Vancouver International Film Festival

Dates and Venues September 27 - October 12, 2018 | The Centre In Vancouver For The Performing Arts, The Cinémathèque, Cineplex Odeon International Village, Vancouver Playhouse, Rio Theatre, SFU's Goldcorp Centre for The Arts & Vancity Theatre

Reviewer John Jane

The Front Runner

USA, - director: Jason Reitman, 2018, 112 mins

Date and Venue 12 October 2018, 6.30pm at the Centre for Performing Arts

Long before we got soaked in media coverage about Donald Trump’s politically unpunished shenanigans, 1988 Democratic presidential nomination Gary Hart paid a heavy political price for his roguery. Jason Reitman’s political drama follows the ‘ups and downs’ of the Colorado Senator. Hugh Jackman takes on the role of the charismatic politician Gary Hart who was considered the overwhelming front runner for the White House. Jackman, who celebrates his 50th birthday today (October 12) delivers an appropriate square-jawed, nuanced performance, leaving the audience with the impression that the United States had probably forfeited the opportunity of good leadership. Outside of Jackman, only J. K. Simmons stands out above the crowd as Hart’s no nonsense campaign manager Bill Dixon. Sara Paxton acquits herself ably as Donna Rice, the reluctant other half of the (alleged) extramarital relationship; though, likely she was given the role due to her physical resemblance to Rice.
Montreal born director Jason Reitman keeps the film’s pace deliberately busy. The irony of the yacht on which Hart met Rice named Monkey Business was not lost on him. History shows that Gary Hart’s campaign didn’t survive the scandal, but significantly, his marriage to Lee Hart did. This year they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. The incident didn’t hurt Donna Rice either. She is currently the president and CEO of the non-profit organization Enough Is Enough.

The Front Runner was presented as the part of the Vancouver International Film Festival Closing Gala. Prior to the screening, VIFF Executive Director Jacqueline Dupuis called upon the following guest speakers to address the audience: Dr. Hedy Fry, Member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre and Rob Bromley, chairman of Creative BC.

The following awards were given to films featured during the festival:

Super Channel People’s Choice Award
Winner: Finding Big Country - director: Kat Jayme

VIFF Most Popular International Documentary Award
Winner: Bathtubs over Broadway - director: Dava Whisenant

VIFF Most Popular Canadian Feature Award
Winner: Edge of the Knife - directors: Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown

VIFF Most Popular International Feature Award
Winner: Shoplifters - director: Kore-eda Hirokazu

Impact Award for an issue-oriented documentary film in the Impact programming stream
Winner: The Devil We Know - director: Stephanie Soechtig
Special Mention: The Silence of Others - directors: Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar and Samouni Road - director: Stefano Savona

Vancouver Women in Film and Television Artistic Merit Award, Drama
Winner: Patricia Rozema for Mouthpiece

Vancouver Women in Film and Television Artistic Merit Award, Documentary
Winner: Christy Garland for What Walaa Wants

Maria by Callas

France, dir. Tom Volf, 2017, 113 mins

In English & French with English subtitles

Dates and Venues 30 September 3.45pm at Vancouver Playhouse & 11 October, 1.15pm at SFU Goldcorp Centre

Maria Callas is the most celebrated soprano…. ever. There is no doubt that she was a consummate artist and brilliant vocal technician and was universally adored by the opera going public, both neophytes and aficionados. Tom Volf’s all too laudatory documentary of the opera diva’s life and career at least gives the artist herself an opportunity to “explode the many myths” that has surrounded her through some turbulent times. Those times, as depicted in Volf’s uneven account, includes her termination from the Metropolitan Opera and her complicated relationship with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Callas’ side of the story is voiced through American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. While Volf puts forward the narrative in more or less chronological order, the film is really a roughly assembled collection of: film footage of operatic performance and bel canto recitals, home videos, television interviews with Callas speaking in both English and perfect French. What the film lacks in depth, it gains in esprit de corps.

Ben is Back

USA, dir. Peter Hedges, 2018, 103 mins

Dates and Venue 7 October 3pm & 11 October 9pm at the Centre for Performing Arts

In Peter Hedges new film Ben is Back, he provided an excellent vehicle for his son Lucas to showcase his exceptional talent. However, it’s Julia Roberts that is phenomenal as a fearful helicopter supermom. The film starts off by being a family drama, yet ultimately turns out to be roller-coaster pursuit thriller played out be Roberts and Hedges. 19 year-old Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) returns to his family's suburban home on Christmas Eve on a furlough from a rehab clinic. His mother, Holly (Julia Roberts) is cautiously welcoming but reluctant to allow her son any time to be on his own. Over the next 24 hours, real truths are exposed about Ben’s drug addiction and worse, testing to the limit, a mother's ‘never-say-die’ approach to keeping him drug free. While both Roberts and Hedges stand out, there some credible performances by relative new-comers. In particular, Courtney B. Vance is impressive in support as Ben’s tough-love step-father.

A Private War

USA/UK, dir. Matthew Heineman, 2018, 106 min

Date and Venue 10 October 8.45pm at the Centre for Performing Arts

Based on Marie Brenner’s 2012 Vanity Fair story, A Private War is film-maker Matthew Heineman tribute biography to Marie Colvin. Unless you have an avid interest in reading about the human cost of war on battlefronts around the world, you might be forgiven for not knowing who Marie Colvin is. Colvin, who died in the war-torn city of Homs, Syria in 2012 while covering that country's civil war, was an American war correspondent working for the British newspaper The Sunday Times.
Heineman doesn’t delve too deep into Colvin’s personal life, but does feature historic events such as Colvin’s famous 1986 interview with Muammar Gaddafi, the first western correspondent to do so. The film shifts, not always seamlessly, between various war zones around the world where Colvin exudes a tough-as-nails persona and her base in London. It’s in the latter location that the director brings to light the journalist’s PTSD and how she handles it – in other words – her own Private War.
Rosamund Pike, with unnatural frizzy hair, wears the indomitable Marie Colvin’s black eye-patch like a badge of honour. She delivers a bold performance as the film’s subject, despite not even getting close to her Queens, New York accent. Stanley Tucci is much under-used as Tony Shaw, Colvin’s incidental love interest.

Cold War

Poland/UK/France, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski , 2018, 88 mins

In Polish, French with English subtitles

Dates and Venue 2 October 6.30pm & 9 October 8.45pm at The Centre for Performing Arts

Set in post-war Europe at the height of the Cold War, against a backdrop of battle-scarred Poland, Wiktor and Zula (Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig) are fellow artists and occasional lovers in Pawel Pawlikowski’s stark documentary-style film. The retro looking 1:1 aspect screen and black & white photography gives the film an even more melancholy tone. What makes this film worth watching – or rather worth hearing – is the eclectic soundtrack that provides the audience with traditional Polish folk songs played on authentic provincial instruments, cynically patriotic anthems, stylized western jazz standards and a bit of early rock n’ roll by Bill Haley and his Comets. Wiktor and Zula’s complex relationship is really a metaphor for the East-West Cold Wa rof the fifties and sixties. Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are painfully perfect as the film’s protagonists. Kulig in particular delivers a marvellously natural performance; transforming from a love struck teenager to a jaded thirty-something. Watch for an interesting cameo by French film director Cédric Kahn.

Shadow (Ying)

China, dir. Zhang Yimou, 2018, 116 mins

In Mandarin with English subtitles

Dates and Venue 6 October 5.45pm & 8 October 3pm at The Centre for Performing Arts

To westerners, Zhang Yimou will always be synonymous with the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Nonetheless, his large contingent of admirers will likely be delighted with his new film Shadow. The new film’s title may not have the mystic cachet as House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it has all the same elements: over-the-top acting, stunningly visual martial arts and a vague socio-political context.
The Taoist yin-yang symbol appears ubiquitously in the film’s beautifully choreographed fight scenes which feature an ingenious creation in terms of weaponry. A deadly umbrella consisting of sharpened steel spokes that serves as a shield from the enemy’s sabre and (of course) the rain which seems relentless. The film embraces a classic narrative that combines royal household intrigue with a moral battle against a fearsome adversary. Deng Chao plays both the military commander and Jing, his shadow (a body double) with diametrically opposed personalities. Sun Li, referred to throughout the film as “Madam” is duplicitously the commander’s wife and Jing’s lover.
As a gratifying bonus, we get Lao Zai’s compelling score featuring the guzheng (Chinese zither), played (or mimicked) on screen by Sun Li and Deng Chao.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

USA, 2018, dir. Marielle Heller, 107 mins

Date and Venue 6 October 8.45pm at The Centre for Performing Arts

For fans of television sit-coms, comedienne Melissa McCarthy is one half of the very funny television couple Mike and Molly. McCarthy seems so perfect as Leonore "Lee" Israel, the American biographer who became better known for her literary forging exploits, one might believe that the part was written for her. While McCarthy and Israel share little physical resemblance, the actor’s flair for sardonic comic timing makes it difficult to imagine anyone else as the acerbic writer (even though she replaced Julianne Moore in the role). But if McCarthy is good, Richard E. Grant is excellent and totally convincing as Israel’s shill and boozing buddy Jack Hock (who may actually be a fictitious character).
McCarthy wasn’t the only one to come by the project fortuitously; Marielle Heller took over the director’s chair from Nicole Holofcener, and has done a bang up job. Watch for Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s real-life husband, as a dealer who gets duped into buying Israel’s forged letters.

Ash Is Purest White (Jiang Hu Er Nü)

China/France, 2018, dir. Jia Zhangke, 136 mins

In Mandarin with English subtitles

Dates and Venues 3 October 8.45pm at the Centre for Performing Arts & 5 October 3.30pm at Playhouse Theatre

For those unaccustomed to director Jia Zhangke’s work, it might seem strange to place a female lead in a story that is about honour in brotherhood. The Chinese film-maker obviously believes that his wife Zhao Tao has at least most of the qualities of a modern warrior. Slender, exotic looking with porcelain skin, Zhao Tao turns in a fearless performance as Qiao, the only woman in jianghu, an underworld brotherhood whose business operations are on the edge of legitimacy. Qiao’s lover, Guo Bin (Fan Liao), is a high-profile figure in the kinship. While jianghu is involved in racketeering, they follow a strict code of honour and righteousness. Qiao is faithful to the code to the end, but Bin is not – a mien that has karma eventually catching up with him.

Ash is the Purest White is initially set in Datong, Shanxi Province within a time frame stretching from the turn of the new millennium up to the present time; a period of breathtaking change in the Northern Province. At a point roughly half way through the film, the focus seamlessly shifts from an organised crime motif to a romantic melodrama. Music coordinator Lim Giong puts together an eclectic soundtrack that includes both western and eastern popular music.

Lush Reeds (Zhi zi yu gui)

China, 2018, dir.Yang Yishu, 105 mins

In Mandarin with English & Standard Mandarin subtitles

Dates and Venues 1 October 9pm at Cinematheque, 3 October 3.15pm at Vancity Theatre

Lush Reeds is Chinese film-maker Yang Yishu’s pessimistic eco-drama. It centres on Xiayin (Huang Lu), a conscientious journalist who struggles to proclaim herself in both her professional and personal life. She works for an unappreciative office manager who doesn’t publish her work at a local newspaper barely surviving. At home her marriage is also on shaky ground. Having just moved into her husband Feng Yu’s (Lin Zheyuan) small apartment, her unpacked cardboard boxes suggests she is not quite settled on the arrangement. Feng Yu himself is apathetic about her being there.
As the protagonist, Huang Lu is a diaphanous heroine. Even though she is onscreen for almost the entire film, its fifteen minutes into the run time before we hear her speak a word of dialogue and very little thereafter. Yang sets up the storyline in essentially two near equal parts: The first half is in an urban setting and comes chronologically later, the second half is placed in a rural setting in flashback. Yang introduces many issues to the narrative that are never resolved and hardly explained. For instance, there is a lot of screen time taken up when her dog goes missing, but there is no outcome. Also the search in Panxia Village for Gao Fuquan, an interview subject, is not satisfactorily concluded. Eve circumstances around her miscarriage are left to conjecture.
Writer and director Yang Yishu was in attendance along cast members Lin Zheyuan and Feng Yizhi. Speaking through an interpreter, Ms. Yang described her project’s creative process. Apparently, the film is still a work in progress (not surprising), with final editing impending. Yang went on to explain that the English title, which describes the film’s texture, is derived from a traditional poem. Whereas, the Mandarin title Zhi zi yu gui (approx. daughter returns) is closer to the premise.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)

Japan, 2018, dir. Kore-eda Hirokazu, 121 mins

In Japanese with English subtitles

Dates and Venue 30 September 3.30pm at the Centre for Performing Arts, 1 October 6pm at the Centre for Performing Arts & 10 October 6pm at the Centre for Performing Arts

Hirokazu Kore-eda again moves away from the conventional Japanese film-making spectrum to explore the lower end of economic and social privilege. Shoplifters is an engaging story about a family of humble pettifoggers who take in a small child who they suspect of being neglected and even physically abused.
Juri (Miyu Sasaki ) quickly ingratiates herself within the family dynamic presided over by Patriarch Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and his sympathetic wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando). It gradually becomes evident that none of the other family members including: the grandmother (Kirin Kiki), 12 year-old son Shota (Jyo Kairi), teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) – are not biologically related. Nonetheless, despite being poor, Osamu and Nobuyo provide a nurturing and loving environment. Osamu is a construction labourer and Nobuyo works in a laundary, but much of the family income is derived from the grandmother’s pension. The only talent that Osamu is able to teach his brood is shoplifting – more a survival skill than to get rich.

Sakura Ando delivers a truly sublime and tender performance in the role of Nobuyo. Young actors, seven-year-old Miyu Sasaki and twelve-year-old Jyo Kairi will surely steal your heart. Veteran actor Lily Franky (his real name Masaya Nakagawa has a more Japanese ring) ably anchors Kore-eda’s screenplay. Hirokazu Kore-eda has created a present day Oliver Twist, but Osamu Shibata is no Fagan. It is left to the audience to decide on whether the children were kidnapped or rescued.

Jinpa (Zhuàng si è yì zhi yang)

China, 2018, dir. Pema Tseden, 87 mins

In Tibetan with English subtitles

Dates and Venue 28 September 1.15pm at International Village 8 & 30 September 9.30pm at International Village 9

For Chinese film-maker Pema Tseden’s small film Jinpa he travels to the hostile Tibetan plains of Kekexilli 5000 metres above sea-level. The opaque title is taken from the film’s main character and is also the name of the actor playing him. It’s also the name given to the secondary male character played by Genden Phuntsok. The Mandarin title Zhuàng si è yì zhi yang is more descriptive of the film’s premise.Tseden’s film is incredibly slow-paced. At under an hour and a half, it doesn’t get to far down a storyline. Though, mainly due to its rough-looking star, it’s incredibly watchable. Jinpa is a truck driver who has to drive along the most isolated roads through the most forbidding part of the world that you will ever see. He has an affinity for baubles, sunglasses and opera – you hear O sole mio throughout the film. Cinematographer Lu Songye captures the desolation of this land-locked country, although, the indoor photography seems somewhat claustrophobic. The use of flashbacks in distorted monochrome works well in that it enables the audience to distinguish past and present. For movie-goers (and television viewers) now used to widescreen, they may not enjoy the 1:1 ratio photography.

Bergman - A Year in a Life

Sweden, 2018, dir. Jane Magnusson, 116 mins

In Swedish and English with English subtitles

Dates and Venues 27 September 8.45pm at Cinematheque & 29 September 11am at International Village 9

Films about film-makers are generally not all that interesting. However, Jane Magnusson’s documentary biography about the iconic director Ingmar Bergman is certainly an exception. While Magnusson acknowledges Bergman’s genius; her film also emphases the subject’s many failings. The particular “Year in a Life” is 1957, a year that saw Bergman arguably at his best and most prolific. Inasmuch as the film chronologically follows the enigmatic artist’s work throughout that year, it also covers major areas of his career both before and after. Magnusson’s carefully researched bio shows Bergman to be so consumed with his work, and so obsessed in his affairs and liaisons with adoring women that he had little time for his first four wives, and less time for his nine children (his fifth wife, Ingrid, who he genuinely loved was an anomaly). The film includes interviews with Liv Ullmann, Thorsten Flinck, Barbra Streisand, Elliott Gould as well as the subject himself. Their opinions of Bergman all point in the same direction: a brilliant, driven perfectionist, but a flawed human whose inner demons were graphically seen in his work. His addiction to his work came with a price. He had ulcers that kept him awake at night, and rarely slept past 4:30 am. As unflattering as Magnusson’s film essay is, there is a high probability that it would have had Bergman’s approval.

The Hummingbird Project

Canada/Belgium, 2018, dir. Kim Nguyen, 111 mins

Dates and Venues 27 September 7pm at The Centre & 30 September 1pm at The Playhouse

VIFF opened its 37th festival on Friday (September 27) with welcoming remarks from Mayor Gregor Robertson, Minister of Tourism, Arts & Culture Lisa Beare and VIFF Executive Director Jacqueline Dupuis. The film selected to officially open this year’s festival is Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project - a taut drama that has as its central premise the construction of a ‘straight-line’ fiber-optic tunnel from Kansas City to Wall Street. The object being to shave a millisecond of the time it currently takes for stock exchange transactions.

Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård lead an international cast as two cousins Vincent and Anton, who together, believe they have the know-how to see the project through and ultimately make them rich. Nguyen’s film is a fast-paced drama that, at its moral core a cautionary tale about greed and misguided ambition. Both Eisenberg and Skarsgård turn in career defining performances. And watch for Salma Hayek who acts against type as a ruthless Wall Street CEO and former jiu jitsu world champion Ayisha Issa as a mining engineer. Digging a 1000 mile fiber-optic cable encased in a steel pipe underground may have limited market appeal, but while the film’s premise is entirely fictional, it’s technically feasible and the series of events that play out are incredibly realistic.


UK, 2018, dir. Wash Westmoreland, 112 mins

Dates and Venue 29 September 3pm & 3 October 6pm at The Centre

British independent film-maker Wash Westmoreland’s compelling biopic centres around the early life of iconic French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette and her husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, better known by his nom-de-plume Willy. Gabrielle – she later assumes her family name as her own nom-de-plume – was also a mime artist, an actress, and a journalist. Willy, many years her senior, was a well-known publisher and Parisian lothario.

Keira Knightley turns in a stellar performance as the titular character. She transforms from a naive country girl, who marries a worldly, though not really successful entrepreneur, to a free-spirited, intelligent writer and performer. Veteran English actor Dominic West artfully plays Willy who runs a literary workshop employing ghostwriters to churn out popular fiction. The film goes to lengths to show that Willy’s affection for his young wife is genuine, but also depicts his exploitation of her talent in authoring the Claudine stories.

Colette shares similarities with Tim Burton’s 2014 American film Big Eyes. Not so much in cinematic terms, but in general characterization. Both films portray the unequal partnership between charismatic men with mediocre ability and their accomplished wives whose work is plagiarized. As is typical for British period films, exhaustive detail is given to the clothing and architecture of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century France.


Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes

Switzerland/USA/UK, 2018, dir. Sophie Huber, 85 mins

Dates and Venues 6 October 12:30pm at The Rio, 11October 6:45pm at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is Sophie Huber’s fine documentary of the Iconic jazz record label established in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. The company was sold to Liberty Records at the height of its heyday, but is now operated by Decca. The film shows how jazz fans Lion and Wolff emigrated from Germany before WWII, settled in New York and together started up a recording studio signing black urban jazz musicians. Many of these musicians revolutionised and redefined jazz music.

Huber’s film features interviews with musician and record producer Don Was, renowned jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter and pianist and bandleader Herbie Hancock. Particularly worth seeing is the film footage of performances of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers’ “Moanin” and Horace Silver’s “Song for my Father.”
Thankfully, the film doesn’t dwell on Blue Note’s dormancy from 1979 until 1985, but actually ends on an optimistic note with the company embarked a reissue program. The film closes with an interview with Norah Jones, one of their recently signed musicians.

Wangdrak’s Rain Boots
(Wang Zha de yuxue)

China, 2018, dir. Lhapal Gyal, 91 mins

In Tibetan with English & Mandarin subtitles

Dates and Venues 2 October at 6:45pm at International Village 10 & 4 October 3:15pm at International Village 8

Wangdrak’s Rain Boots is a small engaging film by first time director Lhapal Gyal. Set in the mountainous province of Qinghai in central Tibet during a couple of weeks at the end of summer just before harvest time. It’s a time when mountain run-off from the heavy rains can create muddy streams through the villages. School children need a pair of sports shoes for sunny days and gumboots for rainy days. Wangdrak (Druklha Dorje) only has a pair worn out sneakers. Teased by other students and singled out for reprimand by his teacher, he has difficulty fitting in at school. He does have two supporters: older female classmate Lhamo (Pakmo Yangdrom) and his mother Renjyi (Shanma Jyi). The film’s title makes it obvious that Wangdrak does get his rain boots, but as soon he gets them, the rain stops. But with Lhamo’s help, he attempts to tip the odds for more rain in his favour; the mischievous pair going as far as hiding the local holy man’s sacred sword. Charming performances by the younger cast make Wangdrak’s Rain Boots suitable for all ages.

© 2018 John Jane