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Threading Up the 2006 Vancouver International Film Festival

VIFF 2006 Baby! 25 Years! Dig it at viff.org
by Jason Whyte

Here we are. This is the 25th anniversary of the Vancouver International Film Festival. The VIFF, which began at the local Ridge cinema in 1982 has exploded into one of the largest independent film scenes in the world. While the Toronto International Film Festival takes top honour at getting out the films and stars, the VIFF is more of an audience-driven festival that brings together an enormous group of cinephiles (like moi) for fifteen days of intense screenings.

This year’s VIFF kicks off with a gala screening of Pedro Almodovar’s Volver at the new VISA Screening Room, the wonderful #7 auditorium at the Granville 7 cinemas in downtown Vancouver. With nearly 700 seats, THX certification and a great, well-maintained projection system, this is one of the best places to watch film in the city. The previous VISA room, the Vogue, was closed last year to make way for a restaurant theatre; although with much of the downtown core under construction for Translink’s Canada Line (which goes straight through to Richmond), it may be a while until we see this heritage building open its doors again.

In an unusual move for VIFF, there is no Anniversary Gala presentation this year. However, the great Vancity Theatre (now in its second year of hosting VIFF screenings as well as being the still-new home of the VIFF) is hosting a special presentation show of Cabiria, Giovanni Pastrone’s famed 1914 three-hour epic, in the second Sunday of the festival (October 8th). However, like the galas, passes do not get admission and tickets must be purchased ($15), so if you are interested in seeing this revival screening, make sure to book your tickets soon.

This year’s closing gala is Stephen Frears’ much anticipated “The Queen”, which stars Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth and her controversial reaction to Princess Diana’s death in 1997. In what might cause a bit of stir with the festival crowd, the closing gala screening is on a Thursday followed by the party on Saturday night. Nevertheless, there are three screenings of the much anticipated British film, and there is already Oscar talk for Ms. Mirren (and will Mirren, who is no stranger to British Columbia, show up to attend the screenings?).

Sandwiched inbetween the opening and closing gala is a lot of screenings. While last year’s festival topped out at well over 300+ features, this year’s list of features is only about 230. Perhaps it is “trimming the fat” or the lack of the Vogue as a venue, but for people that want to see nearly every film in competition this year, the choice of 230 films over 15 days of screenings might give more advantage for people to see more. I feel that the die-hard passholders of this year’s festival will have a much better opportunity to see the majority of the films in competition.

Prior to the film festival, there is a lot going on. The day prior to the festival I am partaking in a crash 16mm film course by Kodak entitled Stop By, Shoot Film which gives one the opportunity to learn how to use Super 16mm cameras and shoot a quick scene. Participants will be given a DVD of their work as a souveneir (hey, about the camera while we’re at it? Just kidding.) as well as a bag filled with technical goodies. As this event is so close to press release of this article, I will be covering this event in later coverage on efilmcritic.com. For more information, visit the Trade forum section of viff.org.

Also worthy of note is the annual Vancouver Film Studios and Brightlight Pictures Red Carpet Gala which successfully brings together filmmakers, actors, media and other local flavour into a really long night of schmooze and partying. Normally I don’t care for these kinds of events, but publicist Rory Richards, who puts together this party annually, really has a talent for bringing out the best in people and her events. The event has been compared by some to a top-level Sundance party, with the exception of two things; there’s no swag, and I can get in! This year’s event featured appearances by Terminator 3’s Kristanna Loken who is in town shooting The L-Word and many of the local filmmakers who have films in the VIFF, including Fido, Almost Heaven, Mount Pleasant, Unnatural and Accidental and The Rock-and-Roll Kid.

Running alongside the film festival for the first few days is the annual Trade Forum, which brings several keynote speakers together to focus on assisting new filmmakers find their path in the industry. If you’re in the mood to do a bit of celebrity spotting at these events, you won’t find it here; although several esteemed filmmakers – notably Jason Reitman (director of Thank You For Smoking), Kevin MacDonald (whose film The Last King of Scotland is playing at this year’s VIFF), Sarah Polley (ditto with her directorial debut Away From Her, Bong Joon-Ho from the South Korean smash The Host and one of the feature writers of The Simpsons are among the many talent making appearances.

Now, can we just talk about the films already?

Hey, why not. I have once again had the opportunity to screen a select group of films that will be screening at VIFF this year. Without further ado…Film Reviews:

Acts of Imagination (3.5/5) – With all of the cheaply made, poorly focused films to come out of Canadian cinema these days, it is a welcome relief to see a character study that feels like a worthy addition to indie cinema that uses its background as a character. “Acts of Imagination” is about two Ukranian siblings who move to Vancouver with a troubled past and have a problem with connecting with anyone outside of it. Director Carolyn Combs succeeds with enormously watchable characters, strong writing and a skilled direction involving tight lenses, hand-held photography and a real genuine feel for the rainy climate of the city.

Beauty in Trouble (4.5/5) – Hey, I didn’t know Bryce Dallas Howard was a star in Jan Hrebek’s new Czech film! Oh wait, it’s just lookalike actress Ana Geislerova who plays one heck of an attractive mother named Marcela whose husband has just been shipped off to prison and must take up room with her mother and stubborn father-in-law. Marcela’s life is in turmoil until she meets Ezven (Josef Abrham) who has money and a nice large home for Marcela and her two kids to stay in, but has trouble connecting on a personal basis. At the same time, the film is a human comedy of manners, family and the ability to love, and its warm direction by Hrebejk makes this one not to miss at the festival.

Candy (4/5) – Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish star as two young lovers whose heroin addiction drives them slowly apart from one another. The film has received comparisons to “Requiem for a Dream” but “Candy” has none of the visual touches of Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film. What it does have, however, is commanding performances by Ledger and Cornish as the two ill-fated lovers and a bleak, dreary style over the proceedings. As the film progresses, the two lovers are challenged to kill their addiction, and there’s a horrifying sequence where they try to kill their habit that reminded me of the “Baby on the Wall” sequence in Trainspotting.

Colma: The Musical (4/5) – I was recently in San Francisco visiting family and had the opportunity to visit the city as well as its suburbs. What I love about the city, as a whole, is it seems to be a place where time has stood still, and the three lead characters in “Colma” – the film of course being named after its city – are in a standstill. They’re just out of high school and they’re looking for that next step in life. So what better way to express it than to turn it into song? Yes, campers, this coming-of-age story is a indie-musical and while the film is rough around the edges and limited by its budget, it soars in its imagination. Director Richard Wong and songwriter H.P. Mendoza bring together some really unique music (which is heavy on synthesisers, calm vocals and car alarms…yes, car alarms) and storytelling in a fresh and interesting way, and it kind of reminded me of the indie-masterpiece “Expiration” (My friend Gavin Heffernan’s film) that takes its budget limitations and run with it.

Color Me Kubrick (2/5) – “Hi, my name is Stanley Kubrick.” “Stanley Kubrick, the famous film director?” These words are said to the point of insanity in this wandering, aimless story about a man named Allan (John Malkovich) who poses as the reclusive famous film director and rustles up trouble with anyone he can find. The hook of the story is about enough for a short feature film (even though this film itself is very short at 83 minutes), the visual references are too ordinary, the music references come up and linger on for no real reason, and the whole film has a cheap BBC feel to it. It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers, who worked on some of Kubrick’s later productions, couldn’t make this much anticipated movie take off.

The Host (3.5/5) – Yes campers, here is the biggest film of South Korea, set to play at this year’s Vancouver Film Fest with its showtimes all sold out on the advance ticket front. And while I admired most of Bong Joon-Ho’s new film, which is a slimy monster movie about a creature that seems to have been created from chemical dumping. This creature wreaks havoc on the people in Seoul and focuses on a small-knit family that must strive to stay alive. And so forth. My only gripe about the film is a big lack of pure, unadulterated mayhem that make these kinds of monster films stand out. The film’s 119 minute running time and many quirky characters stall things right when it should get moving. Still, this is an entertaining film with a lot of laughs and and one heck of a scary critter.

Iraq in Fragments (3.5/5) – There have been enough Iraq documentaries in the past few years that there could be an entire film festival just for them, and thankfully James Longley’s much-heralded film stands out in the crowd. He takes a look at the different races of Iraqi life and shows, just from their perspective, how their lives have been affected by the last few years of warfare and terrorism. What also sets it apart is how Longley refuses to film too many interviews and instead lets his careful cinematography and editing (which, bizarrely enough, reminded me of some of Terrence Malick’s films!) stand out.

Little Children (5/5) – One of the year’s best films, here is Todd Field’s remarkable follow-up to his 2001 film In The Bedroom which also made my Top 10 list from that year. Field, who has cut his teeth at acting for many years, has crafted a beautiful and haunting story based on Tom Perrotta’s novel about a small group of connected neighbors in suburban Massachusetts. The film mostly focuses on Sarah (Kate Winslet) who is a bold academic living quietly in suburbia, and Brad (Patrick Wilson) who oddly takes care of his kids at the time of the day that he should be working. I wish to say no more about the storyline and ask you to view the film to watch its unique characters, wacky narration and unique flavour of black comedy to go along with some truly powerful drama. It’s also nice to see the film’s preview give nearly nothing away and let the viewer discover the surprises for themselves.

Loop (4/5) – This small Norwegian film focuses on the plights of five men who take to the wild life (mountains, forests, sailing and so forth) to escape the normality of city life. What follows, like the second-to-next film I’m about to talk about, is a journey of some very passionate individuals who love what they do no matter what. Director Sjur Paulsen also nicely balances the images and soundtrack to create a documentary that is not only informative, but great to experience on the big screen.

Monkey Warfare (3/5) – Don McKellar and Tracey Wright (you may remember as the art gallery curator and sometimes computer sex chatter in Me and You and Everyone We Know) star in a quirky yet utterly bizarre slice of Canadiana about two liberal minded, hippie Toronto folk who create an unlikely relationship with a pot dealer (Nadia Litz) who all crave a bit of change in society. Director Reginald Harkema has some fun editing choices and camera angles (cutting to titles, sudden bursts of hard rock) and has hints of a time when films were made like these thirty years ago, yet it ends somewhat abruptly only to have a truly funny sequence after its end credits. If you plan to see the film, make sure to stay for those.

Mystic Ball (4.5/5) – One of the most joyous documentaries I’ve seen in years. Greg Hamilton is a Toronto native who discovers the passion for a Myanmar game called Chinlone, which looks like a poorly made soccer-ball yet is an inspiration for a nation-wide game in the Burmese country that Hamilton attends at least once a year. Well photographed and keeping only within the subject of the game, we see a real, honest passion in Hamilton that if you think about it hard enough, that this passion can translate over to the fans of the Vancouver Film Festival. This is a documentary that is worth seeing.

Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (4/5) – One of the most entertaining documentaries that you will see at this year’s VIFF, if not of the year, of how the great soccer team known as the New York Cosmos came to fame in the United States. Run – bizarrely enough – by then Warner Bros. chairman Steve Ross, he brought the Brazilian sensation Pele to stardom here in the US and how millions of people came to cherish this sport. It is still famous today as the FIFA world cup, but the brilliance of Paul Crowder and John Dower’s documentary is how they have designed the whole film to look and feel like it is taking place in the 70’s, right down to Matt Dillon’s narration, the old photographs (especially the funky old Warner logo), the soundtrack and even those titles with the crazy font. Great fun and very informative.

The Photographer, His Wife, Her Lover (4/5) – Paul Yule’s endlessly entertaining and informative documentary asks the question about who really owned and has the selling rights to a particular set of famous photos by the late O. Winston Link. Link’s estranged wife Conchita has been imprisoned by the police for stealing these photos. She believes that she had the right to these photos (she also claimed she was being abused by her husband) and he claimed she locked him in the basement and stole most of his work for her own financial gain. The greatest asset of the documentary is how Yule lets us do a bit of work to figure out who is the real culprit here. There may be evil on both sides of the equation here, or maybe not. Worth seeing.

The Railroad All-Stars (2/5) – An endless and wandering documentary about a group of prostitutes in Guatemala who form a soccer club as a way to venture outside of their lives in The Line (“La Linea”) where these women are poorly treated and abused by everyone around them. The major problem is that we see so many sequences of these women playing soccer to the point where we get the message about twenty minutes in, but there are several more reels of soccer play (and then the big game itself at the end, oddly enough, is never shown). This is another example of recent documentaries that have a good premise but not enough follow through.

Relatives (2/5) – Director Istvan Szabo last made an impression with Being Julia opening up the 2004 VIFF, and here we have a film from him that takes us back to his Hungarian origin. His direction is solid as always, and the photography is by Fateless director Lajos Koltai. So we should have a great film on our hands, yes? Sadly, not much of Relatives ever takes off. The story tells of a whole group of people involved with heading up the main Hungarian town of Zsaratnok and how the new attorney general, Kopjass, is affected by all of the corruption around him. We could be seeing an interesting take on town politics, yet Relatives just talks and talks to no end and offers us few interesting and original characters. Shame, because it looks so great.

Run Robot Run (3.5/5) – A small Canadian indie picture that starts out a bit rough by director Daniel O’Connor and slowly begins to show its heart. Set in the not-to-distant future, Kent (Chris Gibbs) is a strict office worker who takes his job very seriously and has a crush on his beautiful co-worker Allison (and after seeing actress Lara Kelly, who plays Allison, who can blame him?). Soon enough, a new co-worker comes into the office, a robot named Peter (Adam Kendall) who Allison takes a liking towards. This sets off a chain of events where Kent suddenly realizes that he wants to get rid of his anal-retentive attitude and try to woo Allison. Where the film really begins to shine is how Kent asks Peter, the robot who is programmed with all the right moves, to help him. The film has some rough edges here and there, especially at the start, but I admired the performances and O’Connor’s direction enough to recommend.

Sound of the Soul (2.5/5) – I want to start off by saying that I really admire Stephen Olsson’s dedication to the material, which is a document of a socio-political concert in the middle-east. I get the film’s intent and its message, but the film itself is not very well put together and struggles even at its 68 minute running time. I think the biggest problem is Olsson should have featured full concert sequences with better camera positioning and a richer soundtrack instead of carting around a small digital camera and constantly cutting away from the action. The film reminded me, somewhat, of a dismal Lynn Stopkewitch docu from 2002 on music fest Lilith Fair that promised you the goods and then drove right past the store.

To Play and to Fight (3/5) – Like the recently mentioned ‘Sound of the Soul’, here is a documentary that could have better filmed and presented its material. It’s subject, about a youth and children’s orchestra in Venezuela that is reknowed all over the world, particularily by German conductor Sir Simon Rattle (who was featured in the excellent documentary Rhythm is It! at VIFF ’04) is a great subject and is a good story, yet with poor video quality, bad sound and some really rough editing, it never works as something you should pay to see in a cinema and rather wait for on DVD or the TV release.

We Feed the World (3.5/5) – Erwin Wagenhofer’s powerful documentary is about the food crisis on our planet…not that we have too little of it, but that we have too MUCH of it. There is enough food to feed over 12 billion people right now, but how come there are areas of the world that aren’t getting that food? One of the most powerful images in the film is a bread truck in Vienna dumping out tens of thousands of loafs of bread, enough to feed a small European country (and how about one of those impoverished countries while we’re at it?). Wagenhofer’s camera simply watches the action with only the occasional interview to keep us hooked throughout.

Best bets for this year’s VIFF (also known as: films that I want to see and haven’t yet)

Climates – Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s followup to the masterful “Distant” (Uzak, VIFF ’03) is his first high-definition film. For someone who painted so many beautiful images in his last film, I’m dying to see how he masters his latest work.

Comeback Season – Bruce McCulloch’s (Dog Park) new comedy looks like it could be something really interesting, and I hope that he makes his way out to the festival this year. I admire McCulloch both as a director and as a former Kid-in-the-hall, so this will be worth checking out.

Everything’s Gone Green – This is the opening film of the Canadian Images aspect of the festival. Film has been getting positive reviews so far, and hopefully director Paul Fox will improve on his previous work, “The Dark Hours”, which made my worst list of 2005 (both of the festival AND my year-end list).

Fido – Andrew Currie’s followup to his festival hit “Mile Zero” which stars Tim Blake Nelson and scored some favourable response from Toronto (even from our own Scott Weinberg). Not too shabby for an up-and-coming local film director (who has one hell of an office, I migh add).

The Fountain. Darren Aronofsky. Five years in the making (the last one, the 2000 landmark film Requiem For a Dream is one of the best films of the decade). Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz starring. Matthew Libatique (arguably the best young cinematographer in the business right now) lensing the thing. A 1000 year search for the best of youth. Best trailer of the year. Can you sense my anticipation building? Forget the boos at Venice and see the thing for yourself.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone – A new film from Tsai Ming Liang (Goodbye Dragon Inn; VIFF ’03; What Time is it There?) is always cause for celebration. One of the most lyrical and poetic directors working in cinema today, and I’m hoping I can shake the man’s hand again as I did at the 2003 VIFF.

LoudQUIETloud: A Film about the Pixies: A documentary about The Pixies (whose greatest fame is probably having their song “Where is My Mind” hauntingly play over the end credits of “Fight Club”) is enough for me to go, and I’m curious as to how this concert film plays out. Will it pull a Jonathan Demme (Neil Young: Heart of Gold) or a Lynn Stopkewitch (the previously mentioned Lilith on Top)? Hopefully the former.

Paris, Je t’aime – At last, a screening of the short film compilation of various “In love with Paris” vignettes that has been huge at every major festival it has played at. You know I’ll be there.

Renaissance – This film looks like an animated answer to last year’s hit Sin City, and I couldn’t be happier for it. I wasn’t the biggest fan of last year’s Rodriguez film and am hoping that this truly bizarre looking film has something special to offer. It sure does have one heck of a trailer.

Shortbus – John Cameron Mitchell’s eagerly awaited followup to Hedwig and the Angry Inch is apparently explicit, raw and uncensored and has received our wonderful Restricted rating (which means absolutely no one under 18 years of age). Still, this look at young love and sex sounds like a great ride, and I can’t wait to get on the bus.

Special thanks to Diane Kunic-Grandjean and Laine Slater of the Vancouver Film Centre for assistance with this article. Watch out in the next few weeks for new interviews and articles for the films playing at the festival. In the meantime, for all of the information you can handle on this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival including showtimes, updates, news and all of the other goings-on, point your browser to viff.org.

-- Jason Whyte, jasonwhyte@efilmcritic.com



link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1955
originally posted: 09/28/06 05:54:30
last updated: 10/31/06 20:43:00
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