Vic Film Fest rolls along with eclectic mix of features
By Kyle Wells
We’re just past the half-way marking of the 2017 Victoria Film Festival and neither snow nor rain nor heat, etc., has kept me away from cinemas to take in as many movies as possible. And what variety we have seen so far, from docs to animated features, from fist-time filmmakers to seasoned vets. Let’s take a look at some of the titles I’ve managed to see so far. Walk with me.
Window Horses, the Victoria Film Festival’s gala film for 2017, is a beautifully animated, often touching, occasionally clunky feature from Canadian animator Anne Marie Fleming that tells the story of a young Chinese-Canadian poet travelling to Iran for a conference, and discovering her own identity in the process. The film’s greatest strength is its use of different animators to provide unique and consistently stunning vignettes, some capturing the history of Iran, others adding visuals to accompany a poem. Touches such as animating multi-coloured ribbons dancing across the sky to visualize music played via loudspeakers over the city of Shiraz add wonder and depth to the film. The story itself comes across as deeply personal, but awkward comedic timing and odd choices (why include losing her phone on the plane if it’s never to be referenced again?) hold it back from matching the beauty of its form.
Bruce MacDonald’s latest road trip movie Weirdos is the slight but entertaining story of a pair of teenagers hitchhiking their way to a party in Sydney, NS, coming across all sorts of characters and self-discovery along the way. Shot in black and white and with a splendid soundtrack of ‘70s soft rock classics, the film harkens back to Canadian staple Goin’ Down the Road but with its own brand of MacDonald humour. Rhys Bevan-John is a joy as main character Kit’s imagined manifestation of hero Andy Warhol, and Canadian regulars Allan Hawco and Molly Parker add their considerable talents as Kit’s separated parents. The film never amounts to much of substance, but it provides a pleasant and warm journey worth hitching a ride with.
We don’t often see films from Newfoundland, and when we do they tend to be quaint and shiny tales of small town oddities and delightful accents. But for Justin Oakey’s first feature Riverhead, think more Shotgun Stories than The Quiet Man. This feud movie delves into the other side of rural maritime life, with a story of two families with a dark history that gets brought back to life after one late night drunken confrontation. It’s a dark, violent tale, captivating in its raw emotions and rough characters. Oakey shows great talent as a new filmmaker, with a real sense of pace and character. The story lags a tad in its latter half, and there was a real missed opportunity not bringing back the character of the daughter towards the end of the film, but it’s a satisfying story with a thoughtful finale, all wrapped within an astounding atonal score that truly makes the movie. Let’s hope we see more films from the Island to the east of this calibre.
French Canadian director Chloé Robichaud (Sarah Prefers to Run) is an exciting young filmmaker who deserves more international attention, a plea supported by her new film Boundaries. On its surface the movie is about a political negotiation revolving around mining in the fake nation of Besco, located off the east coast of Canada, but its true focus is three women involved in the negotiations struggling to find that which they seek in both their professional and personal lives. While the movie does get occasionally bogged down in its own fake politics, the three leads are fantastic and the film itself an antidote to the typical Working Girl Hollywood “career woman” movie, taking a more humanizing approach to its leads. Beautifully filmed in Newfoundland, Boundaries confirms Robichaud as one of our most promising Canadian directors.
I’m not the biggest fan of Ben Wheatley’s work as a director (except for Sightseers, which is very funny), but he keeps his more self-indulgent flourishes at bay for his 1970s –style shoot ‘em up Free Fire. A Reservoir Dogs-esque single-setting action-comedy, the movie has more than enough laughs and entertaining characters to keep you interested, even if its premise wears a bit thin at times. You can really only watch people shoot at each other in a room for so long. Broadly comedic performances from Armie Hammer (consistently underrated, in my opinion), Michael Smiley and Jack Reynor, among others, keep things clicking along though, along with a kickass Brie Larson, showing a new side to her talents.
Tonally, The Commune, the latest from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt), is a bit all over the place for my liking, but it features some fabulous performances and has more than enough worthwhile parts to make up for the fact that they don’t all gel together perfectly. Looking for a change, a family moves into a large house left to them via inheritance and decides to turn it into a commune, inviting friends and some complete strangers to join them for the experiment. Things start off light and comedic, but by the end of the film we see that wishing for everyone to be able to live together in harmony and free themselves from the shackles of the family unit is not so easy when things like emotions and human nature are involved. Trine Dyrholm is the standout as mother Anna, among a sharp and varied cast. One particular aspect of the story felt a little cheap and forced (I won’t spoil it but it involves a young child), but in general the film is an entertaining and thoughtful look at how relationships work or don’t, and the stages love goes through over a lifetime.
From the Indigenous Perspective program comes The Sun at Midnight, a touching and gorgeously filmed first feature from Canadian director Kirsten Carthew. Shot in the Yukon, the film tells the story of a young First Nations woman who grew up in the city but must go and live up north with her grandmother. A series of events ends up with her having to travel across the tundra under the guidance of a wise bushman, played with grace and humour by Duane Howard (The Revenant). Not enough can be said about the beauty of this film, care of cinematographer Ian MacDougall. Among many things, it is a love letter to the north and to a way of life that is in danger of disappearing along with the caribou that support it. The story itself mostly avoids the clichés of its fish-out-of-water premise, and in the end proves a heartfelt tale of discovery, perseverance and companionship.
The search continues for my favourite of the festival, but with four more days to go and plenty of features to take in, I’m confident I’ll find it. See you out there.