Category Archives: Movie Reviews: 2018

VIFF 2018 Review: United Skates

United Skates

United Skates is a unique documentary that shows how vital roller skating is for those that do it, and why roller rink closures hurt.

It’s usually good to take a break and watch a documentary that doesn’t have a political agenda heavily shown. I was able to see that in United Skates.

The film begins by showing various African-Americans going out and having a good time on skates. Very soon we see some of the more sensational moves that are frequently seen at the rinks. They’re stylish or they’re acrobatic. Whatever it is, they’re all out to have a good time. Young or old, single or with family, they’re all out to have fun. This is a phenomenon that has been going on for decades nationwide. A place where various African-American skaters have their own moves and their own fanfare.

Soon into the movie we learn how roller rinks are considered a top getaway for African Americans. Roller rinks may have had their biggest heyday in the late-70’s and early-80’s for most Americans, but African-Americans kept it lasting long after that. It was a getaway from the harsh realities of daily life. It was one place they could take their kids away from the harsh realities of urban living. It was also a place where the first hip-hop and rap artists found a stage to perform on. Yes, roller rinks were an integral part of the early years of hip-hop culture. When night clubs and radio stations, even the soul and urban stations, wouldn’t give those artists their time, roller rinks gave them their stage. Coolio and Salt ‘N Pepa can vouch for that. There are even scenes in Straight Outta Compton that show NWA perform at roller rinks during their early days. In fact there was even a case in the 90’s where two roller rinks in Los Angeles would be the different domains of two rival gangs: the Bloods and the Crips. When one rink closed, the other rink became neutral territory for the two.

The documentary shows how roller rinks have gone from commonplace nationwide starting in 1982 to disappearing gradually starting in the 90’s to today being probably one tenth of what it was. Modern times have proved to be a very trying time for roller rinks. Gentrification has been a pressure with turning a lot of top recreational areas into land for condos. Roller rinks, commonly seen as something of the past, have fallen prey and have seen closures. If an African-American family wanted to take their family to a roller rink, they would have to travel a longer distance.

We even meet a family from Los Angeles before the closure of the World On Wheels rink. The mother has a huge love for roller skating as she has been doing it since her child hood. She was able to share that same love with her children. When they go to World On Wheels, it is family time. It is time for the kids to show their decorated skates, time for all to show off their moves, and a time for the son who has behavioral disorders a place to avoid getting in trouble. Then World On Wheels closes in 2013. They show closing day. The rink tries to make a party of it. Young and old come to have fun one last time. We see people in their late-50’s early-60’s — people that were a part of the ‘roller boogie’ heyday– skate around with the same love. The closing day is as much a day of heartbreak as it is of fun.

Then the rink closes. We see how the owner tries to take everything out of the rink from the lockers to the concessions. We also see how the family tries to cope. They drive hours to a different rink, but face heat because the wheels their skating with are too small.World On Wheels welcomed their skating wheels with open arms. Also the rink has an urban night or soul night. African-Americans undergo security checks. There’s no security checks for white families. It’s obvious the family doesn’t feel welcome here. It gives a sense that these rinks are out to exclude African-Americans. The pressure hits the family hard too as the son committed a crime and has to spend time in prison. The film shows other rink closures too and how much it hurts those that love it.

However like one former rink owner says, patience is the true test for anyone. Over time, there would be skate clubs abounding over social media where people can go out an skate, whether it be in parks or outdoor rinks. Also World On Wheels reopens after popular demand. The re-opening is welcomed with open arms. And the family that was the centrepoint of the story can now skate as a family wearing whatever wheels they want to. We also see the son, just out of prison, having fun again.

It’s obvious the film has a point. The film obviously is showing how roller rinks are important for the vitality of African-American families. It was roller skating where there were a lot of segregation protests. Even roller rinks in the 60’s were a focal point as African-Americans simply wanted to skate on the same rinks as whites. They didn’t want to be confined to blacks-only church halls. It also shows how important roller rinks were towards hip-hop musicians. However the documentarians Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler allow the people to tell their stories. There’s no narration here. Some graphics that tell a lot but it’s the people from the owners to the families to the hip-hop musicians who tell their story about roller rinks and why they don’t just simply love it, but consider it a key part of themselves. You can bet the audience will feel the energy. There were many times people were cheering on the moves and they gave the film a big applause at the end.

United Skates has a point to say, but it doesn’t just simply say it. It shows it. It also makes you open your eyes and notice that roller rinks aren’t simply a relic from the ‘roller boogie’ phenom. They’re now and they vital.

NOTE: The website of United Skates has a page where you can donate to keep roller rinks open. Their goal isn’t just to show how important they are, but also to get the viewers to help keep them open. If you want to donate, go to: https://www.unitedskatesfilm.com/donate

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VIFF 2018 Review: Studio 54

studio 54

The documentary Studio 54 is where co-founder Ian Schrager (right) finally tells the story of how he and Steve Rubell (left) did illegal dealings in the night club iconic with the disco era.

There are some things iconic with disco from the 1970’s. There’s the film Saturday Night Fever, the music of Donna Summer, and the night club Studio 54. Co-founder Ian Schrager has mostly been quiet about his years of Studio 54 and how he and Steve Rubell ran it. In the documentary Studio 54, he finally breaks his silence.

The film begins as Ian Schrager is about to have the book of Studio 54 published. Ian starts talking about his upbringing. He grew up in Brooklyn. He came from a neighborhood mostly of working class Jewish families who worked in hopes that their children would have a better life. Ian met Steve Rubell in college. He attended Syracuse University where he earned a BA and later earned a JD from St. John’s Law School. It was through a fraternity at Syracuse that he met Steve Rubell.

It was the mid-1970’s. Two important things were happening. Firstly, Manhattan had lost its charm. It became dumpy and seedy with the times. Instead of being this place of charm and pizzazz, it had fallen on hard times where it was full of crime and X-rated lewdness and trashiness. Secondly was the emergence of disco music and its style of partying. Already in areas of Brooklyn and Queens, there were night clubs or discotheques that were very popular with their free-spirited dancing and flamboyant styling. The feel of disco came at the right time as it was right after the end of the brutal Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal left many Americans disheartened. It’s like Ian said, “People were tired of being serious.”

Ian and Steve took it into a chance for opportunity. The first thing they did was rent out a theatre that was originally an opera house and was last used as a CBS Studio. Steve and Ian hired workers, most gay men, for months to do all sorts of construction and all sorts of decorations. They also hired Jack Dushey as their financial backer. It was their vision to create a night club no one on earth had ever seen before. Even before opening day, they went around advertising to celebrities that this was the place to go to.

Opening day, Studio 54 is a big hit.Celebrities do show and lots of people from the public were let in too. From that period on, you had what could be an oasis from the real world as you had all sorts of people of race, gender, sexual orientation and class status getting in and having a good time. While people mostly shunned others out in their day-to-day lives, people came together in Studio 54 and had a good time. The place was seen as a must-visit for celebrities and they had a blast with the dancing atmosphere and the special one-of-a-kind effects and decorations in the place. News had come about that Studio 54 was the place to be.

However there were some realities that would come about. First of all Studio 54 was known for Ian and Steve to go out into the crowd of people outside and pick-and-choose who got in. They let in a lot of people, especially gay men, but they left others out. At first people were understanding, but a backlash would soon brew. Also there was the hidden secret that there were people using drugs in Studio 54. The club had a reputation for freeness and drugs were part of it. Then there was the fact that Studio 54 couldn’t wait for their liquor license at first and relied on catering permits during their waiting period to serve liquor. The authorities didn’t overlook that and soon they had Studio 54 closed temporarily. It put a damper in a lot of attendee’s lives. It was within time that Ian and Steve finally did get the liquor license.

However the success of that would only be temporary. Soon Steve gave an interview to Playboy that was ‘Only the mafia does it better.’ He also said ‘don’t tell the IRS about our practices.’ That’s all it took for the club to get raided. What was found was cocaine with the intent to traffic and $2 million in unrecorded under-the-table money. The arrests of Schrager and Rubell made headlines. Soon Studio 54 was no longer the place to be. The club reopened, but for a life of only a few months. The two hired Roy Cohn and had recruited an army of lawyers to defend their case. In the end, the two plead guilty and were sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. They were let out after serving one year each.

After Studio 54, both Rubell and Schrager looked for other ways to succeed after their release. They tried their hand at opening new night clubs that fit with the 80’s times. Constantly before the opening, Rubell would be interviewed about Studio 54’s infamy. Rubell would confess that they did a lot of wrong things and that they both changed and smartened up. Rubell’s time to redeem himself after Studio 54 was short-lives. Rubell had AIDS and he died of it in 1989. Schrager was luckier as he would later open the night club Palladium and manage the Morgans Hotel Group. Ian married twice and has fathered three children. He even received an unconditional pardon from Barack Obama in January 2017; three days before Obama stepped down from his presidency.

The documentary is a film that allows Schrager to tell his whole story and break the silence of what he was holding back for a long time. Over the 35 years since his release from prison, Schrager has worked to make Studio 54 a thing of the past and establish himself as a responsible successful businessman. He has succeeded in doing so and even gives lectures for people involved in business.

However the film also reminds us of what we knew of Studio 54 and what we didn’t know. For a long time, it was seen as a place for celebrities, disco dancing and culture of freeness. It was a place where hundreds of celebrities came to visit or eventually became regulars. It was also a place which gave many gay men a sense of belonging. We should not forget that the 1970’s was a time when a lot of laws criminalizing same-sex activity were being struck down and declared unconstitutional. Gay men who were long seen as outsiders or scums of the earth were now given a sense of belonging and a sense of freedom and Studio 54 was the place in New York to do it. Even Steve Rubell who kept his homosexuality hidden from his own family found Studio 54 as a place where he could freely love.

One thing is that the image of Studio 54 as a place for celebrities and dancing would make it too iconic to the disco era. Many claim that it was the closure of Studio 54 that led to the end of the disco era and the slow fading of the freeness that came with it. We should remember that the 1980’s would come about heavy stock trading and Wall Street becoming the place to do intense business. There was also the AIDS epidemic as it not only took the life of Steve but the lives of many construction men and dancers. The documentary does give the sense that when Studio 54 died, that’s when these ugly realities came to be. The documentary even shows of Ian and Steve’s friendship and how it was something that still lived on after Studio 54’s demise. Upon Steve’s death, Ian felt it was like losing a brother.

Studio 54 is unique for that it tells all from those survivors who had a big impact in the business. There’s Ian and there’s Jack. There were also some men who did a lot of the construction and renovating. There was also Steve Rubell’s brother who told his side from what he witnessed of Steve. The film includes a lot of imagery through photos and footage. The film also includes a lot of disco music that was part of Studio 54’s heyday. Seeing Studio 54 almost takes you back to that time and you can feel the freeness of that era.

Studio 54 is the ideal documentary for those who still fondly remember the disco era of the 1970’s. It brings back a lot of memories and tells you things you never knew about the place to your surprise.

VIFF 2018 Review: Patrimony (Tátova volha)

Patrimony

A mother and daughter, played by Tatiana Vilhelmova (left) and Eliska Balzerova, share mother-daughter time during a trip to solve a family secret in Patrimony.

For my first feature of the VIFF, I saw a Czech film entitled Patrimony. The film makes for an entertaining comedy about a subject one would not find comedy material.

The film begins with a funeral for a musician: a trumpeter. The wife, a fashion designer herself named Eva, finds herself lonely and she feels she will be left completely alone. The daughter Tereza is also hurting. She calls his phone just to hear the answering machine to hear his voice. Meanwhile she’s also struggling with her battle with cancer. Despite being helped by her husband, she feels she needs time to be with her mother.

As the daughter visits, the first thing they do is lay his ashes to rest; at least the urn as the mother wants them on his cactuses. However the daughter stumbles across a possible secret in her father’s coat. She sees a drawing of her father and a child. It’s not hers. She notices it’s from a boy names Tomas. Tereza has always been raised to think she was an only child. Could her father have fathered a child with another woman? Even her mother confesses that both she and Ludwik had extramarital affairs. It is from that revelation they decide to go on a trip to find Tomas, using Ludvik’s Volga Gaz 21.

The first visit is with family members in a nearby town. They learn more about Ludvik and his past. They also encounter a lot of crazy happenings inside the house as she has three daughters of various ages to look after. As they go on to their next place of visit, both women discover a sense of freedom when they go from place to place from country farms to town carnivals. Eva herself finds herself interested in other men. However Tereza is not immune from realities as she still has her cancer battles and the status of her marriage in question. Also revealed from Eva is that she was just as adulterous as Ludvik during the marriage.

The next place they visit is an elderly person’s home. One of Ludvik’s ex-lovers is there. She herself has a lot to say about Ludvik and even gives away another big secret they never knew. No doubt that gives Tereza a lot of concern on her mind. At the same time, it appears Eva doesn’t want the ‘love son’ of Eva to be a reality.

It’s then a visit to a family member out in the countryside. They’re a couple who farm apple trees. The husband used to lead, but he now has a mental condition where he’s despondent most of the time, but suddenly becomes the farm boss in an instant. During the visit, her husband comes to assist. It’s there where he confronts her on the status of the marriage. She gives him the hard truth. Just as he’s stating his case, the farm head goes back into his phase as the ‘farm boss’ and orders those around to get to work and pick apples. All including Eva, Tereza and her husband help out.

It’s there where the husband confesses his truths about the marriage and gives Tereza a day to think it over. It’s also through that visit that they learn the Eva knew about Tomas all along and even played step-mother at times. She kept it a secret from Tereza the whole time. The film ends as the two are in pursuit of Tomas and Tereza has made her decision about the marriage.

There are two unique things about this film. The first is that it makes a comedy of what would consider to be a dark situation in people’s lives. One would think the grieving process of a death, a bout with cancer, and learning of a family secret would not combine into a comedy, but it does. It does it very well with a mix of humor and drama. The film however doesn’t stray away from the emotional aspect of the situation and what has happened. Nevertheless the blend of the humorous and the serious works here.

The second thing about the film is that you think the story is about one thing, but it turns out to be about something else in the end. You think that the film would end with the daughter and the mother seeing the son Tomas. However it doesn’t end that way. Instead it’s about hidden truths unraveled. At first it’s made to look like a truth Eva doesn’t want to know, but instead it’s a truth Eva tried to hide from Tereza. Who knew that Eva made a better closer mother to Tomas than Ludwig did? At the same time, it’s about a mother/daughter relationship as the two are slowly healing together as they’re going on this pursuit. The rockiness of Tereza’s marriage is brought to light, but that too is helped by the trip, in a surprising way.

One of the common themes of the film is the topic of death and the nearing of the end of one’s life. It begins after the death of Ludvik. It starts with a focus of how Eva will live without Ludvik. It also focuses on Tereza and her bout with cancer. She thinks it’s fatal while the mother reminds her that her chances of survival are still very good. It deals with family and ex-lovers who have either felt the strains of aging or are themselves in the closing chapter of their lives. It’s a theme which is dealt with in good sensitivity in this film but also blends in humorous elements. It’s a tricky job to do where the fine line can easily be crossed, but Jiri succeeds in doing it.

Jiri Vejdelek directs and co-writes with Iva Jestrabova an excellent story that’s full of real feelings and emotions, but also made comical at the same time. Eliska Balzerova does a very good job of balancing the dramatic with the comedic in her acting. Tatiana Vilhelmova is also very good as the daughter coping with everything around her. However the two show an excellent mother/daughter chemistry that makes this story work. The supporting characters also did their jobs well as their characters came across as believable and very three-dimensional.

Patrimony is a very smart Czech comedy that’s very entertaining. It follows a smooth story line, but it doesn’t end the way most would anticipate it to. Maybe the plot you thought it would be about wasn’t the main plot after all.

VIFF 2018 Shorts Segment: Escape Routes

Cinema

With every VIFF, it’s a goal of mine to see at least one shorts segment. I had the good fortune of seeing a segment as my first VIFF show. The segment titled Escape Routes consisted of six shorts by Canadian directors. Three of them were filmed in BC. All six were intriguing to watch.

The Subject (dir. Patrick Bouchard): We see a body on the table. We see a spike coming out of a foot at first. Then we see it start to be dissected. What’s happening is a whole lot of imagery happens around his body and coming from out of his body. Then when he’s dissected in his upper chest, we see a steel inside.

What’s happening in this film is the animator dissecting his own body. This film is the animator using self-dissection to show what his works are all about. His emotions, his memories, his fears, all go into his work. A couple of religious entendres may be telling how it plays into his fears. Even the artistic patterns that form around his skin give a picture about what the animator is saying about himself and how it plays into his works.

Girl On A Bus (dir. Matthew B. Schmidt): The film begins with people questioning about a girl who disappeared. Then the film shoots to a scene on a bus. A teenage/young adult female is one of the passengers and she’s just relaxing and looking at Instagram photos. The bus takes a break at a gas station along the highway. She uses the outside bathroom and changes her hair, makeup and clothes to something very different and takes social media pictures. The driver can’t recognize her and thinks a passenger is missing. As police are questioning the ‘missing girl,’ she gets interrogated and gives misleading questions. She mentions she’s running away but doesn’t say why. She leaves the interrogation booth. A picture from a child identifies her as the missing, but she walks away when asked.

At first, it seems like a nonsense film. A girl changes her look but is labeled missing? Then you get the sense of what’s happening. She says she’s running away but gives a vague answer why. When told to stay at the booth as the police leave temporarily, she leaves. When asked if the photo of her on a child’s pad is her, she doesn’t answer and walks away. It makes more sense later on. She comes across as a girl who wants to escape from it all. It’s not apparent exactly the reason or reasons why, but it’s obvious she wants to escape from everything. Only on social media would she want to be around people. I can identify because I had those same feelings when I was her age. A very good short story of a film.

Best Friends Read The Same Books (dir. Matthew Taylor Blais): The film consists of no sound at all, but of images of plants, colors, bushes, parks, coasts, and the director reading a book in various places and various seating positions on a bench. The film ends with a set of colors.

I’ll take it for what it is. This is the director trying to film in an abstract sort of way. The images, around various areas of Greater Vancouver, are meant to tell about his surroundings and reading the same book.

Train Hopper (dir. Amelie Hardy): The film begins with a passage of Allen Ginsberg’s poem America. Then cuts into a video of a young man who’s a customer service agent working at his desk with his headset. Later we catch the young man around trains on the train tracks. Then we see him hopping on the trains between the cars and going along for the ride. We even see his self-recorded videos of him during the trips. Within the second-half of the film and video footage, we hear the man talk about his dreams and his imagination and why he takes these trips, which include trips crossing into the United States. The film ends with audio of Ginsberg’s America.

The film begins with a statement that the Beat Generation is not dead. The whole film is a picturesque reminder that even in this day and age, there are still young people who still dare to dream, who dare to still want to live their dream out. This film shows it with this young man who’s a customer service agent by profession, but dreamer by passion. An excellent cinematic portrait.

Acres (dir. Rebeccah Love): The story begins with a young man working on a farm. Later on, his sister, her husband and a former girlfriend of his join for dinner. They talk about him managing his father’s farm after his death, as well as a dispute over use of the land that will require legal attention. The sister and brother-in-law leave for home but the ex-girlfriend decides to stay overnight. Possibly to help him with his situation. She is a photographer by passion. The two were in love while they were in college. This is happening while they’re talking of a way to properly mark the burial site of his father’s ashes. He had ambitions of becoming a businessman, but passions in his life that involved travelling caused him to leave everyone behind, including the family and even her. She tries to get to the bottom of this. Especially since this caused their break-up. Eventually they do rekindle.

The film is a picturesque way of showing a real-life situation. It’s a quiet situation, but one that needs to be discussed and resolved. The filmmaker does it with good storytelling and honest dialogue.

Biidaaban (dir. Amanda Strong): This is the one short that’s fully animated. There’s one young person of Indigenous decent, Biidaaban, and an older Sasquatch shapeshifter Sabe. They live in the same dwelling. They communicate with what you first think is a smartphone, but is actually a mystic rock that creates images and dialogue. Biidaaban seeks to collect sap from maple trees in a neighborhood. Sabe will assist Biidaaban. As they collect the sap, they are suddenly taken over by spirits and enter into a mystical world.

Upon the film’s Q&A, we learn the film is not just about Indigenous legends and myths. It’s also about gender-fluidity as Biidaaban is a gender-fluid youth. From what I remember about the Q & A, the gender-fluidity does tie in with Indigenous culture. The whole film was very dramatic and very mystical. The genre of animation allows the viewer to feel the imagination of the film and capture the mysticism.

All six shorts were very intriguing to watch. Even with one more thrilling than the other, and one not trying to be thrilling at all, all had something to say. Sometimes you wondered if all six fit the term Escape Routes. Some of the subjects or plots in a film or two didn’t look like physical escapes at all. However many of them turned out to be escapes of the mind. Escaping isn’t just about a road to somewhere.

Escape Routes was an excellent selection of six Canadian shorts. Each were different in their own way. All of them had something to say. And all would come off as an escape from something. You had to see it to know it.