Venus and Serena: What does it take to rise above your meager circumstances to become the biggest name in tennis? Is it innate ability or hard work? Do you need pushy parents or just personal drive? Sibling support or sibling rivalry?
Venus and Serena, MIFF's Awards Night film, directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, offers few answers. What it does provide is an unglamorous portrait of growing up Williams, from the sisters' Compton childhood, to moving across the country for training, to their father's unorthodox training techniques and extramarital affairs, to the girls' first tennis victories and rise to media darlings.
Cameras followed both sisters throughout 2011 as they struggled with health problems and other consequences of aging as an athlete. The women's devotion to tennis made them rich and famous, but it also complicates their lives: romantic relationships are a struggle, marriage in their family's Jehovah's Witness tradition is unlikely, and baby-making is out of the question. The pressure to excel has its own ugly side effects. Venus recalls getting so depressed after a loss that she wouldn't change her clothes for days, while Serena cheerfully describes her multiple personalities for the interviewers.
Through commentary from the Williams sisters' family, friends, former trainers, tennis experts, and even cameos by Anna Wintour and Bill Clinton, Baird and Major aim to patch together a bird's-eye view of life as Venus and Serena. What they don't capture is much intimacy or surprising emotion from their subjects. But the Williams sisters have managed the spotlight for nearly two decades; maybe the best we can hope for now is a good view from the outside looking in.
Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury: When we meet Abeguar, hero of Rio 2096, it's the year 1566 and he's hunting jaguars in the forest of a land not yet named Brazil. He stalks his prey, hoping to make his first kill, rendered in animation with all the sophistication of a Saturday-morning cartoon.
But when the cat he's stalking pulls off its skin and reveals itself as a beautiful, naked woman, we know this isn't a story for children.
Rio 2096 tells the "real" history of Brazil: one of violent colonization, abusive governments, and relentless revolution. Abeguar transforms into a bird to move through time in search of different iterations of his true love, Janaina. He fights against Portuguese takeover in 1566, schemes against the military in 1855, rebels with student revolutionaries in 1968, and finally lands in the dystopian future of 2096, with flying cars and Big Brother lurking at every turn.
With its historical reenactments and clearly defined good-versus-bad plots, Rio 2096 feels like a children's cartoon in some parts. But director Luiz Bolognesi emphasizes the adult parts of his tale with spectacularly animated violent imagery, including detailed renderings of war wounds and burning homes, drawing attention to effects of political upheaval. Early in the film, before Abeguar flies away for the first time, he stands atop a Brazilian mountain with his arms spread open, a predecessor of Christ the Redeemer. It's a poignant image that resonates throughout Rio's subplots, all the way to the crumbling, graffiti-tagged Redeemer statue depicted in the world of 2096. Like all good folktales, there's depth to Rio, if you know where to jump in.
Pietà: Life is pretty sweet for Kang-do (played by Lee Jeong-jin), a 30-year-old debt collector who grinds up hands to be repaid with his victims' insurance claim money. He's got a really awesome knife and his own place with a fish tank, and so what if his bathroom floor is strewn with bloody body parts? So what if the nicest thing he does in the first hour of the film is steal a bunny from an old woman whose son he has driven to suicide? YOLO, bitches.
But then a mysterious woman (Jo Min-soo) appears, as mysterious women are wont to do, to hand Kang-do a live chicken in an alleyway. She stares up at his window from the street, helps him break legs, and claims to be the mother who abandoned him when he was a child. Her identity remains unclear, despite Kang-do's thorough gynecological examinations and her willingness to swallow a chunk of flesh he cuts from his leg.
Newly mom'd, Kang-do has a change of heart. He wears a balloon-animal hat and has a birthday party. Which isn't to say there's an end to incestuous handjobs or knife wounds to the chest. Attempting to make up for a lost childhood, the two choose a burial plot, trash their apartment, numbly watch a dying man try to hail a cab, and create a host of other memories left uncelebrated by Ziggy in any drugstore Mother's Day cards.
Pietà is the 18th film by Korean provocateur and probable genius Kim Ki-duk, and it won the Golden Lion in Venice last year. It's ugly — full of grimy surfaces, drab colors, pools of blood, and eels wiggling down stairs in the Korean-slum equivalent of a Slinky. But Pietà uncovers truths about loneliness and family that all the soft focus in the world never could.
The Crash Reel: In 2009, 22-year-old pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce was at the height of his career. He'd bested fellow savant competitor Shaun White in several competitions. He'd garnered sponsorships from big names like Nike. And he was concocting a series of newer, more dangerous tricks in training for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Then he suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) on the halfpipe, landing him in a coma for a month and a lifetime of disability.
Lucy Walker's documentary The Crash Reel paints an in-depth portrait of Pearce's life after the accident, briefly chronicling the athlete's impressive career before descending into the frustrating, heart-wrenching details of his recovery. The cameras are with him at each tiny step, from staring blankly and wide-eyed at his mother shortly after he regains consciousness, to learning to walk and struggling with memory loss — and through what feels like an interminable litany of appointments with doctors who beg him to slow down, be patient, take it easy, and give up his dream of returning to the sport he loves.
Pearce's story is a tragic and timely warning of what can happen to athletes at heightened risk of TBI. But The Crash Reel fails to take a stand on the broader issues it addresses, glossing over the problems of how quickly sports such as pro snowboarding have progressed to hazardous extremes; who pays for medical treatment in the cases of these athletes, who are often uninsured; and whether such dangerous sports should be legal in the first place. By the time The Crash Reel ends, when you're as tired of hearing doctors say no as Pearce is, you'll wish more of the film had been spent pondering whether sports entertainment is worth risking the lives of its stars.
Vinyl Days: Love, friendship, and vinyl records drive the plot of Vinyl Days, writer/director Gabriel Mesci's tale of four friends who bonded as children when an angry boyfriend dumped a rack of records out of an apartment window as his girlfriend walked out. "We were baptized," says a voice-over by the adult version of one of the boys.
It seems like a noble beginning, but aspirations for an Argentine High Fidelity fall flat. Vinyl Days is a well-shot and fine-paced movie, even while edging close to two hours. But Mesci's writing never invests in the small things needed to flesh out the characters and their passion for the music that's the foundation of his story. Instead, it sets up convoluted jokes that nearly derail the film. A woman's Yoko Ono-like threat to a Beatles cover band fronted by one of the friends seems cute — until the musician's apprehension toward her reveals a racist bent more than a paranoid wariness toward the odd coincidence.