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Threading Up the 2009 Victoria Film Festival

One Week - Opening the 2009 Victoria Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

This year’s edition of the Victoria Film Festival, their 15th year and going strong, combines the fine art of filmgoing, networking and hidden events all under the umbrella of my home town. As someone who has to usually travel to attend a film fest (wish me luck as I battle with the American dollar in Austin this March), it is nice to only have to take a quick ride into town to check out a roster of films that may never open here.

Years ago, when I first attended the fest as a spectator, I enjoyed the lineup of films and especially the fact they brought film directors and people associated with the film out to mingle with their audiences. Since then, I’ve always been overwhelmed by the experience yet still hunger for what’s new around the corner every year. I also like their timing; in a bleak release time of nothing but Kate Hudson and Renee Zellweger comedies, it’s nice to get out to the movies at this time of year.

I want to applaud festival director Kathy Kay and programmer Donovan Aikman for choosing One Week as the opening night film, which screens Friday at the Capitol 6. Scroll down a bit for a more detailed capsule, however I must quickly mention this is a superb film that I saw opening night of the Whistler Film Festival to spectacular reaction from the crowd. This should play very well in Victoria. Director Michael McGowan’s passionate flair for storytelling, human comedy and performance is a just about note perfect, and it is nice to see a Canadian film that doesn’t feel like a lesser American picture. I think this will not only do great business when it opens here in early March, but if treated right can work down south too.

While I usually don’t attend the opening night parties to most festivals (usually there’s a screening going on and I find myself at those), I find the party at the Victoria Film Fest to be the most fun and laid back, combining music at just the right sound level with free booze, and of course it’s nice to visit with some of the same people and meet some new ones. Last year was great as I remember bar hopping with local film critic Michael D. Reid until 3 in the morning; I’m not sure if he does. But anyway, moving along!

The festival closes with a screening of the smash international hit JCVD, a film that has played almost everywhere but our city, so Victoria viewers can finally see that it isn’t just Mickey Rourke making a welcome comeback. Jean Claude Van Damme plays a version of himself that must fight out of a sticky situation but also come to terms with where he is in his life, and it’s a solidly entertaining film that will lead into the closing gala awards on February 8th.

A good number of films in competition at this year’s Victoria Festival I have seen at other film festivals, but they did pick a lot of good ones, so I’m happy that Victoria will get a chance to see them. Here’s a look at some of the VFF selections (with a rating out of four, because I’m crazy that way).

Best Bets:

One Week (4/4) – The film that also opened last fall’s Whistler Film Festival, Michael McGowan’s great sophomore feature – his first was the very good “Saint Ralph”, which also played at the Victoria fest in 2005 – is about Ben Tyler (Joshua Jackson), a man from Toronto who is diagnosed with cancer and given a short time to live. So what else would a true Canadian do but to take a pilgrimage across Canada to wind up in Tofino? Along the way, Ben meets a great deal of interesting people along the way as he reflects on his life, aided by a surprisingly effective and moving narration by Campbell Scott. I have always loved road trip movies and “One Week” is no exception; McGowan rarely, if at all, hits any wrong notes and matches great acting, human moments, a great soundtrack and a great love for life in this movie. He also gets great work out of his actors; both Joshua Jackson (no longer Pacey from “Dawson’s Creek”) and Liane Balaban (recently in “Last Chance Harvey”) give some of their best work, and the film is filled with colorful characters that you will remember long after the credits. As previously mentioned, “One Week” also opens the festival and it would be a shame if you missed it.

RIP A Remix Manifesto (3.5/4) – An absolutely powerful look at digital rights management, online copyright protection and – best of all – how mash-up sensation Gregg Gillis (aka. Girl Talk) figures in the whole thing, “RIP” is the best Canadian doc I’ve seen since “The Union: The Business Behind Getting High” came out a few years ago. Director Brett Gaylor is the kind of documentary filmmaker that I like to see out there right now; not only does he present his opinions and facts accurately and with intelligence, “RIP” is also a hell of a lot of fun; it matches its smarts with a great deal of wit, fantastic editing, a great love for movies and ending on a note of absolute hope that change can come. What does that remind you of?

Mothers & Daughters (3.5/4) – I have been an acquaintance of Carl Bessai’s for over six years now – it’s pretty difficult not to, as not only do I attend most of his film screenings, I see the Vancouver native at nearly every film festival party -- and have admired his work greatly. That said, I have waited for his first foray into great filmmaking, and I have finally found it with this digitally-shot, low budget DIY that likens him with the Duplass Brothers, Joe Swanberg and indie Edward Burns in this story of conflicting women from different age and racial backgrounds. Bessai gets so much great mileage out of the material and natural performances (Tantoo Cardinal in particular, who garnered a Women in Film and TV Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival for her performance), including an improvised dinner sequence that is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. This film is part of the annual, “Sips ‘n Cinema” which includes a wine tasting visit after the film, and I’m sure the film will arouse a lot of discussion.

Three Seasons (3.5/4) – Playing later in the festival, don’t miss Jim Donovan’s harsh relationship drama that is baffling on how much production and visual flair he can get out of such a small budget (it reminds me of “The New Year Parade” from last year). It stars the gorgeous French-Canadian beauty Caroline Neron (who I remember gave me a hug at the Whistler Film Festival in 2007 and thus rendered me speechless), Romano Orzari (“The Overlookers”) and Carine Leduc (Donovan’s wife) in a story of interconnecting characters and themes in Montreal, but does so in a way that I’ve never seen before. This film won the coveted Borsos Comepetion Award at this year’s Whistler Film Festival – presented to Donovan by Donald Sutherland, of all people -- and Leduc was awarded the Best Actress award that same day. It’s a truly great film.

Hunger (3.5/4) – Steve McQueen (no, not that one; he died in 1980, remember?) has directed a staggering piece of work that might anger and upset many that choose to see it, but those who take a chance will be rewarded. Bobby Sands was an IRA prisoner in the early 80’s who was forced to go on a hunger strike in a way to retaliate against Margaret Thatcher’s Ireland grasp, and somehow survives for 66 days under extreme torture (many of which are explicitly shown, so be forewarned). For all of these intense sequences, it pales in comparison to a legendary, near twenty-minute single take in the middle of this film that has to be seen to be believed. It elicited a gasp when it ended at VIFF, and should very well do the same here.

Ballast (3.5/4) – Do. Not. Miss. Mississippi filmmaker Lance Hammer has an air of the Dardenne Brothers and Lodge Kerrigan in him, and absolutely in a good way. Forgoing the usual indie score, editing and montages that populate the low-fi of indie cinema, in comes Hammer’s riveting work of small town life and a lower class family that struggles to survive. Scoring huge at Sundance last year and having a very memorable screening at VIFF, this film is currently in self-distribution in the US and with Kinosmith here in Canada, and likely these will be the only screenings in Victoria, so please heed the first few words of this capsule.

Also seen and capsuled:

Better Tomorrow (2/4) – As much as I tried to stay awake through Marie-Helene Cousineau’s inuit story-- I barely made it through the interminable opening credit sequence – I just couldn’t. Sure, I’d love to tell you about a story about family struggle way up in northern Quebec, yet the film arrives sadly arrives dull on arrival and reminded me of the time I fell asleep during “The Fast Runner” years ago.

Edison & Leo (1.5/4) – Months after I have seen this, I still can’t summarize what the film is about or who it’s intended for. This stop motion picture – about an inventor named George T. Edison and his electrified son Leo -- is too dark for kids yet too meandering for adults. While it is a relief the film only clocks in at a mere 78 minutes, we still feel quite under whelmed.

Fifty Dead Man Walking (3/4) – The first of two IRA films set in Scotland, this co-Canadian/Irish production is directed by Kari Skogland (The Stone Angel, which didn’t play at the Victoria fest last year for some unknown reason) and about a young man from Belfast who goes undercover and infiltrates the IRA for the British police, and as per usual gets in way over his head. The framing device of the picture somewhat bugged me, but nevertheless I was taken by the very emotional human story and the harsh reality the film shows us. Jim Sturgess is also terrific as the conflicted lead.

JCVD (3/4) – Leave your assumptions about Jean-Claude Van Damme at the door. This is not the overacting (or underacting, depending on how you look at it) kickboxer who is out to solve crimes in the past or fight on the street. Rather, this JCVD is a man who takes a serious look back at his life once he is held hostage in a bank robbery in Paris. It’s as much a real take on Van Damme as “Being John Malkovich” was a real take on Malkovich, although this film does ask us to reflect on the career of a person who has made a few mistakes and a few hardships in his life.

London to Brighton (3/4) – I saw this film at the 2007 VIFF (yes, 2007…it’s 2009 now, for those of you playing the home version), so it’s been a while since I have reviewed the film. This British import, about two runaway teenagers who are mixed up in some horrendous shenanigans with a pimp on their trail, has been a festival hit for quite some time. Although it seems to have warned off potential distributors, likely due to a partially nude, 12 year old Georgia Groome in an implied rape sequence. Until now, that is; Kinosmith has this set for a release later in the year, although it is available in most countries on DVD already.

Stone of Destiny (2.5/4) – Charles Martin Smith, who is still probably best known for roles in “The Untouchables” and “American Graffiti”, is an accomplished Canadian filmmaker living in Vancouver now, and has made some very good films. “Stone of Destiny”, his latest, is an oh-so-cute caper film about a group of young Irish folk who historically return the stone of the film’s title from British hands, and the relationships that occur along the way. Despite being filmed entirely in Scotland, the film has an uneasy Canadian feel and look to it, and might disappoint those who want the meat and bones of a good movie and are instead given a travelogue. Despite this setback, the film does have its strengths, some good performances and some very funny moments, but I just wish if could have been a bit better.

Toronto Stories (3/4) – Sudz Sutherland, who showed the knockout “Love, Sex and Eating The Bone” a few years ago at the Victoria Film Fest, is one of the four filmmakers showcased in this series of short films with a common thread: a young foreign boy who is all alone and wandering the city of Toronto. I mention him because like his last film, he really has a great visual and storytelling talent, and his other filmmakers are also up to the challenge: Sook Yin-Le (who you may remember disrobed for “Shortbus” and does here too), David Weaver (“Siblings”) and Aaron Woodley all contribute stories about Canada’s largest city, a place that people really love to hate but is here shown as a city of conflicting cultures and ideas.

Veer (3/4)– Greg Fredette’s documentary, professionally made and very entertaining, is a documentary on the many ways that Portland, Oregon is one of the top cities in the world for cycling. Fredette and cameraman Jason Turner filmed over the course of a year and followed a few particular characters in different aspects of the bike scene, and the results are terrific. It’s always great to see a doc bring you into its material even if you aren’t a part of it (full disclosure: my bike has a broken tire and sits unloved in my back yard). My only quibble is that Fredette lingers a bit too long on some of the sequences (do we really need TWO sequences of pink-clad, synchronized bike dancers, one of which is set to the tune of the theme from “Life Aquatic”?) this is nevertheless worth checking out, and I have to admit that I loved the sequences of bikers zipping down those long Portland hills. Admit it; you'd like to do it too.

What I’m Planning To See:

Among the films I look forward to the most over the weekend include Garfield Miller’s The Last New Year; this digitally shot indie is not only a world premiere but also the Canadian Opening Screening for the VFF and guaranteed to be a hot screening over the first weekend. There’s Borderline from Quebecois director Lynn Charlebois which is a small, intimate character study and is scheduled for release by TVA later in the year. Mulligans is Chip Hale’s Victoria-shot drama revolving around a family, a summer home and a visitor who has a “secret”, of which has been making the rounds on many festival circuits and should no doubt impress local viewers. Dean Spanley is a period piece comedy featuring Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam and Peter O’Toole that has been well received in its limited release, and there’s also an amazing looking documentary called The Biggest Chinese Restaurant In The World and I think we can assume what that’s all about.

What else to see and do:

A series of Springboard Talks which feature top Canadian talent in panel discussions over the first weekend at the Vic Theater, along with a new screening feature called Converge where the VFF takes over Chinatown to screen short films in many unique, oddball ways. Check out the official website or pick up a program guide for more information.

There are also a few short film packages screening at Plan B nightclub. Among them, I recommend both Bob Holbrook’s My Inventions and The Collingwood Campaign by Ryan Mains, both memorable and welcome works. They will be playing Tuesday at Plan B Nightclub.

Watch for (near) daily coverage of this year’s VFF, including interviews with many of the filmmakers over the course of the festival.

Follow my instant VFF updates on Twitter! Point your browser to and feel free to follow me!

For more information on films screening at the Victoria Film Festival, where to purchase tickets and for other general information about the festival as it happens, point your browser HERE. – Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 01/30/09 18:47:03
last updated: 02/04/09 04:51:51
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