by Jason Whyte
Victoria Film Festival - dig it: www.vifvf.com
Is it that time of the year already? It seems that just so little of time ago it was February 2006 and I was closing the books on a sweet little film festival in Victoria, British Columbia and was already looking forward to what the next year in indie-cinema in Victoria would bring me.
An annual celebration of film and bringing people together in BC’s capital, the Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival has a life of its own as I have learned and experienced in my four years of covering the film festival on the island. From meeting filmmakers, enjoying talks with people involved in the industry and meeting many a film fan at this festival every year, it has been a part of my annual film festivalgoing and will remain for some time to come.
Every year the fest seems to be growing and growing, and here we are in February 2007 and this year is no exception with more centralized screening locations and the Empress Hotel as the central partying and panel hub (Which is not to say that the Laurel Point Inn was not a wonderful spot!). Everything is within walking distance of everything else, with of course the exception of the great Star Cinema in Sidney which is a bus ride from Victoria and well worth a trip out.
The film festival kicks off Friday with the Island premiere screening of Sarah Polley’s wonderful directorial debut Away From Her. Look down for a full review of the film, which I feel couldn’t be a better choice to open the festival. It’s Canadian and it’s good! Although Ms. Polley will not be attending due to an insane schedule, lead star Gordon Pinsent will be attending the opening screening and the previously mentioned party at the Empress.
Another notable guest attending this year is legendary musician and producer David Foster, who is here for An Evening With David Foster which is a discussion and video presentation at the Victoria Conference Centre hosted by City TV’s Terry David Mulligan. The panels and attending guests are always one of the highlights of the Victoria Film Festival and no doubt this will be one of them.
Mychael Danna is also scheduled to teach a master class on the art of scoring music. Winner of several Genie awards for his outstanding body of work, Danna is probably best known for his recent work on the Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine. Other guests attending include Barry Pepper, who is here for a Q&A screening of the overlooked Canadian film The Snow Walker, director Daniel O’Connor who is here with his great first feature Run Robot Run, uber-producer Marc Halperin, Telefilm guru Wayne Clarkson and Fido director Andrew Currie, among many others involved with screenings, panels and master classes.
And at the end of it all, there are a whole lot of films to see at this year’s VIFVF. If I can only make one constructive gripe about this year’s line-up…where, oh where, is the booking of the brilliant Oscar-nominated “The Lives of Others”?
Okay, I’m done griping. Seriously, this year has a fantastic lineup and there is something for every film fan coming to this festival. The following is a list of reviewed films playing at this year’s VIFVF. Without further ado…
Acts of Imagination (3.5/5) – With all of the cheaply made, poorly focused films to come out of Canadian cinema these days, it is a welcome relief to see a character study that feels like a worthy addition to indie-cinema that uses its background as a character. “Acts of Imagination” is about two Ukranian siblings who move to Vancouver with a troubled past and have a problem with connecting with anyone outside of it. Director Carolyn Combs succeeds with three-dimensional characters, strong writing and a skilled direction involving tight lenses, hand-held photography and a real genuine feel for the rainy climate of the city.
-- Click HERE for an interview with director Carolyn Combs and producer Michael Springate. --
Away From Her (5/5) – Sarah Polley’s first film opens the festival this year, and it is one of the best choices this festival can make. Based on Alice Munro’s short story, the film follows a couple (Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent) who have to deal with Alzheimer’s disease. Christie is the woman with the disease, and Pinsent is the one that has to spend the entire length of the film dealing with this hard blow. Not only does Ms. Polley get the quirks of senior citizens so darn right, she also knows exactly how retirement and assisted living homes work. There’s a moment in the film where a retired woman is walking down a hallway and proudly beams “I’m taking my tea for a walk!” where I knew Polley had made the right movie.
Candy (4/5) – Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish star as two young lovers whose heroin addiction drives them slowly apart from one another. The film has received comparisons to “Requiem for a Dream” but “Candy” has none of the visual touches of Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film. What it does have, however, is commanding performances by Ledger and Cornish as the two ill-fated lovers and a bleak, dreary style over the proceedings. As the film progresses, the two lovers are challenged to kill their addiction, and there’s a horrifying sequence where they try to kill their habit that reminded me of the “Baby on the Wall” sequence in Trainspotting.
Cheech (4/5) – At this year’s VIFVF, this film is only screening on a Sunday afternoon. Yet this is the kind of indie-Quebecois movie that should be screened late at night where its characters inhabit. The story is set around an escort agency and a group of characters that revolve around Ron (Patrice Robitaille) who is depressed and wants to expand this business into something more. Edgy, quirky and with a lot of dark humour, this is the perfect French midnight show…if they even did that anymore.
Colma: The Musical (4/5) – I was recently in San Francisco visiting family and had the opportunity to visit the city as well as its suburbs. What I love about the city, as a whole, is it seems to be a place where time has stood still, and the three lead characters in “Colma” – the film of course being named after its city – are in a standstill. They’re just out of high school and they’re looking for that next step in life. So what better way to express it than to turn it into song? Yes, campers, this coming-of-age story is a indie-musical and while the film is rough around the edges and limited by its budget, it soars in its imagination. Director Richard Wong and songwriter H.P. Mendoza bring together some really unique music (which is heavy on synthesisers, calm vocals and car alarms…yes, car alarms) and storytelling in a fresh and interesting way, and it kind of reminded me of the indie-masterpiece Expiration (My friend Gavin Heffernan’s film) that takes its budget limitations and run with it.
-- Click HERE for an interview with Colma director Richard Wong --
End of the Line (4/5) – Think of a zombie movie where the terrors are not the undead but rather religious zealots. A flick with a lot of dark comedy to spare, Canadian filmmaker Maurice Devereaux gets a lot of mileage out of the idea of casting religion as horror and the inescapable Toronto subway tunnels as a group of non-religious-conformists (read: humans) fight their way out. Some bad acting and dialogue aside, it’s all very creepy and a lot of fun.
Iraq in Fragments (3.5/5) – There have been enough Iraq documentaries in the past few years that there could be an entire film festival just for them, and thankfully James Longley’s much-heralded film (recently nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar!) stands out in the crowd. He takes a look at the different races of Iraqi life and shows, just from their perspective, how their lives have been affected by the last few years of warfare and terrorism. What also sets it apart is how Longley refuses to film too many interviews and instead lets his careful cinematography and editing (which, bizarrely enough, reminded me of some of Terrence Malick’s films!) stand out.
Lunacy – (3/5) Meat, the Marquis and legendary Czech actor Jan Triska. When I saw this film at the 2006 Vancouver International Film Festival, I had no idea what to think. Months later, I still don’t. Even as I was “collecting” screenings from day to day, I still had no idea what to think of it. I know that I watched all two hours of it, some in my seat, some standing at the back of the auditorium and I recall talking to Jan Triska about it afterwards, and I’m still lost. But I think the film, in all its wackiness, asks the viewer to figure it out and think about it afterwards. So give it a try if you dare.
Mojave Phone Booth (3.5/5) – A quirky drama-indie featuring a lot of acting faces that haven’t been seen in quite some time. Set right outside the Las Vegas desert, this is a study of a group of people that revolve around a old and worn phone booth with a mysterious woman on the other end of the line. All of the stories involve video tape in some form or another. The real surprise is seeing Steve Guttenberg after so long, and he’s actually not that bad at all!
Monkey Warfare (3/5) – Don McKellar and Tracey Wright (you may remember as the art gallery curator and sometimes computer sex chatter in Me and You and Everyone We Know) star in a quirky yet utterly bizarre slice of Canadiana about two liberal minded, hippie Toronto folk who create an unlikely relationship with a pot dealer (Nadia Litz) who all crave a bit of change in society. Director Reginald Harkema has some fun editing choices and camera angles (cutting to titles, sudden bursts of hard rock) and has hints of a time when films were made like these thirty years ago, yet it ends somewhat abruptly only to have a truly funny sequence after its end credits. If you plan to see the film, make sure to stay for those.
Pirate Radio USA (3.5/5) – A bit too talky of a documentary for my taste, although it’s too much of an interesting subject to turn down. Jeff Pearson’s documentary follows two independent radio personalities from Seattle as they chronicle the power of free speech and the independence of free thought throughout US history through pirate radio transmissions that run on just enough electricity to power a coffee maker. There is a section heavily devoted to the WTO riots that is fascinating to watch, especially after the way authorities have dealt with its civilians since 9/11.
The Puffy Chair (5/5; Best Film of the Festival) – I’ll get the main criticism of this hit-out-of-Sundance indie out of the way…you’re going to have to get beyond the poor camerawork. Shot in a documentary like style, the out-of-control hand-held, the wandering focus and bad lighting would be a distraction and yet this near flawless character study saves the day. A couple goes on a road trip to pick up a chair for the man’s father and winds up taking his brother in tow…and all of the emotional baggage the couple carries with it.
An endlessly fascinating study on what makes long term relationships tick and fall, the film features some of the most realistic, most natural acting that I have ever seen in an independent movie. Mark Duplass is a revelation, a slightly younger Ron Livingston and possessing just the right balance of comic timing, sudden rage and sweetness, and Kathryn Aselton hits so many correct notes in her performance that I’m surprised she hasn’t hit the big time yet. I guess I have to write a role for her now. If you miss this during the film festival, don’t talk to me.
Run Robot Run (3.5/5) – A small Canadian indie picture that starts out a bit rough by director Daniel O’Connor but then begins to show its strong heart. Set in the not-to-distant future, Kent (Chris Gibbs) is a strict office worker who takes his job very seriously and has a crush on his beautiful co-worker Allison (and after seeing the lovely actress Lara Kelly, who plays Allison, who can blame him?). Soon enough, a new co-worker comes into the office, a robot named Peter (Adam Kendall) who Allison takes a liking towards. This sets off a chain of events where Kent suddenly realizes that he wants to get rid of his anal-retentive attitude and try to woo Allison. Where the film really begins to shine is how Kent asks Peter, the robot who is programmed with all the right moves, to help him. The film has some rough edges here and there, especially at the start, but I admired the performances and O’Connor’s direction enough to recommend. A very funny and likeable Canadian indie.
Click HERE for an interview with "Run Robot Run" director Daniel O'Connor.
Unnatural and Accidental (3.5/5) – While I might object to some of the photographic techniques that director Carl Bessai uses here, his adaptation of a stage play depicting a killer who took the lives of Aboriginal women in the east side of Vancouver in the 1970’s is a deeply unsettling yet necessary story. The star-making lead by Carmen Moore as a young woman out to find her mother, the story and acting thankfully outweigh the David Fincher, heavy-filter look that gives it a real visual overkill. Still, if you can get past this, it is a story worth watching.
The White Planet (2/5) – Great cinematography. That is all. I had such great anticipation for this French-Canadian documentary focusing on all walks of arctic life, focusing mainly on polar bears and all that surround them. It comes off as too little, too late. The problem, I think, is that we don’t really have much narrative tissue to connect to so the 90 minute running time so the whole thing seems longer than it actually is, and the filmmakers forgot that even in a documentary, a story matters. Again, it’s great to look at, but when you’re thinking you’d rather see this on the IMAX screen, something is wrong.
Also: Two Shorts worth mentioning include a screening of the entire Patterns Trilogy. As of this writing, I have only viewed the third film in this series and plan to catch the other two at the upcoming screening. Travis has come up with some kind of weird indie-pop-dream-on-pot mystery that was a joy to watch at last year’s VIFF; hard to describe but fascinating to watch. The other is animator Bill Plympton’s Guide Dog which is a follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Guard Dog.
Links of interest:
VIFVF Website – This will take you if you want to keep updated on all of the goings-on, program changes and sell-outs of this year’s fest.
Film Festivals of the World Article – Here’s a FAQ to the Victoria Film Fest posted on efilmcritic/HBS by yours truly.
Click HERE to my profile to look back on previous VIFVF coverage which includes interviews from past years.
Coming soon: Watch on Tuesday for a weekend wrapup of the all-important first weekend of the festival, more quick reviews of films in competition and even a picture or two.
Special thanks to Joan Athey of the Victoria Film Festival for assistance with this article. – Jason Whyte, email@example.com.
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originally posted: 02/02/07 05:46:06
last updated: 02/04/07 03:19:17