VIFF Capsule Reviews #1

Another exciting year of the Vancouver Film Festival is upon us, and as always, nestled as it is between Toronto, Telluride, and New York, it provides a wide sample of the year’s best films along with world premieres of its own.

My festival experience began with George Ovashvili’s wonderful film, Corn Island. The story of an old man and his granddaughter who plant corn on the island that appears when the local Georgian river level drops in the summer, this is as simple as it gets. Plant the corn and cultivate it before the river rises again in the fall. Ovashvili touches on local politics by having some soldiers pass by on a boat every now and then, but this is primal stuff, pure survival with almost no dialogue. And the climax is riveting.

Next was Lech Majewski’s follow-up to ICS nominee The Mill and the Cross, Field of Dogs. A much denser film than his previous, Field of Dogs is Majewski’s personal encapsulation of the disaster that was 2010 Poland. Between the worst winter in remembered history, the plane crash that killed most of the government and rampant flooding, it was an awful time and Majewski has tied it to none other than the tale of Dante’s Inferno. Images of the disasters mix with beating hearts, dancing figures, oxen and a man who cannot sleep and whose life is becoming a waking nightmare. You can feel Majewski’s sorrow in every scene.

Frederick Wiseman returns with his latest magnum-sized documentary, this time taking an in-depth look at London’s National Gallery, naturally titled … National Gallery. Much more than Wiseman’s previous film At Berkeley, National Gallery ropes the viewer in quickly. Of course, priceless art sells itself, as a curator mentions at one point, so perhaps comparing this to Berkeley is unfair. As with most Wiseman films, I found it to be overlong. Even the greatest art reaches a saturation point in your mind (try walking the Vatican museum and seeing how much energy you have left for the Sistine Chapel at the end) but despite quibbles, Wiseman’s film is a must see for any art lover.

I next took on Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage. There isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been covered by my colleagues at Cannes; those who love Godard will love this. Those who hate him will hate it. Personally, I sometimes find myself entranced by his later work (In Praise of Love, for example) but I never gelled with this at all. It’s fascinating of course, but as to what Godard is trying to say with it, I honestly have no idea. The recurring dog is wonderful, though.

Next was the premiere of Andri Cung’s first feature film, The Sun, The Moon & The Hurricane. It’s the story of a young man named Rain who just gets comfortable with the idea of being in a relationship with the intense Kris when Kris freaks out, jumps back in the closet and moves from Jakarta to America. Flash forward some, and Rain lives his life until nine years later Kris returns married to Rain’s old friend Susan. The story is primed for melodrama at its worst, but Cung pulls a very convincing performance out of William Tjokro as Rain and his presence from scene to scene anchors the film. Only a late-stage emotional meltdown scene involving the rest of the cast really gets awkward, and though it threatens, it isn’t enough to sink the film. Cung has a strong hand on this film, and is a filmmaker to watch, as is star Tjokro.

And lastly, a local Alberta production, Kyle Thomas’ The Valley Below, tells four interlocking stories from the city of Drumheller (home of the dinosaurs). The stories each capture a basic dramatic trope – divorce, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, etc. – and I’ll admit to despairing at first that the film would end up feeling like SO many others before it about small-town problems. But the cast feels just like Drumheller, giving the screenplay some authenticity, and Kyle Thomas proves to have an able hand at balancing drama and humor, introducing an outrageous story at just the right time. There may be a solid future for Thomas.