For those who don’t have a lot of time to faff about choosing which films are deserving of time and attention at the upcoming Vancouver International Film Festival, The Tyee is here to serve!
Below, we take a swing at VIFF and open that sucker up like a piñata. As usual, there’s plenty of candy on offer for the maniacally happy, sugar-buzzed cinephiles of the city. But as is the case with most festivals this large, not everything that looks good is good. Let us help you find the tastiest treats.
If you only have time and money for a few films and want a safe bet, get a ticket to Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s film picked up the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival this spring, and it is worth every word of praise lavished upon it. The Korean auteur’s evisceration of class, economics and family is a masterfully structured feat of story and savage emotion, shot through with the director’s trademark gonzo humour. Yummers!
Another festival strategy: pick the wildest stuff on offer and go nuts. Festivals are good for seeing new things, be it installations, live performances or virtual reality that licks your eyeballs. If you’re in want of strange new cinematic creatures, sporting fins and iridescent scales, then get thee to The Lighthouse. To be frank, this film is insane and occasionally a bit gross. But if you’re not put off by the fluids that men emit — barf, sperm, or tears — then this one’s for you. Director Robert Eggers goes to town and lets his actors (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) take each other apart, piece by raggedy piece.
The story involves two men assigned to a stint of lighthouse keeping on a remote, storm-tossed rock circa the 1890s. A few seagull attacks, a mermaid vagina and some whiskey-binges later, and hello phallic madness! Anyone who doesn’t expound for hours about aspect ratios and black-and-white cinematography might roll their eyes a little at such auteurist display. But there are some pleasures here, principally of language, arcane in extremis.
Dafoe as a peg-legged wickie (lighthouse keeper) is given a barnburner of a speech that he delivers at the apex of complete drunkenness. Eggers’s previous film The Witch made good use of verbiage pulled from 1630s Americana. There’s a similar whiff of the same authenticity in The Lighthouse dialogue. In amongst the sea spray, sexy dream sequences and everything getting wet, you may even espy a bit of Pattinson penis. All hands on deck, as it were.
Of some films, the best you can say is, “Well, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.” Others may leave you scratching your head, wondering what the hell just happened. Unfortunately, the festival’s opening film Guest of Honour is one of those films. I don’t wish to be unkind, but that’s exactly what I’m about to be, because this film doesn’t make one ounce of sense. Worse, it’s belaboured, ponderous and self-serious in the worst possible fashion. The moment you see “written, produced and directed by” you should run for the hills. Generally, this means no one was there to take the triple threat’s hand off the wheel and steer the vehicle safely to the side of the road. Guest of Honour is a serious car crash.
The plot involves a health inspector named Jim (played by David Thewlis) who has lost his wife to cancer and then subsequently died himself. His daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) pays a visit to the church where Jim has requested his services be held and confesses her father’s sins, as well as her own, to a befuddled priest (Luke Wilson). Wilson does his best to appear concerned, but he mostly looks like he’s holding in a fart. Told as a series of flashbacks within flashbacks and heaped high with even more flashbacks, there are chopped up rabbits, kinky bus drivers and children playing classical music on wine glasses. God help us all.
Watching the film, I felt bad for wanting to set fire to the screen, but then I remembered Pauline Kael’s vicious takedowns of films and filmmakers and thought, If you’re going to sit through terrible films, at least you should get some fun out of it. Once upon a time, film critics mattered. They were key players in shaping cultural trends, acting as midwives to the careers of filmmakers, setting a tone for the times. During this heady period, no one was more critical than Kael.
Long before she became the most fearsome female film writer in the world, Kael was penning program notes, schlepping film prints and fighting with distributors. To say the woman paid her dues is putting it mildly. One of the chief pleasures of Rob Garver’s documentary, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, also playing at VIFF, are the intimate details of Kael’s life and work, brought to wrangling, tangling life through interviews with family, friends and bitter enemies. From her legendary parties to her war over outré words with New Yorker editor William Shawn, who was prone to writing, “Why, Why?” in the margins of her copy — the full scope of the woman is laid bare.
One of the more surprising aspects of this openness is the more tender side of Kael. Her daughter Gina James explains that even when her mother was being particularly harsh, it came from a place of authentically wanting to help. In her eulogy to her legendary mother, James stated: “This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline a supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice. She turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.”
Whether or not this was genuinely the case is hard to say, but the weight of Kael’s influence remains indisputable. Although, as the film points out, even at the height of her fame she didn’t make a living as a film critic. Let that sink in for a moment. The lady did have some fun, though, tearing bloody strips off everyone from David Lean to Orson Welles with voracious wit.
The need to speak one’s mind, come hell or high water, is resplendent in a number of other VIFF films, most notably in Agnès Varda’s final film, Varda by Agnès. Varda died at the age of 90 in March, but thanks to the magic of cinema she is still alive, feisty and fearless as ever, her bicolour bowl cut and distinctive humour wonderfully on display. Varda give what is essentially a masterclass in her own work. The documentary makes you immediately want to revisit all of her films. And, so you should!
Another powerful woman who is thankfully still alive and making great work is Ursula von Rydingsvard. Like Kael, von Rydingsvard had a pretty rough start in life. Born to Ukrainian-Polish parents, her early childhood was spent in a refugee camp. But even after her family moved to the U.S. there was violence, poverty and abuse. She credits the trauma of her upbringing as fuel for her art. Von Rydingsvard moved to New York City when the place was at its roughest, and did anything and everything to support her career as an artist. And what art it is. Working first in red cedar, carved, cut and molded into monumental forms, she evolved into working with bronze. Her towering works grace private and public collections around the globe. Daniel Traub’s workmanlike film Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own does its job well and efficiently in little less than an hour, providing pure visual pleasure from start to finish.
And yet another woman artist who struggled to make work, raise kids, and keep house was Mary Pratt. Pratt’s paintings are the subject of Kenneth J. Harvey’s biography It Was All So Wonderful: The Everyday Magic of Mary Pratt. Harvey has a wealth of material to work with, including interviews with the artist herself, her family, friends and her former husband Christopher Pratt. But most important, there is the work. Pratt painted the things that were around her, imbuing everyday objects such as salmon on tinfoil or jars of jelly with an almost obscene richness. The play of light and colour that characterizes her work contains a strong erotic component, a fact that she alluded to frequently in interviews. The more political aspects of her images, as well as her struggle to gain respect as an artist, came a little later, along with a good portion of rage.
One film that offers genuine surprise is Alex Winter’s Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain. Winter is familiar to most people as one half of Bill and Ted (hint: he’s not Keanu Reeves), but he has a long history of understanding the internet in all its many manifestations. The dark web, the Silk Road and the Dread Pirate Roberts were the subject of his previous film Deep Web. Winter’s new film outlines the development of blockchain, explaining how it could potentially pave the way for massive social change.
The film provides a couple of examples of what blockchain’s decentralizing disruption could look like. Instead of buying power from a megacorporation, you could purchase electricity from a micro-grid power system, generated from the solar panels on your neighbour’s roof. One of the most compelling stories involves a small group of UNICEF workers who devise a way to use blockchain to provide identity to refugees. Doing away with the need for centralized systems means that computer networks could operate independently — banks, power companies, even money itself, could be disrupted. There’s something deeply exciting here, a new way of understanding not just the economic evolution offered by cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, but a way to do things differently — culturally, creatively, collaboratively.
More than just film candy, it’s food for thought.
Later this week: More VIFF reviews from The Tyee.