Basically, the last of the good. Click on the film’s title to jump directly to the review.
The list of “must sees” at this year’s VIFF was slightly longer than last year’s. As I discover more festivals and track more films, the list of those to keep on the to see pile seems to get longer and Steve McQueen’s Hunger had been on my list for a few months. A trailer which surfaced in May suggested that this was going to be spectacular and I’m thankful to report, the film does not disappoint but not in the way I originally anticipated.
Focusing specifically on Irish Republican Army volunteer Bobby Sands, the film retells the events of the 1981 hunger strike at HM Prison Maze in which Irish Republican prisoners sought to regain Special Category Status. From the opening credits, it’s clear that McQueen isn’t interested in holding back and we’re immediately painted a picture of the flyblown conditions. In the opening few minutes we see a very thin man cowering in a corner of a room with a small window; the walls covered in brown muck, garbage in the corner. A short time later it becomes clear that the brown muck on the walls is feces and that these men have put it there on purpose – their method of strike. It’s evident that this isn’t going to be an easy watch and with every passing minute it’s clear that this isn’t going to end well, something which may not come as a surprise for those familiar with the strike but something which I wasn’t prepared for.
McQueen moves the story along at an intense pace and with every new scene we see more degradation. The conditions are unsanitary, the prisoners badly cared for and among all of this, we meet and see Sands in action. Regardless of political beliefs and affiliations, it’s clear to see why Sands garnered so much support among his brethren. In a brilliant 20 minute, single take conversation with Father Moran, we see the intensity of Sands’ belief and his dedication to “the cause”. Even those unfamiliar with the history and events that led to the hunger strike will quickly come to understand, however vaguely, the constant battle between the IRA and those who didn’t support the cause. Though McQueen gives us this great scene, the other 60 minutes of the film are an exercise in strength of stomach as the audience is subjected to scene after scene of physical abuse and squalor.
Although a harrowing to watch, there is much grace and power in McQueen’s film which interlaces moments of serenity and violence with ease, never letting go the audience’s attention. The intensity of the film is heightened by Michael Fassbender’s performance as Bobby Sands and though Fassbender plays Sands with seriousness and lucidity, I felt a sense of madness just beyond the surface and walking away, I was reminded of Michael Shannon’s brilliant performance in Bug.
Not an easy watch, one distraught woman attempted to leave the theatre 60 minutes in and didn’t quite make it (which added an additional layer to the already disturbing film), Hunger is none the less a film that deserves the big screen treatment for its gorgeously disturbing images and although it’s not recommended for those with weak stomachs, it’s a stunning first feature. McQueen is a director to watch.
Click on the film’s title to jump directly to the review.
Let the Right One In
I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on vampire films, there are a whole lot of films before the 1980’s which feature vampires that I’ve yet to, and will likely never, see, but I have the back catalogue filled in nicely. From Nosferatu to Bella Lugosi and the modern classics of Interview With a Vampire, Shadow of the Vampire and even Coppola’s Dracula. Add in the action vamps like Blade and Selene and it’s pretty safe to say that if a vampire is involved, I’ll be watching it; even if it isn’t very good.
One of the film’s I was most looking forward to this year (we’ll leave Twilight out of the equation – for today) was the Norwegian tween vampire romance Let the Right One In. Kurt had said good things and he wasn’t kidding. I’m not sure he used the words but I will: brilliant.
In a day where loud, violent and bloody is the key to vampire movies, Tomas Alfredson’s film, adapted from the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Quiet, deliberately paced and demure, this is a film that revels in mood. But don’t let that turn you away: the film is just as bloody and gruesome as we expect from a tale about a creature that feeds on human blood to survive, it simply manages to use the violence much more effectively than most. Against the beauty and serenity of winter, the blood that flows seems that much more effective in its creep factor.
Sometimes, adding a vampire to the mix simply makes a film sexier but in some other cases, it adds an entire new layer of meaning, as is the case here. Not only do you have an individual who can live forever, the creature happens to be a little girl named Eli. A child who is dependent on killing to survive yet, she manages to keep herself in check around her new friend, Oskar. Then there’s the relationship between the two children which is as pure and innocent as one would expect from 12 year olds yet it’s tinged with something else, a mothering instinct brought in by Eli who suddenly becomes protector as well as friend.
I expected good things from Let the Right One In and from the moment, I walked away, I was not disappointed but over the past few days, I’ve returned to the film with a new thought, gathering some new meaning from some small action. Though on the surface this is pure, gleefully gorgeous genre filmmaking, there’s a whole lot more at play. I’m eagerly awaiting the opportunity to see it again: sooner rather than later.
In a somewhat sad attempt to get caught up on my VIFF reviews (please forgive me, it was crazy during the festival and I was very, very ill over the long weekend), many of which are still outstanding, I’ll be shortening the majority of them into capsule reviews and expanding on a few others for which I have a lot more to say. So, here we go into round one. Click on the movie title below to skip directly to a particular film.
Earlier this year I caught up with Kari Skogland’s film The Stone Angel (our review), one I thought showed great potential for the up-and-coming director. Skogland’s follow up couldn’t be more different. Based on a novel and the real life of Martin McGartland, a young man recruited by the British Police to spy on the IRA, Fifty Dead Men Walking has all the trappings of a great film, except it isn’t.
The film features some excellent performances from up and comers Jim Sturgess in the lead role of McGartland and Kevin Zegers is excellent as his best friend Sean. It’s the supporting performances that lack a fair bit. Ben Kingsley is mediocre at best as McGartland’s police contact Fergus (his hair was hot topic of conversation after the screening) and Rose McGowan is laughably bad in her Irish accent. But even with the mixed performances, the real problem with the film is that it goes no where mind you, it does so stylishly.
Skogland’s film is pretty to look at, great cinematography from Jonathan Freeman and excellent production design, but it lacks any heart. The story forges ahead yet there’s never a feeling of angst, fear or excitement; something which is particularly hard to swallow when one considers how fantastically dramatic McGartland’s story is. The problem is partly due to the direction but also the editing which badly breaks up the film’s pacing. Compensating for the lack of emotional connection with music doesn’t do the film any favours either and by the time the credits rolled, I was relieved: I’d had enough of the music which drown out nearly every scene.
Fifty Dead Men Walking was the festival’s biggest disappointment for me. Though the film looked great and I had big expectations from Skogland, I was thoroughly disappointed. I may have been on my own: the film took home the Citytv Western Canada Feature Film Award.
It’s been a great year for Canadian film but it’s been particularly joyous for local filmmaker Carl Bessai. Earlier this year, Normal (our review) presented what appeared to be a leap forward for Bessai, a director whose work has always been interesting but whose scripts always seemed to be missing a little something. The script and story for Normal seemed more polished and it showed in the pacing of the film. But rather than years, it has taken Bessai mere months to return with his best film to date.
Mothers & Daughters is a comedic drama about three women and their very different relationships with their daughters. Celine is still grieving giving up her daughter for adoption when she meets Cynthia, a young, single, adopted woman who happens to be unexpectedly pregnant. Brenda is in her 50’s and her husband has left her for a younger woman but her daughter Kate steps up to support her. Micki is a writer whose turbulent relationship with her daughter Rebecca is one of love/hate. These three stories are tied together under the pretence of a documentary film maker, Bessai, making a film about women and their relationships with their daughters.
The film is a mix of behind the scenes documentary footage and the women in the their daily lives, interacting with their daughters and dealing with life altering events. When Celine, a painter, meets Cynthia, a woman who wants her living room painted a shade of yellow that looks remarkably like the colour already on the wall, thoughts of her daughter start to surface and when Cynthia discovers she’s pregnant and confides that she can’t tell her parents, Celine is there to provide support. It’s clear form the interaction between the two women that they’re meant to be together and when Celine arrives a few weeks later with a gift for the mother to be, one can’t help but smile at how seemingly natural their relationship is.
Francisco Franco’s feature film debut Burn the Bridges reads like a cliché buffet: incest, homoeroticism, broken family, death and abuse. How many other social problems can really be crammed into a film? Though reading the description is likely to make the seasoned viewer turn a cheek but there was something about the trailer that suggested more than just cliché’s and thankfully, I was listening to my inner voice that day.
Franco’s story unfolds with Sebastián and Helena, a brother and sister, looking after their dying mother, a former pop singer. When we join the duo, it’s clear that mom has been sick for some time and the two, though mostly Helena, have been caring for the woman who is slowly wasting away for some time. They live in a sprawling mansion which is slowly falling apart but even after their mother’s eventual death, the two find it difficult to move away.
Helena is the leader. She makes every effort to look out for her brother and dreams of traveling with Sebastián to far off places like Montreal. Sebastián is more of a free spirit. An artist, his relationship with Helena begins to splinter when he falls for the new boy in town and the resulting relationship threatens to pull him away from Helena. The drama that ensues when Helena realizes that her brother is attracted to men, turns physical and nearly means the end of their relationship but in the end, blood is thicker than anything and the two do manage to find a sort of understanding.
Canadian director Deepa Mehta is quite the talent. People either know her for her lighthearted comedic approaches to marriage, family, relationships and love like Bollywood/Hollywood and The Republic of Love while others will be more familiar with her Elements Trilogy of which Water is head and shoulders above the rest.
Going into Mehta’s new film Heaven and Earth, which premiered at TIFF earlier this year, I wasn’t sure what to expect: dramatic or comedic? As it begins, there’s a sense that this is going to be a dramatic tale of true love. It starts in India with a wedding celebration. Chand is a beautiful young woman who has been married off to a man living in Canada. A short time later, we see Chand arriving at the airport, meeting her husband Rocky for the first time and all seems to be going well (he’s “shy as a mouse”). Could it be that we’re going to see a tale of true love unfolding? Unfortunately, that is not the case and almost immediately it’s clear that Rocky is not as soft hearted and kind as he appears and the events that unfold are anything but heaven on earth.
Though some of Mehta’s other films have involved a light touch of fantasy, Heaven and Earth goes further into that dreamworld than any of Mehta’s other films. Still present are the themes we’ve come to expect from the writer/director but mixed in among them is a survival mechanism unlike any I’ve seen before in her films. To escape her brutal reality, Chand retreats into the stories of her childhood and from one of those stories comes a new “reality” that helps her cope and, eventually, escape.
Soon after its UK release, there was talk that Mike Leigh’s new film was unlike anything the director had worked on in the past. Considering that I’ve only seen Leigh’s Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake, watching the trailer for Happy-Go-Lucky suggested that the assumption was correct but having seen Leigh’s newest offering, I’m not so sure the sentiment applies.
On the surface Happy-Go-Lucky is a slice-of-life look at Poppy, a 30 something North London schoolteacher who is, as the title suggests, happy-go-lucky. She’s a free bird, an optimistic woman who rolls with the punches and whose good cheer seems to suck the energy out of the room. We follow her over a period of a few weeks, seeing some of the day-to-day events of her life: learning to drive, going the extra mile for one of her students, losing her bicycle, finding a beau. To some, Poppy may seem a bit off the handle but others will, as I did, appreciate the over exuberant energy of a character who is grounded in reality but feels like someone out of this world.
Underneath the smiles, cutting remarks from outsiders and Poppy’s continued push to stay positive, Leigh manages to interject some of the social issues his films previous films have carried so heavily. We see Poppy dealing with a racist driving instructor, the pressures of society to marry and settle down but beyond that, there’s also the sense that this is one woman against the world and frankly, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a woman being happy and sure of herself and facing the hardships life throws at her, one smile at a time.
Family get togethers are always tricky. Even in the best of situations they mean seeing and interacting with family that one tries to avoid for the other 364 days of the year. For the most part, they’re rather uneventful events but in the movies, it’s always about the drama. Such is the case with Arnaud Desplechin’s painfully long, over dramatic A Christmas Tale.
The film opens beautifully with a telling of the family history in shadow-puppet but it’s at this point that the film stops being interesting. Almost immediately we are introduced to the players: Junon, the matriarch of the clan who was recently diagnosed with a debilitating illness (one which appears similar to what killed her young son), Elizabeth, the eldest daughter dealing with depression and the possibility that her son is schizophrenic, Ivan, the youngest son who seems to be sleepwalking through the story and then there’s Henri, the middle son who has been banished from the family by his elder sister. The reason for the banishment is played out early on in the film and outside of the shadow-puppets, it’s the most interesting few minutes of film because from then on, this plays out like a never ending string of tragic events. In most instances, that would likely be entertaining but there’s no emotional attachment to the characters which made sitting through the predicaments painful.
Sought after by explorers for centuries as a possible trade route, the Northwest Passage was a mysterious beast. A sea route through the Arctic Ocean, one would think that the various expeditions that set out in search for it, many returning battered if at all, would discourage the continued search but blame it on humanity’s fascination with the unattainable or our unwillingness to give into nature, the passage was, eventually, navigated. But John Walker’s documentary isn’t interested in the long history of the search for the passage. Instead Passage focuses on one of the most colourful of the “lost” expeditions the Franklin Expedition and John Rae, the explorer who eventually discovered what had happed to the lost Franklin group.
Canadian history buffs are likely to be familiar with the stories while the rest of us will recall bits and pieces from our Canadian history classes but I can assure you that if the text books I was forced to read had brought up the possibility of cannibalism, I would have paid much closer attention. It’s not just a simple story of men getting lost at sea; it’s a combination of that, mixed in with one woman’s quest to find out what happened to her husband as well as a country’s fight to overcome (or overlook) the grizzly outcome of the expedition.
Walker’s film is actually a documentary of the making of a film (apparently a TV movie), and as such, uses some fairly unconventional methods. Rather than employ talking heads of historians and voice-overs of people reading diary entries, Walker combines these traditional techniques, turns them slightly and mixes them with a few less conventional ones. Re-enactments (which, in places, are blended beautifully into modern times), voice-overs (mostly from actor Rick Roberts who has been cast in the role of John Rae) and the historians (who are anything but dry) come together to prepare for shooting. Large parts of the film take place during script readings and actor/specialist meetings in preparation for the roles and it’s though this behind the scenes approach of listening to historians and experts share knowledge that we come to learn the details of the expedition, the resulting scandal which shook Britain and even some insight into what could have been going through the minds of the people involved.
The story is simple enough: man robs train inadvertently stealing a map to hidden treasure. Said map is being hunted by a group of bad ass bandits while the thief is being tracked by a bounty hunter. The result is a comedy of errors where everyone is tracking the same guy for different reasons. It sound convoluted but Ji-woon Kim and Min-suk Kim’s script is anything but, making excellent use of the pre-conceived expectations that audiences have going in and using them to their full advantage. You already know the plot, it’s how it unfolds that matters. The resulting film is a wild ride of genre mixing which goes well beyond Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. Mind you, while Miike’s film has bits of comedy interspersed, it’s a somewhat serious film while Kim’s western bender is a full out comedy. And what a comedy it is.
Throughout the film, Kim pays homage to the classic western so much so that even I, a self-proclaimed blind woman when it comes to westerns, managed to pick-up some of the hat tips. From the opening scene which plays out like Leone’s Duck, You Sucker through to the closing which seems like something out of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, this is a smörgåsbord of western goodness for connoisseurs of the genre while the rest of us will happily sit back and enjoy the unfolding wackiness which is made all that more fun by Kang-ho Song who wonderfully portrays The Weird. That’s not to say that the other guys, Woo-sung Jung as The Good and Byung-hun Lee as The Bad, aren’t good but they’re overshadowed by Song’s stellar performance.
Whereas American cinema is in the habit of looking East to Asia (and a lesser extent Europe) for inspiration for its horror films, Phil-Sung Yim’s film takes some of its inspiration from classic European fairy tales. But Hansel and Gretel isn’t a modern take on the Brother’s Grimm tale instead, it uses the basics of the story (children in the forest), turns it slightly on it’s ear and produces a dark fantasy that is more nightmare than fairy tale.
Eun-Soo is driving along chatting on his cellphone, having a rather uncomfortable conversation with his pregnant girlfriend, when he veers off the road to avoid an animal. He wakes up a short time later disoriented and lost. Wandering around the dense forest in search for the road, he comes across a little girl who seems more of a dream than reality. She takes him home to spend the night only once there, it’s immediately apparent that things are not as perfect as they appear to be and Eun-Soo spends the next six days trying to escape the forest and “House of Happy Children” which seems to have drawn him out of reality.
Though it features a few legitimately frightening jumps, Yim’s film is more of a thriller than a horror film. It features very little blood, brutality or physical violence though the mental exercises it puts the viewer through are enough to keep you on your toes. One of the film’s greatest assets is its production design. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in this film was left to chance. From the moment Eun-Soon lays eyes on the so-called House of Happy Children, it’s as though one is transported into some strange daydream. Inside, it’s a marvel for the eyes with candy coloured walls, intricate carpets and wallpaper, trinkets, toys and shinny objects at every turn. You could see this film a hundred times over and not pick-up all of the minute details which were so meticulously planned. The result is a dream scape too perfect to be wholly good and Yim takes full advantage of the perfection, using it to build the film’s creep factor.