Editor’s Notes: The following capsule reviews are part of our coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
Maps to the Stars
Dir. David Cronenberg
With Maps to the Stars, director David Cronenberg peels back layer after layer in a rich tapestry of intricate human connection, mythology, and modern civilization. He begins by introducing characters separately, only later to show how intimately linked each of them are. Thematically focused on mythology and incest, Maps to the Stars presents the ancestral phenomenon, that men and women may feel connected to a former self or ancestor. This phenomenon is experienced more deeply for Benjie (Evan Bird) and Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), children of incest, brother and sister born of brother and sister. An ancestral link ties them intimately to the cosmos, where they imminently must return.
In a secondary and more concrete actualization of heritage and connectivity with former selves or ancestral selves, Julianne Moore plays Havana Segrand, an aging actress who longs to relinquish her demons by starring as her child-abusing mother in a film about her mother’s life. In this event, it is a form of role-playing, but it is also a form of finding one’s self by attuning with one’s creator, one’s former being, one’s parent.
As expected, Cronenberg’s masterful film language and command of mood and tone is evident in Maps to the Stars. Rich in atmosphere, even if a bit strange, the film draws on several highly affective moments, images which cast a lasting imprint in the viewer’s minds. While Maps to the Stars does not quite reach the pantheon of Cronenberg’s filmography, it is yet another complex and sophisticated film to add to the list.
Cathedrals of Culture
Dir. Wim Wenders, Michael Glawogger, Michael Madsen, Robert Redford, Margreth Olin, Karim Ainouz
Shot in 3D, Cathedrals of Culture is a 6 part documentary attempting to find the soul of six monumental buildings. With six different directors, six different buildings, and six different formal experiments, the film, as a whole, is scattered and inconsistent. The only element which remains consistent is the 3 dimensional aesthetic which frankly looks terrible and does a disservice to the beauty of each building photographed. Though shot in 3D, the film image is consistently flat, noisy, and distorted. It is completely pointless, arbitrary, does not befit a documentary film shot on location. It actually usurps the film of its realism.
What moreover usurps the realism of this documentary is the fact that most of the films choose to utilize voice-over to identify the viewer with the building itself. To clarify, the buildings themselves are given voices and, through narration, tell the viewer about their lives. This is bizarre, pretentious, and uninteresting. If a building could talk, I don’t believe it would simply talk about how glorious of a building it is, or how existential of a building it is, or how ignorant to the rest of the world it is.
That said, there are two segments which are rather good. In Robert Redford’s segment on the Salk Institute, multiple perspectives are given. Redford rejects the form of each other segment; he does not have the building talk to us. Instead, voice-over from various scientists working in the building inform us of its elegant structure and value to the quality of human life. In another segment, Margreth Olin’s take on Oslo’s Opera House, the observational documentary mode is utilized. This, in conjunction with the wonderful score, provides an exceptionally entertaining experience. That said, these two segments do little to redeem the film’s overall poor thematic and conceptual structure, unattractive 3D aesthetic, and slow, disinterested pace.
Dir. Xavier Dolan
A revelation in modern filmmaking, Mommy displays innovation, courage, and audacity. The fifth feature film by the Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan is easily his best feature to date. At merely 25 years old, Dolan has created his first masterpiece.
With most of the film taking a 1:1 aspect ration, the film expresses a concept I will call perennial nostalgia. The aspect ratio is akin to first generation cell-phones, an image form which clearly inspired Dolan in the filmmaking process. Mommy, a film dealing with memory, the past, and nostalgia, uses the 1:1 ratio to give a sense of immediate appreciation of the past. In modern life, we choose to capture important moments with our cell-phone cameras. We immediately look at the photo and thereby feel nostalgic for a moment gone but which literally just happened. With each moment being a passing one, Dolan captures the idea of photographing and thus memorizing a moment in history, through film.
A few times in the film the aspect ratio switches to widescreen. In these periods, which is first realized in a glorious shot of Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) literally pulling the screen wide, Dolan captures moments being lived. During these periods, one a montage of a projected future, the characters are seen enjoying life and living in the moment rather than in the past. During the exceptionally edited montage sequence of the future—you might call this the present—the camera spins as faces fade into darkness. This technique expresses the phenomenon of a fading memory. A moment once lived might be incredibly affirming in the present but becomes blurred in the past. A photograph remains a present instance of the past. Is it better then to live in the past? To live through image?
Mommy is beautifully shot with many gorgeous sequences of sun-kissed lighting, slow motion, and harmonically rhythmic music. Long shots and slow zooms open and close space while door frames often encase the characters within a frame similar to the frame of a photograph. With Mommy, Dolan is revolutionizing film form. Frankly, I’ve never quite seen a film like it. Could Dolan be the new Godard?
Dir. Paolo Virzi
Recalling the films 21 Grams and Crash, Human Capital takes on a three part structure to interweave each separate character’s actions within a singular event. Presenting the same course of events three times, Human Capital becomes richer and richer as more information becomes revealed. Certain elements are left unknown until they are revealed later in the film.
Human Capital is layered and depicts each character separately to chart their personal involvement and activities. Once all three segments have been shown, the entire story is revealed and a fourth chapter, titled Human Capital, thematically unifies the film. This theme focuses closely on the idea of human beings as commodities. In two separate instances a person’s quality of life is financially valued.
Despite the film’s soap-opera like beginning, it develops beyond its superficialities to boast a seriously great ending which well expresses the concept at hand. Human Capital is not exceptionally sophisticated, but the end of the film demonstrates a great richness and depth that is theretofore unseen in the film. While it does not quite remedy the film’s poor execution, it does prove that sometimes an ending is worth the wait.