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Whistler Film Festival 2015: A Festival Preview 15 Years Young

CAROL - Opening #wff15!
by Jason Whyte

The 2015 edition of the Whistler Film Festival feels like a breaking point for both myself and the festival. Starting as a small event in 2001 and now one of the leading festivals in Canada, this is a year to celebrate and not just because it has turned 15 years old. I have been attendance for the last nine of them, and it is like my own festival kid I adopted has grown up into an adult but without the growing pains and arguments. It's the festival kid that gets better with age.

Upon arrival in 2007 with the idea that this might be some kind of "Sundance To The North" as it takes place in a world class village known for its mountain culture, I witnessed a small but dedicated slate of movies including some premieres, some carry overs from the nearby Vancouver International Film Festival down the hill and a LOT of movies that came from the Toronto International Film Festival. None of this is a bad thing, although over the last few years I am seeing a lot more movies that have chosen, or have been selected by the programming committee, to have their world or Canadian premiere in this very small town. It's the power of the fans, the filmmakers and the town itself that keeps the drive of Whistler Film Festival going. It is not a version of Sundance whatsoever, as Whistler stands very much on its own two feet, daring you to judge it by its small village approach.

Year by year, the festival has grown in scope and many more attendees, both industry and film fans, have lined up for screenings and taken part in all of the extra curricular activities the festival has up for grabs. As always, all of the events take place right in Whistler Village making this an easy festival to simply travel up to by car or shuttle and walk around not needing transport. All of the theater venues and events are within minutes of each other, giving ample time for any film fan to make the most out of the festival experience. Once again the Whistler Conference Centre, with both its own ballroom venue and restored Rainbow Theatre are in quick walking distance to the Village 8 Cinemas, Millennium Place, Squamish Lil'Wat Culture Centre and many events right in the area.

On Wednesday night, the festival opens at 7:00pm with the Canadian premiere screening of Carol directed by Todd Haynes, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in a story of a romance between the two in 1950's New York City. It's based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, also known for writing The Talented Mr. Ripley which eventually turned itself into a film and quickly became one of my favorite movie. CAROL has had almost universal acclaim at the international festivals it has played at, so this seems to be a fitting choice to kick off the festivities.

On Sunday night the festival closes with the North American premiere of the BC shot Numb, featuring Aleks Paunovic, directed by Jason R. Goode and produced by Dylan Jekinson along with Vancouver's own Robyn Wiener, who has been at Whistler Film Festival as long as I have, if not longer. The movie is a survival piece, a treasure hunt and a big morality tale, and features some pretty jaw dropping cinematography to boot. A capsule review is below.

In-between these two major gala screenings are a lot of amazing premiere screenings, mountain culture events and even MUSIC added to the event this year. From many world premieres, Canadian firsts and as well as a terrific lineup of short films. Both festival director Shauna Hardy Mishaw and lead programmer Paul Gratton deserve a big credit for pulling together another incredible line up this year that really does cater to all types of film fans.

Those who are a fan of live scores should also not miss Saturday's screening of Ingrid Veninger's He Hated Pigeons, which is the rare type of film that will ONLY be presented with a live score. I'm serious; this film will not screen otherwise without a live music score in a theater. I couldn't review it ahead of time but as a result, but being a big fan of Ingrid Veninger's previous work (THE ANIMAL PROJECT, ONLY), this is sure to be one of the big tickets in the village that weekend.

If you are into short films, there are several opportunities to catch up with some of the year's best shorts, including the annual Shortwork Showcase event that takes place at Garfinkel's Pub, which is always a highlight of the festival. Programmer Kristyn Stilling has been working hard for months on this as well as the Shortwork and Student Shortwork showcases that take place daily at Millennium Place, so do keep them on your radar.

Instead of talking about the many films here, I will discuss them in detail below. If you find yourself up in the village without an idea of what to see, fear not as I took the liberty of screening a majority of the titles playing at Whistler Film Festival and am armed with recommendations. This was an incredible project to take on with a lot of discovery and surprises from all corners of the world. I thus present...

INSIDER'S GUIDE to Whistler Film Festival 2015

Al Purdy Was Here -- After watching this doc on full time poet and artist Al Purdy, I could not get the man's voice, which was referred to in the doc as a very "Foghorn Leghorn" type of sound, out of my head for days. Brian D. Johnson, known to many in this country as a film critic for Maclean's, has created a loving tribute to Mr. Purdy who worked in Canadian media for many years but was most known as one of the best poets of his era. Using a fine balance of vintage footage along with candid interviews and performances, it's a nice a respectful look into the truly unique persona in Canadian culture. The movie has an episodic feel to it that would make it work well in a small theatrical release along with a cable presentation. That and I would love to see him do a doc on Canadian film critics next. I am available for interviews.

Basic Human Needs (TOP PICK) -- The first of two Regina, Saskatchewan based movies (read below for my take on the equally great THE SABATTICAL) is about a young couple (Matthew Yim and Laura Abramsen) who have a pregnancy scare, vow to move to Toronto from Regina and get their friends involved in the way. But as the film progresses, they start to realize the reality of the situation and discover more about their relationship to each other. The level of neurosis and humour that comes from director Matthew Yip, both in his storytelling and lead performance will definitely put him on the map, but it's Laura Abramsen, who I am touting as the "It Girl" discovery of WFF 2015, brings so much charm and charisma, not to mention originality, as the worried girlfriend who has a lot on her plate. (Insider tip: double bill this with THE SABBATICAL, which is playing right after this screening on Thursday at the festival.)

The Birdwatcher (TOP PICK) -- A terrific family drama with a stellar lead performance by Camille Sullivan (who was here last year with the terrific ALLY WAS SCREAMING) plays a terminally ill woman who is looking to rekindle her relationship with not only her two kids (Jakob Davies and Matreya Fedor) but her biological mother, who turns out to be a writer/photographer doing a book on birdwatching and types of birds outside of Vancouver. While the idea doesn't sound original as I write this, it's the style and attention to character from Sibohan Devine that sets this movie apart. There are difficulties and challenges with each and every character in this movie, and I admired how the movie is sure-footed in reality by not offering an easy answer, but instead a chance for everyone to be the best version of themselves. The movie hits really realistic notes with its depiction of illness, and the entire cast along with Camille Sullivan and Gabrielle Rose are unforgettable; in particular young actors Matreya Fedor and Jakob Davies bring a refreshing take to not only sibling characters, but how they interact with their older counterparts. Bring tissues to this one.

Blood Cells -- A bleak and telling look at low wage culture in England, BLOOD CELLS is an intentionally loose, wandering narrative about a downtrodden man (Barry Ward) looking to rekindle his past and work on his future...but his lack of funds and addictions get the better of him. Having lost his family and farming business many years ago, he finds himself buying alcohol for teenagers, taking in odd jobs and reflecting on his existence. It is not an easy film to watch, but nevertheless BLOOD CELLS is a very strong debut from filmmakers Luke Seomore and Joseph Bull. I think many audiences may react with comparisons to Ken Loach in reviews of this, but for this viewer it was a tough but necessary viewing.

Chasing Banksy (TOP PICK) -- A movie about stealing Banksy art? I'm in. Three guys (led by a great performance by Anthony Sneed) notice that the artist Banksy has made his mark down in the American Southeast with public art paintings, and decide to do a road trip to locate the public works and take them to sell off themselves. Although it gets off to a slightly slow start involving the desire to get money to go on these hunting projects, the action picks up big time in the second half with a great sequence involving taking back a wall art that Banksy made, and the way they go about it is as tense and as exciting as any action film you will see this year. It helps that it is really funny throughout, too, and director Frank Henenlotter has a lot of fun with the docu-style presentation, and pokes light fun at art culture. This would make a great double bill with the hit documentary EXIT FROM THE GIFT SHOP, even though Banksy himself does not vouch for this particular movie. It's more fun this way.

The Colossal Failure of the Modern Relationship -- A very long-titled relationship drama...with older adults...who have real adult issues. Seems like this premise is very rare these days, so it was a pleasant surprise to see this Canadian production as part of the fest this year. Reminding me a bit of the fluxing characters in Alexander Payne's SIDEWAYS as they all sip wine and discuss life, we see a relationship on the rocks as we meet Cat (Krista Bridges) who is unhappy with her long term partner (Enrico Colantoni, from JUST SHOOT ME & GALAXY QUEST) and tries to hook up with his boss (David Cubitt). Then when all three of them wind up in Niagra wine country on a business trip, and of course wackiness ensues as a result. The identity of Toronto and Niagra as a character in the movie is really interesting, as is the interplay between all of the characters, as flawed as they are. It's a very entertaining and comedic romp, although I must make the friendly suggestion that the title needs to be shortened a little.

The Demons (TOP PICK) -- An eerily and unsettling youth drama that meets up with a supposed thriller in the second act, this 80s set, suburban Montreal story focuses on a ten year old (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier) who is curious about himself, his friends and his family around him. To make matters worse, he's worried about his parents splitting, and there are rumours circulating that there is a serial killer in their area. When the movie takes its turn to the second half, we wonder exactly who the older characters in the movie are and their intent, and things become very unsettling while still keeping from the perspective of the kids. Using long takes, classical music as score and some very wandering camerawork, director Philippe Lesage has created a terrific slow-burn that asks a lot of questions but unfortunately can't give many answers, and even when it leaves the finale on an open-end it is still a satisfying journey into a place and time.

Eclipse - A solid short feature documentary partially made from Mike Douglas who directed SNOWMAN (one of my favorites from the 2014 festival). Think you have found the perfect spot to view a solar eclipse? This crew of documentary filmmakers and photographers have you beat, as they embark on a mountain mission to find the perfect ski/photo spot and create a sublime image of a skier going down a hill at the precise moment when a solar eclipse is happening. The movie begins with the preparation and it is a great behind the scenes look at a group of very passionate people who love what they do. As a result, the journey is a stunning one, and even at its short length it is a memorable journey. (Note: this double bills with THE HOKKAIDO BACKCOUNTRY PROJECT, reviewed below.)

Florida -- The legendary Jean Rochefort, who has too many credits to name, stars in Philippe Le Guay's latest feature playing a retired businessman suffering from dementia at 81 years of age, and who wants to visit his working daughter in Florida (throughout the movie he mentions he has always wanted to visit the state, right down to drinking Florida orange juice throughout), all the while the family wanting to put him in an intensive care home. Shifting the time-frame quite a bit as we learn more about the man's history and background, the movie is a slight but entertaining look into how family deal with their aging parents, and also shows a nice chemistry between Rochfort and Sandrine Kiberlain, who plays his daughter. Both the France and Florida cinematography are also lucious, making this recommended for the big screen only.

The Forsaken - An Alberta-shot western that almost feels like it is from another generation of filmmaking, Jon Cassar's cast-heavy drama features Kiefer Sutherland in a strong performance as a son who returns to his father (Donald Sutherland) after the civil war. While wanting to leave his past behind him and not resort to violence, the town is under fire by a group of land-grabbers (led by Brian Cox in a terrific performance) who terrorize him to fight back. While there's a scene where Kiefer Sutherland's character gets attacked and the only thought going through my head was "Jack Bauer wouldn't take crap from these guys", boy does he fight back in a thrilling climatic action sequence that takes no prisoners. The gorgeous Alberta landscapes are fully on display here in this tight, effective western action film that is surprisingly slim at 88 minutes. Usually these types of movies run a lot longer, but FORSAKEN gets the job done quickly, and it's great to see both Sutherlands (Kiefer himself will be in attendance at the festival this year) act off of each other as well.

FSM (TOP PICK) -- A story about finding yourself and looking for love in the strange city of Vancouver, Melanie Jones' bright, optimistic and surprisingly powerful FSM is a blast from beginning to end. Samantha (Vanessa Crouch) is a young lady trying to make a name for herself in the city, and has trouble finding the right romantic connection. A few prospects come up, including a major crush she has on a guy that is not interested back, which leads to a personal journey for Samantha to operate on her own two shoulders even when work, money and love are limited. Vanessa Crouch gives a stellar performance as Samantha, a young girl unsure of her future and curious about her romantic troubles even when she is herself all the time and is a terrific screen presence. Jones' low-budget direction, with a gorgeous, digitally-shot style matched with a lively soundtrack makes for one of the best films you will see at Whistler this year. Don't miss it.

Her Composition -- A very indie, DIY film from New York City (reminding me a lot of Jeff Nesker's ELSEWHERE, NY from last year's festival), this is a very strange but engaging drama about a young college woman (Joslyn James) who is cash-strapped from her music studies and turns to prostitution. Meanwhile she's blocked on a composition and tries to expand her sexuality to gain inspiration. It is a strange idea for a movie and the proceedings get odder and odder as the movie goes along (including a finale I had to re-watch just to process), but it is nevertheless a fascinating watch and a telling sign on what people in a big city must do to survive. Joslyn James, a unique beauty, is both physically and emotionally nude on screen but it is overall a great performance. Very indie and rough around the edges, yes, but nevertheless a fascinating look into what it takes to make a living in New York City and finding yourself in a city of many millions.

The Hokkaido Backcountry Project -- A very interesting doc that shows the parallels between Japanese and North American cultures, Matthew Standal's short documentary features a few BC subjects with snowboarder Clayton Kernaghan as he and Makoto Koizumi build a DYI ski resort in the mountains of Hokkaido, Japan (If you are a fan of The Simpsons, there's a joke in there for you). Filmed over the course of five months, you really get to see the passion and drive it takes of these individuals to make something of this mountain, and you also really get to see both main subjects Clayton and Makoto butt heads a few times. It's also a visually strong documentary that will make a nice home on a big screen in Whistler. (Note: This double bills with Mike Douglas' doc ECLIPSE, reviewed above)

The Hotel Dieu -- One moment you are coming home from a party and in the next, you are struck by a truck and are rendered blind. For anyone, this is a horrifying thing to think about, and it happens to a teenager named Luke (Andrew Rotilio) after partying late one night. While his blindness may not be permanent, he is still depressed and looking for someone to confide in. It happens with a young girl named Jade (Jessica Siegner), who herself is suffering from an illness. What results is a fresh and unique love story that gets very unpredictable towards the end, and a lot of personal redemption for many characters. Andrew Rotilio gives a great performance as the troubled teen who may or may not get his sight back, and tries to become a better person, and director Adrian Thiessen, filming in St. Catherines, Ontario and utilizing a gorgeous array of cinematography, flashbacks and unpredictable moments, shows a loving care for the material, plays it for real and the result is an emotionally complex journey.

How To Plan an Orgy in a Small Town -- Jeremy Lalonde was no stranger to Whistler Film Festival in 2013 with a movie called SEX AFTER KIDS that was one of my top picks for the festival that year. His new movie is an enjoyable and funny romp about a struggling writer named Cassie (Jewel Staite) who makes her way back to her small town to attend a funeral and winds up meeting up with old friends again...leading to hosting a sex orgy for her neighbors for a book she is writing. The cast features a large amount of Canadian favorites from Lauren Lee Smith (part of Whistler Film Festival's Rising Stars program), Ennis Esmer (from YOUNG PEOPLE FUCKING), Katherine Isabelle (from AMERICAN MARY) Tommie Amber-Pirie (from last year's top pick PRETEND WE'RE KISSING) and Jonas Chernick (from the recent VIFF favorite BOREALIS) and all of them bring their own brand of unique comedy to the forefront, and Lalonde has a lot of fun with all of the different players. If I only had one suggestion to ORGY is that I wish it got a BIT more raunchy with its sex material; the constant cutting away and hidden angles gets a little redundant and obvious after a while. But that's a minor nitpick; the movie is still very funny and has a nice balance of comedic performances and some fun commentary on small town folk versus big city lifestyles.

I Smile Back (TOP PICK) -- In one of the best performances of 2015, Sarah Silverman (yes, the raunchy comedian and Ned's girlfriend in SCHOOL OF ROCK) gives an unforgettable performance as Laney, a bored wife who looks to cheating, drugs and alcohol to find her happiness in life. Her desire to cheat, abuse drugs and drink heavily behind everyone's back eventually reveales itself to her family, but Laney continues to dig a hole for herself, unable to get out. Silverman, who really impressed me with a small performance in Sarah Polley's TAKE THIS WALTZ a few years ago, is very commanding on screen with a strong and focused performance that is beyond fearless; her Laney is someone who knows the futility of what she is doing, yet goes for broke anyways. It's a heartbreaking feature from director Adam Salky (he directed a good movie called DARE a few years ago) and Silverman is already getting much deserved Oscar buzz for her work here.

Last Harvest -- The subject of Hui Wang's new documentary is rather strong, about an old Chinese couple who are forced, along with 800,000 others, to move from their farmland by the government due to a giant Water Diversion project that will drown their land when built. The filmmakers follow this couple very closely as they plan their uproot and eventual move to a new place that will change their lives forever. And at their age, it is very difficult to start fresh when they have been farming all of their lives, either. Hui's focus on their characters is strong, even if the documentary itself is a bit sluggish in parts. Still, I really admired this very human story and it is something many can relate to when their lives are changed by progress.

The Life & Death of an Unhappily Married Man (TOP PICK)-- A hit at several film festivals and no doubt will find an audience here, Josh Hope's very human comedy is about a 29 year old (Tommy Beardmore) who has lost his marriage AND his job and thus embarks on a road trip of personal discovery to make change before he hits that next decade in his life. What makes this film very unique is what the movie does and what it doesn't do; the characters that our hero meet across the way, even his understanding parents, are fully three-dimensional people with their own stories and quirks, and it's really funny to see how Tommy Beardmore, in a truly great lead performance, bounces off of all of these characters on his way to a new future. A lovely and charming feature film, this movie takes road trip and personal discovery to a whole new level. Funny, thought provoking with great performances and a look to match, this is one of those great film fest discoveries you wish more people would get a chance to see.

A Light Beneath Their Feet -- Valerie Weiss' engaging family drama focuses on a mother-daughter relationship between Gloria (Taryn Manning) and Beth (Madison Davenport) and their difficult, near impossible struggle to maintain each other. Gloria is bipolar and has incredible demands on Beth, who desires to move to California and attend UCLA as she is soon to graduate. Yet when Gloria takes a job at her school and starts to fall apart, it affects Beth big time as there is no one else to take care of her mom. Who is parenting who? Weiss' handle on this material is very powerful and respectful to the issues and illness, including a telling scene between Gloria and Beth, where Beth admits that one day she may have the same issues as her mom that left me riveted. Both leads are incredible, with Taryn Manning giving a performance I haven't seen from her before, and a terrific turn by Madison Davenport who has the world on her shoulders. This is a very difficult film to watch but it is also very rewarding for those so brave to see it.

Love -- Gaspar Noe's much talked about new feature, which includes explicit sex scenes and nudity throughout, is a flawed but nevertheless fascinating peek into the magic of 3D. Yes, 3D. Karl Glusman is the lead, Murphy, who has a girlfriend who also wants to bring another person into their sex life. The movie plays with time throughout, moving around to focus on a scene for too long, and the movie features many long takes with slight flashes of black to signal an edit to another shot. Noe, who has wowed me with the likes of IRREVERSIBLE and ENTER THE VOID, falls really flat here at times with stiff performances and a wandering narrative, and even some of the hardcore sex in the movie gets redundant after a while. Still, for curious fans of sex in cinema, you're going to want to see this anyway and arrive at your own climax. Yes, that's a terrible joke, I apologize. (Disclaimer: I watched this in 2D, but I could also see where some of the 3D came, I meant, played a role in the storytelling).

Love In The Sixth -- An indie feature out of Toronto that is totally rough around the edges, but with its go-for-broke personality that is eager to please throughout, I liked it regardless. There's an undeniable charm to this quasi-musical about Dani (Jude Klassen, who is also the film's director and creator) who is living in a small Toronto pad with her daughter Kat (Mika Kay, who is Klassen's daughter), and how many people come in and out of their lives as she tries to salvage her job and her boyfriend. I did have some issues with some of the unprofessional actors mumbling their way through dialogue, but it is made up for with an eagerness to charm with its story, a really good mother-daughter duo, stunning black and white cinematography capturing the tone well, along with the riveting musical numbers (which are in color). There is also a song in this movie at about the halfway point (the name of which I don't want to spoil) that makes me want to re-watch the film at the festival just to jam along to it, and I fully intend to slip into the screening at the festival to see how people react. It's pretty awesome to see. Now where is that soundtrack?

The Mirage - An incredibly popular movie in Quebec earlier in the year, this is a resonating drama about a man in his early 30s (played by Louis Morissettte) who is losing his sports store, questioning his relationship with his wife and starting to realize that all of the luxuries they are enjoying are simply costing them too much. Director Ricardo Trogi uses a mixture of fantasy elements, dark comedy along with some infidelity thrown in for good measure to show how our lead characters are FAR from good people but at least looking to do better despite money issues getting the best of them. And I admired how the film doesn't take an easy way out for its leads, as there is a lot of work to do down the road. And at least they're trying. This was the highest grossing movie in Quebec this year, and it will no doubt be a success in the rest of Canada soon.

My American Cousin -- Presented here at the festival is a digital restoration of the 1985 Canadian film from director Sandy Wilson which I remember seeing years ago in school on an even THEN worn VHS copy. Taking a look at it again recently, it's an interesting look into our filmmaking past and ideals. The tale features Sandy (Margaret Langrick), a twelve year old girl on the cusp of being a teenager, and how her life changes when her cousin Buck (John Wildman) arrives in his red Cadillac to visit. She takes a liking to him immediately and wants to be around him more. To modern viewers, this subject appears to be very trite and dated; its look back to the late 1950s is very simple and the performances and staging of scenes has a very slow pace to it all. And yet the movie has real commentary on North vs. South ideals, including a funny scene when Buck's parents visit Canada and the first thing they suggest to them is to develop the land. I am really not sure if the movie will hold up with audiences today, but if you are into Canadian films from our past this mutli-Genie award winner is absolutely worth a look, back on the big screen.

Natasha -- Here is a pretty ballsy movie featuring Russian families in Toronto; lead Mark (Alex Ozerov) gets more than he bargains for when he starts up a relationship with a younger Russian girl named Bella (Deanna Dezmari) loosely connected to his family. He's 16 and she's only 14, and the latter of which comes from a very sexual background back home. The two keep their relationship under the radar of their family, but how much longer can it last? David Bezmogis, the director, tries to handle the material very carefully as this is very touchy subject material, but the relationship between Mark and Bella (who looks like a very young Mira Sorvino) is very unique and keeps your attention. It also has a nice take on Toronto including a gorgeous look at both its city and suburbs, including a wonderful montage where they hit the city and ride the subway. Definitely an eye-opener of a movie that is really worth checking out.

Nestor -- Daniel Robinson's stunning film, if short, is something of a revelation; it's a movie made and edited by entirely ONE person about a man (Robinson himself) who wakes up somewhere in the woods with no recollection of who he is. As he enters a house and puts himself together, he starts to remember his past. Mostly a silent film at first, the film picks up momentum as we see the man eventually learn about himself and what he was doing before. What looks like a film shot with consumer grade cameras (but don't get me wrong, the images are stunning) and clearly a DIY approach, this is unlike anything I have seen in a movie before, and I applaud Robinson for this very unique idea. If I had any issue with this movie, is that it's too SHORT; at a mere 62 minutes it will have difficulty playing more theaters. Get this thing up to 80-ish minutes and we will really have something here.

Numb (TOP PICK) -- The closing night film of Whistler this year is also the coldest movie with the most harsh conditions, and is the best action thriller of the entire festival. Set in Northern BC, the story follows a job-seeking couple who are searching for work up North with a new company, but as it turns out there is no job. Upon their return to Vancouver, they pick up two hitchhikers then nearly have a collision with an older man who has a treasure map. Somewhere in the mountains there is a nearby treasure full of gold coins and the four, all down on their luck financially, attempt to retrieve it. But keep in mind that this is also the freezing cold BC mountain area, so the challenge is a bit difficult. Atmospheric throughout with great direction and performances (especially great is Aleks Paunovic who plays one of the hitchhikers), NUMB is very much a "What would YOU do?" scenario if you knew if you could be suddenly rich. While the third act takes a BIT of suspension of disbelief as it turns into a slight nod to Renny Harlin's CLIFFHANGER, I'm okay with that on thriller/action films, and the style and atmosphere more than make up for it.

Patterson's Wager (TOP PICK) -- This is a movie to celebrate. Over the past year or so I have been seeing a great surge in solid movies filmed in British Columbia, and O. Corbin Saleken's debut feature is one of the most original, thought-provoking and funny features to come out of this province in years. The premise in the program simply explains a man (Fred Ewanuick from CORNER GAS) who has the ability to see about two minutes into the future and the effect it has on his girlfriend and their relationship. That alone is worth a look, but then the movie takes an audacious turn about matching that with a story about a small group of people who keep a popular urban legend alive. The movie features dialogue as smart as a Coen Brothers as it questions identity, circumstance about its characters, and matches it with a lovely and simple visual design and makes it all its own. Fred Ewaniuck as the lead gives a tremendous performance, and he is surrounded by a great cast that is adapt to the material. Not only is this one of the best films you will see at Whistler Film Festival, it will also make you fall in love with Canadian cinema all over again. Wonderful!

Rehearsal (TOP PICK) -- Over the years I have seen many films from BC native Carl Bessai, and I have seen his turn from creating tiny, memorable Vancouver indie features to flat out studio films (he was here at the festival last year with the flawed but entertaining BAD CITY and the previous year with the hilarious Brett Butt-starring NO CLUE). REHEARSAL is a big departure for him as he now takes on the London theater circuit and a fish out of water story about a famous Hollywood actor (Dean Geyer, who seems to riff a bit on Taylor Kitsch's famous persona) who gets involved in a Chekov stage play, much to the chagrin of its theater producer, played to the nth degree by the legendary Bruce Greenwood. Many great characters surround these two, including a lovely performance by Rhian Rees who plays a surprised "discovery" from Sumas, Washington who falls into the proceedings. With surprise echoes of Richard Linklater's ME & ORSON WELLES in how theater can be captured on film, the movie is more bold and lovely than I was expecting and I wish for major success down the road.

River -- An intense thriller starring Rossif Sutherland (who wowed me with a great performance in Paul Gross' recent HYENA ROAD), this very scary premise features Sutherland as a volunteer doctor who is wrongly accused for the killing of the son of an Australian Senator while on vacation in Laos. The level of intensity in this film is palpable; RIVER is a 85 minute action scene, never letting up as we see Sutherland (himself commanding the screen in a leading-man performance), out-gunning capture in every shot as he simply can't be taken under arrest in this country as he will never get out. Although this intensity takes a tiny bit of toll on his character (his character is slightly underdeveloped as a result), the powerful social commentary on display here and the action more than makes up for it. Director Jamie Dagg, in his first feature no less, has a great visual design that puts you right in the action.

The Sabbatical (TOP PICK) -- The funniest comedy you will see at Whistler Film Fest this year that is fresh out of the booming movie town of Regina, Saskatchewan, James Wittingham is terrific as James Pittman, a university professor who takes a year-long sabbatical to produce a photography book (one of the funniest scenes is when one of his higher-ups demand the book be THICKER in size than his last one) and instead uses it to survive his mid-life crisis. Down on his luck, he hires Lucy (Laura Abramsen) to help drive him around to do errands, and the two develop a very funny friendship that had me smiling throughout. Wittingham, again, is a joy to watch on screen; so funny with his deadpan commentary on the world around him, and adding to the wonder is Laura Abramsen (who I called Whistler 2015's "It Girl" in my look at BASIC HUMAN NEEDS and I stand by it) as Lucy the free spirit who forms an unlikely friendship with James. Light, fun and breezy in its short running time but also with a strong message behind it, THE SABBATICAL is a lot of fun to watch and I hope it is a success down the road.

The Steps -- Andrew Currie, who is no stranger to film festival and movie buffs with his Canadian zombie hit FIDO, has now made a dramedy that works on many levels with a huge ensemble cast. The movie primarily takes place in the family homes with a bunch of step-siblings all coming back together to provide character references for their parents, who wish to adopt a new child into their already expanded family. There is some strong humour here (in particular I really liked Benjamin Arthur as a self-proclaimed "Paintball Expert"; I know guys in my home town of Victoria who are EXACTLY like this) but also deep notes of drama, commentary on blended families and overall dysfunction, and while it's a pretty tricky balance to pull off, Currie and his team succeeds with a strong ensemble cast including Jason Ritter, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Christine Lahti, James Brolin, Ben Arthur, Steven McCarthy and Vinay Virmani all acting off of each other very well.

The Sublet -- By far the creepiest movie of the festival, this little gem of an indie-horror flick from Toronto has many twists, surprises and especially GORE, all within one claustrophobic setting. Joanna (Tianna Nori, who really impressed me with her work in Gabriel Carrer's recent THE DEMOLISHER from VIFF) and her husband move into a bizarre looking apartment they are subletting, and as the film progresses with strange premonitions and even stranger characters coming to visit, we wonder if it is Joanna or the apartment itself that is creating the terrors. Director John Ainslie (who wrote JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER) has a terrific sense of atmosphere and character, has no problem with a little bit of intense bloodletting, and I especially loved the limited setting keeping things rather tight and focused throughout. See this with a friend, but don't forget to give your friend's bruised arm back afterwards.

Sunset Song (TOP PICK) -- A new movie from Terence Davies is always a gift, and Whistler was very smart to bring one of the year's very best films to the festival; a telling and unforgettable adaptation of the classic novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and helped wonderfully with Davies' unique storytelling style and visual approach. The story follows the beautiful Chris (newcomer Agyness Deyn, who is also a model and musician) and her farming family growing up in the early twentieth century. The family is falling on hard times and struggling, and after her father (Peter Mullan) dies, she takes over the farm and falls in love with a young man and marries. But WWI is around the corner and it takes a toll on her life and happiness with the land she lives on. Utilizing part 65mm film photography (all of the exteriors are shot in the epic format with a very high-end Alexa digital camera for interiors), this is by far the most beautiful film you will see all year, and its visual design all serves a purpose; this is an unforgettable story about survival and happiness in a different time and place in the world. It is very character driven and intimate, while at the same time showing the visual splendour around them. As well, Agyness Deyn gives one of the best performances of the year as a woman with the world on her entire shoulders. She's such a stunning presence in one of Davies' best films to date.

Suspension -- Along with THE SUBLET, SUSPENSION is a total creeper of a movie from BC's own Jeffery Lando. Emily (Ellen MacNevin) is a girl suffering through bullying and torment in her high school, and has a troubled home life. Escaping her life by drawing comic book panels (which itself are superimposed on screen resulting in a nice visual trick), she attracts attention from unlikely people and the resulting horror that occurs has lots of twists throughout. Gore fans will be more than happy with the level of material in this one too. SUSPENSION is pretty freaky throughout, and it also benefits from a solid lead performance by Ellen MacNevin who brings a lot of emotional weight to the material.

Trumbo (TOP PICK) -- A love letter to post-war and the early widescreen cinema, TRUMBO is an absolute joy to watch as we follow famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) who became blacklisted by Hollywood for allegedly being a member of the communist party, and then rises back up as an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker under a pseudonym. The many joys of this movie is seeing the era come all alive again, from stellar performances including (but not limited to) Michael Stubarg giving a dead-on performance as Edward G. Robinson, Louis CK as friend Arlen Hird, John Goodman as a feisty schlock producer, a fun turn from Dean O'Gorman as Kirk Douglas who brings Trumbo in to play SPARTACUS, and even Helen Mirren has a memorable small role as Hedda Hopper, the famous gossip columnist. Director Jay Roach (yes, the director of AUSTIN POWERS and MEET THE PARENTS) is in full control here with a total love for the era and a great eye for detail. Equal parts funny and dramatic, it all centers around Bryan Cranston who I think WILL get some Oscar attention early next year.

When Elephants Were Young - Sure to be a popular movie with families with its rich, optimistic look at the world, Patricia Sims' documentary features the endangered elephant population through the eyes of a small Thai family who owns an elephant for profit, surrounded by an industry that uses them as ways to help farm as well make money in many ways including entertainment and begging off the street. Leading the way of the documentary is a narration by William Shatner. Yes, Captain Kirk narrating a doc about elephants. Yes, I had to get that out of the way. Sims' direction along with Shatner's narration makes for a beautiful, inspiring documentary that DOES show the down side and the bad circumstances of this land, but also offers a positive message towards the end. And this is also a gorgeous looking doc to boot, with its great use of HD cinematography to capture the country.

This is a VERY large sample of the films playing at #wff15. For information on ALL of the films playing at the 2015 Whistler Film Festival with showtimes and ticketing information, check out which has a downloadable PDF of the schedule.

Be sure to follow instant happenings of Whistler Film Festival on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a photo or two. I will also be hosting a "@jasonwhyte Twitter Takeover" on Thursday, December 3rd on the official @whisfilmfest Twitter account! You can also follow the festival on my Instagram at jason.whyte and friend me at my Facebook page. ENJOY #WFF15!

A huge thanks to Courtney Napper and Jenna Gaille at Jive PR as well as the fine publicists from Virginia Kelly & Associates, Elevation Pictures, Entertainment One, Video Servies Corp and Mongrel Media for assistance with this article. If you made it this far, please email me and I will send you a cookie.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 12/02/15 02:58:26
last updated: 12/02/15 13:36:09
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