Category Archives: Movie Reviews: 2021

VIFF 2021 Review: Zo Reken

The driver of the minivan in Zo Reken, Pascal Antoine, is a fictional driver. The passengers are real minivan passengers and they have a lot to tell.

What do I look like in this vehicle?

This van draws attention for all the wrong reasons.

I’m sure most people outside of Haiti have never heard of a ‘Zo Reken.’ The documentary Zo Reken is as much about the vehicle itself as it is about the political and living situation in Haiti.

The film begins with Pascal Antoine performing his music at a night club. After the show, he and his bandmates have drinks and then pack their gear up in a vehicle they call a ‘Zo Reken’ and head off. We learn a ‘Zo Reken’ is the nickname in Haiti for a Toyota 4-by-4 Land Cruiser minivan. It’s named after the ‘Zo Reken’ drink which consists of letting a shark bone sit in it. The vehicles most commonly called a ‘Zo Reken’ in Haiti are normally used to transport humanitarian aid to hospitals or various other sites.

However a violent coup to overthrow Haitian president Jovenel Moise has happened and brutal protests in the streets of capital Port-au-Prince have occurred. The nation is in a strict lockdown and Zo Rekens are no longer allowed for humanitarian aid. Antoine hacks a Zo Reken and uses it to help transport other Haitians around the capital. One thing is he will have to find routes along the bumpy roads that don’t collide with the violent fiery protests. Also he must he aware of people he passes throwing rocks at the vehicle.

The first passenger he transports is a man up a hill and avoiding barricades of fire set by protesters. As the man is transported, he talks about the humanitarian aid from non-governmental organizations, or NGO’s as they’re commonly called, that it’s more hinderance than a help. In a lot of ways, he sees the humanitarian aid from the NGO’s and international community as broken promises from these nations. They promised to bring Haiti out of the poverty and recover, but the poverty continues, as it has for decades. That explains why he and other Haitians see the Zo Rekens that transport the aid representing the NGOs or the continued repression, or simply power.

Later on, he transports another man. This Zo Reken is intended to be a vehicle to protectively transport many people across the capital during this turmoil. Soon this Zo Reken comes to represent a bus for many Haitians who otherwise would have to walk on foot. The second man he transports talks about the hidden anger among the impoverished to the rich. He understand why many would want to throw rocks at the Zo Reken. Anything that represents the wealth gap is seen as a target of wrath from the people. The types of people he transports along the way are various. He transports one man as he’s to have a job interview for a very rare opportunity for prosperity and timeliness is make-or-break. He transports a woman passenger and she has a lot to say of the situation for the women in Haiti.

The Zo Reken he drives soon finds itself in part of the drama. A man is badly injured during the protests. Protests have been violent to the point they’ve claimed a lot of lives. Pascal has to transport this man to a hospital. It’s not an easy thing as he has to avoid other protesters and barricades. He comes across one barricade: a burning trunk of a tree. He has to find detours to get the man to the hospital as one person carries an IV bag. It’s like this Zo Reken becomes like an ambulance.

late at night, Pascal is relaxing outside a bar, sitting outside his Zo Reken. His friends come and drink, but they speak their mind about all that has happened in recent days and what is happening in the country. They talk of the rich and powerful and how they kill the people and how they may face their own comeuppance one day. They talk of the international community that they feel they do not help the nation and more the cause of the problem than the solution. Many feel feel they don’t want international aid and feel that it’s better off Haiti hold its own and develop on its own terms. They have that much of a lack of trust to foreigners. The documentary ends with Pascal driving the Zo Reken off as we see a rear-view image of the path he’s leaving behind.

The driver Pascal Antoine is fictional. Pascal acts as the driver of the Zo Reken each and every time. The passengers are real. Their situations are real. The Haitian riots of 2018-2020 and the overthrow of president Jovenel Moise are real. Haiti is the most impoverished nation in the Americas. The country has been through decades of brutal rule, whether be it in the form of dictatorships or democracies. You can go back as far as 1957 with the Duvaliers until Baby Doc fled the country in 1986, then Aristide in the 1990’s and now Moise.

What you have is an angry country. Most of the nation has known nothing but a lifetime of disease, death and poverty. The nation is mostly known as the world’s biggest producer of baseballs, but their economy is not known for much more. You have a big gap between the rich who own most of the nations wealth and the poor who struggle for simple change to get food to eat. It’s like the coup d’etat to overthrow Moise exposed a lot of anger inside the Haitian people. It was like their anger was inside a bubble and the bubble burst.

The Zo Rekens became a huge presence after the 2010 Haitian earthquake that claimed anywhere from 100,000 to 160,000 Haitians and affected 3,000,000. As aid workers are not allowed in the vehicle and one man uses it to transport people, you can hear from people the voice of the common Haitian. You hear the anger of what people feel in a country with a huge wage gap and poverty all around it. You hear the anger they have towards the international community upon the failure of these nations to live up to the promises of helping build up a stronger Haiti. You hear the anger of the neocolonialism percieved among the people. You hear the anger people have towards the soon-to-be-deposed president and their feelings that he was worse than the Duvaliers. You hear how people fear for the most vulnerable during this critical time in their nation.

As you hear their voice, you can easily see why these Zo Rekens during a time of political turmoil are now seen as oppressors to the people. As you see Pascal wash the Zo Reken in the morning, you can feel he can’t wash away its bad image. Equally, you can also see why this depot holding the medical supplies and various goods for transporting could be seen as a bigger villain than the Zo Rekens that transport those goods. As you see the depot holding these goods in place, you sometimes wonder why is this depot holding everything in place? Why can’t the hospitals simply have these items in need rather than have them waiting at a centralized depot? Why should the Zo Reken take all the blame from the people?

This documentary is a very good eye opener. It sheds a light on a nation few people outside of it know of other than the time it makes the news. Most of the time, the news is dreadful, whether it be of a deposed ruler or of a natural disaster that devastates most of the nation. As Antoine transports the people in the Zo Reken, you hear the voice of the common Haitian among the passengers and those just standing outside. You see the wrath and contempt of the people as the Zo Reken passes them on the street. You even see how Antoine uses the Zo Reken in a crisis situation as it transports a wounded protester to the hospital. During the film, you’re left with the impression that this is the biggest help this Zo Reken did in its entirety in Haiti.

Admiration from writer/director Emanuel Licha. He creates a scenario of a fictional driver in a real crisis situation. He does a good job of not just showing life in an impoverished country like Haiti, but a scenario that exposes poverty through a global lens. What you see happening in Haiti can happen in other impoverished countries too. The marginalization of people in Haiti and the anger of the people can represent the anger of people in any impoverished nation in the world. Pascal Antoine may be the fictional driver of the Zo Reken in the film, but he does a good job of being the centrepiece of this documentary. Him being the central focal point helps as you see Haiti unfold as we watch this documentary.

The documentary Zo Reken is a big eye-opener. It not only introduces you to a country most of us don’t know enough about, but fills you in on the people too. The people are shown as they are in a heated moment in Haiti’s history and what you hear from their mouths say as much about them as their personal feelings.

VIFF 2021 Review: Kicking Blood

Alanna Bale plays a modern world vampire who faces a life-or-death decision in the Canadian thriller Kicking Blood.

Right during the first week of the Vancouver International Film Festival, I fulfilled my first VIFF goal of seeing a Canadian feature when I saw Kicking Blood. It also became my first Altered States film of the VIFF. It’s a vampire story that’s something.

Anna celebrates her birthday with a slice of cake and with Bernice and Gus: two of her co-workers at the library. During the shift, Bernice is upset Gus is leaving her for another woman. That night, Gus is about to make love to Anna. He thinks he’s the one in control. What he doesn’t know is that anna is a vampire. She delivers him the fatal bite!

Somewhere else in the city, Robbie is an alcoholic who’s being booted out of the house of a young woman who’s been looking after him. She caught him making out with her fiance! Robbie finds himself out on the streets. Anna walks by him. She sees him with a bottle in his hands. However she notices something about him. Somehow she’s willing to take him in. She’s able to let him live in her place and feed him well. He is expected to recover from his alcoholism, if he says he’s willing to change. Anna conducts business as usual at the library. She has her friendly conversations with Bernice. She then comes home to Robbie. She learns she has feelings toward him. Feelings of love. But she doesn’t know how to deal with it.

One night in a nightclub, two men named Boris and Ben are having fun and drinking. There they meet what appears to be a woman alone named Nina. Ben is attracted to her. He tries to get closer to her, but Nina knows he’s married and trying to hide it. Soon it’s the three of them with Ben doing cocaine. They’re having good conversation. Anna joins the conversation. However it’s apparent Ben will become Nina’s latest victim. She does eventually bite the life out of him.

It becomes apparent there is a trio of vampires in the town: Anna, Nina and Boris. They bite people out of their lives and then live off their possessions. Anna is very good from hiding it from Bernice and Robbie: two people who mean a lot to her, but how can she keep it a secret? It shows in her restraint as she wants to make love to Robbie, but she can’t get any closer. How is Robbie going to find out? That also hits her as she learns from Bernice she won’t take her pills and will rely on her inner strength and her mentality on her physical condition. A vampire like Anna can’t have connection to humans. How can Anna make this work?

The trio’s next victim is an artist who lives alone. They visit her in her apartment as she’s making a sculpture. They first ask her questions about her art, but then they shift the focus on how her art may be remembered after her death. The questions of her art seen after her death continue, which the artist kindly answers them. Then Nina bites the life out of her. Instead of enjoying this, it’s a turning point for Anna as she shows huge concern.

The last incident of vampirism affects Anna. She knows as a vampire, she can’t connect with humans emotionally. Problem is she has been connecting with humans as she watches Robbie go through his alcoholic withdrawal and as she visits Bernice in the hospital as she’s dying. She is reminded she has human sensitivity. She can’t have that as a vampire If she does, she would have to identify with mortal humans. She reveals her identity to Robbie, but he is shocked and leaves her. While at a bar, he meets Vanessa: an old flame from his college days. The two start heating up.

However the time is coming for Anna. This is the time she will have to choose between life as a vampire or human mortality. First she confronts Vanessa with Robbie. The two face off right in the middle of the road as Nina and Boris arrive. Vanessa is the latest victim. Then the two remind Anna that Robbie is her last chance. One bite of him will keep her immortality active. Refusing to bite will lead to her death. The ending is slow and more about intensity than effects, but dramatic and unconventional.

I’m sure we’ve all seen our fair share of vampire stories. From the classic stories of the legendary Count Dracula to the teen craze of the Twilight series, vampires still intrigue us and captivate us. This is a unique story of a young female vampire who’s part of a trio of vampires. As they welcome themselves in other peoples’ lives, they kill them with one bite and take material things of theirs. Anna is a vampire who works a librarian job, but pursues her victims. Often you’ll understand why a librarian like Anna has so many luxuries. However it’s an odd twist when she takes in a homeless alcoholic like Robbie. Often you wonder why would she? He has nothing to take from. Would he still be one of her eventual victims? More on that later.

The thoughts continue when you learn of the vampire trio she’s a part of. It’s after she meets and tends to Robbie that she starts to reconsider her life as a vampire. She has feelings for Robbie and doesn’t want to kill him, but her vampirism is her immortality. Should she continue to be a vampire and have Robbie as one of her victims? Or will she choose the life of mortality? That she’d rather die than kill Robbie? Even with the presence of Boris and Nina, it gets you wondering. Does she like being a vampire? Or is she controlled by the other two?

The film has Robbie as the surprising secondary character. Anna meets Robbie on the streets right after his previous ‘keeper’ booted him out and with a bottle in his hand. You’re left wondering why would a vampire like Anna take in a man like Robbie who has nothing? Would he be her next victim? Even later as she houses him instead of giving him a fatal bite like all the others, you wonder why is she keeping him alive? Is it something in herself that she sees and only Robbie can bring that out in her? Is it Robbie that gives her the change of heart? Boris and Nina remind her that her biting is her key to immortality and that a vampire is not to connect or empathize with humans. But Robbie is the human that does exactly that. Even though her best friend Bernice is the first human to get her to connect as a human instead of maintain her vampire separation from humans, it’s Robbie who best conveys Anna’s human feelings. It’s also Robbie, as he goes through alcoholic withdrawal, who sends the message to Anna of the vampirism withdrawal, a fatal withdrawal, she could face. Is it worth it?

This is a film full of a lot of twists and surprises. The vampire legend is always full of various elements of the legend. I’m sure many stories play with the legend. One thing that caught my attention is how these vampires are perfectly unaffected by the sunlight. Most vampires are either affected by sunlight or the light is fatal to them. The trio of vampires are unharmed by the sunlight, but it’s the nighttime where their vampirism comes to life. Maybe that’s the trick. They act like everyday humans by day, but their vampire side comes out at night. Even the story of how another woman tries to steal Robbie from Anna adds into the drama. For the most part, the story makes sense. If it’s a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces fit well. The story however carry itself out in a slower-than-usual pace. It settles more for the intensity of the situation, rather than the sensational images of bites of the flesh. Also I feel we learn the fact that Anna is part of a trio of vampires later in the film than we should. However those who come to a film about vampires and are huge fans of seeing ‘vampires in action’ may be disappointed. The ending works, but there were even small bits where it had some flat moments, or could have been better. Like Nina’s last line.

I give top marks to director Blaine Thurier. He does a very good job in directing the play he co-wrote with Leonard Farlinger. I like how he plays along with the legend and creates a unique story of vampires in the modern world. It even gives you the feeling of a vampires-next-door story! Also very good is the acting from Alanna Bale. Playing a character that goes from an everyday girl to a vampire at night to a vampire with human feelings is not an easy task. She does a very good job of it and keeps her focus well. She makes it work. Luke Bilyk is also very good as the recovering alcoholic Robbie. He does more than just play a recovering alcoholic. His role is also that of human feelings and feelings of love to Anna. He does a very good job of showing the importance of Robbie in the story.

The film also has a lot of great supporting performances too. Rosemary Dunsmore was great as Bernice, the librarian who gives Anna her human feelings. Vinessa Antoine was also very good as Vanessa, the woman who tries to win Robbie away from Anna. Ella Jonas Farlinger (daughter of scriptwriter Leonard Farlinger) and Benjamin Sutherland were good as the two other vampires, but their roles lacked dimension.

Kicking Blood is not your typical vampire story. It does offer a twist in the common vampire story that delivers the unexpected. Despite it’s small but noticeable glitches, it will still keep you at the edge of your seat.

VIFF 2021 Shorts Segment: MODES 2

With the Vancouver Film Fest comes segments of short films. That’s my second VIFF goal to see one of those segments. I achieved it when I saw the segment series MODES 2. Six films from six directors from six different nations. They all gave lots to see and hear.

-The Coast (India – dir. Sohrab Hura): The film shows people on the coast of a beach in south India as they swim around and throw themselves to the waves. The film also shows images of a religious ritual, which includes inflicting pain on one’s self. The film also shows images of a nearby carnival. Then ends again with people throwing themselves to the waves.

A video interview from the director says the images are of a religious festival where one begins by facing their personal demons and then ends as they wash their demons away. The images are seen in slow motion with disjointed music added into the score. It’s a very picturesque short film that gives us a fascinating look at people from a world away. It can even give you appreciation for such a festival as the waves form the Indian Ocean are as much of a storyteller as people.

-Happiness Is A Journey (USA/Estonia – dirs. Ivete Lucas & Patrick Bresnan): It’s very early morning of Christmas Eve 2019 at a newspaper deport in Austin, Texas. People gather at 1:30am to pick up newspapers to people’s homes. People gather them in big numbers and know they’ll need a good amount of gas. One of the delivery people is Eddie ‘Bear’ Lopez, a 62-year resident of Austin, who’s been doing this since 1997 without ever taking a day off. The film then follows Bear on his trip. Bear even brings his little dog with him. As he delivers, his trip is long. Ever since people made the move to the online news site of the paper, actual newspaper customers are less and less which means deliveries are further an wider. The film goes along Bear’s long route, which he has completed by 6am.

This is a film, shown with two different simultaneous camera images and consists strictly of the sounds around. No musical score at all. It shows about people who we either take for granted or have shunned their skills away because of our use of technology. It gives respect for a person with a low-paying job who never takes a day off, but somehow finds fulfillment in it. One of the desks in the depot has a sign that says “Happiness is a journey, not a destination.” Maybe that’s the point the two directors wanted to show. That with a job that is low-pay, facing near-extinction, and something most of us would label a ‘loser job,’ Bear finds some kind of fulfilment. Even if he has to work on a holiday.

-Show Me Other Places (Sri Lanka – dir. Rajee Samarsinghe): This film shows all sort of images: what we see on our computer, the images of suburbia, a birds-eye view of a construction site, friends, common people, and luxurious items. The film shows the many ways we see them: on a computer screen, through a VR viewing mask, and on our iWatches. Many images are seen as is, while some are meshed with colors and even other images.

I believe the point the filmmaker was trying to make was to do about imagery. It was about how we see things and also how she sees them. She allows her creativity to take place and show new and creative ways to look at things we commonly look at. In a lot of way, we’re given a new enlightenment when we see her creative imagery. Really gets you thinking.

-Adversarial Infrastructure (Russia – dir. Anna Engelhardt): The film is about a bridge that is the subject of political controversy. The bridge is the Crimean Bridge which connects a southwest tip of Russia with the Crimean town of Kerch with the bridge’s main part located on Tuzla Island. This is a bridge of great controversy as Crimea has been a subject of huge political debate as Ukraine insists is theirs while Putin proclaims Crimea to be part of Russia. This has been like that since 2014 since the Russo-Ukrainian War started. There was even a phony news story concocted by Putin that the bridge was bombed by the Ukrainian army.

The director showcases news stories with a coarsely-drawn computer map of the area in question and a rough computer graphic of the bridge as it would looked bombed out. The director even showcases how bridges are to be the opposite of walls and connect peoples, while this bridge appears to do the opposite. Or at least the media and the Russian government try to make it do the opposite. Myself being Ukrainian-Canadian, this is something of interest to me. The director is very good at using the various images in presenting a story and getting her message across. A message I personally agree with.

-The Canyon (USA – dir. Zachary Epcar): The film begins showing mostly people living in a new residential development. They’re of people relaxing, doing housework, renovating, exercising, playing tennis, a vide variety of activities. The film then shows images of luxuries and then images of peoples and what they have to say. Then the film focuses on a whirlpool-like area of Lake Berryessa in the Napa Valley of California. They talk of how the areas will no longer appear.

I believe the point of this student film and its various images is trying to make is their believe that new residential areas that are cropping up and attracting people will be empty canyons in the future. The buildings and luxuries they’re enjoying now will be swallowed up into nothingness in the future. The man-made whirlpool in Lake Berryessa conjures up images of how that area will be swallowed up over time. I believe that’s the point where they let the images they show do the storytelling as the students prove their point.

-Corps Samples (France – dir. Astrid de la Chapelle): The film begins with the focus on the year 1924. It’s the year Vladimir Lenin, the founder and first leader of the USSR dies, and the year a British mountaineer fell to his death just off Mount Everest. The only thing in common they have in common: both their bodies are perfectly preserved. The film begins with fossils found on Mount Everest during that time. Then it goes on to various images of fossils, stones, metals, minerals and crystals. It shows natural racks and crystals, and it showcases the minerals and chemicals we use for our everyday needs. It showcases on the images of the body of the mountaineer found perfectly intact after all these years. It also showcases the body of Lenin, perfectly intact in his tomb and a tourist attraction.

The filmmaker is either getting us to focus on either the association of minerals and preservation, and how it mixes into our daily lives and the everyday world, or it could be on the focus on something else. Right at the end of the film, she shows an image of a stone and asks us “Are you looking at the stone or is the stone looking at you?” Hearing that, I think it’s a case where a lot of the film is trying to get you to ask yourself that. Are you looking at the stones, crystals, fossils, and minerals? Or are they looking at you? That question of the end really gets you to change what you think the focus of the film is about. Even see it through a different light.

The six films of MODES 2 are about images and sounds. Some make their points clear, while some aren’t as clear and require your imagination to assume what you think its about. The images may be relate to each or other, or not related at all. The music or sounds may be smooth music, disjointed sounds or raw music. I guess that was the whole point of the MODES 2 short films. It’s six short films on sights and sounds and they want to get your imagination involved, and possibly even share the filmmaker’s imaginations. The films also have a message to say, but they want to convey the message creatively, and they want you to embrace the creativity as much as the message.

Even though I was hoping to see a short segment of live-action stories being played out, I’m glad I saw MODES 2. The films were loaded with images and sounds and done in their very own way. Nevertheless they were very good in sending the messages they were trying to send in their own creative way.

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