A VIFF 2013 Wrap-Up: Better Year Than Expected


The 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival wrapped up show on Friday, October 11th. Almost 350 films were shown on nine different screens in seven movie venues over the sixteen days. This year was expected to be a nervous one as it was trying to fit a new venue format but it worked out well in the end.

Getting used to new venues was part of this year’s VIFF. It was with that with us volunteers, the supervisors and the VIFF heads. The theater I volunteered at, the SFU Woodwards, was unique that it was located in the Woodwards Square of Gastown. It’s also a campus for film and theatre students of Simon Fraser University. The theatre itself was very good. It’s both a screen and a classroom with a seating capacity of 350. Also the theatre didn’t have concessions but the shopping square had no shortage of eating facilities.

One of the challenges of this year was separating moviegoers from students. Another was knowing how to set up lines. The venue consisted of the main floor, second floor and theatre on the third floor. On the first day we had the box office on the main floor and throughout the VIFF. Thus we’d have the ticketholders on that floor. We’d organize passholders in a line in the outdoor area of the second floor. On the third day we’d have ticketholder and passholder lines all outside. That became a concern because of the rain. After that we returned to having ticketholders indoors on the first and passholders indoors on the second. A bit of getting used to.

I was able to take advantage of my film viewing opportunities as often as I could. One highlight was the Rio Theatre showing films at 11:30 in the evening. That was actually one of my best chances to see films. Yes, I’d be very tired the following morning but it was worth it for my VIFF fix.  This year featured an additional treat for volunteers however it would have to wait until after the Festival was officially finished. The treat was free films for the repeat screenings in the week that followed the Festival. Volunteers were allowed only 5% of the seats during the actual Festival but repeats allowed for 20% of the seats up for volunteers. That explains why you see so many of my reviews coming late. It was great for me because it allowed me to see three more films and do some more volunteering at the SFU Woodwards Theatre. Oh yeah, that’s another thing. VIFF repeats were not strictly limited to the Vancity theatre this year. They also added in repeat screenings at both the Rio and the SFU Theatre on Saturday and Sunday. I volunteered at SFU that Sunday and finished the night taking stuff from both SFU and the Rio back to the storage of the main VIFF office downtown.

Those who’ve followed my blog may have noticed I saw sixteen films in total both at this year’s VIFF and the week of repeats. They came from many countries around the world like the US, Australia, South Africa, Israel, Iceland, Mexico, Poland, Croatia, I could go on. The list could even be extended if I add in filming locations like Laos, Cambodia, Cuba or India. The films ranged from dramas, to comedies to thrillers to documentaries to horror films. The quality ranged anywhere from film for art’s sake to moviemaking to getting their message across. The material ranged from entertainment-driven to message-driven to envelope-pushing to family friendly. I also saw two nation’s official entries for Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Oscars: Heli and The Rocket. One thing I felt I missed out on this year was my fix of short films. I did get a fix of it over at the reel Youth Film Festival but I would have liked to have seen more shorts shows. Also I only saw two Canadian films. Hopefully I’ll see more next year. If you want to see all my reviews of VIFF films, just click here.

The Festival also ended on a positive note for us volunteers. We were all given a volunteer screening at the Vancity Theatre to attend. Actually the VIFF organizers had to do two volunteer screenings of the film in order to accommodate the 700 volunteers for this year. I went to the one that was held late Friday evening. It was a good occasion. Out in the lobby there was your typical party food and we were all treated to at least one free drink. I was able to meet with people I volunteered with. There were door prizes given to people before the movie was shown. Then we were treated to The Fantastic Mr. Fox. I actually saw it four years ago but I was cool with seeing it again. Also have you ever noticed the things you see in a movie the second time you forgot you saw the first time?

As for the Festival itself, the Festival films attracted a total of 130,000 in gated admission. As a flat number, that’s 7% lower than last year  and 20,000 shy of 2011’s record but that’s actually a very optimistic number to the VIFF staff. The reason being the new theatre facilities had less total capacity than those of last year and the VIFF staff were anticipating a smaller number. Don’t forget there were some facilities that took some time off from showing VIFF films. Like the SFU theatre had all of Monday the 6th off and the evening off on the 7th. Also the three screens at the International Village stopped showing movies on Sunday the 6th. Media coverage was extensive and mostly positive. Audience and filmmaker feedback was also very good regarding the films shown and the facilities. The VIFF wrap-up report called the ticket numbers ‘a record year.’ I assume that ‘record’ would be based on a per-screening analysis which is a good estimate of over 250 per screening.

Here is this year’s VIFF by the numbers:

-130,000+: gated attendance
-1000+: Film and Television forum delegates
-700+: volunteers
-515: public screenings
-341: films shown

  • 212: feature length (60+ minutes)

-92: Canadian Films shown

  • 31: feature length
  • 55: shorts
  • 6: mid-length

-85: non-fiction films shown

  • 73: feature length
  • 17: Canadian

-75: countries entering films
-64: Canadian premieres
-41: North American premieres
-27: International premieres (first screening outside home country)
-26: World Premieres
-16: days of showing films
-15: entries in the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Oscars shown
-9: screens showing films
-7: theatres participating in the VIFF

Bonus Stats:

-27: media screenings

-26: VIFF repeats

Another year of good numbers. Now I know some of you want to know what were the award winners, right? Here they are:


-LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON  (Japan) dir. Koreeda Hirokazu,


-DESERT RUNNERS (USA) dir. Jenifer Steinman


WHEN I WALK, dir. Jason da Silva


-SALMON CONFIDENTIAL(Canada) dir. Twyla Roscovich


-WADJDA (Saudi Arabia/Germany), dir. Haifaa Al Mansour


-DOWN RIVER, dir. Ben Ratner


-SARAH PREFERS TO RUN (Canada) dir. Chloe Robichaud


-ANATOMY OF A PAPERCLIP (Japan) dir. Ikeda Akira

Runner-Up: TRAP STREET (China), dir. Vivian Qu

Special Mention: FOUR WAYS TO DIE IN MY HOMETOWN (China), dir. Chai Chunya


– (tie)RHYMES WITH YOUNG GHOULS, dir. Jeff Barnaby



-Matthieu Arsenault for NATHAN

Honorable Mention: Timothy Yeung for 90 DAYS


-THE DICK KNOST SHOW, dir. Bruce Sweeney


-LEAP 4 OUR LIFE, dir. Gary Hawes


-Matthew Kowalchuk for LAWRENCE & HOLLOMAN

So there you go. Those are the winners of the 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival. A good end to a great VIFF. I know this year was a nervous year as we didn’t know what to expect with a new set of theatres to work with. Nevertheless it turned out great and we had our best per-screening rate ever. Next year’s VIFF is scheduled from September 25th to October 10th, 2014 and should be bigger and better. Also I hope one year the VIFF grows to achieve accreditation from the FIAPF: the International Federation of Film Producers Associations. Most of the big Film Festivals are accredited and the VIFF being accredited should definitely add to its attraction. Anyways see you next VIFF!

VIFF 2013 Review: Felix

Hlayani Junior Mabasa (right) plays Felix, A South African boy with jazz dreams.
Hlayani Junior Mabasa (right) plays Felix, A South African boy with jazz dreams.

The last film I saw from the Vancouver Film Festival repeats was Felix. Felix is an entertaining movie of a South African boy with musical talents. How entertaining is it?

Felix Xaba is a 13 year-old Zulu boy gifted in music as he’s an expert at the pennywhistle. He lives in a Zulu area of Cape Town. His mother Lindiwe or ‘Lindy’ wants her children to have the success she never had so she is able to get Felix accepted into an exclusive all-boys prep school. This comes thanks to the help of Mr. Soames: a rich white man whom Lindy is his maid and is a former graduate of that school. Fitting in is not that easy especially since there is a lot of elitist attitudes amongst some of the richer boys of his classrom, especially Junior whom he ranks Felix as NOCD: ‘Not Our Class Dear.’ A punch from Junior during rugby practice leaves Felix with a bad first day. Further ostracism is felt days later when Felix is mocked for his green bag.

Felix does find his way. He does make friends with the big but shy Ricardo and the awkwardly friendly and goofy Samuel. They’re frequently at odds with the ‘elite’ clique of Junior, Marshall and Rocky. Felix wants to make the school’s jazz ensemble but can’t with the pennywhistle. Jazz music however is discouraged by his mother. She calls it the ‘Devil’s Music’ and believes if Felix pursues it, he will be like his late father, whom she refers to as ‘useless’ in front of her children but secretly still loves him. The children soon learn Lindy still loved their father when they come across the ‘evil chest.’ They learn it’s not evil at all. In fact it has memories of their father: various pictures, magazine articles of him and his band the Bossa Boys and even his own saxophone which Felix tries to play to make the jazz ensemble.

Felix tries to re-audition for the jazz band. During the wait, he finds help in learning to play the saxophone from Bra Joe, a former member of the Bossa Boys. All lessons have to be secret because he knows his mother will get angry at him for learning jazz and has a certain hatred to Bra Joe. Actually Lindy has a reputation of being the village snob. The one place where she is friendly is with her church choir. Through Bra Joe, Felix is able to learn to play the saxophone, learn sheet music and learn about his late father.

Everything turns upside down when Lindy learns Felix went into the chest and took the saxophone. She then pawns the saxophone. To get it back, the Bossa Boys hold a reunion concert that’s a benefit concert for Felix. The Bossas try to get the villagers to attend and Ricardo and Samuel try to get schoolmates and their families attend. The concert comes and theplace is packed with villagers and schoolfriends alike. , Felix and the Bossas put on a great show and the money is raised to get Felix’s saxophone back.

However it comes at the expense of Lindy as she disowns Felix. The final act comes after Felix succeeds in re-auditioning. He’s able to impress his strict instructors and he’s eligible to perform in the upcoming show where he has a solo part and a performance with the Bossas. Everybody involved with the school is coming, even Mr. Soames. But Lindy refuses. She still stubbornly disowns Felix. Only time is running out. This leads to an ending that is somewhat predictable but enjoyable nonetheless.

This is a very enjoyable family movie that succeeds in being entertaining without being overly ridiculous. There are some times when the movie does tread on some things like racism and the hard times of apartheid but it succeeds in not making it too heavy for the sake of it being a family movie. Actually the movie is shown mostly of blacks and whites conversing and getting along quite well in the movie. Even Mr. Soames treats Lindy like a friend instead of his maid. The movie does remember to portray the South Africa of today. Even scenes where there’s talk of the death of Felix’s father, including that scene where Felix asks Bra Joe why his father drank himself to death, came across as not too harsh as not to ruin the family-friendly atmosphere of the movie.

If there was one issue this family friendly movie focused on most, it was classism. It does show the separation between the rich and the working-class. It’s evident in Junior and his clique labeling outsiders as NOCD. It’s evident as one of the schoolmasters thinks that being labeled ‘elitist’ is a good thing. It’s also evident as one member of Junior’s clique, Marshall, is black coming from a wealthy political family and he treats Felix as an outsider. It also shows about the sometimes unfair world about privilege. It’s first evident not necessarily in the school but with Mr. Soames as he shows Lindy his tie from the school and says: “This opens doors.” Even Lindy’s attitude as she struts around her village thinking she’s too good for the village and she’s going to get her children out by sending them to prep school is another example of the theme of elitism. Nevertheless it’s Felix and his musical pursuits who shows that class is another border music can cross and actually unite the classes together in harmony.

Without a doubt this is a family movie that follows a familiar formula. It’s a child coming of age and doing what’s in his heart and desire despite the opposition of a parent. I’ve seen the formula before. The only way for a film like this to succeed is if it does the story right and if it makes you want the protagonist to win in the end. The movie does more than just simply make us want Felix to perform at the jazz recital despite Lindy’s opposition. The movie also wants to make the mother heal from the loss of her husband. We know that Lindy secretly still loves Felix’s father despite drinking himself to death. We also know the real reason why she considers jazz music evil: because she blames it for her husband’s death. The movie’s story succeeds in being a risk-taker in the plot. Felix’s pursuit of jazz, especially through playing his late father’s saxophone, could either help her heal from the pain or make it worse. That adds friction to both sides of the story. It’s something that not even Mr. Soames having tickets to Felix’s recital can soften Lindy’s heart.

For all intents and purposes, this is a feel-good movie that did all the right moves. There were many instances in the movie where the feel-good moments would normally come off wrong or ridiculous but it did things right. Some may feel the ending of it to be too fluffy or sugar-coated but we shouldn’t forget that this is intended to be a family movie. Besides name one classic family movie with a sad ending.

This is yet another example of countries trying to lean more towards creating movies and maturing past making simply films. And it’s not just simply making a movie loaded strictly with entertainment elements. They want to put effort into the story and deliver a professional winsome product. Felix is a good example of the South African film industry doing so. And it’s not just any type of movie but a family movie. Film industries around the world have always tried to make family entertainment. Very rarely does one stand out and catch the world’s attention. Felix appears poised to do just that.

Right now making live-action family movies is in a bit of a slump for Hollywood. It’s been a while since they’ve shelled one out that has fared well at the box office. Most family movies that have fared well in the last few years have been the animation movies. Felix doesn’t feel the pressures of Hollywood. The South African film industry is an industry that has little to lose and everything else to gain. A movie like Felix can gain a lot if distributed internationally. I see a lot of elements in the movie that can allow this film to excel internationally whether it be on the big screen or DVD. It just has a lot of charming ingredients that succeeds in entertaining.

The biggest accolades has to come from Hlayani Junior Mabasa for playing the musically gifted Felix Xaba. He was entertaining from start to finish and never let go of his scenes. Lina Sokhulu was also very believable as Lindy. She had to personify a woman with many different personalities: struggling, confused and hurting. She delivered a performance that was very well without interfering with the family-friendly atmosphere of the movie. Thafelo Mofokeng was also very good as the warm Bra Joe. Actually it was Bra Joe’s easygoing personality that seemed to make the hardest issues in the movie come across easier. The ensemble of both the young actors and the older actors and musicians also worked to make it enjoyable.

The thing that will surprise most people is that Felix is actually written and produced by women. It’s directed by Roberta Durrant who has an excellent resume in terms of film and television production in South Africa. In fact she has even received a Lifetime Achievement award for her contributions to film and television in South Africa. Shirley Johnson is a new writer with credentials in writing for television and stage and is an experienced actress. In both cases this is Johnson’s first time writing for a feature film as this is Durrant’s first time directing a feature film as well. Actually the script for Felix was an idea that started by Johnson back in 1995, finished the original draft in 2004 but only now came to full fruition. The end result is very professional, very impressive and very entertaining. The music ranging from the school band to the Bossa Boys to the church choir was also top notch and made the movie.

Felix is a fun entertaining family movie from South Africa. It’s a feel-good movie you don’t have to feel guilty liking. Reminds film festival crowds that audience satisfaction is not a weakness in film making.

VIFF 2013 Review: The Rocket

Ahlo, a Lao boy, attempts to win a rocket-launching contest to bring his family good fortune in The Rocket.
Ahlo, a Lao boy, attempts to win a rocket-launching contest to bring his family good fortune in The Rocket.

The Rocket is Australia’s official entry for the Best Foreign language Film category for the Academy Awards. The question is how does it fare as a film?

The story revolves a young Laotian boy named Ahlo. Ahlo’s birth is supposed to be a happy occasion but is not as a stillborn twin is born shortly after. Even though Ahlo is the one who survived, the grandmother is still suspicious of him, believing that a twin can either be good luck or bad luck.

Ten years pass. Ahlo is a typical normal boy in his Laotian village protected by a dam from an Australian corporation. However all residents in the village have to relocate as the corporation is proposing a second dam which will flood the village. All the villagers including Ahlo, his parents and grandmother pack up to walk to their new home planned by the corporation. It’s a long walk to the area and they have to use a boat to transport their goods. Unfortunately while going up a hill, they lose grip of their boat and it hits the mother, killing her. Once again the grandmother feels Ahlo is a bad luck child. Even the father feels that sense.

When they reach the top of the hill, they learn their settlements are not finished, leaving everyone to create a temporary village of makeshift shelters for themselves. Ahlo continues to get himself into trouble and damages many properties. However he does find a friend in a young girl named Kia. Kia lives with her eccentric uncle in a small shack. She is an orphan, losing her parents to malaria and has a fear of water. Her eccentric uncle is a James Brown fan who dons his hairstyle and a purple outfit in his like. They make Ahlo feel welcome but the uncle is also shunned by the village, including Ahlo’s father who warns him to stay. Both cause problems: Ahlo with constantly getting into mischief whether with Kia or himself and Purple for stealing electricity. It’s right after Ahlo damages sacred areas in the village that they’re all chased out.

The five of them–Ahlo, the father, the grandmother, Kia and Purple–reluctantly travel to another rural village together. The village is only temporary as it is on an area littered with undetonated bombs that belonged to Americans during the Vietnam War. The father contemplates taking the family to the city where they can find labor jobs. This would mean Ahlo would never be able to see Kia or Purple again.

Ahlo gets an idea when he learns about an annual rocket launching contest held by the nearby village. The prize money is good enough for all to start a new life anywhere. Ahlo wants to make a rocket of his own but most believe it would be both dangerous and impossible for a child to construct a winning rocket for the contest. However Purple believes differently and gives Ahlo an idea. The father builds a rocket of his own to prevent Ahlo from entering. However Ahlo is stubborn enough to saw off a bamboo bush and get bat dung from a bat cave to make it.

The festival starts and Ahlo is still at work on his rocket. The contest is pretty chancy. The rocket has to fly straight in the air. If a rocket fails, the flyer is humiliated by being thrown into the muddy river. The contest is also dangerous as seen when one man’s rocket explodes with him launching. The result of the contest ends with a somewhat predictable moment. Many would have guessed the ending by now. However the full ending is a total surprise and a delight.

I will admit that this is a common formula of a person beating the odds to win. We’ve seen it before. However this does take a different turn of events. This is not simply about a simple child trying to win a contest. This is more about a boy considered a ‘bad luck charm’ trying to win good fortune to his family after so much misfortune has happened to them. The setting of an impoverished location like the bomb-ridden valleys of Laos may give some reminders of Slumdog Millionaire. The superstitious attitude of the Lao people comes off as a bit foolish. I guess it’s also here where the movie is attempting to defy the superstitions.

Some may see it as a family movie since this is a story of a boy who’s able to help his family out. However there are some things that many may feel are too dark or a discussion starter from children that’s too soon to happen. I’m sure if children saw this, they may ask about the country of Laos and why the people had to be moved. The images of all those bombs I feel is also too much for the children. Also questions about Lao tradition and believe, of why Ahlo suspect of being a ‘bad luck’ child because he’s a twin, will also be things parents would not be prepared to answer.

It’s interesting that this film is Australia’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars but it’s not in say one of the languages of the indigenous of Australia. Instead it’s in the Lao language. Also interesting is that it takes place completely in Laos. The Australian things about this film is that it was done by an Australian director and the films plot includes an Australian corporation building a dam which causes the Lao villagers to move. Once again this is a case of a film making one think about what would define a film from another country, especially one that’s running in such a category. It’s just like last year where Canada’s nominee Rebelle was a story situated in Congo and the winner Amour was an entry from Austria because of Austrian director Michael Haneke even though it was situated in France and in the French language. I guess that category is always subject for discussion.

One thing to take note of is that Laos has never submitted an entry into the Best Foreign language Film category ever. I don’t think that they would want to do it with this film as it makes Laos look like an impoverished country with undetonated bombs all over the place. A bit of trivia: director Kim Mordaunt once did a documentary released in 2007 called Bomb Harvest of Laos being a dumping ground of unused bombs by Americans during the Vietnam War. One thing to note is that Australia isn’t shown as the good guy as it’s an Australian corporation causing the people to relocate themselves.

This was very good work from Australian director Kim Mourdant. She has already had experience as an actress including being a former cast member of Australia’s famous drama series Home And Away. She’s started writing and directing in recent years. I’m unfamiliar with her previous works but this film is very well-written and well-thought out. She has to be very familiar with Lao culture and Lao tradition in order for this to look true. A great performance from newcomer Sitthiphon Disamoe. A street kid in real life, Disamoe is an excellent discovery for this film. Loungnam Kaosainam is also great and charming as Kia. Most of the main actors are newcomers with the exceptions of Sumrit Warin and Alice Keohavong, a Lao-Australian actress with a healthy resume in film, television and theatre.

The Rocket follows a familiar premise but adds its own elements into it. It makes for an impressive film that will cause you to think but also keep your faith in hope.

VIFF 2013 Review: Antisocial

Antisocial is a Canadian-made bloody gory teen horror thriller that's very impressively made.
Antisocial is a Canadian-made bloody gory teen horror thriller that’s surprisingly high quality and entertaining.

I’ll admit that I didn’t see as many Canadian films as I hoped to see at the VIFF. Antisocial was one I did see. It was the very last movie of the official Film Festival shown: starting at 11:30pm at the Rio Theatre. It proved to be an ambitious work from Canadians at moviemaking, particularily at horror filmmaking.

The movie begins with an introduction of two girls filming what appears to be a simple video about clothing only for it be one torturing the other and killing her. Later on New Years Eve a college girl named Sam interacts with her boyfriend through a social website called The Social Redroom. It goes bad as he breaks up with her. That leads her to delete her account.

She tries to party it up with her friends to help try to forget the problem. Four of her five friends have active accounts with The Social Redroom. Unknown to them is that an epidemic is spreading outside of them out on just as they’re about to party. The epidemic gets worse and reporters show how this is affecting the world. They even trace it back to The Social Redroom. The founder of The Social Redroom even makes a video of his own warning people of a deadly tumor transmitted to its users. Then Sam and her friends get their first notice when one of their outside friends is a monster infected by this virus. The virus soon spreads throughout the campus. Those of the friends with accounts to The Social Redroom are most at risk. Now the infected are coming after their blood.

There is a way to rid one of this virus but it’s to come out of their bodies. So it’s up to Sam and her friends to try to protect each other. They try to look for everything. First the video of the original two girls to trace its origins. Then the warning video of The Social Redroom founder, in which he commits suicide. Then finding information to rid the tumor being transmitted via The Social Redroom. Then Sam to defend herself and then rid herself of the virus.

I don’t think the filmmakers intended on giving a negative message about social media sites. Anyone who sees this knows that The Social Redroom is a Facebook-like site. In fact looking at this movie, I feel it’s more of just an attempt at trying to make a teen horror movie. That’s it: nothing more than a teen horror movie meant to scare them for their entertainment pleasure. I will have to say this is a very good effort at putting one together. It features many ingredients that would make for your typical entertaining horror movie. There’s the paranormal, the action happening at a college dorm, and the all-too-common phenomenon of social media and giving everyone all the details. The visual effects, horror make-up and even the climactic moments of horror didn’t come across as too cheesy or amateurish. Even the ending didn’t look bad. It ended on the right ridiculous note. The musical score was also a good addition to the horror story as well.

I will admit that it doesn’t have the big-star fuel that Hollywood teen movies have nor does it have the mass marketing given from Hollywood to make it excel at the box office. Oh yeah, it also lacks the shirtless scenes of guys that have been standard ever since the Twilight movies. Nevertheless this is a very entertaining movie that was put together very well and very professionally. I had a hard time trying to find a moment that was very amateurish. I even found it hard to notice a moment from one of the actors that lacked believability. Michelle Mylett was good in what is her first acting role. Also good is Cody Calahan in his first ever direction of a feature-length film as well as co-writing with more experienced writer Chad Archibald. I felt it was kind of like The Ring mixed with 28 Days Later with Night Of The Living Dead mixed in.

Okay I’m sure a lot of you are wondering: “What’s a film like this doing in a Film Festival? Film festival films are supposed to take the art of filmmaking to new lengths.” True but not 100% true. The Vancouver Film Festival is an event that showcases filmmaking quality from around the world including Canada but it’s also an opportunity to have films for further distribution. Some films will go on to the big screen for bigger and better things. Some will find their way on DVD, Digital Movie Websites or movie television networks. And then there are some where the VIFF will be the furthest it gets. Antisocial made its debut at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival. It continues to make appearances at various film festivals. Good buzz for it can help it get picked up for further distribution. We should remember few English language Canadian-made movies make it to the big screen. Nevertheless I see good potential for this film. We’ll have to see.

Antisocial is a teen horror thriller that lacks the star-studded buzz but is excellently put together and goes beyond its modest expectations. All it needs is more film fest buzz to develop a crowd to give it a fair chance.

VIFF 2013 Review: XL

Olafur Darri Olafson plays a debaucherous Icelandic senator in XL.
Olafur Darri Olafson plays a debaucherous Icelandic senator living it up before rehab in XL.

XL is something unique: a feature film from Iceland. Just as unique is the story and the subject matter. Question is how watchable is it?

The story focuses on Leifur Sigurdarson, a senator in the Icelandic parliament. Leifur has been told by the Prime Minister of Iceland that he is about to be placed into a rehab clinic. His alcoholism is that obvious. Leifur then decides to live his ‘last few days of freedom’ with a bang.

He is known for his tempestuous relationship with his girlfriend Aesa. He gets involved with all sorts of kinky games with Aesa and even sado-masochism. The two of them also live it up together with some of his rich friends who also like to live life in the fast lane. They all go from bar to bar having their fun and doing whatever they want.

Despite this orgy of debauchery, Leifur receives constant reminders from others about what he’s headed towards. Politicians remind him, family try to reach out to him and even his daughter from a past marriage tries to remind him of who he’s neglecting. Nevertheless Leifur continues on with his debauchery. It isn’t until the last day that he’s reminded that time is running out and he can’t handle it any more.

It is possible that the director is trying to send a message in this film of the corruptness of politicians in Iceland, especially as it headed to economic collapse in 2008.Iceland has always been ranked as one of the Top 10 least corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International’s annual Corruptions Perception Index but it’s not to say that corruption doesn’t exist there or even in the other top nations. Even in the least corrupt nations in the world there are sleazy senators or debaucherous congressmen. Even heads of state can commit their own sleaze.

However the film caused me to question what the purpose of the film was. Was it to make a statement about corruption in Iceland? Was it to push boundaries or even envelopes with the material? Was it to be artistic? I was left undecided when I saw this. All too often it seemed like the film makers were putting huge focus on Leifur’s debauchery and even the sadomasochism. I was often tempted to think it was trying to put the heaviest emphasis on the shock value. Even the artistic elements like making a stage play out of Leifur’s life appeared confusing especially since it wasn’t put in as consistently. Sometimes there were some artistic merits the film makers took that even appeared like it was bad editing. I was left with the frank impression that this lacked a definite direction to what it was attempting to show.

This film is the latest effort from Marteinn Thorsson. He worked for Canada’s The Movie Network in the past directing ads and promos. His first film One Point O helped put him on Variety magazine’s list of ‘Top 10 Directors To Watch’ in 2004. He also directed the critically renowned drama-comedy Stormland from two years ago. I’ll admit I’m not familiar with his style of filmmaking but I still stand by what I say that this film he directed and co-wrote with Gudmundur Oskarsson doesn’t make its intentions or its point clear. Even if he’s trying to make a statement about political corruption, it looks like he’s making more of an effort trying to entertain us with shock value. The film has receives some renown. It was nominated for the Crystal Globe at the Karlovy Vary film festival and the performance of Olafur Darri Olafson won Best Actor at that festival.

If there was one standout from the movie, it was the performance of Olafur Darri Olafson. His performance as Leifur was very complex as he went from the king of debauchery to this man with a problem. Also a scene stealer is Maria Birta as Aesa, the one woman who seemed to know how to control Leifur. The best minor supporting role came from Tanja Omarsdottir as Anna, the daughter caught in the middle of this. The musical score by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, which was mostly modern-based, fit with the film well.

XL is an artistic attempt at telling a story of a politician and his corrupt mannerisms. In the end it comes across as a film that’s unclear what its intent is.

VIFF 2013 Review: Heli

Heli isn't just about corruption in Mexico. It's also about those caught in the middle.
Heli isn’t just about corruption in Mexico. It’s also about those caught in the middle.

Heli is a Mexican film that has garnered huge buzz since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. The question being is it worth the hype?

Heli is a 17 year-old young man in Mexico. However he is married and the father of a baby. Both his wife and his infant son live with his father and sister in a shabby house on the outskirts of town. Heli has a job as a laborer at an auto plant and makes a limited income.  His sister Estela is a 12 year-old girl in school who has fallen for a 17 year-old cadet in training named Alberto. Alberto is tired of the military life and wants to devote his time to Estela. However the age difference causes problems especially since Alberto wants to have a sexual relationship with her and she fears young pregnancy.

Alberto makes a decision just after the police and the government holds a public media event where they burn all seized marijuana and cocaine in declaring their war on drugs and war on corruption. Alberto knows of a secret place in the compound where there are bags of cocaine secretly held by the general. He agrees to sell two bags he stole in another town so that he can afford to marry Estela. This plan is unknown to the father but Heli discovers the bags inside the water tank on the roof. He disposes the cocaine in a distant remote location and punishes Estela by locking her up in her room.

Late one night, some members of police storm the house, kill the father and take Heli and Estela to their secret place along with a badly beaten Alberto. They throw the body of the father on the road once Heli confesses to destroying the bags of cocaine. All three are taken to a house within the police compound. Alberto is beaten and burned mercilessly. Heli is badly beaten but not as badly as Alberto and is spared the burning. The torturers hang Alberto from a bridge, keep Estela at their place and drop Heli off on a remote road to walk home.

Heli does return home much to the relief of Sabrina who was left distraught after seeing what happened inside the empty house. Estela is still missing however. The police cooperate to locate the father’s body but believe Heli and his father are involved with the drug trade. Even Heli is nervous about telling the whole story fearing he will be classified as a criminal. The aftermath and trauma affects Heli for days as he loses his job and even becomes abusive to his wife. To make matters worse, a female detective offers to close the case if Heli consents to her offer of a sexual favor, which Heli rejects.

In the passing days, the policemen who held them captive are later killed and decapitated. Heli sees the news on television including the images of the decapitated heads. Estela arrives home to the relief of both Heli and Sabrina. She too had to do the long walk Heli did. However Estela is scared from the violent events and the rape she suffered during the walk home to the point she can’t speak. She is however able to draw Heli the location to where she was raped. That paves the way for Heli to solve the problem in his own way and lead to an ending that makes it look like the right thing in the end.

This film is a story written based on actual events in the Mexican news. It is a depiction of the corruption happening in Mexico but it’s more. It tells the situation from a human perspective through a family that’s caught in the middle. We learn of why this happens, who gets hurt, who does the hurting, who survives and how they try to carry on in the aftermath. It’s not just about the events and incidents being played out. It’s also about who is involved in this too. That is apparent as both Heli and Estela try to carry on after the incident even to the point where it almost threatens Heli’s marriage to Sabrina and Estela’s sanity. Even seeing how this incident threatens to tear the surviving members of the family apart adds to the human aspect of the film. There’s also the subplot about young love. There’s Heli, a 17 year-old married father and his young wife. And there’s Estela, a 12 year-old falling in love for the first time and clueless about the potential realities of marriage, especially to someone as irresponsible as Alberto. That makes the film more than just a crime drama.

The best efforts in the film without a doubt are the efforts of Amat Escalante. His directing and co-writing of the script with Gabriel Reyes is a very good depiction of corruption in Mexico and how it won’t tear a family apart despite all that it takes away. I’ve never read of such a new story referenced but this is a good adaptation of such incidents into a feature film. The acting in this film including the young actors was also very good. Armando Espitia was very good as Heli. His performance told as much through his silence as it did when he was talking. That was also the same with the other young actors in the film. Also very good was the performance of Andrea Vergara as the young sister. She was very good in representing the young naivety of falling in love at 12 without being a typical cutesy kid performance. The film itself being played out without an added music score actually added to the intensity of the drama and the storytelling.

Heli has already received a lot of awards buzz. Director Amat Escalante won the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the film itself was nominated for the Palme d’Or that was eventually won by Blue Is The Warmest Color. However the film has not received a lot of good buzz in terms of audience fair. In fact many critics have often questioned the watchability of such a film, especially the torture scene where Alberto has his gasoline-doused genitals lit on fire. It’s safe to assume it was prosthetic genitals that Juan Eduardo Palacios wore during that scene. I don’t see how else that scene could be done. Even as well the feel of the movie may come across as too down and depressing. I do believe that the film doesn’t end as sown and depressing as say movies like Kids or Thirteen. Instead I saw the ending as images of hope for the family even after all they’ve lost and all they were violated of.

Another criticism of Heli comes from people from the home country of Mexico. This film is Mexico’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2013 Academy Awards. However many people both inside and outside of Mexico’s film industry are unhappy with the depiction of corruption in Mexico. Escalante responds that his film is not anti-Mexican. Co-writer Gabriel Reyes even added it would be socially irresponsible not to speak out about the bad things happening in Mexico.

Heli is a very good story about a young family sticking together despite the things that threaten their unity. Nevertheless it also a story that can be considered unwatchable to many.

VIFF 2013 Review: When I Walk

Filmmaker Jason DaSilva won't let MS stop him from living his life or even making films in When I Walk.
Filmmaker Jason DaSilva makes his MS and his life the focus in When I Walk.

When I Walk is a unique documentary where the documentarian is the complete subject of the film. It’s a very personal documentary. Possibly because this may be the last film he ever makes.

We meet Jason da Silva, a promising young documentarian of Indian heritage living in Vancouver. He lived the life of a budding 25 year-old filmmaker and had a promising future ahead. That all changed in 2006 during a family vacation in St. Maartens. His legs weakened and he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His condition wasn’t fatal but it would lead to weakening of his body and other deteriorations. Jason was encouraged by his mother not to allow his disease to limit what he can do. So Jason decided to make his battle with MS his subject of his next film.

Jason is determined to fight it or deal with it the best way he can. He tries his hands as many different types of medicines and healings. He first travels to his parents’ hometown of Goa, India where he agrees to Ayurveda medicine. He then goes to Lourdes, France on the advice of his very religious Catholic grandmother and receives healing water. He also arranges an appointment for a wonder-surgery that’s a breakthrough in fighting MS and is highly advertised on Youtube by people cured through this surgery. The Ayurveda medicine procedures didn’t work. Lourdes didn’t heal. And this ‘wonder surgery’ only gave limited improvements that didn’t last.

Family unity is another theme in the film as Jason comes from a close family with relatives in Canada, New York and back home in India. His mother is the one who’s trying to encourage him to stay positive and hold his head up high. Though she cries near the end of the film and admits she didn’t know how bad it was and how limiting it would be. There’s another time when he visits a relative in India and tries to find out if his MS is inherited.

Despite his illness and its dehabilitation over time, Jason continues to be strong. He talks of difficulties going to restaurants and various other places in New York. He meet up with another person in a wheelchair and they decide to organize a blog of wheelchair accessible locations in New York. It’s not just simply taking restaurants that advertise themselves as ‘wheelchair accessible’ at face value. Both Jason and his colleague go to the various locations and test out how ‘wheelchair accessible’ the places are in both the facilities and the washrooms. Jason also purchases various filmmaking software and various computer accessories to assist him with his filmmaking as his body functioning lessens over time. They show one gadget which assists in functions as Jason makes commands in a microphone. Some days it’s so hard to talk, Alice–who I will talk about shortly– has to learn filmmaking and its functions in order to complete certain jobs for Jason.

Possibly the biggest plot of the documentary is not just simply overcoming his condition of MS in daily life but his relationship with Alice Cook. Before Alice, Jason was a frequent dater in the film making scene. He first thought MS would be the end of the dating road. Then he went to a support group for people with MS offered by his mother. He met a woman named Alice who was around the same age as him. Alice is a fully able person who attended the sessions in support of her stepfather who has MS. Alice took an interest in Jason. They started dating. Alice started helping and assisting Jason in his daily life. Then in 2009 they married. They even show Jason using his scooter with Alice on the back and a Just Married sign on the seat.

However right after the marriage came some new hurdles. First was the stress of being married to a physically limited person. Alice is a very cooperative and a very supportive wife but the stress does take its toll and Alice needs a vacation for a week to give herself relief. One of the things she sacrificed in her relationship with Jason was her love of hiking. She would have the chance to hike again after so many years. There’s also the effort of the two to have children. The film takes us to the doctor’s office where Jason learns he’s fertile and conception is possible. The first conception works but Alice miscarries.  SPOILER ALERT: However the film ends with Alice showing Jason the result of her home pregnancy test: a positive. The film’s last scene shows the two in the ultrasound lab and the screen showing a healthy fetus.

One thing about this documentary that stands out is how personal this is for the filmmaker. Before MS, Jason was no simple documentarian. He was already showing promise at a young age with short documentaries like Olivia’s Puzzle, Twins Of Mankala and a Song For Daniel. He also had two feature-length documentaries to his credit: Lest We Forget and From The Mouthpiece On Back. One would figure MS would be an end to a filmmaking career at such a young age but Jason’s determined not to let it stop him. The film is very personal as it not only hides nothing of Jason but also of Alice. We see an image of blood in the bathtub when Alice miscarries. We also hear Alice tell her side of the story at times and she holds nothing back. In fact there are times when she’s in tears when she talks of the stress of managing a physically challenged husband and her fears for the future as his condition deteriorates over time. This film is as much about the struggle of the two as it is the triumph. Even Jason admits there are times when he can’t handle it or wants to give up.

Another addition to the documentary is the animation. Often the documentary will go to animated images of Jason in his life, MS eating away at him showing the MS as ‘bugs,’ and various other images. That is another added bonus to the documentary that keeps it from getting mundane. Although the animation is not the most professional, it still adds to the documentary.

As a documentary, it’s questionable whether this is worthy of box office release. It has already made appearances at the Sundance Film Fest and the Hot Docs Film Festival where it even won an award. It’s still possible. One thing I know is that it is definitely eligible for broadcast on a documentary television channel.

When I Walk is a film worth seeing. It’s as truthful about the struggles and the setbacks as it is about the triumphs. Definitely worth seeing for all types of people.

BONUS: If you want to learn more about Jason and When I Walk just go to: http://wheniwalk.com/ There’s even a mailing list to subscribe to.

VIFF 2013 Review: The Closed Circuit (Układ Zamknięty)

Janusz Gajos plays a tough-guy lawyer in search of a victim in The Closed Circuit.
Janusz Gajos plays a tough-guy lawyer playing a legal gamble in The Closed Circuit.

DISCLAIMER: This may be mistaken as a review for the movie Closed Circuit starring Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall. This is actually a review for the Polish movie Układ Zamknięty whose English title is The Closed Circuit, also released in 2013.

The Closed Circuit is a legal drama from Poland that’s become one of the highest-grossing Polish-made movies there. Does it have what it takes to entertain North American crowds?

The film begins in Gdansk in 2003 where computer business Navar has just had a grand opening for their new factory. The building of the factory with high-tech equipment had a huge boost thanks to a partnership with a Danish community. Shortly after the deal, another businessman tries to make a deal with CEO Piotr Maj to no avail. Later it’s brought to the attention of a legal office headed by district prosecutor Andrzej Kostrzewa that the company made an illegal deal; that this was a scam. He hires Kamil Slodowski–a good lawyer who’s relatively new at tackling corporations–to head the crackdown.

Unknown to Kostrzewa at the time is that the company is headed by Maj who happens to be the son of a professor whom Kostrzewa got into a bad dispute with during his own college days and had him fired from the University and exiled back to Israel. One should take into account that Kostrzewa was a former Communist and still believes: “there are no honest businessmen.” Professor Maj died recently and his memoirs could be the smoking gun for Kostrzewa.

The arrests fly to the three businessmen and they are brutal not only to them but other family members too, even Maj’s pregnant wife who miscarries during the arrest. They get thrown into jail accused of financial irregularities and money laundering. They face inhuman conditions in the prison including Maj suffering at the hands of another prisoner. Meanwhile the team of lawyers get various recordings ranging from a news reporter stating the case will make him famous to one of the Navar’s head’s relatives bringing a lawyer down.

Meanwhile Slodowski is getting to the bottom of the case but Kostrzewa is wheedling the shares from the significant others. Slodowski is successful in getting whatever evidence he can against the accused. However he himself is being challenged by the media and he starts feeling like he’s being used in Kostrzewa’s team instead of getting his own fair share.

Soon the truths begin to unravel. Kostrzewa and his team experience retaliation on their part which leads to their fate. The two main businessmen of the factory are released with Maj recovering in the hospital from a suicide attempt. This sets up for a smart but unexpected ending to the events.

I don’t know if director Ryszard Bugajski was trying to get a message out about Communism meeting capitalism in a post-Eastern Bloc Poland or if he was trying to play out a drama that’s actually based on true events. If he tried to get a message out of old Communists in Poland trying to use power in keeping the spirit alive, I don’t think it was clear enough. Besides Kostrzewa suffers setbacks of his own. I’ll admit I’ve never lived in Poland so I can’t really describe this as a depiction of Polish power struggle or not. I feel it was more about playing events out and creating a drama that would have the audience intrigued with what will happen next for both the heads of Navar and the team of lawyers and the families of both teams.

There was an additional quality to the story line. The story didn’t just simply play out the events in a legal crackdown on a company. The story added the human elements to it too. The events during and after the arrests of the heads of Navar showed the hurt done to family members. Numerous times we saw the feelings of those played out. There were a lot of scenes that stood out. One was of Maj’s wife as she is left depressed after the arrest of Piotr and her miscarriage. Another is of the two heads of Navar who look through the empty factory after their release from jail. Another came from Kostrzewa, among other characters. Kostrzewa frequently comes across a tough pitbull-like lawyer determined to win. However there’s that scene where he sees Piotr Maj in the hospital after a suicide attempt. It’s as if at that moment, he’s no longer Mr. Tough Guy and he feels sorry for him. In retrospect, I think of that scene where Kostrzewa starts having regret and hopes not to destroy a second Maj.

This is a great film by Ryszard Bugajski. Bugajski is a director who has been able to prove himself well in recent years. He actually worked with legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda in his Studio X in the late 70’s. He fled Poland in 1985 and moved to Canada where he was able to acquire opportunities in writing and directing episodes for American television dramas in the 80’s. His film work only started coming to light once Communism fell in Poland and his films have since won Bugajski renown of his own including Interrogation: a film made in 1982 but was denied release until the fall of Communism in 1990. Once released, he was nominated with the film for a Palme d’Or in Cannes and a European Film Award.

He has followed it up with excellent film works since and this is now his chance to make a movie in his home country. His direction in this film along with the collaboration of writers Miroslaw Piepka and Michal Pruski is an excellent drama that could even rival the suspense levels of American legal dramas. The acting was also excellent too as there were many good performances from the main leads to the supporting parts. If there was one performance that stood out, it was from Janusz Gajos as the tough guy Kostrzewa. His portrayal of a tough lawyer who eventually gets weakened mentally when he’s reminded of past mistakes and has to confront his misdoings in this case was a very good performance and definitely the one that got the most attention from the film.

The Closed Circuit is another example of countries trying to shell out movies internationally. They may have shelled out movies before that would fare well in their home country but would end up substandard internationally in the past. Now they’re making the effort to shell out quality movies that can fare well outside their home country too. As I mentioned before, the main thing that separates movies from films is that they are more entertainment-focused. As a legal drama, it’s very good at including incidents to keep the audience intrigued from start to finish as well as include human elements inside the story. I’m sure North American audiences who don’t mind watching a movie with subtitles would also be taken in by the suspense of the events. One thing about the VIFF crowd I saw it with. They laughed during the scene where the bishop blesses the factory. I guess they don’t understand Polish society where they value the blessings of priests even in business locations.

The Closed Circuit was a top attraction at the VIFF. It is a very good drama and is an excellent choice for people who like legal dramas. This also takes Polish moviemaking to a new level.

NOTE TO VANCOUVERITES: This weekend (October 18-20) there will be the Vancouver Polish Film Festival over at the SFU Theatre at the Woodwards square. The Closed Circuit will be playing Saturday the 19th at 5:30. More info at: http://www.vpff.ca

VIFF 2013 Review: Viva Cuba Libre: Rap Is WAR

Meet Los Aldeanos, a Cuban rap duo who are more than mere entertainers in Vibva Cuba Libre: Rap Is WAR.
Meet Los Aldeanos, a Cuban rap duo who are more than mere entertainers in Viva Cuba Libre: Rap Is WAR.

I won’t look the other way. The truth will find a way out.

You can’t ignore us much longer. People are beginning to wake up!

That motherfucker made this country a prison!

Put walls in front of me, I’ll knock ’em down!

If you stop my shows, I will sing on!

 -Los Aldeanos

When you think of revolutionary voices in rap, who first comes to mind? Public Enemy? N.W.A? 2pac? How about Los Aldeanos? Okay, I know you’re asking “Los Who?” In Viva Cuba Libre: Rap Is WAR, you’ll learn all about Los Aldeanos and why they should be considered revolutionary voices.

Los Aldeanos is a rap group beloved by the people of Cuba but greatly feared by the government. Why should the government fear them? We should remember that Cuba is a communist country. The Communist Party run by Fidel Castro in the late 50’s won a brutal war and started a revolution in Cuba. For decades Fidel was the charismatic leader of Cuba firm to the communist ideal. Fidel even stood by his communist beliefs and rulings during the late 80’s-early 90’s as many countries under communist regimes including the U.S.S.R. did away with communist rule. Fidel simply declared the moves to freedom in those countries as ‘terrible, terrible things.’ Tight Communism still stands in Cuba today even after various economic sanctions against the country, even after Fidel Castro’s daughter defected in 1993 and even after Fidel transferred rule over to his brother Raul upon retirement five years ago.

Rap Is WAR shows the difficulties of living in Cuba. Most of us in North America see Havana and the rest of Cuba as a beach paradise or a place where locals like to dance the samba at night spots. Here we see the shabby living conditions Cubans have to go through in cities like Havana and Holguin City or even local villages and farms. We also see of police brutality given to people even simply for speaking freely. Some of us older people may remember how we were taught that in Russia one could be jailed for free speech. It happens in Cuba today. We also learn of young people of how limited their future is and how it appears they don’t have much of a choice in the matter. We also see a crying child at a farm who misses his mother. She’s jailed for prostitution because she can’t afford to raise her family with the meager wage she received.

One pair of people who are not afraid to speak the truth about what’s happening in Cuba is the rap duo Los Aldeanos: two young men from Havana named Aldo ‘El Aldeano’ and Bian ‘El B’. “Los Aldeanos” is Spanish for “The Villagers.” Those two friends see and live the same daily life as the people in Havana and the rest of Cuba. However they refuse to be silenced. They will speak about the struggles about daily life in Cuba. They will rap about how phony those images of Cuba on those postcards are. They will rap about the limited future Cuban people are given. They will rap commemorating those Cubans who lost their lives seeking to escape the brutal Communist life in Cuba. They aren’t even afraid to rap about what cowards Fidel, Raul and the Communist Regime of Cuba are.

Their music is very well-known across Cuba. The music is not allowed any radio airplay or sales in stores. So the duo record their songs and burn them onto discs to give to the people to hear. The music has spread by the thousands or even millions across Cuba. The people on the streets love Los Aldeanos. They dance to it. They rap along to it. Many are proud of Los Aldeanos for speaking the truth. Many feel that Los Aldeanos speak the voice of Cuba that most Cubans are afraid to speak.

However it’s not to say it comes without consequences. Los Aldeanos use their ‘underground’ distribution methods because they know that what they say in their raps is breaking the law in Cuba and can subject them to imprisonment. In fact they often play to concerts without them on the bill as promoters ‘sneak’ them on stage during intermissions. Both men of Los Aldeanos know of the potential consequences their recorded raps and their rapping in their concerts can give them and it’s a gamble they’re willing to take. In fact the documentary shows two incidents where the two men of Los Aldeanos are arrested but released shortly after. Communists, even locals who believe in the Communist regime, would consider them unpatriotic. Truth is they’re very patriotic to the point they believe in a free Cuba.

The film shows images of Havana and the rest of Cuba as their raps are in the background. The film also shows them on stage at a concert only to have the sound shut off just after they say a few lines. That doesn’t stop the audience from rapping their lyrics out loud. We also see Los Aldeanos as they record their next disc Viva Cuba Libre: a disc they believe will be the ‘death of them’ but are not afraid. We see them preparing for a big street concert but the two struggling to negotiate with concert promoters. We also see as Bian’s girlfriend is pregnant. It’s a struggle for Bian especially since her girlfriend has had bad symptoms during her pregnancy and it threatens to put the duo on hold during their anticipated big show. The big show in the square in Havana goes as planned and they both are able to avoid arrest. Bian’s girlfriend did have to go to the hospital where she gave birth to a healthy boy. Bian proudly says that he will rap for a better Cuba for his son.

The film doesn’t strictly focus on the duo as they plan for their next disc or their big concert. The film also alternates from Havana where Las Aldeanos live and perform to Holguin City. There we meet the mother of the Cruz brothers who are in prison awaiting trial for ‘anti-government activities.’ Their crime? One night they played the music of Los Aldeanos out loud from the top of their house, waved the Cuban flag and shouted out “Viva Cuba Libre!” The police were fast as they came and beat the whole family and arrested the two sons. Their house which had freedom messages painted on it was painted over by the government. The mother talks tearfully of the prison conditions her sons are going through and her fears for the youth of the country. Even the father talks of the fears he has for this country. A reminder that even playing Los Aldeanos’ music can result in criminal punishment.

It’s at the end days after Los Aldeanos gave their grand performance that they meet with the parents and hear their story. They even decide to write a rap about the injustice the brothers have been receiving. The parents give the two huge praise. Looking at that, you could say the documentary is two stories in one. The story of the rap group and the story of the two brothers who are political prisoners for loving their music.

The film is an excellent depiction of a rap band, their music, and the status quo they threaten. It let the duo tell their story and the cameraman show the images uncensored instead of a narrator speaking a point of view. There were times when the cameraman had to turn the camera off but not without showing on film the reason why. Hidden cameras were often used in certain scenes. The film is also a risk to all those involved. It’s not just Los Aldeanos but also the villagers and city people who openly speak their mind about how terrible life in Cuba is. It’s also the fans of Los Aldeanos in the street who proudly say their reasons why they love their music and how true it is. They all risk going to jail for speaking the truth or supporting Los Aldeanos. In fact there’s a message at the beginning that names have been changed and identities protected because of fear of reprisal. Even the Americans involved with the film are subject to possible arrest and are unaccredited. The cameraman even is credited as (Anonymous). Director Jesse Acevedo even risks his own freedom for the sake of getting this documentary out. No one involved with this is immune.

One of the things of this documentary is that it restores the credibility of the term ‘underground rap.’ Underground Rap was a huge phenomenon in the 80’s as young people of a generation wanted music that was untouched and devoid of ‘watering down’ from the mainstream. That’s why underground rock and rap was huge during that time. Underground rap especially took off as a phenomenon during the late 80’s thanks to the release of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. It received no radio airplay but the buzz of the anger in the songs spread like wildfire and made it go quadruple-platinum. The controversy of songs like Fuck Tha Police made headlines and made young people hungrier to buy the records. Its offensiveness to adult society made young people like it even more. It was only a matter of years when gangsta rap would become a huge phenomenon that would last for almost two decades. The ‘rebel spirit’ of gangsta rap and other underground rap was catchy enough for even white middle-class or upper-class kids to get a piece of the action and don the athletic wear gangsta baggy jeans, multiple tattoos, ghetto hand-gestures African-American accents and the walking swagger. Even though it was phony, it shows how catchy the ‘rebel spirit’ of rap was. Even if they couldn’t live it, they adopted the clothes and mannerisms of it to get the feel of it.

Nowadays ‘underground rap’ appears to be a thing of the past at least in the modern world. Underground music of the past had an impact on mainstream music and has caused changes to it. Much of underground rap was able to come above ground over time. Alternative music no longer has to rely on specialized record shops or independent labels to get their stuff hear. Apple’s iTunes has become a domain where even unsigned musicians can display their music and have the creative control alternative musicians in the past could only dream of. On top of it, the ‘rebel spirit’ of rap has faded over time. When the offensiveness of Eminem and 50 Cent faded, it took the flare and fire of rap with it. Rap music is still popular with the young but its phenomenon in terms of shelling out hot new music talent and dominating youth culture has faded over these past few years. Today’s hottest new rap talents seem simply to be ‘carbon copies’ of past phenomenons or just mere entertainers compared to those of the past. In fact I’ve often said: “Rap and hip-hop has faded in popularity so much over the last five years, it’s no longer sissyish for guys to wear skinny jeans anymore.”

One thing about Los Aldeanos is that they bring back the rebel spirit of rap. It’s rightly so because they are rebels. They’re the ones trying to shake the tight grip of Castro’s Communism in Cuba with their raps and the fans that agree with all they say. They do it at a huge risk knowing that they risk imprisonment for violating the tight Communist speech laws but they’re not afraid to do it or pay whatever price comes their way. It’s like one of their lines in their raps: “Rap is war!” Very true as they are battling the regime with the power of their rhymes. It’s been commonly said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Here’s a chance for their raps to be mightier than the sword in Cuba. In fact when I myself heard the raps of Los Aldeanos, I was reminded of Public Enemy. That’s how good they are.

Viva Cuba Libre: Rap Is War is an excellent depiction of a rap group few people know about and the country they come from. Those who have a chance to see this will see why Los Aldeanos is not only great for Cuba but necessary. I can’t think of any other people in Cuba inspiring the young for the hope of a better tomorrow.

BONUS: If you want to learn more about Los Aldeanos, here are a pair of sites to go to:

Official Music Site: http://www.losaldeanosmusic.com

WordPress: http://losaldeanos.wordpress.com/

VIFF 2013 Review: Big Bad Wolves


DISCLAIMER: The 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival officially ended on Friday. Nevertheless I will continue to post reviews of films associated with it including repeat screenings shown within one week after the festival’s end.

Big Bad Wolves is one of those films at the VIFF that’s more movie than film. It’s Israel’s attempt at creating a thriller movie. How good is it?
The movie starts with a young girl going missing. The police first question Dror: a physically awkward religion teacher. He is accidentally released due to a police bungle. This upsets officer Miki and he decides to take things into his own hands. He hires men to beat up Dror into confessing but it doesn’t work. Unknown at the time is a teenager caught it on his camera phone. Within days the girl is found dead and beheaded. It is learned that the killer had the victim eat a cake full of sedatives before murdering her. Dror has become defamed at his teaching job and his ex-wife won’t even let him see his daughter. Meanwhile another girl is found killed and beheaded. She too was set up with the drugged-up cake. And word has come of the beating video appearing on YouTube. This leads Miki getting fired.
The firing doesn’t stop Miki from taking things into his own hands and getting to the bottom of this. He attempts to corner Dror and hopefully torture him into a confession. However Gidi, the father of the latest victim, also wants Dror to confess for his sake. Gidi and Miki first appear to form an alliance for getting Dror to confess only for things to turn ugly as Miki ends up attacked by Gidi too.
Gidi then takes Dror and Miki to the basement of his house. Miki is handcuffed to a pipe while Dror is strapped to a chair. Gidi attempts to be the one to get a confession out of Dror by torture. But no matter how hard he tries, Dror still maintains his innocence, even after Gidi rips off his toenails or disjoints his fingers. Gidi even has a cake full of sedatives ready. However just as he’s about to get Dror, interruptions occur like a phone call from his mother and a visit from his father Yoram. Things become surprising when Yoram joins with Gidi in the torture. Meanwhile Miki plans a getaway after one act from Yoram backfires and Dror gives an alleged burial location of the girls’ heads. Things have a twist of surprises that has the movie ending on a surprising note but a note that works with the story.
I don’t think the movie is trying to give a social message. I believe the movie is trying to play out a story while giving some comedic ironies at times. Like when the phone rings just as Gidi is about to torture Dror or the visit from his father or Yoram eating the sedative-loaded cake in front of Dror. It kind of gives the movie a bit of a dark humor like Fargo or even a Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s interesting that when you first see the movie, you’d think it would be a strictly serous drama but the humor added to the moment and to the surprises. The movie’s other great quality is it’s also full of surprises. There are a lot of unpredictable moments. Like who would have thought that Yoram the father would participate with Gidi in revenge? Or even Miki would receive the shocking news of his own? Also for those that saw the movie, did you really think it would end that way? I didn’t.
I’m not too familiar with the Israeli film scene or the entertainment business but I think this film is a positive move for them to create movies. As you know there’s a big difference between movies and films. Films are works of effort and creativity. Movies have ingredients to draw crowds. I’m sure anyone who likes suspense movies will find this to be a movie that will keep them intrigued in what happens next and what will happen in the end. There may be some that would think the basement torture scene went too long but some thought the intensity of that long scene was just right. I myself am appreciative of the story that was being drawn out. I may question the ending whether it should have ended that way but otherwise a very good story that had me thrilled and even laughing at times. I’m sure Hollywood will pay attention to something like this.
Surprisingly this is only the second work in both writing and directing for the duo of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. You’d figure with an effort as professional and polished as this, they would have been veteran writers and directors. I am very impressed. It was an excellent script and excellent directing work. However there are times I’ve questioned whether the basement scene should have been that long.
There were a lot of great performances but I think the best performance came from Rotem Keinan. His portrayal as the victim Dror was very dead-on in terms of emotions and physical acting. He will often win your sympathy and have you believe he is an innocent man. Tzahi Grad was also very good as Gidi especially in making his role alternate between the dramatic and the comedic. Lior Ashkenazi was also very good but I think his part of Miki could have been more. Doval’e Glickman however came across as too cartoonish. The editing was very professional as well as the addition of the score in the movie. So overall I’m very impressed with how well-done this Israeli movie is. Sometimes I think it looks like something Hollywood would send out.
Big Bad Wolves is a very good thriller movie that will keep the viewer at the edge of their seat. It’s also an excellent effort from the Israeli film industry in movie making. I can see this as a crowd winner.