VIFF 2014 Review: Welcome to Me

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It doesn’t happen often but once in a while, I come across a movie that makes me uncomfortable to watch. Usually they’re horror movies about people physically falling apart (I have an issue with decomposing bodies) but rarely does that feeling of discomfort weed its way into dramas and never mind comedies, but in the case of Welcome to Me, that’s exactly what happened and I loved every single uncomfortable second of it.

Directed by Shira Piven from a script from first time feature film writer Eliot Laurence, Welcome to Me stars Kristen Wiig as Alice Klieg, a borderline personality disorder suffering woman who spends all of her time at home accompanied by the droning sound of her television and endless VHS recordings of Oprah. Alice loves Oprah and when she wins $87 million dollars in the state lottery, she convinces herself that the thing to do is to buy herself a TV show aptly titled “Welcome to Me.” What’s it about? Well, it’s about Alice and all the people she hates and the things that make her tick which turn out to be a wide ranging and often wildly inappropriate. She hires women to play herself in skits from her youth, she records and airs session with her shrink and perhaps most stomach turning, she neuters dogs on television. Yeah, she’s crazy and the network owners who put her on the air only care about the fact that they’re getting paid. A lot.

Welcome to Me is really funny but it’s feel bad funny. Alice is a sad individual and I felt kind of creepy laughing at her antics but they’re just so ridiculous the laughter escapes. More often than not its nervous laughter – how else does one respond to watching a woman with little training perform surgery on her pet on national TV? – but it’s laughter none the less and truth is that Wiig earns that laughter. She’s been working in the fringes of dark comedy for some time but none of her roles have come close to her performance here which is nothing short of spectacular.

Welcome to Me is really funny but don’t be fooled because it also goes to some very, very dark places and provides a fascinating insight into a woman suffering from mental illness and how that affects the people around her.

Yes, it is an occasionally uncomfortable watch and I felt a little dirty laughing at some of Alice’s antics but truth is that I left Welcome to Me with a new appreciation of mental illness and that right there is as good enough a reason to see the movie as any. Lucky for you it’s also super entertaining.

VIFF 2014 Review: Highway

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I’ve always been one to enjoy a good dose of Bollywood fare but it’s been some time, read years, since I’ve liked a Bollywood movie quite as much as I love Highway.

It could be that Imtiaz Ali’s new movie feels like a hybrid of typical Bollywood fare and a more western approach to filmmaking, largely leaving behind musical dance numbers and replacing them with long winded musical montages which work just as well if not better, or it could just be that this is great fun (it’s a bit of both).

Up and comer Alia Bhatt stars as Veera, a soon to be married young woman from a well to do family who is inadvertently kidnapped for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. At first she does everything she can to escape but after a particularly bad attempt, she gives into the fact that she’s been taken and that her captors will let her go when they’re ready and so she befriends them: Mahabir (Randeep Hooda), the handsome leader who takes time to warm up to the young woman, and Aadoo (Durgesh Kumar) the sidekick who is easily befriends Veera.

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VIFF 2014 Review: Queen and Country

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Two things that don’t always go together are war and comedy but leave it to writer/director John Boorman to bring the two together in a package that even I, someone who has peculiar comedic tastes and generally doesn’t care for war movies, enjoyed.

Queen and Country stars Callum Turner and Caleb Landry Jones as Bill and Percy respectively, army conscripts who have completed basic training and spend their days toiling under the watchful eye of Bradley (David Thewlis in a wonderfully comedic turn) teaching new recruits how to type. They don’t take their work or the military particularly seriously so when the opportunity arises to cause some trouble, Percy does just that by stealing a much beloved clock from the mess hall. That simple action sets into motion a series of events that allow Boorman to deal with some difficult aspects of war in a near perfect balance of comedy and drama.

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VIFF 2014 Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

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Olivier Assayas isn’t one of my go-to directors but over the years he hass made a few particularly notable films though for me, 2010’s Carlos marked a high point in Assayas’ career. For Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas brings on Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, an actress at the peak of her career who has been asked to appear in a revival of the play which launched her career decades before. At first she’s unsure she wants to revisit the material; she doesn’t feel comfortable playing the older character and she makes a compelling argument that she’s still connected to the young character that she played early in her career but after discussions with the director and pressure from her agent and her assistant, she agrees to take on the role and the challenge.

Clouds of Sils Maria is a perfect example of what Assayas does so well: create stories that are far more involved than they initially appear. Sills Maria is, essentially, an observation of the struggles of an actress trying to navigate her career in the best possible direction. Binoche is brilliant as Maria and the role comes naturally to her which makes you consider that perhaps there’s some deep rooted truth to the struggles and challenges her character faces. The film follows Maria from the initial offering all the way through the finish line but along the way, and particularly in the second act, the movie becomes a far more complicated beast as Maria works through the script with the help of her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart).

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VIFF 2014 Review: Preggoland

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You know that moment when you realize you’re so deep into a lie there’s no easy way to turn back? Preggoland is exactly that. Except it’s also much more than that.

Sonja Bennett stars as Ruth, a single 30 something who lives at home with her dad. All of her friends are married with kids and her younger sister is the bane of her existence, making Ruth feel like a teenager and in a way, she is. She works at a local grocery store where she’s worked since high school, she hangs out with co-workers who are half her age and generally doesn’t appear to be doing much with her life. And then she’s mistaken for being pregnant. And she goes along with it. But then she tells her friends she’s pregnant and then suddenly her life seems to be taking on some meaning and actually moving forward except the whole time she’s living one big sham and lying to everyone.

The idea of going along with a misconception isn’t exactly new but Bennett, who also wrote the script, brings a charm and likability to Preggoland which I haven’t seen in other movies which feature the female version of the “man child.” Part of it is Bennett herself who fully commits to the role an delivers a great performance complete with outstanding comedic timing, but there’s also the script which takes a ridiculous premise and goes in some interesting directions with it exploring everything from friendship to strange and complicated family relationships and though it ends with a sort of happily ever after, it earns that ending.

Preggoland reminded me a little of Starbuck, that other Canadian gem from a few years ago. It features similar characters with similar story arcs about growing up and becoming better versions of themselves and I expect that when this lands a Hollywood re-make, it will turn out just as badly as the Starbuck one did. Thankfully, we’ll always have the original.

Preggoland has been picked up by Mongrel Media who will open the film Spring 2015.

VIFF 2014 Review: The Liberator

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I clearly remember my first day of school in Caracas. Mom walked my sister and I, in our uniforms, to the front gate where we lined up with the other boys and girls to recite the anthem while facing the flag and a gigantic statue of Simón Bolívar. It would be months before I sat through my first lesson on the so called “Liberator” but Bolívar was everywhere in the city and his fight for freedom lived in people’s hearts in a way history typically doesn’t. The thought of seeing Bolívar immortalized on screen by none other than Édgar Ramírez was exciting. The Liberator is certainly beautiful but history plays second fiddle here.

Directed by Alberto Arvelo, The Liberator is quite likely the largest production ever mounted by Venezuela. Expansive sets, thousands of extras and lush period costuming are only the surface of this operation which begins by introducing Bolívar, the son of a wealthy Venezuelan family, visiting Spain. Here he meets the man who would later be king as well as his first wife and after a short spurt of happiness, we follow the young Bolívar as he goes from sad widower to angry aristocrat to leader of a revolution. We meet the key players, see some of the important moments but it’s all very perfunctory and The Liberator comes across less as historical bipic and more like historical romance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but a man of Bolívar’s importance deserves more.

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VIFF 2014 Review: Elephant Song

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If there is one person winning at VIFF this year, it’s got to be Canadian bad boy Xavier Dolan. Not only has he impressed the crowd with his stunning directorial effort Mommy but he’s appeared in no less than two other films screening at the festival. The first, a middling drama from Daniel Grou (the only memorable part of that film are the performances, particularly that of Dolan) and now Elephant Song, a period drama based on a play of the same name.

Directed by Charles Binamé, Elephant Song stars Dolan as Michael Aleen, a troubled young man committed to an asylum and his afternoon chat with Dr. Toby Green (Bruce Greenwood). Dr. Green isn’t Michael’s regular shrink but he’s been asked to speak to the boy to try and find out where his regular doctor has disappeared to. In the two hours that follow, Dolan and Greenwood banter back and forth, mostly in circles, and Michael slowly shares personal details about his past. Apparently Greenwood can’t just read the file because he left his glasses at home…yeah.
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VIFF 2014 Review: Que Caramba es la Vida

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When you think of Mariachi, the first that comes to mind is likely not a woman but in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, female Mariachi are a presence even though they’re still a minority. In her latest feature Que Caramba es la Vida, German filmmaker Doris Dörrie travels to Plaza Garibaldi and gets to know a few of the women who make a living belting out traditional Mexican music in a cultural art form that is still dominated by men.

Dörrie introduces us to a few of the women who eek out a living by singing soulful tunes. María del Carmen is the best of the bunch, a single mother who spends her nights singing in the square in order to support her mother and her young daughter. Del Carmen seems an unstoppable force as she applies her make-up and dons her uniform for the evening but Dörrie slowly chips away at the calm and collected exterior and as the documentary progresses, del Carmen and the other women begin to talk candidly about the struggles of a career that is dominated by men and the harassment and hardship they face on a nightly basis.
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VIFF 2014 Review: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

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Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the work of Isao Takahata but he was never a director whose work I make a priority. Yes, Grave of the Fireflies is spectacular but I can only handle so much heartbreak in any given year and in any given festival and the day before The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was supposed to screen, I seriously considered leaving it off my schedule. By some miracle, I went ahead with the screening only to come out the other end completely wowed.

Like many of Takahata’s previous works, Princess Kaguya is a cautionary tale, on the surface a beautiful sort of fairy tale with a message. The story opens in a remote village where a bamboo farmer, living a quiet life with his wife, is blessed for his hard work with a miniature bamboo princess. He takes the creature home to his wife and suddenly the princess disappears and is replaced by a baby girl who begins to grow faster than average children. Much further down the line, the bamboo farmer, now blessed with piles of money he believes he should be using to transform his daughter into a beautiful princess, moves the family to a newly constructed palace in the city where the young girl is slowly transformed, against her will, into a respectable young lady ripe for marriage to any prince.

Takahata’s film isn’t only memorable for the beautiful animation which is unlike anything I’ve seen of late but for the message of its story. Here we have a free spirited young woman who is forced to change who she is to fit society’s version of the ideal woman only to discover that in doing so, she wasted away a large portion of her life. Not satisfied with only one angle, Takahata also explores themes of true love and the often complicated relationships we have with our parents.

The movie lags a little in the middle when the princess sends her potential suitors in search of priceless (and in some cases non-existent) artefacts as a way to prove their love but the scenes also allow for some wonderfully charming moments. Princess Kaguya made me laugh and it made me cry. It also reminded me that animated features can be more than what Disney has to offer and left me wondering why we don’t see more sophisticated animated stories like this one.

It doesn’t end badly but the final scenes of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya might require a little explanation for the little ones more used to Disney’s fairy tale endings. A really wonderful film.

The of the Princess Kaguya opens in limited release on October 17th.

VIFF 2014 Review: Beautiful Youth

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Regardless of how news outlets spin current world events, by now everyone is more or less aware that the global economy is in trouble and that some countries are doing far better than others. Europe has been experiencing particularly difficult times and those difficulties have appeared here and there in film, in some instances more bluntly than others. Spaniard Jaime Rosales’ Beautiful Youth is the most recent, microscopic look at the hardships faced by a young couple in Spain.

Ingrid García Jonsson and Carlos Rodríguez star as Natalia and Carlos, a young couple in love. She’s dropped out of school and spends her days at home, hanging out with friends and occasionally shop lifting make-up while Carlos works odd jobs and conspires with his friend to open his own business. In an effort to generate quick cash, the pair agree to appear in a porn, a venture that turns out to be only the first in a long line of schemes to generate income. Making money to take care of themselves becomes both a thing of the past and a thing of immediate urgency when the young couple is faced with a new challenge: parenthood.

Beautiful Youth could easily have become a cynical movie about the difficulties of being young amid a recession but instead, it’s a testament to human resilience. Watching Natalia and Carlos grow and mature over the course of a few short years is a beautiful reminder of how the events of our lives shape the people we become, even if the changes aren’t immediately apparent. Both Rodríguez and Jonsson give great performances but the film focuses mostly on Jonsson and the challenges she faces and the actress shines in the role.

Rosales takes a verite approach to Beautiful Youth which gives the movie an added layer of reality. On a few occasions, Rosales uses technology in an interesting and new way to mark the passage of time and showing the changing relationship between Natalia and Carlos and though I appreciate the approach here, I hope it doesn’t become a regular thing in features.

Beautiful Youth neither glorifies nor frowns on the actions of Natalia and Carlos, it simply presents an unabashed look at coming of age under difficult circumstances and it does so with a glint, however small, of hope.

Beautiful Youth plays VIFF again on October 2nd. Check out the VIFF program for tickets and additional screening information.

VIFF 2014 Review: Still Life

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For most of us, death is a reality we don’t give much attention to. We’ll all do it eventually but it’s not something most of us want to be reminded of but in the case of John May, death really is his life.

Uberto Pasolini’s Still Life, stars the great Eddie Marsan as John, a government employee whose job is to track down families and arrange funerals for individuals who have died seemingly alone. He spends his days playing investigator and dealing with distant families who often want nothing to do with the deceased. It’s a depressing job but John seems to take pride in tracking down the missing relatives and occasionally re-uniting families but the government sees little usefulness in his role and as a cost cutting measure, John is given his walking papers and a few days to tidy up his years of work and wrap his last case.

Still Life, which Pasolini wrote and directed, offers a beautiful and often very funny look at death. It’s not often you can laugh at such a dark subject but Still Life makes light of the subject without making fun of it. The comedy in the movie isn’t so much laughing at death but realizing that it comes for us all and that all we can do is live each life as if it were our last. It’s a familiar and even eye rolling anecdote but one that is beautifully portrayed here.

Still Life could easily have strayed into cheesy territory, particularly with the events of the third act, but Pasolini’s script it wonderfully balanced and shines thanks to Marsan’s low-key performance and Rachel Portman’s stunning score, the theme for which still haunts me days after seeing the movie.

Still Life is a quietly effecting and precisely memorable because of its lack of flash; a beautiful story about life and death.

Still Life plays VIFF again on October 6th and 8th. Check out the VIFF program for tickets and additional screening information.