual cinematic roundup of the Vancouver International Film Festival!

To put it bluntly, there are a lot of goddamn films in VIFF. How does one choose? I’m glad you asked. We here at the little ol’ Tyee aim to do right by the citizens of Vancouver-town. In the spirit of neighbourliness, we’ve rounded up a goodly portion of films and events, things you should chew your arm off to see, and those you might want to avoid like a barnyard on a hot day. In addition to old-fashioned picture shows, there is a universe of other offerings at the festival, including live presentations, panels, performances, VR and AR installations, industry yakety-yak sessions and more.

For those weirdoes who take their vacations during VIFF, who camp out with sack lunches and firmly held opinions, well, you are weird. But that’s OK, in fact that’s the glory of it. A festival is a very big tent under which all manner of folk can be collected. Are you a pontificating cinematic mansplainer? Well, there’s a whole pack of your brothers already here, yammering on about Kore-eda. Are you a woman who just wants to watch a whole bunch of sex scenes? Roll on up, we’ve got some films for your delectation, horny lady!

It’s true that once you start watching a lot of films, one after the other, a kind of fever can overtake you. The need to collect and pin cinema butterflies into the squishy stuff of your brain can sometimes get away from a person. But if you only have a limited amount of time and money and want to take in a reasonable number of films, that’s quite all right. The question is which films and/or events are worth standing in line, biting and scratching with all the other film maniacs, to get a good seat and bragging rights about having seen it first.

Here’s the first of two samplers to get a body started. More tomorrow on The Tyee!

1. Jane

This event, in support of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada, is not only an opportunity to hear from the woman herself; it’s also a chance to see Brett Morgen’s gorgeous documentary on a very big screen. I believe this is what they refer to as a win-win-win situation. So walk, run or swing down from the trees and get yourself a ticket. Having written about Jane when it was released last year, I know it to be a dappled, gorgeous look at the early fieldwork of the famed primatologist before the entire world knew her name. Goodall had originally been assigned to study chimpanzees in Tanzania by Dr. Louis Leakey, who wanted to discover more about the behaviour of early humans. But what emerged from Goodall’s work was something far wider in its implications — a shared commonality of sentience and experience that jumped the species barrier. As Goodall narrates in the film, “They, like us, needed friendly contact and reassurance... Staring into the eyes of a chimpanzee, I saw a thinking, reasoning personality looking back.”

Keep your eyes on the Tyee for a more robust look at Dr. Goodall and her work very soon.

2. When the Storm Fades

For folks who knew Vancouver’s Sean Devlin primarily as a comedian, his new documentary/drama hybrid will come as a wonderful surprise. When the Storm Fades contains a startling combination of tragedy and comedy so thoroughly intermingled that it’s difficult to tell where the funny ends and sudden overwhelming grief, the kind that cuts you off at the knees, staggers in. The action is set in a rural part of the Philippines devastated by Hurricane Haiyan. As residents attempt to put their lives back together, the lingering physical effects of the disaster are slowly receding, but in their place is a new set of issues, including the arrival of insurance salesmen, NGOs and developers. Kayla Lorette and Aaron Read, as a pair of pale saviours, add a wash of millennial privilege. But the quality that lingers longest is the beauty of the place and its people. A dark tree, bedazzled with fireflies, or a strobe of lightning making fractal patterns across the ocean look like scenes from a Terrence Malick film. A true and genuine gem, don’t miss this one!

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Bruce Sweeney’s ‘Kingsway’.

3. Kingsway

What is it about Canadian film and horrible sex scenes? It’s a curiosity. The tradition continues in director Bruce Sweeney’s family drama that follows the ups and downs and ins and outs of a dysfunctional family in Vancouver. Matt (Jeff Gladstone) and his wife Lori (Colleen Rennison) are going through what could gently be termed a rough patch, a situation rendered even more complicated by interference from his sister Jess (Camille Sullivan) and his smothering mother Mary (Gabrielle Rose). A lot of what passes for high drama in Canadian cinema — swearing, drunken sex and improbable narrative — coalesces into a happy-slappy resolution. The actors do their part, but Ingmar Bergman this is not, and by the end whatever patience you might have begins to wear thin as this group of irritating people finally find some measure of happiness.

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Grant Baldwin’s ‘This Mountain Life’.

4. This Mountain Life

If you saw the climbing documentaries Free Solo and The Dawn Wall and are still shaking and vaguely greenish from the experience, director Grant Baldwin’s film might be just the thing to lure you back into the mountains. Baldwin takes a broad look at mountain life, folding in multiple stories including a young man buried alive in an avalanche, a mother and daughter on a hiking expedition from Squamish to Alaska, and a bunch of skiing nuns. The major narrative focuses on Tania and Martina who trudge, hike and wade some 2,300 kilometres to Alaska over six months. Along the way they’re forced to contend with unpredictable weather, missing caches of food and the sheer challenge of the terrain itself. An elegant if somewhat safe film, This Mountain Life is another reminder that much of Canada is largely comprised of rocks and trees. In this landscape it is the vast indifference of the natural world that resounds, a soundless sound, if you will. What a joy it is to be in a place far from the madding crowd of annoying humans, a sentiment that seemingly inspired a carver named Simon, who has lived in the mountains for the better part of 50 years. As he and his wife gently bicker in their garden, what emerges is a portrait of people who have chosen a quieter, more connected way of living.

5. What Is Democracy?

We’ve already gone in deep on this film in The Tyee, and it is still one of the most impressive and thoughtful offerings at VIFF this year. Go and see it, and then talk to other people, start debates in the lineups, get into arguments, cause a ruckus, practise democracy in the flesh! And, if you’re American, for Christ’s sake exercise your franchise and vote!

6. Dolphin Man: The Story of Jacques Mayol

Lefteris Charitos’s film is, in a word, beautiful — unabashedly so. The story of free diver Jacques Mayol, who inspired Luc Besson’s narrative film The Big Blue, is captured here in a gorgeous documentary portrait. In 1976, Mayol became the first recorded human to dive to 100 metres on a single breath. At the age of 56, Mayol broke his own record, descending to 105 metres. Charitos’s film is a visual deluge, an immersion in an experience that few people have had, and a deep dive into the world beneath the waves.

Julien Faraut’s ‘John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection’.

7. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

Coming hot on the heels of the latest tennis scandal du jour, director Julien Faraut’s rigorous exercise in cinematic style takes apart McEnroe’s backhand, as well his infamous outbursts, but also tackles the notion of perfection. Making ample use of Gil de Kermadec’s 16-mm footage captured at the 1984 French Open, this is not so much a film about tennis, or even McEnroe, as it is a philosophical treatise on the human quest for the unattainable. The work that is required to climb the highest peaks of athletic ability, if only for an instant, is really the subject under examination. Faraut, with support from narrator Mathieu Amalric and Kermadec’s stunning eye, creates something unusual in the annals of sports documentaries, namely high art.

8. Putin’s Witnesses

Vitaly Mansky’s previous film about life in North Korea (Under the Sun) amply prepared him for making a film about Putin’s rise to power. Much of the footage in the film was taken from 1999 to 2000, when Mansky was working for the Russian state television and played a role in documenting the early days of Putin’s reign. Some of the sequences, when Mansky attempts to add warmth and traces of humanity to the new leader, go horribly awry. A number of famous faces show up, including Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, but it is Mansky’s own complicity in Putin’s career that lingers like an open sore.

Tom Volf’s ‘Maria by Callas’.

9. Maria by Callas

My opera-loving grandmother harboured a deep animosity for Maria Callas and, truth be told, I inherited some of this feeling from her. My grandmother believed Callas to be an imperious woman who cancelled performances, wrecked her voice and was generally a bit of jerk. But as Tom Volf’s new film indicates, Callas was the victim of a long-running battle not only with the media, who dubbed her difficult and demanding, but also with operatic kingpins like Rudolf Bing, who presided over the Metropolitan Opera like a Roman emperor. The thing that separates Volf’s film from the number of other works about Callas is its decidedly personal approach. Callas gets to tell her own story through interviews, letters and personal diary entries. The film is also replete with legendary performances. From Tosca to Norma, Callas’s ability to channel ferocity and heroism with visceral force created an army of passionate devotees. Interviews with the likes of David Frost and Ed Murrow help anchor the narrative, but is it Callas herself — regal, heroic and, yes, larger than life – who most endures, like a goddess made real.

10. Bergman — A Year in the Life

Director Jane Magnusson’s film is yet another reminder that great artists can be terrible human beings. The year 1957 saw Ingmar Bergman involved in six major productions on both stage and screen, including Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, as well as a major theatrical production of Peer Gynt, considered by many to be impossible to stage. In between making some of the greatest films ever committed to celluloid, Bergman was also humping a whole lot of different women, marrying three and fathering a pack of kids, none of whom he had much to do with. Magnusson does not shy away from the dark side but goes in deep, talking to the kids, ex-partners and professional rivals who both loved and feared the man. The film strays into some thorny subjects, such as can you love a monstrous man’s art? Should you? There are no easy answers. A cavalcade of famous folk, from Barbara Streisand to Liv Ullmann, talk about their experiences with Bergman’s films, and in the end they are the things that remain. As vivid and bright as dreams, flickering behind your eyes.

Stayed tuned to The Tyee for even more reviews in coming days. Poor tired Dorothy.

The Vancouver International Film Festival runs Sept. 27 to Oct. 12 at cinemas across town. Find screening times here.  [Tyee]

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