Highlights from VFF 2018

The annual Virginia Film Festival (VFF) in Charlottesville recently celebrated its 31st year of operation on Nov.1-4 and offered attendees the opportunity to select from over 150 films, many of which arrived leaden with awards and critical acclaim from previous festivals like Cannes and Telluride. Programming content focused on specific themes and topics is also part of the VFF tradition and the 2018 event included a film series on Race in America, which included the premiere of Paul Robert’s Charlotteville about the tragic events of Aug. 11 & 12, 2017, and sidebars on Orson Welles, Virginia filmmakers, American folk culture and music and a vast array of international films.  

The opening night premiere of Peter Farrelly’s Green Book was a sold-out screening and proved to be a lightweight, audience-pleasing entertainment but it could have been so much more. Set in 1962, the film follows African-American jazz pianist Don Shirley on a tour through the Midwest and Deep South accompanied by his fellow musicians and chauffeur/bodyguard Tony Lip (aka Frank Anthony Vallelonga). Some critics have described this film as a racial twist on Driving Miss Daisy with Viggo Mortensen as the brash, uncouth streetwise driver from the Bronx and Mahershala Ali as his proud, erudite and uniquely talented employer. (The film title refers to a publication known as The Negro Motorist Green Book, which served as a guide to motels, restaurants and other businesses that were deemed relatively friendly to African-Americans).

Viggo Mortensen plays chauffeur/bodyguard Tony Lipp and Mahershala Ali is jazz pianist Don Shirley in Green Book (2018).

Green Book opens with the disclaimer “inspired by a true friendship” but what follows seems much more like a road movie dramedy than a realistic depiction of what really transpired between these two men, who couldn’t be more different in temperament, world view or backgrounds. Yes, there are fleeting moments of fear and anxiety as the duo encounter ugly situations in the Jim Crow South but the overall feel of the movie is warm and fuzzy with the rough edges buffed off. Both Mortensen and Ali are highly skilled, charismatic actors and they manage to make their caricatured roles engaging even if subtlety is missing in Farrelly’s broad strokes approach. A typical example involves the eating of fried chicken, which is alien to Shirley’s culinary upbringing, and he nibbles at it daintily until Tony encourages him to have at it with unrestrained gusto. This is just one of many scenes which play on racial stereotypes and is treated as a comedy routine but that’s not surprising when you realize the director is the same man who co-wrote and directed Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary with his brother Bobby.  Much more unnerving and ambitious in execution is Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx, a German/Austrian film in which Rieke (Susanne Wolff), a female doctor, departs Gibraltar on her yacht bound for Ascension Island, which is off the coast of Africa in the South Atlantic Ocean. With minimal dialogue and an emphasis on natural sound over a wall-to-wall music score, Fischer generates a slowly escalating dread as Rieke sails solo into the open sea and soon encounters a life-threatening storm. The first third of Styx is like a gender variation on All is Lost, J.C. Chandor’s one man drama in which Robert Redford found himself trapped on a sinking boat. Luckily disaster is averted but Rieke encounters a new crisis in the form of a stranded freighter carrying a large number of African refugees. Clearly her yacht is too small to rescue many shipwreck survivors and her supplies are limited so what can she do?

Susanne Wolff plays a doctor who goes on a solo yachting holiday that becomes a humanitarian crisis in Styx (2018), directed by Wolfgang Fischer.

The remainder of Styx becomes both a race against time and a portrait of personal and moral responsibility under duress. Wolff is superb as the fearless, take-charge heroine but her efforts to help the migrants are undermined by delayed responses from Coast Guard rescue operations, creating a perfect storm of dysfunction. Thought-provoking if downbeat, Fischer’s film takes an intimate, small scale approach to an international problem that offers no easy remedies for fixing.Another film featuring a strong female character who is self-sufficient and proactive is Woman at War, directed by Benedikt Erlingsoon. The film avoids easy classification and combines spy thriller elements with deadpan whimsy and surrealistic touches. Halldora Geirharosdottir is outstanding in a dual role as two twin sisters, Halla and Asa. The former is a music teacher with a secret life as an eco-terrorist, the latter is a yoga instructor who has no idea of her sister’s political agenda.

Halldora Geirharosdottir plays a fierce eco-terrorist in the quirky Icelandic film, Woman at War (2018), directed by Benedikt Erlingsson.

For most of the film, Halla wages a one-woman war against a rural aluminum factory which is polluting the environment. She disconnects power lines, topples towers and, in one awe-inspiring sequence, shoots a drone with a tethered arrow and wrestles it to the ground, stomping it to pieces. One of the oddball but appealing aspects of Woman at War revolves around Erlingsson’s unconventional integration of David Thor Jonsson’s catchy music score into the narrative. The musicians, which include a tuba player, a percussionist, a pianist/accordionist and three Icelandic folk singers, function as a sort of Greek chorus in the film, often performing in the background or foreground but seemingly invisible to everyone except possibly Halla, who appears to acknowledge them in more than one scene.

Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), an environmental activist, is shadowed by a phantom orchestra in the offbeat Woman at War (2018), filmed in Iceland.

This stylistic device may prove to be too self-conscious and distracting for some viewers but I found it adds a quirky, lighthearted touch that prevents the film from becoming a predictable pro-environmental polemic. And the stunning volcanic landscapes of Iceland, photographed by Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson, are an added plus.  Der Mann aus Dem Eis, which is being released in the U.S. as Iceman, is a visually impressive period piece that takes place more than 5,300 years ago. It recounts the backstory of a mummified man that was found in the Otztal Alps in 1991 and the events that led to his violent death. One novel aspect of Iceman is the dialogue, which is in Rhaetian, an extinct language that was once used in the Eastern European Alps region. There are no subtitles and none are needed to follow the stripped-down, linear narrative.

Italian actor Franco Nero makes a surprise cameo in Felix Randau’s period revenge adventure, Iceman (2017), set in Iceland.

Kelab (Jurgen Vogel), the main protagonist, goes out to forage and hunt for his family in the wilds one day but when he returns home, he discovers that his village has been attacked by invaders, an invaluable talisman (a mirrored stone) has been stolen and his family slaughtered except for his newborn child. Kelab sets out in pursuit of his enemies with baby-in-tow but leaves his offspring with a mountain couple at the midpoint before resuming his quest for vengeance.

Jurgen Vogel plays a nomadic mountaineer seeking revenge for his family’s murderers in Felix Randau’s Iceman (2017).

Life was a daily struggle to exist in pre-Roman times and Iceman drives that home in nearly every scene. Directed by Felix Randau and featuring a cameo by an unrecognizable Franco Nero, this historic reenactment is harsh and brutal but never boring and there are several dramatically effective moments such as the scene where Kelab falls through a collapsed snow-covered mountain path and has to climb out of the abyss using his ax as an ice pick. But the minimalistic approach to character development prevents easy identification or empathy with anyone in this survival-of-the-fittest universe. Despite the stunning locales and cinematography by Jakub Bejnarowicz (the movie was filmed in Germany, Austria and Italy), Iceman remains a curiously detached emotional experience that lacks resonance. Without a doubt the most original and audacious film I saw at VFF was Ali Abbasi’s Border (Swedish title: Grans). To describe it as a gender-bender police procedural drama crossed with magic realism and Nordic folklore doesn’t really do justice to the film’s shape-shifting narrative but it does prepare you for something off the beaten path. Tina (Eva Melander) is a border control agent in rural Sweden with a knack for detecting illegal activities through her sense of smell. She possesses more than just advanced olfactory senses. Her talent is almost telepathic and she can sense fear, anger, deceit and other human behaviors through her nose. This explains how she apprehends a traveller who is trying to smuggle a micro-sized pedophile sex tape across the border in his iPhone.

A pornography smuggler (left) is about to be apprehended by border guard Tina (Eva Melander, right) in Border (2018).

Just when you think Border is going to turn into a crime thriller with Tina being promoted to head investigator, the movie takes a left turn and introduces Voce (Eero Milonoff), an insect collector among other things, who piques Tina’s interest. First of all, they share similar physical characteristics – thick Cro-Magnon foreheads, a pronounced overbite, and hulking, hairy physiques. But they also share some extraordinary skills which are not typical of mere mortals. Tina and Voce become soul mates and something more but just when you think Border is becoming a romantic comedy about two bestial-looking loners who find each other, it transitions into something darker and stranger.

Vore (Eero Milonoff, left) and Tina (Eva Melander) are soul mates but outsiders in the human race in the Swedish fantasy Border (2018).

Melander and Milonoff are truly remarkable as Tina and Voce, conveying conflicted emotions and deep-rooted thoughts through facial and physical movements despite the heavy prosthetic makeup that encases their features. And Abbasi succeeds brilliantly at constantly changing the tone and direction without losing his footing and ending up with something that tries too hard to be weird. Border might not be for everyone but if you give in to its mysterious undertow you’ll be pulled along on a journey you won’t soon forget.

The opening shot of the Italian film, Dogman (2018), foretells a story that is as harsh and despairing as Gomorrah (2008), an earlier film by Matteo Garrone.

Italian director Matteo Garrone first commanded international attention with his breakthrough crime epic, Gomorrah, in 2008, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, among other awards. His two follow-up films, Reality (2012) and Tale of Tales (2015), were a complete departure from the grim seriousness of Gomorrah – the former was a satiric comedy, the latter a contemporary fairy tale – but Dogman is a return to the bleak, post-neorealism of Gomorrah. Unlike the multiply storylines and cavalcade of characters in the latter film, Garrone is working on a smaller scale here. The central focus of the story is Marcello (a moving performance by Marcello Fonte), a slight, affable, sad-eyed man who runs a dog grooming business in an economically depressed neighborhood. Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), a former boxer turned thug, terrorizes the community and constantly bullies Marcello into aiding and abetting his criminal behavior.

Marcello (Marcello Fonte, right) is bullied by the sociopathic Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce) in Matteo Garrone’s critically acclaimed film, Dogman (2018).

We first see Marcello coerced into driving Marcello and his accomplice to a gated residence where the culprits stage a home invasion and stuff a barking dog into a freezer. Marcello returns to the scene of the crime to rescue the dog in one of many scenes that confirm his innate kindness and gentle nature but even such an easily manipulated and put-upon individual has his limits.

Marcello Forte delivers a tour-de-force performance in Matteo Garrone’s latest triumph, Dogman (2018).

Dogman gradually coalesces into a beautifully orchestrated act of comeuppance for the menacing Simoncino but the darker and more violent aspects of the story are balanced by the life-affirming moments in Marcello’s life – time spent with his beloved daughter on skin-diving vacations, perfecting the hair style for a poodle in a competitive dog show or preparing a simple meal at home and watching TV with his pet. Garrone brings all of Marcello’s suppressed emotions about his place in society and his relationship with Simoncino to the surface in an unexpectedly ironic ending, which is guaranteed to haunt viewers for a long time.  Orson Welles was alive and well, at least in spirit, at this year’s VFF and was represented by four films – a revival of F for Fake (1973), a quasi-documentary about fakes and frauds featuring art forger Elmyr de Hory and infamous biographer Clifford Irving; the premiere of The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’ uncompleted final film which he often promised would be greater than Citizen Kane; The Eyes of Orson Welles, Mark Cousins’ personal essay on the director and his career; and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a comprehensive documentary on the financing, making and eventual abandonment of Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind. Directed by Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is enormously entertaining but also sad and ultimately a tragedy about a great director’s final years. Packed with archival material from talk shows, news conferences, outtakes from The Other Side of the Wind and current interviews with major players from Welles’s final film (Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Marshall, Rich Little and others), Neville’s documentary traces Wind’s production history from the beginning in 1970 to the uncompleted feature being locked up over legal and financial matters in the late seventies to Welles’ death in 1984. Aaron Wickenden and Jason Zeldes’ fast-cut, dizzying editing style approximates the frenetic pace and look of The Other Side of the Wind but it may be too much for viewers susceptible to motion sickness. Still, the documentary is essential viewing for fans of Welles and it makes an ideal companion piece to The Other Side of the Wind, which can be a bewilderingly and disorienting experience if you see it cold with little or no information about its origin or Welles’ vision for it.

Crew members set up a scene for Orson Welles’s final film epic, The Other Side of the Wind, in the documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018), directed by Morgan Neville. (Director/actor Peter Bogdanovich is on the far left and Orson Welles is far right).











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