VIFF Day 7: Swedish Bullies and Francophone Sperm Donors

Starbuck directed by Ken Scott (Quebec)

Starbuck is quite different from 99% of the comedies that come out from Quebec these days, in that it’s taken the unusual step of actually being funny.

It’s the story of David Wozniak, a loveable, debt-ridden loser that discovers that a series of visits to the sperm bank 20 years ago has resulted in him being the father to 533 children. Oh movies, is there anything you can’t make fun of?

On the surface, Starbuck is a paint-by-numbers formula story: Person with character flaws undergoes wacky series of misfortunes, learns a valuable lesson as a result, and by the end of the film every problem he/she has ever had  gets magically resolved. But when you dig deeper, you’ll find that….no, wait….on second thought that’s exactly what Starbuck is. It’s a fun, generic formula movie that will definitely give you a few belly laughs, and make you happy not to have to think too hard for a few hours. It’s a little broader and farcical than I usually like my comedies to be, and it really goes out of its way to avoid really discussing any of the real life implications of such an unusual concept, but it’s worth your time if you like big budget Hollywood comedies a) that don’t have a big budget, b) aren’t filmed in Hollywood, and c) where everybody speaks french.

Rating: B+

Play directed by Ruben Östlund (Sweden)

If the only Swedish films you’ve seen feature child vampires, human personifications of death with a penchant for table top strategy games, or girls that sport fictional monster body art, it’s time to rectify that right now.

It’s the story of a group of young, black Swedish kids who go around targeting and bullying younger boys. The bullies M.O. usually consist of mind games and lies, and usually end up with the younger, whiter kids getting their cell phones stolen.

There is a lot to admire about this film, both from a technical standpoint as well as from a matter of narrative. From a visual perspective, Play is one of the most exciting films you could hope to see this year. Ostlund’s specialty is extremely long, wide, stationary takes. He sets up his camera to focus on the locations where his stories take place, but rather than follow his actors around with his lens, he has them drift in and out of frame, depending on where the scripts takes them. It’s an unsettling technique, but one that enhances the realist, voyeuristic nature of the piece.

And then there is the story itself. In his very simple story about a gang of bullies, Ostlund raises questions that don’t seem to have easy answers. Racism, economic disparity, and immigrant assimilation are serious problems that aren’t going to be solved by a two-hour movie. But they’re subjects that need to be discussed, and Ostlund shows multiple sides of complicated issues admirably.

Play is a bold and provocative film. It tackles uncomfortable subjects with style and diplomacy, but also happens to be entertaining and watchable. Highly recommended.

Rating: A




VIFF Day 6: Chinese Sword Fighting, and the Russian Chris Tucker

The Sword Identity by Haofeng Xu (China)

Ok, let me try to figure this out. There are four schools of martial arts protecting the ancient Chinese city of Guancheng. A fellow named Liang Henlu shows up, and wants to start his own school, but in order to do that he needs to beat the existing schools in combat. Problem is, he has a Japanese sword, which I guess makes him ineligible for tournaments. And then the fighting begins. Let me clarify: The schools don’t want him to fight their warriors, and so they send their warriors to fight him.  Logical, yes? The owners of the local martial arts schools send wave after wave of hapless fighters against him to force him out of the town. The end.

I like a good martial arts movie as much as the next person, as the next person is usually my wife. But I also want my martial arts movies to have a good story that I can sink my teeth into. When you consider that I had to go to IMDB to help me actually figure out what a movie I had just seen was actually about, you start to realize what a convoluted mess this film is. Now, anybody that watches a lot of martial arts films knows that great plots rarely go hand in hand with great martial arts action. But when your movie has neither? You’re in trouble.

Rating: C-

Target directed by Alexander Seldovitch (Russia)

I consider myself very lucky that I have a wife that comes with me to most of the crazy movies that I like go to. She suffers through Chinese ghost stories, Thai thrillers, and Korean horror movies that she otherwise would never dream of going to. And most of the time, she likes them. In fact, usually we’re on the same page regarding the films we go to, no matter what the genre is.

Until Target. In short, she hated it. I liked it. In long, she REALLY HATED IT SO MUCH THAT SHE WANTED TO PUNCH IT RIGHT IN THE FACE UNTIL IT BLED!!! Me? I still liked it.

Target is the story of a group of upper class Russian citizens, comprised of a Russian Chris Tucker, a Russian Steve McQueen, a Russian Skinny Marlon Brando, and a Russian Every Girl From Sex In The City Rolled Into One living about ten years in the future. They hear about a mysterious abandoned astrophysics complex that gives its visitors the ability to halt the aging process. They go, and they do.

That’s the first 10 minutes. The other two hours and 30 minutes deal with them losing their shit as a result. It’s a maxim so good someone should make a comic about it: Great power comes with great responsibility, and while what these rich buffoons get isn’t so much power as it is eternal life, the message remains the same. They start to go a little crazy as a result of their new expanded consciousness, and they alienate their friends, loved ones, and coworkers in the process. Also, things get kind of rapey, but it’s hard to tell if that’s because of the new eternal life, or because it’s a weekend in Moscow.

 Target is a lot of things: Huge. Ambitious. Ballsy. Epic. Over-The-Top. Cheesy. Bizarre. Misogynistic. Stylistic. Drowning with symbolism. There’s some Kubrik. Some Gilliam. A stunning musical score. The worst subtitles I have ever seen, both in quality and translation. And for about 10 minutes, it thinks it’s Caligula.

Boring it ain’t. Subtle it ain’t. It’s also not for the faint of heart, and it takes itself so seriously that it most likely will alienate more, if not most, casual watchers. But it’s also entertaining, and it’s bold, and it’s ambitious. And there can never be enough movies like that.

My Rating: B+

My wife’s rating: D-

Person you should probably listen to: My wife

Person you will listen to since it’s my blog: Me.

VIFF Day 5: Turkish Murder Mysteries

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)

Here’s the story: A group of policemen, law officials, and soldiers set out onto the Anatolian steppes in Turkey in search of a dead body. Now, if you’ve read that sentence and thought ‘You know, they’re going to need at least three hours to really do that premise justice”, I’ve got some good news for you.

Now, I’m not new to this racket. I’ve been going to art house movies for decades. I’ve stared pretension right in the eye and said “Steven Soderbergh, that two and a half hour movie you just made about Che Guevara is fine, but you’re going to need at least another two hours just to get it right. ”

And so even though I may be betraying my western storytelling sensibilities by saying so, the fact is that the only thing wrong with Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is that it’s too long. By at least an hour.

It’s not that Once Upon A Time In Anatolia isn’t watchable. Very watchable in fact. It’s beautiful to look at, and but it’s Ceylan’s gift for dialogue which is the real star of this film. His characters are about as well-rounded as you’re going to get at the cinema these days, and I really felt as if Ceylan captured the banal reality of modern-day police work. It’s a good, creepy, drama.

But it’s almost three hours long. Now, if you need that to tell your story, then you need it. But Ceylan doesn’t. There really isn’t much of a story here anyways, just a collection of related groups of dialogue that revolve around one loose plot point. And so he pads his film with looooong tracking shots of the Anatolian countryside, and with loooooong scenes that feature angry Turkish men staring furtively through windows, and with looooooong scenes that essentially repeat other looooong scenes that we’ve already seen and been bored by.

Now, this review might actually say more about me and my impatience than it does about the film. This movie really does have a lot going for it. But if you’re going to give it a shot, let me recommend two words that may make your experience a little more comfortable: Aisle Seat.

Rating: B-

VIFF Day Four: Crazy Billionaires & Mexican Beauty Pageants

You’ve Been Trumped directed by Anthony Baxter (Scotland)

I don’t think I’ve wanted to like a documentary more this year than You’ve Been Trumped. It’s got everything you could want in a populist documentary: Adorable Scottish Farmers Vs.  Terrible Soul Sucking Villain in a battle for the future of Scotland. Sounds like a slam dunk, right? Ummm…well….not so much.

It’s not that Anthony Baxter didn’t have a compelling subject. The film focuses on the battle between batshit crazy billionaire Donald Trump, and batshit crazy Scottish farmer/fisher Michael Forbes. Trump is building a huge golf course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, against the wishes of some of the local residents, and in the process uses bullying tactics that would give Biff Tannen pause. Sounds like a great concept for a documentary, and it is.

Unfortunately it’s the film itself that lets us down. I respect Baxter’s courage and fortitude as a social activist, and I’m glad that he made this movie. But a first class documentary, this isn’t. This is Baxter’s first film, and it shows. Instead of really focusing on the actual positives and negatives of Trump’s proposed resort, and giving us as much information as possible so that we can make our own decision, Baxter gives us shot after shot of the Scottish countryside, with the cloying saccharine of Sigur Ros braying in the background, and then basically says “Isn’t this pretty? Why would you want to mess this up?”

It’s a nice starting spot, but ultimately a documentary that takes a side in a conflict needs to make it’s case, and You’ve Been Trumped never entirely does that. There are a few talking heads thrown in at the end that weigh in on the environmental and economic concerns about the project, but neither are given enough time or context to really prove their point. Instead, Baxter attempts to play on our emotions, using shot after shot of disgruntled  homeowners shaking their heads in disgust, with a healthy dose of scenes from my wife’s favourite movie, Local Hero, thrown in. On an emotional level, it works, as Trump is incredibly easy to hate, especially after his brief foray into presidential politics this summer. But from a factual standpoint, this film is weak on the one thing a documentary like this needs: A strong argument.

Rating: C+


Miss Bala directed by Gerardo Naranjo (Mexico)

Miss Bala is what would happen if Miss Congeniality and Traffic had a movie baby together. Beauty pageant movies and Mexican narco-dramas might not be the most obvious genres to match up, but somehow Gerardo Naranjo makes it work.

Our heroine here is Laura, a young woman from Tijuana that wants nothing more than to win a local beauty pageant, and be crowned Miss Baja California. She seems well on her way, until her and her best friend stumble into a raid on a local nightclub by a famed narco gang. Although she attempts to extricate herself from the mess quickly, her actions only serve to make things worse, and she becomes deeply involved in a vicious drug war.

It’s a strong premise, and one that’s timely for anyone with a passing knowledge of what’s been happening in recent years in Mexican border towns. And in Stephanie Sigman, we have a vivacious and charismatic lead. Then why didn’t I enjoy this movie more?

Naranjo pulls no punches here. He spends as much time as possible making sure we experience every horrible minute of Laura’s ordeal, complete with loooong tracking shots, close-ups that seem to go on for hours, and a lead character more sympathetic than a cancer ridden puppy. But in trying to hammer us over the head with the seriousness of Laura’s situation, Naranjo forgets to actually make an entertaining thriller. There are no highs and lows in this movie, just scene after scene of a passive lead stumbling into terrible scenario after terrible scenario, and it doesn’t take long for the movie to be crushed under the weight of its own gravitas.

Rating: C+


VIFF Day Three: Chinese Reindeers and Loveless Marriages

Here, There directed by Sheng Lu (China)

Getting rid of your dead girlfriends shit is depressing in any city

Northern China. Shanghai. Paris. Those are the settings of the three stories described in Here, There. They are widely disparate places, but they do have one thing in common: To someone, they’re home. And that’s really what Here, There is about. These are not big stories: A man battles home-sickness while studying in Paris. Another man navigates a new relationship while feeling out a new job. A third man tries to juggle the shepherd lifestyle he so obviously loves, with a family that wants nothing more than for him to leave it behind.

And that’s kind of the point of the movie. Every story is big to the person it’s happening to. Every place is home to someone. And every person has a family that loves them. These are not huge revelations, but it’s nice to be reminded of them sometimes, and this film does so admirably.

As we left the theatre, my wife said to me that every movie should be directed by cinematographers, and based on the results of Here, There, it’s hard to argue with her. This is a gorgeous film. Sheng Lu captures the intrinsic qualities of each location he films, yet somehow gets them to blend together by movies end. This is really an accomplished piece of film-making, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Sheng Lu does next.

Rating: A-

Ten Years From Now, directed by Jordan Schiele (China)

Ten Years From Now, is a short film, depicting the complicated relationship between two friends in mainland China. He wants a kid, she doesn’t. She wants him, he’s gay. And so they compromise.

Before the film, the director told us that this was intended to be a meditation on the true nature of happiness, and whether or not sacrifice for others can garner as much joy as pursuing our own dreams. And it is. But it’s also a great little film about the complexity of human relationships, and how not everyone needs to fit into a four-walled box of expectations. It stars two of the main actors from Here, There, and although it’s a very different film, both serve to showcase the depth of talent and imagination that happens to be in the independent Chinese scene today.

Rating: B+

VIFF Day Two: iPhone Creepiness and Buddhist Assassins

Without directed by Mark Jackson (USA)

A young woman named Joslyn (played by a young woman named Joslyn), travels to an island off the coast of Washington for a job taking care of Frank, an elderly man in a vegetative state, as well as to avoid dealing with some recent events in her own past. Before long, the remoteness of her location, the lack of response from her charge, as well as her inability to get a decent signal on her iPhone, start to affect her mental state.

It’s a simple and interesting premise, and it’s impressive to see just how subtly Mark Jackson adds both an interesting and sad back story, as well as an engrossing and provocative mystery, to it. In Joslyn, he and Joslyn Jensen create a fully realized, 3 dimensional character, that is so complex, and so watchable, that they can perhaps be forgiven for not paying off the actual plot in a way that’s entirely satisfying. Although it’s a compelling drama, numerous questions are asked that never get answered, and one might guess that the real thing that this movie is “without” is an ending.  Still, that’s are minor quibbles for a directorial debut as fine as this one.

Rating: B+

Headshot, directed by  Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Thailand)

So the first thing that happens is that the producer of the movie comes out to talk to us, and tells us most emphatically  that the movie we’re about to see is NOT a thriller. I guess he was hoping that we all hadn’t just looked at page 86 of the VIFF program guide that tells us that the movie we’re about to see is a “vehement thriller”.

Unfortunately, I would have to go with the producer on this one. Although Headshot has many things (overly convoluted plot, unnecessary narrative devices, mysterious femme fatales who serve no real purpose to the plot) going for it, “thrills” is not one of them.

It’s unfortunate, as there’s a great idea here: Former cop-turned-hitman is trying to run away from his violent past. It’s a simple premise, and one that fits the neo-noir genre that Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is trying to emulate here. But rather than explore his hero, and try to create empathy for a character that’s on the down and out, Pen-Ek fills his movie with so many silly plot twists and turns, so many unexplained happenings, and far too many characters, that any real sense of noir tension is quickly lost.

Rating: C-

VIFF Day One: Dinosaurs and Love Stories

It’s a familiar sight at this time of year: Long line–ups in front of every movie theater, major Hollywood stars at every turn, and hundreds of reporters trying to get the scoop on the films that are destined to become both critical and commercial successes over the next year.

It’s a familiar sight, IF you live in Toronto. If you live in Vancouver, you get VIFF. VIFF is exactly like Toronto’s film festival, except that it screens films you’ve never heard of, no stars ever come to it, and nobody ever goes to the movies. I would say that the Vancouver International Film Festival is like a poor man’s version of Toronto’s festival, but that would be insulting to poor people.

That being said, VIFF is not without it’s considerable charms. There are a LOT of great movies that get screened at VIFF every year. It’s just that many of them are so far under the radar that it takes a lot of extra work to discover them. And because the fabulous organizers of VIFF want you to go to every movie, they pepper their guidebook with such phrases as “revelatory and revolutionary cinema experience” and “hallucinatory homage to the early works of Truffaut and Bunuel”, which makes you think you’re going to see something so great that it could only be a cross between Godfather and The Matrix, when it reality it’s only a documentary about the indigenous black squirrel population on Sechelt Island.

I kid because I love. I love the breadth and depth of movies that are shown at VIFF, and I’m going to be seeing quite a few of them this year. I’ll be updating this site every few days with my reviews.

Like Crazy, directed by Drake Doremus (US)

Unlike many of the films at VIFF, Like Crazy is one that you will most likely be able to see in a mainstream theatre soon, at least for a little while. And if you get that chance, you absolutely need to take it, as I doubt you’ll see a better love story at the theatre this year.

It’s about Jacob and Anna, two kids who fall in love just as they are finishing school. They are both young, both beautiful, and both talented. Blah. The only snag on their way to becoming the annoying perfect couple that you hate having to your house for dinner parties, is that Anna lives in England, and that Jacob lives in California. It seems like a minor problem for two people who are serious about being together to have, and at first, it is.

But eventually the distance becomes so great, and so all-encompassing, that it causes what was an epic love story to become burdened with that evil killer of mythic relationships: reality.

Like Crazy is a wonderful film, in pretty much every way. It’s script is so realistic, and so effortless, that it feels not so much like a script as it does a Google Doc, that is constantly being updated by the cast. And in fact it’s not surprising to find that many lines of dialogue were actually improvised by the excellent cast. In Anna and Jacob, Anthon Yelchin (Chekov in JJ Abram’s recent Star Trek update), and Felicity Jones, have created one of the most charming, likeable, and heartbreaking couples you’ll see in a modern movie. If you like your love stories monumental, but doused with a minor dose of reality, this movie is for you.

Rating: A-

 Tyrannosaur, directed by Paddy Considine (UK)

In some ways Tyrannosaur feels like a perfect companion piece to Bennett Miller’s recent crowd pleaser, Moneyball. If Moneyball is about resistance to inevitable change, Tyrannosaur is about the embrace of such change. It’s about Joseph (played by Peter Mullan, in a role that basically ensures him of a career playing nasty mob bosses for the rest of his life), and Hannah (played by Olivia Colman, who will most likely be recognized by North American audiences for her role in Hot Fuzz), two characters so utterly miserable in their own horrible lives, that they gravitate towards each other, like two black holes of sadness.

While that may not sound appealing, it’s not as gloomy as it seems. Both characters seem to be at least somewhat aware that their misery can be overcome, and that they actually hold the key to happiness in their own hands. And so both characters begin the slow, painful, steps towards change. It’s messy, it’s hard, and we know that there are still going to be struggles for both characters long after the movie is done. But there is still optimism here. Paddy Considine never makes us believe that his characters are beyond redemption, and in fact has given each of them a huge lifeline that almost guarantees further happiness: Each other.

Rating: A