Vancouver International Film Festival picks for day 14: Wednesday
Today’s VIFF picks include some tough, harrowing film experiences but you’ll also find some fine comedy and one film that manages to combine both.
MODRA: Ingrid Veninger, the talented producer, here extends into writing and directing. Her first feature is a charming little gem with good vibes and not at all sappy. A Toronto teen travels to Slovakia to meet relatives and connect with her cultural roots. It’s both a vacation and a heritage quest, which many Canadians who’ve taken similar trips will recognize.
This one also has a young love element. The teen convinces a young man who’s got eyes for her but she hardly knows to travel with her. They have to explain that no they aren’t a couple as they meet a cheerful farmer, an old woman whose talk is translated by a bald clarinet player and a whole backyard full of relatives partying in traditional costumes. It feels authentic, even the country and western-style music in Slovakian. In town they talk to a school class and later, on a night of clubbing, they stir up their non-relationship with a bit of jealousy. It’s amiable, innocent, crisply photographed and nicely acted by newcomers Hallie Switzer and Alexander Gammal. The film plays twice today, at noon and at nine in the evening.
3 ½ out of 5
WHEN THE DEVIL KNOCKS: Former CBC-TV producer Helen Slinger has a compelling documentary about an Alberta woman with multiple personality disorder. Hilary Stanton created some 35 distinct personalities in her imagination as a way to deal with abuse she suffered as a young girl. We encounter one of these “alters” right off the top when, in a dramatized scene, Tim, an angry teen, takes over the wheel and drives her car at 100 k per hour.
We meet four others, domineering Mary, who once took her to play bingo, self-hating J.D., closed-in Joanie and five-year-old Little Hil. The woman’s children never knew who would be there when they got home from school. They become real for us too, in two ways. Years of therapy was video taped and clips are included here to show “there’s nothing freaky or Hollywood about being multiple.” We also get young actors playing the five characters, bringing them alive visually. The result is moving and chilling and, as the therapy gets closer to the ultimate memory, hard to hear but gripping. This 90-minute film screens again Thursday. A shorter version will play on TV.
4 out of 5
Today’s repeats ....
ANOTHER YEAR: An exceptional film for adults from Mike Leigh. This is a warm comedy-drama about people – not plot – people, who come together once a season and over dinner, or a cup of tea, share what they’ve been up to. At the centre are the hosts, a North London couple played by
Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. They garden, love to cook and never argue or even disagree. No wonder they’re a magnet for a bunch of emotionally-needy folks who drop over and let their hang-ups slip out. Chief among them is a middle-aged secretary who talks merrily on about her car, recycling, and anything else that springs into her mind but when she gets tipsy lets on that she is lonely. The other visitors include an unmarried son, a brother of very few words and a beerbelly friend who complains “everything is for young people these days.” The film bounces easily between comic and crisis scenes. Leigh’s dialogue is sharp and witty but also note how much his characters communicate with their eyes and facial gestures.
4 out of 5
OF GODS AND MEN: This is one of the prize winners from Cannes. It's been described as "quietly powerful" but there’s a strong contemporary side too although it takes place 20 years ago. It's a true story set in Algeria during a civil war.
A group of Cistercian monks live a bucolic, spiritual life and provide medical and other help to their Muslim neighbors. Co-existence is shattered though when Islamic fundamentalists arrive and threaten their community. The eight monks have to make a choice: flee or stay. The ending is devastating. Some of France's best actors are in the cast including Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson.
3 ½ out of 5
ARMADILLO: A documentary crew lives and films among a Danish army unit in Afghanistan. This is much like the recent Restrepo from the U.S. only better in every way. There’s more drama, more soul searching, more action, more tension and when these guys kill a farmer’s cow they compensate him.
4 out of 5
A FILM UNFINISHED: In May 1942, a German film crew entered the Waraw Ghetto and started documenting life on the street, in houses and offices. They compiled a rough edit and then abandoned the project. Parts of that footage have shown up in documentaries about the Jews of Warsaw. This film with the help of some outtakes discovered later, diaries, letters and memories of survivors tells a far more scary story. Many of the scenes were staged. Some were filmed over again. The people were directed. Isreali director Yael Hersonski explores the facts like a mystery and can only speculate why that film was made and then never finished. But the film she has assembled, which includes much of the footage, readings from testimony by the cameraman who shot it and present day clips of survivors watching it, is a bone-chilling look back at both the horror of the ghetto and the creation of propaganda.
4 out of 5
LEAVE THEM LAUGHING: John Zaritsky, the Oscar winner who lives among us (and also a former CBC producer), is back with another edgy documentary. Edgy and funny. It lets us spend time with Carla Zilbersmith, a singer, actor and comedian who kept the songs and jokes flowing even though she suffered from ALS. We watch her sing in a club accompanied by a small combo and tell stories that people long ago might have called ribald. There, at home alone, at a religious theme park and on her blog, she expounds on many things: sex, her condom collection, her image of God and her love of life. It’s that spirit not her impending fate that you’ll take from this film. Since it was finished, she has died, at age 47 in California. She was born here in Vancouver.
3 ½ out of 5
WAGNER AND ME: Stephen Fry’s wit is fully engaged as he ponders a delicate ethical problem. He loves the music of Wagner but with qualms. Frye is Jewish and Wagner was anti-Semitic and a favorite of Hitler’s Nazis. So how should he resolve that dilemma, Fry wonders. He takes us on a tour to the locations that tell Wagner’s story including the opera house that was built for him, Switzerland where he lived in exile, even the plaza in Nuremberg where Hitler staged those huge rallies. (Fry couldn’t bring himself to climb up to the Fuehrer’s actual podium spot.) Elsewhere he’s as excited as a child, at a Ring Cycle rehearsal, for instance, or playing Wagner’s own piano, or later when he yelps “I touched a Wagner” (the composer’s granddaughter). An Auschwitz survivor stirs a more solemn look at the issue.
3 ½ out of 5
WINDFALL: If you ever wonder why some folks oppose wind power as an energy solution, as happened recently in Oregon and some time ago on Vancouver Island, this film will help. It looks at a battle the broke out in a small community in upstate New York where a company proposed to build windmills to generate power. Old friends weren't talking to each other and a hot election ousted the local council. People feared noise, a cluttered-looking horizon and a strobe effect called “shadow flicker” which is clearly shown in some dramatic film. They also objected to tactics of the energy companies who they called “modern day carpetbaggers.” Very interesting stuff in a lively documentary.
3 ½ out of 4
WINDS OF HEAVEN: This worthy examination of the life and work of Emily Carr has much positive going for it, and one negative. It feels like an educational film. It's stiff and more than a bit precious. Carr was a pioneer who had to fight for recognition. The film has many rare pictures that chart her life and at the same time give a concise history of the province and its native people. Then it makes the startling claim that she had no real sympathy for natives. Let the debate begin.
3 out of 5