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.
Dir. Andrew Huculiak
Violent is a visually and aurally poetic illustration of dying as an isolated act of experience that recalls one’s social journey through life. A companion piece to the latest album by Vancouver Indie band We Are the City, Violent uses music and abstract imagery to form a poetic and philosophical rumination on life and death. A debut feature, Violent won the both the top Canadian film and top BC film awards at the 33rd annual Vancouver International Film Festival.
Structured in five chapters which focus on each of five people in a young girl’s life, the story is told in flashbacks. These flashbacks, prophetic of the girl’s eventual demise in a catastrophic event, present a collection of life experiences with loved ones. As such, it evokes a notion of dying as a form of remembrance, of the act of dying as a means of drawing an appreciation of one’s life.
The chapters are separated with poetry describing death as a cycle of rebirth or of re-entry into the womb, the source of all life. “It is like water, electricity, a humming fridge,” says Dagny in voice-over. The middle of the film uses visual graphics to poetically express this, but the idea is not fully realized until the film’s conclusion. The vibrations, energy which bring us closer, are felt most acutely in one’s time of death. A suspension of time is afforded. Throughout the film, sound bridges, music, and cinematic poetry, such as images of levitating furniture, evoke this idea of suspended time, an idea integral to the film’s thoughtful depiction dying.
Dir. Bennet Miller
Foxcatcher, Bennet Miller’s latest buzz worthy feature, tells the true story of Olympic Gold Medal winner Mark Schultz, a former wrestler whose stormy relationship with his brother and sponsor led to a tragic incident. Boasting a fine ensemble cast—Channing Tatum, Steve Carrel, Mark Ruffalo—and a tightly woven script, Foxcatcher is sure to make headroom both in the box office and with the Academy. However, despite its strong directing, editing, and pacing, Foxcatcher presents nothing new or surprising. The film is conventionally shot and relatively safe. It is a prime example of Oscar fodder.
Besides its relatively strong character study, Foxcatcher feels insubstantial. Using melodrama to absorb the viewer into its presence, the film entertains in the moment but fails to linger after the curtains close. Though a grainy film stock reminiscent of the 80s gives Foxcatcher an authentic look, its plot-heavy orientation and conventional negotiation of visual dialogue lend themselves towards cliché; it uses old forms to establish new ideas. As a result, despite its technical virtuosity and professionalism, the film lacks the necessary originality to launch it into greatness.
Dir. Zhang Yimou
After a stretch of commercially acclaimed features, 5th Generation Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou refocuses on the humanist dramas which set him apart during the post-Cultural Revolution new-wave of Chinese filmmaking. A powerful, emotionally entrenched film about longing, devotion, and sorrow, Coming Home tells the story of a woman, struck with a unique form of amnesia, who is unable to recognize her husband after he returns from twenty years in prison.
Her lack of recognition is in no way a sign of disaffection; she simply recalls the face of a younger man. In early instances, Lu (Daoming Chen) attempts to recharge his wife’s memory by using objects, images, and sounds from the past to trigger a realization. In one scene, Lu plays a beautiful piano melody from their youth, and although it stirs her memories, Feng (Gong Li) is still unable to recognize the man as her husband.
When his attempts fail, Lu decides it is of no use, and so he finds new means to redeem closeness with her. He remains a dutiful husband by sacrificing his former life as her lover. Both husband and wife display a great deal of commitment and affection, as the wife patiently awaits her husband’s return while her husband attends her needs and stands by her side despite her lack of remembrance.
In perhaps her finest performance to date, Gong Li steals the show in her role as Feng. While showing an entire range of emotions, from sad longing to hope and joy to pain and malaise, she perfectly captures the mannerisms of a woman lost in thought. Her abrupt blank expressions aptly convey her deteriorated mental state. This in conjunction with Yimou’s masterful use of natural lighting, a feature he is known for, creates a deeply melancholy mood, bolstered furthermore by rain, snow, and a general wintery atmosphere of silence, longing, and sorrow.
A Different Drummer: Celebrating Eccentrics
Dir. John Zaritsky
A carnivalesque showcase of seven eccentric people around the world, A Different Drummer is deeply flawed in its lack of a theme or through line. Rather than a poignant depiction of eccentricity, the film is a scattered, poorly edited, and highly contrived depiction of seven people, who are in no substantial way conduits for the celebration of eccentricity.
Apparently based on a ten year study of a thousand eccentrics around the world, the film uses a small number of resources to make general statements about eccentricity. Chapters which examine each of seven individuals are separated by quotes. All of these quotes come from the same source, Dr. David Weeks, and nearly all of them are insignificant. For example, “eccentrics are usually curious people” shows up as an intertitle against a black screen. Parading as profound statements, the general lack of substance in these quotes is only further discounted in the fact that Dr. David Weeks is the only informer.
Though not intentionally, A Different Drummer exploits its subjects. In a clumsy manner, it puts these strange people on display as if to celebrate a common quality of their character but instead only serves to demean this characteristic by depicting an incomplete and inconsequential glimpse towards it. It instead capitalizes on the entertainment factor of its carnivalesque spirit. It therefore fails to realize its purpose.