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The 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival Preview, or: I Saw the Brooklyn Lights

by Jason Whyte

Still chugging along like the grand festival that it is, the 34th Vancouver International Film Festival has always held a special place in my heart. Not missing a single fest since 2002, VIFF has always been a moviegoer fest paradise for this festival buff, with a lot of discoveries around each and every corner. I may have fallen in love with movies at a young age, but VIFF has made me fallen in love with film festivals.

And I mean that with total seriousness. Because we VIFF goers take moviegoing seriously. VIFF is a moviegoers paradise full of treasures from not only our country, but from abroad as well. Want the best from Cannes? The largest selection of Canadian cinema, both locally and from across the country? Late night genre films with an edgy spin on the norm? Want to make a discovery? A whole 16 days of all of the above and then some, with many screening and large venue options, VIFF has you fully covered, and then some.

I always detested the term "Sometimes seeing this movie at this festival is your only opportunity to see these movies"; a phrase which I felt was birthed at this festival, which I always felt exclusionary for many of the participating films if it comes from a foreign country or is too small to get a proper release. If a movie is great, I want everyone possible to see the thing. Fortunately the festival's own Vancity Theater is thriving on playing festival hits from here and other festivals, furthering VIFF's own business plan into making movies from here and abroad far more accessible.

And with last year's festival ending I felt VIFF was finally in a position to grow and inspire. I felt definite attitude change for the festival, and it has been more lively than ever. Even with the death of the seven-screen-hub-of-heaven Empire Theatres Granville location and the fact you could spend all day in there watching movies if you wanted, now the fest makes you do a BIT of walking, but it is all still centrally located with the Centre For Performing Arts, Playhouse, Cineplex Cinemas International Village and SFU's downtown campus screening room, with other venues like the Vancity, Cinematheque and Rio Theater a short train ride away. While the hub has shifted from Granville Street and I miss it dearly, the focus now covers a bit more of the city and for that I adore it.

The festival starts on Thursday at the cavernous Centre For Performing Arts (which is now technically a church, but I prefer to think of it as a glorious 1800 seat cinema with two balconies) with the BC premiere of John Crowley's BROOKLYN, a part Irish, part Canadian drama starring the lovely Saoirse Ronan, an incredible actress I first caught in ATONEMENT, which opened VIFF all the way back in 2007. Crowley's film is a coming of age tale, and Ms. Ronan came of age at this festival, too; I remember going on a radio show back at that point praising her then-breakthrough performance, believing she would garner an Oscar nomination for her work. And it happened. I hope the best for BROOKLYN which starts sixteen days of madness.

A mere 350+ movies later, Tom Hiddleston stars at Hank Williams in I SAW THE LIGHT from director Marc Abraham. Earning rave reviews out of TIFF for Hiddleston's performance, it is a pretty exciting way to cap off the festival once again in the Centre, the very same room that thrilled audiences when the Oscar-winning WHIPLASH played in that very room to a sold out crowd one year ago. There seems to be a lot of Oscar buzz happening with many of the movies playing this year.

Throughout the festival there will be many world class presentations of a plethora of Canadian films, hits from Cannes, the festival's usual Spotlight on France, the huge Dragons & Tigers sidebar and many documentaries, short films and mid-lengths. I can't even begin to summarize all the madness that will take place in Vancouver, but I will certainly try. For starters, the recent TIFF audience award winner ROOM, starring Oscar hopeful Brie Larson, plays in the Special Presentation section of the festival and it's something I am really looking forward to. Be sure to line up early for this one if you are in Vancouver.

I do want to make a big mention of our Canadian section, in particular the BC Spotlight. Using the hashtag #mustseeBC, anyone can vote for the BC Film they are most looking forward to seeing at VIFF, and the winner gets their own red carpet premiere at the end of VIFF. This is a solid idea for a really strong presence at this year's VIFF and films such as EADWEARD, THE DEVOUT and HADWIN'S JUDGEMENT (reviewed below) are featured.

Again, 355 films over 16 days. It never ceases to amaze me how the programmers and staff put together such an intense event and it's one I intend to take on every year. Featuring not only big hits from TIFF and SxSW and many other film festivals, the festival has its own Canadian and BC premieres that showcase the best in homegrown talent. It really has its own vibe.

Thanks to the powers the be and some other festivals I have worked, here is a brief taste of what is out there at VIFF this year:

THE AMINA PROFILE (2.5/4): Subtitled A GAY GIRL IN DAMASCUS, Sophie Deraspe's documentary is about a Syrian blogger named Amina Arraf, a lesbian who blogs about the uprising in Syria from 2011. At the same time she is having an online relationship with a French woman in Montreal. But as the blog and events in Syria unfold, it is quickly learned that not all is exactly true leading to yet another case of someone being duped online. Watching this fascinating topic unravel, especially from a few haunting and even erotic opening visuals, THE AMINA PROFILE is a fascinating topic that unfortunately gets bogged down in a lot of slow documentary storytelling including a lot of talking heads and some of the surprises getting leaked a bit too early. Sophie Deraspe, who impressed me a few years ago with her film VITAL SIGNS, has a pretty amazing topic and yet the process of the movie was very slow for me; with the great topic and clearly passionate subject I was hoping for a bit more lively documentary storytelling but was just left a little flat at the end.

BOREALIS (3.5/4): As a long time fan and admirer of Winnipeg-based filmmaker Sean Garrity (too many movies to list, although be sure to check out MY AWKWARD SEXUAL ADVENTURE which I keep running into on cable), BOREALIS may be his most mainstream and yet his best work; branching out with a terrific cast and a wonderful piece of writing by its lead star, Jonas Chernick. Chernick plays a lowly gambler trying to eek away from a bookie (Kevin Pollack, terrific) as well as reconnect with his daughter (Joey King) who is rapidly going blind. Granted as I write that it doesn't sound like an incredibly original idea but the devil is in its terrific details; both father and daughter have their own battles to solve and they both bounce off each other in very original and moving ways as the movie takes a road trip across a gorgeous portion of Canada. Chernick gives a solid performance as a deeply conflicted gambler trying to get away from his past, but it's Joey King, who is an absolute revelation as a young girl at wits with losing her sights and trying to struggle with her gambling dad that won me over. Usually given smaller parts in movies like WHITE HOUSE DOWN and THE CONJURING, King's expressive eyes (ironically) and wise-beyond-her-years attitude are great to watch in a role that gives her room to breathe. A terrific movie that I hope more people get to see.

BRAND: A SECOND COMING (3/4): I first discovered Ondi Timoner as a filmmaker here at VIFF all the way back in 2004 with DIG, one of my all time favorite docs about music featuring the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Timoner has never shied from following her subjects all the way she can go and in this movie, which premiered at SxSW in March to much acclaim, follows Russel Brand over the course of about a year or so as a mega-star. Brand is a tried-and-true artist who now seems to be more of an activist than anything, and this doc, which has been worked on for many years with many filmmakers, feels alive and spiritual through the eyes of Ondi Timoner's vision as it balances inteviews, archival footage and even inimate behind the scenes with Brand that I am slightly surprised he allowed to be shown. Russel Brand may not be for everyone, but this solid doc shows him in a very interesting light.

Cop Car (3.5/4): Filmmaker Jon Watts is having a great year after Sundance with his pitch-perfect thriller which feels like a mixture between Carl Franklin's ONE FALSE MOVE with the sensibilities of Walter Hill. The movie opens on a couple of kids running away from something and wandering the open country, and who come across the very car of the movie's title and take it for a joy-ride, not realizing that it belongs to a crooked cop (Kevin Bacon) who is doing some dirty work. When he tries getting his car back it opens up a very original cat-and-mouse game that had me spellbound until the very end. While there are some SLIGHT quibbles here and there (a reveal by Camryn Manheim, of all actors, and a slight let-down of a finale) it is outweighed by pure, adrenaline fueled filmmaking and storytelling by Jon Watts, and I am excited to see where he takes it next (he is currently in plans to direct yet another SPIDER-MAN reboot). It also reminded me in many ways of the recent BLUE RUIN in how gritty storytelling is among the best in the industry right now.

DEATHGASM (3/4): If you're into heavy metal and horror, this New Zealand hit which premiered at SxSW earlier this year will give you a lot more than you bargained for in this crazy genre-bending flick that is best served loud. There's a coming-of-age story of sorts with the forming of a band in high school between two friends, and through it they come across an ancient tablet that unleashes some demons on their small town. They only way they can fix this is through the power of death metal, gore and kill shots. Oh, many glorious kill shots set to a killer soundtrack. Jason Lei Howden's crazy feature combines all of the things I love about genre films and comedy and makes a truly unforgettable type of midnighter movie that I hope VIFF audiences eat up.

THE DEMOLISHER (3/4): A very odd slice of Toronto set to a manic lead performance by NAME HERE and a feverish, pulsating score; THE DEMOLISHER has been compared to the likes of John Carpenter and Walter Hill yet I think Garbriel Carerra's thriller has a lot of Michael Mann elements to it, in a solid way. After an accident leaves his wife paralyzed he seeks flat out revenge, by dressing up as a midnight verison of Robocop and taking to the streets of Toronto. Vigilante justice has never been so strange and original as in Carrera's unflinching vision, and I hope if you see it the sound is turned up LOUD. Prime directive, readers.

THE DEVOUT (3.5/4): A terrific tale of faith and intrigue, Connor Gaston's feature debut is a wowser of a film (he has a short film called GODHEAD that you also must seek out) that takes an interesting take on religion and character and is a far more realistic take on faith than the recent laugh-riot WAR ROOM. Filmed entirely in my hometown of Victoria, the movie features a religious couple (Charlie Carrick and Ali Liebert) who have a terminally ill daughter that has a strange is believed that their daughter was an astronaut in a previous life. Having a slight supernatual edge along with some fairly powerful drama, Gaston balances these elements incredibly well as it takes a heavy toll on its leads, and it has a great selection of performances (Charlie Carrick is a standout), style and intrigue throughout. It also shows the power of BC production and how much power this province has with cinema.

EADWEARD (3.5 out of 4): Quite possibly the film I will see out of Canada this year, Kyle Rideout's stunning achievement of a historical drama about Eadweard Muybridge, the very first man who thought to create the moving image, is a very stunning look into the 19th century and its inhabitants. Michael Eklund, an actor of great talent (full disclosure: the man IS also a friend of mine) gives the performance of his career as Eadweard, nearly in full Daniel Day Lewis here who totally disappears into his role. Mention must also go to the lovely Sara Canning (she of the WFF 2014 movie I PUT A HIT ON YOU and an up-and-comer in her own right) playing his wife, and she is no slouch either standing up to Eklund's chameleon like work. This is a truly great piece of biography filmmaking about an important topic, and I feel we are all here in a way because of this man. As crazy as he is.

FIRE SONG (2/4): A pretty lonely and uninteresting film throughout that redeems itself somewhat with a touching finale, FIRE SONG is a small Canadian film about a small group of Native Indian people living in a small town in Ontario. Our lead in the film, Shane (Andrew Martin) wants nothing more than to move to Toronto and we also wish this for him, even though he has secrets including a gay romance that he searches for a way out. His plight and constant talk about going to the big city to re-start his life was so interesting that I wanted nothing more than to see a segment of the movie where he moves to Toronto and see him chase his dreams. Sadly, the movie sticks to its small town roots and its messages get awfully repetitive, although there is a final scene of redemption and moving forward that I did find engaging. I wish I wasn't being so hard on this film but I felt like it wasn't trying too hard throughout either after a while.

FRANK & THE WONDERCAT (3/4): Ever had that feeling that your pet truly was your best friend and that you had an undeniable bond with that creature? I had a dog for 16 years so I would answer my own question with a resounding yes, but it is especially so for Frank and his incredible cat, affably named Pudgie Wudgie. PW is no ordinary cat; answering political questions from Frank with hisses, doing any trick in the book and not objecting to any hat or suit that is put on PW, there is a great bond between these two. The documentary wisely captures the kindness, and eccentricity, of Frank using new footage to match badly worn VHS footage of PW performing and getting as far as the Maury Povich show. It may earn odd comparisons to GATES OF HEAVEN; no it's not a copy of Errol Morris film and I am not putting it in comparison, but echoes are echoes. If I only had one complaint about the doc, it's that I wish it was LONGER; Frank's human side could have been fleshed out to feature length by about another 15 minutes or so. 67 minute movies will have a hard time on the fest circuit to find more of a release. This movie is worth it for MORE.

HADWIN'S JUDGEMENT (3.5/4): At first what I thought would be a documentary on deforestation instead turns out to be a telling look at one man, novelist and timber industrialist Grant Hadwin, who is clearly anti-clearcutting and one with nature who is fed up with provincial deforestation and decides to take matters into his own hands and make one environmental decision of his own that leads to a possible tragedy, including an incredible finale that I can't believe is real; it seems like something out of a fantasy/tragedy but it all really happened. Sasha Snow's gorgeous doc is equal parts a fascinating account of an internal struggle and also one of the most gorgeous films I have seen out of BC in a LONG time, this is a great documentary that is made for big screens only, so be sure to seek it out for its incredible visual design and unique protagonist.

JAFAR PANAHI'S TAXI (4/4): Quite possibly the most addictively watchable movie I have seen in 2015, TAXI is what happens when you ban a filmmaker from making movies and he still decides to do it anyway. Like a boss. Taking place entirely within the perspective of Panahi driving a taxi and using a few angles (and one surprising one later in the film), we see a really bizarre but telling series of events that take course over about 80 minutes or so. What we are seeing is somewhat scripted, some of it real, and yet it's consistently fascinating as we get a look into a unique window of the world through Jafar's kind, wise persona (that look of happiness he has in his eyes and his joy is remarkable to see throughout). As we are reminded early on that Panahi was banned from making movies in Iran, he still goes ahead and makes them anyways, laws be damned, and nothing makes him happier. It's an awesome sight to see, and the movie, so POV and unique in low tech design yet impossible to look away, is unforgettable.

MY GOOD MAN'S GONE (3/4): Despite being credited and billed as a Canadian film, Nick Citton's feature was filmed and set all the way in a small town of 89 in Arkansas and is about as small town drama as you can get...and yet its charms kept sneaking up on me. Two unique siblings (Richard Dacey and Cheryl Nichols) travel from LA to the small town of Story, AK, whose estranged father has an estate that they have to deal with and also learn about what their father is really up to from all of the people in the small town, where everyone knows everyone. Citton's visual poetry throughout is a great touch, and I especially loved Cheryl Nichols who really has some memorable moments throughout. It's a quirky, thoughtful slow burn of a dramedy that works on many levels.

NINA FOREVER (3/4): I was happy to catch up with this SxSW midnighter at VIFF which is a flat out love/gore fest with pretty bat-shit crazy twists and turns throughout. Yeah, you heard me. The movie features Holly (Abigail Hardingham) whose boyfriend Rob (Cian Barry) has skeletons in the closet, and these skeletons manifest in the form of his now-dead ex Nina (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) who arrives when the living couple have sex. Directed by Chris and Ben Blaine, NINA FOREVER is definitely not for the squeamish and the balance between romance and horror is quite original here, even though it is quite sluggish and times when I want it to move along, especially towards its finale. Even so, see it and be ready to hide your eyes.

SABALI (3/4): A cute little Quebec comedy of manners and chance, SABALI just hides in the corner wanting to impress you. It's eager. Our lead Jeanette Sabali (Marie Brassard), a shy character who works as concierge at a hotel, gets into a bit of mistaken identity with a Mailian family after a heart transplant. Simply put, Jeanette may or may not have been given the heart of one of their relatives, and a very interesting series of events unfolds. Featuring sharp Quebec sensiblities along with a striking lead all decked out in that red suit (my goodness, did they push the red in this one!) makes for a memorable feature by director Ryan McKenna and a lighthearted addition to the festival.

THE SIMILARS (3.5/4): Following up his unbelieveable debut feature THE INCIDENT, Mexico filmmaker Isaac Ezbhan's follow up feature is all sorts of whacked out weird but I loved every unpredictable second of it. To describe what happens risks ruining surprises, but I will say that there's a bus terminal and a very odd occurrance that happens because of a child and his fascination with a particular comic book. The movie is set in the 60's and with it Ezbhan films the movie in a very desaturated film style and adds scratches, nicks and changeover cues for true effect. And the movie becomes a pretty unforgettable experience out of all of it.

Follow my online adventures from September 24th to October 9th:

Be sure to listen to my weekly radio show on CFAX 1070 with air times to vary throughout the fest. You can listen to all of our archives on Soundcloud HERE.

Throughout the festival I will be posting exclusive interviews with many worldwide talent from Canada to Mexico to overseas. For an entire list of our Interview series, and over a DECADE of interviews, click our Live Report From The Festival Circuit series!

At the end of VIFF 2015 I will be posting my annual wrap up with my Top 10 film selections and a look back on the ins and outs of what happened at VIFF 2015. Watch for that on the week after the festival.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @jasonwhyte and on Instagram at jason.whyte for tweet-length musings and pictures of what is happening at the fest! And as always be sure to follow the #VIFF hashtag for all the action.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 09/24/15 17:46:40
last updated: 09/25/15 01:02:36
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