|by Greg Ursic
After having spent untold hours in dark theaters, putting both my physical fitness and personal sanity to the test, I have emerged with some insights into a smattering of the diverse films being screened at the 24th Annual Vancouver International Film Festival. Brace yourself for a wild ride...
Director: Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana
When Adam (Ian Gamazon) returns to the Philippines for his father’s funeral he receives a call informing him that his mother and sister have been kidnapped. The captors inform Adam that unless he does what he’s told, he and his family members will be killed.
The slums of Cavite – a rambling collection of ramshackle huts connected by makeshift bridges atop a literal sea of refuse and bordered by spider webs of low slung, live electrical wires - explain more than anything why individuals are driven to desperate actions. The bulk of the “action” is superfluous to this message.
With painfully repetitive dialogue (apparently the writer was trying to set a new record for using the word “faggot” in a movie), reckless editing, a story that is a mass of contradictions and no resolution, there is little to keep viewers’ interest. My biggest complaint is the camera work – I hate the overuse of the bouncing cam shots with a fiery passion – not only is it gimmicky, it makes me physically ill. The coup de grace for Cavite was a stunningly ignorant, racist line that one of the characters is forced to utter near the end of the film that totally undermines any remaining legitimacy the movie was clinging to. Miss it.
Director: Maria Blom
After struggling to escape the gossiping and narrow-mindedness that is small town living, Mia dreads going home. Unable to skip her father’s 70th birthday party she steels herself against the inevitable onslaught of ridicule that will be heaped upon her by Eivor, her opinionated and controlling middle sister, and the endless prattling of older sister Gunnita. With rivers of free-flowing booze, the tensions building on every front lead to a series of inevitable showdowns from which no one is immune.
For me this film epitomizes why we have festivals – although it takes place in another country, the story’s universal themes are accessible by anyone (which fits the theme of this year’s festival “No film is completely foreign”). Blom superbly crafted script maintains the delicate balance between drama and humor and reeks of reality. The fully realized cast of characters, all of whom play an integral role in the proceedings, are brought to life by the universally spirited performances of the cast. The northern scenery is exquisite, the cinematography is consistently dynamic without ever appearing “busy” and the editing borders on perfection.
Blom dissects the delicate shredded fabric that binds families together within the sociological phenomena that is northern life. Well written and flawlessly executed she offers up ample tears and laughter along the way, making it a sheer joy to watch.
Director: Scott Weber
Laurel (Helene Joy) and Michael (Ian Tracey) moved to Desolation Sound to escape the rat race. When Michael is called away for yet another extended photo assignment, Laurel begins to question the wisdom of their decision. She is thrilled with the unannounced arrival of Elizabeth (Jennifer Beals) her freewheeling friend from childhood. Their reunion turns bitter when drunken reminiscing reveal dark secrets, with tragic consequences.
Betrayal, infidelity, a spooky backwoods setting, bizarre puppets, sleepwalking children, ex-cons and murder sound like promising ingredients for a screenplay. But when you pepper the script with a endless stream of cliches, some of the worst dialogue to ever stain the page, and top it off with a moronic plot you’re left with a fiasco. Helene Joy deserves credit for her physical and emotional transformation of Laurel, and the rest of the cast does their best with what they’ve been given. Unfortunately best intentions are not enough to resuscitate this disaster.
Unintentionally hilarious and completely predictable, Desolation Sound is an incoherent mess that fails miserably on every level. Desolate indeed….
The French Guy
Director: Anne Marie Fleming
In a seeming act of insanity, Elizabeth (Babz Chula) is discharged from the hospital the same day that she undergoes brain surgery. Disoriented and still oozing red stuff, she wanders down to the beach where she saves a young man bent on desperate acts. They return to return to her friend’s apartment where the potentially blooming May/December connection goes horribly awry. Her artiste neighbour meanwhile busies himself with his painting and remains politely oblivious to the grunts and groans next door.
The madness contained in this little gem covers so much ground - satire, absurdist humor, surrealism, horror, etc - that it is difficult to come up with a nice and clean summary, but hey, I’m always up for a challenge. Fleming pokes fun at the get-em-in-get-em-out nature of our healthcare system (it is made in BC after all) mismatched romance, snooty aesthetes, murder, evisceration, and cannibalism and bathes the scene in buckets of blood.
Babz Chula’s deliciously manic performance as she tries to piece things together (literally and figuratively) is hilarious and maintains the tempo of the piece. And speaking of tempo, you’ll never forget the clever use of music to establish tone. If you’re concerned about the violence, don’t worry, it’s so over the top you’ll undoubtedly spend more time laughing than you do being repulsed. And stick around for the credits for a little extra dark humor.
Measures to Better the World
Director: Jorn Hintzer, Jakob Hufner
According to conventional wisdom, the longest moment in time occurs in the instant between the light turning green and the vehicle ahead of you starting to move. The Green Light Society has come up with a solution to this maddening problem and all it requires is a measure of faith, cooperation and some personal accountability on the part of each individual. Like-minded free thinkers have come up with a series of proposals that could well deliver on our collective utopian dream.
This mockumentary starts off strong with The Green Light Society” but is spotty from then on. “Rent-a-brother” whereby once child couples can rent children to provide a healthier environment, and “Active Health Insurance” where neighbours learn specific medical skills to eliminate expensive visits to the hospital are amusing, the rest of the skits are bland filler. Had the directors excised the excess material, this would have made an entertaining 20-minute short, but they got greedy and the audience has to pay the price.
Director: Robert Thalheim
Marcel (Milan Peschel) is a relic from a bygone era who has been railing against “those blowhards from the West” since the wall came down and East Germany was no more. Barely making ends meet as a repairman, he spends the bulk of his time obsessing about security, which he is convinced is the wave of the future. When his 15 year-old son image savvy son Sebastian (Sebastian Butz) comes to live with him, Marcel is going to get the makeover he desperately needs, whether he wants it or not.
Thalheim’s script shows a maturity and depth rarely seen in a student film, a genre typified by lightweight scripts, bad acting, sloppy camera work or amateurish editing. Marcel, brilliantly fleshed out by Peschel, is a shambling sad sack who dwells in a world of delusion and resonates with the genuine disaffection of someone who has been passed by. Butz’s Sebastian is the perfect foil as the straightforward say-what-you-think son who doesn’t have time for excuses and is ready to dispense some much-needed tough love. The pair shares a palpable bond which enhances their onscreen relationship and gives the story the heft it needs.
Solid production values, a smart script, steady pacing and characters that the audience can relate to, combine for a strong debut. The German Country music soundtrack featuring Peter Tschernig, “East Berlin’s Johnny Cash” is just the weird cherry on top. Expect to see more of Robert Thalheim’s work in the near future.
Emma is tired of living with a “junkie smack-head” is desperate to break her husband’s addiction. Unfortunately, living on assistance, she doesn’t have the resources, and enlists the aid of next door neighbour Barry (Barry Gough) a solid guy with a philanthropic streak. The best of intentions, lead to downward spiral of event cycle of events with drastic consequences.
Magpie is one of those movies that I so often find perplexing – touted as one of the top five productions in the UK, there wasn’t anything that struck me as particularly noteworthy. The camera work is shoddy, and the story is poorly fleshed out, uneven, poorly executed, and contrived. Apparently the writers, in some misguided attempt at authenticity couldn’t even be bothered to take the time to make up names for the characters. More importantly, the characters are grating, prone to uncharacteristic reactions and I didn’t connect with or care about them on any level.
This subject matter has been tackled many times before and with far greater success. Check out something else.
Country: Czech Republic
Director: Thomas Vorel
Things are tense in the - well, we never know their name - family household. The daughter is a dreamer who can’t seem to keep her mind on school, mom is an overworked supermarket checker, dad enjoys his work at the local slaughterhouse a little too much and the son is not only a pot-smoking slacker, but a vegetarian as well. When dad starts an affair with a co-worker, the family unit finally implodes.
It’s been said that comedy is the most challenging genre to master. If so, then director Thomas Vorel is a true comic maestro as he weaves a multi-layered whimsical story with fully developed characters, that is dark and surreal one moment and slapstick the next. Making his accomplishments even more impressive is the fact that he achieves this without any dialogue. The actors, the cream of the Czech crop, are faced with the daunting task of bringing the script to life and to their credit they do an outstanding job.
If you’re in the mood for something unique and entertaining (a distinct combination I assure you), this may well be the film for you. Please note many scenes take place in an actual slaughterhouse, and may be too intense for squeamish viewers.
Director: Benjamin Heisenberg
Unbeknownst to his colleagues, Johannes (Bastian Trost), the new researcher at the genetics lab has been hired to gather intelligence on Farid (Mehdi Nebbou) a fellow researcher. Farid, mild mannered and with a penchant for alcohol and strip clubs seems to be an unlikely candidate as an extremist, although he does have a mild obsession with online war gaming. The duo quickly becomes friends and Johannes finds himself grappling with his conscience. Their friendship is complicated by Farid’s relationship with Beata (Loretta Pflaum), whom Johannes also has designs on, leading to a series of rash decisions with devastating consequences.
The one element that jumps out from Heisenberg’s screenplay is that nothing that jumps out at you – a subtly crafted drama, it is skillfully disarming. The relationships between the characters are tainted by underlying suspicions, insinuations and questionable motivations never feel quite “right”. Is Farid a terrorist? Is Beata who she says she is? Is Johannes a patsy? Heisenberg rightly weaves and bobs around these questions and refuses to provide any definitive answers.
Sleeper generated a lot of post-screening discussion in the lobby, and yielded myriad interpretations. I discovered that the more we talked about it, the more I liked it. A clever and engaging film, it may leave you with more questions than answers.
Director: Kenny Glenaan
Yasmin (Bend it Like Beckham’s Archie Panjabi) has to maintain a delicate balancing act. The daughter of an Imam, she is expected to dress and act like a proper Muslim, but outside the confines of her neighbourhood she hangs with friends at the pub and even entertains the possibility of a relationship with a co-worker. When the planes bring down the Twin Towers Yasmin suddenly finds herself a stranger in two worlds and watches helplessly as her family is subjected to a series of indignities, leading her drug dealer brother to contemplate an alternate career path.
Archie Panjabi is outstanding as Yasmin injecting the character with raw yet balanced emotion: whether outraged or in standing in stunned silence, she is wholly believable, and stops the story from degenerating into a simple rant. The strong supporting cast also helps to sustain a genuine familial atmosphere that which in turn allows the story line to continue in a natural progression.
The screenplay, largely based on experiences collected from attendees at a series of community workshops held in North London in the aftermath of 9/11, demonstrates how easily relationships between cultures can be so destroyed. It also highlights how misguided measure’s such as Britain’s Anti-terrorism Act can alienate regular citizens and galvanize them to further action.
Glenaan tackles a difficult, daring topic, without pandering to hyperbole and the result is a thought provoking drama, that is one of my fest favorites.
Director: Jessica Sanders
Virtually everyone who is convicted of a crime resorts to the same refrain “I’m innocent!” While we’re accustomed to dismiss this declaration as the last act of a desperate man (or woman), what if they really are telling the truth? Is there any way to be certain? Well, in those cases that rely on physical evidence i.e. rapes and some murders, there is.
To date, over 170 inmates ranging from average citizens to former policeman have been exonerated based on DNA evidence, thanks to the work of the Innocence Project (I’m finally able to forgive Barry Scheck for defending OJ). The aftermath isn’t pretty: the individuals are simply released, without any attempts to help them acclimatize to their newfound freedom, even though many of them have spent decades behind bars. The “exonerees” usually experience difficulty securing gainful employment as their criminal records have not been expunged, are ineligible for welfare, and there are no mechanisms in place to compensate their time spent behind bars. Sanders also tracks the progress of Wilton Dedge, an inmate who, although having been cleared by DNA evidence three years earlier, still remains incarcerated.
If After Innocence doesn’t’ shock and outrage you, you’ve clearly missed the point. A must see.
Banking On Heaven
Director: Dot Reidelbach
Hale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona are home to the fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, who practice polygamy, where women as young as 11 years old are married off. The group’s “prophet”, Warren Jeffs, a theocratic xenophobe, advocates the expulsion of teenaged boys (they’re not considered economically viable), teaches that women are chattel and coordinates a program of massive welfare fraud. And he wants to spread his message.
Please note, when the program guide talks of secret camera footage it refers to shots of people running away from the filmmaker’s car (residents are taught to fear strangers) – not exactly earthshaking stuff. Interviews with former members are far more revealing and expose common experiences such as incest, rape, physical abuse, brainwashing, forced poverty (all money must be turned over to Jeffs), and the misappropriation of government funds. In spite of these allegations, and claims by experts that Jeffs is the American version of a Taliban leader, he has never been investigated by the state of Arizona (whose legislature is dominated by Mormons) or the Federal Government.
Reidelbach’s expose is informative, horrifying and a clear wake up call to the government on both sides of the border (there is currently a chapter of Jeffs’ group in Bountiful BC and one in Mexico). Unfortunately the use of too many throwaway shots (soaring vultures, running sect members, etc.), empty voiceovers and uneven editing interrupt the film’s momentum and lessen the impact of her subject’s words.
Five Days in September
Director: Barbara Willis Sweete
With funding for the Arts becoming an ever-scarcer commodity, and flagging concert attendance, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra needed a strategy to boost their revenues. They decided to hire a new Music Director, and after a lengthy search, brought in Peter Oundjian, a charismatic maestro and former violinist known for his creative vision. Sweete follows Oundjian and a cast of thousands (well at least dozens) on their frantic and rewarding journey as they gear up for a new season.
I’m not a huge fan of classical music, largely because of my experience with people who are devout fans of the genre (read snobs) and must admit that I went in with a jaundiced eye. I left a convert. Rather than a stuffy series of performances, Sweete delves into every niche of the operation: we meet the newest members of the orchestra, attend practices, get chauffeured around to interviews, eavesdrop on emergency drive-by hallway meetings, and cheer on the combatants in table hockey. The candid portraits of the guest soloists are especially refreshing, whether it’s Yo-Yo Ma’s heartfelt embraces with each of the cellists, Emmanuel Axe clowning around with Peter and the orchestra or the captivating Renee Fleming who gives divas a good name, they are moments you would normally share in. And let us not forget the wonderful pieces which include Chopin’s Concerto # 2 (which Axe comments “…has too many notes”), Mahler’s Symphony #4, Beethoven’s 7th, and Rachmaninoff’s Dance # 1.
The camera keeps returning to Oudjian however and for good reason: it is impossible not to be caught up in his enthusiasm and love of music. He speaks of music in terms normally associated with literature - apprehensive, threatening, petrifying and lamenting. Highly recommended for music lovers and non-music lovers alike.
Director: Eric Black and Frauke Sandig
It is somewhat ironic that San Fernando is the centre for both the porn industry and leading edge reproductive technologies. Childless couples no longer have to rely on Mother Nature when they can get donor eggs, sperm or even rent a womb. With 500,000 frozen embryos currently in storage in the US alone, the growth of the US as a hotspot for “reproductive tourists” , and talk of inserting animal and plant genes into humans, we need to ask ourselves “How far is too far?”
The absence of regulations over the “reproduction business” in the US, has led a situation where couples can go online and choose donors based on virtually any criteria they want (that the overwhelming majority desire for blonde blue eyed children is also a bit creepy). One expert effort to downplay growing concerns is surely disquieting: “Designing Humans? We do it with dogs, what’s the big deal? ”
There is an important message here, but it is buried beneath a mountain of extraneous footage of sinister looking helicopters with blazing spotlights, and random shots of traffic, and pedestrians that have nothing to do with the filmmakers’ thesis. What should be an intensely interesting exposition plays out as a study in mediocrity.
GOING THROUGH SPLAT: THE LIFE AND WORK OF STEWART STERN
Director: Jon Ward
Stewart Stern, who scripted such classics as Rebecca, Rebeccaand Rebel Without a Cause, was noted for his tight writing, evocative characters and integrity. Yet Stern had the misfortune to be a nice guy in a nasty business, and was repeatedly denied due credit, and watched as his masterpiece script was both lauded and turned down by every major studio. As the pressure to create grew, Stern withdrew a little more, until finally the day after he received an Emmy for “Sybil” he stepped down from the typewriter and retired to the Pacific Northwest.
In order to understand why Stern packed it in, Ward conducted extensive interviews with him and it quickly becomes evident that this sensitive, quirky, humble optimist who idolized Peter Pan, was an ill fit for the fawning and backbiting clamor for recognition that is Hollywood. A parade of Tinseltown royalty including George Englund, Dennis Hopper, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, extols the virtues of the man they all regard as a master (Woodward notes “he wrote the best role I ever had”) and bemoan the loss of a genius.
With steady pacing, tight editing, interviews that are never both insightful, and at times hilarious Ward delivers an outstanding debut. The best part is that in spite of his mistreatment at the hands of those he trusted, Stern has not been wallowed in resentment or regret and still maintains a great outlook on life. We should all be so lucky. And he does a mean cow impersonation.
Director: Pepe Danquart
If you’ve ever wondered what inspires someone to pursue a career gutting and stuffing animals, Dave Gibson may provide the answer - “ While walking down the aisle at Home Depot I said “I want to be a taxidermist! It was a spur of the moment decision, but it just came out and I went out and bought the supplies” It’s probably as good as any other explanation you’re likely to get.
Danquart follows several competitors, who, depending on who you talk to, are either “animal morticians” or “serious nature artists” that rival Michaelangelo, as they prepare for the National championship in Orillia Ontario. We meet Jeff Brain, who “ranks third in the world in cold water fish” as he feverishly prepares a deer in the hopes of ousting Rion White the cool headed competitor out of Saskatchewan who won World Masters competition in 1999, the only Canadian ever to do so. Dave meanwhile adopts a shock and awe strategy and attempts to blanket his competitors by entering three different specimens in the novice competition.
We also tour Benoit Brassard’s private collection, the largest of its kind in Canada, which includes Africa’s Big Five and Canada’s Big Four, all of which he personally brought down. And one mustn’t forget Janie, who saw a person on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous get their dog preserved and knew that that was she had to do that with her dearly departed dog Wonder.
Sometimes informative, often creepy and always humorous, Lifelike is like a twisted sequel to Best in Show except all the participants are real. As Dave Gibson notes, he’ll keep doing it because “So many people want to be closer to nature. You see a deer head on a wall and it reminds you of nature.” You can’t argue with logic like that.
Souls of Naples
Director: Vincent Monnikendam
Passing through Naples on the way to Pompeii back in 2000, both my friend and I commented on what a squalid place it was. Apparently the aristocrats of Naples felt the same way over 400 years ago when they established the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a charity to help the city’s poorer citizens. In 1606 the group commissioned Caravaggio to paint the Seven Acts of Mercy to symbolize the group’s charter. Sadly, after four centuries their mission is far from over.
I was curious to see how Monnikendam planned to utilize Carvaggio’s painting to contrast the differences between the classes in Naples and tie the picture into a cohesive framework. Apparently he never bothered to think that far ahead. Monnikendam and crew literally wander the back alleys of Naples, listen to people gossip for several minutes, then show them a copy of the painting and asks for their interpretation. This random flow extends to the slipshod editing, with scenes abruptly switching from one to the next with no logical connect, ultimately failing to inspire any interest in the film or its subjects. Skip it.
This Divided State
Director: Steven Greenstreet
After Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith was murdered by an angry mob in 1844, his followers fled to Utah so they could practice their faith undisturbed. One wonders how the Smith would react to the decision of the student council at Utah Valley State College to book Michael Moore for a speaking engagement before the 2004 election. Would he preach tolerance or join his followers in an attempt to stifle a group’s right to expression?
Having had the misfortune to be in Miami during the 2000 election (I heard enough about dimpled chads to last three lifetimes) I know well that politics is not a subject that you want to broach in the US unless you have a death wish. Greenstreet’s examination of the tempest in a teacup that grew into a national controversy is at times amusing, but mostly frightening. There is no other way to describe the actions of those who initiated recall campaigns against the Student Council leaders, received thousands of complaints, weathered a recall campaign and were threatened with a legal suit, while the university lost several hundred thousand dollars in sponsorship money. , but thankfully stuck by their guns.
This Divided State shows how pervasive the neo-conservative agenda of intolerance is in the US and how readily its citizens are willing to abandon the very principles they supposedly hold dear. Truly terrifying.
Tropic of Cancer
Director: Eugenio Polgovsky
From the opening sequence - the tracking and capture of a very miffed rattlesnake- it is obvious that Tropic is a documentary in the truest sense of the word: there are no experts positing theories, no dramatic soundtrack, or interactions with the principles involved. Polgovsky simply trains his cameras on the people who inhabit the shacks along Highway 57 – one of Mexico’s main transport arteries - as they struggle to eke out an existence. To survive, these modern day hunter/gatherers trap whatever they can find, such as falcons, owls, deer, turtles, and squirrels, then sell them for a pittance to the passersby who pull up in shiny SUV’s and minivans.
Stark and honest, the images of these fringe dwellers’ deeply furrowed faces, intercut with the unforgiving sand and cacti dotted landscape says more than any dialogue could.
Souvenir of Canada
Director: Robin Neinstein
Following on the heels of his best-selling book of the same name, Douglas Coupland sets out in search of items that define the ineffable quality that we call Canadian. His goal is to incorporate them into his Canada Home, an old CHMC house that will serve as temporal art project. Among the symbols Coupland uses to flesh out his vision are stubbies, Kraft Dinner, wonderfully banal NFB films like Let’s Look at Weedsand Best of Hockey Fights tapes that belie the image Canadians have of themselves “…as decent gentle people.” He also rightly notes that “the only Canadian that every Canadian can agree on is Terry Fox” the courageous 21 year-old who “made distance something that brought Canadians together” and whose legacy continues to flourish.
The film also provides Coupland with the opportunity to engage in personal introspection, including the cross-country trip he took with a friend during which he discovered that “Canada is really big” and his aimless twenties when he started writing and much to his surprise became a best selling author. Coupland also experiences an unexpected connection with his parents, notably his father “…an avid outdoorsman and the most Canadian man I know” with whom he never previously felt a bond.
Informative, evenly paced, funny and always entertaining, Coupland and Neinstein create an evocative experience that is distinctly Canadian with everything positive that entails.
With the overwhelming number of films being screening it is highly unlikely that you’ll get to them all (the record for last year’s festival was about 130 films, which is pretty damn impressive – or frightening, I’m not quite sure which…). Take some time to go through the schedule online, check the local papers for reviews, ask someone in line for their recommendations or if you’re felling lucky, wing it.
Tickets are available online at www.viff.org and at the box office, but remember like the blockbuster flicks on cheap night, the popular festival films often sell out well in advance, so book early if there is something you absolutely, positively have to see.
Finally, remember to wear comfortable clothing, pack a lunch, drink plenty of fluids, take a break once in awhile and have fun.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1605
originally posted: 09/29/05 11:02:29
last updated: 10/05/05 04:27:13