VIFF 2011: Week 1 - Life has a big gap in it. You don't try to fill it like a fvking lunatic. (Taiga, Waltz, Mir, Tyrannosaur, Top floor, Skin)

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Round up reviews of films I've seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival week 1, in order of preference/impact:

1. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Herzog | Germany/Russia)

Impression: Werner Herzog's abiding interest - human's connection to nature - was once again given the grand stage by way of the vast, beautiful, harsh Siberian Taiga landscape. Propelled along its seasons by the ever charming (if not heavy-handed at times) Herzogian narration, Vasyokov's documentary (edited by Herzog) on the Bakhtin villagers explored the mythical one-man-and-his-dog-versus-the-universe story in all its glory. Although Herzog would like you to believe that our central character - a wise, renaissance man of sort in the form of a seasoned trapper - epitomized the complete self-reliance of ancient "cave men," his snowmobile, riffle, and a supporting cast of women and children at home would beg to differ. In spite of its romanticism, the film worked as a compelling study of tradition's last frontier.

"I want to make that canoe. Right now."

2. Take this Waltz (Polley | Canada)

Impression: There could be very good reasons for you to find Waltz intolerable: its set up was precious, its characters were all a twee bit self-absorbed, and it tread the familiar territory of the ambiguous heart's affairs (Blue Valentine worked in the same vein). Yet, Sarah Polley dotted her Is and crossed her Ts so meticulously and patiently that the film - viewed in an uncertain frame of mind - could gently break your heart, if you'd allow it. The title of this post came from a line in the film that was particularly telling of the direction Polley wanted to take her viewers (the irony of the line spoken by Silverman's character is that it was exactly what she was doing). This was about the heart making decisions in a cloud of unknowns, or as Polley put it: “I wanted to make a film about desire, not a philosophical essay, but to be inside of it, to feel how delicious it is, and how difficult it is for us, as human beings, to either turn our backs on that sensation or to live with the primal gap it creates, one that needs to be fulfilled. I wanted to show the process of someone trying to escape that essential state of being and how it doesn’t always work." The cast felt lived in, with Michelle Williams continuing her impressive acting streak. The two comedic actors (and inspired choices) - Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman - gave their rather unexpected best work here. As the icing on the cake, my home city Toronto never looked better in film as a character on its own.

Reaction: "I need to stop crying. It's only a movie. I need to stop. "

3. The boy Mir: 10 years in Afghanistan (Grabsky | UK)

Impression: Grabsky followed an eight year-old Afghan boy named Mir for one year in 2001, with the hope of capturing "an ordinary life in an extraordinary time." Rather than stopping after one year, he continued to follow Mir for another 10 years, hoping to document the rise of Afghan people along with him. It was a difficult and beautiful, depressing and uplifting picture of an irrepressible spirit, struggling to grow and live on a land people only knew how to fight over and not be responsible for any of it.

Reaction: "That boy never stopped smiling!"

4. Tyrannosaur (Considine | UK)

Impression: If there was a painting suitable for this film, it's Wilhem Freddie's depressing, crushing La Priere (The prayer). Tyranonosaur told a story of two strangers taking turns comforting each other in time of great spiritual needs. While it didn't seem so at first, with one being a drunken angry old man prone to violent outbursts and the other being a married woman of faith, they shared a common beast named anger. It was the kind born from a deep pain accumulated over years of taking it all in stride, hoping that there was a greater purpose for all the suffering, only to realize that even if there was, the damage was done. There was no undoing, only temporary comfort in those offering shelters along the way. As such, the film relied on its small, intimate cast for the emotional heft to override the obviousness, and it got that in spades.

Reaction: "This is not a morning movie."

5. Dernier étage gauche gauche (Top floor, Left Wing, Cianci | France)

Impression: A classic comedy of errors in some ways, Cianci's whimsical, political hostage-taking thriller moved along splendidly like a thriller should, even as it weaved in and out of a couple of family dramas on the way.

Reaction: "Who'd throw a fridge, honestly?"

6. La piel que habito (The skin I live in, Almodóvar | Spain)

Impression: The best way I could describe Almodóvar's latest venture is that it's a horror melodrama, one that paints a very perverse and clinical portrait of sexual violence. Bandaras played a surgeon cum research scientist on skin transplant, who conducted unethical surgeries and experiments in his own lavish, modern lair. While the twist was quite disturbing, the storyline became predictable half way through and it fizzed out like a typical soap opera. As a picture I looked forward to the most at the festival, it disappointed under the weight of expectation. Nevertheless, it was pretty enough to entice me along the way for the most part.

Reaction: "That can't be a good idea."

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