VIFF Day One: African Diplomacy & The Korean Breaking Bad

The air is getting colder, the espresso is getting warmer, and Granville street is full of middle aged people whom all look like SFU professors of art history. It must be  film fest time in Vancouver again. And so my next two weeks will be full of pretentious art house flicks that no has heard of, no one cares about, and no one will ever watch. And for some reason I expect you to read what I have to say about them. Let’s begin.

The Ambassador directed by Mads Brugger

Satire seems to be a bit of a lost art these days. Western culture seems to be in an overly earnest period culturally speaking, which is ironic considering that I’m not sure we’ve ever been more shallow.

Mads Brugger is trying to change that, one sacred cow at a time. In his newest documentary The Ambassador, Brugger pulls of what might end up being the greatest documentary feat in film history.

Here’s the skinny: The extremely Danish, and extremely white Brugger buys himself a diplomatic passport, travels to the Central African Republic posing as a Liberian diplomat, and attempts to use his new diplomatic immunity to ingratiate himself into the business of blood diamonds.

Let’s try that again, as it bears repeating: He pretends to be a ranking government official, and then uses that “clout” to try to buy and export one of the most valuable, yet illegal substances on the planet. In Africa. With absolutely no one in on the joke. He’s defrauding two unstable, corrupt regimes, in addition to organized criminals and illicit diamond miners. Ballsy doesn’t begin to describe the sheer chutzpah Brugger displays in this film.

We keep expecting a “Brugger’s Body Was Never Found” title card to pop up after almost every scene. It’s obvious that even Brugger doesn’t even know what his end game is going to be, as he tries to keep pushing the lies as far as they will go.

But satire where no one gets the joke can border on sheer meanness, and in Brugger’s case, exploitation. And that’s the beauty of this film, and of Brugger’s work in general. He’s fearless as a filmmaker and provocateur. And so he makes mistakes, and often treats his subjects with a contempt that isn’t always deserved. But like a true documentarian should, he puts it all on film. He inserts himself into every situation in the same way that Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock would. But unlike those partisan hucksters, he remains objective enough to let the camera keep rolling, even when it’s HIS mistakes that are being caught.

Brugger’s mantra seems to be: everyone is bad, all the time. And so those looking for a feel good story about how Africa is on the upswing, or how your KIVA dollars are being put to good work, should probably look elsewhere. What this is, is a long look at the pervasiveness of corruption. And unfortunately, it provides no easy answers. Brugger shines lights under rocks that we barely know exist, but he entertains as well. He’s not just muckracking here, he’s entertaining.

Rating: A-

Nameless Gangster directed by Jong-bin Yun

Although Mob movies seem to be an American invention, they’ve seeped  into the film making idioms of countries all over the world. South Korea is no exception, and so we get Nameless Gangster. If you’ve ever watched Breaking Bad and wondered what it would be like in Korean, without the moral compass and competence, then you’ve got Nameless Gangster. Or at least an hour and a half of it, as that’s really how long this paint-by-numbers flick should have been. It’s a decent crime movie for sure, but not so decent that it deserved the 2 hours and 15 minutes that Yun took to make the damn thing.

Min-Sik Choi (Oldboy, I Saw The Devil) gives an extremely entertaining performance as a somewhat competent dock official who manages to stumble into the world of organized crime.  However, he’s hampered by a script that seems to think it’s far more convoluted than it actually is, and as such takes 45 minutes longer to get to the point than it actually does.

This is moderately entertaining film, with a strong cast, and some strong production values. It’s a solid gangster movie, but it won’t be the best one I see this year. Heck, it probably won’t even be the best Korean gangster movie I see at this festival.

Rating: B-

VIFF Day The Last: Silence, but in French

The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius (France)

First of all, I should let you know that The Artist is in black and white. Seco…Hey! Where are you going? Come back! Ok, that’s better. The other thing that I need to tell you is that it’s a silent film, with absolutely no speaki…..Hey! Get back here! Uncultured philistines.

Yes, it’s a black and white movie. And yes, it’s a silent film, with absolutely no dialogue, with only an occasional inter title to help propel the story forward. And it’s absolutely wonderful.

It’s the story of George Valentin, the biggest movie star of the silent era of film. He’s got everything: Wealth, fame, and a beautiful wife. And then? Progress. The talkie is invented, making a silent specialist like George more than a little redundant. He’s bound and determined to prove the experts wrong, and do one last great silent movie. And it bombs. And then the great depression hits. And now he’s done.

This is a melodrama in the truest sense of the word, and as such, eminently predictable. But the genius of the film isn’t what the end result is, it’s how the story unfolds, and how Hazanavicius utilizes the long dead art of inter titles and a stunning score by Ludovic Bource to tell such a simple, yet effective story.

And of course we need to talk about the actors. To pull such a unique film, you need unique players, and we get them in spades in Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. Bejo pulls off a wonderful Clara Bow/Ginger Rogers pastiche that would have stolen the show, if it weren’t for the uber-leading man star power of Dujardin, a man who I’m absolutely convinced was the lost love child of Gene Kelly and Douglas Fairbanks. Not to mention the great John Goodman, who as always makes bad movies good, and good movies great, with a nice little role as the studio boss with a soft heart.

And then there’s the score. Ludovic Bource has created a score so vibrant, and so exciting, that it might as well have been an actor in its own right. Though some of the stylistic choices do sound more than a little post-modern for the 1920’s setting, I’m willing to allow it.

I need to tell you something. This is no simple art house conceit. I’m convinced that not only is there a market for The Artist, but that it’s an Oscar contender. It’s probably the best feel good movie I’ve seen this year (yes, maybe even more so than Midnight In Paris), and I could see this crossing over to multiplex crossover success if handled correctly. If you like smart, entertaining films that don’t make you feel like you’ve been kicked in the junk by Pele, than The Artist is definitely for you.

Rating: A


VIFF Day 9: Congolese Street Music

Benda Bilili! Directed by Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye (France, Congo)

Vancouver’s film festival is past the half way mark, and I’m starting to get just a little tired of the arthouse precociousness that you get with a lot of the films that VIFF presents. We get it, you’re sad, and you’re important. Good for you.

Because of all of the European misery I’ve been subjecting myself to, I was very much looking forward to seeing Benda Bilili! as I knew exactly what I was going to get: A documentary about one of the greatest musical success stories of the last decade.

It’s the story of Ricky Likabu, a paraplegic musician living and working on the streets of Kinshasa, Congo. About six years ago, the film makers meet Ricky while working on another project in the Congo, and fall in love with him, and his music. They decide to try to help him and his group of musicians (Benda Bilili), to make a recording. They also introduce him to Roger Landu, a homeless street urchin from a surrounding village, who at that point was just starting to learn the satongé, a single-stringed instrument of his own devising. From a musical perspective Roger is the last missing ingredient to Benda Bilili’s unique stew of soukous, zouk, African rumba, and funk, but the band still struggles, and the film follows them around as they spend the next five years trying to make their dreams happen.

This is a film full of joy, but it would be a mistake to call this a simple movie about music. What it’s really about, is following your dreams. Both Ricky and the film makers are trying to accomplish completely unrealistic goals, and the film follows both in a fairly straight-forward cinéma vérité style. What I appreciated about Barret & de La Tullaye’s approach was that even though they are a fairly integral part to Bilili’s story, they really kept themselves out of the film, and even minimized the involvement of producer Vincent Kunis in the movie, even though his arrival in Kinshasa really changed the fortunes of the band.

What the film makers do, and do well, is to keep the camera on the band. Half of the members of the group  are physically disabled in some way due to polio, and so it’s easy to dismiss them as a simple gimmick group. But as the movie eventually shows when the group makes its inevitable performance debut in France, they’re anything but. I should know, I’m one of the few people in this country that’s been lucky enough to have seen them.

Benda Bilili is a straight-forward rags to riches story. But it’s also a good film. And one that recognizes that Staff Benda Bilili isn’t worth watching because they’re from the Congo, or because they live in a zoo, or because they have polio. They’re worth watching because they are one of the best live bands on the planet right now, and it’s a tragedy that due to visa and passport problems, that this film might be North American audiences only chance to see them. Although the film does have it’s minor problems (a lack of real explanation as to exactly how successful the band becomes, no interviews with any band members other than Landu or Likabu), it’s still a very watchable documentary, and one of the best music films I’ve seen in some time.

Rating: A-

VIFF Day 8: Russian Thrillers without the Thrills

Elena directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev (Russia)

Thriller is a word that can be used to describe a fairly wide range of films. Elena isn’t one of them, but that didn’t stop the VIFF organizers from calling it that in the program guide. I guess “thriller” sounds better than “Slow-paced Russian meditation on the importance of family”. 

Elena is a middle-aged Russian woman who splits her time between taking care of her rich, selfish, second husband (who also has a poor, selfish, lazy daughter) and her poor, selfish, lazy son (who also has a poor, selfish wife, and his own poor, selfish, and lazy son). She’s managed to juggle her different familial loyalties thus far, but eventually she has to make a choice between her two families, and she does. Dramatically.

It’s a well-crafted film, and worth your time if you’re ok with a slow pace to your suspense. Elena does have some dramatic moments, but they’re rare, and not really the point of the film. What this movie is really about, is family, and loyalty to that family. It asks some good questions: How important is family, really? And why? What makes a family anyways? Is it blood? Marriage? Both? And if you have to choose between one family and another, how do you make that choice?

This was a subtle movie, and one that doesn’t give up its secrets easily. And while it’s ending may be unsatisfactory to those that need good to always triumph over evil, it’s one that fits this soft-spoken drama nicely.

Rating: B+


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-