2019 Grey Cup Preview

Grey Cup

Sunday November 24th will be the 107th contesting of the Grey Cup: Canada’s big day of football. This will be another contesting of East vs. West, as it should be. This time East is represented by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and West will be represented by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

FIFTH TIME FOR CALGARY

This Grey Cup will mark the fifth time Calgary’s McMahon Stadium will host the Grey Cup. The stadium opened in 1960 and has undergone two renovations and four expansions. In addition to four previous Grey Cups (the last one being in 2009), the Stadium has also hosted the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games of Calgary and was part of the Ozzy Osbourne-led 2008 Monsters Of Rock tour. It normally seats 35,400 but can be expanded to 46,020. The CFL was originally planning to have the Grey Cup located to October two years ago, but that plan didn’t go through.

The four-day Grey Cup festival in Calgary started back on November 20th and is to continue until Saturday November 23rd. It will be centred in downtown Calgary and leading to McMahon Stadium. There will be forty festivities and events including a family-friendly festival, pancake breakfast and traditional team parties. There will be a special Grey Cup rodeo at the Stampede Corral and the Fusion Music Festival. The anthem will be sung by Lindsay Kelly with the Calgary Stampede Showband and the half-time show will have Keith Urban.

And Now For The Game

As I mentioned at the beginning, it will be Hamilton Tiger-Cats vs. Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Basically a rematch of the 1984 Grey Cup! The TiCats are the heavy favorites as they led the 2019 Season, but Winnipeg has been a team of surprises. Can they surprise at the Grey Cup too?

WEST: WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS

Winnipeg BB

Winnipeg is the surprise of the Grey Cup. At the very end of the 2019 CFL season, Winnipeg was third in the West, but the rankings were very tight as Winnipeg was 11 wins and 7 losses while group-topper Calgary was 13-5.

Before the playoffs, started, the chances for Winnipeg looked glum as they lost four of their final six games, including Calgary 33-37. Calgary would be Winnipeg’s opponent in the first playoff game. This appeared to be Calgary’s for the taking as the Bombers lost both regular-season games against them, but Winnipeg pulled an upset with 35-14. For the Western final, they had to face Saskatchewan; another team that beat them in both regular-season games. Winnipeg seized control in the first quarter and maintained good enough attack and defense to deliver a 20-13 win.

Winnipeg has not won a Grey Cup since 1990. Here in the Grey Cup, they will be facing yet another team they lost to in both their regular-season games against them. They could pull off an upset if they start with Zach Collaros and Andrew Harris. Keep in mind Collaros led Saskatchewan to a win over Hamilton. So there’s plenty of chance for an upset over here. However it’s about having the right lineup at the start and the team to deliver.

EAST: HAMILTON TIGER-CATS

Hamilton TC

This year has been Hamilton’s year. They led the regular season with fifteen wins and three losses. They only had to play the Eastern final game in order to qualify for the Grey Cup and they did so in brilliant fashion: winning 36-16.

Like Winnipeg, Hamilton has had a long wait since their last Grey Cup: back in 1999. Hamilton beat Winnipeg in both regular-season games against them. Hamilton showed brilliant play in their win against Edmonton. Hamilton can do it again against Winnipeg. They have some of the best talent in the CFL. However some of their best players like Brandon Banks and Tevin Mitchell are injured. Winnipeg could use that as an advantage.

FINAL PREDICTION

Hamilton has been the team that’s been the most on all year and they show no signs of letting go. Winnipeg, on the other hand, appears to have arrived like never before at the playoffs and could carry their streak of success to a Grey Cup win. However I will have to go with my best instincts and pick Hamilton to win 35-19.

So there you have it. There’s my prediction for the 107th Grey Cup. However it will all be decided in McMahon Stadium on Sunday. Anything can happen.

VIFF 2019 Wraps Up On A Great Note

CinemaYep, it’s been a month since VIFF 2019 ended, but the enjoyment of the Festival is still there. The VanCity Theatre will bring back a lot of the films that were shown during the festival. I hope to catch what I missed out the first time.

The 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival ended on Friday October 11th. There were big crowds throughout the festival as the films had a lot to attract. There were over 300 films from 72 countries or regions.

This year, there weren’t the Hub events, but there were a lot of ‘VIFF Live’ events. One was a lecture from rapper Chuck D, another was a pair of humorous film critics, a couple of airings of some cult classics, and even a feminist read of Some Like It Hot. There were two Master Classes organized by the Directors Guild of Canada. The first was with Atom Egoyan and the second with Batwoman director Holly Dale. Creator Talks were back and they ranged from costumers to producers and sound designers to even decision-makers like networkers, broadcasters and executive producers. VIFF Immersed was back but it was very restrictive in attendance. I will elaborate on that later.

The award winners were announced at the closing gala on Friday:

BC Spotlight Awards

Sea To Sky Award

Presented by Telus

WINNER: The World Is Bright (dir. Ying Wang)

Special Mention: Anthem Of A Teenage Prophet (dir. Robin Hays)

Best BC Film Award
Presented by CreativeBC, Encore by Deluxe
WINNER: The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open (dirs. Elle-Maija Tailfeathers & Kathleen Hepburn)

BC Emerging Filmmaker Award
Presented by UBCP/ACTRA, AFBS & William F. White
WINNER: Elle-Maija Tailfeathers for The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open

Canadian Film Awards

Best Canadian Film
Presented by Directors’ Guild of Canada

WINNER: One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (dir. Zacharias Kunuk)

Special Mention: Blood Quantum (dir. Jeff Barnaby)

Emerging Canadian Director
Presented by Directors’ Guild of Canada
WINNER: Murmur (dir. Heather Young)

Special Mention: Kuesippan (dir. Myriam Verrault)

Best Canadian Documentary
Presented by the Rogers Documentary Fund
WINNER: Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger (dir. Alanis Obomsawin)

Special Mention: My Dads, My Moms and Me (dir. Julia Ivanova)

Best Canadian Short Film
Presented by Side Street Post
WINNER: At The Bottom Of The Sea (dir. Caroline So Jung Lee)

Special Mention: The Physics Of Sorrow (dir. Theodore Ushev)

Most Promising Director of a Canadian Short Film
Presented by Delta Air Lines
WINNER: Acadiana (dirs. Guillaume Fournier, Samuel Matteau and Yannick Nolin)

Special Mention: Labour/Leisure (dirs. Jessica Johnson, Ryan Ermacora)

VIFF Impact Award
Presented by The Lochmaddy Foundation

WINNER: Resistance Fighters (dir. Michael Wech)

Rob Stewart Eco Warrior Award

Presented by RBC and Cineplex

WINNER: The Pollinators (dir. Peter Nelson)

Women In Film And Television Award

Artistic Merit Award

WINNER: The Whale And The Raven (dir. Mirjam Leuze)

Audience Awards

Super Channel People’s Choice Award
WINNER: Parasite (dir. Boon Jong Hoo)

VIFF Most Popular International Documentary
WINNER: Coup 53 (dir. Taghi Amirani)

VIFF Most Popular Canadian Feature
WINNER: Red Snow (dir. Marie Clements)

VIFF Most Pupular Canadian Documentary Award
WINNER: Haida Modern (dir. Charles Wilkinson)

As for my volunteer experience, it was a unique experience volunteering for the Centre for the Performing Arts this year. This was the cinema that would have the biggest attractions this year. The very first film I officiated for was the Opening Gala and for Guest Of Honour. Yes, one of the best things about volunteering for VIFF: seeing Gala shows! For that, I was mostly in charge of line control and directing people to standing in the right line. It went quite well. After the show, I was one of the people who collected ballots for people to rate the film on a scale of 1-5.

I was scheduled for a total of four shifts, but there were some changeabouts on the schedule. So that meant after the Opening Gala, I only did two more. The second Centre shift was a case where I did line control for the film Parasite. That was something because the show sold out well in advance. I had to direct people to not only stand in line at the end of the line, but make way for the entrances of the stores. The line-up was three-quarters around the block before things got moving. I did mark the end of the line well and direct them all into the theatre. By the time I got them all in, I was too tired to see Parasite for myself. My third shift at the Centre involved scanning tickets for two shows. Scanners worked fine during the first show, but mine couldn’t work for the second show. So my shift ended there. That gave me enough luck to see Mr. Jones.

I did three at the Centre, but volunteers are to do a minimum of four. I was able to make up for it by doing three other shifts whose requests were sent via email. I took two of them at the Playhouse and another at the main VanCity theatre. Both times at the Playhouse, it was a case of giving people ballots before the show and taking the ballots after the show. For VanCity, I did it for a three hour-long documentary that had an intermission. It was possible to take ballots during the intermission, but I got very few. Each time I took ballots, I joked “This is one case where democracy works!”

Once again, there was a volunteer party one week later. It was good as I was able to make conversation with people I volunteered with. I also met up with some people I hadn’t seen in a long time. They served Chinese food, BC wine and craft beer. There wasn’t anything too big for a show. Just music played by the DJ. Nevertheless it was a good night.

As for the films I saw, here’s a list of them as well as the hyperlinks to the reviews. I have the country of origin in brackets and an asterisk marking those that are their country’s official Best International Feature Film entry for this year’s Oscars:

I fulfilled my film-watching goals for this VIFF. Shorts segment? I did it on the first Sunday with To Live In Infamy. Feature-length Canadian film? I did it on the Opening Gala and added one more in the final week. A country’s official Oscar entry in the Best International Feature Film category? I saw three. Minimum ten films? I saw eighteen in total.

I didn’t see everything I wanted. I was hoping to see a VIFF Immersed exhibit again this year. This time instead of the Centre for Digital Media, it was at the Annex Centre and there was a limit of fifteen tickets per ninety-minute exhibit. The one show I had the availability to see was sold out online and I was told to come back for the volunteer line-up. However it was a school showing and it was all reserved. Whenever I don’t get what I want, I try to find a show to see at the last minute. That’s how I saw To Live To Sing. Volunteers had a very good chance of getting into shows for free, but it was always a risk with films in huge demand. That would be my case when I wanted to see Those Who Remained. All the passholders and ticket holders filled the theatre and there was no room for volunteers. You take your chances.

One additional thing about my filmwatching. I was hoping to have again this VIFF that they did away with this year was the late-night showings at the Rio Theatre. The VIFF would have shows on the Friday or Saturday nights that started at either 11:00 or 11:30 and usually ended at 1am or shortly after. They would be films that were part of their Altered States selections. I would take full advantage of it and even watch the one shown on the last day of the VIFF as a way to end my VIFF experience that year with a bang. They didn’t have them this year because they didn’t really draw that huge of numbers. Despite that, I was able to see two or three of the Altered States films at the Rio during the 930/945 times. For Friday the 11th, I saw Greener Grass at the Rio which started shortly after 7. However I didn’t end my VIFF at the Rio. Instead I ended my VIFF at the Playhouse with The White Snake. Despite the change, I still ended my VIFF with a bang!

It’s funny how back in 2012 when the Granville theatre was about to close, newspapers said VIFF was in trouble. It’s 2019 and the VIFF is still active. It does make steps to adapt to the changes but it’s doing very well. Again in 2019, VIFF did a great job of bringing the world of film to the big screen. For many, this may be the only chance to see such films on the big screen. There have already been big screen releases for Jojo Rabbit, The Lighthouse, and Parasite, and there are more to come like White Snake. However we’re in a time nowadays where more is expected of a film to hit the big screen. The pressures of blockbuster superhero movies and other action films to bring in box office money demonstrates how much more restrictive box office releases are. There will be a lot of films at this film festival that will either be shown on Netflix or other streaming sources. The numbers of such are increasing. It’s a very tight time for independent film. It’s not like the breakthrough years of the late-80’s or early 90’s. It’s a good thing we have film festival like the VIFF to give such films a chance for better exposure.

So to conclude, I have to say it was an excellent experience I had this year. I didn’t have the Platinum Pass this year and I didn’t see everything I wanted, but I was happy with what I saw. No real disappointments. No film I thought was a waste of my time. VIFF 2020 is anticipated to be from September 24th and go until October 9th. Yes, I plan to be back to watch and to volunteer!

VIFF 2019 Review: The White Snake (白蛇:缘起)

WHITE-SNAKE

The White Snake is the story of a young woman who is destined to be a snake spirit, but is torn between her destiny and the man she loves.

“Your fate may be in stone, but you choose how you live.”

I ended my VIFF 2019 experience by seeing The White Snake at the Playhouse theatre. I wanted to treat myself to something imaginative. It was excellent and breathtaking to watch.

Blanca is a young assassin in white clothes. She is a snake spirit as the ‘White Snake’ and is able to assume human form, but she can’t achieve her goal of immortality. The answer to her goal of immortality lies in a memory of centuries ago, which she cannot recall. Her sister Verta, who is a ‘green snake’ spirit, gives her a magical hairpin that allows her to go back in time to the Tang Dynasty to get her answer.

Back in time, Blanca finds herself waking up in a village. She is surprised to learn she’s in what’s called ‘Snake Catcher Village.’ She comes across a handsome villager names Sean and his dog DuDou. Sean rescued her from a rock by the waterfalls. She falls for Sean, but is unaware that Sean is a snake-hunter. He has been ordered to hunt snakes for the Dark General and the Little General as they believe the snakes hold the key to supreme power.

Soon Sean faces an attack from a snake demon. Blanca stops the demon, only to learn it’s Verta. Sean is surprised and Dudou is convinced she’s a demon. Sean is convinced Blanca is not a demon, despite all he knows about her. Nevertheless Verta reminds Blanca that her true nature will come out when there will be a battle between the snakes and the Dark General’s army. Soon Sean learns who Blanca is as she assumes snake form. Foxy Boss tells Blanca a terrible secret about being a ‘demon:’ gods, people, and even other demons want to kill you.

Will Sean still love Blanca? There will be a battle between the snake catchers and the snake spirits very soon. The Snake General wants Blanca to be extinguished since she wants to defy her snake spirit. Blanca is heartbroken and feels she’s doomed to her demon spirit forever, but Sean sees it in his heart to love Blanca and see her for who she really is. The film ends with a battle in thrilling fashion and in a romantic mood.

This film is a 3D animation big-screen adaptation of the traditional four-chapter Legends Of The White Snake. What I liked best about the film is that the film doesn’t just present a good eye-catching drama, but it also possesses a lot of elements of Chinese culture and Chinese mythology. The imagery of animal spirits within a person is very common in Chinese storytelling and Chinese folklore. I’m not familiar with all of Chinese folklore but I can see a lot of familiar traits of it in the film. Especially the animal spirits that exist in the humans. The film does it in a very entertaining and a very mesmerizing way. The 3D animation doesn’t hurt it at all. In fact it makes it very eye-catching and even brings the audience into the story.

The film appears like a common Chinese fable meant to tell the story of bad and good. However the story is also about rejecting a destiny all for the love of a man. She was a snake spirit; he was a snake hunter. It shows how the heart can win over a person even if they are destined to be something else. The film is mostly a drama and the film succeeds in being a dramatic story. However there are some humorous moments. Most of the humor comes from Dudou, especially after he’s able to speak. It does seem like a must to have some humor in an animated film. Kids will be watching. The film doesn’t seem to get as suggestive as parts of Children Of The Sea does, but there are some suggestive scenes. The story tries more to capture the essence of love between the two. Nevertheless the suggestiveness and the violence in the film leaves me thinking this will get a PG rating.

This is an excellent film done by Light Chaser Animation. Excellent job by directors Amp Wong (credited as Huang Jiakang) and Ji Zhao. Amp has animation credits with doing the Green Lantern series. Zhao has more credits in doing editorial work in film and this is his first direction of animation. Here the directors and the Animation studio deliver a great, colorful eye-catching story that’s a delight to watch and will capture your imagination. The story by first-time scriptwriter DaMao is also excellent. It captures the story and the essence of Chinese mythology well while giving an ideal story for big-screen animation.

The vocal talent is also there. Zhang Zhe did a very good job at making Blanca sound mystical. Yang Tianxuang was also good at making Xu Xuan sound as romantic as he looked. He Zhang was great in adding the humor to the film with DuDou and Zheng Xiaopu was great at bringing out the deviousness of Foxy Boss. The music from Guo Haowei and the songs sung by Sean are also a delight to hear and add to the film’s mystique.

It’s interesting to note that the White Snake cost 80 million Chinese Yuan (roughly $11.4 million US) to make but made 447 million Yuan (about $63.9 million US) in China alone. It will be released in North America starting only with Los Angeles on November 15th and in limited release starting November 29th. English dubs will be in the release as Stephanie Sheh will be the English-language voice for Blanca and Paul Yen will voice Ah Xuan or Sean. Having seen the film in Mandarin with subtitles, I would see the English-language one, but I would try to see which one in more magical. Also those who watch the film when it comes out, I highly recommend you stay to watch the credits. Yes, there is a scene in between the credits featuring Foxy Boss that leaves you convinced there will be a sequel coming out. In fact the Mandarin title of the film means ‘White Snake: The Origin.’

The White Snake is a film with a lot of beauty and intense thrills, but it also has some humor and passion. It succeeds in doing what an animated film should do and make you escape into another world.

And that does it! There wraps up the last of the films I saw at the Vancouver International Film Festival. I will be posting my wrap-up blog very soon.

VIFF 2019 Review: The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会)

Wild Goose Lake

The Wild Goose Lake is a story of a Chinese crime boss on the hunt, played by Hu Ge (right), and the woman who loves him, played by Gwei Lun-mei (left).

I was volunteering when they were showing The Wild Goose Lake. I found it intriguing to see a crime drama coming from China.

Zhao Zenong is part of a crime ring in a district of Wuhan. One night, he goes to a dingy amphitheater in the basement of a hotel. There the men are talking about the latest techniques in motorcycle theft. One man tries to direct men to certain areas of the district to conduct their crime. Two men squabble over a lucrative area and then an all-out fight ensues. The fight is brutal and bloody with no one dying. However as some of the men go riding off in their motorcycles chasing each other down, one is beheaded by a rail at a fast speed. Meanwhile a policeman who arrives is accidentally shot by Zhao in a tourist garden.

In the city, a young woman named Liu Aiai works as a prostitute. She catches Zhao’s eye. Zhao propositions her and even gives her one of his cigarettes. Turns out Liu is a ‘bathing beauty’ who’s pimp is a mob boss named Huahua. Huahua tells Liu to deliver a message to Zhao’s wife. He has placed a hefty dead-or-alive price on Zhao because the decapitated man in one of Hua’s men. Also after the shooting of the cop, the police now have a dead-or-alive reward of 300,000 Yuan for the capture of Zhao and is made public on television. Captain Liu alert a team of police dressed for undercover work that he may be in the Wild Goose Lake area: an area known for its lawlessness.

Sometime later, Aiai is at a night market participating in line dancing with glow shoes. Just as she’s dancing to ‘Rasputin,’ she notices Zhao’s wife. She meets her to tell the news. Then right in the middle of dancing, another shootout occurs through a raid of the bikers for Zhao. Zhao escapes but the bikers shoot one man.

Zhao knows all the details. He knows it when he sees all the surveillance cameras and what’s up. Men inside the crime ring want to claim the reward, with Zhao dead. One night, he meets with Aiai by the Lake.  Zhao tells her that if she turns him in, the reward money goes to his wife. Despite this, Aiai wants the reward to start a better life. Zhao has been in hiding since he’s been aware he’s a wanted man by more than one source. He does not his wife or young son to be a victim of this mess. However his own mob boss doesn’t like Zhao hiding himself. His boss still needs him to do things. The police confront Zhao’s wife and hope to use her to get Zhao in. Hua wants to use Zhao’s wife as bait for his own reward, but she breaks down over all this. A heist by the police turns up nothing. Zhao is shot, but is able to remove the bullet and bandage himself up.

One day, Zhao meets with Aiai at the lake in a boat. They share what could be one last cigarette. They caress and Zhao confesses everything to her. That night one of Hua’s men grabs Aiai and rapes her. The man is then shot by Zhao. But right in Wuhan’s market area, the police are on the chase for him. Zhao knows he has to make a run for it. He tries to make a run for the Lake, but is shot and killed. The police arrive led by Captain Liu and the news media comes as well. In the aftermath, Aiai and Zhao’s widow are seen together, and smiling.

There have been crime stories before. Most of them have been the common cat-and-mouse story that we see again in this film. Zhao has a ransom on his head and almost everybody surrounding him from law authorities to rivals to people even of his own crime syndicate want the big-money reward. It’s not just about a big crime boss trying to avoid being killed. It’s also how through Aiai we see another side of him. The outside sees a heartless criminal who’s hard to catch and hard to kill. When he’s with Liu, we see a man with feelings of love and sensitivity. A man who does have frailty and knows that he’s not that invincible. A man who shared with her more than just cigarettes. A man who wants to keep his wife and child out of his doings. Also unlike most of the other men in the crime world, he knew how to treat a lady right. Very rarely do we see a film that shows a sensitive side to a crime boss. The film does have the ability to be labeled a romance as it can be labeled a crime thriller.

The film is not just about the boss Zhao. It’s also about Aiai Liu: the woman in between. Aiai Liu is the woman who has Zhao’s heart. Zhao may be married to another woman, but it’s Aiai who Zhao drops his feelings of egotistical invincibility and shows he has a heart. However Aiai knows being involved with Zhao will make her a target. She knows men will want to target her and even violate her. She appears to know of the risk and is willing to make that risk. The smile between her and Zhao’s wife at the end does make one wonder. Are they smiling because they’re finally free? Or are they smiling in remembrance of Zhao?

The film succeeds not only as a drama, but also from its many cinema angles. The bike chases add to the excitement. The times between Zhao and Aiai add a calmness to the film at the right time and done in top notch film noir style. The addition of many of the shootings happening near a tourist section of the Lake and with surrounding animals add to the storytelling. The use of the Lake being where Zhao shows his frailty and fearfulness around Aiai also adds. The use of lights and colors in various shots, the sights of the worn buildings of the market town, and images of trains passing which has been done numerous times in crime stories also add to the film and its quality. It’s almost as if film noir has a Chinese quality added to it.

This is an accomplishment for writer/director Diao Yinan. He’s had two decades of renowned success with Black Coal, Thin Ice winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Here he takes on a crime story and does it with remarkable style. The story may be confusing and overdrawn in some areas, like Aiai’s rape, but he presents it in excellent fashion. Diao may have a lot of common elements of film noir in the past in this film, but it’s adding these elements to this film that shows a Chinese filmmaker can create film noir and make it look like his own.

One thing that’s rare in action films is deep acting, there was a lot here. Ge Hu was excellent as Zhao Zenong. He did a great job in making him go from this fearless invincible criminal a troubled man haunted by his impending death whenever he’s around Aiai. Lun-Wei Kwei was also very good as the woman caught in the middle who has feelings for Zhao, but also knows she has her own job to do. Also kudos to the cinematography of Dong Jingsong and the art direction of Qiang Liu.

This film was a nominee for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and was also a nominee for a major prize at the San Sebastian Film fest. There have been times during the film or even after the film I wondered how would a story about organized crime in China make it to the big screen? Would the Chinese government be concerned and want the film to be censored? This film is planned for release in China on December 6th of this year.

The Wild Goose Lake is a crime drama of the pursuit of chasing down a big crime boss for the sake of a reward. However the story is a lot more as it’s about the woman he loves and her feelings towards him, and living in the same criminal world he lives in.

VIFF 2019 Review: Children Of The Sea (海獣の子供)

Children Of The Sea

A young girl meets two ‘boys of the ocean’ who give her a summer to remember in Children Of The Sea.

Very rarely do I see animated films at the VIFF. It’s usually off my radar or I catch it by chance. I was fortunate to see Children Of The Sea from Japan. This is an excellent film to watch.

The film begins in the summer. 14 year-old Ruka is not happy spending it at home as her mother just drinks beer. She finds a break from it as she spends the days as part of her school’s camp. There she’s able to let out her energy. During a game of field handball, Ruka performs aggressively and suddenly trips, skinning her knee. The girl that tripped her did it by accident, but laughs at her. This infuriates Ruka to the point she gets her in the face in the next tackle. Ruka is taken off the game and the leader of the sports camp takes her out of the camp for the rest of the summer. Now there’s nothing for Ruka to do before summer’s end.

Ruka’s father, who is mostly away, takes her and bring her to the marine biology lab she works at. Ruka is blown away from all the sea animals that she sees there. However she notices a human. He’s a boy of dark skin and he seems to live in the waters and treat them like it’s his playground. His name is Umi. Her father tells her Umi was raised at sea by a dugong. Soon Ruka starts swimming with Umi during her summer days. The two develop a close friendship. Umi has a light-skinned blond-haired blue-eyed brother named Sora who’s also a boy of the sea. The boys of the sea are studies at the aquarium. Some of the scientists are concerned for their life, while other scientists at the research facility selfishly hope the boys will lead them to the Birth Festival– an underwater festival celebrating sea life — and hope to study it in order to advance oceanic sciences.

One day, Ruka is swimming with Umi and Sora in the ocean with one of the workers carefully supervising them shipside, while the more selfish scientists watch from the coast in curiosity. Ruka soon learns from Umi that they don’t know how much longer they will live and she is shocked. During her time with the two boys, the three decide to pursue a shooting star-like ‘will-o-the-wisp’ and it’s an experience like no other. She even kisses one of the boys.

However as summer is nearing its end, the day soon comes of the Birth Festival. Ruka fears this could be the day Umi and Sora die. Nevertheless the three enter into the water as Umi and Sore feel they have to be a part of this. The festival is deep in the ocean and begins in spectacular fashion. It is a celebration for the eye to behold. Even Ruka is able to swim with whale sharks. However as it ends, Umi and Sora are nowhere to be seen and Ruka is heartbroken. even the selfish scientists regret their pursuits. Ruka meets with her father and he promises to patch things up between him and her mother. Summer ends with a heartbroken Ruka walking to school. But just as she sees a handball, her newfound courage is very visible.

Anime is a very popular version of animation. It has a worldwide following in the way it does animation and for the way it tells stories. Usually on the internet, there’s a lot of celebrating of anime with some of the darker more disturbing stories. It’s very rare that the tamer more family-friendly stories get their notice, as well as their acclaim. This film may have some mature themes and wouldn’t entirely be 100% family friendly, but it is a film that will deliver an entertaining and mesmerizing story for people of various ages. The film is also a reminder of the qualities 2D-animation still possesses. We may live in a time where 3-D animation is the norm for feature films right now, but the film shows that 2-D animation is just as captivating and is also able to take the audience to another world. I did notice some imperfections in the film that are common in anime and wouldn’t be allowed in 3D animation. Nevertheless this film had the right images, the right story and the right effects to take you to another world: the mystical world of the ocean.

One thing about animation is that for it to succeed on screen, it has to have a top-notch story from start to finish. The story itself is very good. A lonely girl from an uneasy family background finds herself meeting two boys of the sea. Both boys were born to live in the sea, but have trouble on land and their time may be short. Here the girl has a summer experience of a lifetime as she learns of the beauty around them and learns how to be a friend. The story succeeds in having a consistent beginning, middle and end with characters that are either relatable or mystically captivating. I know that anime is not for everybody, but this film has such a lovely story with such spectacular dazzling animation effects, I feel it’s very much worth seeing.

This is an excellent film by animator Ayumu Watanabe. Children Of The Sea is actually a Japanese comic book series drawn by Daisuke Igarashi. I am not familiar with the series but I will say that the on-screen adaptation with the animation by Studio 4°C Co. made for a great mesmerizing story. The vocal talent from the voice actors is excellent, but it leaves me wondering if it gets a North American release, will it be in subtitles like I saw it or with English voice-overs? The music from Joe Hisaishi also fit the film excellently. Hisaishi has composed scores for many feature-length anime films like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. He does an excellent job again.

Children Of The Sea is as much as great story as it is dazzling to watch. It’s an anime film that’s as mystical as it is entertaining.

VIFF 2019 Review: Greener Grass

Greener Grass

Greener Grass is a comedy about dimwitted parents and dimwitted couples in a dimwitted world.

After seeing a lot of dramas at the VIFF, especially heavy dramas, you can bet I’d be in the mood for some comedy. I got what I needed on the last day of the festival with Greener Grass. It’s not your typical comedy, and all the better for it.

The film opens at a neighborhood children’s soccer game. Jill Davies meets up with her best friend Lisa Wetbottom. Jill’s son Julian and Lisa’s son Bob are playing in the game. Lisa is complimenting Jill on her newborn baby daughter Madison. Jill decides that Lisa can have Madison, to Lisa’s complete surprise. Lisa accepts with no problem.

The two drive home in their golf carts, which all the resident of the town drive. Arriving home, Jill tells Nick the news, and he’s okay with it. He’s happy that they still have Julian, even though he is a nerd who’s awkward at sports, which Nick is uncomfortable with. Lisa introduces baby Madison to her husband Dennis and son Bob. The others happily welcome Madison and rename her Paige. Lisa is proud of how Bob is good at sports, but uncomfortable how Bob is not that good at school. On top of that, her husband Dennis is shorter and pudgier compared to taller, more athletic Nick. Later on, the two couples meet together at a barbecue. They end up kissing each others’ spouses. However they all laugh it up and switch it back to the right pairings.

They try to go about their lives and raising their families normally, or as normal as it gets in that town. Nick may be unhappy Julian is not the athletic hero he hoped for, but he’s okay since they now have better pool water. The water’s so good, he enjoys drinking it. Soon there is the news that the yoga instructor has been murdered. The whole town is in shock. Both Jill and Lisa are nervous. There’s even a message of terror sent to Lisa’s golf cart.

One day, Lisa notices a volleyball left by a playground. She uses it to make herself look like she’s pregnant. And everyone including Dennis buys this. This starts to upset Jill. Lisa first noticed how unhappy Jill was at a children’s bowling game. At Nick’s birthday party, Lisa thinks Jill is best with getting a divorce. Soon Julian distracts from the party and talks about how terrible his life is. When he appears to take a suicide plunge in the pool, he turns into a dog. Everyone is in shock.

Jill goes about bringing the dog-like Julian to school, much to Bob’s shock, and music practice. However Nick is blown away how good Julian is at sports. He’s like the son of Nick’s dreams now. Jill tells Nick he wants a divorce. Nick agrees and takes Julian with him. Jill is now childless and empty. Meanwhile a ‘pregnant’ Lisa is shocked to see Bob watching Kids With Knives on the television. The show immediately turns Bob into a self-loathing angst-ridden monster. However Lisa decides to ‘give birth’ to the volleyball, and all including Dennis accept it as the new addition to the family.

Jill can’t handle it. It’s not just being childless, but the stress knowing the murderer hasn’t been caught yet. Jill then confronts Lisa. She wants Madison/Paige back. Lisa is hurt. Paige is hers. Plus he reminds Jill that it makes her look like an ‘Indian giver’… excuse me… ‘Native American giver.’ Jill can’t take it anymore. That night, she rips out the wire from her braces, furiously drives past the intersection in her golf cart without being polite and drives off into another town. She sees a house with children. She knocks on the door and talks to the mother. The conversation is friendly until Jill asks for one of her children. The woman politely asks her to leave, but one of the girls is looking at Jill as she walks off. Jill has a new child!

Jill makes it back into town and just on the eve as the murderer of the yoga instructor has been caught. At a children’s soccer game, Jill’s child plays her first game. Everybody is happy to see Jill’s new child, including Lisa. She’s happy to see that Jill is finally happy again. Or is she?

Watching this comedy does leave you wondering what the heck is going on? The world these adults live in make no sense at all. Perhaps that may be its best quality. Instead of this being a world that makes perfect sense, it makes perfect nonsense. It’s a world where the adults wear sweet pastel colors, all wear braces on their top teeth and all drive around in gold carts. A world where they’re too polite to make the first move at a stop sign. A world where they make huge decisions without rational thought. A world where they can love as conditionally as they want. A world a parent can simply give their child to another family and the family’s good with it. A world with TV shows where cooking contestants are judged with someone else’s entry, and they accept without hesitation. A world where the kids have their own weird bizarre traits and can instantly either turn into a dog or act like they’re possessed by the devil. A world where a woman can fake a pregnancy with a basketball and everyone would believe it, and even treat the basketball like it’s their baby!

To sum it all up, it’s a world lacking of common sense, but full of smiley niceness, instant hurt and even insanity. I haven’t seen this much weirdness or bizarre human behavior since watching an episode of South Park. Though it’s not as warped as a South Park episode, it has a combined weirdness that has to both make sense and be consistent from start to finish. When you see a lot of the idiocies or the idiotic world created in the film, it does get you wondering. Will it hold through from start to its feature-length finish? Will the stupidity of the world be just as stupid at the end? Will the characters be just as dim-witted? To my surprise, the story did hold up. Instead of making perfect sense from start to finish, it made perfect nonsense. The world and the characters are just as idiotic at the end as they were at the beginning. The may have been some noticeable changes in the kids, but it ended with the same crazy energy.

This may be a comedy with nonsense from start to finish. However it does seem to resemble the envy people, parents, and couples. It’s a spoof on how we all think the grass is greener on the other side or how we keep up with the Joneses or how we try to chase something we can’t get. We can’t be happy with what we have. We have to think the other one’s better or try to one-up them. This film and the brace-cases in it spoofs it, and in bizarrely hilarious fashion.

This comedy belongs to Upright Citizens Brigade alumni Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe. They wrote it together, directed it together and play Jill and Lisa respectively. Actually this is a feature-length version of the short film Greener Grass they created four years earlier. They took a story full of a lot of comedic ridiculousness and insanity and had quite the job to make it work as a smooth film from beginning to end. To my surprise, it works. The story and its combination of idiocy and insanity works from beginning to end. It had all the making of a story that would go off-path, but it doesn’t. Whatever different elements of the story get added in as if it adds to the story instead of interferes with it.

One thing about the film is that it’s obvious Jocelyn and Dawn are aiming for shocks. This film is a film that has people with a lot of experience writing for and acting in comedies. Here you can tell with a lot of the incidents and lines, they are aiming not just to weird us out, but shock us along the way. It’s noticeable with a TV show called Kids With Knives, Nick drinking pool water, the other-spouse kiss (which is full of saliva) and Bob uttering angry lines like “I wish I was aborted!”

The supporting acting is also funny. The husbands are played by two Saturday Night Livers: SNL actor Beck Bennett plays Nick and SNL writer Neil Casey plays Dennis. They both do a good job of adding to the idiocy of the story and even show a good male side to the idiocy in the world of this film. The two boys in the film were also good, but Asher Miles Fallica was quite something as Bob. He goes from a kid that’s your typical kid to a boy who suddenly acts like he’s possessed by the devil after watching Kids With Knives. That’s crazy!

Greener Grass is a comedy about suburban families that mixes in stupid with bizarre and insanity and insecurities. It comes off as a winning feature-length comedy from start to finish.

VIFF 2019 Review: Joel

Joel

Joel is the story of an Argentinian family’s adoption of a boy, and the difficulties that come with it.

Joel is a family drama from Argentina. It’s based on an adoption scenario that tells more about the society than about the adoption process.

Cecilia and Diego are a couple in a small Argentinean mountain town of Tolhuin in the Patagonian forests. Cecilia is a music teacher and Diego is a successful forester. They’ve been hoping to start a family, but it hasn’t worked out. They decide to pursue the Argentinean adoption system. They’ve received news their request from the government has been granted. They also learn about a boy who is up for adoption. They’re told he’s eight years old and his name is Joel.

They are informed that Joel is actually nine years old. Joel comes from a troubling family background in Buenos Aires. His mother died and was soon looked after by his uncle and grandmother. His uncle soon ended up in prison and Joel had since been committed to institutions. Cecilia and Diego are both excited and nervous about taking on Joel. They look forward to being his parents, but are cautious about what they might have to deal with. The two meet Joel for the first time. The two are both excited and nervous while Joel is quiet and shy.

Cecilia and Diego make the efforts to be parents to Joel. They give him his own room and allow him to pick out his own clothes. There’s a party to introduce Joel to the family. Samuel and Virginia, a religious couple whom they are friends with, are pleased to meet Joel. Cecilia and Diego also enroll Joel into the town school. They have a lot of high hopes, but are nervous.

One day, they find a cellphone in Joel’s drawers that’s not his. They return it to the school but the people aren’t happy. Then Cecilia receives word that Joel will have to be given a teaching schedule different from the other students and separated from them. The reason why is made unclear to Cecilia at first. The teacher reveals that Joel has been telling the children stories about doing drugs.

This is alarming the parents. The outrage has gotten to the point that the parents do not want their children to be around Joel. This is having a strain on the relationship of Cecilia and Diego. Those close to them, including Samuel and Virginia, are distancing themselves from them. Even Diego’s boss weighs in about what is to be done with Joel. Cecelia is even told if she gives up on Joel, he could be sent back to the institutions where he eventually grows up to live a life of crime and die young.

There’s a school meeting about what is to be done with Joel’s educational setting. The meeting is fiery with many parents speaking out their hostility. One of the mothers confronts Cecilia and tells her that she was adopted too and the attitudes that are happening are similar to what she experienced. Then the teacher and school director finally meet with Cecilia to discuss their final decision. It’s a decision they’re optimistic with. They have decided to have Joel spend six months in a ‘special school’ up in the mountains where they believe he will be better-adjusted in time to have him brought back to the school. Cecilia is not happy with the result. Diego insists she goes along with it because his boss believes it’s the right thing. As Cecilia is about to drive Joel to his temporary school, she makes her own critical decision on the matter.

This film tells of an adoption story in Argentina. However the film does show a lot of elements that one anywhere in the world can identify with. There’s the legal process which is common in most countries; there’s the fact that Diego and Cecilia will be parenting for the first time ever; there’s the adoption of a boy from a troubling background from the big city; there’s trying to get the boy to fit into a smalltown setting. There’s even the mission of the Argentinian adoption system: “Our aim is to find parents for the children, not children for the parents”.

Here in North America today, adoption should be a non-issue. Some countries or cultures may have a negative stigma about adoption whether it be the adoption process or about the children adopted. I’m not knowledgeable at all about how most Argentinians view adoption. All I know is the laws stated in the film and nothing else. However I did see a theme that we commonly see even in towns or villages of developed countries like Canada and the US. A city kid is taken into a home in the countryside to be given a life and a family. What happens is ostracism not just of the kids, but of the parents too. Even a client of Diego’s weighs his own opinion on this. The film shows a common theme of smalltown narrow-mindedness where they can be hostile to outsiders. In this case, we have the children, parents and teachers that are mostly against Joel being in the town and schools. Lines like “Our children are pure and live in a lovely town. Why should they have to put up with him?” sound like they’re echoes from common-talk. That scene of the mother who was adopted and faced similar flack says a lot about these attitudes.

The quality of the story also gets the audience involved and gets them wondering who or what to side with. Joel appears harmless, but he comes from a troubled background in Buenos Aires. Cecilia and Diego took Joel away to give him a family life and to take him away from the inner city threats that could endanger him, including from his own blood-family. Joel acts harmless around the house, but the teachers, parents and students all tell a different story. You even see things that make you wonder like how Joel arrived with a packet containing a lighter, money and a toy, or even the cellphone he either found or stole. You never see Joel do any of the things those parents say he does, but even if Joel said those words or stole the phone, this is very common among children his age. Wrong, but common among boys his age. It’s the people’s overreactions that are causing the problem.

In the meantime, this causes problems with both Joel and the family. They’re undecided about what to do or what actions to take. It’s right at the end where Cecilia makes her decision. I think that’s the biggest quality of the film. The film is about a story that’s very down to earth and is something a lot of families can relate to. It’s about facing the difficulties of doing the right thing. It’s about trying to give love to a child with quite a backstory, but trying to be a parent and doing what’s right. It’s about trying to get acceptance in a place where the hidden narrow mindedness comes out. I don’t think the story is meant to defame Tolhuin in any which way, but it presents itself as a story that can happen in any Argentinian town. It’s a story the audience can easily put themselves in the shoes of Cecilia and Diego. What would they do? What’s the best thing for Joel? It even gets the audience asking what would you do?

This film is a very good film from writer/director Carlos Sorin. Sorin is one of the most renowned directors from Argentina. 2002’s Historias Minimas is his most renowned work to date having won him many film festival awards including the FIPRESCI Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival. What he delivers in Joel is a film that lacks the envelope-pushing and artistic daringness that one expects to have as film festival fare. Not every film at the VIFF aims to be artistically daring or provocative or experimental. Sometimes the films at the VIFF are films that are among the best their country has to offer. Sorin is a director with a reputation. He places reality on the film screen and tries to make a statement with the story. He succeeds in doing so in Joel. He presents an example of a situation and gets one thinking of the attitudes that he sees in Argentina. There was a lot of good acting, but it’s Victoria Almeida that is the centerpiece of the film as Cecelia. She holds the story together as it mostly revolves around Cecelia and her desire to be a mother and to do what she needs to. Especially for Joel.

Joel is a family drama that tells of an adoption story in Argentina, but there are many elements of the story that one can see happening close to home. The story succeeds with messages that cross borders and cultural barriers.

VIFF 2019 Review: Mr. Jones

Gareth-Jones

Mr. Jones is about journalist Gareth Jones, played by James Norton (left) who seeks to expose a tragedy in Ukraine the USSR is determined to hide from the outside world.

I was interested in seeing Mr. Jones at the VIFF as it’s based on a topic of my interest: the Holodomor or Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. It’s an intriguing story with a relevant message for today’s world.

In 1933, Gareth Jones is a 28 year-old Welsh journalist who is very good at getting stories. He was the first foreign journalist to fly with Hitler and Goebbels at the start of Hitler’s regime while working as an advisor for British statesman Herman Lloyd George. During the time, he discovered of Hitler’s intentions to wage war. His story fell to deaf ears in the press and his job as advisor is dropped due to budget cuts. Despite being dropped, George gave Jones a letter of recommendation. He hopes to use it to go to the USSR to find an investigative journalist. Before he does, he gets a phone call from a friend named Paul Kleb in the USSR. He talks of how the economy is booming in Russia, but he is about to tell of something terrible happening in Ukraine… and then he gets disconnected.

Jones arrives in Moscow. His trip is regulated from start to finish: what he does, how long he stays and where he goes. That’s how things are in the USSR. In fact his job as a foreign journalist is under heavy scrutiny by national officials during his stay and no foreign journalist is allowed outside of Moscow. He arrives at the hotel in Moscow of New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty. Duranty welcomes him and introduces him to his assistant Ada Brooks. Jones is expected to be in the USSR for seven days but he can only stay at the hotel for two days. Duranty offers Jones to stay and partake in the late-night partying. At the parties is all kinds of debauchery from prostitutes to heroin shooting to even homosexual advances. Jones wants none of this as he knows Paul Kleb was killed in Ukraine and has to find out why.

Jones finds a train headed to Eastern Ukraine. He breezes past security to stow away on it. When he arrives in Ukraine, he steps off to see the farmed grains loaded onto trucks by the Soviet army, but people dead in the snow and farmers starving. He tries to get answers. He goes to soldiers putting the bagged grain in a truck. He asks in English where it’s going, but is suspected as a spy. Soldiers go out chasing and shooting after him. Fortunately, Jones is able to evade the pursuit. He comes across some children who sing a haunting song to him of the death and starvation happening around him. He goes to a house which is in a photograph he holds, but sees the residents dead in their beds. Jones goes into a town where he sees the Soviet army take the dead bodies in the snow and pile them in a sled to be buried in a mass grave. They even take a baby that’s alive and still crying. Jones goes into a house where he is able to find living residents. They give him something to eat, which appears to be meat, and from Kolya. He soon learns they’re staying alive by cannibalism, and Kolya is a famine fatality.

Soon Jones is captured by Soviet forces. The Communist government commands him to be silent by using the lives of six British auto workers as hostages. Jones tries to plead with Walter Duranty to expose the truth of what’s happening, but Duranty is ‘in bed’ with the Soviet regime. Duranty has a habit of writing of the ‘Worker’s Revolution’ in the USSR like he romanticizing it. In fact Duranty has the reputation of being known as ‘Our Man In Moscow.’ Ada however is more supportive towards Jones and believes he has to get the story out. This can’t be hidden and knowing that Jones is to be sent back to the UK, she encourages him to make the truth known.

Back in the UK, Jones can’t get any British paper to buy into his revelations of a man-made famine. The government either doesn’t want to believe it, or fear it will jeopardize diplomatic relations with the USSR. This upsets Jones as he knows this must be stopped. The events upset him so much, he can’t stop himself from breaking down in tears in his hometown. However he has an opportunity to talk to William Randolph Hearst while at a newspaper office. Hearst, however is extremely busy and will only allow Jones thirty seconds to state his case. However when he mentions of the death of Paul Kleb, that grabs Hearst’s ear and makes Hearst want to hear everything Jones saw. Finally the story ‘Famine In Ukraine’ makes the front page of the New York Times. Jones is defamed. He is not allowed in the USSR again. Duranty is also defamed, but never had his Pulitzer Prize rescinded. Nevertheless George Orwell is caught in the intrigue of Jones’ pursuits and it inspires him to write ‘Animal Farm’ published ten years after Jones was shot to death.

I’ll admit any story about the Holodomor catches my interest. I’m of Ukrainian ancestry. My great-grandparents arrived in Canada around the 1890’s-early 1900’s. They came here long before World War I even started, before Ukrainian land was annexed as part of the USSR and before the Holodomor. This film showcases the Holodomor and is possibly one of the best cinematic depictions of it, but the Holodomor is not the biggest theme of the film. The biggest theme of the film is about censorship in the USSR at the time. All the censorship that happened in the film is an example of the censorship that happened in the USSR since it began after World War II until it broke down in the mid-80’s to when it dissolved in 1991. All news was censored. Nothing but good news was to be published in Soviet newspapers and whatever negative news could not hit either Soviet news nor news to the outside world. Phone wires were tapped and letters were opened and investigated by authorities before it reached the mailboxes of the citizens or outsiders. Even speaking negative words of the Communist government would get one a jail sentence. The Soviet media promoted propaganda to glorify itself and its Communist system and vilify the capitalist system in the United States.

As seen through Gareth, the Soviet system was also restrictive to outsiders. The system decided if a person from an outside country could visit, where they could go and stay and for how long. There were already six British autoworkers who were treated like hostages at the time and threatened with death to have the UK comply to their demands. You can understand just what Jones had to face in order to get the truth out.

Gareth had good reason to pursue the story. It’s not just trying to find out why Paul Kleb died, but Ukraine had personal interest to him as his mother taught English in Ukraine in the 1890’s. Gareth even had barriers in journalism to overcome once he had his story. He had top journalist Walter Duranty to deal with. Duranty had a big reputation at stake and kept insisting that the Holodomor isn’t happening. It isn’t until Jones meets with William Randolph Hearst that he finally gets a willing ear. The big feud between Duranty and Jones shows how even in what is supposed to be the ‘free world,’ there is still a lot of truths that are suppressed or even denied. Seeing all that goes on can make one wonder if this is happening today in what is supposed to be free countries. If we are really getting this freedom of speech or if we’re getting a lot of concocted stories.

This film is great in making a point about journalism and getting the truth out. There are a lot of truth even in today’s world that need to be exposed, but are covered up. The film does a good job in making a moment of past history, and the journalistic feuding surrounding it, make for a relevant message for today. Even the fact that Gareth was shot to death in 1935 while investigating a story in Chinese territory bordering Russia (which many consider to be a Soviet plot of revenge) reminds us of how many journalists risk their lives to uncover truths.

The film was very good at making its point. However the story didn’t seem to be heading on a straight path. There were times when moments that only deserved a certain time, like all the debauchery at Duranty’s hotel party, was slowed down and given more screen time than necessary. Even the moments of the journalistic feuding and political feuding appeared to take too long. The moments involving Jones witnessing the Holodomor in Ukraine were given the best screen time and the best on-screen depiction. It showed a lot of brutal honesty of the Holodomor, including that of cannibalism. It may have taken over less than half the screen-time, but it was done in excellent detail and gave the right haunting feel to this moment of tragedy.

Veteran director Agnieszka Holland teams up with emerging writer Andrea Chalupa to bring this story to the big screen. The story is one of great personal interest to Holland as she is well-knowledged of the Holodomor. Holland also has renown for her depictions of the Holocaust in some of her films. She does a very good job in directing the story, even if there are some moments of irrelevance or moments drawn out longer than they should be. James Norton does a good job in his portrayal of journalist Gareth Jones, but his part could have been developed more. Most of the parts didn’t have too much development and could have had more done with it. Nevertheless, Peter Saarsgard was able to make Walter Duranty hateable on the big screen. Vanessa Kirby was able to make her role of Ada gain more dimension over time.

Mr. Jones is about more than just about the Holodomor. It’s also about the topic of censorship that is just as relevant now with the ‘freedom of speech’ we’re led to believe we have in the ‘free world.’

VIFF 2019 Review: Pain And Glory (Dolor y gloria)

Pain And Glory

A film director, played by Antonio Banderas (right), seeks to get back his creative inspiration despite his failing health in Pain And Glory.

It’s to be expected that Pain And Glory would get a huge turnout at the VIFF. Pedro Almodovar is a darling of the arthouse film world. The buzz is this time, he’s reuniting with Antonio Banderas for the first time in over 30 years. Is it worth the hype?

The film is told by the first-person view of film director Salvador Mallo. Salvador is in a pool meditating alone. He has had open-heart surgery in the past. He’s had issues involving both his family and his sexuality in his past. He became renowned through his breakthrough film Sabor– a still beloved in its current remastering — but considers every film since to be a failure. He’s also had issues with back pain and other medical issues. All of this has caused a struggle to get inspired again with filming. He knows he has to, but he can’t. Not even as his landmark film Sabor (‘flavor’ in Spanish) has been remastered and re-released.

Over time, he learns he has to make peace with his past. He first reflects back to his childhood. His mother was the biggest influence in his life. As a child, he was a dreamer and his mother always fancied him to be one. He did great in academic studies, but he had a love for singing and a special love for movie stars. He was sent over to a convent school; something that was of great expense to his mother. However he also reflects to the last days he was with his mother. He was so consumed with his filmwork and his writing, he was negligent to his ailing mother. He did however promise he would take her back to the countryside where she could spend her last days, but she died before he could.

As his film Sabor is being re-released and even shown to film enthusiast, he reunites with Alberto Crespo, the lead actor of the film. Mallo hasn’t spoken to Crespo in 30 years because of his perceived ‘bad’ performance in the film. Crespo is not happy to see him, but gets Mallo into smoking heroin. During his heroin-smoking, he’s able to recount some of his memories. One is of the time in his childhood when his parents had to move into a whitewashed cave house because of how poor they were. The mother hired a laborer to repaint the inside. As part of the deal, Salvador is to teach the illiterate laborer how to read and write.

Another flashback of past memories comes during a Q&A during a screening of Sabor. Mallo, at Crespo’s house at the time, is too down to attend, but corresponds with the crowd through Crespo’s phone. Crespo is able to tell the crowd of some of the wonderful memories of the 80’s and talks of Federico: Mallo’s boyfriend at the time. Federico is in the crowd and responds. That infuriates Mallo and he responds to Crespo violently. It just reminds him it’s another past memory he has to come to terms with. Mallo loved Federico and the two were almost inseparable, but Federico had a bad drug addiction at the time and Mallo had to end the relationship. The heroin abuse Mallo is addicted to is very similar to the struggle Federico went through during their time together. Eventually Federico and Mallo reconcile during a dinner. He learns Federico has sobered up since, moved to Buenos Aires, married a woman and fathered three children.

Over time, Mallo needs to recover from his own drug addiction and have further check-ups on his throat which causes him to choke for no reason. He knows his time is very limited, or feels strongly that it is. His assistant gives him tickets to an opening to an art gallery. Over at the opening, Salvador notices a drawing of a boy sitting with a book. That drawing isn’t any child. It’s Salvador! It then reminds him of the time in Salvador’s childhood the laborer was drawing a picture of Salvador sitting with a book as a thank-you gift. Only his mother would later hide the drawing without Salvador’s knowledge. After the laborer finished, he needed to bathe. Salvador left to lie down in the bed from all the heat, but woke up to get the man a towel. When he saw the laborer naked, Salvador had a look of delightful surprise and fainted. The laborer thought Salvador fainted of heat stroke.

Soon Salvador is able to buy the drawing and he sees the thank-you message from the laborer on the back. His assistant recommends Salvador to find the laborer through a Google search, but Salvador feels it’s not worth the bother. Soon Salvador does go for the surgery to get the growth removed from his throat. The film goes to a scene to Salvador’s childhood of him with his mother waiting for a train during a village fiesta and watching the fireworks in awe. Only it’s not a flashback. It’s a scene from a film Salvador is directing about his past life. His desire to film has returned again!

When one watches the film, one can easily wonder if this is a film meant to be autobiographical of Almodovar himself? The life of Salvador does seem to mirror Almodovar’s own life in many ways. Pedro himself fell in love with films and movie stars as a child He was sent to a religious school as a boy in hopes of becoming a priest and was abused. Pablo is openly gay, and of course became a renowned film maker. Even the falling out between Salvador and Crespo is actually symbolic of the falling out between Almodovar and Banderas. However there are a lot of differences between Salvador and Pedro. Salvador appears to be born around 1960 while Pedro was born in 1949. Salvador is an only child raised by a mother and father who’s rarely there while Pedro was one of four raised by both parents; his father being alcoholic. Salvador appears to have had one masterpiece film while Pedro has had decades of masterpiece films. Also while Salvador appeared to lack inspiration and the drive to make films after illness and physical setbacks, Almodovar appeared to continue well.

Nevertheless it still gets one thinking. The film got me thinking does Almodovar see Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, his breakthrough film outside of Spain, to be garbage or the bane of his existence to him? Artsy types are so full of self-loathing! Also I have not been too familiar with Almodovar’s health problems. I have not known of any health problems happening to Almodovar. If there are any problems, they have not been made too public. Almodovar has made his back problem open recently, but did he ever have that throat problem? And the drug addiction. I know addiction is common in Almodovar films, but I haven’t heard of Almodovar addicted to heroin smoking.

This film may not be the best film Pedro Almodovar has done, but it has to be his most personal. There are a lot of similarities between Salvador and Pedro. There are also some that become questioning. Was Almodovar ever hooked on heroin? Is Almodovar envisioning what he could have been if he were a one-hit-film-wonder? One thing about Almodovar’s films is that he doesn’t just tell a story. He creates a lot of moods and images as if he’s paining a cinematic portrait. He tries to get us to feel the characters, feel the moments, feel the emotions. He has the ability to romanticize even the most bizarre moments. Even a man who impregnates a comatose woman (in 2002’s Talk To Her). This film is no exception. He helps us see the story through the eyes of Salvador in both his flashbacks and of the present moment, and romanticizes it. This is another accomplishment for Almodovar. It’s no wonder he’s become a film festival darling.

The funny thing of the film is that the flashbacks of Salvador’s childhood appear to be flashbacks. However it’s at the end that we learn that the flashbacks of his childhood we see are the flashbacks intended for Salvador’s new film. Filming within a film. That should have been apparent when there was Penelope playing the younger version of the mother in the flashbacks while the older mother had blue or green eyes. It made you wonder how did that happen? Now you know at the end.

The film also marks a great return to Almodovar collaborating with Antonio Banderas. Those of us in North America remember how he became a huge movie star in the 1990’s. What many did not know is that it was through Almodovar’s films that Banderas had his breakthrough. I still remember how he played a husband in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. Banderas actually acted in five of Almodovar’s film before breaking into the US upon the release of Mambo Kings. It appears like both made the other’s success. Here they reconnect and Banderas delivers what could be his most intimate, if not his best, acting performance ever. He does an excellent job of adding dimension to the character of the filmmaker in all of his joys, his hurts and his passions. Also Banderas isn’t afraid to show the surgery scars from his own open-heart surgery here.

Asier Exteandia is also good at the actor Crespo who is able to make peace with him, albeit turbulently. Also a delight to watch is Asier Flores as young Salvador. He added to the light-hearted parts of the film and even added some comedy too. The score from Alberto Iglesias helps dd to the feel to the film. Iglesias has contributed to the scores of many of Almodovar’s films and he does a great job of it again here.

The film could do well at this year’s Oscars. For the Cannes Film Festival, it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won Best Actor for Banderas and Best Soundtrack for Iglesias. The International Cinephile Society gave the Prix Du Jury award to Almodovar and the Best Actor award to Banderas, and Banderas also won Best Actor at this year’s Hollywood Film Awards. This film is also Spain’s official submission to the Oscar category of Best International Feature Film; the seventh Almodovar film to be Spain’s official entry in this category.

I wouldn’t say Pain And Glory is worth the hype, but it is a very unique story. It almost autobiographical in some ways. Even if it’s not completely autobiographical, it makes a good story all its own.

VIFF 2019 Review: Spider (Araña)

Spider

Spider is the Chilean drama of a neo-Fascist group in pre-1973 Chile whose memories haunt its former members 45 years later.

Spider is Chile’s official submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. The film will touch a raw nerve with Chileans due to its set in history.

The film begins in modern-day Chile. Out of nowhere, a purse-snatching happens. A man in a vehicle notices and tries to chase down the snatcher. The snatcher tries to avoid him, but Gerardo makes a turn into a concrete wall and crushes the snatcher to death. When the police arrive, they find a lot of guns and ammunition in the car. They also learn of his identity and arrest him.

That same day, Ines, a powerful businesswoman, arrives home tired after a long day. She learns from her husband Justo about the arrest. Both of them know the man. His name is Gerardo, and they’re surprised he’s still alive. Gerardo is known as a member of the former group Fatherland And Liberty. This is a group Ines and Justo belonged to back in the 1970’s along with Gerardo. While incarcerated, Gerardo is given a psychiatric evaluation. Ines arrives at the department of justice and is unhappy about just a simple psychiatric evaluation. The man in charge is asking what Gerardo did to her.

The film flashes back to 1969 in Santiago. Salvador Allende, a Socialist, became the democratically-elected president of Chile. At that time, Ines, Justo and Gerardo were all young adults. Ines was a beauty pageant contestant. Justo was her boyfriend at the time. Gerardo was a judge for the pageant. At the pre-contest interview, she charms Gerardo. As the two appear to drive home, they see Gerardo on the sidewalk and ask about him. They learn of his involvement with the Chilean air force and invite him to join their political group.

The group they are a part of is the group Fatherland And Liberty: a far-right fascist group which bears a spider-like figure as their symbol. They’re against traditional politicians and they’re especially opposed to the Allende government, fearing that Chile will become Communist like Cuba.

Returning back to the present, Gerardo is under psychiatric evaluation. Every time he is questioned by the attractive nurse, he appears to be making passes at her. Meanwhile Ines is trying to negotiate with the government agency against having the past involvement of her and her husband with the group. The man she’s dealing with wonders how big of a problem can this be for her? She tells the facts.

Flashing back to the past, the group did a lot of violent acts. They painted over images that appeared pro-Socialist like those of Che Guevara. They disrupted any pro-Allende events and start riots with Marxist supporters. They started their own military group with their own manifesto. They also caused destruction and explosions through their political motives. Gerardo even commits to shootings. They had a goal of overthrowing the Allende government. They all believed they were doing the right thing and believe they will be seen as heroes of Chile. During the time, the romance between Ines, Justo and Gerardo get in a heated love triangle. Then one day in the summer, Gerardo decides to fake his disappearance and make it appear like he crashed his plane. The group receives the ‘news’ and he’s seen as a martyr.

Back to the present, Ines is hugely concerned about what news Gerardo will bring about. Justo is so upset over the news, he starts to suspect if Ines still has romantic feelings towards Gerardo. Gerardo appears in his psychiatric interviews to show no remorse of his killings. He feels he did the right thing each and every time. Gerardo is still incarcerated, but notices how the other native Chileans are assaulting a Haitian emigre.  Word is out how Gerardo has become a hero in Chile thanks to social media. Gerardo then breaks out. The first place he goes is to the house of Ines and Justo. Only Ines is there to confront him. The film ends appearing like the past returned for Gerardo and appearing the past is buried for Ines and Justo.

The film touches on a moment of Chile’s history. Allende was democratically elected in the late 1960’s, but there was nervousness with him being a Socialist both in the USA and abroad. For those that don’t know, Allende was assassinated in a CIA-led coup in 1973 and replaced by Pinochet who ruled like a ruthless dictator until he voluntarily stepped down in 1990. The fear of Allende being Socialist did touch at home in Chile too. Even though Allende was democratically-elected, there was fear Chile would be a Communist country just like Cuba.

The Fatherland And Liberty (Patria y Libertad) group did exist in real life. They are the radical right-wing activist group that emerged after Allende’s election. They attempted to overthrow the Allende government in June of 1973, but failed. They had collaboration from Chilean Armed Forces to sabotage infrastructure. The two banded together to assassinate Allende’s naval aide and cause a power outage as Allende broadcast a speech. The group disbanded on September 12, 1973: the day after Pinochet’s coup assassinated Allende.

Right now, Chile should be a free democracy. If they are not 100%, they should have way more freedoms since Pinochet was deposed in 1989. However the film gives an impression that Chile still feels a lot of the scars of the past 50 years. Chile may be a democracy and may have done a lot since the fall of Pinochet to become more democratic and give the people more freedoms and a better quality of life, but there’s still the feel there’s a lack of freedom. That’s evident by the violent protests that have made news in recent weeks.

Sometimes I feel like the film is saying the ghosts of Chile’s past have come to haunt them. Even how three people from a neo-Marxist group of the past would reunite involuntarily. The ending of the film does get one thinking. Especially as the past appears to be over for one while coming back for another. The film is, in a sense, a fictional story within a real-life moment of history. The Fatherland And Liberty group did exist from the start of Allende to his end. The film has three different people. There’s Gerardo who appears silent and harmless on the outside, but a nasty killer deep inside. There’s Ines, who was young and full of strong beliefs as she was young, but grew up and moved on. There’s Justo who appears to have moved just like Ines, but appears like he can’t once he receives the news of Gerardo’s return. The ending is a shock, but it seems to suit the personalities of all three. Gerardo appears he will only appear to be known for his killings. While Justo and Ines appear to put the past behind them and become two of love and for a better Chile. Note I say ‘appear.’

This film is another good film by director Andres Wood. Chile’s political past is a common theme in a lot of Andres’ works. This story, which is scripted by Guillermo Calderon, is a good story that sends a message of modern-day Chile still being haunted by its turbulent past. The story does often seem more story-driven than character-driven at times. The actors, both the older and the younger actors, do a good job in playing their parts well. Mercedes Moran is best as the older Ines who has a past to hide and is determined to hide it. She’s also good as the woman best at settling the score between Gerardo and Justo. She knows Gerardo will never be good at loving and only good at killing. Marcelo Alonso is also good as the older Gerardo who hasn’t lost his sense to kill and to think that he is right in doing so.

Spider is a fictional telling of a real neo-Fascist group in Chile of the 1970’s. However the film appears it’s trying to send a bigger message of a moment in Chile’s history that has left scars in the nation not even its current democratic system can heal.

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: Fatherland And Liberty. Wikipedia.com. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 2019.<Fatherland And Liberty>